“Ti yirévis edhó? What are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for mountains.”
It is seven o’clock on a drizzly May morning. I am waiting outside the bus station in the little provincial town of Elassóna in the foothills of Mt Olympus.
“You must have got some brain missing,” says the old man who has stopped to interrogate me. In disgust he turns to go.
After a few paces he stops, thinking perhaps that he has been too hard on the stranger. He half turns back.
“England,” he says, “is it a big village?”
But before I can reply he answers himself. “Like Elassóna, eh?”
And he shuffles off again, muttering and wagging his head.
If I had told him the truth, that I was looking for a herd of goats on their way from the Thessalian plain to a village in the Pindos mountains, he would have mocked me publicly.
“I trélla pái sta vouná. Madness goes to the mountains,” someone said to me once, inverting the proverb that says that madness afflicts mankind, not the mountains.
He would have needed no further proof than finding a middle-aged English schoolteacher dressed in breeches, boots and scarlet stockings, with a shepherd’s crook in his hand, waiting for a bus to go looking for transhuming goats.
This book is an attempt to answer that old man’s question. It is not so much the explanation of my personal madness which is important but the hidden, unfamiliar and unacknowledged Greece that it reveals, the Greece that lies behind the barrier of the mountains, that was literally the birthplace of most of the citizens of modern urban Greece, that was the cradle of the nation’s culture quite as much as the much-sung islands: a Greece that has yet to be accorded its rightful place in the national consciousness.
My own acquaintance with things Greek began early in my childhood. I must have known the story of Achilles already, for I remember driving my younger brother’s deliberately inferior-armed Hector with wooden sword and cardboard shield down an ivy-covered bank in the Durham pit village of Willington in the late forties. I remember, too, the ambiguous stirrings of romance, the desire to save and protect the diaphanously wrapped pink limbs of Andromeda chained to her rock with hungry monster at her feet in some illustrated tangled tale. But even if I knew these tales were all to do with Greeks, I did not think of Greece as a place I could visit, as a place on a map; it was Narnia, a land of the imagination.
My first concrete contact with things Greek was being set to copy the Greek alphabet. I must have been nine. I can still see the moment vividly in my mind’s eye. Sun streamed into the classroom from my left, an autumn sun, I suppose, as new things happen at the beginning of the school year, and fell on my gouged and battered desk with its recessed glass inkwell. I didn’t need telling twice; I was filled with wonder and an enormous tactile pleasure at forming those strange and beautiful letters. They still give me pleasure.
I stuck at the classics all through school, and university too, although I became more and more bored. The teachers were so boring, all except one, and we ragged him mercilessly. He was lively, relaxed and funny, instead of being dull and frightening and relying on the threat of punishment for his authority. And he had actually been to Greece. When he came into class one day and announced that he knew of two vacancies in a university party going to Greece at Easter, I looked at my friend and my friend looked at me and up went our hands.
We went. It was April 1958. I was sixteen. The beginning of life. I had just kissed the vicar’s daughter and pressed her buttocks to me at a dance. And now this trip, alone, across Europe in a train with girls and boys four, five years older than me, who accepted me as an equal. At night the girls even went to sleep with their heads on my shoulder, the fragrance of their hair in my nostrils, all of us pressed together under the cosy intimacy of shared blankets across our railway compartments. The magic of foreign railway stations in the dark, dim-lit platforms, foreign voices, the slide and clunk of the doors as the Customs men came down the corridors with guns on their hips, demanding ‘Passeports!’ or ‘Passaporti!’. The Alps at dawn, the cold grey light at Modane, and the grey fast river, with the snowy peaks of the Vanoise behind. Glimpses of the Mediterranean as we flashed in and out of the sunlight, racing through the tunnels along the Gulf of Genoa. I had never seen the Mediterranean before. The blocks of Italian flats, the gardens, all so different. And then in Greece a girl of eighteen or nineteen fell in love with me, sitting beside me on our coach. I can’t even remember her name or why she was with us, but the vicar’s daughter was forgotten. Could life hold any greater excitements?
Of Greece itself I had no idea what to expect. The only mental image I had was of the slender white columns of the Parthenon and the temple of Athena Nike, from a book of black and white photos given me as a Confirmation present. Instead, first contact was Corfu, whose jail must then have been full of Communist prisoners from the Civil War, and it was only six years since Nikos Beloyiánnis, lover of my friend Didó Sotiríou’s sister and father of her jail-born child, had been taken from his cell in the small hours of the night and executed, the last Greek Communist to face the firing squad. But I knew nothing of any of that.
What I remember is the distant hills of Albania and the high black stern of the M/V Angelica raised above the quay where we swilled wine from a great glass jar encased in wickerwork. We were surrounded by airmen on leave for Easter. One of them pinched my camera, the first and last thing I ever had stolen in Greece. An hour later, one of his comrades returned it.
The Angelica was an ancient vessel, built in Glasgow in 1896, I think, narrow, with tall funnels and polished brass fittings, a fraction of the size of the modern ferries. We were deck class and shared our accommodation with dozens of poor peasant Greeks, travelling for Easter with lambs bound by the feet and squawking hens parked nose-down on the deck. Their luggage was big baskets stitched over with squares of white or parti-coloured cloth. At night they puked to the undulations of the swell and prayed for deliverance. The combined smell of animal piss and human vomit made it hard to do justice to the generously proffered titbits of food they wanted us to share.
I enjoyed the old classical stones but what captivated me was the sea, everywhere sea, and the mountains and the light and the flowers and the heat, and the secret incense-smelling dark of the churches, the spicy air of the Athenian bazaar, the cobblers banging away at used-tyre shoes, the seething car-less streets and the clanging dented trams that swung suddenly out of side turnings. And I went back, and back, and back: after school, through university, after university. I married there, divorced there, met my second wife there, climbing Mt Olympus – in fact, nearly killed her in a snow gully, then saved her life.
People were poor. The children went barefoot and shaven-skulled. But there was a nobility in their manners. Things were done with a grand gesture, without shame and without calculation: lighting a fag, downing a drink, inviting you into a simple home practically innocent of furniture and sharing with you a plate of beans, a couple of fried eggs and a piece of cheese. I can’t say what it was like for Greeks, but for a stranger, you were an honoured guest. A shopkeeper, without locking his shop, would walk you half a mile across the city to show you the way. A taxi – in those days great battered Oldsmobiles and Buicks decked out with extra chrome trim and fancy lights as intricate as a Sardinian cart – would stop in the middle of dusty nowhere and give you a lift for nothing. You were interesting. People were interesting. People mattered. There weren’t any other distractions in life apart from sitting around with friends and talking. There was poverty, but there was also dignity and honour. And I was innocent too, and ignorant.
After university I lived in Crete for a year, finally leaving in 1964. I did not return for twelve years. By then the heroic age was over. Greece was no longer the place I had known. And I had changed too. I was more aware politically. I had done some reading and begun to speak Greek properly, which made me realize what an amazingly effective screen an unfamiliar language is for governments who don’t want outsiders to know what is going on. My perspective was different too. I was no longer a tourist. I was working in Athens, employed in a responsible position in a Greek institution with Greek colleagues.
The most noticeable change was tourism. Greece was no longer an obscure corner of the eastern Mediterranean which had not featured on anyone’s mental map since the beginning of the Christian era. “Hitching-hiking to Greece?” people would say, with the sort of mixture of pity and incredulity that would greet an announcement that you were going to Rutland for your holiday today. Now everybody knew where it was, from Dagenham to Much Wenlock.
