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Profiles of Greece
Nicholas Econopouly

May 11, 1964

I won't even try to describe in detail the week (actually, six days) we spent in Kallithea. Instead, maybe a collection of minor items and recollections will do just as well. Anyhow, we recommend a few days in a isolated, semi-primitive mountain village for practically everybody. Try it some time. Quite a bit different from suburban Long Island.

First of all, Kallithea is an old village. Its history dates back to somewhere around 2,000 B.C. and at one time it had population of around 4,000 (population today: about 300) -- that was in the days when water was far more plentiful than it is today. The valley below the present site of the village has its share of ancient ruins, including a primitive doorway, consisting of blocks of stone piled on each other, dating back to 1500 B.C. On a hill and looking down over the village and in remarkably good condition, is a Venetian fortress, one of a series in this region. The fortress itself was built on the site of an earlier Greek temple -- we found a chunk of white marble, with Greek writing on it, embedded in the walls of the massive signal tower. As for the name "Kallithea," it is of recent vintage -- the last 3 to 4 years. It replaces the "Zarafona," which is Turkish, part of a name-changing process from Turkish to Greek going all over the country. Most of the villagers, by the way, seem to use the name "Zarafona" more frequently than Kallithea.

It is a beautiful place, especially in the spring when the mountains and valleys, thanks to the season of rain, have turned a bright green. The village itself is located on the upper part of a valley which slopes down gently to the west, where it meets another series of mountains. In the distance can be seen Mount Taygetus, snow on its summit and beyond the slope of the valley and between the mountains at its far end, can be seen the Aegean Sea, 40 miles away and very blue. Around the village itself are terraced hills and smaller mountains and neat stone fences divide the land into sections. Olive trees, planted in neat rows, are in abundance and there are plenty of sheep goats grazing the various pastures -- you can hear the musical tinkling of their bells from any part of the village. Villagers leading donkeys through the tiny stone streets of the village and out into the fields are a common sight. The donkeys are usually loaded down with something -- wood, a plow, water or hay. The village is built around a platea, mostly surfaced with white cement slabs and surrounded by a low wall-- in the center are two great trees. Houses, painted white in most instances, line the narrow roads leading out from the platea. There are also plenty of big trees in the village itself -- it is a shaded and a very attractive place.

Cafenions: There are two of them on the platea and another a few hundred feet away. In addition, there is a wine shop, with tables in front, also facing the platea. I asked whether there was any pattern as to who frequented which cafenion -- I was told that there wasn't, except that one cafenion is sunny in the morning, the other in the afternoon. (I was also told that this was not always the case, that at one time leftists frequented on cafenion, rightist the other and insults were hurled across the space that separated them.) We spent much time sitting and chatting in the cafenions. Villagers seemed to be less talkative than Athenians -- this goes back through the centuries to the days when Spartans considered talk a wasteful luxury. We heard little talk about Cyprus. On one occasion we heard villagers, including the village priest, discussion the best way to organize a cooperative of landowners of strips several miles from the village. The purpose of the cooperative would be to employ someone ($35 a month) to live near the land, protect the crops planted there and to water them when necessary. They reached no decision and I was told alter that the discussion has been going on for a number of years. Another conversation: I told them about gasoline-driven chain saws. They had never heard of them. They agreed a single chain saw for the village could be a vast improvement over the hundreds of tiny handsaws they presently use. They also talked about buying a tractor, using it to haul the wood which they cut several miles from the village. Their hope is that the Papendreau government will liberalize loan arrangements for such purchases -- a tractor today costs $3,000, one-third down, 10% interest, an impossible requirement for most peasants and most villages.

The stars at night are big and bright. The clarity of the air; plus the lack of competition from any lights anywhere in the area, make the Milky Way much milkier, each star far brighter. The effect is startling -- the difference is that great … Sheep and goat bells: shepherds choose them with great care -- they come in a variety of sizes and sounds. If the shepherd can hear the bells, even far off in the distance, he can distinguish his flock from another. As the sheep or goats move about while grazing, the bells blend and make a very pleasant musical sound … Land reform is under way in the valley. At one time most of the land belonged to a nearby monastery, reimbursed it and turned it over to the village. The villagers divided the land into blocks, drew lots for it. Most of it is situated near the dirt road which cuts through the valley but the problem is water. Despite rich soil in the section, there is little use for the land other than for growing olives because of the water shortage. Some hardy grass grows here and plenty of "pefka," the tough Greek scrub pine. The same is true of the smaller mountains and hills near the village. The grass gives up even trying on the higher mountains, where there is little soil and the pefka gives up, too, a litter higher up. (The barren stone mountains turn colors through the day and particularly in the late afternoon. They are a beautiful pink sunset.)

Mountain women work hard. They can be seen during the day, dressed in black dresses and shawls, hauling buckets of water from the village faucets to their homes. They are very thin and their faces are lined. They cook, take care of their homes, work in the fields, wait on the men. A meal in a Greek mountain village is sitting around a table with the men while the women rush back and froth bringing more food. When you comment to them about their hard life, they almost inevitably shrug and comment: "Ti nah can-nu meh?" ("What can we do?" i.e., "What's the use?") And then they follow this with a sigh .. The men's work comes in spurts. They work in the fields, cut wood, herd the livestock. There is little do-it-yourself on their homes -- this is an old tradition which the Greek government is seeking to destroy and having very little success. The villagers, for example, would not make anything but a temporary repair on a broken window, even during the winter -- the "mah-sto-rah" (craftsman) is called and he makes the repair, sometimes after a long wait. The villagers argue that to do otherwise would be to deprive another man of his bread. When seasonal work is low, the men may look for other work in the village or other villages, to supplement their drachma reserve for the winter months -- and when this is lacking, they gather in the cafenions.

