Anastasia’s village is called Mesoropi, and is located in Northern Greece or “Macedonia” (yes, there remains a dispute about the name). It nestles at the foot of a beautiful mountain, overlooking a picturesque valley. During my stay here, I have not come across another tourist; instead, the village is full of families who have returned here for Easter (as is the tradition – poor you if you come from Athens or Thessaloniki and don’t get to escape to a beautiful island or village for Easter).
The architecture is vastly different to Santorini’s typical Cycladic white cave or square houses. Instead, the traditional homes are built of stone and are multi-storeyed with ruins lying all around. Rather than the dry, volcanic look of Santorini, this place is green; we are surrounded by lush olive groves, vineyards and hillsides of wild thyme.
The area used to be big on tobacco production, and right behind Anastasia’s house is an old tobacco factory, which the church plans to renovate and make into a home for older members of the community.
We are only 1 ½ hours from Bulgaria (if we had more time, we would certainly visit. I tried to talk Anastasia into visiting Bulgaria instead of Thessaloniki but should wouldn’t have a bar of it), and tradition lives on here.
Old men linger all day in their Kafenio (ka-fen-EE-yo), usually somewhere women do not visit, smoking and sipping their Greek coffees while women prepare their dinners and wash their clothes. Many of them don’t even bother ordering a coffee, claiming to have had their coffee at home; I’m mystified as to how the owner survives.
There are two churches, both Greek Orthodox, but even in this small town two exist because of some theological difference many moons ago over which calendar to adopt. Even today, one church celebrates Christmas at a different time, and their Easter is an hour behind the other.
Families here are enormous – it seems no-one has just one or two children, and 7, 8 or 9 are common. Lord knows how they manage, but it’s such a typical part of their lives that I suppose they have no choice. Plus, in Greece, children are crucial to happiness.
There are some downsides of tradition, though. Anastasia has adopted two stray dogs, who live in the old tobacco factory behind her house. First to arrive was a female Labrador called “Luna” (who I have nicknamed “Luna-tic” for reasons that will be clear to anyone who knows labs). When Anastasia is in Athens during the winter, the dogs are fed by Maria, who lives next door, with money for food provided by Anastasia. She is so kind-hearted that when another sad looking pooch, Terry, turns up and befriends Luna, she immediately instructs Maria to feed that dog too. But ghostly Maria doesn’t like the new dog, and others feel the same. On my first morning here, we left the house and Terry was limping badly. Anastasia’s enquiries of local children produced the information that a little boy had tortured the poor dog. The villagers do not like dogs, and only ascribe any value to them at all based on whatever work they can do, and even then will keep them chained when they are not in use. Anastasia’s cousin reports that Terry is on some villagers’ hitlist and someone in the village will poison him. She is considering asking the priests to tell their congregations that she has two dogs and they are not to be harmed. My heart breaks for these doggies, and Terry looks with large, yellow eyes full of longing just to be loved.
Anastasia tracks down the identity of the kid who hurt Terry. She scolds him (I wanted to introduce him to the back of my hand) and he claims that Terry limps because he wants the kids to play with him. This just makes me mad, but Anastasia is forgiving: the children are doing what they are taught by the parents. It’s not their fault.
I can’t help thinking of my two pups, at home and living a life of complete luxury (reports in from home are that Max’s winter coat has arrived early and he is a major fluff ball). As a dog-lover, it’s difficult for me to understand how people can not love their bounding, affectionate nature (or at worst be indifferent to them), and how such attitudes can exist today, and will doubtless perpetuate for decades to come.
Anastasia’s generosity appears again and again in other places, too. The villagers are largely poor, and she never hesitates to give someone who helps her some money (“for your children”) or to give away a shawl to someone who’s cold. She drives me mad, but it would be hard to find a kinder person. I worry about her: all her investments were in the Greek share market, and of course their value has collapsed dramatically. Her love is travel – she fluently speaks 5 languages and regularly visits places as far flung as South America, China and St Petersburg. She’s worried that she can’t afford to travel any more, and having given away her homes to the church, has little she can sell. Yet she is so much better off than many in Greece, who maybe only earn a few hundred euros each month. They watch with a keen interest as each phase of the EU’s supervision passes, wondering if there will be a new Euro drachma just for them.
Anastasia is convinced it’s deserved – Greeks, she says, are lazy and have learned to be corrupt. “Thank goodness for the Albanians who do the hard work”. But she reports that Albanian children have higher IQ’s than their Greek counterparts, and I wonder how long it is before Albanians dominate here.
In my final hour in Mesoropi, I leave Anastasia to finish getting ready and head out for a walk with my camera. On my walk, I greet an old woman carrying a walking stick. “Yassus. Hronia Polla, Chrisos anesti” we say to each other. She motions me to walk with her, and says “Austria?” “Ochi, Australia”. She smiles and we walk together in silence, her pointing the way with her stick, the stones crunching beneath our feet. She leads me to the river that flows down the hill beside the village, and when I ask to take her photo, she promptly marches to the little bridge and poses stiffly for me. We turn back and, suddenly, she stops and scrambles up a small embankment by the pathway and begins picking flowers. She heads back and smiles, handing me the flowers: “Soula,”* she says: she means for me to give them to Anastasia. We walk along again until she greets a friend, and points me in thr right direction before heading into her friend’s house as she says “Bye bye”.
Whewn I reach home, I hand Anastasia the flowers, show her the photo of the lady, and she smiles: “A nice neighbour”. That silent walk to the river was one of my favourite moments so far.
* Soula is the short version of Anastasia. She hates it and instructs everyone not to call her that. Naturally, I use it all the time.