Monday, November 30, 2015

The Greek Olive Harvest as Escape from Austerity and Unrest, Violence and Suspicion



Ferry boat in Piraeus harbor

It’s been happening again, as we knew it would: the creditors formerly known as the Troika are pushing the Greek government to pass more austerity measures, and many demoralized, struggling Greek men, women, and even children are responding with more strikes, protests, and occupations. In early November, pharmacists went on strike over new regulations about who can open pharmacies, ferry boats stopped running for four days, pensioners in Athens protested additional pension and benefit cuts, farmers demonstrated against expected tax and pension contribution increases, and secondary school students occupied their schools—to name a few off the top of my head. Another general strike is coming later this week. 

Occupied junior high school
I think I understand how people feel if they've worked hard all their lives, perhaps investing time and effort far beyond the call of duty, only to lose their jobs or have their wages or pensions reduced to below what they need to pay their bills and buy necessities, as if they were totally expendable and deserved no respect or consideration. I can imagine how helpless these people must feel if they have no way of making enough money to meet their obligations. I do not believe Greeks are generally lazy; I’ve met too many who are hard-working and dedicated to their jobs.

However, the young student council members I saw at a local junior high school on November 2 looked like they were seeking excitement and power more than anything else. Why wouldn’t it be thrilling for teenagers to keep the principal and teachers out of school, determine which students could come and go, and oversee a vote on whether or not to “occupy” the school? When I asked why they were preventing classes from taking place, one said “Ma’am, look at the building where your child has class”—pointing to one of the prefabricated temporary classrooms brought to the schoolyard to compensate for overcrowding in a school meant for far fewer kids.

“Temporary” classroom (right)
True, that’s far from ideal, and true, there were not enough teachers at the school, but how would keeping the teachers out and learning less improve that situation? How would that solve the many real problems facing the Greek educational system? I wouldn’t ask these questions if student occupations of secondary and tertiary schools were confined to rare cases of pressing problems the powerful simply refused to acknowledge, but that’s not the case here. Occupations are very common, the rule rather than the exception, almost more expected than noteworthy.

The students argued that changes would be made because the authorities didn’t want the schools to remain closed, but if it were that easy to make the changes, it would have been done long ago. I urged my daughter—who was in the sensible minority of 62 against the occupation, vs. 300 in favor—to talk to her schoolmates about trying to come up with solutions they might discuss with the principal, the mayor, or the minister of education, rather than just shutting things down.

Science Day, Technical University of Crete
If only Greek students could get out of the habit of “occupying” schools and missing class, and in the habit of working hard for dialogue, progress, and positive solutions, maybe something could be done. Maybe not, because the system is so messed up and so starved for money that solutions are elusive. But I’d really like to see more of the constructive, productive efforts from students that I see from other Greek citizens—and from students on some occasions. (See, for example, In Greece, Volunteers Provide Olive Oil for Families in Need, and “Greeks Bearing Gifts” in my October blog entry on the university science fair, in which hundreds of student volunteers participated.)

The school principal, parents’ association representatives, and some parents will be talking with the mayor about the overcrowding problem. Wouldn’t, couldn’t, that have happened in any case? Okay, one day off school isn’t that big a deal, but the senior high schools took a whole week, and that means a lot of classes missed. Students had little enough school already since the “school day” ended at varying and unpredictable times between 12:30 and 2:00 through mid November due to the Greek government’s annual failure to assign enough teachers to each school by the time the school year starts. I’d like to see students work with teachers to draft a logical schedule of summer planning to help government officials prevent that.

Earlier this month, editor and writer Nikos Konstandaras wrote that “[r]epeated protests that disrupt lives without achieving much else are not the greatest problem that the Greeks face but highlight the dead end of our politics, our economy and our society.” He added that “[c]itizens know that whatever plans they make will be disrupted by the plans of others,” but “most Greeks” simply tolerate this. While this tolerant attitude used to be “based on acknowledging the right to protest,” Konstandaras asserts that “today it betrays exhaustion. It leads to resignation and apathy” (Tolerance and resignation).

I do see quite a bit of that here. Coming from a different place, though, I feel anger and disgust at the wasted efforts to make a point by disrupting the lives of those who can’t fix the problems being protested. Yes, the affected citizens can contact their legislators or vote for different lawmakers in the next election, but the combination of an entrenched party system with the rule of the creditors and the disappointing showing of the newest political party to take control of the government (after the old ones were voted out) suggest this will result in little improvement.

Many of us are thoroughly fed up with the political situation here. I am disappointed that none of the attempts at new political beginnings during the years of the crisis seem to have succeeded. The disbursal of the latest 12 billion euros to the Greek government was finally approved after Parliament narrowly passed the latest measures demanded by the creditors, but few seem to believe most of the measures being passed this year are productive rather than destructive to the Greek people and the Greek economy.