There were two consequences of this. First, wherever you went there were other people discovering the places you had already discovered and hoisted your flag over and, secondly, as far as the natives were concerned, you had lost your novelty value as a foreigner. You weren’t a guest any more, a stranger far from home, without board or bed. How could you be? Nobody can invite all the members of organised tours endlessly succeeding one another. Besides, tourism is not about that kind of thing. It’s commerce: processing people for profit, from the organisers’ point of view; fleecing the dumb and overpaid foreigner from the natives’, whether that entails putting on a show of ‘traditional hospitality’, doing an ethnic dance with a sprig of jasmine between your teeth, or pinching bottoms and cooing “You arre beeootiful”. And of course, being natives, they could not tell a dumb foreigner from the genuine discerning one, which was not good for the vanity, and I did not much appreciate that.
There was money about too, good solid money in hard currencies, both from tourism and from remittances from the thousands of émigré workers who had sought fame and fortune abroad, especially in Germany and Australia, in the huge exodus of the sixties. It was being spent on speculative building and conspicuous consumption, from clothes to mountains of meat in tavernas, hi-fi, skis (“They hang them over the fireplace,” a shop assistant in a department store told me), and the ultimate badge of success, to Mer-se-dess, superseded nowadays by to Bay-em-vay, the BMW. The old educated class and its values had vanished under the new vulgarity, opportunism and philistinism, as had the traditional peasant culture, that rock-solid edifice that had kept Greeks Greek through centuries of misery and oppression.
Why such an apparently powerful and immutable value system should lay down its arms and join the enemy at sight of the very first refrigerator and quadraphonic sound system is a bit of a puzzle. Especially when it is the very worst aspects of western consumer culture that people go for, and when their own culture in so many important ways – aesthetic and moral – seems superior. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is precisely because the culture is traditional, i.e. handed down, from generation to generation, not chosen. We do things this way because we do things this way, just as the leaves fall off the trees in autumn. When you come up against a civilisation that can produce cars and videos and piped water, it is self-evidently superior: no more carrying pitchers from the spring, no more calluses, no more looking sixty years old when you’re only thirty. You don’t know how to choose, to be selective; your own culture hasn’t taught you, so you take the lot, the gaudiest gee-gaws first, usually.
And the great Babylon was Athens, a city that was already home to nearly half the country’s population, many of whom, within a generation, had come from the old Greece of mountain village and remote island. Here the new Greece was at its most visible. And I did not like it.
Friendly, poor, working-class Pláka had been taken over by the nastiest, sleaziest pandars to tourism. Neo-classical Athens, the gracious little capital that first king Otto’s Bavarian architects had created for the new Greek state, had been buried like the olive groves of the Attic Basin under acres of cement tombstones: jerry-built apartment blocks erected without plan or design, the posher ones enlivened with a bit of meretricious marble.
The shops suddenly all had names like Playboy, Baby Doll and Chez Françoise, written in Roman letters. Infant schools were called Mummy’s Joy. Children were baptised Jo and Caroline, Bridget and Johnny. Conversation was all Miele, Panasonic, Lacoste, Forrd Eskorrt, Mantzesterrseety and the latest British pop. What the Greeks call ksenomanía – xenomania, the opposite of xenophobia – was rife, as if to be Greek were worthless and contemptible.
And people were not happy withal. You were as likely as not to be abused and insulted in shops, on buses, in public services, as if the strains of physical and cultural change were creating an intolerable inner tension: uncertainty about social status, national identity, moral and cultural values. There were reasons for all of this – good ones – and still are, for Greece is still in the throes of this painful and confusing transition from traditional rural to modern capitalist society. Knowing that can make you sympathetic on a good day, but it does not make the prevailing materialism and acquisitiveness any less unattractive.
That was one reason for turning to the mountains, long the unassailable bulwark of Greekness and independence, now the very last repository of those more innocent values. Besides, always an instinctive believer in Ted Moult’s ‘The answer lies in the soil’, I also believe that Greece’s salvation and national peace of mind will only be achieved when all that the mountains stand for is repossessed and re-valued.
Another factor which stirred my interest in the mountains was a growing political awareness. I’m talking about 1976. Democracy, supposedly, had been restored after the seven years of military dictatorship, yet, for all the imperfections of smug British democracy, even as an outsider in Greece you knew instinctively that you could not count on those kinds of freedoms and guarantees. People lowered their voices or sought secluded corners to express political views other than praise for Prime Minister Karamanlis’s New Democracy Party. If you had any dealings with the authorities, particularly the police, whether it was trying to get your residence or work permit from the Aliens’ Police (sic) or recover your car number plates from the Traffic Police after a parking offence, there was no mistaking the underlying menace of violence and arbitrary power. The parakrátos – the ‘parastate’: the hidden and unaccountable controlling power behind the facade of parliamentary democracy – was still in place. It was constituted, above all, by the military and the police, whose narrow ideology was limited to virulent Cold War anti-Communism. The king was implicated too, although he was dispensable, as the Colonels had shown in 1967. Ultimately, the whole structure depended on the might of a foreign power: the United States from the end of the Second World War, before that the British. Theirs essentially was the ‘foreign finger’ – o ksénos dháktilos – that the Greeks habitually see meddling in all their affairs and blame for all their ills – not entirely without cause.
While the Colonels’ rule gave fresh momentum to these anti-democratic forces, the real fount of their power was their American-sponsored victory over the Communists in the 1946-49 Civil War. That was a conflict in which all the irreconcilable tensions inherent in Greek society since the inception of the modern Greek state clashed. It took place in the mountains, as had the wartime Resistance and the earlier liberation struggles of the klephts1. I wanted to see those places for myself and talk to people who had lived those events first-hand.
Even today, when you wander the mountains and talk to mountain people, it is never long before the subject of the Civil War comes up, especially once they know you are British. “You made us eat each other,” they say. “Divide and rule,” they remind you, was ever the universal tactic of British imperialism. “You parachuted left boots to right-wing Resistance groups and right boots to the left-wing.” An apocryphal tale, I suspect, but for them it symbolises neatly the perfidy of ‘the Great Britain’. It happened thus.
When the Second World War broke out, Greece was ruled by a dictator, the cranky and puritanical old general, Ioánnis Metaxás, who had seized power in a putsch on August 4th 1936 – which is why that date often appears in extremist right-wing wall daubings. He was an avowed admirer of National Socialism and exponent of the usual comic-opera folderol of Fascism: motherhood and the glory of Hellenism, sacred bonds and the honour of the armed forces – backed up by the equally usual but less risible and sentimental use of a ruthless police that locked up or otherwise rudely discouraged dissenters.
While the monarchy continued to exist alongside this regime, they were odd consorts. Metaxás was pro-German; the king was under pressure from the British to take the side of the Allies, although his father had supported Kaiser Bill in the First World War – a preference which had provoked a number of coups d’état and oscillations between monarchy and republicanism in the intervening period.
However, when put to the test in 1940, Metaxás allowed his policy to be dictated by his sense of national honour. When Mussolini, engaged in the reconstruction of the Roman empire, demanded right of passage through Greek territory for his troops en route to Abyssinia, Metaxás replied to his ultimatum with a now famous one-word telegram: “Okhi. No!” – commemorated in an annual public holiday on October 28th. Mussolini’s troops nonetheless crossed the Greek-Albanian frontier and Greece entered the war on the Allied side. In a heroic winter campaign, and against all the odds, the Greek army drove the Italians back into Albania.
The following spring, however, Hitler intervened. Impatient at the Italians’ ineffectiveness, he sent German troops into Greece in April 1941. They were made of sterner stuff: álli pásta, as the Greeks say – different dough. They quickly routed the token British and Anzac forces sent to stiffen Greek resistance. The Greek army surrendered. Metaxás had died, but the king with his courtiers and politicians debunked to Cairo, where they spent the war intriguing about who would have power when it was all over.
In Greece, the Germans and Italians set about pacifying the country by wholesale hangings, burnings and shootings. In due course Resistance groups began to appear in the mountains. The largest and most powerful was ELAS, whose leadership was Communist. Like its smaller rival, the Nationalist-Republican EDES, which it did its best to eliminate, ELAS’s long-term goals were clearly political as well as military. No one wanted a return to the discredited pre-war regime. What exactly ELAS wanted, or was prepared to compromise at, is a matter of dispute. The rudimentary people’s democracy-style institutions established in the extensive mountain areas under its control suggest that some at least of its adherents envisaged Soviet-style people’s power.
