Ikaria: you have it all – don’t lose it all

Ikaria: you have it all – don’t lose it all

Ikaria: you have it all – don’t lose it all

It‘s end of summer and people are getting ready to leave the island again. Last orders for local products are made, farewell drinks are organized and the last Ikariotiko is an endless line of steps, round movements and deep feelings. And then people line up in the harbors of Evdilos and Agios Kirykos; the boats are coming, taking in lorries, cars, luggage, packages, people, tourists – and the youth of Ikaria. There they go, moving up the pier, pushing and squeezing their backpacks and bikes through the crowd, their suntanned skin shimmering gold in the evening sun, their wild dark curls still smelling of sea water … the leftover of their last swim in Nas. And they not only take back honey and cheese from the island with them, but also the Ikarian DNA, the heritage that is engraved into their bones.

I am watching the mothers and fathers standing behind the barrier, how they wave and shout well-intentioned advice for their kids, which they‘re already no longer listening to, because the earplugs are already stuck back into their ears and their eyes are glued on their phones.

And being a mother myself, I can understand this sad feeling, this moment, when you understand that you finally have to let your children go; they are no longer under your wings, but they are walking their own path… and as many other mothers in the harbor I am whispering: „Kalo taxidi. Safe travels. May you always be healthy, may you always be happy» …. And silently, speaking to myself, I add: “Please come back soon, because Ikaria badly needs you.“

This might raise a question mark for you, and you might want a discussion as to why I’m saying things like this. In your opinion, the summer had been perfect: tourism booming, bills can be paid, happy tourists, the hospital was somehow operational as well as the bus services – so no need to complain, so why should we have negative thoughts? „Is this your typical German attitude, pointing to negative things, instead of just enjoying the sun and positive moments? “you may ask me. Of course I don’t want to be called a typical German « Spassbremse » (meaning a person who’s always negative, while others are just having fun), but having been on Ikaria for some time made me think, when I see so many youngsters leaving the island … not only after the summer break, but also after having finished high school on Ikaria, now heading to different destinations for different experiences, while a definitive return to Ikaria is not even on their agenda yet.

Over the years, I have followed a number of those youngsters. I have seen them grow up, watched them march in the parades in March and October with bright eyes, big smiles … the hope for a happy future was all alround them. I have read the nice wishes for a happy and prosperous future published by the school directors and the mayor, when the elders passed their final exams … and I‘m always asking myself: « And what should we do to make them come back and be willing to build their own future here, on this rocky island? »
I have no answers yet, but when I take a deeper look into Ikaria – the Ikaria outside Nas, Armenistis and Mesakti Beach during the high summer season – I do recognize that this island, the island I like so much, is facing problems which need a solution. Not a quick fix, but a long-term solution that ensures a good future for the Ikarians on this rock.

O.k., o.k – no worries., It’s not all doom and gloom and I’ve got no intention of waving my index finger admonishingly, but I’d love to sit down with you over a coffee to share some thoughts about the future of Ikaria. This may go a long way and perhaps we’ll need to order more coffee and you will smoke a lot of cigarettes. But perhaps we can already agree at the very beginning, that there are many problems and they’re getting worse in these times of war, climate change, energy transition, high energy prices, permanent economical and financial crisis. We may also agree that solutions are necessary, not only those ones that are valuable at our coffee table, but those which will lead to actions and results. We may also agree that things are already happening, results are seen.
And here is my thesis: to solve the problems mentioned, the Ikarian youth is badly needed. I don’t know if this argument is really valid here on this island, but I only know that this option is already discussed in many other remote places. Ikaria is facing similar problems as other islands or villages on the mainland – not only in Greece, but all over the world.

In those villages that are suffering from demographic change, brain drain, low income, difficult educational and health systems, the question is in the air: why should the youngsters come back? Why should they go back to their homeland, now that they have gathered qualifications, knowledge and may have a perspective for better paid jobs elsewhere? Why come back, when they have finally managed to leave this small island, where – despite the beautiful nature and a quiet life – they might have felt deprived from many other possibilities? Yes of course: Ikaria is their homeland … and? They are now letting the COVID-pandemic behind them, cold winters, low income, perhaps boredom in winter and no perspective for a job that would offer a decent salary during the whole year. A different life is waiting for them! So why should they come back to stay? To continue the life their parents are living? Of course, the island will offer them family ties, beautiful nature, the sea, the dances, the hidden places in the mountains, the family feasts, the panagyria, beautiful summers … but will that be enough?

(c) Radio Ikaria

In our discussion I will talk about remote places, where the population is over-ageing (yes, I know: the Ikarian phenomenon is called longevity!… but this also means: the average age of the population is too high), new ideas to attract young people have to come up.
On that background it might be a good starting point to focus on the young Ikarians. Those whom I know, and who made it back to the island (see the various stories about them here on my blog), had some kind of business idea and they’re dedicated to make it happen. But not everybody can open a shop selling local products or set up a brewery… and another coffee shop, restaurant, souvlaki place or yoga-retreat might not be an option for everybody, either.

And let’s look around. Not only in Ikaria, but also in other places, new dynamics are coming up … they’re growing at different speeds and around different ideas, but very often they have one thing in common: people – no matter their age or their socio-economic background – are questioning the current way of living. Change is in the air and even though the current decision makers – who in many cases are responsible for the situation we are in today – sooner or later will have to acknowledge that their time is coming to an end. So, it’s high time to invite the youngsters to the decision making tables, it’s high time to train them so that they can take over responsibility and are prepared for positions of leadership in the future.

