In Arcadia

In Arcadia

Giristroula’s grandfather was brought down the outside stone stairs from the first floor.
At the bottom, a crowd of mourners stood in the bare garden watching as he was carried along. Men from his local kafeneo in the one old suit they owned, the black scarfed old women who used to buy their currents and olives from him, Giristroula’s family. Giristroula’s father heaving back great gulps of tears.
Giorgos had had a long life. He’d outlived his wife by many years. He worked every day of his life on his farm, right up until two days ago when he had come home, drunk the one glass of his own-made retsina he always had, went up to his small single bed and fell asleep. As unobtrusive a routine as his whole life had been.
Giorgos hadn’t woken up again the next day.
As he was carried out of the garden gate, his donkey brayed a sad little note. She would miss him most of all.

Greek tradition states the dead cannot be left alone, so we had raced back from Mistra, across the mainland of the Peloponnese from south-east to north-west. As soon as we arrived in Giristroula old hometown, she had been given the task of sitting with her grandfather, laid out on the dining room table, for the night shift.
Giristroula sat on the hard chair next to the stiff body all through the long hours. Now, in bright sunlight, the coffin was slowly being driven through the streets of Amaliada.
It shocked me slightly that the coffin was left wide open. The gawpers on the street all able to peer in and see who was the latest in the town to drop off. The old men turning to look at each other, a sad look of recognition that one of their number had gone, and a weighing up who was going to be next to go under the slab.
Someone told me it was the Turks who insisted the coffin stay open, so the Greeks were unable to smuggle guns around during the years of the fighting for independence.
Someone else, at the graveside edge, told me that Giristroula’s grandfather should be being buried with a coin in his hand. “How will he pay Charon the ferryman to get over the other side if he doesn’t have a coin?” the man said, a little panicked. I looked at the fretful old man standing next to his friend’s grave and gave him a smile. But it seemed he was completely serious about this unpaid journey to Hades.

Back at Giorgos’ old dark home the wake was a sombre affair. There is no drinking and carousing and rolling the carpet right back and get cracking with your old Gay Gordons in Greece. Instead, dark black coffee is drunk – no sugar allowed. Kolyva handed out – plates of unappealing wheat and seeds with each piece needing to be blessed by the priest, who was hanging around here in his grand robes in the dark dusty front room.
Also standing about the room in tense awkward silence were several of the odd figures of Amaliada: Othonas, the crazy man of the town who walked around every day with a sheep’s bell round his neck and his cages of colourful birds, who would shout out his words of advice for each person he passed; in the corner the small round man who ran the local periptero kiosk with his large black moustache, his white vest and muscular weightlifter’s body who wrote poetry and held a permanent sad demeanor as no one ever took his writing seriously; Kyrios Karaflos – Mr Bald – the electrician and Kyrios Trichas – Mr Hairs – the ironmonger, who predictably enough disliked each other intensely, stood stiffly side by side; and there was Andreas.
Andreas, as a boy, had been hopelessly in love with Giristroula. When they were at school together it was a open secret that he was sick with love for her. I felt very sorry for Andreas. He kept looking over shyly at Giristroula but didn’t seem confident enough to approach her.
Andreas’ father had been the Vothratzis – the shit man. His job had been to do the rounds of Amaliada, before a more efficient sewage system was installed in the town, and clear the tanks in everyone’s garden that connected to their toilets. He was greeted with a series of windows being closed, shutters banged tight, curtains quickly drawn wherever he went. Men would sit at opposite ends of the kafeneon when he came in after work.
Andreas suffered a terrible stigma at school for his father’s profession. The son of the Shit Man. Even now, 25 years later, he wavered on the edge of this mourner’s gathering. And Giristroula looked the other way.

