Troubles in the Tourist Paradise of Kerkyra (Corfu)

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Trash near the small village Temploni in the middle of Kerkyra. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

Kerkyra was the daughter of the River Asopos. Poseidon fell in love with her. He took her to the northernmost of the islands in the Ionian Sea, which took her name. Nymph Kerkyra gave birth to Phaiax who, in his turn, became the founding father of the Phaiakians.

Homer reports Odysseus shipwrecked in the land of Phaiakians. Princess Nausikaa sent the starving Odysseus to her father king Alkinous and her mother queen Arete who embraced him like a son. Odysseus learned the Phaiakians had special favors from the gods. They had no enemies or wars. Their ships moved on their own, reading the mind of their human masters. The Phaiakians honored Odysseus with feasts and athletic contests and, finally, took him home to Ithaca.

In May 2017, I spent a few days in the modern land of Phaiakians, Kerkyra: also known as Corfu.

Like Odysseus, I was fortunate because my friend, Stavros Kervounes, was as hospitable as Alkinous. Stavros used to work for the European Commission. He is now a successful businessman and a politician. While walking with him in Kerkyra’s beautiful food market, Stavros would hug and kiss all his friends.

Stavros is an adviser to Vassilis Leventis, chairman of the Centrist Greek party. Leventis was also visiting Kerkyra for the 153rd anniversary celebration honoring the union of the Ionian Islands to Greece. Stavros was coordinating the visit of Leventis, which gave me a chance to see the real political Kerkyra.

The first thing Stavros did was to drop me off to downtown Kerkyra city where, for several hours, I walked the narrow carless streets decorated by countless boutiques and as many attractive coffee shops. After I had my fill of tourists and shops, I visited the Museum of Asian Art in a large building with Greek columns. Then I spent lots of time in the Greek museums documenting the history of Kerkyra.

You leave these museums with a sense of satisfaction. Having seeing the past, you see the present: endless coffee houses entertaining hundreds of tourists and locals. But in the back of your mind, you wonder how Kerkyra and other islands made it to our times. Defenseless and open to all kinds of marauding barbarians from East and West, they paid a horrendous price for their liberty. It’s possible you may also conclude, from the large number of foreigners all over Kerkyra, that Kerkyra lives or dies on tourism.

Stavros drove me all over Kerkyra. I had the feeling I crossed the mythical land of the Phaiakians – the Homeric hospitality of Alkinous, Arete, Nausikaa was all over the kindness of Stavros and his friends. I recognized Phaiakia in the lush countryside of Kerkyra. The villages brought me back to the memories of my childhood: the garden of Alkinous with its endless fruits and vegetable, the small but beautiful homes hidden in the olive groves, the wild flowers, the quiet of the natural world, the songs of birds, the lonely cats, the barking dogs, and the donkeys, horses, and mules, and the loud but thrilling singing of cocks: except mules, donkeys and horses have largely become extinct in Kerkyra and Greece.

There’s something unsettling in the quiet and beauty of the natural world of Kerkyra, especially in the villages. Most of the olive trees are not cultivated. The olives, full of precious oil, drop and fertilize the land. The peasants (now tourist workers) of Kerkyra pay no attention to their olive oil gold because, mistakenly, they have convinced themselves tourism is the answer.

Which means they have abandoned their land – a highway to the alien world of foreign music, blue jeans with fake holes, and other problematic aspects of non-Greek cultures.

This creates alienation and loss of self-esteem, which make it difficult to return to self-reliance and creativity. Foreigners, who probably have rudimentary knowledge of ancient Greek history, must wonder why modern Greeks are trapped by tourism. What happened to their great traditions in the arts, sciences and technology?

For example, Kerkyra in the fifth century BCE was a formidable sea power.

But in 2017, the other trouble afflicting the citizens of Kerkyra is how to handle their excessive trash.

The epicenter of this crisis is the small village of Temploni in the middle of the island. Stavros drove me to that village where, in a quiet but rebellious house we listened to the anguish voices of protest. Leventis, his assistants, and villagers filled the meeting room. The air was thick with resentment. It was all about resisting a garbage invasion.

The leader of resistance to urban wastes in Temploni is Margo Papanikolopoulou. This is a courageous and tireless woman. She talked to us standing upright behind her desk. She could barely hide her anger, blasting the incompetence and corruption of the political leadership of Kerkyra responsible for the unacceptable dumping of huge amounts of largely plastic wastes not far from Temploni. She said three lakes near the trash are dead. She also said several people in Temploni suffer from cancer; others have died from the disease.

“Pollution has become a way of life for Kerkyra. The European Commission has taken Greece to court. But the shameless politicians keep sending more trash to our neighborhood,” she said. Another angry villager, a man, threatened he might shoot some of those politicians.

After this somber meeting, we drove to the scene of the crime. I was stunned, for a moment thinking this could not be true or in Kerkyra. The old gods and Phaiakians must have run away from this hideous view of, literally, mountains of plastic and other garbage. Sea birds were floating over the wastes. I silently sobbed for the decay in front of me.

Kerkyra, of course, could remedy its trash problem. Follow EU solid waste regulations. Buried trash should cause no environmental or human health effect. Polluters should pay. Recycle wastes. End the contamination of drinking water so plastic water bottles disappear. Ban plastic stuff.