Day 14: Kiani Akki to Derveni (63km)
Although Greece’s misfortune at the height of the economic crisis was covered daily in the press, it is necessary, perhaps, to summarise events here as a reminder, and also to contextualise the circumstances in which we found ourselves. For as we travelled across the Peloponnese towards Athens, at times it felt as though we had arrived in a post-apocalyptic scene, juxtaposed by the natural beauty there.
The causes of the economic crisis are complex. Put simply, it was triggered by the 2008 sub prime crisis in the US, the resulting recession and later risk aversion amongst investors meaning the Greek government could no longer borrow to service its persistently high debts. There were of course other contributory factors. Domestically, they included the proliferation of tax evasion, clientelism, cronyism, nepotism as well as outright corruption. But, owing to the serious risks the crisis posed globally, Greek culpability in the press was perhaps overplayed. External influences also played a part: particularly the deregulation of the markets and the way the Eurozone is structured.
The events, which followed between 2010 and 2015, are involved and I do not wish to cover them in detail here. It is important to know that attached to the subsequent bailouts, the Troika comprised of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF, introduced a package of policies intended to make the Greek economy more competitive and reduce the deficit. These included a range of tough austerity measures which impacted on pensions, public sector wages, resulted in tax increases, a reduction in the minimum wage, and divestiture of state assets, amongst others. In response to the resulting public backlash, European leaders were uncompromising.
The first Memorandum, signed in 2010, failed and the Greek economy fell into a state of depression rather than just recession. Two further Memorandums followed in 2012 and 2015. Between 2007 and 2014 the Greek economy shrank by a staggering 26%. Since 2014, the economy has grown glacially by just 2.8%. Greece now, is still 23.5% poorer than it was a decade ago. It will be paying off the €300 billion debt for the next thirty to forty years. Amongst those I spoke with there was at best a reluctant acceptance of their fate, at worst people felt disempowered as if they had no control over their future.
After two good nights of sleep, that morning I felt revived. We rose early and went to swim. From the smooth, tranquil water, I could see the town, Psathopyrgos lit up by the morning sun. Afterwards I wondered along the shore. Across the Gulf of Corinth, the mountains and hills on the mainland were tangibly close. I passed a group of men fishing and watched while one expertly gutted and cleaned the large fish he’d just pulled from the water.
When I returned Becky and Matt 1 were chatting to a middle-aged Greek man. Becky asked him to repeat what he’d been saying. Under the pines, close to the shore I pulled out my notepad and began to write down what he told us.
He began by saying he liked the British way of thinking.
‘The UK is the most democratic country.’ He proclaimed. ‘You had the EU referendum, the Scottish referendum. In Spain,’ he said, ‘the government told the Catalan’s they could not vote. Here, we had a referendum a year and a half ago, on whether to accept the EU’s measures. The establishment said yes. The newly elected Syriza government said they would go with the people. Over 60% voted no. But then the government said yes to everything. The radical left-wing government introduced the most right-wing austerity measures because the EU imposed them. Politics here is confused, because the Greeks are confused. We have the sense, we are no longer making the decisions.’
He was referring to the referendum held on the 5th of July 2015, to decide whether Greece should accept the Troika’s bailout conditions. Although a majority rejected the terms of the proposed third Memorandum, 11 days later the Greek government declared the result void. Fearing Grexit, the government capitulated. Sold its sovereignty for the third bail out and the IMF’s promise to help reduce the debt burden. As he reminded me how the Greek government had acted against the will of the people, I saw the dilemma faced by British politicians in a new light. I wondered if Brexit had to happen. After visiting Switzerland, I’d had it mind that a second referendum could be a possibility, now I wondered if it was viable, and if it did ever happen what would it mean for the rest of Europe.
‘You know we need Britain,’ the man said continuing. ‘We need the British way of thinking. I think it is a shame you are leaving and it’s a mistake. Each country can’t be alone,’ he added, ‘but we haven’t worked out yet, how to be together.’
The man was from Athens. He was holidaying with his family for the weekend. He was friendly and eager to talk. He told us he used to be a navy officer, but now he was studying computer sciences.
