In 2007 I left Crete to study at McGill University and worked in Montreal for four years. Though there were much better career opportunities for me in Canada, where my mother grew up, my heart and soul were back in Greece. In 2011 I returned to Crete to work in the family business, run by my father.
While so many businesses have closed down under austerity, we have been able to manage as a result of our reliance on exports as well as our success at differentiating our products in the extremely competitive olive oil market. Our company specializes in organic stone-milled cold-pressed olive oil, a method of production that has mostly been abandoned as slow, labour-intensive and inefficient. But our modernized version of cold pressing produces olive oil that is higher-quality and more nutritious than mainstream industrial olive oils.
Given the very high unemployment rates for young adults and especially women, I am among the fortunate few. Most of my friends and even my brother have chosen to work outside Greece, and the ones able to remain often need to work at two or three jobs to cover their rent and family expenses. Or they face the kind of conditions endured by my friend, who works alone at a minimarket / coffee shop 12 hours straight with rarely a day off and gets paid €3 an hour. At least she gets paid – in many cases people continue working for months without pay because their companies can’t afford to pay them.
And work doesn’t end at the end of the working day. There is always extra work to be done back home to help with living expenses. Most young adults don’t leave their parents’ house, using any income they can earn to help their families. Since wages are so low, Greeks have been changing their way of life to become more self-sustaining: most have replaced their electric heaters with wood stoves (using wood they have gathered themselves); more people are turning to fishing and foraging for food (wild greens, mushrooms, snails); more people live from their own gardens and animals. Yet we are the lucky ones. From what I have read and heard, in Athens and other big cities, where people are less able to rely on nature and community ties, the situation is much worse.
All over, businesses are still closing down every day and those that have managed to survive haven’t the cash flow to be able to invest in their development. Others are shutting down simply because there is no younger generation to take over, as most educated, business-oriented young adults have fled to countries with much better living standards and career opportunities. Young minds and innovative ideas are what our economy needs if it is to progress, but such people typically either leave to get a better education somewhere else (and end up staying there) or give up altogether on education. Why shouldn’t they when they see holders of PhDs and master’s degrees driving cabs and cleaning sidewalks?
Everybody knows that there were many things that were done wrong, especially in the past two generations: political corruption, tax evasion, government incompetence. Yet we also know that suffocating an economy is not the cure. The way I think of it, it is like having an olive grove that has been left for more than 50 years to grow wild with weeds, pests and branches, and then you are expected to produce 10 tonnes of olive oil from it in one year. If you spray a bunch of pesticides and cut the trees by their trunks you will “clean up” the field, but the trees will not bear fruit for years.
Greece, we know all too well, is far from being a clean and productive grove. But what it needs is careful pruning, weeding and trimming in a way that still allows its economy to bear what fruit it can as the cleaning takes place.