Little House On The Prairie

As the ferry docked at the port of Piraeus, I awoke from a short night of sleep on the carpeted floor of the ferry and looked around; the days had merged. Had it been dark between departure and arrival at all? I shouldered my backpack, rubbed the sleep from my eyes and tried to get my bearings. Two phone numbers and “Korinthos”, the name of a railway station, were written on the little piece of paper that I held in my hand. After almost eight month of traveling, I’m an expert in asking for directions and finding trains. Even through the blistering midday heat, I succeeded in transferring to another train in an abandoned station. I arrived in Korinthos a little early and I found myself alone on the platform. A man appeared and asked me if I needed help. I declined and tried to explain him that I would be picked up immediately. He didn’t leave my side until I told him that it was my boyfriend who was on his way to pick me up. He disappeared from my view and I thought to myself that if he was still in the station, he must have been terribly confused when my ride became visible moments later. The man who emerged from a battered blue compact car and greeted me was about fifty years old. The hand he extended out to me as a welcome was cracked and dusty and he was wearing a baggy shirt with some holes in it and his pants were caked with earth. The man smiled warmly and introduced himself as Konstantin.

SAM_0402The Korinthos canal, just a few minutes driving by bike from the farm

The first tomato

From the station we drove about three minutes on dirt roads until we arrived on a paved country road. Before long, a white table with a white tarp above it came into view ahead of us and Konstantin pulled over. A petite but muscular woman emerged from behind the crates of olives. She was wearing a tank top and gray trousers and when she smiled at me, she bared almost her entire upper jaw. Her bright blonde hair was tied in a ponytail. I reckon her to be 50ish, too.. When Konstantin introduced us to each other, she stepped forward and hugged me tightly. As I hugged her, Konstantin noticed the red welts on my shoulders. “Oh do you have a boyfriend? ” He smiled mischievously. “No, they are from my backpack ” I replied, trying to cover up the red welts that actually looked a bit like hickeys. Alexandra hit Konstantin gently between his hips, then turned to me and began to explain that he always made these types of jokes and that it is best to just ignore it. I smiled politely, not knowing how many of the stupid jokes I would have to ignore during the next two weeks…
At this moment, a car stopped at the booth. A man got out of the car, said something to Konstantin and pointed to his car. “This neighbor’s gas tank is always empty when he stops here. Basically, we are his gas station!” Konstantin revolted with a smile. He opened his own trunk and got a can of gas. After filling up the tank, the two men started to speak in Greek. While Konstantin spoke, he started to slice a tomato with a big knife. Without looking at it he cut perfect pieces and stabbed the knife through them, like a skewer. With his free hand he sprinkled a little bit of salt on the pieces and offered them to me. Every piece tasted different, almost as if every shade of red or yellow had its own flavor. After a while, the neighbor bid his farewell and within moments another man arrived. “The best thing about this guy is wife!” Konstantin shouted to welcome him. Everyone tried to speak with me in English while I was trying hard to keep my eyes open. Alexandra noticed it and ordered Konstantin to bring me to the house so I could rest. He drove me a few more meters in the blue car and we reached a yellow painted farm house with green window shutters. He guided me to a cool room with big wooden furniture and I fell into the soft bed gratefully. Within seconds I was in a deep sleep.

SAM_0361Potato harvest

The next morning I awoke before the sun. The evening before Konstantin and Alexandra told me that they were in the middle of harvesting the potatoes and since it would be too hot during the day, we would need to start working at 6 o’clock in the morning. Two neighbor women came to help us, we worked next to each other in silence for the first minutes. Everybody was too tired to make conversation. Two of us shared one crate to throw the potatoes which we had pulled out of the soft earth. I avoided sharing a crate with Konstantin. The night before we had a first discussion about Greece and the crisis. We didn’t quite agree on the alleged Jewish world supremacy nor on the fact that everyone in the Pentagon is directed by secret Nazi rule as he believed. Needless to say, I wasn’t eager to continue this discussion in the rising sun.
Digging out potatoes was painstaking work and already after a short while my back began to hurt. Even though everybody was watching me closely in the beginning, the city girl wasn’t doing as bad as they all expected. In fact, I harvested a lot of potatoes when I was sixteen and living in Latvia with a host family for a year. Also my grandparents used to own a little vegetable garden. Though I never worked in fields which seemed as endless as this…
The bigger challenge was sorting the potatoes. To do so we sat on some unused crates in the shade of two big umbrellas. We had to sort the potatoes in four categories: Large, Medium, Small and Yamas. Yamas means “for us” and all the potatoes which weren’t beautiful enough to sell belonged to that category.
It seemed to me as if everyone meant something else by Large or Small. Whenever I decided that a potato certainly was large and threw it into the appropriate crate, somebody else took it back out and threw it to the medium ones.