When the Germans withdrew from Greece in 1944, ELAS had around 70,000 men and women under arms and had secured an agreement with the British, who supplied and liaised with all Resistance organisations, that their representatives, including Communists, would participate in the immediate post-liberation government and that the king would not be allowed to return until a plebiscite had been held to decide what should be done with him. But instead of liberation being the occasion for a joyous new beginning, it turned into a devastating tragedy.
Whose fault it was is hard to say and perhaps not necessary. Did the Greek Communist Party intend to use the force of ELAS arms to seize political power against the will of the majority of Greeks? Were the British, the king and the politicians of the old order determined to destroy the Left and restore the old order, come what may? Mutual suspicion was so strong, catastrophe was unavoidable. Whatever either side said or did merely confirmed the other’s worst fears.
The fatally contentious issue was the demobilization of ELAS, insisted upon by General Scobie, commander of the British forces in Greece, whose name is still anathema to every left-wing Greek. ELAS was prepared to agree only if the so-called Rimini Division of Free Greeks, whose loyalty to the conservative royalist cause had been assured by purging all left-wing elements after a mutiny in Egypt, was also disbanded. Impasse: broken only by the spilling of blood.
On December 3rd, scarcely six weeks after the triumphant arrival of the British liberators, police fired on a demonstration in Syntagma, Athens’ central square, killing several people. Who fired first, police, demonstrators or agents provocateurs, depends on your political sympathies. The dead, in any case, were civilians.
There followed a month of street-fighting which set ELAS units against the Greek gendarmerie and right-wing bands and, eventually, British troops as well. The Dhekemvrianá, they call it, the events of December. ELAS was forced out of Athens and in February 1945 agreed to disarm. But tension continued. Governments came and went. Elections were held in 1946, in which the Communists refused to participate. Right-wing terrorist bands, many of whose members had been Nazi collaborators, roamed the country unchecked, killing anyone suspected of left-wing connections, including former members of ELAS, the very people who had had the courage to take arms against the Germans, while the government interned thousands more in island concentration camps.
By the end of 1946 guerrilla bands were once more operating in the mountains. By 1947 there was full-scale civil war. The British, no longer able to afford the cost of fighting Communism, handed over to the Americans, who meddled in the appointment of ministers and generals, paid the bills and themselves drafted the Greek government’s request for aid, which they then used as a pretext for promulgating the Truman Doctrine. Greece was considered strategically important because, like Turkey, it lay on the route to Middle East oil. If it fell to the Red hordes, all the other dominoes would tumble and freedom would be extinguished, just as in the Philippines and Vietnam. Greece, in fact, was where many of America’s undercover champions of liberty learned their trade.
The war lasted until August 1949, when the last guerrilla forces of the Communist Democratic Army were defeated on the heights of Mt Grámmos and withdrew into Albania, leaving behind them a country in economic and psychological ruin. The towns were swarming with jobless refugees; the prisons were bursting with youngsters, beaten, tortured, and in many cases shot for their political beliefs.
Ah, they tell you, the Communists kidnapped tens of thousands of children in an enforced round-up known as the pedhomázema and carried them off to the Soviet bloc to be brought up hardened revolutionaries. They forced people to fight for them against their will, they executed thousands of innocent civilians. Yes, yes, they did, and the Nationalists mutilated, murdered and raped captured Communists and their suspected sympathizers.
Trading atrocities gets you nowhere. And, probably, victory by the very Stalinist Greek Communist Party would in the long run have made Greece a less pleasant country to live in. But that is really neither here nor there. The significant thing is that US-backed military victory gave political power to the hard Right, whose ideology looked no wider than anti-Communism, for whom parliamentarianism was merely a facade behind which real power was exercised by brute force.
This regime lasted in various guises until 1963, was briefly liberalised by George Papandreou, father of Andreas, and then revived in all its idiot obscurantism and vulgarity in 1967 by Colonel Papadopoulos, who had served his apprenticeship in the CIA-trained secret service during the Civil War.
To get a job you needed a certificate proving that you were ‘nationally-minded’ – ethnikófron. It is not difficult to understand the effect of that requirement in a country where so many people were living in small and remote rural communities, where everybody knew everybody else’s business. A personal feud, an incautious word in a café conversation, and your cousin’s child would lose his place in school, your brother his job with the Forestry Department and so on. The petty official, low-ranking policeman, and informer had a field day. Competence and ability counted for nothing. Currying favour, bribery, cheating, patronage – practices already well established during the many generations of subjection to the arbitrary power of the Turks – became vital survival skills. You could not and, in many ways, still cannot, get your just desserts without resorting to bribery: to place a child in a school, have a telephone connected, get the doctor in a hospital to come and look at you, pass imported goods vital to your business through Customs. And it is equally common practice to use bribery to get results which are not your just desserts: a favourable judgement in a lawsuit, a false assessment of the tax you are liable for, the turning of a blind eye to a house you’ve built on land which is not yours. Foreigners reared on that view of classical Greece which sees the country as the honorary precursor of the English public school system become very incensed when you utter such calumnies against their cherished vision, but any Greek has a repertoire of dozens of such tales.
Perhaps the contradictions in modern Greek society that gave rise to this civil war can never be completely reconciled. Perhaps they are an inescapable part of the growing pains that afflict all traditional societies caught in the bind of modernisation, that is, essentially, integration into the global Western-dominated capitalist economy, with all its cruel pressures to level, standardise and assimilate. They are contradictions which, in political terms at least, produce strange bedfellows. The Right, which should be the party of conservatism and nationalism, finds itself espousing, in the name of business efficiency and economic progress, the cause of modernisation and Westernisation, thus undermining traditional values and national identity, while the Left ends up championing insularity and parochialism, indeed the very practices and habits of mind that its rhetoric condemns as reactionary.
In the Greek case, this is closely related to a distinction that the Greeks themselves make between two words for Greek, romiós and Hellene (éllinas).
The first, which derives from ‘Roman’ and is what the citizens of Byzantium called themselves, denotes all that is associated with the popular, rural, unsophisticated, uneducated tradition of the peasants, fishermen and shepherds, who kept alive the spirit of Greekness all through the long centuries of Turkish rule; who made beautiful but untutored artefacts, architecture and songs; who spoke a vernacular earthy language full of loan-words from Greece’s many invaders; who fought for the freedom of Greece as bandoliered and bedaggered klephts; who, but for their Christianity, were more Oriental than European. It is also often used pejoratively to denote the character traits associated with this tradition, the cunning, treachery and venality that Pouqueville, consul-general of France at the court of Ali Pasha in 1805, had already observed and attributed to the struggle for survival under the Turkish yoke.
Hellene, on the other hand, derives from the classical word for Greek. It is a term which the Greeks had not used to describe themselves for many a long century. And it represents a strain in the culture which is essentially a graft, effected by the Greeks of the diaspora, who inspired and financed the movement which led to the creation of the modern independent Greek state in the 1820s. Many of them came from wealthy families who had lived abroad for generations and were European in outlook. They constituted the Establishment in the new state and regarded their rustic and unlettered countrymen and their ways with disdain. Their ambition was to reconnect Greece with its glorious classical past and wipe out for ever the shame of the intervening decadence. And what better way to purge the national consciousness than by reviving classical Greek? Which is what they proceeded to do by creating an artificial language, katharévousa or ‘cleansed’ Greek, and making it the language of government, scholarship and culture. It can hardly have been their intention, but with its stilted syntax and pompous cadences this hybrid turned out to be uniquely suited to the wind-baggery of bureaucrats, cutting them off totally from the peasantry, who could not understand a word they said. Add to this an imported dynastic line of Bavarian and Danish princelings, perpetually subject to the interfering influences of the English, French, Russians and Germans, and you have the foundations for an uncloseable rift in Greek society.
Needless to say, this polarity has been reflected in people’s political choices. Not that membership of the two camps was always either consistent or predictable, but usually it was language which revealed the man. Demotic was Left, katharévousa Right – even if the tongue did trip on the odd dative plural or genitive absolute, as was often the case when the grammar was not the equal of the pretention.
But even as I say this I realise that the distinction hardly holds any more. The hoary old ‘language problem’, over which blood has been spilled in its time, is almost ancient history now. Katharévousa is in full retreat, replaced by dhimotikí as the formal language of state and education, ironically, by a conservative government in the aftermath of the Colonels’ dictatorship in the 1970s.
Other old ghosts have been laid by Andreas Papandreou’s Greek Socialist Party, PASOK, the single most important one being the recognition of the wartime Resistance. Until PASOK’s 1981 election victory – the first in Greece by a left-wing party – the Resistance was unsung and uncommemorated. Indeed, participation in it meant Communist and, therefore, traitor to the ideals of Hellenism. Now it is an honourable scar, and elasítis, member of ELAS, an honourable title, as is andártis, as the guerrillas of the Civil War were called. Certainly there are still plenty of people who snarl at the name of andártis, think the survivors should never have been allowed to return from twenty or thirty years’ exile in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and should certainly not have been given pension entitlement. Yet, equally, there are many who believe that, even if fighting to make Greece Communist was mistaken, their cause, whether they died in it or were tortured or exiled in it, was a good deal more honourable and dignified than the corrupt and authoritarian US-puppet regime which defeated them.
PASOK may have failed to solve, even exacerbated many other problems, but it did clear the miasma from the political air and give a voice to a large constituency of people who had never before had one, not at least since the proscription of ELAS. This is basically the same constituency as the demotic-speaking semi-enslaved peasantry of Turkish times, the rayádhes, as the Turks called the Christian subjects of their empire: the people who feel they have been used as the tool of foreign interests, the victims of the ‘foreign finger’, since the beginnings of the Greek state.
They are the romií, free at last, emancipated from the constraints of traditional society as from foreign domination and domestic paternalism, free, it is tempting to say, from all the constraints of Hellenism, free to be as vulgar, tasteless, greedy and corrupt as they want, free to break the heart of the old-fashioned philhellene, patrician admirer of the noble peasantry.
It is impossible to unravel systematically the conundrum of a nation’s identity. But somehow to me it all seemed to be connected with the mountains.
When I first set out to explore them in 1977 they were unknown, mysterious and in a sense forbidden. Nobody I knew, either Greek or foreign, knew anything about them or had ever been there. There were no books about them, no detailed maps. The Civil War – largely demystified now – was still taboo. It was a combination that I found fascinating. I think I felt that perhaps they held some secret that would be revealed to me, and perhaps they do, and perhaps it has, though it would be hard to say precisely what it is.
And then there was the sheer romance: remote and trackless places, glens and forests, rebels against odds, watermills and mule trains, communications on foot, those hazy bulwarks seen against a summer sky from lowland roads and tourist routes where the black-caped winter shepherds repaired in spring. Where did they go?
Update to New Edition, October 2014:
It is forty years since I first started exploring the Pindos mountains. What has changed? Put simply, the modern world has arrived.
I do not know of any villages that are still only accessible on foot or have no electricity. The road in some cases may be rough and unsurfaced but, thanks above all to the EU, you can get there in a vehicle. You do not hear any more of snowbound villages having to be supplied by helicopter in winter. There are medical centres not too far away. And there is mobile phone coverage pretty much everywhere, much better than the UK, so if you are an Albanian migrant worker employed to sleep out on the mountain with the sheep, you can call home without difficulty and your Greek employers can keep in touch with you without having to live out on the mountain themselves. I can call my friends in the sheepfold from London. The kineetó, as they call it in Greek, has been a huge boon to country folk. Land lines never worked well even in the cities; the mobile reaches parts way beyond the range of the land line.
In the old days you only ever encountered Greeks in the mountain villages. Since the collapse of Communist Eastern Europe, Albanians are everywhere. Anybody with more than fifty sheep is bound to be employing an Albanian to do the dirty work. More recently, especially in the Vlach regions of the northern Pindos, Romanians have made their appearance, for the two peoples share a mutually intelligible language.
Before the financial crash, a lot of money had been spent modernising or rebuilding family houses in the villages, not for permanent residence but for weekend and holiday use. But most of them have next to no economic life of their own any more and as the old who knew no other life die off more and more of them are all but deserted outside the summer months.
There are exceptions. Some, like the villages of the Zagóri, have managed to build a reasonable tourist trade. Some, like Samarína – which is the focus of most of the second half of this book – have flourished, largely because its vast extent of semi-alpine pastures can sustain numerous flocks. The combination of EU subsidies and cheap Albanian labour have allowed its pastoral economy to grow enormously and even, in these economic hard times, it seems to survive better than many other parts of the country.
And the young live in a much more uniformly European kind of style, even the ones who follow in their parents’ pastoral footsteps. They follow Premier League football; they wear the same kind of clothes and listen to the same kind of music as young people all across Europe. They will have iPhones and drive big silver and chrome four-wheel-drives. It is still tough being out on the mountain at all hours and in all weathers, though they will not be left all alone at the age of eight four or five hours’ walk from the village, above the treeline at two thousand metres and more, with five hundred sheep to look after and protect against wolves and bears, with a dozen ferocious dogs for company, “so they get used to it”. And some of them have studied to be diplomats and archaeologists, but cannot find work in those professions.
And many things have not changed, among them many which should have. You still have to bribe and use connections to get things done, both things that are entirely legitimate and plenty which are not. People, who in other respects seem intelligent and quite sensible, will blame Angela Merkel for all Greece’s ills. If restaurant trade is down, “it is because the Merkel wants to suffocate us”. Or the Americans and, of course, behind them lies a cabal of Freemasons and Jews who between them control the world. Bluetongue, the nasty disease that affects sheep and is at the moment rampant in the south Balkans, is of course spread by aeroplanes, probably skópima, on purpose, by Greece’s many enemies…
And all this is but part of what makes up that very special realm of existence: i ellinikí pragmatikótita – the Greek reality. An exceptionalism which will only be confirmed beyond all jealous foreign carping and caviling if the great tomb recently unearthed at Amphipolis turns out to be that of the greatest human being who ever lived: Alexander.
This is not my snide commentary. I had just this conversation with a group of shepherds in the magazí in a village near Samarína last week.
And the crags and forests and rivers remain just as wonderful as ever, if a little harder perhaps to negotiate, as the old footpaths fall into disuse.
The immediate spur to my exploration of the mountains was a conversation with my daughter’s Athenian violin teacher. He had taken part in the Resistance as a young man. And one day I happened to mention to him that I had just bought a book of photographs by Spíros Meletzís, ELAS’s official photographer. He had met Meletzís, he said, in the mountains of Ágrafa, where many of these photographs had been taken. It was a wild and beautiful region in the southern part of the Pindos, the range that forms the backbone of central Greece, stretching from the Gulf of Corinth to the Albanian border.
“You should go there,” he said. “It’s very remote, very inaccessible. The Turks couldn’t get there and it was never inscribed on their tax rolls. That’s why it’s called Ágrafa - the unwritten places.”
I looked it up on my inadequate maps. It was brown and trackless. That was good enough for me.
I set off from Athens one August morning at crack of dawn. I had not been on a solo trip like this since before marriage and children and I was filled with the same kind of excitement I had known as an eighteen-year-old when I first hitchhiked from Worcestershire to Greece in 1960. The adrenalin was pumping, the nerves taut, as I made my way to the bus depot.
