629 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
One day the Mrs will learn that me and the seaside really don't mix. She has booked us into a pleasant hotel, the Baywatch, which to her annoyance, is nowhere near the sea. It does, however, have a wonderful view of the bay of Kalamata, a pool which Joshua, the Mrs and I like and is relatively quiet. The guests are nearly all young couples so I am the oldest there and find the music at the bar mildly irritating. That is to say it is all post 1995 and thus, by definition, utterly crap. But the internet works so I can relax by tapping away while Joshua crawls around the floor, licks windows, pulls books apart and does all the other things that make him happy. The Mrs is reading a book on the philosophy of marriage and occasionally draws my attention to a passage which highlights one of my rare failings as a husband.
But today here we are by the sea. Why have a Caribbean themed bar with a range of cheap gin, rum and vodka cocktails here in Greece except to cater to tourists with a limited IQ? Oh for the days of old when the charm of a Greek beach-side village was that it might have just a couple of shacks where you could drink ouzo or perhaps a Fix beer with fishermen and locals. Okay the shacks had no internet but then again I can't get the internet to work here either. That always makes my blood pressure soar.
Of course the shack for the fisherman is not the Greece of my lifetime. When I first came here, the Colonels had already been ousted and with an ever plunging drachma the foreigners were already swarming in for a cheap and cheerful holiday by the sun. But away from the sea, back in the 1970s, the Old Greece still existed. Food was rudimentary and based on sheep or goat, drink was almost always local wines not beer, roads in the mountains were either bad or non-existent and so some places really were preserved from the dreaded tourist. You really were enjoying a glass of local red wine for just a drachma with shepherds and other land workers. Conversation was in German as at least some men in every village had been Gastarbeiten at some point to escape the grinding poverty of rural Greece.
But, when I revisited Anelion to catch up with my father's oldest friend Mike the Vlach some eighteen months ago, even up in the high Pindus that world of Old Greece has now been swept away by new EU funded roads, by television and by all the other forces we call "progress."
Writing in the 1960s Paddy Leigh Fermor saw Greece at a crossroads. Would it try to preserve something of its mystical past or would it clasp the tourist DeutscheMark and Pound to its bosom and rush to a world of wall to wall Caribbean Beach Bars? Paddy was a bit too optimistic for his own good. It was no contest. As I stare across the bay of Kalamata somewhere up in the Taygetos Mountains opposite, even my own little village of Kambos now has its ghastly creperie seling toasties to folks sitting on horrible plastic chairs laid out neatly in rows; its own bit of progress. Perhaps that bit of progress will be knocked back. I hope so.
But the battle of the Kambos creperie was the dilemma Paddy pondered. For the natives the creperie and toasties might seem to offer them new choices. It might perhaps bring the possibility of new jobs and income to the village. As such it is a seductive siren just as, many years ago, wall to wall Caribbean themed bars must have been where I sit now . But for those with money and a real love of Greece it just forces us further afield to places that are still Greek. With its giant banners advertising Spanish beer or Swiss coffee this bar could be anywhere. How I wish it was somewhere else. Like Spain.
You will be glad that my camera is still unable to upload photos and so sits idle in my bag. For the view here is of human bodies sweating in the sun. I cover my own rolls of flesh with a T-shirt but most folks here wander around in swimsuits. A few of our species, such as my young wife, look wonderful in partial undress. But far too many of us just expose great rolls of blubber. Others wear all in one outfits into which the blubber is poured. As it desperately fills every inch of swimsuit and tries to escape it leaves nothing to the imagination.
And so I sit here surrounded by vile bodies listening to elevator music, dreadful remixes of tunes re-designed so as not to offend seventy year olds. The meze we are offered could have come from Iceland, the store for chavs, not the Country and, as a coup de grace, the Mrs and I are offered a shot of locally produced cough mixture on the house. That is a way of saying "you are tourists so all you want is to get hammered after paying 20 Euro for some third rate junk food now piss off."
Joshua sleeps soundly through all of this.
This time next year the Greek Hovel will, I believe, be finished. We three will sit by our own pool. I shall have no cause to grumble as the only semi-clad adult body on view will be that of the Mrs, there will be quiet all around, the meze will be made by me of local produce. And if the Kambos creperie has gone bust, all will be well.
