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Field Notes

Letter from Samos: The Last Fisherman

Abandoned refugee boat in Samos harbor. (Photo: L. Bartussek) 

I am sitting at Gate 4 at the airport on the island of Samos in Greece, waiting to fly back to Germany. My flight is three hours late, the sun reflected on the floor is dazzling my eyes—the last rays of sunlight for a long time. In Germany rain awaits me, it’s nasty, it’s cold.

We came as tourists, we are leaving as friends.

At least this is what I like to think. People are also visiting Greece because the Greeks are famously hospitable. They try to give you the feeling that you aren’t just a tourist, a number, a bundle of cash on two feet, but that they see you as a human being, as a particular individual. They are connecting with you with their hearts. It’s a cliche, sure, but it feels at least partially genuine. Generosity is held in high regard here; it’s also a way of surviving, as people are dependent on helping each other. We, the people of the rich Northern European countries, have outsourced the benefits of friendship, family reunion, and helpfulness to various business services such as Facebook, food delivery services, Tinder, cuddle-parties and psychotherapy. It’s easier and more comfortable to quit a service than trying to solve family problems or commit yourself to real friendships. Here things seem more direct.

Four weeks ago we arrived in the village of Ireon, a little village of fishermen right at an ancient temple. The Heraion, dedicated to the cult of the goddess Hera, was built in the sixth century BCE and was at that time the biggest temple in ancient Greece. The first traces of settlement in the area go back to the third millennium BCE.

But forward to 2017: tourists come to Samos during the summer season for similar reasons—a lot of sun, the sea, beautiful beaches and landscapes, friendly people, good food, escaping the everyday life of the hectic modern cities of the Northern European countries. They don’t necessarily get into contact with other segments of Greek reality, like the economic crisis, climate change, or the refugees, thousands of whom have come to Samos in the last two years. Last year, at the highpoint of the refugee crisis, tourism declined by about sixty percent. People don’t want to sit in their sunbeds, sipping a cocktail, while watching overcrowded refugee boats arriving accompanied by the port police. The people of Samos, who are highly economically dependent on tourism, do what they can to hide the traces of these aspects of life, which are disrupting the island idyll. Still, if you walk around with open eyes and talk to people you will get a different picture: You see vacant restaurants in the middle of the main square, unoccupied houses, a black, inflatable rubber boat filled with life-vests hovering around in the harbor, a dried out riverbed. ...

We chose the village Ireon for our vacation based on an Internet search.

I remember my very first big journey, to Argentina as a young student, just before the Internet came into use. You had a vague idea of what to expect and were taken by surprise by so many things. You travelled to a place and then had to find a place to sleep there. It was a more risk-taking, adventurous kind of traveling than now, in the time of Google StreetView and TripAdvisor. Nowadays you can make yourself a very accurate image of a place you are going to travel to, from the overall view of the landscape, to the quality of the cappuccino that you can expect, to the color of the wallpaper in your bedroom. Arriving in Ireon and moving into our AirBnB apartment, we found our positive expectations confirmed—not more, not less. We used the next few days to explore the village, trying to find out which places we wanted to go to, where to eat, where to drink coffee, where to dive, and at which beach to hang out. Our landlady recommended the restaurant of Captain Miltos, run by the only real fisherman in the village and the best place to eat fresh fish. In front of the restaurant we met Captain Miltos; he parked his pick-up in front of the restaurant, with a big swordfish in the bed. Immediately you find out that this is a family business, where different family members are working with each other. The service seems to be pretty disorganized and we have to wait quite a long time before we get our fish—but the delicious food was worth every minute we had to wait.

Captain Miltos sells fish (Photot: L. Bartussek)

After trying out a few other restaurants we find ourselves at Captain Miltos’s almost every night, because the food is simply the best available in Ireon. As it is a small village of a few hundred inhabitants and the number of tourists is obvious, people recognize each other again easily. Day after day one establishes loose relationships with the people you meet again and again—at the bakery, the supermarket, the coffee place, and at Captain Miltos’s. You start to talk to each other, and if you are interested in the other people’s lives and like each other, little by little you find out more about them and the world that surrounds them. Captain Miltos’s ability to speak English is limited, but his sister Matina, who serves in the restaurant, speaks it quite well. Matina is an attractive woman of around forty-five, intelligent, warm-hearted, and communicative. Slowly we are befriending each other and she is going to be my main source of information to find out more about the “real life”of the people of Samos.

