VI. The Vlachs
1. Typical Village of Pisodéri
THE road from Florina to Castoria sets out, like so many Turkish institutions, with excellent intentions. Once in the remote past it was evidently carefully made or at least elaborately planned. If we stumbled — on that first journey in mid-December — it was over the ribs of its foundations. If we floundered, it was among the heaps of stone flung down, in the highway, with the laudable forethought that some day they might be pressed and broken into good macadam. And if there was a difficulty in crossing the countless little torrents that traverse its course, that was chiefly because the fragments of what was once a bridge lay athwart the path and compelled us to make a circuit. (There is, indeed, a tradition still current among the valley folk of a happy time when it was possible to make the journey in a wheeled conveyance.) The road twisted and climbed — above the fields — above the woods — and into the snows. Night fell, and we stumbled on by starlight and the blue hazy gleam that came from the snow across the pass. Far down in the valley behind us glimmered the only sign of human life — a shepherd's watch-fire, while the tinkling of a sheep-bell added its music to the crisp yielding of the snows beneath our horses hoofs. One could conceive no spot more desolate than this uninhabitable mountain, with the climate of an Alpine summit. To reach it seemed an adventure, to live upon it a daily heroism. We were wondering what precarious gain, what passion for the free life of the hills induced that herdsman to pass his life among the precipices
and the snows, when with a sudden bend and dip in the road a score of village dogs were barking round our feet. We were in the Vlach village of Pisodéri.
Stumbling up a wooden ladder which led from the reeking stable of the village khan (inn) to the guest-chamber above it, the kindly accents of Greek voices received us. It was a miserable little room, dirty, uncomfortable, and cramped, but the two young men who occupied it suggested, somehow, a stage of civilisation which we hardly expected to encounter in a herdsman's village on a mountain-top. One was reading a book — rarest of all sights in Macedonia — while the other was playing something European upon a genuine violin. The book turned out to be Tricoupis' " History of the Greek War of Independence," a ponderous and by no means popular work, modelled in manner and language upon Thucydides, while the two young men proved to be the schoolmasters of the village. Presently the village authorities arrived, and led us forth from our temporary refuge, and after a perilous voyage among the morasses and precipices round which the village seemed to be built we were installed in the headman's house, and there again, to eyes accustomed to the squalor and misery of Bulgarian hamlets, the surroundings breathed of distant civilisations. The floors were boarded, the walls were papered, and on them hung a map of Europe as though to remind the children who played around it that Macedonia belongs by right to the Western world of enlightenment and freedom. We dined at a table and sat on chairs — amazing innovations — and presently we were to meet the priest of the place, who actually boasted the possession of a little library. Drowsy and tired, overcome by the surprising comfort of the blazing yule-log and the well-stuffed mattresses stretched before the fire, after the long climb through the snow and the bitter air of the hills, I remember that I fell asleep, while the children spread the table and prepared the meal. Half waking, half dreaming, there rang in my ears the baffling music of some tongue as familiar as one's schoolroom. The bread which
the children put on the table was pan, the dog over which they stumbled was can. It seemed as though we had crossed centuries as well as mountains, and found a Roman camp within this fastness of the snows and mists.
The morning light only increased the puzzle. It was a little village roughly built of undressed stone, as untidy, as careless of form as any Bulgarian hamlet. It had, they told me, no more than one hundred and fifty houses, and a population of some eight hundred souls. One noticed no fields around it, and indeed it would have needed a more than Wallachian enterprise to till these mountain-tops, all crag and stone. Flocks it possessed and wood and water, but it owed nothing else to nature. One might have expected a grinding poverty, the struggle of a savage and degenerate race to wring a bare subsistence from the hillside, eked out perhaps by brigandage and plunder. But these people had, on the contrary, an air of comfort and plenty. In the midst of the straggling village a large and ambitious building was in course of erection. It is to be a secondary school, with five teachers for the boys and three for the girls. It seems a startling provision for this minute community. But these Vlach villages are but nurseries and eyries built among the rocks, where a keenwitted race is trained, which makes its career as far afield as the Greek and Roumanian languages are spoken. There is a little Pisodéri in Macedonia, where the aged repose and the children grow, but the greater Pisodéri is in Roumania and in Egypt, where fortunes are to be made in freedom. It matters little that there are no fields to till amid these barren rocks. The people of Pisoderi reap their harvests in the Delta. They were very anxious to explain to me that this school of theirs is to be a modern and commercial school. The Greeks may build their classical gymnasia where boys may learn by heart a play or two, a speech of Demosthenes and half the Odyssey. But the Vlachs are a practical people. If they too study Greek it is because there is no Eastern language so useful in the trade of the Levant.
There is no race in all the Balkans so mysterious and
individual as the Vlachs. They shelter themselves in the Greek Church, adopt Greek culture as a disguise, and serve the Hellenic idea. It is rare to meet a man among them who does not speak Greek more or less fluently and well, but at home the national Latin idiom persists, and their callings, their habits, their ways of thinking make them a nationality apart. They are not a very numerous stock, though without their aid the Greeks would cut a poor figure among the statistics of the Macedonian races. The so-called "Greeks" of Monastir are Vlachs to a man. They form a considerable and continuous group along the Pindus range, wedged between Thessaly and Epirus. They are numerous once more between Olympus and Kara-Veria (the ancient Beroea). Elsewhere they have scattered villages, all built like Pisodéri among the rocks. Kruchevo, Neveska, and Klissoura are the most notable of these mountain-nests. They seem to be the scattered remnant of ancient Roman colonies, which took refuge on the spine of Macedonia from the tide of barbarian conquest. It was a shy and fugitive existence which they led in these retreats. Agriculture was impossible, and they gave themselves to the tending of cattle. The Vlachs of the non-mercantile villages are almost nomads — poor, wild and ignorant, with something like a gipsy reputation for dishonesty. They follow the migrations of their flocks, spending the winter, it maybe, on the plains of Thessaly — so far afield do they roam — and returning in summer to their own mountain homes. They are not all organised in villages, as are the other peoples of Macedonia. Each of the Bulgarian villages round Castoria, for example, has its four or five houses of Vlachs. They live apart, rarely intermarrying with Slavs, upheld by some tradition of an ancient superiority which teaches them to despise the newer races. If they are a timid people they are also singularly tenacious. A family may be scattered between Roumania and Thessaly, but they never cease to be Vlachs; and the women move about among their Bulgarian neighbours, never abandoning their neat costumes of navy-blue, more suggestive of Norway than of the Balkans. They
are the inn-keepers and the carriers of Macedonia.
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