827 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
827 days ago
My father's oldest Greek friend Mike the Vlach was due back at three. This being Greece he was bound to be late and so his wife Alega insisted I hang on as the day dragged on. Heck I had travelled by bus for nine hours to get to Metsovo and then walked for an hour and a half to get to Anelion to see Mike, I was not leaving. I could not explain this but I sat there drinking coffee and enjoying a lunch of lamb, rice and a lump of feta, I was going nowhere.
Finally a taxi drew up and out stumbled Mike. He looked shocked for he had somehow got the impression that it was Tom Winnifrith my father who had arrived. Soon he realised it was micro Tom not Megalo Tom and warm embraces and kisses on both cheeks followed. We started to try to talk in German but it was soon clear that Mike's German learned as a 1970's Gastarbeiten was almost as bad as mine, learned in one year with Frau Freeman at Warwick School in 1981. And so I started to use google translate to search for German words. And then it hit me! Why not use the evil google just to translate straight to Greek?
Bingo. Mike asked a question in German and I was now serving up a written answer in Greek! With my steps included my father has 17 grandchildren, Mike was sad he has just two. My wife is younger than me ( by seven years). As a man who was 30 when he married Alega at 16, Mike approves of younger wives and made a sign like a sweet fruit. I am not sure my lefty Mrs would have approved of that. I told him of the sons of my sisters T and N, some kraut politician appeared on the TV and Mike agreed that Greece should follow our lead on Brexit. Mike has always been a right winger. Anelion was a Royalist not a Communist village in the civil war and so even when it was cripplingly poor it turned out solidly for New Democracy, the party of the right.
Mike spoke to my father, with pateras mu replying in Greek, Vlach and German
I mentioned Mike's sister who used to own a taverna at the heart of Anelion. And Alega took me to see her. And she too spoke to my father and there were more smiles and laughing.
Mike was keen that I stay for whiskey, food and that I sleep in Anelion. But I explained, thanks to evil Google, about the hovel and how I must leave early Saturday to travel the length of Greece to Kalamata. And so I left, by taxi, as it was by now very dark. I promised to come back with the Mrs and Joshua in the summer and then more hugs and kisses and all round happinness and I was off. Mission accomplished.
827 days ago
I have happy memories of church in the little Vlach village of Anelion back in the 1970s. Everybody attended and was dressed smartly.Men sat in one room and women upstairs. Sadly it was locked but as it is just spitting distance from Mike's house I took a brief wander around just for old time's sake. The third photo below is the view down the valley past the big bridge to a snow capped mountain. The air is clean, the snow pristine. What more could you want?
828 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
As the road enters Anelion there is a sign advertising the fact that there is now a four star hotel in the village. Boy is this different from 40 years ago when here was not even a road to this place and there was no main street either. We just walked along cobbled pavements. The houses of today are nearly all post road, modern constructs and it brought back no memories at all. The smell of woodsmoke had not changed but everything else had. I started to panic - how on earth would I find Mike the vlach (if indeed he was still alive)?
Suddenly, almost at the point of despair, I saw a little path to my left and something clicked. I wandered down and saw a house which looked terribly familiar. 40 years ago this house was one of the biggest in the village. The initials on the gate confirmed my suspicion - that was Mike's house.
I wandered on and two doors down came to a bar which looked a bit like Mike's new house. I found a young man who spoke English and his girlfriend who also spoke English but not Greek as she was Bulgarian and I established that Mike was indeed alive and lived next door. But he was not in.
I sat in that bar and a couple of old men said they remembered my father "Tom". My father says that makes them very old. After about an hour the young man tapped me on the shoulder as a little old lady walked towards Mike's bar. Alega! It has been a tearful reunion. Mrs Mike is a Greek not a vlach and speaks no English or - unlike her husband - not even bad German. But she asked after my sisters. I showed her photos of Joshua and I called my father and they talked. This is a test of his Greek and he scores only a Beta Minus. Mike is not as he thought coming back from Ioannina tomorrow but later today and so I sit at his place and wait, tapping away loading photos..
I can hear Alega on the phone talking very excitedly and I know enough Greek to know what it is about - my arrival.My father is happy and they have promised to swap letters after all these years. The young man next door has translated for me so she knows about my step mother, how my father is doing, about the Greek hovel in the Mani and I have promised to bring the Mrs and Joshua up to Anelion this summer. Thank heavens the Mrs speaks Greek. So i just sit and wait for Mike and to re-unite him by phone with my father.
