Lessons in resillience from rural Greece

A shepherd guides his sheep through a stream in rural Greece in 2013. (Dimitri Messinis/Associated Press)
A shepherd guides his sheep through a stream in rural Greece in 2013. (Dimitri Messinis/Associated Press)

As the world watches to see whether new bailout talks will ultimately prevent a collapse of the Greek economy, my neighbors in rural Greece carry on with their lives as they have for centuries. Invisible to most economists, they subsist in ways that cannot be measured easily by typical economic yardsticks. Nonetheless, their economy is real, will help them survive the current crisis and in fact offers a lesson in resilience for all of us.

Here on the remote southeastern Peloponnese Peninsula, life is pared to the essentials: food, family and tradition. And whether the country’s currency is the euro, the drachma or, as it was in the days before Christ, the obol, this is the way it has always been.

Take my friend Thomae Kattei. A compact, strong woman in her late 70s, Thomae lives with her husband, Theodoros, on a small farm near the village of Vaskina. Perched on a mountain plateau above the Myrtoan Sea, Vaskina is known as a shepherds’ community, producing cheese and other products handcrafted from the milk of sheep and goats. Since the couple married during the lean years after World War II, they have risen before dawn to milk their ewes and does. Theodoros then leads the herd into the mountains to feed on wild grasses and herbs, and Thomae makes cheese, butter, yogurt and trahana, a fermented blend of milk and wheat. Throughout the year, the couple tends a vegetable garden and chickens for eggs and meat. Once each week, Thomae, often with help from her daughters, bakes large batches of bread and paximadia, the twice-baked rusks that have been a staple in Greek cuisine since antiquity, in the farm’s outdoor wood-fired oven.

Every time I visit the couple, their kitchen table is crowded with seasonal culinary projects: berries to be made into preserves; wild greens, herbs or chamomile foraged from nearby meadows; walnuts and almonds from the trees in their yard. Apart from the bag of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter, there is no evidence of the global economy.

With help from their 10 children and their grandchildren, most of whom live nearby, Thomae and Theodoros consume the fruits of their labor. The cheese Thomae crafts is an exception. Some she shares with her family. The rest she sells or trades with friends and relatives for the goods they cultivate on their own land, such as grapes, olives and wheat milled at Vaskina’s centuries-old mill.

All of this may seem a trip back in time. Indeed, Thomae, in her handmade shift and faded calico apron, looks as if she could have stepped out of a scene in “Zorba the Greek.” But this way of living is not a museum piece in Greece. It is so common on the southeastern Peloponnesos as to be unremarkable.

Thomae is not a “locavore” bucking the trend of corporate, global foodways; she is simply one of hundreds of thousands of people in rural Greece who live this way and always have. Some describe the economy of this remote region of Greece as “peasant-based.” I prefer to call it “human-scale,” “rooted,” “resilient” and “durable.” For it is this very way of living — one that is based in tradition, one that is modest in scale but rich in flavor, one that is handmade, one that is local — that has allowed Thomae and our neighbors a certain sense of security and well-being, even as the country is starved by austerity, even as its economy teeters on collapse.

The conventional analysis of Greece’s economic problems has overlooked this traditional economy, both its size — about 39 percent of the country’s population — and more important its time-tested ability to weather upheaval. We shouldn’t. Whatever happens now, people like the Katteis will have much to say about Greece’s future and may even offer examples for all of us.

Alexis Adams is a writer who lives in Leonidion, Greece, and Red Lodge, Mont.

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