Articles › An Ethnography of Tourism on Symi

An Ethnography of Tourism on Symi: Research Report

by Dr Sean Damer

Source: Biblioteca de la Escuela Universitaria de Estudios Empresariales


Symi is a small island in the Dodecanese group, about twenty-five miles north-west of Rhodes, tucked in under the Turkish coast, and only 4 miles from it at its closest point. It has a square area of 25 miles, is mountainous, effectively waterless, and at present (2002) has a population of some 2,800. It does not have an airport. 99% of the population live in Symi “town,” which is in effect two villages: Yialos, the area round the harbour, and Horio, the “village,” the original settlement up the mountain, overlooking the harbour. Pedi is a small, sleepy fishing village some distance from Yialos/Horio, and is a completely separate settlement. There are significant symbolic differences between these settlements, with Yialos being represented as sleazy and corrupt by the Horio villagers, while the latter are represented as “hicks” by the Yialos sophisticates. Both sets of locals represent Pedi as being on another planet. What should be noted relative to tourism is that the physical setting of the Symi harbour is quite magnificent, Symi town is composed entirely of handsome, neo-classical architecture, and is an official Greek National Conservation Area. Nonetheless, there are many ruined houses in the town, the result of a deliberate explosion of all their munitions by the departing German occupiers towards the end of 1944. In the postwar years, Symi’s population had dwindled to a mere 3,000, from 22,500 in its sponge-fishing heyday in 1912.

Tourism was the last thing which locals could have envisaged coming to Symi. However, for an astonishing and unique complex of reasons which have been documented elsewhere (Damer 2002a), the process of tourist development did start in a small way in the late 1960s, was given a significant impetus in 1974, accelerated gradually through the 1980s, and took off in the 1990s. Return migrants were major players in this process, thus validating Kenna’s thesis, although the two Symi Migrants’ Associations in Athens played no discernible role, either then, or since (Kenna 1993; 2001.) The Dimarchos (Mayor) of Symi said in an interview (28.11.00) that tourism had been responsible for halting the inexorable population decline of the island: “If there had been no tourism, the population of Symi would now be 300 people. As it is, more than 500 houses have been re-built since 1974.”

Today, in 2002, Symi is economically, visually and symbolically dominated by tourism. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 beds available for tourists on the island (2002). The population of c2,800 grows to well over 5,000 in the height of the season, with 1,000+ day-trippers arriving from Rhodes daily on a total of six regular ferry-boats, not counting the large inter-island ferries, or yachts. Incredible as it may seem, the locally-owned ferry company, ANES, does not have a record of passenger statistics between Rhodes and Symi. This is because the ANES office in Rhodes was only computerised ten years ago, on the one hand, and because there is a wide range of ticket types, on the other. For example, day-trippers who book through Travel Agencies obtain a 50% discount on their tickets. Further, up until last year, holiday-makers going to Symi travelled on the same ticket as day-trippers, and it was impossible to disaggregate them.

On Symi, an unknown but large proportion of the native population is involved in the tourist industry, directly or indirectly. A Census of tourist enterprises I conducted in summer 2001, came up with: 14 hotels (4 x ‘A’ class, 6 x “B” class, 4 x “C” class); 6 sets of Rooms-to-Rent, 10 Apartments, 13 Villas and 11 Studios; 36 tavernas and restaurants; 29 kafeneia and bars; 4 fast-food outlets; 45 tourist/sponge shops; 8 taxi-boats; and 5 day-trip caiques. This constitutes an impressive battery of institutions and facilities on an island with such a small population. Many locals, and many repeat tourists, are of the opinion that the number is far too high. A significant difference from Kenna’s Anafi is that the vast majority of these enterprises are in the hands of locals (Kenna 1993; 2001, op. cit.). While three innovative and upmarket restaurants are owned by male Athenian incomers, all married to Symiaka women, Symi is too remote to attract large numbers of urban carpet-baggers.

The majority of tourists to Symi are British, the three main companies involved being Laskarina Holidays, Manos and Kosmar. These cater for (roughly speaking) upper-middle-class, lower-middle-class, and upper-working-class clients respectively, although there is some overlap. Their distinct orientations and pricing policies can be read-off their respective brochures and websites (for a detailed discussion of the way they ‘signify Symi,’ see Damer [2002b.]) Laskarina very definitely aims at the twee end of the market, rents the best properties on the island for its clients, has Reps with a distinct aura of Girls’ School prefects about them, and actively “weeds out” (sic) enquirers who are plainly looking for a rave/package holiday (interview with Kate Murdoch, co-owner of Laskarina, 29.3.01.) Fully two-thirds of its clients are repeat tourists, some of whom have been coming to Symi for 20+ years, many of whom I interviewed. There are also much smaller number of Danish, German and Belgian tourists, and an increasing number of Italians.

Locals and Tourists: Definitions

To pretend that interactions between ‘locals’ and ‘tourists’ on Symi are simple relationships would be to fly in the face of the evidence. ‘Commonsense’ statements about tourism “swamping” Symi, or having a “simple impact,” are naïve in the extreme. There is neither a unitary, homogeneous category of ‘local,’ nor ‘tourist;’ such binary opposites do not stand the test of investigation on Symi. Neither ‘locals’ nor ‘tourists’ differentiate themselves into such discrete units. Further, the relationships between the different categories of locals and tourists are exceptionally complex and dialectical.

To take ‘locals’ first. There are at least eight categories of ‘local’ on Symi. Firstly, there are ‘permanent residents,’ who live and work on Symi, all year round. (And even then, some of them, albeit not a large number, take extended winter trips to see relatives in Tarpon Springs, Florida, or Sydney, Australia, where Symiaki migrants are concentrated.) Secondly, there are return migrants, Symiaki who have returned permanently to the island after living and working elsewhere in Greece, or indeed, the world. Thirdly, there are Symiaki resident in Rhodes (several thousand, it is said), and Athens/Pireaus, who maintain a family home on Symi, and visit regularly. Fourthly, there are the children and grandchildren of Symiaki who live elsewhere in Greece, or Europe, who also visit regularly. Fifthly, there are Symiaki migrants resident in Australia and the U.S.A. who make return visits. Sixthly, there are currently an estimated 200+ Albanian, Russian and Bulgarian workers, male and female, who live and work on Symi, a category conspicuous by its absence from the fieldwork literature. Seventhly, there is another category routinely forgotten in the literature: the 120 or so Greek National Servicemen garrisoned on Symi. They see themselves as locals relative to the tourist women with whom they regularly interact during the season. (And they also interact regularly with Symiaka women.) Eighthly, there are the foreign residents on Symi, some 150 of them, who are either ‘permanent residents,’ or ‘holiday-home owners’ (but see below.) Not only can each of these categories perceive itself, or be perceived, as ‘local,’ and/or negotiate ‘local’ status, in appropriate social settings, but also, they sometimes overlap.

