A Sort of Homecoming

And you know it’s time to go
Through the sleet and driving snow
Across the fields of mourning
Lights in the distance
And you hunger for the time
Time to heal, desire time
– U2, ‘A Sort of Homecoming’

Whenever I monitor birds on the lower hills I pass what is left of the village. I stay with a path that dips into a bowl of grassy slopes, edged with the echoes of homes. The ruins are thinly scattered, a rumour of earlier lives. The stone walls that once enclosed gardens and dining rooms run like flat silver streams branching into myriad tributaries. In place of wild trees there are domesticated varieties, now wild and ungovernable themselves: plum, apple and pear. The village church, a great bulk of honey-coloured stone in evening’s slanted light, is the only building worth the description. Nothing else holds a shape, nothing else fills its intended form. But even the church has been sheered off along its walls, so that it’s become a nursery for trees, a wild and elaborate enclosure.

On the last weekend of August I worked from a whale-backed hill that rose softly from the rim of the ruins. As usual only birds and summer’s drowsy silence encircled me. So when I soon heard voices drifting across the parched and weary hills I searched with great interest for their source. I found four men sat in the shade of a tree, unexpectedly dressed in their casual best. A trio of women hoved into view, the last in the line armed with a black umbrella as a shield against the sun. Other figures soon emerged along the path I had walked, a ribbon of different ages carrying the tools of the day, video cameras and mobile phones. A man led the unlikely congregation, throwing his arms to the left and right of him as he spoke, emphasising this or that in the landscape, or so I assumed – I watched the procession through a telescope from a few slopes away. But when a Greek police jeep crawled into view along the road, stopping to observe as well, I had a feeling these people had once belonged here. Everywhere, in the most unexpected moments, there are stories.

I met one of the men as I wove down the slope. He looked up from the ground and greeted me in Slavic. When I replied in Greek he slowly answered with the same. “I was born here,” he said, sweeping an arm towards a few scattered stones. “This was our house. I was five years old when we left in 1948.”

The end of a terrible decade, made worse in Greece by a Civil War that followed straight on from the other. As Hitler’s armies fell away, the two Greek resistance movements that had so valiantly opposed him returned to their ideological roots, seeking control of the country’s direction in the absence of a defining leadership. The pro-royalists, backed by the American and British governments, sought to restore the monarchy through the return of the exiled King of Greece while the Communist partisans believed the country’s secular future was to be found in the establishment of a leftist state.

The Greek Civil War cost around 158,000 lives, though immeasurable others were swept from their lands and villages, divided from their families, left homeless and bereft. The traumas still linger close to the surface of Greek society. By the end of the vicious, communal conflict, the pro-royalists had gained the advantage through the enormous support of external states, and some of the war’s final battles were waged around the Prespa basin as soldiers and civilians funnelled north in the hope of fleeing the country from the bombardment and shelling.

Ritso now lives in Skopje, the capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. “The war destroyed the village. My mother and father took our family out through Albania when I was five.” He pointed to a haze-shrouded ripple of hills. “After that we lived in Czechoslovakia, and then in Tashkent for a while. It was Soviet back then, of course. But the whole village burned, from the napalm.”

Along with aircraft and financial support, the American and British governments – determined not to allow Communist control of Greece, and therefore critical access to the Mediterranean – also gave the Royal Hellenic Airforce napalm to be used against the partisan guerrillas fighting from the mountains of the north. Some of the forested slopes that were napalmed and razed by fire in the 1940s have never recovered, and neither have the villages.

“There were about six or seven hundred people living here,” said Ritso.
“But where are all the stones from the houses?”
“They were taken for building houses in Greek towns.”

Ritso filled in a map from memory, possibly his own from the age of five, but more likely that of his parents. A map re-inscribed over time, lent depth and detail through stories voiced in exile. He showed me how the houses in his neighbourhood stood close up to the next, where the lane passed between them, how the village fields rose up the slopes.

“And this was the cemetery.”
“Where?” I asked, looking helplessly around.
“Right here.” An empty flat of grassy earth spread away from us, where a few stunted trees had staked a tenacious claim.
“But what happened to the graves?”
“Most of them were destroyed because they had Slavic names on them. Many people in our village supported the Communists. They only left the church alone because we’re both Orthodox people.”

