30 May 2017

How the Greek Islands gave up on Athens

By Emily Stacey

Having visited the Greek island of Kefalonia for over 20 years, the thought of moving permanently has often crossed my mind. But I’ve always feared the reality would perhaps not live up to my expectations. The closest alternative, then, is to make the most of retreating to Spartia every summer, a quiet, sleepy village situated in an idyllic position on the island with a clear view of Zakynthos.

In a last minute decision to book for Easter, I try to reach Stavros and Elini, who have always welcomed me with open arms. When I call, I get their son, Giannis, who spends most of the year in Italy where he’s studying to become a doctor.

“We’d love to see you at Easter. Come, come!” he says. Aware that the country is in a state of limbo, unsure if eurozone ministers will agree a recovery package that will grant Greece a third bailout deal in time for the summer, I ask about Giannis about the situation in Kefalonia. Most Greeks are reluctant to talk about the reality of life under austerity; they trust journalists about as much as politicians. Giannis, however, is happy to talk.

“The pressure from the government has increased daily for the past eight years, but in a way we’ve come to accept it,” he tells me. “Everyone is tired of protesting, so nobody hears what we have to say or what we need. It’s ridiculous to think that we had a referendum two years ago, where we voted No, only for Tsipras to take it as a Yes! At the end of the day the only people we should blame is ourselves, for choosing the people we vote in.”

Coming to power in September 2015 after a dramatic general election that saw the far-left party Syriza claim victory, Alexis Tsipras promised that he would reject the extremes of austerity. Months later, he betrayed his voters by giving into Brussels’ punishing bailout programme, a U-turn for which he he has never been forgiven.

Surprisingly, rather than going off in search of stable employment in the cities, Giannis tells me that he and other young Greeks have moved in the other direction. “These days, more people are choosing to transfer to the islands from Athens. Because of the crisis, people are searching for a way out city centres and are turning back to the villages of their ancestors. Almost everyone has a house in the Greek countryside, which they have abandoned in their quest for city employment. Turning back to our roots has become a way of saving money, of returning to those traditions that have long been neglected.”

Where they live isn’t the only life decision into which young Greeks are factoring the dire economy. Gianni says that “people of my generation have to think twice when it comes to getting married or having children, especially when unemployment is creeping up to 50 per cent in some areas.”

As an island that relies on tourism to keep its economy afloat, it’s the winters that hit local lives the hardest in Kefalonia. “The winters are difficult as they have to be compensated by the prospects of the summers. Summer contracts are 24/7, but the salaries are petty,” says Gianni.

One young barman, Nikos, last year confessed that he was ready to leave: “It’s game over here and it’s only getting worse. Everyone I know is leaving; to England, Germany, Norway.”

He was set on trying out life in London, stressing that no one can live on €2.30 an hour. I’ve been unable to reach him recently, which suggests that he may have successfully planned his escape. Others I know have made the move. “If you want to reach Dimitri,” one Kefalonian tells me, “he’s in Holland but he’ll be returning in May to commence the fight to save the beach.”

Dimitri has run a local beach situated in Lassi, one of the island’s liveliest towns for more than 20 years. Not only does he have to bid for the beach in a yearly auction (held in June, costing him revenue from a crucial part of the season), he is also forced to keep a small canteen in operation without electricity. Ever the mastermind, he has managed to keep his business afloat over the years by bringing down ice every morning, and he uses simple gas appliances for more courageous drinks that require a kettle. “I mean, I’m living like Robinson Crusoe!” he exclaimed last summer.

Greece’s next bailout deadline is July, and quarrels over tax and pension reforms rumble on. However, while Greece continues to struggle financially, Britain too is facing challenges. Given the pound’s decline, many UK families will be more reluctant to book summer holidays this year.

However, although tourism has declined over the past decade, Kefalonia, I suspect, will remain desirable as a popular Ionian hotspot.

With an expanding expat population, it draws in foreigners who have undoubtedly helped the island’s property market over the years, and it continues to be advertised as an idyllic summer escape. And the Kefalonian economy’s greatest asset – its natural beauty – will keep tourists coming regardless of what happens to the rest of the Greek economy. Indeed, just days after writing this piece, an email appears in my inbox. “Guess where I’m going in August?!” a close friend exclaims.

Emily Stacey is a political commentator