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Profiles of Greece
Nicholas Econopouly

September 19, 1963

I went down to Sparta this past week. It was a pleasant trip by bus from Athena through the rugged Peloponnesus: mountains (like the Smoky Mountains but with much less vegetation), fertile valleys, orange and lemon tress, tobacco and olives, olives and more olives. The only thing that was not pleasant was the bus ride through the mountains. The Greeks must be the wildest drivers in the world with, logically, about a seven-second driving life span (about the same as a man in no-man's-land in World War I), except that they somehow manage to stay alive. The bus driver stuck by the national tradition - it was more than a little rattling to be headed for a hairpin turn with a drop of quite a few hundred feet at the end of it and the driver chatting with a passenger behind him. I solved the problem by closing my eyes.

Sparta itself is not too interesting a town. It has been demolished any number of times and the last rebuilding was along a grid pattern: uniform and extremely dull. What saves it is the fact that it is situated on the Evrotas River, which the Spartans proceed to take almost in its entirety to water their fields. The result is a greenness such as I'd never seen before -- in two months the oranges will be ripe -- dramatized by the arid mountains which surround it. (The oranges and lemons do well in Sparta; further up, where water is scarce, the olive trees take over. They grow by the millions, often in rows, in the most impossible of places along the sides of mountains.) The tops of the mountains are almost entirely barren - just masses of rocks and an occasional very hardy type of pine shrub or tree.

It was naïve to think there would be a bus from Sparta to Kalithea (my father's village). (Its original name was Zarafona, a Turkish name, which the government recently changed to Kalithea.) Several years ago the people of Kalithea arranged to buy an Austin Land Rover, already about 10th hand, from a North African village - they use this contraption to get back and forth from Sparta, haul wood and livestock and I'm not sure what else, when the need arises. (They refer to it, by the way, as "our big and beautiful Pullman.") Fortunately it was making a trip to Kalithea this afternoon.

Kalithea is about 30 miles from Sparta - about three hours driving time. Eleven of us made the trip - the Pullman holds a maximum of 8 people. We would have made it without incident if one man hadn't gotten out at one of the hamlets on route and bought two chickens, which added to the people, chess, pots and luggage already in the Pullman, finally snapped the fine wire which prevents the Greek from becoming a volcano. There was a major eruption - it ended only when one of the passengers (not the man with the chickens, who was elderly and therefore merited the respect of the younger men) was asked to stand on the running board during the last hour-and-a-half. (The driver, vary apologetically, explained to me that Greeks often argue - they do! - but that they very rarely fight with hands or fists.) Oh yes - there was one other incident: the Pullman broke down and had to return to Sparta for repairs. Actually this was a fortunate event: Kalithea's schoolteacher was also make a trip and he and I walked down the road to talk about the school. I was impressed with him. He is intelligent, energetic and holds the respect of the community. Oh yes - he has been teaching 24 years and he now makes $1200 per year.

We arrived in Kalithea after dark. There was a crowd in the platea - I found a relative and in a period of about ten minutes I think I met half the people of the village. (I met the other half, in the same place, during the first hour the following morning.) We are feta cheese and olives - and I tried to keep up with the questions about America. (NOTHING on race relations, by the way - the first time this has happened.)

Now, some things about Kalithea.

Physically, it is a lovely community. It is high up in the mountains (Kalithea means "good view") and the tiny winding streets are shaded by olive trees (and a huge maple-like tree in the platea). Its buildings are made of stone, are for the most part very old -- and some of them are whitewashed. There is no electricity and they do no expect to have it for another 15 years. The supply of water consists of three public faucets situated in different parts of the community. It is essentially a farming community -- except that the farms have lone since been worn away.

Two things strike you about Kalithea: it's isolation and its poverty. The doctor comes through the village once a week; the Pullman an average of 2 - 3 times a week; the only other contact is by burro over a long and tortuous mountain road. (You get the feeling -- and it is oppressive -- that there is no running away, that the problems are here and must be faced.)

The poverty comes out in several forms. First off, the woman (even the young) look old. They can be seen hauling heavy buckets of water and doing the other heavy labor which is the lot of any mountain women in taking care of her home. The women almost always wear black from head to toe; they are lean, the lines on their faces are hard (but they can melt you with a sudden broad smile). The situation for the men, in a way, is even more desperate. The Greek male survives on "filotimo," a kind of almost heroic personal pride in what he is and what he does. But in Kalithea, as in many Greek villages, there is nothing to feed that pride. There are few jobs. (One man left Kalithea at 3 a.m. the first morning, worked in a granary in a nearby town, returned after dark -- and made 50 cents.) There is work when olives are to be picked but this is still many weeks away. And so the men sit and stare -- they are bored and made desperate by their personal humiliation. And it is relieved only occasionally by some wood to be cut, grape vines to be pruned, a lamb to be sheared (and the wool taken to Sparta for a few drachmas).