Life is primitive. There is no electricity in the village and they expect none for another 10 to 15 years. There are a few flashlights around, which makes that midnight stroll out to the outhouse somewhat less of an ordeal. Nevertheless, a Greek mountain village outhouse makes an American rural outhouse look like something in a Hilton hotel by comparison. The women cook over fires in the fireplaces in their homes -- you see them huddled near the fire, coaxing the fire to five a little more heat to boil the water or fry the potatoes. (They must be frugal because wood is in short supply -- the fire is therefore small and the women crouch over it and blow on it to get the most out of it.) Eating utensils in most homes consist of forks -- meat is cut an chopped into chunks beforehand and you make ample use of your hands. Bread, which is eaten in great quantities, is baked in outdoor ovens -- a week's supply at a time. Clothing is old an usually from relatives in America or from clothing drives in America. There are now a few battery-operated radios in the village -- a few years ago most Greek villages could boast of only one radio, in the center of town, supplied by the American government, There are, of course, no street lights in Kallithea and when it is dark at night, it is very dark. At night you hear very few human voices -- but you hear donkeys braying, chickens crowing and a hundred other sounds made by livestock, including the sheep and goat bells. Houses are made of stone, with living quarters upstairs and downstairs reserved for livestock, wood and general storage. Some of the houses have used mud for mortar -- this has not been very successful, calling for many visits by the mah-sto-rah and now cement is being used more frequently. The planks used for flooring are usually very old, creak and away as you walk on them, have plenty of cracks -- and were probably used before in earlier houses. Life begins at sunrise and people begin going to bed not long after sunset.

Then there are strange contrasts to the primitive. You drive along the dirt road leading down toward Sparta and you suddenly come upon a family riding a tractor into town to shop or see a movie -- the women and children wear brightly colored clothing and the men dark suits, white shirts and ties. On Sunday the women of middle age and younger dress in bright dresses and make their way along the village's stone streets in high heels; the men, who are less avid church-goers, stand around the platea or sit at a cafenion, dressed in suits, white shirts and ties. (Men dress very formally in Greece -- sport shirts are rare, sport jackets rare but they like dark suits, white shirts and ties, even while riding motorcycles, going on a picnic or just strolling in the evening.) And there is the villager's attitude toward education; it is extremely hard to get beyond the sixth grade but the villager considers it a marvelous thing, is awed by our ability to send vast numbers of our students to the universities. Great respect is shown the teacher and the university professor -- jokes about absentminded professors would be tolerated for it would be considered a sign of unforgivable disrespect for an educated man. Education is a priceless thing to the Greek peasant and he is frustrated by his children's inability to get it.

Our children: American children tend to be much livelier than Greek children and ours have become more so since coming to Greece. Villagers would gather at the platea to watch our children let off energy by leaping, climbing and running -- "Ah, look at that," they said, "they're Americans!" This was said with considerable admiration. (America's stock is very high in the villages and on the islands, less so in Athens.)

James chased chickens (usually with an audience of 10 or 15 adults), Matthew hunted lizards, David led dogs and sheep on leashes and Cindy specialized in donkeys. Villagers took the children out to the fields on donkeys, where they played with sheep and other villagers brought them back. James at one point was out of sight, standing in the center of flock of about sixty sheep. David made frequent rounds of the cafenions, where he practiced his Greek, gathered an audience and often managed to get a horse or donkey ride out of it. WE came back late one afternoon to find about 20 villagers peering over a stone fence at a scene down below. Yep. It was a funeral service conducted by Matthew, Cindy, David and the priest -- for Matthew pet lizard, which had been cut down by a chicken … there were candles burning around the grave and some kind of chanting was going on -- later the procession, candles burning, went through the streets of the village. The days were filled with excitement for them from morning until night -- and it was a major source of interest and entertainment for the villagers as well. Hearty exclamations of "Nah soo zee-soo-neh! Nah soo zee-soo-neh!" ("They should live! The should live!") … a little like our "God bless them, " only much more frequently heard and much more empathetic) were common during the six days.

Eat? Yes. Two baby goats and two lambs were roasted on spits, plus cheese, olives, break "horta" (mountain greens) and retsina to drink. While returning from a climb up to the Venetian fortress, about an hour or so from the village, we saw a family having a picnic on a nearby hill. They called us over for "mezes" and "kouvenda" -- we ate chunks of goat meat, just cooked on a spit over the fire and drank retsina -- and talked about American, which one of the women had visited. Below us, flocks of sheep grazed, bells tinkling. The grass was green, the sky was very beautiful, the day was warm -- and it was all pretty wonderful.

Startling sight: to see a haystack moving and then you discover a donkey somewhere under it hauling it along … The rental of houses in Kallithea is cheap -- $20.00 for the summer. Food is also cheap. Airplane tickets aren't.

We also made a trip to Mystra, the magnificent Byzantine city destroyed by the Turks' Albanian troops in 1770. At one time it had had a population of 40,000 and its ruins cover an entire mountainside. It is most impressive for its site, overlooking Sparta and the rich valley below -- the winding and climbing paths of Mystra itself are bordered by magnificent array of wild flowers. We visited about two-thirds of the site, including the great palace, roofless and looking forlorn and brooding over what was once a great city.

Roads in this area. The paved ones are pretty good -- but the problem is with Greek drivers. In Israel we were told that the Israeli drivers were the world's worst. Our vote goes tot he Greeks, who with great glee are participating in a great slaughter on their new highways. A popular form of suicide seems to be passing on hairpin mountain turns -- we were pretty tense all the way. The dirt roads, because they're less frequented, are safer -- and we drove plenty of them during the week.

We returned to Athens on Saturday to find all the Thomases in Greece getting ready to celebrate their name-day. So was St. Thomas' Church across the street.

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