Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme
Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme

Investing in the Local Community on a Remote Island while Building European Links

Tandem Europe participant Stella Spanou sits with Maria Chatzopoulou from our partner organisation COMM'ON to answer our questions about the recent Tandem Europe Interim Meeting that took place on the remote Greek island Agios Efstratios, eager to promote its cultural and natural heritage, to build new cross-border relations and alternative tourism.

How did you experience bringing a group of cultural managers from all over Europe to Ai Stratis? Both as an organiser and as a local and participant?

Stella: This has been a whole new experience both for myself and for the community of Ai Stratis. I must say that it has been quite a challenge trying to introduce a novelty to a remote community. Working as a team with other members of the municipality as well as other local residents, with the head teacher of the school, with the school children, and of course with COMM’ON team was crucial. All this effort and hard work concluded into a successful meeting.
The Tandem Europe experience has been a starting point for our municipality’s long-term plan and vision to open our island’s borders, to attract alternative tourism, to open our minds to different cultures and new ideas, to revitalise our community.

Maria: In COMM’ON, as an organisation that works at a European level, we always wanted to bring a meeting like this to a rural area of Greece. This small remote island was the perfect fit, it represents what Tandem Europe is all about! Find creative ways to collaborate with people, discover together new ideas and ways of being together; understand that in our “system” you go further when you act along with others, you overcome difficulties with creative solutions and you must always be open to the possibility that something might not work; yet, we are always in this together!
We worked closely with the Municipality of Agios Eustratios (or Ai Stratis as we call it here in Greece) and the community to understand and overcome practical barriers together. For example, the coastal connection that changes every few months was an issue until a few weeks before the meeting. This was and still is a reality of a bigger challenge that the Municipality deals with all year round, on how the island is connected with the mainland. Working together we tried to help empowering the Municipality’s position when negotiating with the Periphery, the Ministry and the shipping company to understand the importance of a more fixed or more easily flexible time-schedule.

Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme
Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme

How did you experience the meeting? How did the local community react to the group?

Maria: I think that this meeting was a multilevel experience! For our team, it is reminiscing our first visits to the island of Ai Stratis, that we have come to with our fast and furious big city rhythm. What the island and its people taught us before and during the meeting was the concept of time and living along with the rhythm of nature. The value of the moment and of human connection. Experiencing the openness and the hospitality of the community was a way to overcome any problems we faced, together.
For the community, I think there were mixed feelings. I could see and feel the excitement but at the same time the hesitation, not knowing how to approach our group and what their role is in all these things that were happening. Again, I think this experience was a first for all sides involved: the community, the participants, the Municipality, our organisations etc.

Stella: The local community was quite reluctant during the preparations and a bit unsure regarding the purpose of the meeting.
At the same time though, they were looking forward to it in the sense that this group of people would bring more life to the island and would make a difference to its routine.
During the meeting the community seemed very pleased and eager to help. I also noticed that they wanted to participate but still were reluctant as expected in a new situation.
During the meeting I was mostly concerned about the community’s reactions. I was also quite anxious about the preparations regarding our Tandem team’s project, the international "I Sea Art" festival, which was about to take place on the island one month after the Tandem Interim meeting, and also involved the community’s participation! Would the community be ready for this new concept that the Municipality proposes according to the local needs?

Maria Kakali, Mayor of Ai Stratis at the Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme.
Maria Kakali, Mayor of Ai Stratis at the Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme.

What did you perceive as the biggest challenges and opportunities of this meeting?

Stella: When we decided to participate in Tandem Europe as ‘Agios Efstratios Municipality’ our main goals were to promote our remote island, to introduce new ideas and cultural exchange, to activate our community. Tandem gave us the opportunity to experiment and put our ideas into practice.
For me personally, being a participant and one of the locals and organisers at the same time, was a big challenge as it involved introducing and involving the community into these new ideas.

Maria: In our field, we are used to talk about Europe, thinking about all the activities and facilities you can find mostly in the urban environment. We sometimes forget that Europe is not the activities and facilities but the people. People living in rural areas, let alone in remote ones, don’t always feel part of the whole, not only in opportunities but also in content. Going a step further, finding a local Administration, such as a Municipality that focuses on the content in order to find the opportunities for its community is an example that we need to look into, follow, enlighten and support.
The challenge and the opportunity for us was how we could see the meeting in Ai Stratis as an example and an opening point for a dialogue both for the participants in the Tandem Europe programme but also for the local community.
How can we overcome isolation and fragmentation in Europe? How can we engage and help each other to understand what it means to live in a rural remote area? How can we be together in this journey as parts of Europe as a whole?

Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme
Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme

Do you think the prior Tandem Meeting had an effect on how the local community reacted to the festival?

Stella: Definitely, yes! Actually, the community was a bit confused thinking that the Tandem Meeting group was going to be part of the festival as well.
During the festival the situation was clearer in the sense that the community understood that the "I Sea Art" festival was a project of two participants of the Tandem Meeting: me, representing the Municipality of Agios Eustratios and Catharina, representing Associação Domínio Vale do Mondego in Portugal, and that the rest of the participants were committed into other projects all over Europe.
So, the Tandem meeting was in a sense a preparatory event to the "I Sea Art" festival.

Maria: I think that the local community perceived our Tandem Meeting as the starting point of something bigger. It seemed like in June we were giving a “push” to the excitement and the engagement for the following international cultural "I Sea Art" festival, in August.
Although the locals were active during our meeting in June, during the “let’s all come together” BBQ dinner we organised on the main square for example, we could see that they were still hesitant. Our meeting was not something they “owned” even if they knew that their Municipality and Stella as the participant of Tandem Europe helped us organise and bring all these people to Ai Stratis. The festival, on the other hand, was their event, their production, the community as a whole was the initiator, through the Municipality and Stella’s tandem.
Seeing the celebration of the Festival’s closing dinner in August, on the main square, you could see a different energy and how the whole community was pitching in to create an experience and host their visitors. The women of the island cooked traditional dishes, musicians played local music, everyone was dancing until late night.

Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme
Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme

What would you do differently next time in terms of preparing the local context?

Maria: I think next time we will invest more time in working along with the local community, open the space for ideas coming directly from them, maybe create a small local group that will decide what they want to do during our shared time together.
Seeing for example, how much the kids from the local high school enjoyed being together with our group, next time I would focus our work on engaging them more in shared activities, maybe let them organise the local dinners or walks by themselves. In this meeting, we paid too much attention and worry in the language barrier, but the experience proved that this was only one small obstacle that everyone overcame at some point, using music, games, food and smiling as solutions!

Stella: From my experience, during the preparation of a meeting like this in a place with a local community that is as small as ours, I think that there should be more face to face meetings with the local people rather than announcements, posters, and local media.
As an example, I will refer to the festival’s closing dinner at the main square. There had been all different types of announcements a couple of months before the festival started, which were inviting people to actively participate in the preparations. We even arranged meetings to discuss how everyone could get involved in the festival.
It appeared that only after I personally approached each person by knocking on their door, they agreed to be part of it. All local women happily cooked traditional food and participated in the closing dinner, and two local men were happy to participate by playing traditional music with their own musical instruments. There was a great atmosphere during this event. It was a successful event, nevertheless, the whole process shows that the community hesitated and decided to get involved only after personal contact.

Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme
Tandem Europe Interim Meeting. Photo by Constanze Flamme

Did anything change on Aistratis ever since?

Stella: It’s too soon to say that there have been changes to the community. The fact is that during the festival people were happy to get involved, they were happy to have all the artists on the island, happy that there was an extension of the summer visitors, as the festival was taking place during the last days of August.
This proves that although people living in a rural and remote area such as Ai Stratis are quite happy and content in their routine and simple way of life, in the end they do appreciate that, cultural exchange, involvement into newly introduced events and working as a whole is absolutely necessary for a better standard of living and personal development in general.
As a first trial by the Municipality - and in collaboration with Tandem - to make changes and introduce innovation into the community, we clearly see encouraging results.
The community are now referring to both the Tandem Meeting and the festival as some of the best events and initiatives of the Municipality.

Maria: In my eyes, as an external observer that is really interested in the local narrative, it feels like in the last few years, the Ai Stratis community is going through a change. The last four years with the new administration coming in, the community has started taking the lead to a more positive and open attitude towards their life on the island.
Having as a community leader, a Mayor who is a 30-year old woman, a Municipal board that has an average age of 37, and people within this board, like Stella and others, who are willing to use their capacities and experience towards projects like the international "I Sea Art" festival, you see that the island is investing in the future. The focus is shifting to more sustainable and long-term strategy for the community and the land, creating opportunities in order, primarily for the kids but also for their parents, to have the will and the means to stay and not leave for a big city.
The Municipality’s participation in Tandem, with their European collaboration and their international cultural festival, our Tandem Meeting there, all these were empowering moments for the work that they have been doing the last years. I think it was also a way for this change to be more visible and tangible for the whole community. I believe that with more local collaboration, hard work, openness and persistence the Ai Stratis model could be an example of sustainable living in rural and remote areas of Europe.