Shared in the Sunlight

For Nina, whose mountain spirit inspires.

It’s rare that I meet people in the mountains. In all that space it’s not often that our slender human paths cross and twine at the exact same time. Instead there are wheeling raptors to fill the expanse, and ground-nesting birds to either side of me. Ravens darken the skies, their deep, guttural calls cast out of the blue to fall like shadows on the land. Skylarks cannon from the grasses with a flurry of wings, and clouds of ringlet butterflies, dark and rimmed in burnt orange, swirl densely around so that I’m never entirely sure if I’m being followed or being led. There are lizards basking on stones and plenty of infuriating flies, as well as the bear that materialised to eye me in the morning’s warm glow. Sometimes there’s just the wind to stir me, or the flooding southern light.

So when I do meet another person there’s something of the unexpected about the encounter, like a gift received without occasion. There’s an intimacy bestowed upon the moment, a possibility for sharing that’s less common in places more peopled. As though encouraged by the empty space, and knowing we’re unlikely to see one another again, we open more surely, confidently, trading stories of our lives that might otherwise take time to be told; we go from being strangers to acquaintances, without ever leaving the hillside.

I’d noticed Samir’s flock long before I saw the shepherd. Keeping an eye on the inevitable accompanying dogs – whose bites are generally worse than their barks – I skirted my usual route, climbing higher up a slope to circle round and come out on the far side of the sheep. Regaining my path, I heard a voice behind me. I turned to see a man in the shade of a stone cleft, waving wildly and beginning to stand. And at the same time we began closing the gap between us.

We shook hands in the sunlight, and Samir asked me what I was doing in the mountains alone, clearly bewildered by my sudden appearance. As I explained my bird-monitoring work to him he asked questions about eagles which he’d seen, and how they might be affected by the wind turbines. “Anyways,” I said, eventually returning to the earlier question. “You’re alone here as well.” He laughed at the very idea. “How can I be alone?” he asked, pointing behind him. “With all these dogs and sheep I can never be alone!”

For the past seven years Samir has lived in the village at the foot of the mountains, but he’s originally from Tirana, the Albanian capital. Over the years I’ve met many men and women from Tirana, or other large Albanian cities, who were once lecturers, economists or chemists, among other things, but who, in having fled from poverty and hopelessness, now lead sheep across meadows, harvest fruit or dig ditches in Greece. It’s a transition that’s long troubled me; not for the relative value commonly accorded to the different work, but for what it signifies for the county’s future. All that promise that’s gone.

I told Samir that I might see him here again as we said our goodbyes. “Not in the next month you won’t.” His face brightened with his own words. “I haven’t been with my family for a long time and I’m going back home to Tirana to see them. We’ll spend a month together at the seaside.” We each went our way, an image of the blue Adriatic in tow.

Arriving at my vantage point for the morning shift, I could see a few horses and a handful of people scattered about the steep adjacent slope. Usually it’s an empty expanse, a tilting meadow where some weeks earlier the bear finally hurtled at full pace, leaving me alone with the aftershock of its sudden presence. But now the wild blueberries had ripened.

Drijan and Ritem were young, still in their teens at a guess. They came from over the other border, with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and were living in a Greek village for the summer doing whatever seasonal work they could find. They’d climbed the steep alpine folds on horseback, having saddled up at dawn. Working throughout the day, they were gathering the tiny wild blueberries clustered among the low-lying plants, filling bowls until full, then transferring the berries to sacks that were loaded onto the horses for the return journey.

“We get 2 Euros per kilo when we take them back to the village.” Drijan tilted the bowls for me to have a closer look. I wanted to scoop the dark fruit in my hands.

“And how much do you have here do you think?” I asked. “It might be two, two and a half kilos, but it takes a long time.” Ritem’s mouth had turned blue from eating the berries while he worked, and he smiled shyly each time I looked at him. I had a feeling I’d do the same – eat my way through a good part of my pay.

Employing close-tined hand rakes, the boys bent over the tangled mat of plants to rake the berries into their bowls, moving up and down the slopes. The berries came free remarkably easily, carrying with them only a small amount of leaf and stem. But it was slow work; the berries too small to amount to anything very quickly.

I asked the boys if I could take a few photos of them, and they immediately adopted a formal, brotherly stance more often associated with the early age of portraiture. But then they were from a rural part of a poor country, where easily produced images and digital cameras are far from common. It’s a response to the camera that I’ve witnessed before, in both Albania and FYR Macedonia, a mark of respect for what has become so casual for so many.

