Greece Letter: Lure of global village draws lifeblood from rural landscape in Corfu
There is not much for young people to return to once they have had a taste of urban life
In Greece the villages are becoming depopulated by emigration to the cities and abroad
Nail-biting time for school-leavers is as intense in Greece as it is in Ireland. Will they or won’t they get the points they need for their chosen college courses? If they do, there’s a strong likelihood that their degree will mean living away from home for most of their working lives. In a small village, that creates its own dilemmas.
The anxieties voiced in this paper by Diarmuid Ó Gráda on July 11th concerning rural decline are every bit as prevalent in Greece, where the villages are becoming depopulated by emigration to the cities and abroad.
Increased mobility through car ownership means the shopping centre is replacing the village shop: financial concentration makes local trade non-viable. Increasing administrative centralisation is another factor: a village diminishes as its vital organs atrophy – the post office, the school, the pub.
Rural Greece lost most of its schools over the past 30 years. Villages are even losing their focal point: the local bar (kafeneion). I can think of three in Corfu that have recently closed due to the deaths of their elderly owners. The village is not yet dead, but very silent.
Adapt or die?Does the shrinking village suffer from its failure to adapt? Does it deserve to die? Would the introduction of small industries, especially hi-tech ones, reverse what is fast becoming a string of skeletal settlements, validated only by the passing tourist trade during the summer months, and invisible and dormant the rest of the year?
An even greater factor in this leavetaking is university (or technical college) education, which provides an exit to a “better” life – a professional career and wider horizons than the village can offer.
One schoolboy in the village where I live made a bazooka that fired a missile 300 yards. He’s now studying robotics and weapon design. Luckily he hasn’t heard of the Daleks (“ex-ter-min-ate!”) or he would have a one-stop destination for his twin talents. But he isn’t coming back. His best friend isn’t so bright, and stayed at home as an apprentice electrician. Win one, lose one.
It’s glib to say “the soul goes out of the village” but, haemorrhage or brain drain, it’s true nonetheless. In the past two years, three of the five school-leavers have gone to university, with little prospect of their returning except on family visits. Not much call for robotics round here.
One of this year’s leavers, Barbara, wants to study cosmetics with a view to working in the film industry; bye, Barbara. Another gone.
That leaves two young men – and no girls – in a village that once boasted two schools (none now) and over 10 kafeneions (two remain).
I saw the same problem in Connemara, where I lived in the early 2000s. In one village, two of the pubs and both the shops closed, because the children did not want to take over their parents’ business.
One girl studied aeronautical engineering and now works for British Aerospace. Alcock and Brown’s historic landing in Clifden in 1919 didn’t encourage a local aeroplane industry. Nor did the long-defunct Marconi transatlantic signalling station stimulate any local initiative in communication technology.
Family pride and village pride lose out to the attractions of better-paid cosmopolitan life. There is no jobs market at home, and few marriage options. There are no bank loans for start-up enterprise, and family savings have long been exhausted by the imperatives of austerity. “Cottage industry” doesn’t exist.
‘Progress’Can you argue with “progress”? These young people are entitled to a first-generation university education and the opportunities it offers to take them away from the traditional, inward-looking, familiar world towards something new, challenging and exciting.
No one has yet devised a programme that can reconcile this legitimate demand for self-improvement with the equally legitimate need of rural society to cohere and, to use Brian Friel’s wonderful word, “resile”.
The points system in Greece is similar to that in Ireland. Out of a maximum of 20,000 points, you need 10,000 to be eligible for university, and at least 13,000 for the college and course of your choice. As in Ireland, points requirements mount in the more specialised subjects and according to availability of places in the individual colleges.
A basic BA in computing or economics may confer little job potential (I know of one civil engineer working on a supermarket checkout).This may therefore point the graduate back home to take over the family business. We have two shops and two tavernas in the village which will depend for their medium-term survival on the returning graduates.
At the end of August we will know whether this year’s two school-leavers will get places, and on what courses. And this will tell us whether or not they will be coming back. It’s nail-biting time for everyone.