Athens store
Jobs in commerce, for example, show drops in salaries and increases in part-time and temporary, rather than full-time and long-term, employment (More jobs in commerce but most new positions are part time). Shipping companies—a major source of Greek wealth—continue a trend of leaving Greece (Dozens of domestic shipping firms have relocated to Cyprus). Debts pile up as people are unable to pay, and national economic data are even worse than expected.


Olives at Terra Creta’s mill, Kolymbari, Crete
Lacking any solution to the major problems of Greece, it’s much easier to turn to everyday concerns, such as when the water company will resume service to our neighborhood (“in a little while”), or the olive harvest—which have occupied many Cretans (as well as other Greeks) this month.

One day, I stopped by an olive grove where the denuded tree trunks with almost no leaves left, and the piles of branches all over the ground, seemed to indicate that the trees were being cut down for firewood. However, I soon saw that there was still green netting under the branches that hadn’t been cut, with a small generator nearby and a man using a hand-held mechanical harvesting instrument--a long rod with some small moving parts at the end--to dislodge olives from the leafy branches of some very tall old trees, so olives flew off onto the nets below. A middle-aged man and an older relative were pruning trees on the other side of the lot, but he assured me that in two years the twenty trees would produce plenty of olives again.

Olive harvest in Crete
A stout, gray-haired older woman in a dark dress and apron sat on a crate at the edge of the grove, observing and advising the harvester. A very friendly middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Irini spoke with me about their harvest and their trees, apparently quite interested in my interest. Irini told me the old woman was the olive harvesting expert, involved with it annually since she was a little girl. We watched as the harvester climbed into a tree to reach the olives on the highest branches. Irini told me they had just one harvesting machine because it cost 200 euros. But since they live in the village of Malaxa, around half an hour away, they were trying to finish all the work in one day. (They didn’t manage.)

Irini showed me a device off to the side that resembled a barbecue grill; there they separate harvested olives from leaves and branches after they’re gathered from the nets. Irini emphasized that olive harvesting is hard work that makes the arms really tired by the end of the day. But she seemed proud to be doing it, since she mentioned the health benefits of olive oil as part of the Mediterranean diet, pointing out that it could help prevent cancer and other diseases.

Olive harvesting equipment
Irini said they expected to press 800 kg of oil from their olives—surely including olives from other groves. 100 or 150 kg they keep for their family; the rest they sell when the price is decent -- 3 or 4 euros/kg -- at the mill in Chania where their oil is pressed. Irini said the oil they sell may be exported to Italy in bulk or bottled in Greece and sold in Germany or London. Irini thinks it could be sold for as much as 50 euros per kg, although that sounds far too high to me. Of course, she knows her family will not earn much compared to the retail price; the merchant makes the real profit, she said. For most Cretans who own olive trees but are not professional farmers, the point does not seem to be profit; rather, they supply themselves and their families, and sometimes some friends, with a basic element of their diet, and if they have more olive oil than they need, it provides a bit of helpful income.

So many Cretans spend weekends or, if they have many trees, two-week fall vacations from work (taken instead of summer holidays) harvesting olives in their family groves. One neighbor and her family (six of them) gathered olives from their 40 trees over two weekend days, collecting 38 large burlap sacks of olives, which yielded 180 kg of olive oil. They gave 20 kg of the oil to the mill as payment for the milling; the rest will provide their family and a brother’s cafĂ© with about two years’ worth of olive oil. 

Olive groves near Kolymbari, Crete
This year, in order to write well-informed articles for the Olive Oil Times, I have spent a lot of time learning about olive oil, its health benefits, its production, its harvest, and its taste. (I’d already started learning how to use it during my years here in Greece.) I’ve discovered an incredibly scenic part of the prefecture of Chania: the endless olive groves on the hills and valleys of Kolymbari. I’ve observed and (very briefly) assisted in the harvest. I’ve seen different methods of pruning and harvesting: one in which large trees are pruned before the highest branches are harvested, so olives are removed from cut branches that are held against a special machine, with plans to return later to finish the pruning; another in which the olives are harvested first in the usual way, and then the trees are cut back so far that they’re little more than a stumpy trunk with a few branches. I’ve learned that olive wood and some of the olive waste that remains after milling can be burned for heat, while olive leaves can be eaten by sheep and goats. I saw a farmer back his pickup truck up to a leaf holder at Terra Creta’s mill which opened to drop leaves into the truck and onto the farmer. 

Stone mill at Biolea in Astrikas, Crete
I’ve watched olives unloaded from burlap sacks into a vat so they could climb a conveyor for washing and entry into the mill. I’ve seen huge piles of olives collected before processing, watched them being washed and crushed into paste. That was most exciting with the stone mill at Biolea, where huge millstones came around their circle toward me, throwing occasional bits of olive into my face. I’ve seen the paste pressed by Biolea’s traditional presses, so it runs down the side of piles of round mats in streams. I’ve seen the fresh oil run out of a pipe in a golden flow, then tasted its bitter thickness. I’ve talked with a marketing manager, company owners, a taster, an industry organization leader, a scientific advisor, an entomologist, an exporting association leader, and olive farmers and producers. They have opened up a fascinating new world to me that is rooted in the trees, the land, and the fruit that produce Greece’s valuable liquid gold.