The city was beginning to wake. Drivers, cleaners, market-porters, kiosk-holders, waiters, the people who man its vital services, were going to their posts. The depot itself, suffused with a greeny pallor of neon light, was already busy, preparing for the first long-distance departures. I bought a ticket on the 6.30am to Karpenísi and settled down to wait with newspaper and indigestible coffee. Before boarding, I weighed my rucksack. Ten kilos: a good load – enough for ballast, not enough to be an encumbrance.
The bus was old and noisy and we trundled slowly up the two-lane National Road, or International Road, as it is sometimes called by star-struck yokels. At every sign of a downward slope, the driver slipped her out of gear and freewheeled. Rare now, but everyone did it in the days of the snub-nosed, tight-rumped Dodges, whose rattling glass preceded their appearance by a good kilometre or two.
I watched the familiar view and dozed intermittently. At Kaména Voúrla by the sea, all glass and brass and ice cream stalls, with the blue hulk of the island of Évia across the water, we stopped for coffee. The day was hot and I was glad of the espadrilles I’d brought to wear instead of boots in off-duty moments.
We passed Thermopylae, where a bronze Leonidas stands in a lay-by across from the scalding, malodorous springs that give the place its name. We crossed the bridge of Alamána, where the monkish Athanásios Dhiákos, a hero of the War of Independence, was captured by the Turks, skewered, and roasted alive for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. Beneath the bridge, the river Sperkhiós flows, whose contribution to history has been, by silting up its estuary and pushing back the seashore, to make wholly unimaginable and unimpressive Leonidas’s deed of derring-do against Xerxes’s effeminate, pantalooned Persians in 480 B.C. Instead of a narrow defile to defend or a ledge of fractured rock bounded by air, there’s nothing but domestic olive and unromantic marsh with a satellite tracking station in the middle of it.
At Lamía we turned west and inland up the valley of the Sperkhiós, beneath the steep north flanks of Mt Íti. The road narrowed almost at once to little more than a country lane lined by fields, for the most part irregular patches of lucerne, still green in late August from the proximity of water, and punctuated by stands of poplar. Behind them, plane trees filled the wide and straggly bed of the river.
Before long we began to climb, with steepening hillsides pressing in either side, thickly wooded with plane, sweet chestnut and oak, giving way to beech on the highest slopes. Past an ancient khan, memento of the days, not so long gone, when travel was by foot or mule and the muleteers with their convoys of pack animals needed a place to spend the night and water their beasts, the gradient stiffened. The bus came momentarily to a halt, alarmingly suspended for an instant, as the driver slipped into neutral, sought with his fingers, blindly, because the long hooked beak of the gear lever reached far behind his vision, for the exact pressure, the tried, familiar caress that would persuade the old girl into her hill-climbing gear. He found it just as inertia surrendered to gravity. The cogs meshed. The bodywork juddered at the conflict of forces, settled to a calmer rhythm of vibration, and we ground once more steadily on our way, up into the village of Tímfristos.
It lies just under the ridge known simply as Rákhi – which means ridge – its stone houses stacked steeply up in tiers. Several tractor-driven handsaws were at work by the road, building pyramids of fresh yellow-red sawdust. People were getting in their winter fuel. Plenty of snow falls up here. The firs begin only a little higher – Abies cephallonica; élata, in Greek: the unfailing harbingers of the montane world. Rákhi is the frontier, the bulwark and barrier that separates the land-lubbing world of the plains from the inward-looking, backward, intense, self-contained, visionary life of the mountaineers.
At the top of the pass, we stopped by a stone hut that doubles as bus shelter and refuge for the benighted or storm-bound traveller and took on a passenger, a black-shawled crone who had appeared from Lord knows where. Behind us, the lowlands ceased to exist, annulled by the midday haze. Ahead, Mt Veloúkhi offered its most dramatic aspect, its distinctive conical summit, visible already from Parnassós and Ghióna way to the south, riven on this side into a chaos of rotten cliffs and frost-shattered screes. It is the peak from which the leader of the wartime Resistance movement, ELAS, took his nom de guerre, Áris – from the god of war – Veloukhiótis. It is a name which certainly has more the ring of heroism than his baptismal Thanásis Klarás, which comes uncomfortably close to klaniá, the Greek word for fart.
Greek patriots have often been tough and brave, but, if they have one talent above all others, it has been their sense of theatre. From the klephts – the robber-rebels, the Robin Hoods, of the struggles against the Turks – to the warriors of the 1940s, they have known how to cultivate their own living legends. Áris, like many another kapetánios of the Resistance and Civil War, was no exception, with his black beard, bandoliers, and black-capped bodyguard. In fact, his whole demeanour, in spite of his materialist Communist ideology, suggests that he saw himself as the heir to that tradition.
We came down off the pass in ominous, engineless silence, freewheeling through the hairpins as often as the driver felt it was safe, down into a lush little valley of streams and walnut trees. Within a few minutes we were entering Karpenísi, county town of Evritanía, Greece’s poorest and materially most ill-favoured nomós or county.
It stands on the edge of a plateau, entirely surrounded by mountains, a town of three or four thousand people. It is no beauty, having been largely rebuilt in the wake of its wartime tribulations. The Germans razed it, and in January 1949 it was fought over again, when Karayióryis, a kapetánios of the Communist Democratic Army, held it for a week against government forces. Winter weekends see it incongruously filled with ski-charged BMWs from Athens, for it boasts a T-bar ski-lift on the heights of Veloúkhi. But resort status has scarcely affected its essentially peasant ways. Its half-dozen cafés and tavernas and small-time shops are still the bright lights, the beacon of civilisation, for the handful of ageing, penurious men and women who populate the scattered villages of its vast mountain hinterland.
The bus put me down in the platía, a wide paved area dense with café tables, all occupied at the midday hour, and shaded by immense planes, whose roots must tap the same vein of subterranean water as feeds the fountain at their feet. I went and drank from it: cold, clear water, straight from the rocky depths of Veloúkhi. They say you should taste the water of every spring: one of God’s great gifts in an arid land. I try to. Connoisseurs tell with besotted insistence how each of their local sources has its peculiar taste.
A friend had told me of a Mister Tsingarídhas, who ran a sort of goods and passenger service in his unstoppable homemade truck-bus, between Karpenísi and Varvariádha, the last accessible place, the roadhead, as it were, for the lost villages of Ágrafa. I approached a couple of amused peasants taking their ease and clicking their orange beads at a café table. They had never heard of him, but directed me to the lorry park, where all the motley race of wagons that ply the washed-out, rutted tracks to the remotest communities berth. They knew of him there all right, but he had not been seen. Someone thought he had broken down. So I bought a ticket for the two o’clock bus to Kréndi, the terminus as far as organised travel in the direction of Ágrafa is concerned, and went to eat my last metropolitan meal in a tiny underground taverna off the square.
After lunch I tried to find out about the country that lay ahead. I asked the young fellow who sold the tickets at the bus station. He was extremely friendly and charming. We talked about Greek poetry and literature. He told me he had an uncle who had studied at an English university and was now teaching over there. But about the country beyond Karpenísi he did not know a thing. Nobody did, I discovered. Indeed, it is generally true in the Greek countryside that people seldom move far from their own patch and show little curiosity about parts they do not know. But then, if you are tied to your six wheat stalks, your mule and a dozen goats, there is not a lot of leisure for looking around, taking a broader view of the world.
The great paradox – or so at least it seems at first sight – is that when people do finally leave their gully or ridge, it is to go to New York, Melbourne or Dusseldorf, with much shedding of tears and with a piece of the native mountainside tied in the corner of a handkerchief, rather than down the road. That is a manner of speaking, of course, because there is not a road, which is one of the reasons they are going. And when they get there, they live among their own people, among relatives, among fellow-villagers, as likely as not. And they come back after twenty years, thirty years, forty years, of selling popcorn, running a sandwich bar or a small restaurant: home, to the end of the dirt road, where there isn’t even a phone. But they are rich, relatively speaking, with their ikonomíes, their foreign exchange savings or pensions.
