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Paddy Leigh Fermor & the Vlachs by Tom Winnifrith (not me my father!)

Tom Winnifrith
Wednesday 18 May 2016

War hero, author, all round superhero Paddy Leigh Fermor lived down the road from where I am in the Mani and is the man who made this area famous with his book "The Mani". Today in my email in box I receive a copy of issue 5 of The Philhellene, the newsletter of the Paddy Leigh Fermor Society and there is an article in it by Tom Winnifrith - not me but my father. Just to prove that one member of the family can write properly and without swearing here you are...

Leigh Fermor, P could and should have written more about the Vlachs than he does in Mani and Roumeli. He would have written more amusingly and eloquently than Winnifrith, T does in TheVlachs and Shattered Eagles: Balkan Fragments. I begin with this school report, because it is at schools in Kent that the paths of these two travellers begin to diverge.

There were no greengrocers’ daughters to lead me astray at Tonbridge and to push me out to wander between woods and water down to the Balkans. Instead I pursued a conventional if old fashioned education in Greek, Latin and Ancient History at school and university before embarking on a career teaching these subjects and English Literature at the University ofWarwick.This institution was very kind in allowing me time and even money to travel around the Balkans when I should have been writing boring books about the Brontës. It also awarded Paddy an honorary degree, and at the ceremony we spoke to each other in Vlach.

This conversation amazed the local dignitaries, but, alas, my spoken Vlach is very poor, unlike Paddy’s. He was helped by a long stay in Romania where they speak a language very similar to various kinds of Vlach, and by his interest in and ability at all kinds of languages. Almost all Vlachs in Greece, and a number of Vlachs in other Balkan countries, speak Greek. A training in Homer and Herodotus, although useful in testing the truth of tall travellers’ tales, is of little practical help in a crowded Greek bus station or when lost in the mountains where Vlach villages are to be found. Crede experto, as they would say in Latin, but not Vlach.

So who are the Vlachs? In the first few pages of Mani Paddy draws attention to two difficulties about finding a definition, namely that the Vlachs are to be found with different names, and that many people are called Vlachs but do not speak the language close to Romanian which I have mentioned.Thus in the villages of Kampos near Kardamyli the inhabitants are called Vlachs, but this is just a term of abuse for people not like us. My son has just bought a battered house near Kampos, and says that the inhabitants are very nice. Alternatively Vlach can just mean a shepherd. I have heard a Greek bus driver swearing at a goatherd leading his flock along a main road with the imprecation “Blachos”, and I don’t think he was making a philological statement, although the shepherd was in the Pindus mountains and might have been a Vlach.

But he might not have called himself one. Right at the beginning of Mani Paddy has a
long list of fringe groups associated with Greece. I am proud to say I have met in the past Greek speakers in Calabria, the Tsakonians of the Eastern Peloponnese and even Tartars in the Crimea. Propriety prohibited me from meeting the Loubinistika speakers of the brothels, chronology from meeting the Anglo-Saxon members of the Varangian Guard. But disappointingly there is only a brief mention of the Koutzovlachs of Metsovo. Metsovo in the Pindus mountains is the largest Vlach settlement, but there are many other Vlachs in Greece, other parts of the Balkans and in America, Canada and Australia.

Sometimes these call themselves Arumanians or some variant of this name, sometimes Tsintzars, a reference probably, like the addition of Koutzo to Vlach, to their sibilant speech. Some scholars call them Macedo-Romanians, adding to the confusion of one name another that is contested. In Albania I found many Vlachs who tend to call themselves by the district in which they sometimes live: Gramosteani from Mount Grammos, Farsharoti from Frasher in central Albania. The American Vlachs near Bridgeport founded a society called The Society Farsarotul, which published a very useful newsletter. Another American produced a newspaper called Frandza Vlacha, a French group a periodical called Tra Ar manami and a German group Zborlu Nostru, our word, a somewhat ambiguous title since there seem so many words for what was regarded as ours.

