Cultural Forum: Strangers in Our Own Land

For a number of years now — and perhaps too many, at that — I have devoted an inordinate amount of time, when not actually traveling to the Vlach villages of Greece and Yugoslavia, to thinking about our culture and our precarious survival. Such reflection is the special reward of travel — for the mere investment of an open mind, one is occasionally rewarded with the privilege of seeing things in a different light. So it has been for me. The scope of my reflection on the Vlachs has broadened considerably from strictly local beginnings, when I had no other ethnic experience besides that of the northeast Vlach communities, especially that of St.Dimitrie Church in Bridgeport, CT.

It is while roaming alone across the remote villages of the Pindus and Zagori Mountains that I make mental notes of people, places, and conversations and reflect on deeply imbedded (and now, almost lost) traditions of our ancient culture. But for the most part, my travels conjure up a double image, a looking-glass into the two vastly different worlds of the Balkans and Bridgeport. But no matter how many Vlach villages I have come to know, no matter how many Vlach dialects I hear, I am always brought back to our American community — not just physically, of course, but spiritually, socially, and culturally.

We are, without question, an isolated Vlach community, and our isolation is more than just geographical. We are also a quasi-Romanian community, which in itself isolates us from the Vlachs of the Balkans — especially those of Yugoslavia, Albania, and Greece, where most Vlachs live. There are just not many Romanian-oriented Vlach communities in the world. Ours is the exception. Even the large and very active Vlach community of Australia, which Professor Tom Winnifrith just visited, is not Romanian-oriented in the slightest (neither is it Greek-oriented — it is, thankfully, simply Vlach-oriented). Every community makes a choice, and we have made ours — though unwittingly, perhaps. But in our case, that choice has deprived us of the opportunity to look at the Vlachs as who we actually are — and as others see us, including such writers as Winnifrith, Murvar, Fermor, and so many others. These outsiders see us as among the most unique people on earth — from a cultural, linguistic, and historical point of view; they view our survival as extraordinary.

As a diaspora Vlach community, we are stranded in a cultural time capsule. We would do well to look at ourselves in a way that we never have before — indeed, in the way Professor Winnifrith offered us in his recent, eye-opening lecture at Sacred Heart University. What could be a dynamic, robust community is instead languishing under a thick layer of apathy. In a world where obscure and not-so-obscure ethnic groups are asserting themselves as never before, we remain oblivious to our own unique status.

To claim oneself as a Vlach and nothing else, neither Greek nor Romanian, is tantamount to bomb-throwing in this community — it is as iconoclastic as Zen meditation in an Orthodox monastery. But then, perhaps bomb-throwing is a step up from indifference. Where most seem to believe that a Vlach must either be a Romanian or a Greek, there is a handful (this writer is one) who stand between these two groups. Blinded by their own biases, extreme pro-Greeks and pro-Romanians alike are incapable of seeing that we have more choices than just the two they offer; their attitude is, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” and so pro-Greeks brand us with the useless label of “Roumanizers,” while pro-Romanians hurl their own divisive epithet, “Grecoman.”

Yet, to say that we are Vlachs and nothing else is, to my mind, the highest possible devotion to our own ethnicity, to our own true culture — the highest respect to our people, our traditions, our language, our cloudy history, and, of course, our survival.

I respect both Romania and Greece. But make no mistake about this: Drs. Winnifrith and Murvar came to this community to see Vlachs — not Romanians or Greeks, who have their own countries, their own histories and struggles. They will survive, but we will not — unless we recognize our unique status and begin to celebrate it.

Am I guilty of irreverence? On the contrary, I find a great deal of irreverence toward the Vlachs when individuals negate the singular Vlach cultural and historical experience by calling it something else. Even Dr. Winnifrith, when asked if the Vlachs and Romanians can look at each other as “brothers,” replied with tongue in cheek that at best (and this is stretching it a bit) they might consider themselves “distant cousins.” There are also analogies we should look at, because they are clearly parallel to our situation: Do the Spaniards and Catalans and Portuguese today claim a common identity because they are all descendants of Iberian tribes, all bonded by the Latin language? Of course not. Yet we try our best to be Greek or Romanian — anything but Vlach — and so while other people are celebrating our ethnic survival, we aren’t even aware that there’s a party going on.

In order for us to continue to survive, however, we need even more than a realization of who we are — we need creative individuals who will focus their energies on the huge challenge of bringing our traditional culture into the modern world (and their first challenge lies in finding ways to deal with traditionalists, who will always be fearful of change). Such able individuals are increasingly found in the Vlach communities of Greece; their interest, of course, is in saving the Vlachs — as Vlachs, not as Greeks or Romanians or Albanians or Yugoslavians. Very recently, Zoe Papazisi, a dear friend of mine from the Pindus Vlach village of Perivoli, wrote and organized a series of nine radio broadcasts to the Greek public. Her work — the product of an intense love for her background and a boundless creativity — has taken her to many Vlach villages to record songs and conduct interviews with older Vlachs who remember another way of life. Her radio shows are extraordinary, not only because they happen to take place in a country which has not always been kind to the Vlachs, but also because Ms. Papazisi touches on the central questions of Vlach language, culture, and history. In both Vlach and Greek, she interviews her compatriots and recites our songs and poems. Her show is a celebration of practically every aspect of Vlach identity. The key word here is “Vlach” — Ms. Papazisi is trying to save Vlach culture, not that of the Romanians, who do not need her help in order to save their culture. This approach, of course, has earned her the animosity of both pro-Greek and pro-Romanian Vlachs. Yet if the truth be told, as a savior of Vlach culture, she is in the company of such great names as Papahagi and Manakia.

Isolated and sovereign in its own small way, the Vlach community in America has, over the course of many years, gradually abandoned its real historical and cultural roots, its unique Vlach identity. And if it chooses to join its sister communities in Ohio and Michigan, it is Vlach culture that loses out. But as the pro-Greek Vlachs take shots at Ms. Papazisi for asserting a Vlach identity, this community, too, has taken aim and fired at those who would assert the same identity, and in doing so, it has at once absolved itself of its true cultural and historical roots. Even now, as we see a Vlach renaissance taking shape in Greece — even Greeks are now interested in Vlach culture –we here have thus far fore-gone any connection with it.

The most dynamic, vibrant, and creative Vlach cultural center is now located in Greece. If we are indeed to preserve some semblance of Vlach culture for posterity, we must once and for all put an end to our isolation and get back in touch with our homeland. We must establish links with the younger generation there and work together with them to save our cultural heritage.

How can we preserve Vlach culture? Nostalgic clinging to the old ways means certain death. But first, one must have an open mind, and then actually visit other Vlach communities. A good way to begin is by visiting the Vlach villages of Greece — or perhaps an ancestral village, especially to get the feel of what has happened over the generations, and what is happening today. Go to Metsovo — our best chance resides there, for it is the only real town (as opposed to a village) where Vlach is still spoken as an everyday language.

Because to travel is to learn and absorb, to see your own culture from the outside. And from that we can see that Vlach culture is moving, it is no longer static, and hopeful-ly, it will continue to move forward from hereon in.

“I cry when I think that I cannot speak my own mother tongue as well as I can speak the English language.”

–Jawaharlal Nehru


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