It is not that they are hungry. Somehow, miraculously, they are able to scrape together enough food to survive -- their bodies are lean but powerful. Most are still too proud to ask for help but a few do and they are driven to desperation by it. A blind man suffering from many aching teeth for years may ask for a hundreds drachmas to go to Sparta to visit a dentist. A father wonders how he will provide the warm clothing needed by his children that winter -- or how he will provide the dowry (filotimo again) for the daughter he hopes to marry to the young man from the next village. Escape is usually more imaginary than real; "Nest year, perhaps, I will go to America." "I think my son in Athens will find a good job, send for me." And it is imaginary.

Filotimo. The struggle for survival and a stranger visiting Kalithea quickly finds that a lamb is being slaughtered to honor his presence -- despite the fact that this will mean no meat for the villagers for weeks. (I stopped the slaughter of the lamb by asking them to save it for a second and longer visit. They nevertheless slaughtered two chickens and two rabbits -- and the result was the same.) They take you from home to home -- out come the sweets and the pictures of other members of the family. I left Kalithea knowing that a crate containing feta, olive oil and wine would soon follow. Filotimo -- and it is so necessary to soothe the humiliation of poverty.

I found all of this almost overwhelming. The pride and pathos were oppressive. If I go to Kalithea again, and I should, I will go by personal automobile -- just not to be at the mercy of the Pullman again. It will be that much easier to be able to leave when the necessity arises. It is even more depressing to think that two-thirds of the world's population lives in circumstances no better than these.

A little more background about the village: it was hard-hit by the war. The Nazis controlled the villages, the Greek guerrillas the mountains -- the Nazis retaliated by burning houses, hooting hostages (the stories of these burnings and executions are numerous.) The difficulties did not end with the end of the war. The guerrillas, often Communist-dominated (with a large following of non-Communists, including anti-monarchists and more often, people simply and in desperation striking out at the poverty in the only way they knew) took control of the villages -- there were more killings, retaliations, more retaliations. Kalithea was no exception -- for many months, until unites of the Greek Army arrived, it was controlled by the guerrillas. Families were split -- there were killings, starvation. Today, the people will talk all too readily about the German occupation -- but not at all about the war with the Communists. Nerve endings are till too raw, feeling too much involved in the horror of the period. It is a subject very rarely discussed within the family and it is wise for the stranger to avoid the subject entirely. Under any condition, the area is quiet and peaceful now, even with its poverty, and the comment expressed many times was, simply: "At least there is peace."

The school: it is a fine building, built by an American about seven years ago. It has two classrooms and a "library." Children may attend this school ("must," actually) until the are about 13, then, if the family can afford it, they go to a boarding high school (gymnasium) in Sparta -- very, very few can afford it. I was impressed by several things: the school structure, the teacher and the bright-eyed and inquisitive young people. The school needs several things to make it a good one. First of all, it needs books -- there were only three ragged volumes in the library. (I mentioned the possibility of a set of encyclopedia. "Impossible!" said the teacher, "We could never afford it." Needed also are books of a practical nature: agriculture, home economics, etc.) The stove in one of the rooms no longer works and needs to be replaced. The school has no maps.

How about it? Do you think Northport can raise a couple of hundred dollars for books, maps, etc.?

I don't think it should be massive project -- whatever is done here of necessity must be long-range in quality (education is) and to some degree symbolic. Thousands of dollars will do no more good than a few hundred dollars spent. Word of books from American students to a small Greek mountain village. ("Who cares about the village?") will spread quickly to other villages ("What news?" are the first words whenever the Pullman pulls into a mountain community). Certainly one of the disturbing things I've heard said about Americans is that we are kind -- but we are too keenly interested in war. (Almost the only American aid now going to Greece is military -- the economic programs have practically stopped.) I think we can do at least a little to help dispel this and in a thoroughly constructive way.

Again, I am not suggesting a massive project. Its approach should be children-to-children, with an exchange of letters, pictures (of books and of our library certainly), a yearbook. I expect a list of needed books from the school under any condition -- purchases could be made in Athens, hopefully taken down via U.S. government automobile (not army!) Money could be raised in the easiest possible way: cake sales?

If money is raised easily, perhaps the same thing could be done in a couple of additional schools: one in the North, one on Patmos, i.e., Isadoris' home. This, however, we could decide later.

What do you think? Want to go ahead with it?

If you do, let me know. In the meantime I will be talking to people in Athens, including the Fulbright Foundation staff, perhaps the Embassy. I feel certain they would be extremely helpful. Glen Grant, director of the Foundation, has already expressed a strong interest in such a project.

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