We can swap a few facts with my truly minimal Greek. She is amazed that I am almost 50, I have changed a lot since the 1970s. I am amzed that she is only 60. Mike the Vlach is 74. back in the late seventies she msut have been a young bride.
Pro tem I am thinking of going on a little walk to the Church as I stroll down memory lane.
828 days ago
With the snow still blowing, I set off on the walk from Metsovo to Anelion not really believing that it would take only half an hour as the chap I met last night had told me. Perhaps it was because I took the scenic route through the lower terraces of Metsovo, following the signs marked with a bear print. Evil Knievil has emailed to suggest that we bears stick together and do not eat each other but, more importantly, as I headed lower I remembered that bears, like snakes, hibernate. So the bears of the Pindus will be sleeping, dreaming of honey and Rob Terry. The wolves on the other hand...
As I headed lower I caught my first site of Anelion in the mist. I began to think that this was going to be a bit of a slog. I thought of my father carrying suitcases and, sometimes, children as well, forty years ago and thought what a total hero he was.
As I headed down the slope I caught my first full view of the valley that separates Metsovo and Anelion. In the summer the river meanders along and it is so shallow you can walk across it. Now it is, as you can see, a raging torrent.
I crossed the old bridge and lookd up and down the river. Downstream you can see the newer bridge that was built with the road in the 1980s. And above it a monstrous new bridge traversing the valley. Thank the EU - it is your taxes that paid for it.
On the other side of the bridge I faced a choice. The old path we used to use or the longer but less steep route by road. I tried the first but it was just so steep, showing again what a hero my father was all those years ago. It was also rather slippery and I have no wish to do an Uncle David Cochrane and I retreated gingerly and started up the road. Bloody hell it was a hard slog and I was fairly breathless as I reached Anelion. Mike the Vlach bloody well better be alive after all of this.
To be fair the road is not a bad one. And the snow is not settling at lower levels so I could have used a taxi. But for old time's sake and to catch a few views I just had to walk. This waterfall falls onto the road and the final photo is of the view through the mega EU bridge.
There were no wolves but at one stage a thin creature with black hair shot out ahead of me. Was it a weasel or a stoat or a pinemartin? I have no idea at all but before I had time to get out my camera it was gone.
828 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
It felt decidedly nippy last night as i wandered out for a light meal of calf in tomato sauce.I was struck by how the only language I heard was Greek, not Vlach, But also how the waiter spoke English. Forty years ago more or less no-one here in Metsovo did. The other big change was the women.
Forty years ago the monstrous regiment stayed at home while the men sat around eating and drinking. Yet in the restaurant there were mixed tables with women talking loudly and letting their views be heard. Political correctness gone mad. I digress.
It was very nippy indeed as I walked back to my hotel and the rain was biting as if it waned to turn into something else. I awake now to see a good covering of snow and it is still snowing as you can see below.
I must still walk to Anelion to see if Mike the Vlach is alive. The walk, I established last night, takes 30 minutes and is part of the local Ursa walks. Yes Ursa does mean Ursa and I asked if there are any bears in these parts. I was told no but I am a bit "frit". So do I walk on an old snow covered path or risk a taxi in the snow? I shall ponder over breakfast.
For what it is worth, the view to a snow covered Anelion looks like this!
828 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
So asks a daughter of the 21st century.The answer is that I could discover whether my father's oldest Greek friend is alive and make contact via the interwebby thing.
I tracked down a long lost cousin of my father's who had feuded with the family. He is a Mason living in Lancashire and we chatted very amicably. I managed to make contact with my father's American cousins, the offspring of the actress Anna Lee and now swap emails with cousin Jeff Byron, the man who gave Tatum O'Neill her first on screen kiss.. And I tracked down and met up with Pete Bowen, now living in Crete and one of the very few folks from the University of Warwick my father actually liked. I track down all sorts of folks as part of my job. Retired dentists once living in Denver or bitter ex wives who want to rat on fraudster husbands. No problem.
But that would not be as much fun as trekking up to the Pindus Mountains of Greece in the snow and wandering to the village of Anelion to struggle with minimal Greek, even less Vlach and a bit of rusty German. I think I remember where Mike's house was. I have no idea what I shall say. But that makes it more of an adventure does it not?