Georgos was left to lie in his piece of arcadian tranquility in the small cemetery of Amaliada. He was one of the lucky ones. People who die in Athens or Thessaloniki or the other big urban areas of Greece aren’t usually allowed to stay in their patches of peace. The recently departed city dwellers are temporarily buried in the crowded graveyards but the lack of space means they get exhumed 3 years later, the bones given back to the relatives or boxed in an ossuary for a couple of decades before being dissolved in chemicals or tossed into a pit. No long sleeps of hoped-for stillness for them.
Cremations in Greece are not allowed. People often have to ferry the dead over the border to Bulgaria if they don’t want to be buried in their temporary graves. But Giorgos rested now under his bright white marble crypt. The cross and the candle burning. His photo embossed into the headstone, next to his wife’s.

It was clear Giristroula and I wouldn’t get away to continue our journey round the Peloponnese for a while.
Giristroula’s mother needed to get back to Athens and her work in the parliament and Vasilios, Giristroula’s father, needed help. He moved around the house like a long shadow, quiet and depressed, with his black arm band and mournful face.
I was tasked with pulling the wood from the farm every day to the fill up the house’s fireplace – the tzaki. Giristroula stirred the huge pans of lentils. Winter in Amaliada really set in.
The cold got into the houses and the streets and infiltrated the trees. The sea here along the Peloponnesian west coast under the winter sun was a blinding metallic carpet. Sometimes the beach would be littered with the carcasses of sheep and goats that had fallen into the rivers and been washed out into the sea when the big storms that hit this side of Greece raged for days.

I sat in the house and went through boxes of Giristroula’s family’s old things. Photos and little keepsakes and memories. And a collection of teeth.
When children’s teeth fall out the tradition is to throw them up on the roof so the new ones will grow strong. Giristroula’s mother clearly couldn’t bear to be without these mementos of her children and had later scrabbled up on the top of the house to get them back.
I was told the roof of the house had also at times served as a bedroom for the whole family during the many roasting hot nights of summers past. All of them lying up there at angles in the stifling heat, the crickets still beating loudly out under the moon. Giristroula and her sister remembered they would crack eggs up here on the tiles and watch them cook.
When the house was being built the priest who lived next door had come and blessed each part. He ran into the road with his hands to his head when he saw Giristroula’s parents undertaking the other, superstitious, Greek ritual to safeguard a newly constructed house – spreading a freshly slaughtered cockerel’s blood over all points of the ground the house was being built on.

I came across some old faded pages in the boxes of the family’s things that I could see had been written by Giristroula’s other grandfather, Stathis Georgopoulos – a good solid Peloponnese name. People of the northern Peloponnese usually get a “-poulos” at the ending of their surnames, meaning “the child of”. Further down south you find surnames end in “-eas”, and in the wild Mani names will end with an “-akos”.  It’s “-akis” in Crete and “-oglou” or “-idis” in Thessaloniki. You can accurately pinpoint someone’s roots just by the last syllable of their name in Greece.
I tried translating the text that Giristroula’s grandfather had written, years ago. As I traced the words it became clear he had been writing about his time as a guerrilla, fighting in the resistance against the Germans as the Nazis swarmed over the Peloponnese land.

The decision was taken that to beat the Germans, we must ambush them.
The right place for this was the location of Pousi near Lala in the Highlands.

After noon, we could see the German phalanx was coming by the dust thrown up by their motorcycles. We were hidden close to the road and after letting them get to about 1,000 meters, we opened fire. This confused the enemy. They stopped and retreated to join the main bulk. We had let them know that it would not be so easy for them to move. That the road was well guarded by the ELAS guerrillas.

We moved again and reached the river Cladeo or Stravokefalo. (The river that runs through Ancient Olympia and flows into the Alfios river). We started walking in the river, in the water. After a few hours it started raining and everybody was soaked, from top to tail. We walked through the darkness and the cold, sometimes tripping and falling into the water that had flooded. This was a terrifying ordeal, but one that we all endured without any fear because we all believed in the vow we had given for the liberation of our country.

