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Published: September 12th 2009
For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
In December of 2008 there were huge riots in every major city in Greece, with frustrated protesters taking to the streets and pillaging public property. Living under the shadow of the glorious ancient past that most of the world still associates with this Mediterranean nation, the modern urban Greek lives on an average of a mere 500 Euros a month, in a nation where costs of living are soaring in an unprecedented manner.
This is only one of the many new things I learn about this country as I chat over a bottle of raki, the locally produced fiery liquor distilled from grapes, with Stella, my host in Crete and native of the largest Greek island.
“People are angry and they have no money”, she tells me. “This is not going to last much longer. People might get by perhaps one more generation living off of their inherited lands, and then everything is going to fall apart”.
She predicts that this coming December there will be even more riots on the anniversary of last year’s upheaval. All this information is in response to
my inquiry about the charred banks, anarchy symbols, and all the anti-police graffiti I have been seeing on the walls of the island’s city streets, in a region that I previously only associated with holidaymaking, ancient ruins, grape and olive orchards, and certainly not anti-establishment politics.
“The banks continue to give loans to people so that they can buy things they do not need and cannot afford, like fancy cars, phones, and jewelry, and the debt just keeps growing and growing”.
Stella herself studied sociology in Montreal, Canada, and proceeded to obtain a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies in the Netherlands. In an interesting comparison of experiences, she tells me how she was arrested in both Canada (in a demonstration against police brutality which ended up being the 2nd largest mass arrest in Canadian history) and in Greece (for camping on a beach), and was able to contrast the shockingly organized and efficient nature of the Canadian arrest with the corrupt and irrational nature of the Greek arrest.
But after many years abroad, Stella still chooses to return to and live in Crete, the region where she grew up and can continue to live for free in
the apartment below her parents in a building that has been passed down through her family’s generations.
I can detect where Stella’s passions lie however, when she teaches me about rembetiko
, a 90 year old style of Greek folk music with lyrics that touch on passion, love, marijuana use, and political defiance, and of traditional festivals that she has documented, with participants dancing all night in the streets and playing instruments made from the stomachs of goats. She also shows me a video of the zeibekiko
, a solo, traditionally male dance in which the performer becomes so impassioned, so focused, that in one famous recorded incident a dancer killed another man for interrupting him. Observers will often smash plates on the floor, a well-known Greek stereotype, in a show of overwhelming approval and enjoyment.
“I have problems with the politics and people of my country, but I love the culture and the dry hot climate. Also I am lazy and I love to be near the beach”. As we down more shots of raki and I look around at the relaxed, tanned faces of the other clients in the bar, I can feel a deeper understanding of why
life here has so many ups and downs, but many choose to stay.
Later in the evening we find ourselves in a rock ‘n roll bar, enclosed within a 16th century Venetian tunnel, so that smoke hangs thick in the air and guitar ballads rebound off the ancient stone walls. I drink a beer with a guy who sports short hair with one long dreadlock in the back, Motorhead t-shirt, Motorhead ring tones on his phone and an abundance of facial hair that is characteristic of many Cretan men.
About 6 kilometers south of where we sit lie the ruins of Knossos, the most famous center of the Minoans, predecessors to the ancient Greeks and one of the oldest civilizations in the world. My memories go years back to my university Classics courses in which a passionate professor praised the Minoans as a rare example of what she believed to be a female dominated society, or at least one in which women possessed a degree of participation in public life uncommon in the records of history.
The next day I visit the ruins and it is pouring rain, but still the tourists flock, taking pictures, buying postcards
and trinkets, waiting in lines. In the museum I see 3500-year-old statues depicting men dancing in circles, arms interlocked, in a manner not unlike what I saw in Stella’s videos of modern Greek celebrations.
I also visit another corner of the island, a pretty port town called Chania, where elements of Turkish and Venetian occupation have also left their mark, but an aesthetically pleasing mark that seems to be a source of local pride and not disdain. Again it is tourists, tourists, tourists, congregating at the picturesque harbor, and pumping Euros into the local economy.
I watch a sunset from the Venetian lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor and reflect on my days in Crete. I have seen cultural continuity but I also sense tension and urgency for change in the face of encroaching global economics. I see a land of beauty and of cultural stereotypes, but more than anything I see my expectations once again defied. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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