How to Turn “Less” into Everything You Need
Imagine a simple dinner made from a potato that has just been dug out of the earth. You have fresh butter and fresh sour cream, made over the last week. You don’t have much in the way of exotic spices, just a bit of locally smoked paprika, some sea salt, and some black pepper. You don’t have fancy air fryers, 947 different cooking vessels, or gadgets to cut it into fancy shapes.
You have your potato, some olive oil, some tin foil, and your oven.
You bake your fist-sized potato after slathering it in fragrant, dark-gold olive oil (plus a couple of extra ones for future meals.) You cut it open, slather it with the fresh, yellow butter, and season it with your salt, pepper, and paprika. Add a dollop of sour cream, then sit down at your table. You’ve spent about 50 cents total on this, or perhaps you grew every single bite yourself.
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The potato is tender, flaky, and earthy, delicately flavored with butter, filling your tastebuds. The skin is crisp. The sour cream topping is a cool, delicious contrast. The flavors imparted by the simple seasonings are delicate, yet rich at the same time.
This is what happens when you say, “I had a delicious, fresh potato loaded with delicious things” instead of “I only had a potato for dinner.”
Lessons from living differently
As many of you know, I’ve taken off to spend some time in Europe, and things are a lot different here. I’m here for a few months, on a temporary basis, to do some writing. But while I’ve been here, I think that there are some lessons we can take away from this that may help us prepare for the economic crisis that looms over us.
As most of you know, Greece suffered its own economic collapse in 2009 that worsened over the course of the next five years or so. (I wrote about it here.) It was a terrible time here, but gradually, the country recovered to some degree. However, people still don’t really make enough money to survive easily in the economy, taxes are exorbitant, and the infrastructure has become badly degraded. Because of the economic crisis, things are less “advanced” here than they are in the US. There’s less dependence on technology, a fact that is in unison welcome (less surveillance) and frustrating (you can’t do everything online here.)
But there are some things that we can use to help us through hard times. No, I’m not saying that Greece is “better” than the US – I’ll always be an American, no matter how far I might wander. I’m just saying that people are people, no matter where in the world you are. And the way others have adapted can sometimes help us find our way.
People here have less than people in the United States, but many of them have turned “less” into everything they need to be healthy, happy, and content.
First of all, you see lots of local economies. I am in Athens, a large city. When I say “local” I am referring to my neighborhood. Each neighborhood seems to be built around various circles with a small park in the center and businesses surrounding it. Just up the road from me, I can find all sorts of specialty stores: a fruit stand, a vegetable stand, a butcher shop, a dairy store, a bakery (for bread and savory goods), a pastry shop (for desserts), and a store that focuses on dried goods like beans, pasta, rice, and seasonings.
The people running the shops are quite proud of the origins of the food they sell. One man tells me of the farm his uncle owns, where his vegetables are grown. “My uncle grows things; differently, he touches each plant himself,” he confides. Each vendor wants you to know why their product is so much better than anything else that you’ll find. There’s a certain pride in this, and everything you purchase is of the utmost quality. After a few weeks of returning to the same shops and seeing the same people, you begin to build a relationship and a rapport. A bevy of shopkeepers enthusiastically cheer on my attempts at learning their language, correcting me, and having me say the word back properly.
But it’s not only that.
Every week there’s also something called a laiki, where farmers from the outlying areas come into town and pop up their orange tents selling their current harvest. These happen all over the city, and each neighborhood has a different day on which their laiki occurs. I’ve gotten delightful fresh goods here, and it’s absolutely incredible food. The price is mind-blowing. I handed a two-Euro coin (about $2.12 USD) to a man standing behind a mountain of fresh potatoes the other day and ended up with almost more than I could carry home. I got olive oil decanted into a container that looks like a plastic water bottle. I have honey from a farm that grows thyme. If it grows from the earth and is in season, you can find it there.
People here tend to pay cash because the taxes are so extortionate. They build relationships. They scoff at the chain grocery stores and their pale offerings in comparison to the rich, fresh goodness you can get on your street.
Perhaps this is something we could all look for. Maybe we could find farmers and vendors who take pride in their offerings because they’ve seen it through from start to finish. Perhaps we could go back to the basics, the things that don’t come from packages, and buying from people, not corporations.
Thrift as a way of life
Ever since the collapse (and perhaps before, I never visited previously) thrift is a way of life. Here, you don’t always have hot water. You have to turn your water heater on about 20 minutes before you need it. This saves on electricity because you’re only heating up the water for 20 minutes a day. If you’re careful, enough water will remain in the tank for you to wash your dishes and have at least warmish water for handwashing during the rest of the day.