‘You know here in Greece,’ he admitted, ‘we understand our way of thinking is wrong. We like to relax and we don’t work enough. We spend more money than we earn.’ Then added, ‘Greece is worse than everywhere else.’
I felt his confession unnecessary and tried to reassure him. But he continued, explaining the reasons for his malaise.
‘Now we have to work hard. Competition is a problem. We feel we are on the perimeter of Europe and we are the servants to tourists. We have many educated people, but a lot have left. Our doctors, engineers, have gone to the UK and the US. A friend of mine was in Britain, now they are in France. Most people here work in the service industry.’
We saw the man’s wife exit the apartment and pack up the last of their belongings into the car. She gestured to her husband to join her. Before he left, he said.
‘We have security issues here, I know because I used to be in the military. We feel more secure in the EU. We cannot trust our own politicians anymore. The threat is not just from Turkey. There is war in the regions around us. Syria. It was Yugoslavia before. Turkey is a difficult neighbour. We always play the role of the buffer zone. We pay a lot of money in defence.’
That morning we cycled at a leisurely pace, stopping frequently. In Kamares, we visited the bakery and I photographed two train drivers drinking coffee there. Soon after we stopped at a grocery store in Selianitika and bought cheese, bread, tomatoes, figs and olives for lunch. As we were loading up the bikes, readying to set off again, three cyclists dressed identically to us, in high vis jackets and helmets, sped by.
We ate on the beach at Elaionas, at a pic nic table looking out to sea. The wind had picked up and by now there was a small swell. The town seemed deserted. Along the front, all the bars and restaurants were closed. A cat appeared under the table. It wound its body around our legs as it searched for scraps of food.
Soon we saw two men, one carrying a stick walking along the beach. I approached, and asked if I could take their photo, if they minded answering a few questions.
‘Of us.’ The taller man said looking amused, laughing as he posed.
I asked them their views on Europe.
Repeating what others had told me before the tall man said:
‘Europe we are positive about. The EU we are not so positive. The economic policies are not so positive for Greece.’ Then he added, ‘But personally I don’t feel European. Greece doesn’t belong to Europe. There are a lot of differences, in the culture for example. We are more relaxed. We are not so strict about rules. But we work hard, I don’t think the rest of Europe understands how hard we work.’
He told me he worked as a freelancer, transporting cars. He worked 12 to 14 hours a day. He said things were tough but he tried to see the positive side. He, his wife and children were on holiday for the weekend, staying in an apartment his family owned there.
‘The politicians have made us think that we can’t earn more than to live.’ He continued. ‘We have to pay the government 62% of what we earn and we get nothing back. You’ve seen the roads.’
‘The main road was only finished last year. A lot of money went to the construction companies. There is a lot of corruption here. We don’t have a health service. We don’t have the means. Education is failing, budgets are being cut all the time and yet we try to stay positive.’ He said cheerfully.
As we were leaving Elainoas, I lost the others. After lunch we’d cycled back towards the town centre, under fluttering Greek flags to find somewhere open to have coffee. I waited for them outside a dilapidated supermarket. The shops, apartments and cafés we’d passed, alternated between luxurious and decrepit, intended for different types of customers. The town reminded me of when I’d visited Thailand twenty years before, for it had a similar two-tired system for tourists and locals.
Once I’d rejoined the others we followed the coast for while before turning right across a piece of scrub land. Here, once again we were on the look out for dogs.
That afternoon, feeling rested and fit, we cycled fast, with the sea on our left. Small climbs were quickly rewarded, and it took just over an hour to cover 30km. There was little traffic, and for a moment we were granted a momentary light reprieve.
By the time we reached Derveni, the wind had picked up. The occasional lorry rattled through the town. Pick up lorries came and went. We headed to the sea to watch the waves dumping on the shore. After we’d booked into our accommodation, carefully transporting our gear and the bikes by lift up to the apartment, we walked back through the main street looking for somewhere to eat. We chose a restaurant advertising fish. Those who had been there for the weekend holiday had already left. That night we were their only customers.