Emerging from over half a millennium of Ottoman control, the many nascent countries of the Balkans emphasised nationalism, along with cultural and linguistic homogeneity, as the foundation for a new state. In the wake of this limiting idea countless acts of violence and abuse were committed on all sides. And some of them still are; in place of plurality the modern fragmentation of the region into smaller and more easily defined states testifies to the endurance of the idea.

“While the Greeks were fighting the Turks so were we. During the Ilinden Uprising in 1903 a committee of men from this village met in a cave just up there to organise resistance.” Ritso pointed to the limestone hills where I often work. “Somehow the Turks found out and sealed the cave with stones while they were still inside. They killed them alive.” Everywhere, in every stone and hollow, in every stretch of empty grass, there are stories.

“We always come on the last weekend of August.”
“Why then?”
“It’s the village saint’s day.”
“Which saint is it?” I asked Ritso.

Ritso couldn’t remember the name in Greek and I couldn’t think of any major saint’s days that fell at the end of August.
“The mother of Christ,” he suddenly said.
“Mary?” I found myself saying in English.
“Yes, Maria.”

For a moment I was confused. The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is one of the most celebrated days in the Greek calendar, falling on the 15th of August. But then I remembered that some countries of the Eastern Orthodox Church still follow the Julian calendar so that Christmas falls on the 7th of January. In this case the devastated village was being honoured a full thirteen days after all the other villages in Greece which shared the Virgin Mary as their saint, further isolating its identity. It stands noticeably apart from the others.

Finally Ritso asked me what I was doing among the ruins of the village, and I told him that I was surveying the birds of the area.
“Make sure you tell them there are people here, as well as birds,” he said. But even then, as we clasped hands outside his house of fallen stone, I knew that by the following day only echoes of their presence would linger. A spray of dying flowers by a grave; footfalls in the dust; a dropped wrapper or rind.

The police jeep had moved on by the time I’d finished my shift and I walked out past the few remaining graves and then along the road. Looking down into the bowl of village ruins I saw the entire group that had travelled on this Orthodox saint’s day – those who’d come by chartered bus as well as car – gathered in the long shadows of shimmering poplars, picnicking beside what was left of a home.

This is the second in a trio of tales from around the lakes, loosely concerned with the nature of borders. Many thanks to Cait at the wonderful Farmhouse Stories for penning the elegant phrase, “explorations along the intersection of three countries,” which has inspired me to place these pieces together. In the next post we’ll travel from Greece to a village in Albania where a few committed individuals and organisations are working at bridging the many differences that so often accompany borders. Until then, happy wanderings…

31 thoughts on “A Sort of Homecoming

    1. Thanks, Maru. Seeing villages like these, and there are plenty scattered around northern Greece, is a sad reminder of the many differences that divide us. Many thanks for taking the time to read this single story from that time…

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  1. Julian, your photos always nicely add an extra dimension to the stories you are telling, but in this post their marriage is like a grilled ribeye steak with a dollop of blue cheese on top. On their own both are delicious, but their flavours in combination take the taste experience to a whole different level. In the same way, the photos you included add a sharp poignancy to the forced displacement and abandonment that you so clearly describe. I was especially struck by the way that the buildings in the village have been almost erased, even though it was only 63 years ago that the last inhabitant left. Your photos and story speak to the twin themes of ephemerality and endurance; despite the best efforts of the Greeks to obliterate the village enough remnants remain to give witness to the injustices of over half a century ago, as the memories of the former villagers are also likely eroded but still sharp enough to also sustain and uphold those selfsame events.

