‘No weddings or births on this island’

Life changes abruptly when the spotlight of tourism dims and life returns to a slower pace on the small islands, those little dots on the map of Greece. The islanders are often cut off when bad weather prevents the ship from docking. In summer and winter, water shortages are an ongoing problem, while adequate supplies of food and medicine are never certain. Islands which are developing at a slower rate than the rest of the country need state support to survive, maintain and increase their population and communicate unimpeded with the rest of the country. Local authorities and residents of six small islands (Sikinos, Pserimos, Leipsoi, Tilos, Gavdos and Aghios Efstratios) spoke to Kathimerini about the difficulties they face, suggesting specific measures that would give their islands some impetus. LEIPSOI: Mayor Spyros Benetos wants the transportation problem solved by combining various means of transport to give the 700 residents of this small island near Patmos readier access to metropolitan areas. This would liberate the potential of the Aegean, he believes. He is concerned about the transitional period until cabotage, the ban on foreign shipping, is lifted: Almost nothing has been foreseen or planned. Last winter we were cut off for a long time. One ship from Piraeus and one small ferry, the Kalymnos, are not sufficient to meet our needs. The hydrofoils disappear by the end of October and the catamaran, which is expensive to run, won’t call in here till after March. We need different kinds of boats adapted to the peculiarities of our ports. Benetos suggests helicopters should be used more, and not only for ferrying patients. TILOS: Tassos Alifieris went to Tilos for the first time 18 years ago as a doctor. He ended up staying on the island and now, as mayor, is trying to do something about the problem of isolation and promote the unexploited charms of Tilos. Ships need infrastructure. The local administration has to cooperate with other municipalities to help solve the transport problem, The Southern Aegean Regional Operational program has approved funding for infrastructure projects on small islands, explains Alifieris. There is also a chronic problem with medical care. A year ago the clinics of 25 islands were supposedly classified as multi-clinics, but the ministerial decisions haven’t even been published. What motivation does a doctor have to go to a deserted rural clinic? asks Alifieris. For the time being, the municipal authority is trying to exploit the potential of tele-medicine, which is being used in the field of cardiology. One of its most ambitious goals is to increase the population from around 700 to 1,000. GAVDOS: Gavdos, off the southern coast of Crete, has 40 inhabitants and in the past few summers has attracted hundreds of young vacationers. But it is at the mercy of the waves, says community president Theofilos Kirintanis: Loneliness, a hard life, water shortages, and funds that cannot be absorbed because of deficient transport make up the scenario on our island, he says. On Gavdos there is a small electricity station serving two settlements. A ferryboat connects the island with Crete twice a week, weather permitting. The school has one teacher and two pupils, while the fully-equipped health center has two doctors. If the transport problem is not solved, I’m afraid that Gavdos will be unpopulated in 10 years time, says Kirintanis. SIKINOS: For the past five years there have been only 220 residents. Our population has decreased rapidly, says Sikinos community chairman Giorgos Manalis. For the past eight years we haven’t had any weddings or births. There are 12 teachers at the school and 12 pupils. It is as if they are getting private tuition. Inadequate transportation is another drawback. The ferryboat that links Sikinos with Syros, the capital of the Cyclades prefecture, sails only twice a week. But ships are often forbidden to sail in winter, due to rough weather, and Sikinos often runs out of supplies. PSERIMOS: There are no more than 30 permanent inhabitants on this island, which is deluged by Greek and foreign visitors in summer, but suffers drastic shortages every winter. When it doesn’t rain, we have no water and we get brackish water from a well. The little port is in bad condition; they haven’t built us a pier, complains Pserimos resident Fotini Trikili. The island’s sole teacher, 34-year-old Giorgos Kotronis from Drama, has been working at Pserimos’s school for three years. He feels he is part of the island and says he has cordial relations with the locals. Although I adapted quickly, sometimes the absolute quiet and monotony bother me. I pass the time with reading, music and athletic training. Otherwise the only entertainment is during traditional celebrations at cafes with a violin and lute. AGHIOS EFSTRATIOS: This lovely island in the northeastern Aegean with its superb beaches attracts visitors in summer but is another victim of inadequate transport. There is a local connection between the island and Lemnos, but it isn’t enough, says community chairman Haralambos Makris. The main problem is the lack of sufficient connections with Kavala and Rafina. Our port facilities are not even rudimentary, adds Makris, who places his trust in the projects included in the European Union’s third Community Support Framework. The various problems of these six islands reflect the general problem of isolation that many Greek islands face every winter. Substantive decisions by the State and local authorities are clearly required to meet the needs of the local residents of this other Greece. The couple and their rocky islet When the sun rises over the islet of Platy, off the coast of Pserimos, Michalis Lambropoulos and Antonella Rossi greet another peaceful day. We are not alone; we’re free, they told Kathimerini, and they seem to mean what they say. This unconventional couple have turned their backs on city life to create their own world. They have everything and nothing. They feel self-sufficient despite the shortages. Their days are spent near the salt spray of the sea, and they enjoy every minute of the day in the stone mansion they managed to build after surmounting many bureaucratic obstacles. They have water but not electricity, use gas lamps and torches for lighting and they have a small generator. Rossi graduated in economics from the University of Parma, and taught Italian at a school in Switzerland. She came to Greece as a tourist 10 years ago. Lambropoulos is a former sailor from Pirgos, Ilias, who later taught water sports on Pserimos, where the two met and fell in love. They got married in 1999. They don’t get bored. I’ve planted carob and fig trees, and I grow organic vegetables in the garden. I go fishing and collect butterflies and shells which I give to Antonella. We don’t need a doctor. We’ve become immune by living here, says he with a smile. Rossi, who spends her time reading and making wooden frames, doesn’t conceal the fact that she spent endless nights of fear and loneliness at the beginning when her companion went to Athens on business. Now they are always together and play backgammon for entertainment. They wouldn’t dream of returning to their earlier lifestyle.

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