In his allusions to Vlach history in Roumeli Paddy mischievously mentions the theory
that the Farsharots derive their name from the battle of Pharsalus where Caesar defeated Pompey in 48BC. A Latin presence in the Balkans is apparent more than a century before this date, but under the Roman Empire Greek was generally the language of administration in the East, as opposed to Latin in the West. In the West, Latin gradually replaced native languages and was even adopted by the German invaders; hence we have languages like French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. In the East things worked out differently. Slav invaders kept their own language except in Greece, Albanian survived the competing claims of Slav and Greek, while mysteriously in Romania and scattered pockets in the central Balkans people preserved a form of Latin.

In the West, Roman authority collapsed in the fifth century, but the Danube frontier was held until the beginning of the seventh, and although the administration of the Eastern Roman Empire was largely Greek there was still a Latin presence in the northern Balkans. The Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565 was a Latin speaker. His efforts to conquer Italy and North Africa, though temporarily successful, left the Balkans an easy prey for Slav invaders.We have very few records of Balkan history in the four centuries following this invasion. Justinian’s historian Procopius gives an account of forts that the emperor had built.These forts are difficult to locate, but some of them have Latin names, and it is probably from them that the ancestors of the Vlachs emerged. We get our first mention of Vlachs in 976AD when some Vlach hoditai murdered the brother of the Bulgarian emperor Samuel between Kastoria and Prespa, an area still peopled by Vlachs today.

Hodos means road, and hoditai could indicate travellers or highwaymen or people appointed to guard the roads.The last meaning suggests a degree of organization not present in the Balkans at this time, although it appeals to those who like to think of the Vlachs as descendants of Roman legionaries and forefathers of the well disciplined baggage trains of the nineteenth century. Byzantine historians after the Kastoria incident tend to give the Vlachs a bad name, suggesting the second meaning. A strong Vlach presence in Thessaly, especially after the fourth crusade of 1204, led to the province being called Vlachia. Previously the Asen family had established a powerful empire further north.The inhabitants of this empire are confusingly sometimes called Vlachs, sometimes Bulgars and even more confusingly, since the empire extended to the Danube and beyond, we cannot be sure whether we have a reference to Romanians or Vlachs or both.

The Ottomans had conquered the whole of the Balkans by the beginning of the sixteenth century. They get a bad press, not deservedly so. With strong central rule the Vlachs seem to have prospered as muleteers and merchants travelling the length and breadth of the Balkans and as shepherds making long journeys from summer pastures in the mountains to winter quarters on the coastal plains.We do not have many mentions of the Vlachs in the period from 1500 to 1800 but, as Gibbon teaches us, happy is the land which has no history.

The Ottomans were tolerant to the Orthodox faith, leaving persecutions to Catholics and Protestants in the West.There are records of churches dating from the seventeenth century and stories about the foundation of villages even earlier. Samarina north of Metsovo had four churches in 1913 and, in Southern Albania,Voskopoje or Moschopolis had many more. But at the end of the eighteenth century the Ottoman Empire like its Byzantine predecessor began to decline and fall. Voskopoje was frequently sacked by marauding Albanian brigands, although it still stands as a monument to a great city greatly fallen, and is still inhabited by Vlachs as well as Albanians. Many of the Vlachs moved from Voskopoje to other Vlach villages in the Balkans.

During the last chaotic century of Ottoman rule there were two important studies by Western scholars of the Vlachs. A German professor, Gustav Weigand, meticulously in
Die Aromunen recorded in 1888 his journeys, including some stories and folk songs. A
copy of his ethnological map hangs in my study. It is still very useful for locating Vlachs, although the fortunes of other races have waxed and waned. I heard some of his songs almost a hundred years later. In 1914 two English scholars, A.J.B. Wace and M.S. Thomson, produced another book with more maps, songs and a useful grammar and vocabulary.They were in the Samarina area conducting archaeological work, and
The Nomads of the Balkans is a tribute to the ability of classical scholars to turn their hand to anything.

