I've been coming to the small Greek town of Loutsa for over twenty years. It is my home away from home. My in-laws small cottage surrounded by fig trees, olive trees and two massive Pines is a modest affair. I wouldn't recommend Loutsa as a destination for anyone visiting Greece for the first time, there are too many other much more beautiful and unforgettable spots in Greece to do that. Nevertheless, this little spot on the Aegean coastline of the Attic peninsula is loaded with fond memories for myself and my family. We have spent many summers here and my kids have grown up surrounded by family and friends. Two of Anna's childhood friends, I'll call them Calliope and Dimitri, now live here year round. They have become permanent fixtures in our lives along with other neighbors and relatives.
For many Greek-Americans the bonds between Greece and themselves melted away long ago. Perhaps their grandparents arrived in the Promised Land many years ago and they have lost touch. During the early days of the Greek Diaspora to America, when you left Greece, no matter how much you longed to return, it became harder as time passed. Many Greeks frustrated by the poverty and political instability of their homeland, tossed a rock behind them as the old Greek saying states and determined to start a new life. With the passing of each generation the ties to Greece become more tenuous. When Greek-Americans do return they are often strangers in the land of their forefathers. They are seldom able to readjust seamlessly if at all. Often they have difficulty with the language, the mindset, even the way of life in the old country. They either see Greece as a wonderful adventure in a land where they are faced with a mixture of the new and the familiar or a nightmare, confirming in their minds why papou or yiayia left in the first place. Immigration to the US from Greece has slowed to a trickle. Thus, in Greek-American communities throughout the US centered around the local Orthodox Church, things are changing. These parishes now often include a mixture of other Orthodox ethnicities and American converts. There is no longer a new wave of Greek immigrants to reinvigorate the Greek orientation of these communities.
All of us see Greece through our respective prism. Regardless of where we come from and how we end up in Greece, we see Greece through the prism of our own experiences and history. For me, my Greek neighbors, friends and relatives shape my personal thoughts about Greece. For example, Calliope and Dimitri are representative of the type of Greek family that I have come to love and admire. Perhaps they are a disappearing commodity, buffeted by the economic and social forces that are changing Greece and its people. Our two families have become quite close. Dimitri is a self-made businessman who makes and sells jewelry. Years ago he decided to move his family permanently to Loutsa to live in the home built by Calliope's father. A two story affair, the in-laws live on one floor and the Dimitri's family lives on the other. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Calliope's mother takes care of their two young daughters and this allows Calliope an opportunity to help her husband in their shop. Last year Calliope's father had a stroke and was bedridden for a few months during which time she assumed control of her father's care. In addition, Calliope tends a vegetable garden and a gaggle of chickens, rabbits and goats, a labor intensive activity, yet one that helps defray the ever increasing cost of food. The family lives well, is comfortable, and has been able to weather the economic transition to the Euro with the accompanying rise in prices and decrease in disposable incomes.
Dimitri is, I think, one of an increasing number of Greeks who have moved to the outskirts of Athens into communities once inhabited only during the summer. It takes Dimitri 45 minutes of travel to get to his workplace. Half of his commute is by car and the other half on the Metro, which takes him directly and quite efficiently into downtown Athens. A friend of his was appalled at Dimitri's move to Loutsa. "Why would anyone in his right mind want to live in a ghost town? A place where one is not even able to drink a cup of coffee at a cafeteria or go shopping?" His friend, on the other hand prefers living in a city choked by bumper to bumper traffic, incessant noise, air pollution and a steadily decreasing quality of life. A lifestyle he wouldn't give up for the dubious advantages of life outside the city, after all, it only takes him fifteen minutes to drive to work. Unfortunately, he also has to spend another 30 minutes looking for a parking space. Go figure.
Loutsa is still semi-deserted in the winter since most of the people that own homes there only return to take up residence in the summer. As a result Loutsa resembles many of the isolated mountain villages in rural Greece. I'm not sure how the central government apportions the tax revenues to localities however, I believe it is based on population. Small communities that do not have a significant population all year round suffer accordingly. The lack of basic services and more frustrating the lack of a community ethos creates all kinds of intractbale problems. Loutsa has become for me a closeup view of some of the problems that I think are common to other small communities outside of the concrete jungle of Athens. It's always dangerous to make generalizations especially based on only cursory knowledge and periodic opportunities to observe and study, however, this community has become a window of sorts into some of the underlying problems facing the Greek eparhia (countryside).
During the first half of the twentieth century Greece was basically an agrarian nation. It's people were scattered in villages throughout the country which is about the size of the state of Alabama. As Greece became increasingly industrialized and as the available jobs and opportunities became centralized in the capital city, Greece experienced a massive exodus away from the villages to the two main population centers, Athens and Thessaloniki as well as to other countries. The countryside, which was based on farming and the many islands where fishing was a major livelihood lost a key commodity: young people and the labor they provided for these endeavors.
Once well populated and bustling villages were left in the hands of those either too old or just unable to leave. The central government's policies were basically oriented toward the main urban areas. The rural areas, where government control was minimal were left very much to their own devices. As a result the remote countryside became a recruiting ground for the Communists who tapped into the dissatisfaction of subsistence farmers while taking advantage of the government's low profile. Even today one can see that the rural countryside and the small villages suffer from a lack of government services, incompetent local government and a lack of funds. The standards of healthcare, roads, schools and other vital elements that determine the quality of life in any community have been sadly neglected.
Part of the reason for this neglect is that the central government has failed to decentralize power and to allow revenues to trickle down to be spent by the locals rather than some bureaucrat safely ensconced elsewhere. The nanny state which is fed and nourished by its big brother in Brussels has centralized decision-making to such a degree in the government ministries in Athens that local development plans for a town like Loutsa are drawn up far away. The all important "sxedio" or plan for Loutsa, in progress for the last twenty years, yet still a long way from fruition, is not a creation of Loutsa's residents. It was created by people who have never lived in the community and never will. Walk through Loutsa today and you will find expensive luxury homes going up at a frenzied pace. Unfortunately, those homes are being built on streets that have been unpaved for decades and in a community which is starved for money and cannot deliver basic services.
Travel to any small village, even a good size town like Loutsa, in Greece and I doubt that you will see even a rudimentary dispensary or health clinic equipped with a relatively simple life saving device known as a portable defibrillator. Survival in emergency medicine is predicated on the type of care one receives in the first golden hour. For residents in rural Greece, the chances of getting the right care during that first critical hour are slim to non-existent. Small communities in Greece, once the lifeblood of the country seldom have well paved roads, a volunteer fire department, decent sanitation services, adequate law enforcement, a library, well equipped schools and responsive local government with local control of funds. Even worse they lack the two most important key ingredients, young people and a future.
Perhaps my views about the neglect of the "eparchia" are overblown and less than accurate. I'm always willing to listen to contrary views. If we have learned anything from the recent catastrophe in Greece this summer, I believe it is that small communities represent a very important part of the country. They need to be revitalized. By so doing, perhaps Greece will find its soul.