Therefore, I’m urging you as we sit at our coffee table: send the young Ikarians out to the world …. And prepare the road so that they can come back.
While waving them good-bye in the harbor, please shout out loud to them: “Travel the world (even with little money), be open-minded, get to know new people, get to know foreigners, embrace new cultures, different thinking, all kinds of art and science, discover new ways of life. Broaden your mind. Deepen your creativity. Put your phone down and talk and listen to the people. Watch the world, observe nature – the real one, not via Instagram, Tik Tok or Facebook. Learn how to lead a good discussion. Learn how to love. Learn how to use your brain, so you can form your own opinion and don’t just repeat what others are saying. Discover what you really want in life. Dig deeper into knowledge, so that you “know” what you are talking about. Learn how to follow a goal, how to bring together like-minded people, how to build a bridge between different interests, different cultures. Learn to stand on your own two feet – be independent from others, your parents, your family. Learn how to overcome obstacles, reach for the stars. … And bring this knowledge back to Ikaria, so that we can learn from you.”

Perhaps, with these wishes, the young Ikarians may travel with a heavy burden, because the hopes are now on them that they can fix the world … or at least Ikaria …, but I hope that it’s a challenge that will make them grow. A challenge that encourages them to be curious, to experiment with different subjects. If they have a chance to go to university, perhaps they may dare to select topics that will not only be just a door opener for a safe job in the administration, but that they’ll choose subjects that will help them to have a future on Ikaria, too. And if the youngsters don’t make it to university, perhaps they’ll have a chance to get qualifications beyond becoming waiters in coffee shops.

A diverse transition process is happening on Ikaria – may it be in terms of energy production or in terms of economy and societal changes  – and it would be good if the young Ikarians could be part of it, if they could become the movers and shakers. This process needs a lot of fresh ideas and a sound knowledge in various areas, above all in modern technologies, but also in mediation, social care, education, services and culture.

The new energy efficient homes that will be built on Ikaria one day, too, require architects, who do not only know how to work with materials in short supply, but who’ll also have the intelligence and the courage to combine traditional Ikarian house building with the needs of a modern society.
The new energy sources, if managed on a local level, will need a lot of engineers, who know how to handle all the “smart and innovative devices”. Knowledge in regional planning, coordination of the different energy sources available on the island is needed to make the energy transition a success story. Qualified craftsmen- and women are a necessity to install and maintain all the new power stations, such as photovoltaic, bio-gas installation etc. Innovation will happen in the field of transport – e-mobility is knocking at the door and with it, qualified services in maintaining and fixing e-cars, e-bikes have to be ensured.
The digitalization goes along with these developments, but as it will also happen in the educational and health system, as well as in many other sectors, people who can program it, use it and teach it are needed.

So, it looks like that there are many tasks and the field of possible future jobs on this rocky island is wide … if handled wisely and if the young Ikarians – boys and girls – are ready to accept the challenge. It would mean a marathon for them in learning, in being courageous, in being persistent. But I am confident that they will manage it: they are Greeks, and a marathon has its roots in Greece, so what more can you ask for?

And the reward will be big. With their new knowledge and experiences AND their Ikarian DNA that gives them the knowledge about the fragile nature on the island, its traditions, the societal challenges, the young Ikarians might have a chance to become the game-changers the island so desperately needs (you see, I am optimistic). Because? Because I do believe that the next generation will be bold enough to do a massive step forward on the path to the future.They are more playful and more daring than our generation ever had a chance to be. You can already observe various results of this development on Ikaria, where the youngsters are happy to combine the traditions of the island with their newly gained knowledge. And they have a goal: to make a sustainable and environmentally friendly development happen, based on the respect for the cultural and natural heritage available. They are trying to do it in a slow way – not typical Ikarian way – but following a pattern that is adapted to the circumstances. New things are happening, different groups are integrating.

But what must be done on the island so that the youngsters feel welcome and would like to stay? Like in all remote places that are facing the same situation of brain drain and demographic change, the choices are simple: you must embrace change and make it happen your way!
Doing nothing is not an option, neither trying to continue with the thinking “we have always done it like this”. Because change is happening anyway.  And in many cases, we don’t have to be afraid of it. It’s a matter of mind-set: is the change a chance or a problem? On Ikaria it might be a chance, even though it might be one of the biggest challenges. To welcome the youngsters back on the island and to motivate them to participate in the transition processes, they need a place to be heard. Patience is needed to understand their ideas, perhaps sometimes grounding, too. But arguments like “this will not work” and “you have to understand, this is Ikaria and this is different than in other places” will kill every fruitful discussion immediately, and the youngsters might be ready to leave, heading to other places, where it might be easier to put a foot on the ground. Therefore, those taking part in the discussions should think twice, before putting such arguments on the table.

I am not saying that it will be easy. It will be difficult, it will be tough, it will be new, it will need guts and it will need creativity – but in the end, there will be no other option: the different generations and groups have to sit down and find a solution for how to design their common future on this island. How to face climate change, hotter summers, colder winters, less children, more elderly people to look after, water shortage, overgrazing from free running goats? How to improve the educational and health system? How to improve the infrastructure? How to ensure sustainable tourism? How to develop a cultural life on this island? And where should all the money come from to make not only the plans happen, but also to finance the income for all the people needed?

The way I see it: Among others, Ikaria has one good option available: their youth, the future generation. They are the entrance ticket to the future of this island. You may call me naïve, stupid … name it. But I am not a dreamer. The question of how remote places can be revitalized and what must happen so that qualified people stay in these dying places, worries me a lot. So, observing the situation on Ikaria is not only giving me a lot of food for thought, but it is also leading me back to the same answer: we must embrace change … and everywhere we must take good care of our youth, our future generation. We have to offer them choices, they must be heard. They should not be ignored, and their knowledge should be acknowledged and used. They must participate in society.

So, thank you for your time. Thanks for listening to my weird theories. Don’t forget your cigarettes.  The coffees are on me… until we meet again.

(@ Birgit_Urban)