By the same token, ‘tourists’ fall into several categories. Firstly, and literally the most obvious in their skimpy clothes, small bags and cameras, are the ‘day-trippers,’ who come over for a few hours only by boat from Rhodes. Secondly, there are ‘yachties,’ who moor in the harbour, usually for only one or two nights. Thirdly, there are ‘island-hoppers,’ who stop off on Symi for a greater or lesser amount on time on their peripatetic tour of Greece. Fourthly, there are ‘repeat tourists,’ and Symi attracts a very high proportion of these. (It is said, without any hard evidence for the claim - apart for that for Laskarina quoted above - that 60%+ of local tourists are repeaters.) These correspond to Wickens’ humorous category of ‘Lord Byrons’ (Wickens 1994.) And fifthly, there are ‘tourists,’ tout court, who have arrived on Symi on holiday for the first time, by accident or design.

At this juncture, it is readily apparent that there can be overlap within and between these two ‘master-categories.’ For example, where should the ‘foreign residents’ be located? Are they really ‘locals,’ or are they what have been called “residential tourists” in Spain? (O’Reilly 2000.) The answer is, it all depends. Symiaki are very reflexive about differentiating between those different categories, and are more than capable of noting those foreigners who try and make some kind of commitment to their island, albeit by learning Greek, attending local panayiria, or observing local customs. A processual view of social relationships between the people who live on Symi, and the people who visit it, demonstrates that they are truly dialectical. In this sense, the complex picture of tourism on Symi, and the complex list of categories of tourist, closely resembles that on the anonymous Scottish island studied by Kohn (Kohn 1997.) Indeed, there are more than passing similarities between the Dodecanese islanders, and those of the Outer Hebrides, the two archipelagos sharing a culture distorted by mass and devastating migration.

The ‘Locals’: the Symiaki Greeks

Even allowing for the situational ramifications of what constitutes a ‘local,’ the Symiakai Greeks perceive themselves as the true locals, especially as opposed to either foreign residents and tourists. What kind of Greeks are the Symiaki? While it would be fatuous to suppose that there is any such thing as a “typical” Greek, the Symiaki display some quite distinct cultural characteristics which would seem to be somewhat divergent from the allegedly typical “Greekness” described in the postwar ethnography of Greece. These characteristics, in the view of the writer, are to do with three sets of historical forces, and are discussed in detail in Damer (2002a.)

The first of these is that the Symiaki were under the Ottoman Empire for 390 years. While some Symiaki seamen served in the Greek Navy during the War of Independence, the fact of the matter is that they managed to make historical accommodations with their Turkish rulers to the extent that they were granted a raft of privileges, including effective autonomy, and operating the Ottoman maritime mail service in their fast sailing craft. There was no oppressive Turkish occupation of Symi – but by the same token, neither were there glorious armed risings such as occurred regularly, for example, in Crete. The Symiaki may be Greeks, but they are Greeks who did not distinguish themselves in the long struggle for independence from the Sultan.

Secondly, Symi’s population and economy expanded very rapidly indeed throughout the second half of the 19th century due to commercial sponge-diving. This led to considerable wealth accumulating on the island, or more correctly, in the hands of the dozen or so families who were its key entrepreneurs. They in turn signified their wealth by building the very handsome neo-classical mansions which make Symi so distinct, although many of them are in ruins as a result of wartime hostilities. In other words, Symi had a half-a-century of glory.

Thirdly, the Dodecanese were ceded to Italy in 1912 at the end of the Italo-Turkish War. As a consequence, the Italians immediately banned Greek sponge-diving anywhere in the Mediterannean. The Greeks voted with their feet, and mass migration started. From a high point of 22,500 in 1912, the population had plummeted to 7,500 in 1917, the demographic equivalent of a catastrophe. Thereafter, the population declined steadily. The point here is that it is always the most skilled, best educated and most intelligent people who migrate first.

The cumulative consequence of these historical processes, plus very considerable privations during the Second World War, was that subsequently, the Symiaki were characterised by a culture which was introvert, insular (excuse the pun), stagnant, and suspicious of outsiders of any kind. They were also inter-married to a degree. These characteristics of local culture were recognized by the famous Greek town planners, Doxiadis Associates, when they were called in as development consultants during the late 1960s (see Damer [2002a] for details.) In their report, they said of these local "psycho-social" attributes:

55. Symi has had an unusually difficult period during the last 500 years or so (Turkish occupation for 375 years, participation in numerous wars of liberation against the Turks, participation in the two world wars, plus the Italian and German occupations.) Consequently, socio-economic development has been severely hampered, so that Symi is now essentially an "underdeveloped" community.

56. The effect of these facts has been to mold certain patterns of child-rearing, certain ways of thinking, and certain institutions or customs....

59. Relative isolation is a dominant factor. The social survey results indicate that 65.3% of the family heads never or seldom read a newspaper....

60. Another characteristic is the development of highly intense family and group loyalties....

61. This "for-or-against-me" attitude is important particularly if and when communication between the island and the outside world will increase and local Symians (sic) may be exposed to foreigners from various countries and different customs.

65. The "glorified past" seems to play an important role in the "image" Symians (sic) have of their community....

66. Intense and continuous migration does not only generate a psychological climate of decline but also deprives the community of its most competitive, energetic or enterprising members. Those "left behind" are usually women, too old, too young, and for some reason or another "unfit" for emigration. Perhaps this mood of decline is one of the reasons which may explain the fact that few innovations or investments have taken place in the community (sic.)
(Doxiadis 1966: 18-20)

In a statement which is quite staggering, the Symiaki say of themselves: Eimaste atimi ratsa. This translates literally as: “We are a people without honour.” For Greeks to say this of themselves is quite without parallel in the anthropological literature, which uniformly emphasizes the importance of philotimo – love of honour – as being central to Greek culture. While a Herzfeld could write an entire mongraph about the meaning of eimaste atimi ratsa, the very fact that it was admitted to this ethnographer at all, and on more than one occasion, speaks volumes. My understanding of the phrase, and its use, is that it means: ‘we are a sly, underhand and untrustworthy lot, so you had better look out, although we understand the parameters of our own slyness well enough.’ Obviously, this cultural trait has major implications for tourism.

