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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine Themes #3: THE SHEPHERD


Mitso's house is the white one on the top. My little spitaki is hidden behind the trees to the left of the white house with the red showing.

 In 1984 I began living part-time in the village of Lala up in the mountains of Euboeia in Greece, and I spent nearly all my spare time there until 1987 when I had to return to Canada. Since then, I visited as often as I could, because it became "my" village, and the people there adopted me as their friend.

When I first started going there, I met Mitso, one of the shepherds, and we became very good friends over the years.


I'm sitting on the stone fence, looking out over Lala, its houses nestled among the trees on the inner slopes of the mountain. everything is green, even this late in the summer The square white houses of the village are tiered up the steep hillside. Below them, tall cypress trees spire above the olive and citrus groves. On the far mountainside, behind the village, old groves of chestnut and oak trees cluster under the rock spires of the mountain's crest. Behind the village, the undulating grey rock ridges encircle the valley, rising like a fortress wall. Every sound echoes -- dogs barking, goats and sheep bleating, sheep bells clinking and clanking in their sonorous tone as the flocks move down the hillside to their evening pastures. I hear the distant sounds of Greek music, a man singing in a minor key, children's voices, neighbours calling back and forth.

Somewhere in this village, there is a shepherd named Mitso (Demitrios). I look at all the little white houses and wonder which one is his. Are those jangling sheep bells his sheep? Is that bleating nanny goat one of his herd?

This shepherd rides a white horse. He's a lean, wiry man, a mountain man. He has a wide, beautiful smile and eyes that crinkle at the corners. He wears a peaked cap and a checked shirt and grey trousers -- the shepherd's costume. He is in his mid-fifties, and he has lived in this mountain village all his life tending his flocks of sheep and goats.

This is the shepherd who comes to me in my dreams, tells me wise things, counsels me and makes me wake up feeling very happy. This is a special man, someone who has been a source of inspiration to me for almost ten years now.

But he doesn't speak English, and my Greek is very basic. So how do we communicate? Somehow, we do. But there is too much that has to be left unsaid, too much I want to say, he wants to say, we want to say. And how will we say it?

Across the valley I hear a man's voice. Is it his? Is that him driving his flock down the mountainside?

"THE SHEPHERD: Part Two "A Marriage Proposal."

The setting sun is shining right on Mitso's house, the 'acropolis' of Lala; the house where I have dreamed of sitting on the porch writing. But now I know it will never be. It's because of the village - the customs - the archaic rules that prohibit even grown adults like Mitso and me to sit privately together, or even have an intimate conversation. Life hasn't changed much in this village since the old days, though perhaps there are more modern comforts to make the life easier.

Far away I can hear the shepherd calling his flock. "Kroo kroo kroo-kroo"
One time I heard Mitso calling his sheep up on the ridge behind the old mill where I often sit to meditate and enjoy the cool, fresh spray of the waterfall. He appeared there, radiant as a knight, his appearance stunning me into speechlessness. He expounded poetically on the "zoe" (life) and I (as usual) was baffled by the translation.

Not much has changed. He still astounds me. I'm still baffled by the language and miss all the important things he tries to convey to me. Like the other day when we met on the dusty roadside, quite by chance, as I was walking down to the port to catch a ferry back to Athens. We stole a precious few moments, expressed our delight at seeing one another. Then he said something to me in a very serious tone. I couldn't work out the translation, and misinterpreted what he meant. Until ten minutes later, as I walked down the road, I realized he had said "When are you going to marry me and come to live in the village?"

My friend Antonia told me that long ago Mitso's father went off to America to earn money, and returned to buy his sons land. Mitso and his brothers had no education. They have lived their lives here on the mountain. When I considered Mitso's proposal, and asked Antonia's husband if I should marry him, and come to live in the village, Jimmy looked at me sternly over the top rim of his glasses and said: "How can you marry him? You don't have any money or property or anything."

I had forgotten the dowry system. In many villages in Greece this old-fashioned bride barter is still the custom. I'm just a struggling writer with no bank account and a part-time day job. I don't even own a car or a townhouse.
"And what would you do with him, anyway?" Jimmy asked. "Will you take him to Canada?"
Mitso rarely even goes to Athens, so how could I take him to Canada? He's a mountain man.
"Can you cook and do housework?" Jimmy said. "Because if you live here in the village, you wouldn't be able to sit around reading and writing. You would have to be busy preparing things!"

It was Jimmy's frank statements that made me see things as they really are here. Being married to a shepherd would be a life I could not tolerate. A loss of freedom. A loss of independence. So, the fantasy that has gone on for all these years, will remain forever a fantasy. I will always be just a guest-friend here.

It is evening now. The shadows are darkening in the folds of the hills. There are tinges of golden brown and russet on the hillsides, and patches of brilliant green in the valley where the mountain streams run through the olive and citrus groves.

I listen again to the pastoral sounds of sheep bells and these sounds, this mountain music, fills my heart and head, remains with me always, returns to me on wet night and winter days in Canada. These are the sounds I cherish, this special music of the village. And months from now, when I'm back home, I'll think of this place, my village, and my shepherd who is always on the mountain and is perhaps thinking to me.

A couple of years after I wrote this, I rethought my decision and was going to village to see Mitso again, with the intentions of accepting his proposal.  Just before I left for Greece that summer, Antonia phoned to tell me Mitso had died.  It was unexpected and a shock to everyone.  He’d succumbed to lung cancer.  I went to the village that summer with my friend and put a sprig of myrtle on his grave.  A funny turn to the story:  I’d always thought he was ten years younger than me because he once told me his age. Turned out, according to the engraving on the grave, he was ten years older!  See? Even men lie about their age!

I returned to the village again two summers ago with the intention of putting flowers on his grave.  The graveyard was is disarray.  Mitso was not in his grave – his sister was. Then I remembered that after five years the dead are dug up and their bones places in an ossiary.  Little did I know then that just a few weeks later, my friend Antonia would be buried there. (I didn’t know until much later that she had passed away in Vancouver and the family took her body back to Lala to be buried.)

That was the last time I visited Lala. For some reason the village was deserted – like a ghost town. Many houses were shuttered up and not a soul was to be seen.  The magic had gone out of the village, and so had the life.

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