Painful return to country roots

2012-06-11 00:00

THIRTEEN years after abandoning rural Greece for a career in graphic design, Spiridoula Lakka finds herself in the last place she expected to end up — watering a patch of lettuce and herbs in her sleepy village.

As Greece sank into its worst economic crisis since WW2, Lakka had already given up her dream of becoming a web designer. She faced a simple choice: be stranded without money in Athens, or return to the geriatric village where she grew up plotting to escape.

At age 32, Lakka joined a growing number of Greeks returning to the countryside in the hope of living off the land. It’s a reversal of the journey their parents and grandparents made in the sixties and seventies.

Data are scarce on how many people have made the trek, but as people angered by austerity head to the polls on June 17, anecdotal evidence and interviews with officials suggest the trend is gaining momentum. In a survey of nearly 1 300 Greeks by Kapa Research in March, over 68% said they had considered moving to the countryside.

“A year ago, I couldn’t imagine myself doing any farming,” said Lakka. “I’ve always wanted to leave the village.”

Her experience has been far from idyllic. The arrival of city-dwelling Greeks is being watched with a mix of pity and hope by those who never left.

“Those who have returned are desperate. They aren’t coming back because they wanted to,” said Stefanou Vaggelis, a 50-year-old distillery owner.

This summer, judging from the queries he has received from city dwellers on vacation, Vaggelis predicts as many as 60 people will move to Konitsa, where over half of the population of about 3 000 is aged 60 or over.

“They usually ask whether there are state subsidies for agriculture and for growing pomegranates, snails and aromatic herbs,” he said.

Greece’s farmers mostly run small operations and rely on EU subsidies to survive. They complain that over the past five years subsidies have halved.

For those returning, rural life promises rent-free housing, back-yard produce to fill dinner plates and support from a network of relatives and friends. The Kapa survey showed most people planned to count on family and friends to help.

Five decades ago, one in two Greeks was employed in farming. The Pan-Hellenic Confederation of Unions of Agricultural Co-operatives, a farmers’ union, says employment steadily shrank in the early 2000s, but agriculture added 38 000 jobs between 2008 and 2010, as Greece slid into a recession that is now in its fifth year. It lost jobs again in 2011 when the banking crisis squeezed lending to farmers, but people have continued to return to villages, said the union’s general manager Ioannis Tsiforos.

Until recently, the Greek countryside was largely a place young people escaped from. The lure of city jobs spurred a wave of migration to urban centres after WW2.

Today, Athens is home to about four million of Greece’s 11 million population, but it is no longer a magnet for the young and ambitious. At 22%, unemployment in Athens hovers just above the national average.

All this came as a shock to Lakka. She grew up convinced the move to the big city was a rite of passage. She studied

design in Thessaloniki and moved to the capital at 22. A graphic design job proved difficult to find, so she took up odd jobs. Her big break came with a temporary contract as an office clerk with a state social security fund.

The pay was a paltry 640 euros per month, so Lakka did waitressing and office work on the side. Then the debt crisis hit, forcing Greece to take a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Lakka struggled to find extra work. Panic set in.

The final straw came last June, when she learnt there was no money to renew her contract.

“I said to myself: ‘There is no way I’m going to start begging my friends again for a new job’,” she said. “I decided to return to my village.”

But adjusting to life in the village is not easy. Hoping to put her city skills to use, Lakka tried to transform the petrol station café. But the tight-knit village community had other thoughts.

“One woman said: ‘The girl from Athens has come to change our ways, but she has to adapt to us, not the other way round’,” Lakka said.

There is no certainty of a happy ending. What she does know is that Athens did not leave her much choice.

“I still have second thoughts, though from what I hear from friends in Athens, I’ve made the right choice,” she said. — Sapa.

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