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Facing their country's worst recession in a half-century, many young Greeks are leaving for jobs abroad. But Apostolos Sianos, a 31-year-old Athenian, decided to buck the trend.
Two years ago, Sianos quit his lucrative job designing websites in Athens to help establish an eco-commune, called the Telaithrion Project, in Aghios, his family's ancestral village on the island of Evia. The idea was to teach people to be self-sufficient at a time when both money and opportunities are drying up.
"This means they may be taught simple things like baking your own bread or more complex things like building your own house," says Sianos, who helped build the commune's yurts — the giant, rounded tents favored by Central Asian nomads. About 20 people live on the commune at any given time, and Sianos estimates more than 2,500 people — including many outside Greece — have visited in the last couple of years.
A recent visitor was 26-year-old Julia Friedrich. She traveled from Berlin to spend a week learning about organic farming, something she wants to try back home in Germany. "I brought my sleeping bag and my mattress," she said, showing the corner in the yurt where she slept. "They have mattresses and some blankets and pillows, so there's everything you need for a good night's sleep."
Friedrich had spent the day cleaning walnuts with 24-year-old Myrto Vournia, who quit her low-paying waitressing job in Athens to work on the commune. "We'll make dinner with [the walnuts] tonight," says Vournia, who's lived here for a month. "Later, we're preparing sun-dried tomatoes."
Those who visit the commune also learn to forage for nuts and wild greens, restore discarded furniture and even make their own toothpaste (a mixture of clay, baking soda and peppermint).
Sianos and his partners chose Aghios as the site for their project in part because they wanted to find enough land to eventually expand the commune into a school that teaches sustainable living in a cash-free economy.
"We searched all over Greece," Sianos says. "Most of the people we talked with said to us, 'Don't go somewhere that you don't know anybody.' "
His father, Giorgos, already lived on Aghios. Before the recession hit five years ago, the elder Sianos left his import business in Athens to return to the village where he had grown up. He introduced his son to the conservative villagers of Aghios.
"At first, they were skeptical because rural Greeks tend to be suspicious," he says. "It helped that they already knew me. So the locals embraced him, and some villagers lent [the commune] their fields to cultivate."
Giorgos Sianos now stocks his taverna with fresh produce from the commune, which is vegan and cultivates 80 percent of its food.
Dionysis Papanikolaou, a 30-year-old chemist from northern Greece who has lived on the commune for six months, plants sage, rosemary and lavender. He says working here has taught him to blaze his own path.
"I don't think a country can provide opportunities," he says. "I mean it's up to the individual if they want to grab opportunities or create opportunities for themselves."
With a doctorate in chemistry, Papanikolaou could work anywhere in the world. But he says he wants to stay in Greece. He says it's a land he's just begun to cultivate.