Organic is an affair of the hearth

The sorted potatoes waited in a cooled storehouse until the supermarket trucks picked them up. For many years Konstantin and Alexandra worked together with the same supermarkets in Athens. “And did you always produce organic food?” I asked them one day. “No,” Alexandra explained me, “On the contrary, for a long time we fought the organic certification. We thought good and chemical-free food should be matter of fact. It shall not cost more money and doesn’t need a special display.” In the end, the crisis forced them to sell their products as certificated organic products. By now they also sell their food often on farmers markets. Alexandra explained to me that without a middleman they would earn more and the clients would pay less. The land we worked on had a long history. Konstantin’s family has owned the land for many generations and over the years they have grown very different products here. “We were the first to cultivate juice oranges in the whole region”, Konstantin told me. “Our orange juice was famous all over Greece.” After the oranges they specialized in wine farming. Even though they were really successful, Konstantin had to stop after the sudden death of his father because he didn’t have his dads knowledge about wine. A relic from the past is the huge concrete basin next to the farmers house. It had once been used as a wine cellar, but nowadays it functions as a water tank.

SAM_0357I wanted to know whether Konstantin’s parents and grandparents produced ecologically too. He thought long about this question and answered after a while that they didn’t. Quality has always been important but they simple didn’t know that there were alternative ways to farm. When Konstantin first took over the farm, he fertilized with chemicals too. “It was horrible”, Alexandra told me, “Days before he started to fertilize he had a bad mood. And on the day itself everybody else had to lock themselves in the house. He didn’t wanted anybody but him the breath the poisonous stuff. When he walked out there he looked like he worked in a nuclear power station. Using chemicals broke his heart. Switching to organic was definitely a matter of heart.” Talks like this were the reason for me to bore through the entire two weeks on the farm. If not for this, I would have quit twice a day.

Harry Potter against Sexism

The reason I wanted to quit definitely wasn’t the hard work. Konstantin’s joke about the red welts on my shoulder should have been a warning for me. From there it got worse and worse. It didn’t matter what I did – Konstantin would talk about my sex life (Do you touch a man like you touch this shovel?”) and when I refused to comment on his “jokes”, he would tell me how uptight my generation is. At some point I stopped asking Konstantin questions. It didn’t matter whether I wanted to know how to switch off the water pump or how to prepare a chicken, the answer was always disgusting. Sadly, I never shot my mouth off. Instead, I was intimidated, silent, disgusted, speechless, embarrassed or sad. One morning during the potato harvest Konstantin asked me how German men are in bed. When I refused to answer he grinned at me and asked: “So, are you a virgin?”. From this moment on, I wore headphones during the work. In two weeks I managed to listen through all the Harry Potter Audiobooks. Thanks to the headphones the working times became my favorite. Several days I spent undisturbed and peacefully with sorting through the potatoes. But my favorite task definitely was driving the tractor. I don’t have a license, so driving 19 mph is a very powerful feeling for me. I loved to handle the big gear shift and to watch the huge tracks my wheels left on the soft ground. For about half a week we were occupied with fertilizing the fields with chicken shit. I had to drive the tractor slowly over the fields while Konstantin and his worker shoveled the chicken shit from the trailer to the ground. A nice work which was every now and then clouded by the wind blowing chicken shit into my neck. Konstantin’s comment to this: “So you like it dirty?” Unfortunately, I couldn’t wear headphones while driving the tractor.

SAM_0358“Our work should be valued more.”

The only time I ever regretted to be, of all things, on a organic farm was when I picked weeds. Line by line, field by field, I freed the young tomatoes from the weeds around it. “Does all that bending down at least pays off?” I asked Alexandra when we rubbed our hurting backs. She shook her head.

Even though she and Konstantin worked really hard the money reached behind and not. Every new electricity bill was a catastrophe. The banks in Greece don’t give loans anymore and so Alexandra phoned friends and friends of friends every evening to borrow money for the next bills. Unfortunately, the vegetable growth don’t fit into any plans and harvest and the quarter’s end don’t always come in the same time. If they can’t pay the next electricity bill, their power will be turned off, Alexandra told me. And without power the water pumps wouldn’t work and without water it’s hopeless to work on the dry land.

For years Konstantins siblings urged them to sell the land. But even if they faced a lot of difficulties, Alexandra and Konstantin aren’t willing to give up. “It makes me happy to produce something good”, Alexandra said. And Konstantin added: “It isn’t right that producing something is out of fashion nowadays. Our work should be valued more. I don’t want to people to eat industrial crap and think it’s normal. That’s why I’m not giving up.”

Even though the economical crisis doesn’t effect the daily work on the farm, they still struggle with the lack of loans and more taxes. But most of all affects them that Greeks don’t spend as much money on food as they used to.
I don’t quite agree with Konstantins solution for the crisis, though. He believed that Greece would be best on his own. He thought a national revolution towards a better and completely independent society would follow once Greece leaves the Euro and EU. In his believes having the Drachme back would mean to travel back to the 1980s were Greece has been a wealthy and healthy society.

Anyways, because all of our political discussions ended with one of them shouting at me and because of Konstantins “jokes” I was happy to leave the farm after two weeks. But after all the world isn’t divided in good and bad, Konstantin and Alexandra work really hard and they produce excellent food. The farm is their big love. I sincerely hope they will be able to get old on the land and that one day their work will be valued higher.

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