Since Ireon is such a small, unimportant village, you basically don’t find anything about it on the Internet—wow, there are still undiscovered areas on the world wide web! The only thing that is written on Wikipedia is: “Ireon is a village in Samos.” But by putting all the dots together, slowly, we are getting a clearer picture of what is going on. I get little snippets of information, from the waitress of the beach-bar, tourists who have been visiting Samos for many years, the old lady who feeds the wild turtles and who speaks perfect German. I am particularly lucky to become friends with Matina, because it will turn out that she can offer a lot of interesting insights: the story of her family and the story of the village of Ireon are basically one and the same.

Two to three hundred years ago, her family was the very first to settle down at this place as fishermen. Soon thereafter, there were five families living at this beautiful spot. Until the seventies of the 20th century, basically nothing changed, with a few disruptions due to different wars. During the Second World War her family had to flee the Nazis to Egypt and later even further, to Pakistan, returning to Ireon a few years after the war. Today migration happens exactly in the opposite direction; people are fleeing from the Middle East to Samos and Europe.

In the seventies Ireon was discovered by tourists and grew into a bigger village, providing the necessary infrastructure for sustainable tourism. The father of Captain Miltos built a restaurant where they would serve their own fish. Until the year 2000, tourism and the village grew slowly. The first big decline of tourism happened right after the implementation of the euro as the new currency, because prices jumped immediately, in comparison to the Greek drachma, and it became somewhat more expensive for tourists from other European countries. Since 2008 the economic crisis has put a heavy burden on the people of Greece—draconic tax increases and exhaustive tax controls put many families out of business; the unemployment rate increased. In Samos alone, thousands of people were forced to leave their homes, and the austerity politics dictated by the European Union (and particularly Germany) is holding the economy down, so that it has not recovered for nine years.

One waitress told us that she is living together with her parents and five siblings (half of them are grown-ups) in a tiny apartment. She said that since the crisis, one million people in Greece have committed suicide. I don’t know if this is a myth or a fact, but it is a fact that Greek people are living with this idea in their heads. One of the astonishing aspects of our contemporary capitalist system is its ability (fueled by the entertainment industry) to put the blame for systemic failure upon the people harmed by it themselves. This is where the propaganda of capitalism and esotericism go hand in hand, the idea that people are a hundred percent responsible for their own success or failure. Of course, this is not entirely wrong (otherwise it wouldn’t be so successfully implemented in the people’s brains), but radicalized as a dogma it is cynical, wrong, and puts people under enormous pressure. Think how much revolutionary power could have been assembled by one million desperate people with nothing to lose and a willingness to die! But which revolution? What to fight for? There is no utopian idea out there that would be capable of unifying these people, giving them a cause to fight for; instead there are one million different, individual stories of loneliness and despair. I think this is part of a bigger cultural crisis, which I cannot try to describe in this article.

Who do the Greek people blame for the crisis? As I observed, themselves, individually, in the first place; but in the bigger picture they are blaming their own corrupt politicians and there is growing resentment against the politics of the European Union, particularly Germany and Angela Merkel. This resentment threatens the European Union as a project of peace and cooperation as a whole. In discussions of Germany, another name comes up—the one that starts with the letter A and ends with. . . dolf. This comparison, in itself unreasonable, reflects the feelings of resentment growing within the populations not only of Greece but also of other European countries, who feel that power within the EU is too concentrated in support of Germany and its interests. This is one of the reasons for the phe- nomenon of growing nationalist populism in so many European countries.

And then in 2015 the refugee crisis began; as a result tourism declined in 2016 by sixty percent. In 2017 it is recovering slowly again, as the deal between the EU and Turkey is being implemented, whereby the EU is basically bribing Turkey with more than three billion euros not to let the refugees pass the Turkish border. In this way the unwanted refugees (in total around three million in Turkey alone!) stay where they don’t want to be and where they are equally unwanted. This is definitively not a long-term solution and as the tensions between Turkey and the EU—and foremost with Germany—are growing this deal could explode at any moment.

This would mean another huge wave of immigration to Samos, Greece, and the EU.

