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Romanos Finds What He's Been Missing in Crete

Date: June 27, 2001
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Lisa Ventre
Archive: Profiles Archive

Had the 32-year rule of Indonesian President Suharto not collapsed, Michael Romanos might never have returned to his home island of Crete for more than a short visit here and there.

Michael Romanos, in Crete

But his plans to lead a UC research project in Southeast Asia fell through two and a half years ago. As a result he has spent a good portion of his recent summers driving a brown van with Ohio license plates around his former homeland in the Mediterranean.

In fact, Romanos is in Crete right now, leading another research team. It's work that came about by "accident" but which has now become a passion.

As the former senior adviser for urban and regional development to the minister of economic planning in the Republic of Indonesia, Romanos had put together a UC research team to examine environmentally friendly development in Indonesia in summer 1999. When economic and governmental turmoil forced him to postpone the plans, he instead discovered that his own native territory could use his help. He quickly launched a substitute project that took him home, accompanied by other UC researchers.

Since then, he has returned again and again for work, not pleasure. The work has been supported by the Institute for Global Studies and Affairs, UC's Faculty Development Council, the School of Planning, and the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.

Landscape, Crete

When a younger Romanos left Crete 30 years ago, he thought he would return shortly, after pursuing an education in the United States. Disagreement with the Greek government, a military junta, necessitated his departure in 1969 after a temporary imprisonment.

"The idea was to return soon. No one thought the dictatorship would last very long," Romanos explains. Even though the government fell in 1974, Romanos postponed returning, taking full advantage of the American higher education system. He earned a master of science at Florida State and a PhD in regional economics from Cornell, taught at Cornell for two years, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for another nine, and then, in 1984, came to UC's School of Planning to serve as its director.

He bid Crete farewell 10 years before tourism began its rapid transformation along the Cretan coastlines. When he departed, he and other regional development workers were just beginning to suggest that the island, Greece's largest, should introduce tourism as a way to enrich and diversify its economy.

"We thought we needed a quick fix for people who were existing on subsistence agriculture," he says. Today, the visible results of tourism's rapid and unchecked explosion alarm and dismay the 59-year-old expatriate. "For me personally, there are a number of small tragedies occurring," he says.

"Personally I miss a lot of the ambience of the old village life that I knew in the '60s. I miss the old buildings that have now been demolished. There has been so much development it is almost impossible to reverse. Many of the things that used to constitute Crete are gone," he laments.

"I couldn't even find my old house, if it still exists, because none of the old landmarks are there anymore," says Romanos of his native village, Agios Myron, near the capital of Heraklion.

Seashore, Crete

Rampant development not only changed the architecture of old villages, it also created environmental problems. Masses of tourists crowd Crete's beaches, jam coastal streets with vehicular and pedestrian traffic, cause water shortages where there once was adequate supplies and generate garbage often set afire in burning landfills. At the same time, the travel industry threatens to overtake older, smaller villages and the traditional occupations of agriculture, lace-making, wood carving and pottery.

"This was a very serene, protected sort of virgin territory until massive tourism began to descend on it," Romanos recalled, as he sat near a village square in the village of Avdou.

Although it may be too late to reverse the changes, UC researchers led by Romanos, hope to find better alternatives for Crete's future. They hope to suggest development that is more environmentally safe for the island as well as find solutions to some of the most pressing ecological problems.

The work takes a heavy toll on Romanos, who pushes himself in a way that exceeds even the American style of overworking. The only Greek-speaking member of the UC research teams, he holds frequent meetings with local officials, citizens and agency heads. During his six-week research trip to Crete last summer, he usually got up at 6 a.m. and stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. to spend hours talking to Cretan villagers and UC team members.

Toward the end of the team's work this summer, he lost his voice and tried unsuccessfully to stop speaking for the last two days before a scheduled public presentation. Fortunately, his vocal cords held up long enough for him to address, in Greek, the overflow crowd of more than 150 people who came to the Hersonissos Cultural Center to hear about UC's work.

Fabrika

While this native son's Cretan comeback is mostly about using his professional skills to help out his homeland, it also has proved to be a learning -- or rather -- re-learning experience, for Romanos. His re-introduction into the Cretan culture re-awakened his love for the island. He has even decided to make his retirement home in the village of Avdou.

"For years I have been thinking of doing something to force myself to slow down," said Romanos, who pursues hobbies of furniture making, photography, painting and sailing, in addition to his vocation of regional planning. "I considered a house on a lake or some land in Indonesia. Then [in 1999], things in Crete progressed quickly and I realized I really love the lifestyle there."

The "retirement" home he has selected will be a huge project in itself. It's a dilapidated olive oil processing plant, or fabrika. Like a true planner, Romanos, with his wife Carla Chifos (also a faculty member in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning), has laid out a three-year plan for renovations. Already, weeds growing as tall as the citrus trees in the orchard have been chopped back and other progress is visible.

Last summer, after the UC team returned to Cincinnati, Romanos stayed behind to work with renovators to install water and electrical service to the 100-year-old building, tear down an old structure, lay a new foundation and floor, remove the old metal roof and construct new stone walls.

Avdou

While the house has a long way to go before it's ready for Romanos' retirement, so does Michael himself. It has been a long time, after all, since he lived as a Greek.

Last August, as he sped his van through the streets of Avdou each day, rushing to get to an appointment or finish an errand, Greek men leisurely playing cards and talking at the local kafeneia would stare in disbelief. Sometimes they stopped him and asked, "Why are you rushing? America has adulterated you for 30 years. It will take a long time to get you to slow down and act like a Greek again."

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