I do hope he lives. An overweight drinking smoker last time we met fifteen years ago and who must be seventy if he is alive I guess it is an evens bet. He was fit and thin as a young man so that must improve the odds as will him having lived on a traditional country diet. But I reckon it is an evens bet. Fingers crossed.
840 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
As you know, I head off soon for Greece and will be making a pilgrimage to the tiny village of Anelion in the snow covered Pindus mountains of Northern Greece. The aim is to see if my father's oldest Greek friend, Mike the Vlach, is still with us, as I explained here.
My sister N was, I think, seven when we first visited Anelion and she is today with my father so we chatted about the forthcoming trip. I had been puzzling about the name which means "without sun". My father offered up the Vlach alternative which means the same but which I cannot remember. He noted that Anelion is on the south side of a deep valley, Metsovo - from where I shall walk to Anelion - is on the North side.
Hence Anelion is deprived of sun by the mountains all around it for much of a winter day and so it will be far colder then Metsovo (minus 6 last night, just above zero today). It explains, perhaps, why Metsovo grew into a town and Anelion stayed as a village.
For my sister on that first trip the abiding memory was of her small panda, known by the Greeks as kukla. N was devoted to it and would burst into tears if, knowingly, parted from it for any time at all. On our last day in Anelion we walked with battered old suitcases and with my father carrying N down to the valley bottom and up the other side to Metsovo to catch a bus to Ioannina to begin the journey home.
Miss the bus miss the flights, there were few buses or flights in those days. As we arrived at the bust station N realised that kukla was missing. We searched our bags but it was nowhere. My father being a man who has never missed a train or bus in his life, punctuality being his middle name, had allowed a bit of time but the bus was due in 20 minutes.
It had taken us forty minutes or more to walk to Metsovo but Mike the Vlach started to sprint to see if we had dropped Kukla. He ran down the valley to where the rover flows and then he ran up the other side to his house where Kukla was lying on a bed. He then ran back, arriving a sweaty wreck but able to reach through the bus window and put Kukla into N's hand as we sat waiting for the bus which was, in true Greek fashion, running a bit late, to leave. The story of Mike the Vlach and kukla is one we all know in our family and one we could happily reference in conversation today.
846 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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.
986 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
The fifth film in this series, with the simple title Jason Bourne, has won mixed reviews but the Mrs and I really enjoyed an afternoon showing yesterday. For us, naturally, the early part of the movie shot in Greece was a hoot.
For those who do not know Bourne, he is a CIA agent from a top secret programme - Treadstone - who went off the rails and pops up every few years to find more corrupt bastards inside the CIA who want to kill him but who he kills first. Ching ching, more money for Matt Damon and come back in a few years for another installment.
Anyhow, Jason (Mr Damon) is in Greece and the film is set at the time of all the anti austerity riots in 2015. Boy those were the days with great riot porn at Syntagma Square almost 24/7. So I was enjoying that bit and recognising familiar streets and places I know well when suddenly the CIA realise that Bourne is there and start tracking him by hacking into cameras operated by the Greek rozzers across Athens. What? You have to be kidding me right?
I am sure the CIA has the technology to hack into a working surveillance network anywhere in the world. But in Greece? The idea that the Greek Rozzers would have a system that actually works is crazy. They might have bought the kit in the good times with EU cash but no-one has had the cash to replace batteries, supply power, mend broken parts for years.
Back in the 70s were were in a remote Greek village called Anelion in the Pindus mountains, with my dad trying hard to make a phone call to sort out some travel matter. My poor father just could not get through. "Dad, dad are you sure you know how the phone works" asked three annoying children. "I know full well...it doesn't" said an increasingly exasperated father. That was Greece then and now. Mr Damon should have done his homework better.
2528 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
I am asked why am I so fascinated with Greece? In part it is a romantic thing – the idea of brave Hellas reasserting its independence and history – see my great hero pictured here. But it is more a family thing. My father’s family have been Helleno-nuts for 200 years. I shall touch on Lesbians, in that vein, below.
My paternal grandfather was the first in his family to go to university (Oxford natch) and he studied classics. But on my paternal grandmother’s side all branches (Bradleys, Cochranes, Crawfords, Ilberts) were classicists and mostly Oxford educated. The Bradleys produced a number of well known scholars whose works I have never read. My great grandfather (Sir Arthur Cochrane) was a herald by profession but a classicist by training and Greek obsessed. His eldest son, David, died falling down the mountain opposite Delphi. I have his gold watch. He died in the country he loved.
