The sun finally came to dry the few drops that had timidly soaked the soil of the foothills of the mountains forming the north border of Greece. His smile eats half of his face where the nascent beard covers his face. Despite his arm bruised by a life of toil in the fields where he started working at 11 years old to help his family, his hug lifts me off the ground and makes me turn like a bride on her wedding day (I have lost a little weight since the beginning of this trip, but still!).
That’s the image I keep of Antonis. A true and honest man who offers his love fully, as if he understood that this is what is most valuable (and this is most certainly the case). For me, Antonis represents well the encounter we have with this region of Greece.
So, yes, when we talk about Greece our imagination immediately takes us to postcard islands where the majesty of the blue sky is only rivaled by the purity of the whiteness of the buildings.
So, yes, maybe it’s by pure contradiction that we decided to stop in the north of Greece, in the mountains (because, yes, in addition to dream beaches, Greece is mainly composed of mountains). Mountains where Greek culture mixes, blends and becomes porous with influences from the neighboring Balkans.
This is what Antonis taught us with Tania. That this region had suffered from history, but that its people still love it.
As a perfect illustration of this, Antonis’ life seems truer than life. Imagine, then, at the age of 11, he starts working with his parents on the family farm, grapes for the trade, a few olives for oil and leftovers for everyday life as common peasant sense has always dictated.
But here’s the thing, the peasants’ common sense for some time now, it hasn’t much of a coastline anymore, it’s not … profitable. In fact, a few years ago, the whole of Greece was no longer profitable according to some people. At the time of the 2008 crisis, when Europe wanted to send a strong message to all countries that wanted to deviate from its economic course. Greece will be the example, the bad pupil that is punished so that others do not flinch when the blows come. The great story you know, economic crisis, bankrupt country, political crisis, the Greek government’s attempt to resist, humiliation, austerity, regaining power…
Against this backdrop of great history, let’s return to our little village in northern Greece. Here too, of course, the crisis is being felt, jobs are disappearing, prices are falling, the number of suicides is increasing. The situation is all the more unbearable for Antonis and the winegrowers of the region, because at the time all grape sales are under the control of a single company that sets prices and chooses the quantities to be produced, etc. Familiar as a situation? Yes, perhaps. Where the situation becomes even more untenable is that this large grower is taking advantage of the crisis to revise prices downwards (on the growers’ side only of course) and increase his profit against the backdrop of the crisis.
The equation is simple, the producers have no other way out than a monopoly reseller, they are already suffocated by the crisis and austerity measures. They have no other solution than to align themselves with the prices that are making them even more precarious.
Yes, but the peasants here don’t see things the same way. They are fed up with the situation, so they can go beyond their usual quarrels (because there are always quarrels) and agree to take the matter to the judges. So a group of people get together and go to Thessaloniki to find a lawyer to defend their case.
The judgment will be in favor of the peasants. The opportunity is given to them to free themselves from the yoke of their economic oppressor.
But what to do now, to go back each on his own, to look for a multitude of dealers, to leave the prices free, to remain at the mercy of another big dealer to replace the old one.
Antonis has had an idea for a while and this victory is an opportunity to propose it. Since the families have already managed to agree to pool their forces to face their common enemy, they could build on this momentum to continue learning to work together rather than in their own corners. This is what will be done with the creation of a cooperative of the region’s wine growers. For more than a year, about twenty families from the region met every week to discuss the terms of agreement, the operation of the cooperative, the prices, the common areas, to finally come to an agreement (not without having to get rid of a few ill-intentioned people who had come to drown the organization on behalf of another big retailer).
After a year, therefore, the cooperative is created and the agreement is sealed. And what a success! From the first year, the selling prices are doubled. Since then, the quality of the region’s production has been recognized throughout the country. The cooperative’s activities do not only impact its members, since it is the entire region that has benefited from an increase in selling prices, thus allowing almost fifty families to live again with dignity and without the constant threat of a drop in prices subject to the profitability of a large producer, a multinational or the markets.
So, yes, our story has gone a little beyond that of Antonis in the strictest sense of the word. And let’s be clear, Antonis is not a hero who single-handedly stands up to an evil capitalist who only sees his profit and is ready to crush anyone or anything in his path. No, Antonis is only the person we met there in the mountains of northern Greece, where history has turned the population into a mosaic of people and culture, where the sun warms the souls and brings out of the earth fruits and vegetables of which the inhabitants are proud and which they are ready to defend. But at the same time he is so much more like every person who understands that loving a place is not hating everything that does not come from it, but making people discover and share this love.
Antonis is a smile that invades a face like a river that you release, it’s a strong but reassuring grip, a big voice that scares at first, but that you love when you know that it’s only a latent burst of laughter, it’s “tsipouros ! ” if your glass is empty, and there are so many things we can’t share, because they are too precious for that.
In the end, it will be our Greece, in the meeting and blending of our visions. In the end, Greece is not just about the sea, and that’s good!