From the perspective of the regular people of Samos the refugee policy of the EU is difficult to understand. Matina, the sister of Captain Miltos, told us that many, especially older and poorer people, lose their homes because they can’t pay the very high property taxes. The government pushes them out of their homes, pays them ridiculously little compensation for their properties, and then puts refugees into these houses, who live there without paying any rent and receive food and health services for free. Since the EU closed its borders about a year ago, the refugees are stuck in the camps and houses provided by the Government. The little city of Samos has four thousand inhabitants and now there are three thousand refugees in addition, permanently stuck there in the process of seeking legal asylum in the EU. Because of the very poor conditions in the camps there, violent uprisings break out regularly, with refugees protesting, threatening people, and causing chaos in the middle of the small city.

I am back in Germany, and after another Internet search I discover another untold chapter of the village of Ireon on a blog by an Austrian activist—a report and photos of dozens of drowned migrant children buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery of the village. Last year they were stranded on the shore of Ireon, discovered by people of the village, and buried at the local cemetery. You might still have this famous image in your head of the little dead Syrian boy with his head in the sand facing down to the sea. If you don’t discover the cemetery by accident (I didn’t) you will find no traces of these tragedies in Ireon. All the people I talked to said that there were no refugees in Ireon, only in other places such as Vathy and Samos Town. This sort of denial is maybe a psychological way of protecting themselves. It’s certainly something that most tourists don’t want to be reminded of.

Facing all these challenges, Captain Miltos, the last fisherman of Samos, is trying to maneuver his family business through these turbulent times. Various people confirmed that Miltos really is the last fisherman on the whole island who still plies his traditional craft. This way of fishing, on a small handmade wooden boat, has been practiced in basically the same way for hundreds, even thousands of years in the Aegean Sea. There are still some fishermen catching small fish close to their particular coasts; most of them supply fish-restaurants for tourists. But Miltos is the son of Vangelis, a highly respected old fishermanwho taught his kids, Miltos and Matina, how to catch different kinds of fish, including big fish like swordfish and tuna. Matina tells us that she was on her father’s small wooden boat already as a six-year-old child, going out with him for days on end to different islands and surviving storms and waves up to six meters high (her father tied a rope around her leg, so if she went overboard he could pull her out of the sea again) As with any traditional craftsmen, the knowledge of fishing was handed over within the family over hundreds of years. Matina didn’t become a professional—the work may be too physical for a woman—and so Miltos is literally the last one on Samos who knows how to catch big swordfish, for example, or rare surmullets, lobsters, and other delicacies. He is not just fishing close to his home coast, but knows the whole Aegean Sea and knows where to find which kind of fish. For example, to catch swordfish he has to go for two to three hours to another island, setting out bait on his handcrafted fishing line, and has to stay overnight. Success requires consideration many parameters—the behavior of the sea, the place itself, even the phase of moon.

Miltos is the last one with this knowledge, and for various reasons there probably won’t be anyone else coming after him. There are simple economic reasons: the needed fuel for such a long ride is becoming more and more expensive; taxes are so high that it’s not paying off anymore (Miltos has to register every single swordfish he catches and pay tax on it); and he doesn’t have a successor to whom he can hand over his traditional knowledge. On top of all this, industrial fishing with huge driftnets and climate change are causing a dramatic decline of fish populations in the Aegean Sea. Matina, the daughter of Vangelis the fisherman, who grew up with the ocean, loving it and living with it her whole life, tells us about the dramatic changes of the sea: the sea level rise, which means that beaches are slowly getting smaller and the increasing water temperature, which has drastic effects on some fish populations. For some fish these minor changes are already threatening their existence; the warmer water also attracts some predators unknown before in Aegean waters who eat the smaller fish here; Miltos even sees the great white shark more often in the deeper waters than before. Matina believes that in ten years there won’t be any fish left to catch.

This leads me to a modern American Indian proverb, which decorated so many households in the nineties, accompanying a newly grown environmental awareness. This proverb was incredibly popular, in spite of its pessimism, which was despite its drastic imagery somehow so abstract and intangible that it made it easy to consume as a chic adornment of a typical educated middle-class household: “Only when the last tree has died, and the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realize that we cannot eat money.”


Leonhard Bartussek

Leonhard Bartussek is an Austrian cellist and composer.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2017

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