Signifying Symi

What is the Symi ‘experience,’ and what is it which draws so many repeat tourists to the island? Interviews with such tourists frequently elicited words/phrases like: “shattering/stunning beauty;” “magic/magic ambience;” “a spirituality, a calming influence;” “the stunning/awesome/most beautiful/unique harbour in Greece;” “the sheer drama of it;” and “extremely picturesque.” Such words and phrases are repeated so often as to constitute a mantra about Symi. As Kohn observed of her Hebridean island (Kohn op. cit.), and as I have observed of the Isle of Arran (Damer 2000), islands can have an ‘enchanted’ atmosphere, or more correctly, can have this enchantment ascribed to them. The physical environment of Symi becomes involved in the tourist experience as they interact with it, rather than it becoming merely the object of the tourist gaze. In this sense, Symi corresponds directly to the Turkish tourist village of Goreme in Cappadochia (Tucker 1997.) In both tourist destinations, visitors are projecting their fantasies onto the site, they are spectacles, truly “imagined communities” (Anderson 1991.)

However, there is more to the ambience of Symi than its physical beauty. In interview, tourists, especially repeat tourists, also spoke equally frequently of the “friendliness” of the natives. More mantras were chanted: “the locals are so friendly;” “they were very friendly people;” and “90% of the locals are kind and helpful people.” In parallel with Kohn’s analysis (op. cit.), what is going on here is a negotiation of friendships which apparently transcend local/incomer dichotomies.

These repeat tourists are negotiating an insider status which allows them to become part-time, or ‘honorary’ members of the Symiaki community, and thus lose their anonymity as ‘tourists.’ The Symiaki, for their part, are perfectly willing to accommodate such negotiations, and temporarily allocate local status to known repeat tourists. They greet them like old friends, enquire after their families, exchange local gossip, give them a free beer or free wine with their first meal, and include them in all the repertoire of small gestures which makes a tourist feel that s/he is ‘on the inside’ of the action. The Symiaki are very skilled performers in these roles. But it would be a mistake to think that it was all staged. Some locals – a few - are friends with some tourists.

The presence of large numbers of retired seamen, including many ship's captains and officers, among the Symi male population, may have something to do with this, in the opinion of the Dimarchos, himself a retired ship’s captain, and this certainly follows the analysis of Tsartas for other Greek islands (Tsartas 1992.) While it is dubious that this population played a pivotal role in the early development of tourism in Symi (Damer: 2001a), it is more plausible that their exposure to eating and drinking habits elsewhere in the world facilitates their tolerance of what otherwise might be regarded as eccentric tourist behaviour - such as demanding a ‘full English breakfast’ halfway through a hot morning, or eating at a time which is impossibly early in the evening to a Greek, or not wishing to have bread with all meals as a Greek would do, or drinking vast quantities of beer on an empty stomach. This, combined with their undoubted capital assets on retiral, especially after the 1980s, as Just has clearly shown, made retired seamen important players in the rapid development of tourism on many small Greek islands from the 1980s onwards (Just 2001: 67-71).

While this is not the place for extended discussion of central theoretical concepts in the sociology of tourism, it is to be noted that the ‘authenticity’ (McCannell 1976; 1999) and ‘sincerity’ (Taylor 2001) of performances are vital notions in the literature. This project confirms their centrality to the interpretation of local/tourist encounters. For example, in a popular and successful tourist taverna in Horio, pseudonymously called Andreas's, the process can be seen frequently. The restaurant is not luxurious, but it does have a raffish charm, and the food is excellent. The owner, Andreas, a man in his late 60s, a retired seaman, is a well-known and colourful local ‘character.’

In the evenings, Andreas is usually somewhat inebriated, which does not stop him grilling souvlaki, chops or fish, nor greeting customers warmly, and old (repeat) customers more warmly still, and returning female customers very warmly. Like many a Greek taverna owner, he is quite capable of having a sustained conversation in several European languages. Around him, sitting in the front of his taverna, are usually four or five local men, all relatives of one kind or another, drinking their ouzo, or wine, or a beer with a meze. They are practically part of the furniture, Andreas's familiars, in the Shakesperian sense. They are demonstrating their solidarity with, and goodwill towards, Andreas in exactly the same way as Just observed on Meganisi some twenty-five years ago (Just 2001: 247-8). The tourists are not to know, but the taverna is also their local theatre, which these locals attend frequently for free entertainment. Some of these men, like Andreas himself, are well-known to repeat tourists, with whom they have a ‘special relationship,’ usually the exchange of a drink or two, and some cantilevered conversation in broken English, for none of them has Andreas's linguistic skills.

Sometimes, if Andreas has enough kefi (high spirits, a good mood), he will seize his accordion, and belt out a song, or break into spontaneous dance while singing a rembetiko song. (For a discussion of the notion of kefi, see Papataxiarchis 1991, and also Foonote 5 of Damer 1988. Ta Rembetika are the songs of the Greeks of Asia Minor; see Holst 1983.) Sometimes, he will invite tourists into the action. Some accept, and many observers find it a comical sight when middle-aged English people try to dance zembekiko to rembetiko music, a dance-form and music utterly foreign to the Anglo-Saxon world. This is a vital part of the comedy of errors to Andreas's cronies.

A cynic might argue that this is staged authenticity; this is not the case. It is an exemplar of what Wang called ‘existential authenticity’ (Wang 1999.) Most tourists would have no hesitation in perceiving these events not as a construction for themselves, but as totally genuine. In playing music, singing and dancing spontaneously, the locals are offering tourists an opportunity to view the inside of local culture, and to participate, in a manner totally unavailable at the more formal concerts of traditional Greek music at the annual Symi Festival, for example. Andreas's ‘sincerity’ is what Herzfeld called a stance, which he can deploy when he wishes; these stances ‘…come into existence, emerge, only in moments of performance and interpretation’ (Herzfeld 1991: 53). Further, in adopting this stance, in amplifying his performance, Andreas is doing exactly what Goffman's Shetland waitresses did - adding dignity and meaning through ritual to what in another setting might be construed as an essentially menial job (Goffman 1990.)