About midnight we arrived outside of Lala. We did not know if the Germans were ahead of us in the village. Something had to be done to find out. There was a barn near where we stopped. One of our comrades took a shepherd’s cap and crook and, with his automatic gun (a Marsip which was looted from Germans we captured a month ago near Mirakas), he walked into the village. The Germans caught up with him. As soon as he arrived near the first houses he heard “Halt!” As the comrade told us later, he let the German think that he was from the village and showed him a house with a light on and indicated that this was where he lived. He entered the house through the door and jumped out of the window and crawled back to reach us.

We headed to Pousi, in the weeds and the stones (The road could not be used in case we were seen by the Germans).
At four in the morning we prepared for the ambush. To the left was lower ground and on the right of the road a steep hill down full of bushes. We set ourselves on the left.

Standing in the rain and cold we waited for the enemy. Our bodies were frozen. Our hands were shaking.
At half past seven our forward guard in Lala notified us that the Germans were coming. 5 motorcycles and 2 trucks full of troops armed with heavy weaponry.

As if by magic the cold and the shivering stopped. We were on fire waiting.
The Germans were ambushed…

I was amazed reading this. A real narrated history from someone who was there when these pockets of shoddily equipped, untrained resistance fighters struck back at the occupying German forces.
The Greek resistance that had fought so fiercely that Hitler had been forced to send more and more troops to keep Greece down, seriously disrupting his war plans in Europe.
“The word heroism I am afraid does not render in the least those acts of self-sacrifice of the Greeks,” said Churchill. “Greeks don’t fight like heroes… heroes fight like Greeks.”
A proud moment from Greece’s history.
Shortly after this though, the infighting of the Greeks and the betrayal of Britain brought more shameful aspects to the country…
Accompanying the yellow sheets were old photos. One of Stathis stood with a group of other disheartened-looking men in a fortified camp.
Stathis had been a communist. He had fought with the communist guerrilla groups, the most effective of all the resistance against the Nazis. After the liberation of Greece, however, Britain and the controlling forces installed a right-wing government in the country. Stathis, along with many others who had fought so bravely, was arrested and sent into exile to the islands of Ikaria, Ai Stratis and Makronisi where he was tortured ruthlessly, like all those who had refused to sign a statement of repentance for their communist views.
Stathis was released after 6 years with serious health problems which plagued him for the rest of his life until, aged only 62, he died. Just a few weeks after Giristroula had been born.

I asked why these scraps of writing and the letters and the photos were here, bundled away. I was told they had been hidden for years in the lining of Giristroula’s grandmother’s sewing box. After the installing of the right-wing government, and especially in the time of the dictatorship in Greece, the police could invade your house as they pleased. Anything incriminating you or linking you to the left movement could lead to serious trouble.
Giristroula’s mother told me that it was often the men working in the periptero kiosks that would grass you up. If you bought any newspaper from them that wasn’t the regime’s official one, you could be in for the knock on the door in the middle of the night…

Giristroula and I took a drive out to Pousi one cold, wet morning to stand in the spot her grandfather had stood and had waited for the Germans to arrive.
There is a monument here for what happened that morning in December 1943. “Human kind will fight against slavery” reads the inscription. Stood on the steep hill, only bushes and silence around. It’s graffitied over now. All a little uncared for.
In the near-by church is another forgotten monument for Kolokotronis, who fought a huge battle with the Turkish in – quite incredibly – the very same spot Giristroula’s grandfather and his frozen comrades had stood, frightened and freezing, over one hundred and twenty years later.

