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Modern Greeks Return To Ancient System Of Barter

In Volos, optician Klita Dimitriadis accepts partial payment in Local Alternative Units, or TEMs. She then spends the TEMs at a monthly farmers market, or exchanges them for other services. (NPR)

It's Sunday in Volos, a fishing village nestled in a large bay in central Greece, and fishermen display their daily catch, which this day includes codfish, sardines and octopus.

Prices have been slashed, but customers are few.

Fisherman Christos Xegandakis laughs bitterly. He says business is so bad, it's time to start swapping goods.

"Give me two kilos of potatoes, and I give you a kilo of fish," he says. "Why not?

Indeed, many in debt-ridden Greece — where radical austerity measures have led to soaring unemployment, business closures and a credit crunch — are doing just that: turning to a simpler form of commerce, bartering.

And in Volos, a barter system is also fostering a new sense of community.

Seeking Self-Sufficiency

In Greek mythology, Jason set sail from Volos in search of the Golden Fleece. More recently, the town of 100,000 people was one of the country's most industrialized.

But the recession hit its cement and steel factories hard, and now unemployment there tops 20 percent — higher than the national average.

A local veterinarian's office and shop serves as an informal community center. In this time of crisis, Volos residents come not only for their pets but also to exchange advice and information.

Teacher Alexandra Tsabouris firmly believes in self-sufficiency, as her parents did during World War II.

"If you have a garden, if you cultivate things, if you reduce your needs, if you don't have needs anymore, only in this way," she says.

Liana Papanaum, who lost her job as a secretary, has chosen a more communal approach to make ends meet.

"For example, I have a young couple near me, they have two small children. So I say, 'Could you please do the ironing for me, and I will teach English to your ... children?' " she says.

Growth In Barter Network

Volos is also one of several Greek towns with a more formal type of barter network, which uses a currency called Local Alternative Unit, or TEM in Greek. One TEM is equal in value to one euro.

People sign up for free on the barter network's website, where they can post ads on what they can offer or what they want. Members exchange goods and services — for example, English and computer lessons, baby-sitting and plumbing repairs, medical visits and car-pooling — amassing TEM credit into an online account.

Some shops also accept TEMs, in the form of vouchers that function like checks.

Optician Klita Dimitriadis explains how it works. On a pair of 100-euro glasses, she'll take 30 percent in the alternative currency. She needs the 70 euros, she explains, in order to pay her employees, taxes and rent.

Dimitriadis then spends her TEMs at a monthly open-air farmers market, or in exchange for other services.

Over the past year, TEM members in Volos have grown from a few dozen to more than 500, and the movement has attracted Athens' attention. In September, parliament passed a law giving barter networks nonprofit status.

Substitution For The Welfare State

The Volos municipality also actively encourages the TEM network. Mayor Panos Skotiniotis says initiatives like these are particularly valuable at a time when the economic crisis is dismantling so many social benefits.

"This is a substitution for the welfare state, and that is why this municipality is encouraging it and wants it to grow," he says.

The municipality has printed leaflets explaining the barter system and has promoted panel discussions.

Christos Papaioannou — one of the TEM network's founders — says the worse the crisis becomes, the more people feel confused and at a loss.

"When they lose their jobs, the whole world collapses, they have to believe in themselves, not in the power of money and their employer," he says.

And more and more people are joining the network, Papaioannou says, because it offers a sense of community and self-respect.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz.

For two years now, Greece has been grappling with the debt crisis. Radical austerity measures have led to soaring unemployment, business closures and less and less money circulating. So many Greeks are now turning to a simpler form of commerce. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from one seaside town where a barter system is fostering a new sense of community.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Volos is a fishing village nestled in a large bay in central Greece. On Sunday, fishermen display their daily catch. Today, it's codfish, sardines and octopus. Prices have been slashed, but customers are few.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHRISTOS XEGANDAKIS: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: Fisherman Christos Xegandakis laughs bitterly. He says business is so bad, it's time to start swapping goods.

XEGANDAKIS: (Through Translator) For example, give me two kilos potatoes, and I will give you one kilo of fish, why not?

POGGIOLI: In Greek mythology, Jason set sail from Volos to seek the Golden Fleece. More recently, this town of 100,000 people was one of the country's most industrialized, but its cement and steel factories were hit hard by the recession. Unemployment here runs at over 20 percent. That's higher than the national average.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

POGGIOLI: This veterinarian's office and shop serves as an informal community center. In this time of crisis, Volos residents come not only for their pets but also to exchange advice and information. Teacher Alexandra Tsabouris firmly believes in self-sufficiency as her parents did during World War II.

ALEXANDRA TSABOURIS: If you have your garden, if you cultivate things, if you reduce your needs, if you don't have needs anymore, only in this way.

POGGIOLI: Liana Papanaum, who lost her job as a secretary, has chosen a more communal approach to make ends meet.

LIANA PAPANAUM: For example, I have a young couple near me, and they have two small children. So I say: Could you please do the ironing for me, and I will teach English to your youngest children?

POGGIOLI: Volos is also home to a more formal type of barter network whose currency is called local alternative unit or TEM in Greek. One TEM is equal in value to one euro. People sign up on the barter network's website where they can post ads on what they can offer or what they want. Members exchange goods and services: for example, English and computer lessons, babysitting and plumbing repairs, medical visits and carpooling. There are also shops that take TEMs. Optician Klita Dimitriadis explains how it works. On a pair of 100-euro glasses, she'll take 30 percent in the alternative currency.

KLITA DIMITRIADIS: So you buy this pair of glasses for 70 euros because I need the euros to pay my employee, my taxes, my rent, everything.

POGGIOLI: Dimitriadis then spends her TEMs at a monthly open-air farmers' market or in exchange for other services. Over the last year, TEM members in Volos have grown from a few dozen to more than 500. The movement attracted Athens' attention. In September, parliament passed a law giving barter networks nonprofit status. The TEM network is also actively encouraged by the Volos municipality. Mayor Panos Skotiniotis says initiatives like these are particularly valuable at a time when the economic crisis is dismantling so many social benefits.

MAYOR PANOS SKOTINIOTIS: (Through Translator) This is a substitution for the welfare state, and that is why this municipality is encouraging it and wants it to grow.

POGGIOLI: The municipality has printed leaflets explaining the barter system and has promoted panel discussions. Christos Papaioannou, one of the founders of the TEM network, says the worse the crisis becomes, the more people feel confused and at a loss.

CHRISTOS PAPAIOANNOU: When they lose their job, they just say their whole world collapses. And they have to believe in their own self, not to the power of the money and their employer.

POGGIOLI: And more and more people are joining the network, he says, because it offers a sense of community and self-respect. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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