Such occasions of mutual, interactional sincerity, in an authentic Greek taverna setting, do not occur every night. But they do occur, and they occur frequently enough to give at least some tourists that special thrill of having been invited backstage, or inside, local culture. And they also occur in other tourist settings on the island. The consequence is that by-and-large, tourists to Symi perceive both the island and its inhabitants as authentically Greek, and the latter as more than that, as sincere in their efforts to please. In other words, these tourists know their Wangian existential authenticity when they see it. However, the sly role-distancing behind Andreas’s stances can be deduced from the following instance. One night when I was in the taverna, he was playing the accordion and singing for a group of German women tourists, who were enthralled by his performace. When they left, he passed me, winked, and said: “Fucking Stukas, Yianni.” (As there is no “sh” sound in the Greek language, locals find my first name, “Seán,” difficult, so I answer to “Yiannis,” the Greek for “John.”)


Where many locals and tourists, especially repeat tourists, can make common ground is in roundly condemning the ‘day-trippers.’ In general terms, members of these day-tripper groups are seen as fair game by locals. Although these trippers are not to know it, they are involved in a sophisticated racket, of which I made a very detailed study in 2001, before the introduction of the Euro. It works like this. Large Northern European travel companies are represented by a Greek Agent in Rhodes, who employs Tourist Guides to take day-trips of tourists to Symi. It is usually represented locally that these Guides approach locals involved in the tourist industry in Symi – shop and restaurant owners. It is alleged that locals are blackmailed by these Guides. No payment, no groups. No groups, no group business. No group business, no business. However, in reality, it is the locals who approach the Guides most of the time, and offer them bribes to bring their groups to the local shop/taverna. The bribe is usually 10% of the cash turnover of the group, paid on a daily basis. (That is, 10% of the total bill in a restaurant or jewellery or sponge shop.) These Guides can make a fortune, as much as 440 Euros per day. These practices inevitably bring down standards in the restaurants as locals have to have a fast turnover, and sell cheaper, and frozen, food expensively. Both locals and repeat tourists know this, and avoid these establishments. Instructively, they have a different, and cheaper, menu in the evenings, but even then, they are usually nearly empty.

Over the course of the season, restaurant owners are losing a lot of money to these Guides. The figure of 2,200 Euros has been quoted to me as a daily maximum income in a Symi harbour restaurant involved in the Groups trade. Let us suppose a good daily average is 1,465 Euros. And let us say a restaurant gets four groups per week in the season. That is 5,870 Euros per week. If we subtract even 8% (470 Euros) from this for the Guide's commission, then the restaurant-owner actually only gets 5,400 per week in his hand. If we say that there are 24 weeks in the season, then the restaurant-owner is losing 11,270 Euros in the year, which goes into the Guide's pocket. (To put it in perspective, that is £7,178.00 p.a.)

Foreign Residents

Another important group in the mosaic of relationships between Symiaki and incomers is constituted by ‘permanent’ foreign residents on Symi, of whom there are about 150, according to the Dimarchos. I have accounted for 120 of them. About 80 of these make up what I propose to call the “native English-speaking community,’ of whom 68 are British citizens, representing 64% of the known foreign community on Symi.

But there are many definitional problems associated with this community on Symi. A first distinction has to be between this community, however defined, and tourists, whether repeaters or first-timers. This distinction is one maintained both by the English-speaking community itself, and by Symiaki. The English-speaking community is, strictly speaking, constituted by people who have some commitment to living on Symi. It comprises two main social categories: those who are, or perceive themselves to be, “permanent residents” of Symi, and those who have “holiday homes.” The “permanent residents” either own or rent their houses on a year-round basis, even though many of them do not actually live here for the whole year; their number is estimated to be 40. The most common pattern is for these people to go back to Britain or otherwise take a holiday in the winter months in Symi. (An exception to this pattern is an American couple which owns a house on Symi, and spends only the winter months here.) The vast majority of these people are in fact house-renters; only 13 island houses are owned outright by members of the English-speaking community.

The “holiday-home” category consists of people who rent or own a house on the island strictly for holiday purposes, and come once, or more usually, several times, per year. In actual fact, the distinction between these two categories is not always that clear.

Further, although the distinctions between the “English-speaking community,” i.e. Symi residents, and “tourists” would appear to be sociologically valid, in practice the situation is much more fluid. As we have seen, tourism to Symi is characterised by a very high proportion of repeat-tourists, many of whom perceive themselves as being at least honorary members of the English-speaking community. Thus it would be more accurate (i) to perceive permanent residents, holiday-home owners, and repeat-tourists as on a continuum; and (ii) the parameters of the English-speaking community as porous. In the latter case, there are eleven British women on Symi married to local men. While they are integrated into the Greek community, from time to time they pass back into the English-speaking community for special occasions, like Christmas or birthday parties. A final complication is that this community also contains some people who are not British by nationality, but who participate in it, and communicate in English. Examples are an American couple, a South African couple, and an Australian.

What do these Brits do? Most of the “permanent residents” work, even if only part-time. Occupations include: walks-leader; seamstress; bar-owner; taverna-owner; barman; small cafe/restaurant operator; heavy-plant operator; kitchen-hand; waitress; travel company rep; television repair mechanic. An absolute minority do no waged labour, but live off their pensions. In other words, the majority of “permanent residents” are economically active, albeit mainly in unskilled service sector jobs.

The four British-run bars on Symi, two in Yialos, and one each in Horio and Pedi, cater mainly for (i) the “permanent residents;” (ii) holiday-home owners; and (iii) British tourists. Greek men on the hunt for women come in not infrequently in the summer, and, very occasionally, a Greek woman after work on the way home, with her husband. These four British-run bars have fairly distinct clienteles, especially in the evenings, reflecting the Yialo/Horio/Pedi divide, although this is not hermetic. The Brit-owned bar in Horio caters mainly for (repeat) tourists in summer, although “permanent residents” and holiday-home-owners are seen there regularly. This bar is the main haunt of English-speaking “permanent residents,” holiday-home-owners and the few holiday-makers during the winter months, when it is open until the proprietor goes on her annual three months holiday around the end of January/beginning of February.

