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Greek villagers’ secret weapon: Grow your own food

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Ilias Mathes works at his garden in the village of Karitaina about 131 miles southwest of Athens.

KARITAINA, Greece >> Ilias Mathes has protection against bank closures, capital controls and the slashing of his pension: 10 goats, some hens and a vegetable patch.

If Greece’s financial crisis deepens, as many believe it must, he can feed his children and grandchildren with the bounty of the land in this proud village high in the mountains of the Arcadia Peloponnese.

"I have my lettuce, my onions, I have my hens, my birds, I will manage," he said, even though he can no longer access his full pension payment because of government controls imposed six days ago. "We will manage for a period of time, I don’t know, two months, maybe three months, because I also want to give to our relatives. If they are suffering, I cannot leave them like this, isn’t that so?"

The production of food and milk gives villagers in many parts of Greece a small measure of confidence — and a valuable buffer. But that doesn’t mean the financial cut-off doesn’t cause headaches. Some in Karitaina have to pay 40 euros in taxi fares to get to and from the nearest banks just to withdraw 60 euros, the maximum daily amount for those with bank cards.

The bus to Megalopoli, the town with the bank, was shut down — a victim of austerity. Many of those who used to drive are now too unwell to do so. The majority who live here are retirees, shrouding the town in eerie quiet broken only by the constant birdsong and the sporadic shouting of people arguing about the financial crisis at a vine-shaded café in the town square.

Despite the collective sense that a catastrophe of some type stares Greece in the face, the country’s strong tradition of hospitality remains intact. Mathes won’t let a visitor leave without a bundle of fresh vegetables and some "trachanas" and "chilopites," types of local pasta his family makes by hand.

Many believe the ability to help one another with food gives Karitaina, with about 30 year-round residents and 100 in the long, drowsy summer, a better chance of surviving than city dwellers coping with the same anxieties. Rural Greek communities have age-old survival tactics that allow them to weather storms such as World War II deprivation and natural disasters. They will need to draw on them deeply, as Greece’s current problems are unlikely to go away soon — whatever the outcome of the referendum Sunday on whether to accept the latest bailout proposals, which call for more austerity cuts to already razor-thin public services.

"In the village it’s easier to live," said Ionnis Psilas, who is saddled with debts he says he can never repay after the failure of his car import business. "You can get products from neighbors and give them some. In Athens you are strangers. But the crisis has affected the village very much. We are trying but there is no money here. I lived very well and now I have nothing."

He said he would like to vote "200 times no" against the proposed bailout deal, which would impose still more austerity measures on a country that has endured five years of dire cutbacks. He admires Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for defying European leaders and the International Monetary Fund by urging citizens to reject the deal, a course that could cause Greece to tumble out of the eurozone.

The town, topped by the dramatic remains of a 13th Century castle, has played an important role in Greek history, with its residents among the first to rise up during the war for independence from the Ottoman Empire that began in 1821. Its distinctive Byzantine churches and stone-wrought homes — and the magnificent view of the mountains, rivers and valleys — won it a place on the back of the 5,000 drachma bill before the Greek currency was phased out when the euro was introduced in 2002.

Some have high hopes of a return to the drachma if Greece abandons the euro.

Divisions in the village over whether to be in or out of the eurozone are so pronounced that those who back the bailout proposal sit at one table at a village café while those opposed sit at another, a gulf of empty tables separating them.

Anxiety is in the pine-scented mountain air. No one seems confident the banks will re-open anytime soon despite government assurances that their pensions and savings are secure.

It is a vital issue because one retiree’s monthly pension commonly supports several generations, since so many adults cannot find work.

Some have decided to get by on what they have at home rather than spend a chunky amount to venture to Megalopoli, 17 kilometers (10 miles) away, to try to get more cash from the bank.

Pancyotis Theodoropoulos, 85, said he did not want to spend the 40 euro taxi fare to go the bank to withdraw 120 euros, an amount authorized by the government this week for emergency payments to pensioners like him who do not have bank cards.

"I’m living on the pension from last month," he said in a whisper-soft voice. "I’ll try to go next week. Of course I’m upset. The government has swindled our pension funds."

Some local taxi drivers have cut the price in half for Karitaina pensioners, reducing the transport bite. The cost was not nearly as big a factor before the capital controls came in because people could withdraw their entire pensions at once, usually taking home some 250 to 800 euros.

The retired farmers in this remote region have relatively low pensions compared to other workers, but many get their payments under a special system that allows the Hellenic Postal Agency to deliver the cash directly to their homes.

That has been a godsend since the bank closures, because armored trucks containing cash have delivered funds directly to the post office without going through the shuttered banks, said Keke Bakoyanni, a postal worker who distributes the pensions paid this way and also runs a shop in the village.

The system broke down early in the week when no payments were made — she had to come to Karitaina empty-handed to tell villagers there was nothing for them — but then resumed, with amounts being paid in full, not limited by the new controls.

"I was surprised," she said, sounding mystified by the unpredictability of the improvised system. "People here were lucky, they are the only ones in Greece who got their full pension. This is the old traditional way of getting pensions. "

But she said the controls imposed on most pensioners have stripped them of their pride: "Going to the bank every day for 60 euros makes people feel they have lost their integrity."

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