The Figs of Melos

Aug 13, 2013 | Updated Oct 13, 2013

During my July 2013 travels in Greece, I spent a few days in Melos, an island with the largest harbor in the Aegean.

I stayed in a house with several fig trees and a small garden. I ate figs in the morning and throughout the day.

A friend from Melos named Vasilis drove me all over the island. We saw the ancient Greek theater and the archaeological museum. Some of the marbles of the theater on the side of the road were sculpted like a beautiful lace.

The small museum was full of Greek art from prehistoric era to Roman times. I loved the giant vases that used to store olive oil, wine or wheat. But the masterpiece of the museum is a statue of Aphrodite. This is a copy of the famous statue stolen from Melos by the French in the nineteenth century. The goddess, shy and beautiful, is almost alive as she is trying to hold on to her robe under her waist.

Next we drove to Phylakopi, a wild landscape in the northernmost part of the island. It is a large plain on a hill overlooking the sea. The views are spectacular. One could step down to underground passages above the sea. Or walk in the plain facing the cliffs and the huge drop to the see. But this natural wonder was a defended Mycenaean polis inhabited more than three millennia ago. Spartans colonized Melos in the archaic period.

Finally, Vasilis took me through Melos' invisible economic history: the mines. We drove through a mountain converted to a vast mine wasteland. The mountain looked it had been cannibalized from within. You could see the truck roads slicing on the side of the mountain going around and around, climbing the heights of the eaten mountain. The view had its awesome quality. Here was proof of the power of man to eat nature alive.

Vasilis said about 500 local people work the mines now owned by a Greek company. The minerals of the mines include bentonite, kaolin, zeolites, barite, perlite, sulfur, silica, pozzolana, manganese ore, millstones and obsidian.

According to John Economopoulos, professor at Athens Technical University, Melos "is the greatest production and processing center for bentonite and perlite in the European union."

Vasilis works for the mines as a truck driver. He likes his work and he likes the mines.

It would be futile to ask the people of Melos if the mines pollute the environment and injure public health. They do both. But under the stress of economic decline, public health and the environment seem to become invisible.

Vasilis said he is an illiterate peasant who has been working since childhood. He often performed the stories he told me. "I remember," he said, standing up a couple of meters from me, "when god sent us plenty of rain. My fig trees gave us large figs. The land was green. The crops flourished. Now the rains come in January and February and god does not send any more water. My figs are small; the land is parched. We have few crops. In fact, in most farms, there are no crops at all. Young people don't work the land. That's why our valleys no longer give us food."

Other farmers confirmed Vasilis' complaint. One of them showed me a ditch that used to become a small river during the raining season.

"But what happened to the birds," I asked Vasilis. "I have only seen a few crows."

"Hunters and pesticides are killing them," he said.

From my guesthouse I could see the lovely valley that also included a small mountain, which used to be cultivated in ridges, one over the other. Now the valley and the mountain are brown, growing only grass for sheep.

All the people I talked to in Melos, as well as the rest of Greece, agreed the country has to return to food self-sufficiency as a starting point to tackling the broader crisis of losing their freedom. You get a whiff of the economic volcano in Greece in person-to-person discussions.

Thousands of tourists unloading from ferry boats and airplanes simply cover up the truth, which is most Greeks live on half of the income of only a few years ago. These Greeks hate their politicians whom they describe as thieves and party dogs.

The Greeks who have a job work ten hours a day, earn less per hour, and have no job security. The employer often does not even pay the worker on time. Meanwhile, the prices of food and other goods are slowly rising.

A professor said to me, "Young couples don't marry because they cannot afford to, much less can they afford to have children. This is economic genocide."