Originally from a small village at the northern edge of Great Prespa Lake, Drijan told me how much he enjoyed walking in the Pelister Mountains that flank the border with Greece. Having been there a few times myself, we talked about the towering pine trees that the mountains are synonymous with. “When you next go walking in Pelister, could you please bring one of the photos for us?” I thought of the alpine massif, its countless ridges, gorges and valleys, and I was touched by his innocence, his naive expectancy. But then, as I’m gratefully aware, our slender human paths do sometimes cross. In those moments, as unexpected as desert rain, the most simple of experiences are there to be savoured like the wild berries themselves: a few words shared in the sunlight; a brief glimpse into another’s life; the world nudged open just that little bit more.

34 thoughts on “Shared in the Sunlight

  1. This is a fantastic piece, Julian. It evokes so much that is familiar from my own experience – the intimacy of an unexpected encounter in wild country, the migration of the well-educated to richer countries to do casual labouring work, the importance of photographs for those who do not casually wield a camera like the rest of us. Wonderful.

    1. Many thanks for the good words, Laurence. So pleased there was something of resonance here for you. I felt that I came full circle yesterday when, returning to the site for a blustery afternoon’s monitoring, a shepherd approached me. He turned out to be Samir’s father, doing the month-long shift while his son visits his family. When Samir returns to Greece in a few days, his father will spend a month back at home. These stories spread out over the landscape never cease to amaze me. Hope all is well with you, and best wishes from here.

      Julian

    1. Thanks, Larry. Delighted you liked the post and photos, and I wholeheartedly agree: how poignant remote meetings can be, wherever they happen to be. Hope all is well over there.

      Cheers,
      Julian

  2. I grew up in northern Greece and people from Albania were always there in my childhood summers, doing whatever work they could find at my seaside village. The one I remember most clearly (ok, because I had a crush on him) was called Petros (but something entirely different in his own language) and he was a teacher in Albania before he came to Greece. This post, words and photos, brings back so many memories.

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, Anna, and for taking the time to read. It’s great to read how a crush has been remembered later in life to inform this post, so thanks for sharing! That’s a story so familiar to me; when I asked Samir his name he asked first if I wanted his Greek name, which might not even resemble his Albanian name. And your mention of Petros having been a teacher greatly resonates with me. Where about did you grow up, if you don’t mind me asking?

      Thanks for sharing this story – much appreciated!

      Best wishes,

      Julian

      1. Hi Julian,

        I grew up in Thessaloniki but used to spend the summer in a village in Halkidiki. This post has stayed with me since I read it first, memories keep coming back. Even though I’m a sea person through and through (and I could talk for hours on end about my relationship with my two very different seas, the north sea and the mediterranean), your photos make me want to go walking in the mountains. They also brought back memories of being woken up at 5am by my dad in the summer to drive to the mountains in Halkidiki to (sleepily and grumpily) search for wild oregano which we would then hung to dry and use throughout the winter. This wasn’t so long ago in case it sounds like a scene from the 50s, it was in fact the 90s…

        Back to the point though, there’s a lot to be said about the Greeks’ relationship with immigrants, with recent happenings as well, and I’m always careful not to romanticise my memories of Albanians as I’m aware they are just the memories of a privileged and naive child. I’m grateful though that for me the word Albanian has only positive connotations. And there are certain parallels too between the histories of the two countries, but of course all this is another discussion for another time.

        Also can I just say I was disoriented at first reading your post; I discovered your blog recently and added it to my reader without reading your ‘about me’ page, and so started reading this post subconsciously placing it in the UK. Then seeing the photos that match my childhood memories threw me off for a moment until I read that you were in fact in Greece. Happy coincidence and one of those things that make me love the internet even more.

        So thanks for all of this, you got me thinking and reminiscing!

        1. Hi Anna,

          Thanks for this thoughtful reply. I know Halkidiki quite well, mostly from taking a bit of time each year to go there and swim, read, and walk in the pine forests. It’s a marvellous part of the country. I can easily imagine you going out with your father in the 90s to gather wild oregano. I love that relationship to the land that can still be found in Greece. People gathering snails after heavy rain, or stopping to harvest wild greens for salad. Some years ago we took our truck in to have some work done on it. While the mechanic worked, his father took me around the building showing me all the edible and medicinal plants that were growing up through the gravel or around the garage. He showed me plants for heart ailments and lung complaints, for nausea and headaches. I marvelled at that kind of living knowledge, which is sadly being slowly lost, but can still be found in places.

          Like you, I have a strong attachment to the same seas. Even though I find myself living in the mountains I’m always delighted when I have a chance to reach sea-level.

