As Greece moves ahead, old villages seek balance

August 08, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AKROGIALI, Greece - Maria Mirea is 70 years old, stands about 5-feet-2 - if she balances on her toes - and she is as wispy as the million weepy, leafy olive-tree branches dancing in the wind outside her seafront, cliff-side home.

But in the middle of a conversation, when her cooking show comes on TV, she stands like a cowboy, hips thrust forward, knees bent, a remote control in each hand. She fires away until she nails her target, a demonstration on ancient ways of baking bread.

"As I was saying," she finally continues, as if a talk-show host returning from a commercial break, "everywhere you look, Greece is changing. It's old, but it's new - which is good and bad."

As new as the satellite dish planted on her roof. As old as the ancient olive groves outside her door. And, in some ways, as incongruous as the brown bread baking in a wood fire on the flat screen of her self-adjusting color television.

While Athens cleans itself up for the Olympic Games, anxiously hoping to prove that it is a modern world capital - showing off its retractable-roofed stadiums, its gleaming new light rail system - people in villages like this one are trying just as desperately to balance their old ways with the country's hunger for modernity.

The Olympics tend to define countries for hundreds of millions of people who have never visited them. Justified or not, many in this country of 11 million people believe that how the world views Greece will depend on the success of the Games.

Never mind that two-thirds of Greeks live outside Athens and that in many ways the sport and pageantry set to begin Friday will be far removed from places like this village.

This old village - pronounced Akro-YAH-li - is a year-round home to about 20 families. Fronted by the blue waters of the Gulf of Messinia, it teeters on the edge of the Peloponnese, Greece's southern peninsula. It is about 110 miles southwest of the capital, a nearly four-hour drive through a mountain pass zig-zagging through gorges.

Nearly every mile, it seems, is marked by tiny wooden boxes with crosses atop and candles inside, placed where cars or buses have plunged.

"This certainly isn't Athens. When I got married, there were no cars here, no electricity, no running water, nothing," said Mirea, whose husband died two months ago after 50 years of marriage. "There were goats and chickens but no people. Now you see what it is."

Now, in fact, there are still more chickens and goats than people to be seen in this village built into the chain of mountain ranges dominated by Mount Taygetus. To walk from one end of the village to the other takes 25 minutes. The Greek Orthodox Church is still important here, but worshipers must follow their priests - literally - as they rotate Sunday services among the tiny churches in a scattering of villages.

The loudest sound for miles is the sea lapping on a gray, smooth-stoned beach. At times, the quiet is such that the creaking of anchored wooden boats can be heard as they bob on the waves 40 yards from shore.

But several years ago the first restaurant - seating 42 people - opened here, joining the general store as the only businesses in town. Some families that have lived here for generations have sold their homes. The houses are now rented to tourists, almost exclusively Greek, who want to spend the summer away from Kalamata, a city of about 40,000 people, about a 20-minute drive east along the coast.

Busier roads

And as more people discover the serenity here and in the series of similar-size villages, the number of cars passing through has increased. That has made it more difficult for the waiters at Akrogliali's restaurant to cross from the kitchen, which is on one side of the road, to their tables, which sit on the other side.

"Everything that has changed has been for the better, but I hope it does not change too much more," said Takis Georgouleas, 67. He is retired now after having spent 31 years traveling the world on merchant ships - as a lot of men here have - but he has always returned to where he was born.

Over his patio, his baby crib hangs by a fishing net above tables where he serves coffee to people passing through. Stenciled on its side are the words: "Here I passed the first days of my life." His father and grandfather were born here, his great-grandfather, too, and every male member of his family he knows of.

"Greece is about family and your home," he said. "I feel like Greece has become more European, which is good, but I also hope Greece stays like Greece. We need the good changes, but we need to keep our values."

By the measurements that the United States and much of Europe seem so concerned about - economic growth, income per capita, gross domestic product - Greece, a country about the size of Alabama, is lagging behind much of the developed world.

`Not a rich country'

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