It’s still a bit soon for the big sixties exodus to start returning, but that was the pattern of the pre-war emigrants to the You-ni-ded States, the Hi-Buddies, as we used to call them, who’d invariably materialise within moments of your arrival in the dustiest village, crewcut and attired in an indestructible panama hat and linen suit. Even their ageing skin creased in an American way – it must be the diet – and their horny hands felt different. They thrust ’em out with boisterous bonhomie: “Pud id there, buddy. Check out!” And often their English did not run to much more than that, despite all those years ‘over there’.
The bus was full when we left and looking slightly wobbly on its pins, from the outmoded design rather than any overloading. Like football players who won’t retire, buses get relegated. Athens-Thessaloníki on the National Road is the first division, where all the sleek new numbers roll. Back rural rides on dirt tracks are the last call before the scrapyard. But, just as they say life begins at forty, there is many an old crate comes into its own on the Karpenísi-Kréndi run. Same driver, same potholes, same passengers, same conversations, same sheepdogs biting your wheels, year in, year out: it develops the character, brings out the individuality.
All my fellow-passengers seemed to know each other. They shouted greetings and news in loud friendly voices from one end of the bus to the other. They were mostly from Víniani, Kerasokhóri and Kréndi. This was the shopping run, out at five or six in the morning and back at two, time enough to get your bag of nails or corset, have an appointment for your specs or see to some tiresome piece of bureaucratic paperwork. The shared bus ride was an important nodal point in the local news distribution, the bush telegraph, with, no doubt, much inventive interpretation of the silences, the what-was-not-said, once they all got home.
I tried to make myself small and inconspicuous. They were a warm, affable and unaffected lot, but I was shy of what would certainly be a plenary session on my origins, family history, professional prospects et cetera, if anyone twigged there was a real live Greek-speaking foreigner aboard.
Among this stout and sweaty company, two couples stood out. Both were elderly and of an obviously superior class. They were more groomed and scrubbed than the others. The women’s hair had been done. The men wore white shirts and ties, and, even if these clothes were their Sunday best, they did not look awkward in them as the shepherds and peasants do, with their great work-hardened hands hanging like hams from their sleeve-ends. These people were used to clerical dress. Their manners were more reserved, their voices quieter, and their speech more precise. There was a self-conscious dignity in their bearing; and, while on every side they were received with affectionate greetings and inquiries, there was an obvious respect in the voices of their fellows.
One couple, it turned out, was the teacher from Kerasokhóri and his wife. They were returning from a holiday; they had been visiting children in Athens. The others were from Víniani; I never discovered what they did. Perhaps they were teachers too, or bank employees. Dhimósii ipálili – civil servants – of some description, for sure. Complexion, attire, mannerisms, breadth of bottom, the elongated pinkie, the practiced acceptance of other people’s deference, all bespoke the po-faced shuffler of badly printed yellow forms in sextuplicate. That is success for a poor peasant family: a job behind a desk in some grubby public service, with tenure and a pension. Only men qualified for agricultural pensions in those days, and it came to little more than £20 ($32) a month. No matter how lowly the post, the holder was endowed, albeit remotely, with something of the mystical aura of state power, officialdom, the Government, Athens, the great ones – i megáli – those who hold the power of arbitrary yea and nay over your life. Of such a one, the proud folks back home would say, “Íne sto ipouryío. He’s in the Ministry.” That was worthy of respect.
Maybe this inoffensive, humble couple were no such thing, but they could have been. Or in the Post Office or the Electricity Board. That’s how things worked, and still do. The great divide is between officialdom and the rest, between those who can call on the authority of the state and those who are at the mercy of it, the rayádhes, whose mentality is chronically and inevitably that of the supplicant, servile and whiny.
A mile or so west of Karpenísi the tarmac came to an end. From there on, a bumpy track wound steeply down the head of a deep gorge through dark woods of fir, levelled out along the north flank, and continued losing height at a steadier rate. High on the far side, on the shoulders of the valley, where there was some workable soil before the river-eroded trench began, a few hamlets perched. That is how it is throughout the Ágrafa mountains.
Gradually we descended into the bottom of the valley, where we crossed the Mégdhovas river by a Bailey bridge. Tall planes and exuberantly green patches of beans and maize grew along the brief alluvial flood banks. The foliage nearest the road was coated with white dust. An isolated khan stood at one end of the bridge. A stout brown-faced woman in black waved from the doorstep as we slowed before trundling out across the wooden planks. The river was narrow at this point, but immediately upstream its bed opened out into a broad expanse of white gravel and boulders quarter of a mile or more in width before closing in again and disappearing into its serpentine gorges to the north. The stream ran clear and fast in a single channel at this time of year, though in winter it splits into several branches.
We stopped at a couple of houses to deliver parcels and a bundle of newspapers. Our driver, who was a youngish man of the urban type, remained unsmiling and disdainful among all his chatty passengers, who asked nothing better than to linger and pass the time of day with the people who came to the door at our various stops. He simply cut their conversations short by driving on.
When we got to Víniani, which I had been looking forward to seeing as the first wartime capital of Free Greece, I was in for a disappointment. Instead of the picturesque stone houses scattered over a hillside that I knew from Meletzís’s photographs, I found something incongruously reminiscent of an English council estate. There was a desolate open space in the middle with a concrete bus shelter, and ranged all round in symmetrical lines were pleasant but identical houses with little gardens front and back. I asked the old lady sitting next to me what had happened to the old village. It had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1963, she said, and rebuilt here with government loans. Actually, it still exists hidden behind the hill to the north of the new village, but I have never seen it.
One of the better class couples got off here.
“Congratulations on your village,” I heard someone say.
Picturesqueness can’t compete with weatherproof modernity when you are poor.
Kerasokhóri was higher up, on the edge of the fir belt at about 1,200 metres altitude. The locals call it Kerásovo, obstinately ignoring – as they do throughout the mountains – Metaxás’s 1930s attempts to extirpate all trace of the Slav invasions of the late first millenium by rechristening Slav-sounding villages with Greek names. It is a substantial village, the seat of a kinótita or commune, with a primary and secondary school, and even a small hotel. The houses are mainly the stone two-storey traditional type with stone-tiled roofs, though here, as everywhere, cement and corrugatediron are gradually encroaching.
My neighbour on the bus told me the village was often cut off by snow in winter and wolves came down after the livestock. It was the end of October when I next saw the place; there was snow on the ground and snow in the air, driven by a keen north wind. The black firs on the slopes of Káfki above the village were blasted white with frost, and looked altogether a likely abode for wolves.
I did not stop but went on to Kréndi, just a few minutes further and closer to the rim of the Agrafiótis river valley, the very last outpost of the modern world. I asked for Mister Tsingarídhas again, but there was still no news of him, so I allowed myself to be taken into the magazí2 by an old chap who, in those few short steps, told me he had been born in Kréndi but now lived in Livadhiá on the Athens-Delphi road and had returned home to get the village president’s signature on a document that would secure him a loan of a quarter of a million drachmas to build a house in Tímfristos. How quickly you learn people’s business and the story of their lives!
The magazí was packed with men, and everyone stared curiously at the unfamiliar sight of a foreigner. At first you think the stare is hostile, but you soon learn that it is just amazement and the silence a courteous reticence. As soon as you break the ice by uttering the first greeting, everyone relaxes into smiles and those nearest to you ask eager questions about who you are and where you are from and vie with each other to stand you a drink: “na se kerásoume?”
After a discreet interval of allowing me to converse with my companion, a large suave-looking man at another table, whom I could tell had an ear cocked to my conversation, turned and spoke to me in excellent English. I normally don’t like that; my pride bridles, “I’m not a dumb tourist who can’t speak Greek!” But in a place like this it seems almost insulting not to let a man speak to you in your native tongue, even if he is barely intelligible, when for him it is a matter of honour to be seen by his fellows talking to the foreigner as an equal in his own language.
He had been twenty-two years in the States, he said, and added with some sadness: “If you have two homelands, it’s impossible to choose between them.”
I knew what he meant, having been torn all my life between the city and the countryside where I grew up, between France and England and between Greece and England. And what can you say? New York to Kréndi is a pretty dislocating jump.
“And why on earth are you here?” he asked me. “There is nothing interesting about Ágrafa. There are no antiquities here, no monuments. Nothing but mountains and rocks.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. I like mountains and walking.” A motive nobody found very convincing.
“Plirónese?” someone asked. “Are you paid to do it?”
I asked how far it was to the end of the track at Varvariádha. A long way, everyone agreed. Estimates varied from one and a half to five hours’ walk. It’s two, I now know. But if you have the good fortune to live in Kréndi on the edge of the civilised world, you don’t walk further than you have to and you certainly don’t take off voluntarily into the barbaric and uncharted wilds of Ágrafa.
“You’ll get tired,” they said. “Sore feet. You’ll get lost.”
Poor misguided foreigner: if he knew what he was letting himself in for, he wouldn’t be doing it. No rational, sensible person would.
As Tsingarídhas was out of action, I asked whether there was perhaps some other way of getting a lift. They pointed to a taciturn-looking man, whom I had already noticed, in a dark suit, with smarmed down hair and a ginger moustache, wearing his jacket loose across his shoulders like a shepherd’s cape. “He’s going,” they said.
I asked him.
He did not answer, merely nodding in a way that discouraged further questioning. Or so I thought. I sat down again with my coffee and waited.
My friend from Livadhiá leaned over and whispered conspiratorially. “You’re a teacher,” he said. He used the word kathiyitís, the right word for secondary school teacher, but it has more the connotation in English of professor, an authority, a personage almost sanctified by dwelling in the House of Knowledge. It goes well with pomposity and convoluted speech. I hated being called that; it puts you in the same category as the bloody-minded public servant. People who a moment before were treating you as an equal turn deferential and bring out their katharévousa.
“If I show you something very ancient, could you tell me what it is and how much it is worth?”
“That depends. What sort of a thing is it?”
“It’s a coin,” he confided. I could see his hand clasping something in his pocket. “I can’t show you here. There are too many people.”
He allowed a few minutes to go by, as if allaying the suspicions of some secret service tail.
“Páme,” he said, loudly. “Let’s go. We’ll go together as far as the president’s house. And maybe I’ll come all the way. I have some relatives in Varvariádha.”
“That’s good,” I thought, “I’ll have a companion and someone to show me the way.” It obviously did not occur to him that it was a long way to go if his relatives happened to be out, but then, I thought, where could they go? People can’t really be out in this country.
It must have been five o’clock, which did not leave a lot of time before dark. We made discouragingly slow progress out of the village, stopping to pass the time of day with everyone we met. A pale and unsteady old skeleton – “My uncle,” said my friend – fell in with us, slowing our pace even further.
In due course my friend drew from his pocket a worn green coin with the woolly head of a Roman emperor on it. It looked genuine enough, but I am no numismatist and could not even decipher the lettering on it. I said I had no idea what date it was or whether it had any value. I wondered if the whole business was a ploy to get me to make an offer for it. My ignorance visibly diminished the credit of English professors.
We had not gone far before my friend clutched dramatically at his throat.
“A sort of lump,” he said.
“God,” I thought, “He’s having some kind of attack.”
But he went on with plaintive equanimity: “It’s been bothering me for a while now.” And from then on he slipped it into every conversation we had with passers-by.
“Ti kánete? Kalá? How are you? Well?”
“Kalá. Kalá ísthe? Well. Are you well?” Inquiry and response confused in the familiar ritual of greeting: the two tapes playing at once, so that there was no antiphony, until suddenly, “But I have this thing in my throat... .”
But why he should make this revelation to me, I don’t know. Perhaps it was the universal desire to dramatise our lives, make ourselves interesting through our ailments. Perhaps it was the White-Man-him-make-powerful-medicine syndrome, common enough in Greece, where people suffer more than elsewhere in Europe from the erratic ministrations of the medical profession. The usual follow-up is, “Have you got any pills?” Not a specific pill, but any pill, in the belief that foreign magic – like foreign refrigerators – is stronger than the homegrown variety.
The saddest case I’ve met was a bent, frail, half-wild old lady. She lived in an earth-floored hut with her old goat of a husband, way out on the mountainside in Vardhoúsia. I tried to ask her the way, but she did not seem to understand anything I said. “I can’t hear,” she kept saying, her head listing heavily to one side. “I have noises in my head, day and night, for years now. They never stop. Maybe you have some pills?” I had nothing but aspirin, which I gave her. She must have been suffering, I suppose, from an extreme form of tinnitus, like being sentenced to inhabit for ever an overamplified disco.
Before we reached the limits of the village, a Toyota pick-up pulled up beside us and we climbed aboard. (Why not a British-made vehicle? Couldn’t we have foreseen that four-fifths of the world would want just such a cheap and sturdy machine?) The driver was brusque and unsmiling, another urban type. We bumped along in the back as far as the president’s house.
The man himself – the próedhros, the elected head of the village – was sitting outside with a group of friends, his paréa or company, as Greeks always translate the word, pronouncing it com-, not cum- pany, baffled like most foreigners by the unpredictable and un-phonetic spelling of English words.
“Mister President,” said my friend in a voice of treacle, lowering himself over the tailgate. At once apostrophe and supplication: it was an act of kow-towing, of proskínisis, such as his classical forbears had scorned the whimpering Orientals for.
The president, after a quizzical glance at me – his official dignity did not permit the more open curiosity of his companions – took and signed my friend’s papers with lofty indifference, vouchsafed him a word, and returned to addressing his court. My friend, his business completed and, perhaps – who knows? – my usefulness at an end, decided his throat did not allow him to travel any further, and abandoned me.
Three new passengers boarded the pick-up: someone’s wife and an ancient granny climbed in front, while a young man with a round, humorous face joined me in the back.
It was downhill now, past the last scattered cabins and abandoned terraces, and over the rim of the Agrafiótis valley. I sat on the wheel arch with my face to the breeze, while my new companion propped himself against the cab. He had a soft, hesitant way of talking, as if trying not to alarm a young child. I wondered if that was because I was a foreigner.
The track was rough, crudely bulldozed from the gritty, scrub-covered slopes of the east side of the valley. All through this country some primordial thrust has buckled the bedding planes into such tight squiggles and hairpins that the red-grey rock has fractured a thousand times, become friable under the weather’s wear and liable to cataclysmic wash-outs, when whole sections of bank collapse in long, muddy landslips like monstrous squirts of geological diarrhoea. Even in dry summer weather, the outer edge of the track had been carried away in many places, leaving only just enough room for us to pass.
To the west, the hills, relatively low and rounded, lay back far enough to give a sense of space and width. It’s a feeling you can’t enjoy again until you approach the watershed two days’ march to the north.
As we descended towards the river, we passed an elderly couple on foot, the old man stooping under the weight of a large sack. Our driver paid them not the slightest heed, enveloping them in the rolling clouds of dust that trailed at our wheels. I was surprised; I had not seen local people ignore each other so brutally before. My companion immediately banged on the roof of the cab, shouting for the driver to stop. He did so, and the old couple climbed in with us. The woman was terrified and crouched on the floor, hiding her face in her husband’s knees as soon as we began to move. It was only a few minutes further to Varvariádha, but they got out before we reached it, the old woman looking very tremulous and sick. We pulled up at the magazí, at the end of the road, and our own dust rolled up over us, making us snort and spit.
Varvariádha is tiny, a mere clutch of houses no better than shacks, though picturesque in the summer shade of the planes. Above them a copious spring bubbled out of the hillside. Behind ran the river, bordered by pocket-handkerchief meadows. The only sound was water over stones.
I got out of the pick-up and entered the refreshing gloom of the magazí. My travelling companion offered me a lemonade and we sat on the window seat in the cool to drink it. We were immediately engaged in conversation by the other people there. While we talked, the old woman who ran the place moved slowly back and forth between sink and gas-ring preparing coffee with the measured care of the old conserving their resources.
Our driver got up to leave and my companion followed him out. I had assumed the ride was a lift, and free; it would have been not long ago. Still, if the others were paying, I thought it proper to do so myself. I was amazed when the driver took a hundred drachmas from each of us. It was well over a pound at the time and seemed an excessive amount by Greek standards. I quickly discovered the others thought so too, though it was, they said, the regular charge.
The countryman in Greece, particularly in poor and remote places, is at the mercy of a hundred sharks. In this instance, he either pays the rate or adds a five hour walk to and from Kréndi to any business he has. And the people who exploit him are strangers, of course, city-slickers, although from nowhere more metropolitan than Karpenísi, who are making a tidy profit out of their Datsuns and Toyotas, little of which, you may be sure, finds its way into the taxman’s coffers. They are supercilious types in their city clothes, despising the people they exploit because they represent the backward past from which they themselves have so recently escaped.
It is impossible not to be aware of this collision between the old ways and the new, especially in Greece, where ancient rural traditions have survived so much longer than in other European countries. And it is hard to know quite how to feel about them, their destruction, and the advent of modernism. It is easy to romanticise, with the fascinating plethora of very local customs, songs, costumes and dialects. It is quaint and picturesque to ride about on mules and donkeys up cobbled lanes between higgledy-piggledy cottages, to sit about the hearth in the lamplight wrapped in homespun rugs while a storm batters the surrounding crags.
It is all too easy to forget how hard life was in the traditional village: no electricity, no running water, no machinery, no money, an appalling diet, no medicine, no education. And how cruel it was for the women, who bore the brunt of the hard labour at the same time as being the totally disenfranchised chattels of their menfolk, whether fathers, brothers or husbands. It is also all too easy for the outsider who ‘parachutes’ in, as they say in Greek, with the option of leaving whenever he wishes, returning to the fleshpots and mod cons, to be dazzled by the Homeric nobility, generosity, simplicity and so forth of mountain folk.
A friend who has spent many years organising proper meals and financial help for the school children of Ágrafa tells two cautionary tales, as a warning to rein in the sentimentality. Both happened not many an hour from Varvariádha. One concerns a father, who, disapproving of his daughter’s rumoured liaison with a soldier in Karpenísi, invited her home on the pretext that he missed her, and while she slept – the family all together in the one room, as custom is – chopped her up with an axe. At the funeral, the mother shed not a single tear. Concerned that she should bottle up so much grief, the priest went to console her after the service, whereupon she at last burst into tears, lamenting not for her daughter’s death, but for the loss of a hand to look after the goats.
The other also concerns a daughter, who, bitten by a snake and not properly cared for, eventually lost an arm. Father commented that he would rather she had died, because, crippled, she was useless.
Neither tale is apocryphal, nor, I have to admit, are the sentiments particularly surprising.
And how could the old ways continue? They can’t and won’t. Yet so much that replaces them is tawdry and ugly, cheap and cheapening, especially when measured against such intangible criteria as the quality of life.
For me the spirit of Greek modernism at its worst is exemplified in a humdrum little experience I had in Khaniá in Crete, where I had returned after a long absence. On the site of a rickety shack that had been my local café, I found a small and undistinguished concrete pill-box of a hotel. Underneath, on a level with the harbour quayside, was a new café, with red plastic chairs and tables deployed seductively outside. I went in to ask the proprietor if he knew what had become of Stélios, the wall-eyed proprietor of my vanished haunt.
Stélios’s place had been sooty and tobacco-stained. He kept his charcoal perpetually alight to service the well-sucked and fingered narghiles he provided. His chairs were straw-bottomed, his tables wooden or round-topped tin with curvaceous tripod stand nipped in to an elegant waist. In winter a mangáli – a sort of domestic brazier fuelled with olive pips, charcoal, anything that was going – warmed us, while the wind rattled the windows and the sea slapped at the quay. The place had character.
As it happened, the new fellow did know what had happened to Stélios. I made some nostalgic remarks about the old days and asked if anyone in Khaniá still provided narghiles.
“Bah, that’s all over,” the man said scornfully. “That stuff. Finished with.”
“Pity,” I said. “A narghile was a good way of smoking.”
“What do you want with that stuff?” he sneered. “It’s all finished with. Gone. We’re modern now. Going forward.”
He did not look at me as he spoke.
Crestfallen, I watched his back as he scrubbed energetically at one of the tables. Then, for old time’s sake I ordered a coffee and went and sat outside.
The plastic seat of the chair was already uncomfortably hot and sticky in the early sun. The lipping round the edge of the table had come unstuck and was peeling off, revealing the frayed edges of chipboard underneath. When I leaned forward, the table-top waggled precariously, threatening to part company with the single column that supported it.
Cheap and unsuitable materials ineffectually disguised by a glossy veneer: meretricious as a poor whore.
With the alien presence of the Toyota removed, we settled down in a company of five or six in the lee of the magazí. It was absolutely still and I began to be aware of the presence of the mountains, their imminence almost, and the size of the country I was about to enter. Not that crow-flying mileage is particularly significant: it’s the slow, cumulative, pace-by-pace putting behind you of the twentieth century, each ridge crossed, each stream forded, the entering a lamplit, hourless, homemade, handmade world in which the fastest thing afoot is a good deal slower than Laurie Lee’s 8mph horse, which creates the sense of distance.
Seated with us was a thin, sickly old man, husband of the woman kafetzís. I found it hard not to look at him. He had a handsome face with wide, square cheekbones, strong once, but now a peculiar yellow pallor seemed to glow just beneath the surface of his brown skin. He sat very upright and silent among us with one nearly transparent hand resting on a stick. He had had an operation, someone whispered confidentially: clearly not very successful. Although he remained silent, his black eyes followed the conversation feverishly. He must have found it tiring after a while, for very slowly and carefully he got himself to his feet and shuffled across the track to lie down on a bench beneath a trellised vine. His wife took him a cup of coffee and placed it beside him. He sipped at it once or twice and for a time gave the appearance of listening to us. Then he seemed to drift off into a haze of weakness and indistinctness, not asleep, nor yet fully conscious.
Conversation is seldom a problem in Greece. Within a few minutes all sorts of subjects had been broached: comparison of life in England and Greece, the nature and benefits of the Common Market (which Greece was on the brink of joining), the Labour Party, the value of a strong opposition in parliament, the climate, the benefits of a welfare state.
We were interrupted by the arrival of a second pick-up from Kréndi, bringing the moustachioed shepherd I might have travelled with and some other lean, ruddy-cheeked mountain types. One of our circle, a little sandy-haired, ginger-skinned man with stars of crowsfeet round his eyes got up to greet them and led them off to where three sleek mules were tethered under the trees. With a few deft tugs at girth and rope, the beasts were loaded, untied and off they set on the path to Epinianá, a village four or five hours away, with most of the road to go in the dark.
1 Strictly speaking, the klephts were brigands, usually operating in mountain areas of Greece (kléftis=robber). Although they preyed on Greek and Turk alike, many succeeded in creating legendary reputations as Robin Hood protectors of the poor and oppressed against their Ottoman overlords. In the 18th and 19th centuries, their outlaw bands constituted a militarily significant force of hardened guerrilla fighters in the Greek struggles for independence from the Turk.
2 Every mountain village has its magazí, which is usually a combination of coffee-shop and general store. It is the hub of social and business activity.