Did You Know What Others Have to Say about Us?

Though they think nothing of roughing it themselves, they are appalled at the idea of somebody else doing so, especially an educated person from the city. AWe are hardened to it–sklira-goyiméni, they say. It is part of a shepherd’s life, but the idea of choosing hardship, and even more the idea that enduring hardship could actually be a form of pleasure, is quite inconceivable to the Greek mind.

For most Greeks the good life consists in the avoidance of effort, of all exertion, whether physical or intellectual. AWhy do you run about hither and thither? Why do you give yourself a hard time and go climbing up mountains? says a friend. AMe, all I want, he says, Ais to sit here in the shade, do nothing, drink a cold beer. That’s what life is all about.

Although it seems to confirm Western prejudice about Levantine far niente, I think this attitude is relatively new, or at least the wide extent to which it afflicts contemporary Greeks. It is a lowland phenomenom, which means essentially urban, newly rich, newly emancipated from the bonds of traditional peasant life: that growing constituency of Greeks for whom the possession of to video is the acme of terrestrial bliss. It is a product of alienation. It is an attitude that a Vlach who still lives as a Vlach is incapable of formulating.

Lying on the ground in my tent I was thinking how you never hear the shepherds say they are tired. They do not, as it were, come home from work full of moans and groans, wanting to do nothing but cease work and put their feet up. Look at Tsiogas and Steryios. They were ready to go to sleep, as who wouldn’t be after running up and down a mountain all day? But I have never heard them speak of the tiredness the Horlicks advertisement tells of, the weariness that is compounded of tedium, reluctance, the sense, at least to some extent, of being used and exploited, of not really doing what one would like to be doing. A Vlach is a Vlach is a Vlach! In being shepherds, they are being Vlachs and in being Vlachs they are being themselves. Their lives are integrated. They are whole and that is a real blessing.

The Unwritten Places, by Tim Salmon (Athens, 1996)

As for Andrei Şaguna, Bârnutiu and other intellectuals treated him with reserve, for, in spite of his energetic church reforms, they doubted the strength of his commitment to the national cause. Şaguna had in fact concerned himself almost exclusively with church affairs during his first two years in Transylvania. None the less, experience had taught him to appreciate the dynamism of national feeling, and he recognized both its destructive and its creative potential. In Pest in the 1820s he had witnessed the breakup of the Greek-Macedo-Romanian community, and in Karlowitz in the 1830s and 1840s he himself had become involved in the strife between Serbs and Romanians. Consequently the problems of nationality in Transylvania were hardly foreign to him. He sympathized with the aspirations of Romanian intellectuals for some form of autonomy as a means of improving the material and cultural existence of their people. But he could never become one of them because he could never make the idea of nationality his master, as they had done. He viewed the national movement both in 1848 and later on as only one aspect of the complex process of social change.

Although he recognized the idea of nationality as the dominant motive force in contemporary Europe, he consistently measured its aspirations and accomplishment against what were for him eternal values — the teaching of Christianity and those secular ideas that had proved their validity in the long course of human history. He was certain, therefore, that whatever progress the Romanian nation might make would depend upon the welfare of the Orthodox Church and loyalty to the Hapsburg dynasty. Yet, he and Bârnutiu quickly reached a compromise on fundamental issues: he accepted Bârnutiu’s idea of Romanian nationhood, and Bârnutiu agreed to add to it an oath of loyalty to the imperial house….

The divergences between Şaguna and his supporters and the intellectuals went beyond matters of tactics and organization. They were symptomatic of a sea change in thought about community taking place generally in Eastern Europe. For Baritiu and Ratiu and their colleagues the ethnic nation had galvanized their energies and had become the centre of their preoccupations. They made all other institutions subordinate to it. Şaguna, by contrast, continued to think in terms of distinct categories such as dynasty, church, and nation and did not group the all-embracing nature of the modern idea of nation. In an age of nationalism he was not a nationalist. Rather, he fitted the mould of the bishop-national leader in the tradition of Ion Inochentie Klein.

The Romanians: 1774 – 1866, by Keith Hitchens (New York 1996).

It should also be noted that the Slovak language was the object of an interesting contribution from Romanian, from nomadic Wallachs, dating as far back as the fourteenth century, but which became particularly evident during the Turkish presence in Central Europe. As Gogolak writes: “The Wallachian vocabulary and terminology of pastoral life influenced Slovak popular poetry from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onward. This Wallachian popular element retained certain peculiarities in spite of mixing with the Slovak environment and often created particular Slovak social organizations that influenced Slovak consciousness in an important way.” These Wallachs were nomad shepherds. Their descendants, known as valasi in Slovak, obtained special privileges in matters of taxation, self-administration, military duties, and even judicial processes. These privileges were at times of short duration, but where they persisted, in the Orava region of Central Slovakia for example, they became elements of “Wallachian law.”