    1. Many thanks, Paul, as always, for your insightful remarks and thoughts. Like you I was staggered by how the village had been “erased.” Although I’ve passed through on many occasions it was only through Ritso’s story that I had a greater sense of what the village had been. As you and I have been discussing the Arab Spring of late, it occurs to me that these events are continually unfolding, so that stories like Ritso’s are taking place as we speak. What compounds the issue in terms of the Greek Civil War is how the conflict divided the country. The Slavic speakers of northern Greece considered themselves (and the majority of those that remain still do) to be Greek. But ideologies of left and right, and the subsequent, acrimonious relations between Greece and its neighbours means that Ritso’s story is, out of understandable neccessity, framed through a different national perspective. And as you so rightly point out, the remnants tell a story, remembering, in their stubborn reluctance to completely fade away, a time when things were different. Meeting a man who’d been born there was an extremely moving experience for me.

      I have to add that I love your comparison of the words and images with a night out for dinner! I’m smiling as I finish this up – and that’s after reading the comment for a second time!

      Best wishes to you, Paul,

      Julian

  2. Beautiful as always, Julian — especially love the phrase “rumors of earlier lives” and the way you worked history into the natural scene. The images and story are very reminiscent of the nonfiction book I’m working on about an old Spanish family forced from their land here in California, and as I walk the dry, stony hills of the former rancho this morning I will have your tale and exquisite writing in my head to encourage my muse. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Jenny, for this lovely comment. I’m very interested in the work you’re trying to do, combining the land with the stories that have unfolded so intimately across its surface. And I’m honoured to think that these words might help your project along in some small way. Many thanks for making the time to walk these “dry, stony hills” as well as your own…

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  3. Marvellous post, Hoff. A sad and evocative tale of one small village and its exiled people, a story repeated countless times. All over Europe in the wake of the last war border areas saw the usually forced migration of minority ethnic groups. You have to feel sorry for the largely blameless ethnic German populations in Poland, Hungary, Romania and elsewhere who were compelled to leave villages and towns that had been home to their families often for many generations.
    I remember seeing all those village war memorials from the Great War in western Hungary; most of the names were German, but since the end of the Second War there are very few ethnic Germans remaining.
    The history of the bloody struggle that consumed Greece in the aftermath of the last war is one that is unfamiliar to many people outside the country. I learnt a little about the events in post-war Greece from my father when I was younger. My dad was stationed in Cyprus for a while after the war during the violent uprising against British rule aimed at reunifying the country with Greece. My mum has a terrible memory of screams coming from a supply convoy ambushed by EOKA guerillas outside the perimeter of the British Army base at Berengaria where they lived.

    1. Thanks kindly, Pete! You always bring an intelligent and learned depth to these comments that I find deeply informative. I had no idea about the Greek Civil War whatsoever until arriving here; in fact I don’t believe I’d ever even heard of it. And yet it marks the country in so many contemporary ways – and as you point out there are populations and ethnic minority groups scattered across Europe (and the rest of the world) whose stories and travails so often pass us by. I can imagine those war memorials in Hungary. Something that once stood for so much, now largely irrelevent in the way of changing demographics. Thanks for the intimate insight into Cyprus as well – it’s greatly appreciated.

      Much love,
      Julian

  4. Haunting. I can’t stop looking at the photo of the man. His expression says so much about who he is especially in these surroundings. I can see pride first, then strength, then sadness.

    To hear about such a place and its history is one thing, but to be there with those who shared its story must have been fascinating.

    You never disappoint. Thank you!

    1. Thanks very much, Savvy Sister! I’m due to go back there tomorrow and it will be with a renewed sense of the history and meaning of the place. Ritso was a remarkable man that I feel extremely honoured to have met, and to have been able to be there while he imparted some of the stories of his former place. Had I been working there the day before, or the day after, we would never have met. So much of the richness in life is dependent on the crossing of paths. I’m grateful that ours met and that Ritso’s story has touched you in this way. Thanks, as always, for your support, and for taking the time to write in with your thoughts.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  5. A very touching story, Julian. As a genealogist I am endlessly curious about the personal stories of individuals caught up in currents of history.

    One of your comments above — about the Slavic speakers of northern Greece considering themselves to be Greek — shed some light on something a Greek woman once said to me. She was the aunt of my Macedonian friend who emigrated from Greece to Philadelphia. My friend lives in Skopje. I met her Greek aunt when I drove down to her home to pick up my friend’s son for a visit at our place. She took me aside and informed me very earnestly that even though my friend would never admit it, she was not really Macedonian, she was Greek. It seemed like it was a sensitive subject to her aunt so I never brought it up to my friend, but I always wondered about it.

