Words: MARIA LOUKA Photos: ALEXANDER KATSIS
The city is a discourse, a constant conversation with its inhabitants. It is also a text in which the user also acts as a reader, as Roland Barthes puts it. The city of Piraeus is a bustling narrative, written in dense pages. Greece’s biggest port as well as one of the biggest in Europe, incorporates a fascinating history that is fully interwoven with the formation of the Greek state. A symbol of Greek tourism, with millions of visitors from all corners of the world getting on and off board its ships, and a steam-engine of the growth of the Greek economy, acting as a crucial centre for commerce, shipbuilding and repair, as well as the fishing industry, but also a venue of historical memory and culture, this port, to which many songs have been dedicated, stands now less proud than ever, under the heavy shadow of six years of recession and the anxiety caused by the prospect of privatization.
‘You can do everything in Piraeus except one… to act tough’, writes Dionysis Charitopoulos, a well known Greek writer, in his mostly autobiographical book Born in Piraeus. Dionysis Charitopoulos was born in Piraeus in 1947 and has walked its fascinating yet tough streets for much of his life. With this book, he pulls aside the curtain of memory and takes us, using the gaze of an eight yearold boy, to parts of the port that have been destroyed by contemporary gentrification processes. The port of Piraeus, which before 1830 was a muddy natural anchorage, started growing many years later, when refugees, both from inside and outside Greece, found in this desolate spot a place to rest and work. The neighborhoods of Piraeus were populated mainly by working class families that developed an architecture of poverty and a severe code of honor that often bordered on delinquency. The sea could always bring vagabonds and racketeers and even respectful family men had a gun under the pillow at nights.
It was there that the first clubs offering urban folk music were opened and which gained Tennessee Williams’ admiration, and it was there that you could find the ‘neighborhood of love’, the famous Truba, with its whorehouses and cabarets that were waiting for the sailors of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet. Today, you can find nothing of it. The sheds have been demolished by the bulldozers of ‘development’ and whorehouses have been replaced by the offices of shipping corporations.
“The Piraeus that I lived is impossible to exist today. In a certain sense, this is welcome, because these were really hard times for people. There was a lot of poverty. Taking the law into your hands was considered natural and people did not go to court to settle their differences. They would settle them by themselves. It was a matter of personal honor and dignity”, Dionysis Haritopoulos tells us. Although he travelled a lot and escaped the destiny of misery, he never forgets his first steps doing manual labor at the Port. “If I had not lived the street, my life would have been deficient. I am saying it without any hesitation. It is a big school and it is difficult to escape it”, he adds.
Currently, the only thing surviving from the Piraeus of the past is poverty. Hard austerity and unemployment have led to thousands of families to the threshold of extreme poverty and social exclusion. In Drapetsona, under the historic clock of Melina Merkouri with the distinct melody from Manos Hatzidakis’s Oscar-award winning song ‘Never on Sunday’, there is a shanty village of 29 containers. It was constructed in 1999 to help some of the victims of the earthquake. Now it is the refuge of the victims of the crisis. Its new inhabitants are the unemployed that have lost their jobs and their ability to maintain a decent standard of living. Like Savvas who at 50 is unemployed. He worked at the shipyards and he remembers with sadness the glorious days of the Piraeus shipbuilding and repair industry, when there was always work and they earned good wages. However, the crisis and a series of corruption scandals led to the decline of the shipyards. Savvas could no longer pay the rent and became homeless. “For two months I was sleeping on a bridge. Then I came here.” Most of the people in the containers are fed by the soup kitchens organized by the Church. He refuses. “I do not go to the Church for food. I might have nothing, but I’ve still got my pride.” He shows me the port with its unending movement of merchandises and goods. “So many tons of food circulating so near you and you spend entire days without any food at all,” he confesses with the disarmingly hard irony of the man who has lost everything.
Indeed this is the reality. In Piraeus there is the 11 Fish Wharfs of the country, where every day there are 12000 trunks of fish. Not exactly every day: life at the Fish Warf takes place at night, from midnight to 6 am. It seems like a small independent city, with its own rhythms, where six nights a week a disparate multitude of buyers, sellers and workers engage in noisy bargaining, selling and delivering fish, supplying in fact the entire metropolitan area of Athens. Here, fishermen come with their fishing boats to sell their catch. I followed one of them in his blue itinerary that starts from the small port of Pahi and ends after many sea waves and lots of salty water at the Fish Wharf. Chronis, 54, has already been working like this for thirty years. He has on his fishing boat two Egyptian workers. They throw their fishnets and every time they pull them back, they choose what fish are saleable and put them in the crates and then in the refrigerators. Sunrise at sea is the most mesmerizing hour, a unique experience that makes you forget all the roughness of the water. We were looking as if stunned at the dozens of seabirds that were gathering around us when I asked him for how long we were going to stay at sea.
“Bored already?” he asked me jokingly. “Look here it is difficult to earn a day’s wage. If there are fish, we stay as long as it takes. There have been times that I have stayed out even for 48 hours. However, you should know that the best catch is after a full moon,” he explains. It was there that I ate the freshest shrimps of my life. Around noon, they made a break for lunch and grilled the shrimps they had just taken from the fishing net and we ate all together. Chronis has two small children, a six yearold boy and a younger little girl. “I do not want my children to do the same work as me. I want them to have an education. However, I am worried for them and for me. People have no money anymore. Business is down by 40% and shop-owners prefer cheaper fish (bogues, sardines, sand melts etc)” he tells me.
Lately the people working at the Fish Wharf, the dockworkers at the port of Piraeus and local society in general are upset. The prospect of the privatization of the port creates insecurity for the future. The bidding process for the sale of 51% of the port (with an option for an extra 16%) is underway and already three corporations, the Chinese Cosco, the Danish APM Terminals and Filipino International Container Terminal have expressed their interest. The port of Piraeus is one of the most profitable Greek companies and is competitive even amidst the crisis. During the first semester of 2015 it had a 130% increase in revenue, reaching a profit of 7.6 million euros. Dockworkers are protesting because the government has defaulted on its pre-election pledge and has announced that it plans to proceed with the sale, since this is part of the agreement it reached with Greece’s creditors in the summer. For this reason, they have had a big strike on October 22 and have warned that they will escalate their mobilization. Giorgos Gosos is one of them. Having worked for 10 years in the Port he knows every inch of it. “The intended sale of the Port will be a disaster. The whole process is evolving behind closed doors and without any guarantee for our labour rights. We’ve already had the negative experience of Cosco that is active on Piers 2 and 3. There is no collective contract and they are not paid for work on weekends and night-shifts as it is obligatory by the law. There is the danger that large areas will change use because they will be judged as unprofitable by the new owner who might choose to build a shopping Mall or a casino instead. Moreover, the State will lose control of coastal shipping which is a crucial part of national strategy.” he insists.
Apart from that, life in the port goes on with its contradictions, routines and the always present imprint of its past. Goods are being unloaded from the ships, trucks, travelers and recently refugees, in yet another stop on their travel to the west, in an impressive amalgam of sounds, smells and feelings.