The British-owned taverna in Horio caters mainly for (Brit) tourists, although some “permanent residents” and holiday-home owners are also frequent customers. This taverna is also a haunt of Brits who are spending the winter, or part of it, on Symi. Each of these Brit-run establishments has a distinct British ambience. One of the bars and the taverna have quite large English-language book-exchanges. Another provides English newspapers. Another regularly shows Brit football, tennis and other sports on satellite television, and advertises these outside. All play British pop music interspersed with Greek. Only one of the operators of these establishments speaks good working Greek. In all of them, the conversation is 99% in English, with British-oriented themes. All four sets of operators are very skilled at incorporating all types of residents, visitors and tourists in a discourse which revolves around island affairs involving precisely these different categories of residents/visitors/tourists, not to mention the business affairs of the operators themselves. This discourse is predominant over all other forms of conversation.

Within it, there are subsets of gossip. These include:
(1) how the particular Brit (and other) establishments are doing this particular season;
(2) gossip about other British residents, visitors and tourists;
(3) gossip about Symi tourist facilities and policies;
(4) gossip about who’s having an affaire with whom within the different categories of British visitor;
(5) gossip about local Greeks involved in the tourism industry;
(6) gossip about Home Affairs in Britain, usually sport, and never politics at any serious level;
(7) endless discussion of the ferry timetables (see below); and
(8) cats and dogs (sic.)

The tenor of this gossip is blatantly chauvinistic, and thoroughly English, as opposed to Scottish, Irish or Welsh in tone; wit and irony are conspicuous by their absence. It is racist, sexist and malicious, and its themes are reproduced endlessly, and can become impacted and crashingly boring. In the winter months, it can become positively vicious, because Symi virtually closes down, with the locals hibernating after seven months’ very hard work in the tourism industry. As there is only one taverna and a couple of bars in Yialos, and the Brit-owned taverna and one bar/kafeneion up in Horio, open throughout the winter, the Brits are forced back on their own resources, which are slender. The whole process could be called the ‘routinisation of banality.’

Within the whole English-speaking community, it is noteworthy that a central and persistent topic of conversation is the ferry timetables, involving the ANES ferries, the day-trip boats and the big inter-island ferries. This is quite remarkable. This timetable angst seems to reflect a collective Jungian anxiety about not being able to get off the island if necessary. It signifies a tacit admission that: “We don’t really belong here.”

Even in the establishments visited by the Greeks – in the Horio taverna, for example – there is no effort made to switch the conversation to topics of local Greek interest. In this taverna, relationships between the Brit owner and Greek locals revolve around good-humoured, verbal, pigeon-Greek slagging matches involving foul language – malaka, poustis, etc. Given this, and the owners’ obsession with cats, it is hard to avoid the impression that it all constitutes a cabaret for local Greeks, especially as they get a special, lower price for their drinks and mezes. I have frequently seen Greeks looking on with fascinated disgust as Mrs. Owner dances with cats, or cuddles them talking baby-language. In this taverna, the “regulars” almost constitute a club where the central pastime is humouring the distinctly foul-mouthed male. Speaking Greek in this particular establishment is resented by the owners, and jumped upon immediately. On one occasion I started speaking Greek with a Greek-American whose family is originally from Symi. I was rapidly told, “We don’t speak Greek here.”

On another occasion in this taverna, late, when there was quite a large company of Brits which had drunk a lot, I was asked how my research was going. (The male owner had gone to bed by this time.) I said it was going well, and was asked what I had found out. I said that I had discovered that the local Greeks had nicknames for the Brits, and that these were frequently uncomplimentary, and included terms like poutana (slag), bechris (piss-artist), and so on. I was not of course referring to the present company (although I might have been!) The next day, the male owner took me roundly to task for calling “his women” (sic) – his wife and kitchen-hand – “slags,” etc. I protested that I had done nothing of the sort. But I was given a thorough telling-off nonetheless, and accepted it eventually with good grace. The point, I realised, was that I had broken the rules of the club – ‘no showing-off in Greek’ – that I was a conspicuous deviant, that I had chosen to become an insider in the Greek community, and the moral community of the Brits in this establishment came together with considerable self-righteousness to condemn me as a folk-devil.

All of this insider-gossip is maintained and reproduced by the Symi Visitor newspaper, its first-rate website, and the other main island website which is English-owned and operated. The importance of these media connections for tourist brand-loyalty to Symi can hardly be over-rated. While they do fulfil a positive function in supplying answers to questions about local travel, accommodation, entertainment, etc., much of the content of their chatlines is utterly banal. It is noteworthy that self-appointed “experts” within the insider-gossip circuit appear frequently in both the paper and websites, who pronounce on the validity or otherwise of local trivia. They frequently reproduce inaccurate information about, e.g., island history, Greek Orthodox Church liturgy, and the Greek language.

While the term “community” has been used in this section as a shorthand, an important caveat is that it is anything but the positive, caring collectivity usually associated with this term. The “community” is riddled with malice, slander and mutual exploitation. For example, the owners of the British taverna are ruthless exploiters of British newcomers to Symi. Newcomers who do not speak Greek – and that means all of them – need vital information about, for example, installing a telephone, obtaining a gas and water account, or a box in the Post office. And Greek bureaucracy to the uninitiated is a well-known nightmare. The taverna owners impart this information in return for custom and/or services. One new couple, English pensioners, were conned in this manner into working inside the taverna in their first summer, when even at night, the temperature was boiling. Another Brit went into partnership in one of the English pubs with the specific intention of driving his partner out. Two of the bar owners, both Englishwomen, are involved in what might be called the ‘facilitation’ of sexual encounters between British women, both tourists and residents, and Greek men. One of these women requires her bar girls to wear revealing clothes, G-strings, and to actively ‘chat-up’ male customers. The parents of one such girl flew out from the UK in response to a telephone-call for help, and took their daughter home after a public and acrimonious row with the owner. The distinction between this ‘facilitation’ and what might be called ‘immoral procurement’ in the United Kingdom seems to me to be tenuous.

