Saturday, June 29, 2013

Postcards From A Collapse

I hope there's a Dmitry Orlov somewhere chronicling the Greek collapse (Dmitrios Ourlovos?)
Constantinos Polychronopoulos makes lentils. It's not a job per se, but it's as good as it gets in these troubled times. Laid off from his marketing company three years ago, he hasn't found steady work since, so he started a mobile soup kitchen that rotates around Athens, feeding the poor and hungry. He collects donated lentils -- phakes (fah-kess) in Greek -- which he simmers with tomatoes, onions, and bay leaves in a big pot, cooking them down into a brown, filling, garlicky stew. "It's not a handout," he says, ladling it out in a Styrofoam cup. "It's like a communal supper among friends. We're all in the same boat, and we all eat together."

The postcard image of modern Greek pride is a rich, full table of grilled lamb, sharp cheeses, eggplant casseroles, olive oil-drenched tomato salads, and honeyed desserts -- of happy families toasting each other. It's not people fighting over free cabbage, staring into bare refrigerators, or gathering throwaway oranges at open-air produce markets. It's not free lentil stew. The future, all of a sudden, has started to look a lot like the past.

Those who still have their jobs, even if they've seen their incomes plunge by a third or more, consider themselves lucky. But they no longer stock up on pork chops and imported Gouda cheese, as they did in better times. They eat out less too. On TV, there has been an explosion of "cook-on-the-cheap" shows, including one in which a portly, smiling chef teaches you how to make five elaborate three-course meals for just 50 euros a week. There's also a bestselling cookbook, Starvation Recipes, based on tips from Greeks who survived the famine of World War II. (Sample: Save bread crumbs from the table in a jar to eat later.)

A recent Kapa Research poll found that 71 percent of Greeks find it difficult to get by on their current income. In supermarkets, shoppers talk about the prices -- spending on groceries dropped 8 percent just in the first six months of last year, compared with the same period in 2011 -- and about how little money is left over to pay property taxes and electricity bills. So everyone buys lentils.

And why shouldn't they? A steal at a little more than $1.50 a pound today, lentils were born in Greece. Evidence of cultivation has been found in caves dating as far back as 11,000 B.C. They are ours, and they fueled an empire. In ancient times, a basic lentil soup was a common working-class meal; the wealthy refused to serve it. But it wasn't just the poor who ate this humble legume -- ancient texts are filled with recipes and praise for the lentil. In The Deipnosophists, the ancient rhetorician and foodie Athenaeus of Naucratis noted that many philosophers considered it a virtuous food. The Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who advocated a simple life to avoid sucking up to a corrupt society, subsisted on lentils. The Stoic philosopher Zeno of Citium apparently made a mean stew with leeks, carrots, vinegar, honey, and coriander. Aristotle is said to have liked his lentils with saffron. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, saw other virtues: He prescribed lentils to treat ulcers and hemorrhoids. And the comic playwright Aristophanes called phakes "the sweetest of delicacies."

 "I will never understand picky eaters," says Uncle Thanassis, reaching for a piece of bread. He lived in a succession of rural orphanages during World War II, when Nazi forces plundered Athens, seizing food and fuel en masse. At least 300,000 people died of starvation -- a period that older Greeks call the Great Famine. "They had nothing in the city. There were emaciated bodies lying on the street," he says. "When I was a little girl living through the Nazi occupation," Vasso adds, "we ate wild greens with nothing -- no oil, no salt. Often with no bread."


 At least once a week, my Athenian neighbor Kyria Fani makes a pot of her peppery phakes, which I smell wafting through the halls of our building. Like my aunt, she cooks for seven people, including her son and his family, who live next door. Kyria Fani and her husband are resilient Pontic Greeks in their 70s. They have worked since they were children and saved all their lives to buy their apartment. A few weeks ago, her husband was beaten and robbed in broad daylight outside our building. He had just withdrawn money from the bank to help his son, whose employer at the shipyard hasn't paid him in nearly a year.

On the first floor, a young father recently lost his job. I hear him talking with his wife about how they can't save money, can't plan for the future. "We can at least still plan for dinner," his wife says. I run into the father and the baby one spring afternoon, when I've just returned from the grocery store. I've stocked up on lentils and have big plans to make a week's worth of dal.
Austerity Lentils: What a country cooks when it's collapsing (Foreign Policy)
Many Greeks own farmland that went fallow after their parents and grandparents moved from the countryside to cities during Greece’s post-World War II economic boom. Now, after years of crushing austerity, ever more are turning to their agrarian roots as a backup plan.

