Greece’s in­vis­i­ble econ­omy

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY ALEXIS ADAMS Alexis Adams is a writer who lives in Leonidion, Greece, and Red Lodge, Mont.

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 Katte is will have much to say about Greece’s fu­ture and may even of­fer ex­am­ples for all of us.

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