September 19, 1963
I went down to Sparta
this past week. It was a pleasant trip by bus from Athena through
the rugged Peloponnesus: mountains (like the Smoky Mountains but
with much less vegetation), fertile valleys, orange and lemon
tress, tobacco and olives, olives and more olives. The only thing
that was not pleasant was the bus ride through the mountains.
The Greeks must be the wildest drivers in the world with, logically,
about a seven-second driving life span (about the same as a man
in no-man's-land in World War I), except that they somehow manage
to stay alive. The bus driver stuck by the national tradition
- it was more than a little rattling to be headed for a hairpin
turn with a drop of quite a few hundred feet at the end of it
and the driver chatting with a passenger behind him. I solved
the problem by closing my eyes.
Sparta itself is not
too interesting a town. It has been demolished any number of times
and the last rebuilding was along a grid pattern: uniform and
extremely dull. What saves it is the fact that it is situated
on the Evrotas River, which the Spartans proceed to take almost
in its entirety to water their fields. The result is a greenness
such as I'd never seen before -- in two months the oranges will
be ripe -- dramatized by the arid mountains which surround it.
(The oranges and lemons do well in Sparta; further up, where water
is scarce, the olive trees take over. They grow by the millions,
often in rows, in the most impossible of places along the sides
of mountains.) The tops of the mountains are almost entirely barren
- just masses of rocks and an occasional very hardy type of pine
shrub or tree.
It was naïve
to think there would be a bus from Sparta to Kalithea (my father's
village). (Its original name was Zarafona, a Turkish name, which
the government recently changed to Kalithea.) Several years ago
the people of Kalithea arranged to buy an Austin Land Rover, already
about 10th hand, from a North African village - they use this
contraption to get back and forth from Sparta, haul wood and livestock
and I'm not sure what else, when the need arises. (They refer
to it, by the way, as "our big and beautiful Pullman.")
Fortunately it was making a trip to Kalithea this afternoon.
Kalithea is about
30 miles from Sparta - about three hours driving time. Eleven
of us made the trip - the Pullman holds a maximum of 8 people.
We would have made it without incident if one man hadn't gotten
out at one of the hamlets on route and bought two chickens, which
added to the people, chess, pots and luggage already in the Pullman,
finally snapped the fine wire which prevents the Greek from becoming
a volcano. There was a major eruption - it ended only when one
of the passengers (not the man with the chickens, who was elderly
and therefore merited the respect of the younger men) was asked
to stand on the running board during the last hour-and-a-half.
(The driver, vary apologetically, explained to me that Greeks
often argue - they do! - but that they very rarely fight with
hands or fists.) Oh yes - there was one other incident: the Pullman
broke down and had to return to Sparta for repairs. Actually this
was a fortunate event: Kalithea's schoolteacher was also make
a trip and he and I walked down the road to talk about the school.
I was impressed with him. He is intelligent, energetic and holds
the respect of the community. Oh yes - he has been teaching 24
years and he now makes $1200 per year.
We arrived in Kalithea
after dark. There was a crowd in the platea - I found a relative
and in a period of about ten minutes I think I met half the people
of the village. (I met the other half, in the same place, during
the first hour the following morning.) We are feta cheese and
olives - and I tried to keep up with the questions about America.
(NOTHING on race relations, by the way - the first time this has
Now, some things about
Physically, it is
a lovely community. It is high up in the mountains (Kalithea means
"good view") and the tiny winding streets are shaded
by olive trees (and a huge maple-like tree in the platea). Its
buildings are made of stone, are for the most part very old --
and some of them are whitewashed. There is no electricity and
they do no expect to have it for another 15 years. The supply
of water consists of three public faucets situated in different
parts of the community. It is essentially a farming community
-- except that the farms have lone since been worn away.
Two things strike
you about Kalithea: it's isolation and its poverty. The doctor
comes through the village once a week; the Pullman an average
of 2 - 3 times a week; the only other contact is by burro over
a long and tortuous mountain road. (You get the feeling -- and
it is oppressive -- that there is no running away, that the problems
are here and must be faced.)
The poverty comes
out in several forms. First off, the woman (even the young) look
old. They can be seen hauling heavy buckets of water and doing
the other heavy labor which is the lot of any mountain women in
taking care of her home. The women almost always wear black from
head to toe; they are lean, the lines on their faces are hard
(but they can melt you with a sudden broad smile). The situation
for the men, in a way, is even more desperate. The Greek male
survives on "filotimo," a kind of almost heroic personal
pride in what he is and what he does. But in Kalithea, as in many
Greek villages, there is nothing to feed that pride. There are
few jobs. (One man left Kalithea at 3 a.m. the first morning,
worked in a granary in a nearby town, returned after dark -- and
made 50 cents.) There is work when olives are to be picked but
this is still many weeks away. And so the men sit and stare --
they are bored and made desperate by their personal humiliation.
