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Dreaming of Anelion - I feel I must go visit Mike the Vlach, whether he is still alive or not

Tom Winnifrith
Monday 23 January 2017

In the high Pindus mountains of Northern Greece is a small village called Anelion, a place where we spent a number of childhood holidays. It was home to a man who was a friend of my father's, Mike the Vlach. It may still be, I have no idea if he is dead or alive. I was dreaming of Anelion last night and feel a very strong urge to go.

I am not sure how dad got to know Mike. I think that the first person to meet him was my father's mother Lesbia. This is a woman named after a Greek island and whose brother, David Cochrane, died falling down the mountain opposite Delphi. Greece is in the blood in our family. My grandmother had a real love of Greece and of languages and so it was she who introduced my father to the world of the vlachs.

Mike and his friend George came to stay with my family in the 1970s. We lived in an old farmhouse which he must have thought enormous. We had fields and the village sprawled over many square miles - through its heart ran the busy road from Banbury to Daventry. But Byfield in Northamptonshire had just one pub and it was pretty horrible. Anyhow George wanted to buy a tractor and Mike said my father could help. I cannot remember how that panned out but the two fellows from Anelion must have thought we lived in a very strange world.

When I first visited Anelion it was a real trek. We started in the air. A plane to Athens and another smaller plane to Ioannina. That was a bumpy ride and my sister T was almost certainly sick on that second flight. It was then a bus to the town of Metsovo. In those days before EU cash built nice roads that was a 4-5 hour slog in an old bus along windy mountainsides. T was sick many more times before we arrived. The road continued on but not to Anelion.

From Metsovo, carrying suitcases, my little sister N, her stuffed panda and God knows what else my father, a female student who would look after us, my sister T and I would walk down from Metsovo to the bottom of a valley where a river flowed all year, and then climb the other side of the valley to Anelion.

The village was a vlach village - that is to say the folks there spoke not Greek but the language my father has written about extensively. Formerly nomadic, vlachs live in Northern Greece, Albania, Southern Yugoslavia (now Macedonia) and into Bulgaria and Romania. The one vlach word I remember clearly is for man and is barba - that of course has the same derivation as our word barbour - it is from the Latin for beard. Equally the Vlach numerals are derived from Roman not Greek hence tzachs (not sure on spelling) is ten - it sounds a hell of a lot more like dix (French) than the Greek. Uno, dow, tris ( one two three). That is my vlach almost exhausted.

The houses of Anelion were perched on the hillside and a path ran through the village. In numerous tavernas men sat drinking 1 drachma glasses of local wine and playing backgammon.

I remember going to church on a Sunday. I stood with my father and the men downstairs. My sisters were with the women upstairs. I remember playing backgammon a lot. I remember that the toilet at Mike's house was a hole above which one had to squat. We did not like that! My father spoke to Mike in a mixture of Greek, vlach and German for Mike had - like so many Greek men in the 1960s and 1970s - made some money when Greece was so horribly poor, by heading off to Germany to become a Gastarbeiten. When I speak to Mike it is in my very broken German.

I visited Anelion some fifteen years ago with my father. You can now get there by road and the little old houses have - in many cases - been replaced by modern constructs. Far fewer people speak vlach, Greek dominates. Most of the tavernas have disappeared and the great god of TV is in every house. My father exchanged cards at Christmas for many years but a while ago that practice stopped. We do not know how his old friend is faring. Is he alive? We know not.

I dreamt of Anelion last night. Mike has been greatly on my mind and I have repeatedly said to my father that I am going to visit. In my dreams I decided not to drive to Anelion. Metsovo is, these days, a minor ski resort and the snow will be deep at this time of year in the Pindus so I really do not fancy driving on mountain roads with several feet of global warming on the ground. My father recounts one bus journey near Metsovo where the global warming was so deep that the snow poles on either side of the road just disappeared.

And so in my dream I walked from Metsovo. I do not know if anyone uses that old donkey path these days. But in my dreams I did. Anyhow a lot more happened but as I work out my schedule for the next couple of months I really must head back to Anelion.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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