    “Make sure you tell them there are people here, as well as birds.” I wonder if Ritso has any idea how many people you reach with your blog and how kindly you shared his story with all of us. Thank you, Julian.

    1. Thanks kindly, Barbara. Like you, I’m very drawn to the individual stories that emerge amidst larger forces. And in an area like the Balkans – which has changed hands countless times, been the plaything of the great imperial powers, and has existed at the crossroads of cultures, religions and languages – it inevitably contains many of those stories “caught up in the currents of history.” It’s a fascinating tale that you tell about your friend and her aunt, and speaks to so many complex layers of allegiance and belief from both sides. Who and what we are, or the ways in which we choose to identify ourselves, can so easily get caught up in those same currents of history. The historian, Noel Malcolm, in a book about Kosovo, says that “if we go far enough back we’ll see that we all come from somewhere else.” His point is to celebrate that difference.

      It’s a pleasure knowing that Ritso’s story is being read with care – perhaps that is an added echo to his home. Thanks for taking the time, Barbara, to both read and deepen the post with your thoughts and recollection.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

    1. Thanks, JE! I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment that a “better understanding of ourselves” can come from empathy with the stories and lives of others. And I’m honoured to know these tales are resonating with you. Thanks kindly for your thoughts…

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  6. I had all these original things to say, but as I scrolled through the comments, I realized that many of us are being pulled to the same phrases and images. Haunting? Yes. Private made palpable? Yes. And I loved the “rumor” line, too. Thanks, as always, for opening up your corner of the world, Julian. You do it oh so very well.

    1. And my thanks to you, Emily, for your continued support of these explorations and words. I appreciate you taking the time to write in regardless – and look forward to the next installment of your own enriching work.

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  7. This is such a fascinating post, Julian, about the stories contained in people and places, encountered through your work in nature. I’m honoured that you would mention my site and were inspired by my phrase – thank you. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to come back to visit where you were born and find only stones. It is such a lovely ritual they have, though, of coming back to this spot every year.

    1. Thanks, Cait! It was a pleasure to mention your blog, as I’ve long admired your work on it. When I asked Ritso if I could take a photo of him he asked if I could send a copy to his daughter who has email. A terrific idea, I thought, but after taking a couple of images we got talking again and then said our goodbyes. Amidst it all we forgot to exchange details, so I’m hoping to go back on the same day next year to pass it on. Delighted you enjoyed this tale…

      Best,
      Julian

  8. “Everywhere, in the most unexpected moments, there are stories.”

    Agree wholeheartedly; and blessed are those who bother to look. It was like watching a documentary reading this Julian. Great post!

    1. So pleased you liked it, Rex! Always enjoy stopping by to enjoy your own take on those stories to be found wherever we are! Hope all is well with you, and thanks for taking the time to read.

      Cheers,
      Julian

      P.S. Your team has had a somewhat better start than mine this year…

  9. “So much of the richness in life is dependent on the crossing of paths.” And yet, how many missed opportunities are there in one’s life? Had you been reticent, shy or too wary to approach this man, this moving and important story could not have become part of our experience. I can’t help but feel that you, in particular were meant to be there on that significant day to listen with an open mind, to reflect with empathy, to photograph with insight and to tell the story with intelligence and eloquence. I salute you and thank you for this.

    1. I’m deeply humbled by your generous words, Cindy. Stories like Ritso’s depend as much on a sensitive reader willing to engage and travel to someone else’s world, and I’m honoured that you bring these gifts to the words. Thank you…

  10. This is fascinating, Julian. I’ve always been amazed at how many stories can be written upon just a scattering of stones. What a fortuitous meeting. There are so many places where there is no one left to share those stories. It’s wonderful that you met these people when you did.

    1. Thanks, Heather! I agree, so many place where people have vanished and the stories lost or barely legible amongst the stones or sand. I think for this very reason I was so grateful to have the opportunity to listen, to hear the stories retold and bring the village alive again. Many thanks for taking the time to comment and hope all is well with you.

      Take care,
      Julian

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