I met Wace when I was a schoolboy interested in Cretan archaeology, but between his
book and my first sight of a Vlach in 1974 two generations had elapsed, during which there had been two Balkan wars, two world wars and two civil wars, one in Greece and one in Yugoslavia.The front line in many of these conflicts was very often in Vlach territory, as gnarled old veterans used to tell me, making me rather glad that I was not one of the excellent German scholars who have worked on this subject. In addition to actual battles, war and subsequent boundary changes played havoc with the rhythms of the transhumant Vlach shepherd, although mechanical transport altered the pattern of long marches on foot or with mules. Boundaries which did not exist in 1914 became a slight obstacle for Vlachs 
after 1918, and a real barrier after the Iron Curtain came down in 1945. Paddy was lucky to travel in the 1930s.

Poverty and Balkan wars led to emigration. Pro-Romanian Vlachs went to Romania while others were driven to the New World where they prospered more than in Romania. I have attended Vlach dances in this country and in Australia and America, all extremely respectable affairs, reminding me of suburban Surrey in the 1950s. I am sure Paddy would have displayed more agility on the dance floor while I courteously enquired about the ancestry of my partners. On another occasion after missing my train at Skopje station I lay down to sleep and woke to find myself neatly sandwiched between two beautiful gypsy ladies, often, probably unfairly, accused of having loose morals and light fingers. A proper traveller like Paddy would have made enquiries about the ethnic origins of these ladies. Gypsies, because of their wandering habits, are often confused with Vlachs. Their language like the Vlach language is rarely written and is really a medley of different dialects. They call themselves Roma, a word which has four letters in common with Aromanian. But at five o’clock in the morning with my purse and person intact I made my excuses and left.

Since 1990 travel in the formerYugoslavia has been made much more difficult, although it has become much easier to visit other countries beyond the Iron Curtain. For a time there was a great interest in minorities, and I was invited to speak on the Vlachs, being better at speaking than dancing. In these travels I did note especially in Albania and America that there was a division, as there had been in the time of Wace and Thomson, between a pro- Romanian and a pro-Greek party.The former maintain that theVlachs are descendants of people who at some stage in the middle ages moved from the plains of the Danube to the rugged Pindus mountains. Greeks suggest that Roman legionaries were stationed in these mountains, married Greek girls and begot Latin speakers with Greek ethnicity. Neither of these paths seems very promising, although I have not been able to come up with a plausible via media.

I am now too old to do much work on the Vlachs. A younger successor, more like Paddy at ease with the easy world of travellers’ tales, is needed but the world of the traveller has become much harder. Thousands of migrants from the Near East pass through Skopje station leaving little room for the odd gypsy or Vlach. Gevgelja station on the border between Greece and Macedonia has become an important staging post on the terrifying road from Damascus. I can remember waiting for a train there in the 1980s, reading Hard Times and thinking that times were not so hard as in Dickens’s day. “Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis.” I have not changed much and have not learnt to translate this useful Latin phrase into Vlach, although I know that the Vlach for I change is mutu. A phrase, less useful, but easier to remember is “are mare nare” which means “he has a big nose”.

Paddy and I did not exchange these words when we greeted each other at the degree ceremony. I think we said “Ghinevinis = well come”. Even this may have been a protest against the pomposity of the occasion. This would turn Vlach into a language like Boliaric, the secret argot of thieves recorded in Roumeli, and there is some attraction in the idea that Vlach was used as a kind of code to keep outsiders in the dark. Alternatively, at the other end of the scale, Vlach might have been a lingua franca used by travellers in difficult situations.

It is after all fairly easy to learn a little bad Latin in the same way that refugees from Syria learn broken English with which they can communicate with Hungarian frontier guards. Fortuna favet fortibus, fortune favours the brave. The refugees have to be brave. I have been very fortunate. Paddy was both.

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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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