It often feels as though I’m the only person anywhere on the plateau. I’m kept company by lizards basking on the sun-struck stones, the wind raking the dry grasses like fingers through hair, and the relic memories of the Greek Civil War still lingering about the bunkers.
On other days, though, I discover that I’m not alone: shepherds range the grasslands with their herds; gatherers of wild mountain tea come suddenly into view swinging thatches of cut stems from their belts; and groups of young and old Albanians pass me on the paths, or are glimpsed in the distance, tiny and striking figures crossing the border in search of work. Then there are the police who from time to time coil up the mountain road, ostensibly to look for immigrants without papers, but just as often to gather wild tea as well.
One police jeep slowed while I descended a ridge, the officers curious to what I was doing there. Discovering that I was studying the birds of the area, they excitedly began describing multi-coloured species to me in the hope that I could reveal to them their names. When the back window was lowered for a policeman to pass me a wreath of wild flowers I realised that he was alone. The dark shadow at his side that I’d assumed to be a colleague was in fact a stout bundle of harvested tea sitting upright in what would have been his place.
What often fascinates me about a place are the people you find there. In this crossroads corner of the Balkans the people you meet are as likely to be from elsewhere as here, or just passing through, on the move and still searching. A month or so ago I heard the sound of a flute floating on the wind while I worked from a promontory on the plateau. Though it was the first time in a decade of living here that I’d heard that immemorial sound, I thought it had to be a shepherd who was playing while he worked. Despite a clear and distant view in all directions I couldn’t find the flute-player or his herd, sunk as they must have been in one of the labyrinthine valleys that encircled me. But last week our paths finally converged.
Stavros described himself as dopios, which is the Greek word for local; though in actuality the term carries far greater weight. In a place that has changed hands many times over the ages, dopios has come to mean Slavic, in both ethnicity and speech, and refers to the descendents of what was the majority population in this region in the centuries of the Ottoman Empire. With the establishment of the Greek state many of the Slavs moved on, or were hellenised as part of a process ubiquitous throughout the Balkans at that time, as emergent and fragile nations tried to forge singular identities where plurality had once been common.
Stavros was born, according to him, on the “wrong” side of the border, however, over in Albania. Sealed to the outside world for nearly half a century by its paranoid Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, it’s difficult to disagree with such sentiments. After the Albanian government fell in 1992 the ruthlessly maintained border went with it, along with the penalty of death that often accompanied its crossing. Stavros packed a bag not long after the fall and hasn’t gone back to live there since then.
For the last eleven years Stavros has worked as a shepherd along the Greek-Albanian border. He leads his herd across the arid plateau each day, coaxing the cows to any sweet grasses he can find in the dips and furrows of the land. His wife lives in a Greek city south of where he works, and he sleeps in a tent which is occasionally burgled by passing immigrants while he’s out on the hills. “It’s only a few of them,” he tells me, “but I just wish they’d ask me. I’d be happy to give them the tea, coffee and sugar that they steal.” Now sixty-one, Stavros is relishing the thought of retiring in two years, along with the time he can then spend with his family. In the meantime he walks the land and speaks of his life with a candour and intimacy that I’ve often experienced in these sudden encounters. The engaging warmth of a shared and unexpected conversation.
A loose memory fell into place while we talked, and I asked Stavros if he played the flute. “I made this one,” he said, handing me a silver instrument that he’d taken from his bag. It was a smooth metal cylinder roughly pocked with circular holes. When I returned to him his flute, he cradled it in both hands before lifting it to his lips. The song the shepherd played found its way into the air, circling and returning, before fading like a dropping wind.
We shook hands and went our separate ways, back to our own endeavours. From the top of a hill I waited for raptors to spiral with the warming air. Stavros returned to his tent to fetch something he needed. I imagined that I’d see the shepherd later that day, guiding his herd over the land. If not, then maybe the day after. Perhaps in a week or so. The secretive hills conceal for such long periods of time that the arrival of someone is always a surprise. But while I’m waiting I’ll listen for the shepherd’s song.