Olga Palavidou cautiously inserts a small spoon into the waxy cell of a honeycomb. The larva inside has to be moved to what's known as a "peanut" cell so that worker bees can raise it to become a queen bee. The job requires a lot of patience, and it's one that Palavidou, a wiry woman in her late thirties, is already handling with ease.
Six months ago, this retail buyer was sitting at a desk in an Athens office. On weekends, she and her friends just like hundreds of thousands of other Athenians would go bar and taverna-hopping; annual vacations were spent in the Cyclades. Then the crisis caught up with her. From one day to the next, Palavidou found herself out of work. "Trying to find another job in Athens was hopeless," she says. "Then somebody told me about beekeeping, how it was a good way to get into farming."
So here she sits, protective netting over her red hair, in a forest clearing on the Peloponnese peninsula, making her beekeeping work look easy although it's not. "There were a lot of set-backs at the start, in fact I had to write off my first hive," she says. But now this burgeoning "royal jelly" specialist is hoping to supply a niche market with the protein-rich secretions that worker bees produce to feed larvae and queen bees.
Olga Palavidou is one of some 40,000 who have joined the ranks of Greece's farming community in the past two years, according to the Greek farmers' association. People are leaving cities in droves, emptying out entire streets formerly full of crowded offices and businesses. More and more residents of Athens and Thessaloniki are trying their hand at farming or fishing, reversing the journey their parents made one generation ago. In many cases their parents migrated to cities from the countryside, in search of work or a better education, leaving a village house or a piece of land that they can now return to.
That's what 27-year-old Konstantina Papanastasiou decided to do after losing her government job in Athens: go back to the village her parents live in. Her grandfather's house in Levidi, a Peloponnese village with a population of 900, had been uninhabited for years. With significant help from a European Union (EU) fund that subsidizes young entrepreneurs, Papanastasiou converted the property into a tasteful bead and breakfast with dry stone walls and wooden balconies.
There are still relatively few guests. "Greeks don't have the money, and foreigners tend to prefer being near the sea," says Papanastasiou. Still, she doesn't regret her move. "It's not that you're going to earn more here, the crisis has hit all over the country," she says over a cup of thick Greek coffee. "But the vibe is better here than it is in Athens. It's easier to keep head above water, and the local support network is fantastic."
Papanastasiou says she was welcomed with open arms back in the village, where her father is the baker (she also helps out in his bakery), and where her husband, Konstantinos, has taken over management of the local taverna. There may be fewer kebab orders than there were a couple of years back, and the ouzo might not flow as freely, but luckily there's still a good week-end market in wedding parties. No matter how bad the economy, people aren't stingy when it comes to a wedding bash.
Since returning, Papanastasiou has given birth to a first child, a daughter. "In Athens, we wouldn't have felt we could bring a child into the world," she says, referring to the prevailing climate of uncertainty. "But here ... I'm certain more and more young people are going to move to the country, and that life in the villages will go back to being the way it was before so many people left in the 1950s."
The Greek farmers' association, meanwhile, is having a hard time keeping up with all the information requests it has received of late. "We get questions about what crops grow best in a given area, where to buy second-hand tractors, the right way to use fertilizers," said a spokesperson. The new farmers, the representative added, are "motivated, good learners, and with their laptops and their e-mail they are modernizing rural life."
It is estimated that one out of every two residents of Athens (population 4 million) migrated to the city from the countryside. Economist Theodoros Pelagidis says that even if all of them return to their villages and take up local economic activity like farming, it won't be enough to save the Greek economy.
"Short-term, we could be looking at a slight rise in the social product from farming income, particularly if we focus on niches like organic products," he says. "But there's no way we can pay back our loans on that. To do that, you'd need a project with much greater economic impact." For her part, Olga Palavidou says she's "had it up to here" with politicians. The strikes and demonstrations in Athens are three hours by car away from her grandmother's farmhouse. Here, she and her boyfriend can sit on the balcony over a supper of wild asparagus, looking out over a field of blood-red poppies and the mountains beyond.
If what she makes from sales of honey, pollen and royal jelly is only just enough to cover what the couple needs to live, so be it. "The air out here is clean and the people are fantastic," Palavidou says. "Young people especially should get out of Athens. Businesses are dropping like flies, there's nothing there anymore. But out in the villages, there's plenty of farm work. And there are so many abandoned houses. If the countryside came to life again, the energy could be contagious and have a positive effect on the whole country!"
Having found her own happy solution to the desperate position her country is in, beekeeper Palavidou says many friends from Athens have been out to visit, investigating the situation for themselves. "Apparently the hot tip making the rounds in Athens these days is that snail breeding is the coming thing." The course at the farming association has been sold out for months.
Also from Worldcrunch:
China's One Mighty Garment Industry is Starting to Unravel