I have to admit to a bit of a love affair with Greece. I have never been there, but still I love it.
Childhood memories of reading and then watching the 80s show based on the books of Gerald Durrell set on Corfu, the larger than life character Spiros and then further whimsical visits via books and Movies and the fact that we had Greek neighbours at my Grandparents’s house where childhood was idyllic and the neighbours generous and jolly.
The area of North London where I lived was a gathering point for Greeks and Cypriots so the sight of people queueing for whole haunches of lamb for Easter was not uncommon in Palmers Green.
Thus when Simon Reeve’s programme about Greece was advertised I decided that like last month's Examination of India, I would dedicate a month to the country that intrigues and bewitches me.
I thus open GREEK MONTH!
Simon Reeve is a fresh faced young man who strikes me as just the sort of chap one would like to go travelling with, he is enthusiastic about his subject and his interest draws you in.
In this first instalment we will be examining how Modern Greece is coping in the economic and political upheaval facing Europe in 2015/16. We will look at the effect of pollution on marine life, examine the real situation with refugees and it’s effect on the Greeks who are being forced to receive them.
The programmes are so densely packed with such interesting things, they lend themselves to more than two posts and allow me to speak to a myriad of different topics and will allow me to add related review and comment
Simon meets first with a deep sea diving, Sponge Fisherman. Sponges were a huge industry for Greece and are still widely available on the tourist stalls. A sponge Fish Merchant once dined at the table of Queen Victoria Herself! Natural Sponge is now a precious commodity. Demand waned after mass production techniques made nylon sponges popular across the planet. It is also labour intensive and extremely dangerous as a occupation.There is little wonder that there are only 5 working Sponge boats still left fishing the waters around Kos.
Agelis who Fishes these waters. He agrees to allow him to see how he gets the sponges. They cannot be fished by net or Rod as they have to be pulled away where they anchor to the seabed and so it is common to dive with a compressed oxygen tank, not modern diving equipment and the most viable sponge grows deep.
Hundreds of Greek fisherman have died fishing in this way from decompression sickness by surfacing too fast and getting air embolisms. Two of Agelis’ own brothers have died as a result of “ The Bends” and as Simon comments, he must think of them every time he braves the depths.
Simon joins him on a dive, he free diving whilst Agelis dives deeper and longer to get to the best sponges. Sometimes diving to seventy or eighty metres,the air hose can get tangled or torn.
Sponges are actually the Ocean’s natural filtration system, a very simple organism, but utterly vital to the fragile Eco systems of the sea.there used to be millions on the seabed in the Mediterranean. Now environmental factors and disease have decimated their numbers. In a matter of decades the whole balance of sea has changed, where once sponges, shellfish and fish thrived in comfortable balance, now there is a sparse supply of any of these .
In their natural state they look black, almost oily but Agelis knows how to treat them to get that gentle yellow colour to come to the fore. He treads on them! The dirt and “milk” that they contain is expelled and this process is further helped, it seems by battering them three times with a big stick! I love the specific nature of this, three times only!
Agelis fishes with his son,they share a tiny cabin and can be out at sea for days at a time. There is a obvious strong affection and loyalty between them.Simon asks what they do if they have an argument, Agelis good natured and smiling, points to a small knife! They all laugh heartily.He says they make up eventually and they survive by working together in sync his son agrees, saying that whatever happens they will be fishing from this boat.
All joking aside, the dynamic here is important and I think it is worth noting. We have a specialised family business, passed down through generations, where profit and money making are not the primary concern, were it to be, the boat might have been used for tourist tours or some other enterprise that is more lucrative.
Away from home for months at a time, they are happy to return home to Tserimos, one of the small islands in the area. The population here is in decline as the Greek financial crisis continues to bite and the depleted sea stock also impacts the capacity people have to survive in these small communities.
Greece is actually made up of 1000 islands and 25 million visitors a year make up twenty percent of the National income. That amount increases to sixty Percent of income of an Island such as Kos. During the winter though the life of islanders on Tserimos can be very sparse, if storms prevent the supply boat from arriving with bread and other staples. There is not even a resident Doctor. Thousands have left small islands like this to seek work on the mainland, some are left with only half the population of decades ago and most of those who remain are elderly
Agelis is worried that if Sponge fishing were to die out, that Tourism might not support the a Island economy. Thousands of pleasure seeking tourists pass through daily, but they eat on their boats and only venture into town for Beer or a Coffee and the only people in the Taverna on the night Simon visits are family and friends coming back for a festival, normally it is much quieter.