And it is relieved only occasionally by some wood to be cut, grape
vines to be pruned, a lamb to be sheared (and the wool taken to
Sparta for a few drachmas).
It is not that they
are hungry. Somehow, miraculously, they are able to scrape together
enough food to survive -- their bodies are lean but powerful.
Most are still too proud to ask for help but a few do and they
are driven to desperation by it. A blind man suffering from many
aching teeth for years may ask for a hundreds drachmas to go to
Sparta to visit a dentist. A father wonders how he will provide
the warm clothing needed by his children that winter -- or how
he will provide the dowry (filotimo again) for the daughter he
hopes to marry to the young man from the next village. Escape
is usually more imaginary than real; "Nest year, perhaps,
I will go to America." "I think my son in Athens will
find a good job, send for me." And it is imaginary.
Filotimo. The struggle
for survival and a stranger visiting Kalithea quickly finds that
a lamb is being slaughtered to honor his presence -- despite the
fact that this will mean no meat for the villagers for weeks.
(I stopped the slaughter of the lamb by asking them to save it
for a second and longer visit. They nevertheless slaughtered two
chickens and two rabbits -- and the result was the same.) They
take you from home to home -- out come the sweets and the pictures
of other members of the family. I left Kalithea knowing that a
crate containing feta, olive oil and wine would soon follow. Filotimo
-- and it is so necessary to soothe the humiliation of poverty.
I found all of this
almost overwhelming. The pride and pathos were oppressive. If
I go to Kalithea again, and I should, I will go by personal automobile
-- just not to be at the mercy of the Pullman again. It will be
that much easier to be able to leave when the necessity arises.
It is even more depressing to think that two-thirds of the world's
population lives in circumstances no better than these.
A little more background
about the village: it was hard-hit by the war. The Nazis controlled
the villages, the Greek guerrillas the mountains -- the Nazis
retaliated by burning houses, hooting hostages (the stories of
these burnings and executions are numerous.) The difficulties
did not end with the end of the war. The guerrillas, often Communist-dominated
(with a large following of non-Communists, including anti-monarchists
and more often, people simply and in desperation striking out
at the poverty in the only way they knew) took control of the
villages -- there were more killings, retaliations, more retaliations.
Kalithea was no exception -- for many months, until unites of
the Greek Army arrived, it was controlled by the guerrillas. Families
were split -- there were killings, starvation. Today, the people
will talk all too readily about the German occupation -- but not
at all about the war with the Communists. Nerve endings are till
too raw, feeling too much involved in the horror of the period.
It is a subject very rarely discussed within the family and it
is wise for the stranger to avoid the subject entirely. Under
any condition, the area is quiet and peaceful now, even with its
poverty, and the comment expressed many times was, simply: "At
least there is peace."
The school: it is
a fine building, built by an American about seven years ago. It
has two classrooms and a "library." Children may attend
this school ("must," actually) until the are about 13,
then, if the family can afford it, they go to a boarding high
school (gymnasium) in Sparta -- very, very few can afford it.
I was impressed by several things: the school structure, the teacher
and the bright-eyed and inquisitive young people. The school needs
several things to make it a good one. First of all, it needs books
-- there were only three ragged volumes in the library. (I mentioned
the possibility of a set of encyclopedia. "Impossible!"
said the teacher, "We could never afford it." Needed
also are books of a practical nature: agriculture, home economics,
etc.) The stove in one of the rooms no longer works and needs
to be replaced. The school has no maps.
How about it? Do you
think Northport can raise a couple of hundred dollars for books,
I don't think it should
be massive project -- whatever is done here of necessity must
be long-range in quality (education is) and to some degree symbolic.
Thousands of dollars will do no more good than a few hundred dollars
spent. Word of books from American students to a small Greek mountain
village. ("Who cares about the village?") will spread
quickly to other villages ("What news?" are the first
words whenever the Pullman pulls into a mountain community). Certainly
one of the disturbing things I've heard said about Americans is
that we are kind -- but we are too keenly interested in war. (Almost
the only American aid now going to Greece is military -- the economic
programs have practically stopped.) I think we can do at least
a little to help dispel this and in a thoroughly constructive
Again, I am not suggesting
a massive project. Its approach should be children-to-children,
with an exchange of letters, pictures (of books and of our library
certainly), a yearbook. I expect a list of needed books from the
school under any condition -- purchases could be made in Athens,
hopefully taken down via U.S. government automobile (not army!)
Money could be raised in the easiest possible way: cake sales?
If money is raised
easily, perhaps the same thing could be done in a couple of additional
schools: one in the North, one on Patmos, i.e., Isadoris' home.
This, however, we could decide later.
What do you think?
Want to go ahead with it?
If you do, let me
know. In the meantime I will be talking to people in Athens, including
the Fulbright Foundation staff, perhaps the Embassy. I feel certain
they would be extremely helpful. Glen Grant, director of the Foundation,
has already expressed a strong interest in such a project.
Stone Greek Language Courses