By Deepa Babington and Lefteris Papadimas
KONITSA, Greece (Reuters) - Thirteen years after abandoning rural Greece for a career in graphic design, Spiridoula Lakka finds herself in the last place she expected to end up - watering a patch of lettuce and herbs in her sleepy village.
As Greece sank into its worst economic crisis since World War Two, Lakka had already given up her dream of becoming a web designer. Even waitressing seemed impossible. She faced a simple choice: be stranded without money in Athens, or return to the geriatric village where she grew up plotting to escape.
At age 32, Lakka, an office clerk who also juggled odd jobs, joined a growing number of Greeks returning to the countryside in the hope of living off the land. It's a reversal of the journey their parents and grandparents made in the 1960s and '70s.
Data is scarce on how many people have made the trek, but as people angered by austerity head to the polls on June 17, anecdotal evidence and interviews with officials suggest the trend is gaining momentum. In a survey of nearly 1,300 Greeks by Kapa Research in March, over 68 percent said they had considered moving to the countryside, with most citing cheaper and higher quality life. Most expected to move permanently.
"A year ago, I couldn't imagine myself holding a garden hoe, or doing any farming," said Lakka, as she watered the herbs she grows in the village of Konitsa, which nestles among snow-capped peaks near the Albanian border.
"I've always wanted to leave the village. I never imagined I would actually spend my whole life here."
Her experience has been far from idyllic. The arrival of young, city-dwelling Greeks is being watched with a mix of pity and hope by those who never left.
"Those who have returned are desperate. They aren't coming back because they wanted to," said Stefanou Vaggelis, a 50-year-old distillery owner as he threw back tsipouro - a strong spirit favored by locals - with friends in the village centre dotted with taverns.
This summer, judging from the queries he has received from city-dwellers on vacation, Vaggelis predicts as many as 60 people will move to Konitsa, where over half of the population of about 3,000 is aged 60 or over.
"They usually ask whether there are state subsidies for agriculture and for growing pomegranates, snails and aromatic herbs," he said, recounting how a 40-year-old acquaintance had returned to tend sheep in the hills. Greece's farmers mostly run small operations and rely on EU subsidies to survive. They complain that over the past five years subsidies have halved.
In the northern city of Thessaloniki, a school for farmers says applications for its high school program have tripled this year. Cheese-making and bee-keeping have also filled quickly at the American Farm School, founded in 1904 by an American missionary who was keen to teach practical skills. Its courses run from pre-school to adult level.
"There is tremendous interest," said Panos Kanellis, the school's president. The trend, he said, is driven by both the crisis and a desire among many Greeks for a quality of life that's impossible to find in the city.
Greek families have traditionally owned houses or plots of land in their native villages, often devoted to fragrant olive, lemon and orange groves or a mix of vibrant greens and tomatoes.
For those returning, rural life promises rent-free housing, backyard produce to fill dinner plates and support from a network of relatives and friends. The Kapa survey showed most people planned to count on family and friends to help.
"In Athens, I worked many jobs I didn't like but I had to compromise," said Lakka. "In the village, you have your own home and you can grow vegetables to eat."
Five decades ago, one in two Greeks was employed in farming. The Pan-Hellenic Confederation of Unions of Agricultural Cooperatives, a farmers' union, says employment steadily shrank in the early 2000s, but agriculture added 38,000 jobs between 2008 and 2010 as Greece slid into a recession that is now in its fifth year.
It lost jobs again in 2011 when the banking crisis squeezed lending to farmers, but people have continued to return to villages, said the union's general manager Ioannis Tsiforos.
"We have a number of people, most of them middle-aged, entering the farming business," he said: the trend is especially visible in Crete and the Dodecanese islands in the east.
NO PLACE TO DREAM
Until recently, the Greek countryside was largely a place young people escaped from. The lure of city jobs spurred a wave of migration to urban centres after World War Two. In the three decades to 1981, Athens' population more than doubled to more than 3 million people.
Today, the Greek capital is still home to about 4 million of Greece's 11 million population, but it is no longer a magnet for the young and ambitious. At 22 percent, unemployment in Athens hovers just above the national average. Homeless people line the streets, the poor scavenge through bins for scrap. "For Rent" signs hang across shuttered shop windows.
Crime has surged, turning pockets of Athens into virtual no-go zones at night.
All this came as a shock to Lakka. Like almost everyone else in Konitsa, she grew up convinced the move to the big city was a rite of passage. She studied design in Thessaloniki and moved to the capital at 22. A graphic design job proved difficult to find, so she took up odd jobs. Her big break came with a temporary contract as an office clerk with a state social security fund, which she hoped would eventually turn permanent.
The pay was a paltry 640 euros ($800) per month, so Lakka did waitressing and office work on the side.
Then the debt crisis hit, forcing Greece to take a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Lakka struggled to find extra work. Panic set in.
The final straw came last June, when she learned there was no money to renew her contract.
"At that moment I said to myself: 'That's it. There is no way I'm going to start begging my friends again for a new job," she said. "I decided to return to my village."
INSULTS AND GOSSIP
Up a wild cherry- and maple tree-lined road from Lakka's family business - a petrol station and cafe - Konitsa's deputy mayor Nikos Karras smiles as he ponders the unexpected homecoming of village youth. About 10 people returned last year, and the area is gearing up for many more, he says.
"It is important for the region that young people come back because until now we've been living through the opposite: everyone left and the only people who stayed back were the elderly," says the 41-year-old.
"When someone loses their job in a city and has no hope of finding another, they come here as a last resort. We will be the last to starve because when you have a field or a garden, you can produce food for yourself and make sure you survive."
But adjusting to life in the village is not easy.
Hoping to put her city skills to use, Lakka tried to transform the petrol station cafe.
With a fading Coca-Cola sign outside and a fog of cigarette smoke hanging over wooden tables inside, the cafe offered its elderly clientele basic fare of tsipouro, coffee and sandwiches.
Lakka had other ideas. Her eyes lit up as she recounted her plans from a corner table in the cafe, her mother by her side. She wanted to allow local hunters to cook their catch on the restaurant grill; she would spice up the menu with goat stews, tripe, casseroles and pasta dishes.
"My dream was to change the shop completely," she said.
But the tight-knit village community had other thoughts. A rival cafe owner said he hoped Lakka would shut shop and go back to Athens; others snickered behind her back.
"One woman said 'The girl from Athens has come to change our ways, but she has to adapt to us, not the other way round,'" Lakka said.
"These things upset me. I just can't get used to it," she said. "They don't say it directly to me, but to people they know will pass it on to me."
As a single woman with no plans to marry, Lakka was also an anomaly in a deeply traditional place. "There is a lot of pressure to get married and have children, even from my own parents."
She used to wear short skirts and bare midriff tops. She has replaced them with loose jeans.
"There is no privacy here in the village. You feel like everyone is judging and trying to control you, and there is gossip," she said. "It's a closed society."
Instead, she turned to cultivating herbs. The craggy mountains encircling her village are home to more than 2,000 varieties. She also tends to a row of beehives on a dirt track near the cafe. Lakka says she hopes she can one day sell her bunches of sage, nettle and peppermint at a roadside kiosk.
There is no certainty of a happy ending. What she does know is that Athens did not leave her much choice.
"I still have second thoughts, though from what I hear from friends in Athens, I've made the right choice," she said.
"Things have become too difficult there and they also want to leave."
(Editing by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson)