Sunday, July 20, 2014

Family History on the Albanian Frontier - Other Side of Greece (Part 2)

The most important part of our trip to Epirus was a return to Drymades, the home village of Christina’s giagia (granny), Vasilia. This is where Vasilia had grown up and generation upon generation of that branch of the family had lived out their lives. It was a pilgrimage to go there with four generations of the family - Vasilia and Niko, their daughter Nola, granddaughter Christina and great-grandchildren Nikolaki and Alexi (our toddlers).

For us Brits, links to the ancestral family village have been largely severed by the best part of two centuries of industrialisation and post-industrial life. For Greeks, this link is much closer. Greece has moved into modern times much more recently. Athens may have half the country’s population, but most of that expansion has happened in the last couple of generations. Whether through cousins, property or just childhood memories, people are often still connected to their roots. Vasilia’s nuclear family may have fled the civil war to the other end of the earth (Australia), but she eventually found her way back to live in Greece and then on to visit Drymades. This was her first trip back for nearly a decade.

The trip to Drymades is not an easy one. From Ioannina, which one should not forget is itself a long bloody way from anywhere, it takes a couple of hours on increasingly narrow and windy mountain roads. As we drove, the surroundings were drenched in low grey cloud and intermittent heavy rain. While this hid the mountaintop vistas, it added a sense of the wilderness. Sparse yet green narrow valleys rose fast to mountain slopes. Every so often I caught a glimpse of the heights through breaks in the cloud and wished for a brighter day.

Drymades is one of a group of forty traditional inter-related Greek villages spread on each side of the Albanian-Greek border. As is so often the way, mighty powers - in this case as part of the break up-of the Ottoman Empire - concocted a border which clove centuries old communities in two. Neighbours now belonged to different nations. With the onset of the Cold War, this hastily jotted line would form part of Churchill’s Iron Curtain. Neighbours were now officially enemies, although I somehow doubt the separated villages viewed it that way.

We took a right turning branch of the road and stopped off in the village of Pogoniani for a brief walk. This was a very familiar place to Vasilia, being the head village of the group and gave me a good indication of what to expect in Drymades. A reasonable collection of grey-stone houses, but very little to no sign of life outside four old men sitting at the Café Neo. On we went to even smaller roads, down the side of a valley, then winding up the steep other side. We had arrived.

Drymades was larger and grander than I had expected. By that I do not mean particularly large or grand at all, but just more so. A village of around thirty traditional stone houses, clutching to the hillside. At its centre was a beautifully built church and courtyard, from which the land dropped sharply to the lower part of the village. The cloud had lifted a little, and from the churchyard wall, views stretched for miles across the sparse valley. On the opposing mountainside I could just make out another small village. On asking, Vasilia informed me that I was looking at Albania. That came as quite a surprise. The poorest country in Europe was but a stone’s throw away.

It was fascinating to listen to Vasilia recall previous occupants of this and that house as we passed. Details and context bring a place to life and, being all but abandoned in winter, this key was needed to unlock the colour behind the rain-soaked buildings.

I could feel her sense of loss at the place that had once been. Fortunately, near the bottom of the village we bumped into one of the four remaining inhabitants (yes four, the permanent population had recently doubled from two!). Some passing words about Drymades’ latest gossip lifted the mood. On we went down the winding road towards Vasilia’s grandmother’s house. What we found was a ruin. A collapsed-in pile of stones covered in moss and fern. On first impressions, one could have reckoned it abandoned for centuries, but the reality was that the harsh mountain climate had turned a home in which Vasilia played as a child back to nature in less than 50 years.

On our way out of the village we took a diversion onto a wide outcrop of rock, covered in lush grass. Stepping out to the edge, Vasilia showed us the remains of the millstone, where her mother and other women of the village would group together to crush wheat with the help of a stubborn donkey. I have seen photos of the place still active in the 60’s, Christina’s mum and aunt rolling in the crushed wheat as small children. Now it is little more than a couple of out of place looking stones amongst nature. It resembles more a paleolithic site than a place of recent labour and life.

The visit to the millstone was a stark reminder that the village of Vasilia’s youth was not far removed from the middle ages. The people had no electricity, automobiles or telecommunication. Religion was central to community life and beasts of burden were a key commodity, a sign of wealth and prosperity. A past and people left behind.

As we moved on, I can’t deny the sombre mood created by a combination of long gone memories, current realities and the closed in weather. Our visit was though a very touching experience. It is amazing to think that for centuries a large portion of my wife’s ancestors dwelt in such an isolated, wild and beautiful place. Greek civilization clinging high up into the Balkans, amongst snowed in valleys and the odd wolf. I am so glad Vasilia took our boys there.


Now realising just how close the border was, I wanted to touch it and ideally cross it. A quick change of plan, one turn up the road from Drymades and we found ourselves at the border post. A small hut occupied by a couple of very bored looking Greek soldiers in full combat fatigues. This high road between uneasy neighbours is only open to foot traffic and the single lonely crossing for miles and miles. For sure the most remote border post I have encountered on my home continent, the sort of place you expect in central Asia, not 70 km from Corfu.

With a little Greek granny persuasion, sight of my driving license and a scribble on a clip-board, the guards let me through the Greek barrier. Sensibly leaving the assorted members of the family behind, I excitedly jogged down the stretch of no-man’s road. Down a hill and round a slight corner I got sight of the Albanian border crossing. Now across the half-way point and on Albanian soil, my instinct to try and negotiate my way through the barrier was negated by a couple of very large Alsatians barking with a vengeance. That was enough for the day. I saluted and jogged back to Greece.


Of the many stories Vasilia shared on this trip, from searching the mountains for lost pregnant goats to agonising multi-day walks to see a doctor, there is one that I think most fitting to share.

Exploring the mountain paths as a child on the border with Albania, she was shocked by the sight of someone quite unlike anyone she had seen before. In wonder, Vasilia ran home and told her family about what, or rather whom, she had seen. A small man in military uniform with a round face and strange flat eyes. No one believed her. The excited imagination of a little girl.

It was many years later that the clouds lifted and Vasilia understood what she had witnessed. Albania had been a communist country in the grip of almost complete isolation from the world. One of its few allies was Maoist China. Vasilia had witnessed a Chinese military adviser touring the borders. A chance occurrence which shows how the extreme politics of the 20th century not only tore people apart, but brought together the most unlikely of people.
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