Relationships Between Locals & Foreign Residents

Apart from the English (and other foreign) women who are married to local men, and a few Englishmen who work in jobs dealing routinely with Greeks, the relationships between the English-speaking community and the Symiaka community are strictly functional. They meet to do shopping, or exchange goods and services. At this level, there is little or no problem between the two communities. The Greeks appear perfectly friendly and civil towards the Brits. Culturally, however, they are miles apart. The local Greek culture is thick, complex, deep and rich, and in spite of claims sometimes heard that it is being swamped by tourism, it is patently alive and well – although all but invisible to many of the Brits and practically all tourists. In contrast, the (sub-) culture of the Brits is thin, simple, shallow and superficial. It would be true, however, to say that both are thoroughly introvert. The Greeks are primarily interested in making money while the sun shines, while the Brits are interested only in themselves. Neither community really socialises with the other. The Symiaki socialise in their extended families, their kafeneia and bars, and at their paniyiria. The Brits socialise in their taverna and bars, and at an endless circuit of dinner-parties.

A major Greek informant has said to me on more than one occasion that there are so many obvious inadequates amongst the Brits on Symi, that many locals believe that they only live here because they cannot, or are not allowed to, live at home in the UK! It is as if the UK has got rid of them. One of the Brits recently living on the island (he died a few months ago) was a replica cowboy, almost a deliberate caricature of Clint Eastwood. He was tall and skinny, minced about in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, greeted people with an Eastwoodesque flick of the index finger to the brim of his hat, and smoked long thin cigarillos. He did not speak Greek. How any local Greek – or anyone else for that matter – could make sense of such an obvious Walter Mitty is beyond me.

But there is perhaps nothing extraordinary about this. Greek national identity in general, and Symi local identity in particular, is very much more clearly defined than English national identity. The central role of the Greek Orthodox Church in this process, buttressed by many other institutions and rituals, particularly the educational system, makes being Greek/Symiakos a relatively unproblematic business. All Symiaki know of the (allegedly) glorious nature of their local history, and their community is well-organised and well-ordered, at least on the surface. The Brits are by definition excluded from all this, and given their contemporary schizophrenia about who they are historically and culturally, not to mention sustaining many attitudes towards “foreigners” which derive from Imperialism, on Symi, they tend to cling together in a parody of community life at home. Life among the Brits on Symi could be called “Coronation-Street-in-the-Med;” their culture is relentlessly working-class, whatever the social class background of individual members. On Symi, probably because of the small size of the Brit community, there are no social organisations (as opposed to Cyprus, for example, which has dozens.) The one possible exception is Symi Animal Welfare, which is effectively two/three Englishwomen, and accurately reflects the eccentric nature of British involvement on the island.

While I have been using the term “Brit” here, and while the Brits use this term, and also “expats” of themselves, the fact of the matter is that on Symi, this subculture is an English phenomenon. There is only one other person apart from myself who claims to be Scots, and there are no contenders for Welsh or Irish ethnicity. (There are, however, such people amongst the regular holiday-makers.) The conversation in the various institutions outlined above centres round English affairs – e.g. English cricket matches, the English football leagues, English TV soap-operas.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Brits on Symi live in their own symbolic world, with their own language, rituals and myths, and they do so because that is how they want to live. They only overlap with the local Greek world for services, e.g. shopping, tradesmen, and possibly sex, at times, and very occasionally, alcohol-fuelled parea (company.) There is no genuine social interest in the local Greek world at all, other than the picayune, or at the level of gossip. The material in the Symi Visitor about local culture, religion, etc., would almost appear to be some kind of legitimation of non-involvement, and indeed sometimes makes elementary mistakes. The Brits seem to revel in their lack of education, and dysfunctional community.

Local Greeks know this. Many Symiaki have commented to me that it is ridiculous that people who have been here for years cannot speak Greek, and show no interest in local affairs. An astute local business-man said to me in an interview:

The English don’t make any effort to integrate,
to participate in local affairs, to learn Greek.
They also run the place down. If you’re involved,
you’re entitled to criticise. They’re not involved,
so they’re not entitled. As they’re not involved,
they don’t know what the local political issues are.
They only know by rumour and deduction – and are
frequently wrong. They’re here only for the climate
and the beauty. They’re on permanent holiday.

On numerous occasions, I have heard sotto voce insults in Greek offered by Horio locals towards some of the English residents. This represents a barely hidden resentment - which occasionally spills over into action. A long-term English resident of Symi, dwelling in Horio, had a dog. This dog was well-trained. Nonetheless, local Greek men sitting in the Horio square (where a kafeneion and bar are situated) often tormented it by whistling it up, or calling for it by name, and giving it the runaround; they thought this was hilarious. This dog was poisoned in August, 2001. The owner, who does not speak Greek, reckons she knows who did it, but cannot prove it. This is the second Brit dog to be poisoned, the first being one belonging to a well-known travel rep. And several of the Horio English taverna-owners’ cats have been similarly poisoned. I have no doubt that all of this was done deliberately. I asked a local Greek bar-owner what he thought about this incident. He said that the people who did it were zoa – animals. But he did nothing about it. I suspect this is a test to see just how far the foreigners can be pushed. It would seem to be an expression of locals’ considerable resentment of the foreign invasion of their social space, the Horio square, during the long summer months. It is unmistakeably hostile, and intentionally insulting, behaviour. Its symbolic power can be put in perspective by realizing that poisoning someone’s domestic animal can be a killing offence in Western Crete. For this ethnographer, then, the good relationships between the Symiaki and the foreign residents are more apparent than real; in actual fact, they are fraught and problematic.

It is difficult to make ethnographic sense of the British community in Symi. It contains an unusually large number of individuals with demonstrable emotional, and alcohol-related, problems. They seem to be running away from something, usually themselves, and have no obvious positive reason for being on the island. But a remote, small Greek island near the Turkish coast is probably the worst place in Europe to try and hole up, for quite apart from language problems, Greek culture is so dense, Greek identity so unproblematic (compared with English identity), and a rich extended family life so ubiquitous, that it is hard for English people to find a niche or a role in local society – except for catering, sometimes literally, for people like themselves. And there is an absolute, and low, ceiling to opportunities in this sector.

The ethnocentricity of the English-speaking community in Symi would seem to give the lie to claims for evident ‘trans-nationalism’ and ‘globalisation’ of the type made by Karen O’Reilly in her study of British expats in Spain (O’Reilly 2000.). It would also seem to challenge the claim by the Dimarchos that: “We are all Europeans now, we all live on Symi together, and there is no racism towards foreign residents on the island” (28.11.00, op. cit.) The British nationals on Symi relentlessly construct their identity by reproducing well-worn and clichéd symbols of English ethnicity. If, as O’Reilly claims, anyone can construct their identity any way they please in the post-modernist world (a proposition rejected as hopelessly idealist by the present writer), then the only thing that can be said of the Brits’ dramaturgy on Symi is that it resembles amateur theatricals at their worst.