          Yes, the question of the attitudes to immigrants in Greece is a complicated one, and I worry that it will only become more difficult with the extraordinary and disturbing rise in popularity of Golden Dawn. On a personal level, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit in Albania. It remains one of my favourite countries, and such a friendly and welcoming place. If you’re at all interested in the relationship between Greece and Albania here in the Prespa Lakes, I’m including a link to a piece of my writing which explores the possibilities of working together across the border, along with photographs: http://www.terrain.org/essays/28/hoffman.htm

          I can imagine the disorientation if you thought I was writing from the UK! I have been back in the UK a fair bit this summer, though, so another coincidence. It’s great to be in touch, and many thanks for taking the time to write.

          Best wishes,

          Julian

          1. It’s tough times for Greece, that’s for sure. And for the whole of Europe too; disturbing attitudes towards immigrants have been on the rise here in the UK too, with the media helpfully doing their bit to perpetuate them. I live in hope that people in my adopted home will continue to see me as their equal, and that those in my homeland will find the strength to not go down the easy route of the Golden Dawn. Can’t help but notice the parallels between the two. Sadly it seems some people have forgotten all about Greece’s enormous history of immigration of the previous century. Or even worse, somehow believe the two are not comparable. I will read your essay, thanks for the link. Always interested in reading new perspectives.

            1. I share your concerns about the disturbing trends in attitudes towards immigrants. Whenever I return back to visit my extend family in England, I’m always dismayed to hear some of the discussions. It seems that the irony of our ancestry being German, and that my great-grandfather showed up in England basically as – what today would be called – an illegal immigrant, is lost on many. Likewise, most nations in Europe have at some stage been places of emigration, and many still are. I like what you have to say about being seen as an equal. I hope that is so. Thanks for this fascinating conversation, Anna. It’s been a pleasure. Hope this finds you well.

              Best wishes,

              Julian

  3. Great Julian. Nudging open the world and connecting. What also struck me about the post was the wind turbines as a sign of human presence. A sort of ‘out of place’ human presence. Found the photograph of the horse with turbines almost surreal with the knowledge that this was also where you had your bear encounter!

    1. It’s an interesting point about the human presence. Just out of these pictures you can still see the tracery of lines of mountain terraces, built up by hand and cultivated by donkey and mule, that reach from the bottom of the valley to nearly the peaks. Prior to the Greek Civil War much of the mountainsides were farmed with cereal crops, to feed the far greater population that Prespa then supported. I’m always astonished when I’m up there to think that all of these remote mountains are marked in some way by a human presence, only now in a way strikingly more visible with the turbines.

      Each time I’m there I still feel that mixed quiver of fear and excitement when I pass the place of my encounter! Many thanks for the comment, and delighted you liked the post.

      Cheers,

      Julian

    1. Thank you, Miki. Always a delight to hear you enjoying a mountain trip, even if it’s imaginary. Looking forward to finding a path in person next summer. Plus, we must speak about the book trailer! Ideas, images, music!

  4. This is a beautiful piece, Julian. I was touched by being brought to reflect on all these lives and stories crossing paths in the wild, and across human-made borders. Especially by the young berry-gatherers who posed as they might have for August Sander (or John Berger); that reverence for a medium we might too easily take for granted. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Cat. Such a pleasure to read your comment this afternoon. This response from the boys was such a strange and wonderful delight, and so in keeping with this place that is both wild and human, and host to both. There is never a dull day up there – something always rises into clarity to see and experience. Hope you’re well, my friend, and thanks for the much-appreciated comment.

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  5. This is such a wonderful, wonderful post. Even though some of us may have our own open, special spaces, it’s always a point well-made to share them with others seeking both similar and different things.

    1. So very true – for all that I love these mountains near my home I’m captivated to read about the places that touch others. Thanks for this lovely comment, and for taking the time to read. I enjoyed stopping by your blog and marvelling at some of the vast landscapes you live amidst. Sounds like those “special spaces” are being savoured!

      Best wishes,

      Julian

    1. Lis-Britt, thanks ever so much for this thoughtful and touching comment. I’m so very pleased that you’ve been enjoying the blog, and this marvellous and mysterious place we were lucky enough to find. Many thanks for taking the time to read, and for leaving this uplifting comment. Hope all is well with you!

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  6. Great piece … it reminds me of atime when on a 4X4 Land Rover safari, off road in the beautiful highlands of Montenegro we came across two Old-type Mercedes Benz saloons, their occupants out of the car, scooping berries into baskets for all they were worth, the cars teetering on slopes our hardy vehicle growled at! Good photos too.

    1. Thanks, beeseeker. You have me laughing, I can so clearly picture the scene you’ve described! The old Mercs, people out scooping berries, the cars with showing no fear, wonderful. I’ve never been to Montenegro but it’s a place I’d love to explore. Sounds like you had a great time!

