Vibrant, self-sufficient community booms as residents bond over work, weddings

On the way to the community’s multipurpose room, which currently hosts a photography exhibition, a couple approach Tsoukalas. «Are you the community chairman?» they ask. When he replies in the affirmative, they shake his hand and ask him to go outside and have his photograph taken with them. The woman is a standing as a candidate for mayor of Makrynitsa and has come with her husband to see what they call the «little legend of the area.» «We’ve heard about everything you’ve done and we hope we can manage to do at least half,» she says. «It isn’t hard,» Tsoukalas had told us earlier. «You just have to have an appetite for work and the determination to follow up what European Union funds are given for, what programs there are and to organize studies. Whatever we have done here has been with EU money; and in 12 years a village that was last has become first. If I were in a municipality with 50 staff, I could perform miracles. Some see the municipality as a springboard to something higher; others hope to make money. I’m one of those who respect the money of the Greek state and of the European Union and I try to increase it.» Accommodation Apart from a modern all-day elementary school, the community persuaded the EU to fund the construction inside the school building of a 70-square meter apartment to give teachers free accommodation. The same was done for the state-employed doctor, who has a surgery and an apartment here so he can stay in the village all week and two weekends a month. «In other villages you examine patients in a cafe,» Anavra’s doctor Nikos Anagnostou tells us later. «Here the president took care to see that there was a permanent doctor. The working conditions are the best possible, and he has arranged it so that I do my duty roster here and not at some hospital in Volos where nobody needs me.» Wind park Next we visit the springs, near the Enippeas River, a branch of the Pineios. Alongside it for two kilometers is a cobblestone path that passes bridges, children’s playgrounds, water mills and winches that are being restored amid huge palm trees. It is a beautiful walk that starts at one gate and ends at the other gate of the environment and culture park. «We’ve put animals in here, hares and deer, and fenced it off so the sheep don’t get in. Soon we’ll employ someone and charge an entrance fee. Lots of schools have expressed an interest,» says Tsoukalas. This is another source of income for the community. «I was never concerned about how the village could make enough money to get by on its own,» he said. «In 2001 when a Spanish company asked to install a wind park in our mountains, I was keen because I knew what PPC pays for energy from renewable energy sources. I gave them a lot of support and they managed to deal with the red tape quickly. Now we are entitled to 3 percent of what they produce. The community will earn 100,000 euros a year without doing anything. «I have called for tenders for a small hydroelectric station through an EU program from the Development Ministry,» he continued. «In winter we’ll make 150,000 euros from that. So Anavra will become independent and look to the future with optimism.» Many people are interested in visiting Anavra. «There are people who call me up wanting to buy houses in the village. Anavra is a phenomenon by Greek standards. A remote mountain village that has 700 permanent residents, most of them young, it has acquired 70 new households in recent years, and has zero unemployment, thanks to livestock farming. I’m trying to find workers for the community and I can’t.» Midday finds us eating in the main square at one of the village’s five tavernas that attract customers from far and wide to eat the famous meat of Anavra. With us is the museologist, who is working on a museum of stock raising, another project thought up by the president. On the road toward the grazing land we meet Zoi, 13, who is taking her grandfather’s goats out for water. «That’s what life is like here,» says Olga Lialiou, who is president of the Women’s Association. «You see young women your own age who put on overalls and tend the animals with the men. They make 30,000-50,000 euros; it would be hard for a wage earner to get that kind of income. They live well. That’s why our tavernas are busy with lots of customers and close late. When there’s a wedding here, the whole village is invited. You get 700 people in the main square. And we get together when the mayor calls general meetings, to talk about our problems and hear what we have to say.» Organization «You can organize a village the way a family organizes its life,» Tsoukalas explains. «When I came here they used to throw their rubbish into streams, out of windows. I fixed up the dump and employed a man to collect the rubbish. He went out and collected two bags from the whole village. They told me, ‘You’re wasting money on the garbage man; we can carry a few bags by hand.’ I said, ‘No, they’ll get used to it,’ and I sent him out every day. Well, they got used to it.» Do they ask him for odd things sometimes? «Someone asked me for an airport,» he said. «And someone else said I should ask the state to give Anavra residents a bonus. ‘Why?’ I asked, ‘What bonus?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘You’ll think of something.’» The most ambitious project that Tsoukalas has planned is remote heating. «We have done a preliminary study on installing a remote heating system,» he said. «A main tank with water is installed in the upper part of the village. Every house in the village will be connected by pipe and get free heating. It will operate by burning biomass, and we’ve got plenty of that,» meaning branches, leaves and wood. Under construction is the new sewage system, which will complete the basic infrastructure. And there is a swimming pool in the pipeline. This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement K on October 8, 2006.