Tourism Planning

The easiest thing to say about planning for tourism on Symi is that it is conspicuous by its absence; it simply does not exist. The innovations that have taken place occurred on an ad hoc basis. One local told me: “Everything which has happened, happened by accident.” The consequences of such a lack of strategy are becoming increasingly obvious. It is widely believed, by all sectors of Symi society, that tourism has reached saturation point on the island. Problems to do with traffic pollution, the shortage of water, sewage (all contained in septic tanks), and rubbish are discussed on a daily basis, and ventilated regularly in the columns of the Symi Visitor (see the letter by Kate Murdoch, co-owner of Laskarina Holidays, in the September issue.) There have been repeated calls for a Tourism Sub-Committee of the local Council to be established, but these have fallen on deaf ears. There have been similar fruitless calls for a Tourist Information Office in the harbour. A local restaurateur, an innovative Athenian, said in an interview: “The Symiaki think tourism will last forever. It won’t.” This year, 2002, tourist numbers were down on Symi, and in the British sector, were only kept buoyant by cheap “special offers” being made by the three main tourist companies. These are not new issues in tourism as related to islands, and have been discussed by both academics and tourism professionals exhaustively over the last twenty years. That they are in fact international issues has been recognized by the United Nations (UNESCO 1990.) But the Symi Dimarcheion seems incapable or unwilling to benefit from this literature. In short, there seems little or no awareness, or interest, amongst Symiaki of how tourism and tourist businesses are conducted elsewhere, even in Greece.

The social consequences of tourism on Symi are now being felt by locals. They themselves say that they are more materialistic, and individualistic. They say that there is more envy and malice on the island, and that the traditional Greek filoxenia towards strangers is a thing of the past. They have to work so hard during the seven months of the tourist season that they are losing their sense of cultural identity. Further, this work is such a grind that winters on Symi are becoming deader and deader as people recuperate, as I myself can testify. A local woman told me: “It’s not a normal life; we feel stranded in winter, it’s too big a contrast. Life has become unbalanced.” She says that the increased affluence of locals has meant more TVs and computers, and thus passive entertainment, in the home, which has thoroughly eroded traditional collective winter entertainment, like dances.

Politics on Symi are paralysed by tourism. It is widely said by locals that the island is run by a speira, operating a big kombina, two Greek words which were new to the writer. They translate as ‘(criminal) gang’ and ‘racket’ respectively. The English-speaking community refers openly to the “Symi Mafia.” While it is unwise of an ethnographer to ask individuals if they are Mafiosi, it is not difficult to deduce who these persons are locally, and suffice it to say that they are all involved directly or indirectly with the tourist industry. The Dimarchos has been criticized persistently for maintaining an “open door” policy in his office. While this may appear hyper-democratic at first sight, what it means in practice is that he is bombarded with petty individual complaints, and requests for patronage, to the extent that critics say he is afraid to innovate for fear of alienating his support. Yet he has been re-elected on three consecutive occasions, thus serving a total of twelve years in office, and presiding over the explosion of tourism to Symi. A sign of the times is that he is being seriously opposed at the elections which are about to be held. Significantly, the major backers of the new candidate, a local young man, are a group of women, including several who are not from Symi, but all married to Symiaki men, and involved in tourism.

Most people on Symi, Greek or foreign, would agree with most of these points. And these points were systematically discussed with many Symiaki by the researcher. But my feeling after two years’ fieldwork on Symi, preceded by four years visiting as a tourist myself, is that there does not seem to be the reflexive political will on the island to change tourist policy, or more correctly, to draw up a tourism policy. I am not optimistic about the future of tourism on the island, and I am not appealing to some romantic image of a former “traditional community.” The local woman quoted above, a true Symi patriot, said to me with frustration: “The Symiaki think that their island is the center of the universe. They are easy-going, but neither helpful nor open people.” This squares with my experience during the two years of this research project. The data strongly suggest that the Symiaki neither possess the cultural reflexivity which Waldren reported for Deia on Mallorca (Waldren 1996), nor the ability of the Maltese to protect their culture by imaginatively constructing ‘dummy’ cultural events (Boissevain 1996.) I am therefore reluctantly forced to the conclusion that as far as tourism and Symi are concerned, travel writer Paul Thereoux hit the nail on the head when he said (Theroux 2000):

Yet which island on the world is friendly? By
their very nature, islands have a fortress mentality –
the configuration of an island landscape is fortress-like....
In order to survive, islanders develop an innate suspicion
of outsiders…………They have the intuitive skills of
seamen, and they need them………‘Friendly’ is
just a tourist-industry sobriquet. In my experience, the
friendliest people on…..islands are those who have
the greatest assurance that you are going to leave soon.


Anderson, Benedict (1991): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso.

Beller, W., d’Ayala, P. & Hein, P. (eds.) (1990): Sustainable Development and Environmental Management of Islands, Paris: UNESCO.

Boissevain, Jeremy (ed.) (1996): Coping With Tourists: European Reactions to Mass Tourism, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Damer, Seán (1998): Legless in Sfakia: Drinking and Social Practice in Western Crete, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 6, 2, 291-310.

Damer, Seán (2000): Scotland in Miniature? Second Homes on Arran, Scottish Affairs, 31, Spring.

Damer, Seán (2002a): “Operation Catapult” and the Development of Tourism on Symi. Mimeo. Submitted to JRAI.

Damer, Seán (2002b): Signifying Symi: The Social Construction of Authenticity. Mimeo. Submitted to Ethnography.

Doxiadis Associates (1966): Development of the Island of Symi in the Dodecanese, Greece: A Feasibility Report, DOX-GRE-A168, Athens.

Goffman, Erving (1990): The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Penguin.

Herzfeld, Michael (1991): A Place in History: Social and Monumental Time in a Cretan Town, Princeton: Princeton University

Holst, Gail (1993): The Road to Rembetika: Music of a Greek Sub-Culture: Songs of Love, Sorrow and Hashish, Athens: Denise Harvey & Co., 3rd Edition.