      Thanks for reading, best wishes,

      Julian

  7. Such an evocative piece, Julian. Amongst so much more, I love the description of the ravens’ calls, “cast out of the blue to fall like shadows on the land”; and the wildness you describe only to be broken by such amiable encounters – the bear that graciously removed itself and the people, who with no fear or suspicion welcome the opportunity to connect with another.

    Although I have no such tools I sympathize with the blueberry pickers. I love picking the tiny berries, (and I’m guessing the plants are comparable to what we have up here), but I cannot imagine trying to make a living at it. I hope Ritem ate much of his harvest because he, too loved the berries and not because the work couldn’t pay for a decent meal.

    I agree that it’s sad that we are loosing so much valuable lore as our world becomes increasingly commercialized. I am trying to learn what I can about plants and their traditional values, but it is a kind of knowledge that is best taught personally, and I have no teacher.

    Thank you for continuing to nudge my world open just a little bit more with each of your poignant posts.

    1. Thanks for this wonderful comment, Cindy. It’s interesting that you raise the question of fear in your thoughts. My post nearly went down a different track, but in the end I didn’t feel that it did justice to the encounters, that perhaps the simple story of meeting people in the hills was enough. I’ve given up counting how many times we’ve been told by locals of the dangers of meeting people in the mountains. And they quite specifically mean the immigrant workers and migrants. Like anywhere people choose to be on this planet, there is always some element of danger and that shouldn’t be discounted. But no more so, and certainly far less, than in many places people live or visit as tourists. In my time here I’ve never met with anything other than a warm hospitality to be found in these mountainside encounters, and Julia feels the same, though we’ve discussed innumerable times if she feels comfortable when working alone. While fear can potentially protect us, it can also keep us from experiences of real value, held in place behind a wall of stereotypes and bias. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity for my life to be so enriched by these other stories and brief meetings.

      I’m quite sure Ritem was eating the berries solely because he loved them! I think that’s what was behind his occasionally cheeky grin! The plants look to be nearly identical to those that you have, very tiny berries indeed. Likewise, having someone to learn this traditional wisdom from is a great benefit, but it looks to me like you’re doing very, very well absorbing it on your own. It’s what made your blueberry post so inviting. For any Notes from Near and Far readers who’d like to read a terrific post about gathering blueberries in Alberta, here’s a great guide.

      Thanks again, and enjoy the harvest!

      Julian

  8. This post has obviously stayed in my mind as I dreamt about it last night! I think it was the idea of foraging and the slightly autumnal colours that were on my mind. In my dream they were stronger and richer but the people were there too. I meant to comment before as I found this reminded me of a wonderful day in romania when my partner and I were taken by our guide to see the shepherds in their summer camp in the mountains in Maramures. Although not a random encounter it had that feeling of the wild and of a vanishing world. One of them even played a flute for us. It was one of the most magical days of my life. Thank you for enhancing my dreams Julian!

    1. This is a superb comment to find this morning, Diana! Very humbled to hear that a Notes from Near and Far post has entered your dreams! I have spent only a short period of time in the Romanian mountains, but can well imagine your experience that day. These traditions are still in place in many parts of the Balkans, and you must have been delighted to experience some of them, regardless of whether it was planned or not. I think I can even hear the flute!

      Hope you’re enjoying this time of turning colours, and thanks again for such a wonderful comment!

      Cheers,

      Julian

  9. Hi Julian,
    Melanie of Bookish Nature recommended your site to me… Apologies, it has taken me a while to put time aside to explore your site, but I am glad I have. I enjoy the earthy, grounded feel of your words, packed full of detail, fact and reason (borrowed from your ‘Being in Mystery’ post), speckled with sentences that offer sparkling moments of mystery. It is like being on a walk in the wilderness… Enjoying the meditative pace, while the natural world works its magic on the psyche, to foster moments of philosophical insight that bubble to the surface unimpeded by any distraction. Thank you, I look forward to reading more!
    Amanda

    1. Hi Amanda,

      So sorry for taking this long to get back to you! My apologies, but it was a real joy to find your comment and I’m delighted you enjoyed these posts. I’m a big fan of Melanie’s writing and look forward very much to dropping by and reading your own work. Thanks for the generous words, and hope all is well with you!

      Cheers,
      Julian

  10. Hi Julian, It must be so interesting to never know who you’re going to meet next out in the mountains, each character bringing a whole new world of their own. Thank you for sharing their stories and your insights about these chance meetings. The photos are beautiful as well. If I haven’t said so already, a huge congratulations about your book!!

    1. It is indeed, Cait! And invariably they’re encounters of great interest. Thanks ever so much for the good words about the book. I really appreciate your thoughts, and hope all is well with you as you no doubt settle in for some lovely autumn shades. Cheers!

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