Syrian refugee children
The world of Greek olive groves is not the world I come from, nor the world I read about in major news stories. The gentle, hollow, tinkling clanging of goats’ bells emphasizes the quiet calm of my Cretan neighborhood in contrast to the panic of Paris after the terrorist attacks there, in Beirut, and on a Russian airplane. I have been wondering what ISIS leaders were thinking. They are obviously not worried about killing people most of us consider innocent; they do not seem concerned about intensifying the war against them. Nor are they worried about the fate of the millions of Muslim refugees seeking asylum in Europe, where increasing numbers of citizens seek to turn refugees away and leave them homeless and stateless.  

I am so sad for the people who have been injured, those who suffered as they were killed, and the families of those who died. I can imagine the anxiety of the people who were or are afraid to leave their homes, whether in France, Belgium, Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere. And I feel distressed by the thought of all the refugees trying to escape shooting, bombing, or kidnapping in Syria and other countries who now have to face greater suspicion and fear, and much greater likelihood of rejection and hatred, thanks to terrorists and the xenophobes whose arguments terrorists appear to have strengthened.

Encouraged by major European countries, a number of Balkan nations have begun allowing only refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to enter, leaving other migrants stranded in Greece. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is the latest country to build a fence along its border, in this case with Greece, to control the flow of migrants. A summit meeting between Turkey and EU members this past weekend ended with agreements on various concessions for Turkey, plus 3 billion euros to improve conditions for refugees there, in exchange for Turkey’s increasing efforts to stop migrants from entering the EU illegally. I have not heard anything about refugees being allowed to work legally in Turkey, however, which should be a major concern. The major concern was apparently to keep refugees in the region, and out of Europe, except when invited in.

Even so, German chancellor Angela Merkel has continued to call for Europeans to “liv[e] our values with courage” after the terrorist attacks (Attacker’s Possible Link to Migrant Trail Heightens Security Fears). The New York Times reported that Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, was among those reminding people that “[t]hose who organized these attacks, and those who carried them out, are exactly those who the refugees are fleeing.” A Czech volunteer who works with migrants added, “What happened in Paris on Friday night is happening in Syria every day, and it is exactly why those people are running away.” A Latvian man suggested that if we help migrants more, “the risk of a terror attack happening again would be less” (Paris Attacks Shift Europe’s Migrant Focus to Security).

Say No to Racism, Open Borders signs
While it is much more difficult to weed out the one in 100,000 or so terrorists who may sneak into Europe among refugees than it is to keep terrorists from entering the U. S. disguised as refugees, given the one and a half to two years’ vetting of those destined for American soil, that doesn’t mean 99,999 innocent, desperate children, women, and men need to be rejected for each terrorist who hides among them. Lately, American citizens with guns have been killing more Americans than foreign terrorists have, and it’s mostly European citizens who are committing terrorist acts in Europe. Yes, this could change, and of course we should try to stop terrorists, but we also need to continue to make refugees welcome.


Heather among other plants
Musical migratory birdsong has replaced the summer’s cricket and cicada sounds in semi-rural Crete. The smoke from wood fires in fireplaces adds an autumnal scent. On hillsides leading down to the sea, dark rust-colored buds that will open into tiny pink-purple blossoms on low wild shrubs mix with dry grey branches left over from the summer and new green leaves brought out by a few early and recent rains. The high humidity that comes with darkness and stays past dawn produces cool, damp school mornings, but temperatures often get into the 70s before midday in this very mild autumn, so we struggle to convince our kids to wear light jackets.  

Walking on one of our warm, sunny, calm late November days, I met a neighbor who was collecting edible wild greens, or “horta.” He told me that where he came from in northern Greece, no one collected wild greens. His Cretan mother in law taught him what was what after he moved here. He showed me three different kinds of greens, and when I asked him if the sprig I held was thyme, he said no, it was throumbi (pronounced throombee--savory), a “cousin” of thyme. We found a great deal of wild thyme as well, with its new leaves just beginning to cover the dry grey branches of summer, and only a few of its tiny lavender blossoms open. The throumbi got its new leaves and flowers earlier.

Irini discussing the harvest
I commented on a large herd of goats feeding on the wild shrubs on the side of a gorge. I’d been thinking the creatures were rather picturesque, and a rustic sign of Greeks making do (letting the livestock eat where and what it can). But my neighbor replied in disgust that it was a “catastrophe,” because the goats eat so much that the plants don’t grow back. Learn something new every day and every year. I have, thanks to Greeks, including olive oil farmers and businesspeople, and thanks to migrants and refugees I’ve spoken with. This keeps life interesting, exercises the brain, and broadens the mind. 

Olive groves near Kolymbari, Crete

No comments:

Post a Comment