“The best thing is that if you’re at the bottom, there’s nothing worse,” said Konstantina Kardoulia, 30, a graphic artist who has been unemployed for a year and a half but has a patch of land near Athens. “We have rabbits, chickens, cabbages, carrots. Enough to cover our needs.”
The unrest barely touched a pastoral estate in northern Athens that belonged to the first queen of Greece, Amalia of Oldenburg. Students in the agriculture class were calm, saying that they had finally found a path that depended little on their leaders. With olive trees taking a prominent role in Greek myths, the advertising copy for farming here was written thousands of years of ago. Most of the 96 students have professional degrees ranging from dentistry to civil engineering. All are unemployed, and most have given up finding a job in their area of expertise any time soon. So they have turned to farming as a business. Some plan to move out of expensive Athens and into the countryside, reversing the migration their ancestors made decades ago.

“After such a long period of unemployment, everybody understands that we have to do something,” said Dimitrios Botsos, 51, who spent decades working for large companies and a nongovernmental organization before being laid off in 2008. His wife is also jobless.

His grandparents were farmers, he said, but neither he nor his parents knew much about agriculture. Still, he said, farming is the obvious fallback for tough times. “The land is there,” he said. “All you need is your hands.” That, he said, is the best recipe for Greece’s economic comeback — not an IMF and European Union recipe that involves billions of dollars of foreign investment.

“If this machine needs lubrication, we should do it ourselves,” he said.


Many Greeks have simply adapted to getting by with less. An open-air food market in one northern Athens neighborhood was packed near closing time one recent afternoon, with shoppers swarming the stands because they know farmers will be eager to sell their merchandise for a bargain.

“Potatoes, they don’t drop in price,” said Katarina Milioni, 45, who was a carpet saleswoman until she was laid off last year. “But fish, they do.”

“People buy a lot less,” she said. “Things have gotten a lot harder.”
Greeks try farming as a backup plan (Washington Post)

In a real collapse, not the fantasy kind, there is still gas in the pumps and food on the shelves. You just can't afford to buy any of it.


  1. Someone asked how this squares with the idea that energy scarcity may actually discourage small farming and help big ag, as I descibed in What If The Peak Oil Movement Isn't Really About Peak Oil?

    That's a very good question. Ultimately, I think it will depend on several factors:

    1.) the article stated that Greece has a lot of farmland that has gone fallow. Is that the case elsewhere? Is there as much good farmland that is not already being used for farming in other countries?

    2.) The article implies that the people farming the land own it, or it has been in the family for some time. So there is less of a debt problem.

    3.) How widespread is this? Is it a trickle or a flood? We might expect a certain number of people would return to the land in an economic downturn; this happened during the Depression as well. However, during the Depression, small farming was still viable before the "get big or get out" consolidation of the seventies. Are the cicumstances similar in Greece?

    4.) Certainly some people are taking up faming, we see that in the United States as well, but is it really a viable alternative to a lot of people in place of jobs? Can they compete? I'm gussing that the market in Greece is much smaller, and there are less products for export. Even in classical times, Greece's climate and topography kept farm plots small, unlike in Roman Europe and North Africa where large estates dominated.

    Neverthelss, it does offer a counterpoint that maybe we will indeed see a return to the land after all as paid employment declines. We will have to wait and see if this trend continues to spead. It seems like this approach is more viable in places like Southern Europe where there is less control by big-ag, there is more distributed ownership of resources, and there is a greater informal economy. As always, we'll see what develops and revise.

  2. I traveled cross country recently, and much of the land I saw passing through Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky looked neglected, with scrub taking over. Maybe they are getting paid not to farm it... but the unused land is there. And if the need is great, people will squat it.

    I am told that in central Europe, food is still being merrily imported, and land that was still farmed by subsistence methods a few decades ago lies unused. And game has proliferated to levels that have not been seen for many generations.

    Small ag cannot substitute for what we know as "jobs" but it sure can keep people fed and thriving. As long as you grow for your table first, only sell the overflow, and stop buying retail.


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