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.