His sister, my grandmother, was christened Lesbia. Back in 1910 that name did not immediately conjure up images of KD Lang, Joan Jett or Katy Perry videos as it would today. Indeed it would not even have brought up thoughts of Virginia Woolf. It would have just been accepted that she was named after a Greek island (Lesbos) and that is it. My grandmother, though razor sharp, did not go to university but she had a keen love and knowledge of Greece. Visiting the country with my grandfather looking at War Graves (he was head of the War Graves Commission after retiring) it was she who encountered (I know not how or why) Mike whose surname I cannot remember but is always known as Mike the Vlach.
And it was granny who discussed this with my father and aroused his interest in the Vlachs. Google search on “Tom Winnifrith Vlachs” will produce numerous learned works by him, not me. But over the years I have with him visited my fair share of Vlach villages in Greece and Macedonia. The Vlachs are a formerly nomadic people living in Northern Greece, Southern Yugoslavia and Albania. Hence for 35 years my father has been travelling to those places (including Albania during the ultra hard line Marxist period when few Westerners were allowed in).
These days few Vlachs are nomadic and their own language is dying out as kids grow up watching Greek/Macedonian or Albanian TV and leave home to go to the big cities for work. Er... that may be stopping now. When, aged 9, I first went to Anelion where Mike the Vlach lives it was a tortuous 5 hour bus journey from Ioannina along windy and bumpy Mountain roads. My sister Tabitha was always sick all over the bus. And then at the end of that trip it was a one hour walk along a donkey track from Metsovo. Local wine was a penny a glass, there was one black and white TV in the village, and everyone was poor but _ think – happy. Nearly everyone in the village spoke Vlach. The Church and the tavernas dominated village life and I learned backgammon there.
These days you can drive to Anelion (thanks to EU dosh) and everyone has satellite TV. Most folks drink beer or spirits and there are fewer tavernas. Most folks speak Greek. Most of the younger folk have gone. Vlach is dying out. I can count to ten in Vlach and know a few words. The Vlach for man is barba (Latin for beard) and the sprinkling of Latin derived words in the language fuelled myths that the vlachs were descended from a lost legion. Who knows? It is just one of many small dying European languages – like the one spoken by a few villages in the Peloponnese which is derived from Spartan Greek as opposed to Athenian Greek.
For me the dream holiday involves calling up my friend Tim Smart at "Houses of Pelion ( 2017 Edit, sadly Tim's business was effectively shut by bogus online harassment from some ghastly British customer). I recommend anyone going to Greece uses Tim’s services and he fixes up everything. Whether it is a house by the sea in Pelion or hotels allowing me to trek around the Peloponnese (reading poetry by Heaney inspired by the area as you go) or up to the monasteries at Meteora or even to visit Mike, Tim arranges everything. A hotel in Delphi allowing me to race daughter Olaf around the old running track, just ask Tim. He can do anything. I still have parts of Greece I wish to explore.
The islands hold minimal appeal but the area near the Turkish border is unvisited and Joanna Lumley has inspired me to follow Byron’s journeys up near the Albanian border. But I would happily sit for an eternity in a village somewhere in Pelion or Arcadia a few miles from the sea enjoying the weather, occasional trips to the water tapping away on a laptop and soaking in the sunshine, a slower pace of life and slowly improving my, almost non-existent, Greek. It saddens me beyond words to see Greece humiliated and bankrupted as it is today. It is partly self inflicted. Its leaders are corrupt and it has lived beyond its means.
But it was seduced by EU grants and by the folly of others in bodging it into the Euro without thinking it through. I understand how the fear of Turkey led Greece to cling onto the EU but in doing so it faces surrendering an independence hard won. The social dislocation of the current chaos is awful to behold. De-urbanisation, emigration, riots, the breakdown of trust in fiat currencies, unemployment, real poverty without the dignity of the old rural existence are all results of where Greece finds itself. Notwithstanding that my father always jokes that he will spend his last years on Mount Athos (a women free peninsula). That, I think, is a joke. But he may have half a mind to spend those years in Greece. It is in his blood. Mine too.