We carried on. Over the rippling hills. Past the wrinkled olive boughs and the goats with bells on the terraces of cut soil. Past the temple at Vasses – far better preserved than Athens’ Parthenon – with its columns and Corinthian capitals hidden by the hills and the trees and so kept away from the thousands of years of wars and conversions by Christians or Muslims or the pollution of modern-day Athens’ rains.
We crossed over the Lykaion range – mountains that seem to have slipped their anchors and drifted dangerously close to the villages caught between these monsters and the sea.
It was on these mountains, back in 2007 that some of the worst fires of Greece’s history raged for several weeks over the summer. Sixty people died. The sky across the whole of the prefecture was black. Ash falling down on the roof back home in Amaliada.
People were burnt alive in their cars trying to escape. Whole villages were flame-encircled and houses destroyed. The fires even reached Olympia, passing the ancient running track, scorching the outside of the museum.
Giristroula’s grandfather had employed an Albanian back on his farm to help him. At the funeral the Albanian had told me how he had been working on different land, up on these mountains, back when the fire broke out. He had fled through the cinder-dry forests but, knowing he could never outrun the flames, he instead dug himself a hole down in the ground and hid as the fire passed over him.
He still wore a haunted look as he told me all this.
“There was no fire…I could see no fire…Then the air goes a bit drier, and then there’s just a wall of fire. Coming at me…”
The joke in the rest of Greece was that the whole of Peloponnese got high from these fires, as the county of Elia is well-known for its farms secretly growing marijuana hidden within its fields. But there was nothing to laugh at. This was a devastation for the county.
As we drove, there were still large areas where trees and crops hadn’t grown back. Scalded hills. Black scar-tissue.
It is a well-known rumour that the fires were the result of arson – money-men who wanted to develop the land. The ravenous desire for that golden ticket of tourism. And the ruin it had brought.

*

Down on the sea, past mile after mile of empty beaches, Kaiafa appeared. Just a grove of plane trees behind sand dunes. A disused railway station and a dead line. Through the trees though, I could see broken buildings. Giristroula told me these were once hotels.
We walked round the grounds with the windows falling out of these buildings, the rusting iron beds in rooms left to rot in the open air.
Giristroula’s two grandmothers used to come here for weekends. They would sit and sew and gossip and at dawn each day they would get up and stand on the pier in the lake and wait for the ferry that appeared through the morning mist to take them away to the natural springs spa in the mountains.
Like an ancient mysterious ritual, they would disappear on the ferry – paying the ferryman not take to them on to the other world, but instead to try and reverse their aging. To try to find their lost youth.
Giristroula remembers how the two old women would come back, smiling and glowing and stinking of sulphur. Sure they had taken years off their bodies.

We carried on down through Giristroula’s home county until we hit the Neda River. The waters here where Zeus as an infant was bathed and cleansed by the three nymph sisters.
This is the border between the state of Elia and the state of Messinia. The start of real southern Peloponnese. We didn’t dare go further. Not yet. But we would soon.
The summer was coming. Flowers had started appearing, blazing the fields. We stood by Neda’s waterfalls, the branches of the trees splitting the sunlight into beams over the pools. The end of the Peloponnese was calling us on.

Back in Amaliada the gypsies that live in their own appointed town within the town, just behind Giristroula’s house were getting ready for their weddings.
I walked round the streets of this gypsy land. It was a curious area. The people seemed to have very little money, the roads were dirt tracks, but the houses had been built in a grand style. But then those living inside these houses lived in a spartan fashion – no furniture, people sitting around on the floors. Or, even more peculiarly, any furniture they did have was taken outside – dining tables and armchairs out in the gardens.
When the gypsy weddings take place in Amaliada, it is pandemonium. Pick-up trucks go by for days in the build-up, with huge carpets laid out on the back and great groups of people dancing – all with their shoes taken off and stacked neatly to the side.
And then the real party starts. We walked past one wedding party in an open field just behind the town. Hundreds and hundreds of guests. The most famous clarinet player in Greece, Saleas, had been hired. As he played people danced and money was thrown like confetti again and again onto the floor. The money piled up round the dancer’s ankles so you couldn’t see the ground.
There was a system for these dances – a number called out and a certain group allowed to dance at a particular time to avoid fighting families finding themselves thrown together.
We were told the bride’s dress, as she spun around on the dried mud and soil, and her jewellery, was worth thousands.

The summer built up. The windows started to stay wide open. The gypsy wedding parties carried on for one, two, three weeks without end. Clarinets soaring over the roofs through the newly heavy hot nights.
It was time to leave.