Saturday, 22 June 2013

Shells, But Not the Ones on the Beach

In response to the frequent requests I get, especially when on my excursions, about why one sees so many concrete shells of future houses dotted about in Greece, here is my explanation as to the three reasons why someone may be building a house which appears to the observer never to be progressing to a finish.

Many visitors to Greece think, rather understandably, that the reason one sees so many of these unfinished homes is purely due to property speculation. Perhaps the developer is just trying to find a buyer in order to finance the completion of the project. It is rather sad that these concrete shells do look rather unsightly, but two of the three reasons for this are really rather good.

Firstly, it was true that over a number of decades that the wily Greeks would leave those rather ugly "re-bars" protruding out of the flat roofs of their properties in an attempt to avoid paying the tax that was due on completion of the property. It is my understanding, however, that this loophole was closed a while back, though quite how I don't know. But why the concrete shells everywhere?

OK, here's reason number 1:
In Greece, although this practice is dying out in the more urban areas, the culture has been for ages past that parents who conceive a daughter will provide her and her eventual husband with a home to live in as a wedding present when their daughter finally gets married. The practical upshot of this cultural "more" (what are "mores?" see here) in this twenty-first century is that the parents will build the foundation of a home when their daughter is still very little. Not ones to borrow from banks, which are institutions that your average rural Greek still maintains a healthy mistrust of (with good reason it transpires!), the parents much prefer to find the cash for each stage of the build rather than resort to going into debt for the project. Perhaps when their daughter turns twelve (no exact age, just an example) they may proceed to "concrete shell" stage. Perhaps five years later they'll have saved up the cash to have the walls bricked in with the window and door apertures gaping empty, awaiting the eventual fitting of such.

When their little girl is finally engaged and the wedding date fixed (often a very long time in advance) they'll have saved up enough to complete the property and thus will do so, just in time to hand the key over to their daughter and newly-acquired son-in-law on completion of the wedding vows.

I rather admire this tradition, which means that many a young couple can make a start in life without the huge burden of a property mortgage hanging over them for the first two or three decades of their life together. The only down side is that this way of life produces quite a fair percentage of those empty shells that one sees dotted about here in Greece.

Reason number 2:
In Greece life was extremely hard following the 2nd World war, the situation having been exacerbated of course by a bloody and ruthless civil war which wrought misery and starvation all across the country. For this reason millions of Greeks left their "patrida" or homeland and started life in various cities all around the globe, where they established businesses and began to acquire a degree of financial security. The only problem was that they weren't living in their motherland and always entertained thoughts of coming back to live in their family's home village or town once they'd reached retirement age. Throughout the years of exile, though, many Greeks - from Vancouver to Sydney, from London to San Francisco - would send cash home for their family to both survive by and also to build a home for their distant (geographically speaking) relatives to retire to. This is still going on and I know of some people locally who've only in the past year or two come back from the USA or Canada to live in local villages here on Rhodes, having finished their years of working life and finally been able to come back to their home soil, where they so yearned to live out their final years and where they so desired to have their bones buried once they finally died.

All through the years, though, that these people had been living thousands of miles away, their relatives back home in Greece would have been using some of the money that they'd sent back to construct their retirement home, in readiness for their eventual return. This is often why you'll see a property where the upper floor is lived in, but the downstairs is a concrete shell, where you may see winter wood piled up, or makeshift washing lines stretched across or perhaps even building materials stockpiled. The upstairs apartment may be lived in by a nephew, a niece or even son or daughter and their children. The downstairs will be home to uncle and aunt, or mum and dad when they eventually reach the time when they can afford to come home. Maybe it's the other way around and it's the upstairs that's a shell and the downstairs that's lived in. No matter, the story is often the same.

In these days of desperate times for many Greeks, once again there is an exodus of younger people as they seek gainful employment in other parts of the earth, having given up on being able to procure a decent job here in Greece under the current high-unemployment situation and been forced to look beyond the boundaries of their homeland for perhaps a few decades of their working lives. No doubt many more concrete shells will be appearing in the years to come as these migrants make arrangements for their eventual hoped-for return to their beloved Greece.

And so to reason number 3:
Property speculation. It is true that during the "noughties" (2000-2008) there was a temporary boom in properties being sold to people from overseas (notably the UK and Germany) which led to many who weren't actually professional builders deciding to try and turn a profit from a piece of land that they'd decided was of no use to them or their next of kin. Why not throw up a concrete shell, advertise it through a property agency and make a killing as some hopeful couple from Northern climes forks out for a place in the sun so that they can come out here and live the dream. Not a lot wrong with that, let's be fair. The only problem was that when the financial crash came in 2008, there were thousands of these private speculators left with half-built houses that suddenly became unsaleable owing to the bottom having fallen out of this particular market. A certain percentage, then, of the concrete shells which one sees will fall into this category.

Putting all the above into perspective then, I rather admire a culture where they look after their young ones and try to give them a good start in life and where they do their best to help their older ones who've sacrificed decades of their lives living on the other side of the world so that they can hopefully come back to the place of their birthright for their twilight years.

Next time you find yourself staring at a concrete shell, remember, it may not look too pretty, but it might just be what a young bride and her groom will need some day in the future, or the place that some retiring couple will be coming home to, something for which they've longed for thirty or forty years, maybe more.

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