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How we get by in Greece

Times are hard, but everyone in Athens has a village connection.

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Just as the country lurched precariously close to economic collapse, we moved to Greece.

The day we arrived, expecting the first warmth of the Mediterranean spring, it was cold – the sky gray and ominous. On the way home from the airport, the taxi driver asked us why we were coming here when everyone else wanted to leave.

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A couple of months later, when the banks stayed shut because they were running low on cash, I hurried to the supermarket to stock up on diapers and baby formula, but not much else. I knew it wasn’t necessary – our freezer and cupboards were crammed full, as usual, thanks to the regular food parcels we were sent from the horio (village).

In Athens, nearly everyone seems to have a village, a place of abundant orchards and vegetable patches, dedicated matriarchs, and vast reserves of plastic food-storage containers.

Rarely has the plenty of the village been more appreciated than during Greece’s long economic crisis. For some Athenians, food sent from back home helps plug -ever-expanding holes in the household budget.

For us, it vindicated our decision to move closer to my partner’s family after many years of living in South America. His mother’s preparation for a food shipment is exhaustive, almost military. Once, we found a roll of bank notes buried in a tub of dried pasta. Another time she sneaked bills into a bulging bag of carefully wrapped free-range eggs from her small farm. 

First comes the phone call: So-and-so is driving to Athens (normally it’s her sister-in-law, but sometimes it’s a distant and slightly reluctant cousin). What should she send? Do we need more olive oil? Have we run out of walnuts, coffee? Rabbit or chicken? What should she cook for the baby?

It takes two people to unload the car. 

“Your mother’s gone mad,” I said, the first time I saw perhaps half a dozen shopping bags spilling their contents in our cramped hallway. My son and the cat investigated together. Plastic bags rustled and giant red tomatoes rolled across the floor.

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Individual portions of pork chops and chicken arrive frozen and neatly labeled. Sometimes there is a homemade casserole of cuttlefish or meatballs in egg-lemon sauce. Occasionally, there’s orange cake soaked in syrup or a bag of spicy cinnamon cookies from the family’s bakery in the Peloponnese.

When I see heaps of recently harvested oranges, zucchinis, or eggplants, I worry that we won’t be able to eat them before they spoil. But we always do.

For better or worse, one does enjoy being independent, however, so at first I couldn’t help feeling a little put out by what I saw as domestic interventions. In our 40s and parents ourselves, we were beyond mollycoddling, I thought.

“How does she think we managed until now?” I asked one day, wondering if my housekeeping skills were being called into question.

Before long though, I started to look forward to the arrival of our next consignment and realized no slight was intended. It’s common in Greece, after all.

A friend told me her mother and her boyfriend’s mother are locked in competition over who can send the best food parcels from their respective villages. The couple scrapes by on the €600 (about $660) per month he earns. It’s barely enough to pay the rent and the bills, but they still manage to eat well.

I’m already starting to look forward to our next delivery. The bustling laiki (street market) that sets up once a week near our home is a good alternative, but I miss the element of surprise, never knowing what we’ll find inside the carefully packed bags and plastic tubs.

I miss being mollycoddled, too.