Nobody has dryers and every street you walk down has laundry on lines flying like flags from apartment balconies. There’s no HOA nonsense here. Every balcony is loaded with laundry, tomato plants, and herbs. Rooftops have solar panels and water tanks. Electricity is used in the smallest amounts possible at all times.
Part of this is that the price here has skyrocketed. Now, it’s all relative. I was pleasantly surprised when my first electric bill was just 43 Euros ($46.50 USD), but if I only made 800-1000 a month, the typical wage for a Greek, that would be pretty devastating.
If you were to leave your water heater on all day or your heat or air conditioner on while you stepped out, locals would look at you as though you’d completely lost your mind.
One of the major guilty pleasures here is having coffee. Greeks will sit outdoors at one of the many cafes here and sip coffee as a social event, a break from their workday, or on a date. Instead of dropping $10 on dinner or lunch, or $30 on drinks at a bar, the social outing here is a $2 latte. And what’s more, coffee is to be savored, sitting in one place. You don’t get up and walk around with your coffee. You certainly don’t drive through to get it. You sit in a chair, at a table, like a civilized person. It’s an entire ceremony.
A beautiful day might be spent on a park bench, watching your children at a playground or reading a book. There’s a park nearby loaded with orange trees. You can smell the faint whiff of citrus in the air, and benches are everywhere, placed to take in the views.
Walking is not just transportation – it’s a joy. You walk wherever you can because a) traffic is a nightmare, and b) parking is a nightmare. But it’s not a grudging thing – there are lovely shop windows to peruse, beautiful balconies dripping with flowers and vegetables, plump stray cats hissing at you from low branches like the guardians of the trees, and the glorious sights of ancient Athens. Due to this, most people are fit and healthy and truly love being outdoors and walking to their destinations.
Then there’s the simplicity. The meal I described above is quite basic but the freshness of the ingredients made it delicious. I have no kitchen gadgets, few spices, and just one skillet and one baking sheet. It’s a far cry from my well-equipped kitchen back in North Carolina. But the meals I make here is savory and decadent because every single component is as fresh as possible.
Another common meal here is fascia gigantes which translates to “giant beans.” You can find these on nearly every menu of a restaurant boasting home-cooked food from Yiayia (Grandma) and it’s a frequent main dish in home kitchens. These are simply large white butterbeans cooked in tomato sauce. The sauce contains chunky tomatoes, good olive oil, garlic, onion, celery, and carrots and it’s seasoned with oregano, thyme, bay leaf, and the tiniest dash of cinnamon. It cooks all day long until the beans are tender and it’s served with fresh, crusty bread dipped in more olive oil or slathered in fresh butter. (Here’s a recipe that’s pretty close to what I’ve had.)
Meals at home are generally very simple but there’s tons of attention to detail and the best possible ingredients.
Life here isn’t a neverending binge-watch of Netflix or television. People sit outside and enjoy the weather. They talk to their neighbors. They go for coffee (as mentioned above) and the many parks and greenspaces are a testament to their love of nature. I love to sit in a park and read a book with the spring sunshine sparkling through the olive trees above me.
I rarely see people arguing about politics or yelling about anything other than the (stupid) way another person is driving, and it’s all forgotten within seconds, with no hard feelings. People watch the birds feeding in their gardens, and nearly everyone feeds the stray cats and offers them water on the hot days of summer.
No place is perfect, but our attitudes are everything.
Now, this may sound like an ode to Athens, and I suppose it is in a way. But the things I see here don’t have to be unique to a different part of the world. We could all focus on the simple perfection of that ideal dark red strawberry or the tenderness of the beans in our soup, or the fresh smell of the plants surrounding us as we wander through a place of nature, trying to identify the different fragrances and apply them to the proper flora.
We can focus on what we do have instead of what we don’t have. We can stop and look at the world around us and savor it. We can connect with other people and find things in common and a reason to laugh together.
I’m not naive. I know that we have deep problems and rifts that seem impossible to bridge in the United States. But if we start in our own neighborhoods to build those bridges and find some common ground, perhaps that could spread. Maybe we can make our own little corners of the world better just by appreciating them. It could take effort because we’re used to having so much more, but a conscious attempt to try, to take in every delicious, luxurious, decadent detail of a piece of fresh bread dripping with butter will make that bread the feast of kings.
As we scale back our lifestyles to manage this economic chaos we’re facing, we can take a few notes from the way others have done so. We can learn from them, and we can embrace the things that we’re left with. Who knows? It could turn out that your life actually becomes better once you get off the frantic hamster wheel.
Having less doesn’t have to be a bad thing. With the right appreciation and attention to detail, less can magically become everything that you need.
What are your thoughts?
Have you ever had to scale back your lifestyle? Did it work out to be better in the long run? What are some of the small things you like to savor? Have you ever learned something about attitudes when traveling that you’ve applied to your life later?
Article posted with permission from Daisy Luther