Next Simon visits Levos on , Europe’s Eastern border and on the frontline of a humanitarian and political crisis. As he drives towards he coast, abandoned life jackets told their own story.
Two Thousand people had crossed over under cover of darkness during the colder months, but Simon is arriving in high summer and people were taking advantage of this to cross from Turkey in broad daylight. Simon watches in horror and shock as boats arrive filled with children, the elderly and other flotsam and jetsam escaping into Europe. If they were to get into difficulty there was little he could have done.
In 2015 five hundred people drowned off the Greek Coast .There are about forty people on the boat he greets as it arrives, people shout for water, almost all are from Syria, but some came from Afghanistan. One man arrives using a child’s toy as a buoyancy aid. When asked how much they have paid for the short crossing between Turkey and Greece, a man says $1000.
Here is the anomaly, the people on the boats are those able to raise funds, mobile enough to travel and believe they have skills that might be transferable into Europe. One man is trainee Pharmacist with nothing but phone. Another man proudly tells the crew he is a Cameraman, he brings his wife and small children. Simon is choked up when he wishes them luck in their forward journey and it is impossible not to be moved when you see the lengths they are willing to go to seek the things we as a Westerners take for granted, Religious freedom, equality and education for all.
The truth of the matter is just these sorts of people who should be rebuilding Syria, educated, driven and articulate individuals and yet they risk death ,forced out by tyranny. This is the biggest Mass migration since World War Two. Hundreds come, looking for a better life in Europe whilst Simon is stood filming and it is not going to end unless we in Europe assist the region and try to create an environment conducive to growth and prosperity , ensuring safety and freedoms for all citizens are protected.
By attempting to absorb this amount of people, we find ourselves thinking about the cost to us and forget the cost it has on the people in such dire straits that they cannot even consider attempting the journey, the sick, the old and the Impoverished.
The problem is further compounded when you consider that this flow of humanity is being concentrated in very specific ways to certain geographical areas, Greece is so close to turkey , where part of the country is in Asia and part in Europe and it is but a hop skip and a jump into the Eurozone via Greece. The inherent dangers of open dinghies do not seem to be a deterrent and Europe’s open borders seem to have become a self fulfilling prophecy as Simon Discovers.
He meets Afghan school boys who thousands of miles away in Kabul heard that the borders are free in Europe and so they embarked on a journey to take advantage of western freedoms.
However it is possible that the young single men who are arriving from strict Religious and Social confines may be unprepared to deal with the complexities and freedoms of western life, where women are (at least on paper) Equals, where Homosexuality is spoken of freely and Same sex unions are common.
Simon comes across this problem first hand when he sees a young woman struggling to carry a small child in the searing heat and offers her, the child and her English Speaking sister a lift to the next town in the relative cool of the air conditioned car. En route they happen upon other male members of the family group and she is taken bodily from the car because she had not asked permission to be in the car from them prior to getting in.
Following them into a holiday village the juxtaposition of holidaymaker enjoying a beer or a model train ride in contrast to women, children and men trudging towards what they hope is a better situation is strange to behold.
The following morning , Simon makes his way down to the bay where he meets Stratos Kabanos who makes his living from a small boat taking tourists out on snorkelling trips. He is being adversely affected by the influx of migrants, he says his trade has dropped by fifty percent and this is the worst year he has ever seen. He is wise in his reaction as another man shouts from the beach, the heckler says he feels sort for them, the women and children, but because their arrival is not being recorded monitored or policed, they could be hiding jihadis and others out to carry out mischief in their midst.
Stratos puts it plainly and succinctly
“If I am running behind you with a knife, you will not stop running. If you come to a wall you will climb it, you will not stop”
This is all too true and thus the decision to help or not to help lies with every individual, despite his personal loss of business Stratos does help where he can, just the day before he and two paying passengers from Holland had stopped to help a boat carrying thirty people inland. He says he has no choice. They do not linger after all and hey seek ferries to Athens and onwards into western and Northern Europe.
The stark truth is 60 Million people are currently displaced by worldwide conflicts and every one of them seeks a firm place to call their own even if it is just until their particular area of strife has resolved itself.
A lot is said about Refugees being opportunists and immigration and migration have become political tools to be wielded to score political points in the UK , the European Union and even as far afield as the US presidential elections, but I was suddenly minded of a similar situation not so long ago on American soil when a predominantly Irish populace escaping famine at home, took part in a mass migration and sought to put down roots in the Land Rushes in the 1800s. They were refugees, they were taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them were they willing to risk it all and the making of the melting pot of nationalities that became what we know as the USA, are the Syrians so different, I think not!