The Latest From Our Editor in Greece

Laura Orlando

Laura Orlando is a member of the Rural America In These Times Board of Editors. What follows are some notes about a trip to Europe she’s taking with her daughter. Click Here for earlier entires in her travel diary.

I took a walk through the narrow streets of Oia this morning, before the shopkeepers opened their doors and the tourists arrived. A gentle north wind accompanied me. At the top of a hill, a man with the kindest face was playing a sazi, a long-necked, triple-stringed instrument. His name was Constantine. His music matched the beauty of the place, rooted in sea and sky. 

In between is the work of other artists: soft lines, blue gates, and white walls. The whitewashed - now painted - homes built into the cliffs are the iconic representation of this place. Whitewash is lime, water, and chalk. It has mild anti-bacterial properties (that’s one of the reasons it has been used in dairy barns in the United States). It is stark white in color and made from materials available on the islands. It’s chemical components come from rocks and water, not imported petroleum products used in paint.

Oia’s morning rhythm reminds me of places in the Mexican Caribbean, but without the masses of workers who come from the interior for low-wage jobs as gardeners, masons, and maids. It also has some of the same environmental stresses from tourism, most obvious in the ubiquitous plastic water bottles. 

A desalinization plant provides Oia with its drinking water, which puts even more strain on its freshwater resources. (There’s a lot of wastewater from the process, which is then injected back into the water table, adding briny waters where they do not belong.) Before the water plant’s construction in 2009, freshwater in Oia was collected in rainwater cisterns, gathered from small springs, or imported from other parts of Greece. Bathing was done with small buckets and wooden ladles. The toilets were dry. Volcanic stone, probably pumice, was added to soak up their liquids. 

The town has empty lots and half finished construction; laundry hanging to dry in the morning sun; fields of fava, tomatoes, katsouni ( cucumber that tastes like melon); eggplant; and grapes. Local honey is sold on the street. People, besides tourists, live here. Though, to put up with the throngs of visitors, moving in dense packs clutching cameras, it seems income from their visit would make their presence more tolerable.

Constantine has joined my formidable team of healers. Less than a year ago I was recovering from surgery, about to start chemotherapy, with radiation and another surgery to follow. That’s done, part of the great embrace of the past, which now includes the soft, mournful song of an Athens man on the Santorini seashore.

John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher, said We feel most alive in the presence of beauty…it ennobles the heart and reminds us of the infinity that’s inside of us.” There are moments in life when something changes in your relationship to the harmony of being, and you say to yourself, this moment is the heavenly moment. Or maybe hum it to yourself as you walk down a cobblestone street in Greece.

In the early winter of 1776, John Adams, a Massachusetts delegate to Congress, was in Philadelphia. He was in frequent correspondence with his wife, Abigail. She shared with him these lines from Shakespeare:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in the shallows and miseries…And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures. 

In Greece, the flood is coming. 

Previous Greek governments ran the state’s coffers dry and then borrowed money on its assets,” like retiree’s pensions and worker’s jobs. The IMF and European Central Bank were quick to make the loans. Now they deny petitions from Greece for help cleaning up the financial mess.

Eliza and I were discussing the rejection of Greece’s latest proposal to address the crisis by the European authorities — the IMF, European Central Bank, European Commission, and a group of finance ministers. I compared it to a bank demanding a debtor’s home, though she needs shelter, and car, though she needs transportation to work. Eliza corrected me. This is not about individuals, she said, it is the Greek government that borrowed the money but the people who are now asked to pay it back. 

When we arrived in Santorini, Rose, the proprietor of our hotel in Oia, told us a story about the work it took to rebuild after the 1956 earthquake. Athens sent engineers to rebuild the town. Houses deemed unsafe were marked to be torn down. Those that had cracks were to be fixed. Those unscathed were to be left alone. Each carried a mark that noted one of these three conditions. Men in bulldozers were paid per square meter of cleared debris, so they wrecked everything they could, ignoring what could be saved for Drachmas. It is also a story about bureaucracy. The state followed the rules and paid the criminals. Sound familiar?

Adam’s wrote that the happiness of the people was the purpose of government. The Greeks are committed to staying in the eurozone, which means, in part, not abandoning the Euro in favor of its own currency and fiscal policies. So what options do they have when there are governments conspiring for their unhappiness? Mark Weisbrot at the Center for Economic Policy Research says, Their only option is to change Europe. But the eurozone officials have their own vision for a new Europe, and it is one with less of a social safety net, and with lower pensions, less spending on health care, weaker unions, and a smaller welfare state. Hence the collision: Greece is an obstacle on their path to a New Europe. But it is proving to be a stubborn one.” 

It’s difficult to feel the shudders of the nation as a tourist on the islands. Prices have not dropped. Euros fly out of tourist’s pockets. Hotels are booked and transportation by sea and air is uninterrupted. The local boys still jump off the pier into the indigo sea. Walkers dodge mopeds. Stray cats have plenty of crumbs to eat. 

By the summer of 1776, the American colonialists were at war with Britain. On John Adam’s to-do list was Declaration of Independence.” Maybe it’s on the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s list, too? It won’t be war, thank god, but it might be an exit from the eurozone. There will be fewer crumbs, but, in time, maybe more meals. 

Laura Orlando is a member of the Rural America In These Times Board of Editors. She is a civil engineer and teaches in the environmental health department at the Boston University School of Public Health. Laura grew up on a farm near Benton Harbor, Michigan. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Subscribe and Save 59%

Less than $2.00 an issue