Just, Roger (2000): A Greek Island Cosmos: Kinship and Community on Meganisi, Oxford: John Currey.

Kenna, Margaret (1993): Return Migrants and Tourism Development: An Example from the Cyclades, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 1, 60-74.

Kenna, Margaret (2001): “The Role of Return Migrants and Urban Migrants’ Associations in the Revival and Reinvention of Greek Island Tradition: An Example From the Cyclades,” Paper for Conference Volume: British Archaeology Reports, International Series, West Mediterranean, Presented at Conference on “Islands in Prehistory,” Deia, Mallorca, September 2001; submitted January 2002.

Kohn, Tamara (1997): Island Involvement and the Evolving Tourist, in: S. Abram, J. Waldren & D. McLeod (eds.): Tourists and Tourism: Identifying With People and Places, Berg. 24

McCannel, Dean (1976): The Tourist, New York: Schocken Books. O’Reilly, Karen (2000): The British on the Costa del Sol: Transnational Identities and Local Communities, Routledge.

Selwyn, Tom (ed.) (1996): The Tourist Image: Myths and Myth-Making in Tourism, Wiley.

Taylor, John (2001): Authenticity and Sincerity in Tourism, Annals of Tourism Research, 28, 7-26.

Theroux, Paul (2000): Fresh-Air Fiend: Travel Writings 1985-2000, Hamish Hamilton.

Tsartas, Paris (1992): Socioeconomic Impacts of Tourism on Two Greek Islands, Annals of Tourism Research, 19, 3, 516-533.

Tucker, Hazel (1997): The Ideal Village: Interactions Through Tourism in Central Anatolia, in: S. Abram et al. (eds.): Tourists and Tourism, op. cit.

Waldren Jacqueline (1996): Insiders and Outsiders: Paradise and Reality in Mallorca, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Wang, Ning (1999): Rethinking Authenticity in Tourism, Annals of Tourism Research, 26, 2, 349-370.

Wickens, E. (1994): Consumption of the Authentic: the Hedonistic Tourist in Greece, in: A. V. Seaton (ed.): Tourism: the State of the Art, Chichester: Wiley, 1994, 818-824.

Text © Universidad De Sevilla Biblioteca


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- An Ethnography of Tourism on Symi 30/01/2008
- Book Review: "Symi 85600" by James Collins 20/01/2008
- Melodies In the Courtyard of St John 05/08/2007
- The Ox-Eye Window 18/07/2007

(8) Comments

  1. Lofty said on 03/12/2008, 11:35

    Putting aside the negative views you ha ve of the British behaviour i have never heard of any of us refer to each other as "Brits"

  2. Lofty said on 03/12/2008, 11:55

    In fact i hope you get sued and have to cough up all of the £26,356.45 that you recieved for this report.

  3. Will said on 03/12/2008, 20:09

    The threat to sue by several of the people refered to (not by name) in this articles was long ago abandoned as they had no hope of winning in a Greek court...or probably any court. Such a case would necessarily involve a dissection of their lives on Symi in court, and it is not something any of them would relish. Damer uses bitchy language and can be quite unscientific, but he makes some very astute points & is spot-on with certain deductions he makes, in my opinion. Many of the "Brits" on Symi are also very ready to concede this point. Clearly Damer hated every last one of them & must have got satisfaction from his hatchet job.

  4. Lofty said on 04/12/2008, 11:26

    It's not important whether he named them or not.He painted virtually all of the British people living there with the same brush,and as you say in a bitchy and unscientific way.I'd say he's let himself down in a big way as an academic.
    Just a small point on getting involved in some aspects of the culture,which personally i like to do because i'm interested,i wouldn't expect any Greek person that lives in England to get involved in Morris dancing or getting into early English outlaw ballads !

  5. Janet said on 04/12/2008, 23:14

    I've lived in England for one week shy of 54 years and in all that time I can recall seeing Morris dancing only about three times and finding it comical and very non-participatory, and a bit boring after more than a couple of minutes. I have never heard, to my knowledge, any outlaw ballads.

    In a single two-week holiday on Symi this summer I saw three live music events and a dance festival with well over a hundred Symi people participating & celebrating. It was very participatory and not in the least boring even after two hours.

    I really don't think the two are remotely comparable.

  6. Oor Willie said on 05/12/2008, 01:03

    Janet's comment only goes to show the diversity of cultures in the UK I would think that most Scots and Irish people have either watched or participated in traditional "folkish" cultural events and even Damer makes a distinction between the English and the other Brit's. By the way, and there is a real Glasgow expresion, I hate the term Brits almost as much as I hate being called a Jock! As far as participating in Greek cultural events when in Symi, I have 2 left feet so dancing is a no no and as my facility with languages is minimal I can't sing along but I do like to watch and listen and as a non gaelic speaking Scot who goes to a lot of folk concerts I am used to listening to songs without understanding the words, just a roundabout way of saying you dont need to speak the language to appreciate te culture though if I lived on Symi rather than visited once or twice a year I would make the effort to at least speak a little Greek but I think reading and writing it would be beyond me

  7. Will said on 05/12/2008, 01:41

    On the one occasion I ever went to Newcastle, I found the difference with London to be very noticeable. The people were friendlier, went out of their way to be helpful, and I left very impressed with the place. I'd even spent 3 hours listening to some wonderful local folk music. In Norfolk, my old county, "culture" is a swear word, I'm afraid.

    The UK is very diverse and a loose generalistion is that it's culturally barren up until the Humber and then it tends to get more "cultural" the further north you go.

  8. Lofty said on 05/12/2008, 11:30

    You're spot on Oor Willie,we dont need to understand any language to appreciate the music or dance,the emotions are clear to see.
    Janet,i couldn't help injecting a bit of humour in my last paragraph.I was trying to draw a far apart connection with Rembetika,the origins,if i'm correct came from the Greek underworld,songs written by social outsiders whose norms and values were outside the mainstream,hence outlaws.Maybe i shouldn't be so cryptic.
    Anyways,i'm glad it's opened up an interesting debate,maybe we should move it over to the mainstage on Symi Chat,it could do with a bit of livening up!
    Oor Willie,i've been learning Greek over the last few weeks at the local college,and yes it is tough.If you start by learning all the sounds of the alphabet and sounds of the double vowels you'll be reading in no time.I've no idea what most of it means but i can actually read Greek text now,it's fun.Have a go !

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