The most outstanding example of the influence of the valasi on Slovak culture is found in the didactic poem “Valaska Skola” (The Shepherd’s School) by the Franciscan monk Hugolin Gavlovic. Although born in Poland, he lived most of his life in the Orava region of Central Slovakia and wrote some twenty or so works in Slovak. “Valaska Skola” was completed in 1755 but not published until 1830… The poem was composed for Franciscan Tertiaries (lay people who live according to the Rule of St. Francis of Assisi), offering a Christian-Catholic moral perspective on their lives and their interaction with God and society. Three themes dominate the poem: Slovak national consciousness, eighteenth century religious and secular culture, and pastoral life. It is in the third theme that the Wallachian legacy appears, giving the poem particular significance. As Gerald J. Sabo writes: “Inclusion of the valach and his culture contributes to the down-to-earth, everyday character of Valaska Skola and has its own special association… the valasi represented a distinctive type in Slovak society with their various advantages and freedoms that stood in contrast to the restrictiveness of the feudal society around them.

The History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival, by Stanislav J. Kirschbaum (USA 1995).

As we moved rapidly uphill through the cobbled streets, where the fragrance of wood smoke hangs lightly in the mountain air, Victoria quickly sets the record straight. “I’m not even Macedonian, you know,” she says. I’m Vlach, just like half the population here. But some of us still speak Greek. It used to be the language of commerce, and of culture.”

According to some Greeks I had encountered in Salonica, Krushevo had all along been a Greek town, Hellenism’s northernmost penetration into Slav Macedonia. Certainly, it could claim a well-attended secondary school and an Orthodox cathedral, as well as a Hellenic intellectual tradition. But were the Krushevites Greek?

I could not claim I’d been entirely unprepared for surprises, for the discovery of identities within identities. Several days earlier in Skopje I had encountered a Krushevo-born architect named Niko Boschku. Rapidly, his description of the town architectural features, the wealthy multi-storied manor houses with their pitched roofs and pediments displaying family coats of arms, had slipped off into a passionate defense and illustration of the Vlach soul–something I was to experience in my every encounter with members of this tenacious, mysterious, and, regrettably, vanishing Balkan minority…

…Toma Kardula is waiting. Over a glass of plum brandy and a cup of Turkish coffee, Mr. Kardula, a lanky deep-voiced man with the hands of a lumberjack, a banker’s sharp eye for figures and a barrister’s affection for disputation, quickly sketches out the history of the town’s inhabitants.

The Vlachs, he explains, speaking Aroumani… as Victoria translates into Greek, are an industrious nomadic people who live in high country villages throughout the southern Balkans, speak a Latin dialect strikingly similar to Romanian and tend huge flocks of sheep. A300 years ago, we were the largest population group in the region. The Greeks tried to make Greeks out of us, the Romanians claim were Romanian. But we are who we are, a people without borders. The salt and pepper of the Balkans. …

Krushevo radiates a sturdy, self-assured prosperity even to this day. It reminds me of the Vlachs themselves: tall, open-faced, ruddy and direct, yet secretive and difficult to approach. Many of the town’s finest houses, built in a semi-baroque style quite out of keeping with the Turkish manner, are more than a century old. Several of these stolidly bourgeois dwellings still display elaborate semi-heraldic motifs painted in a naïf style above their doors. Like the mercantile houses of Amsterdam’s golden age, whose austere stone fronts concealed great wealth, the residences of Krushevo evoke substance, a regard for community and a horror of ostentation.

… A besieging force of hunger is now testing my defensive perimeter. When Victoria invites me to share the evening meal with her and her mother, I surrender with what must appear unseemly alacrity…

… In front stands a gnarled crabapple tree possibly more ancient than the structure it half conceals. Proudly, Victoria informs me that this is one of the oldest dwellings in Krushevo, a survivor of the fire which destroyed the town after the uprising. Here she lives, custodian of the past in the custody of the past, with her mother Zaharia, a white-haired woman of deep old age whose forehead and wrists are tattooed with the tiny crosses all Vlach woman once bore as a protective talisman against forced enrollment into Turkish harems. Unlike her daughter, mother Zaharia has forgotten her Greek. Our conversation is a mix of monosyllables, gestures and smiles. What she has not forgotten is the secret of meals expressly suited for the kinds of appetite only a day of trudging up and down cobbled streets in the crisp mountain air can create. Soon the table creaks under a load of dense bread, fresh yogurt, chicken with rice, home-distilled raki and a sublime white kashkaval which the Vlachs, those master cheese makers, claim as their contribution to the world’s culinary heritage.

Salonica Terminus: Travels into the Balkan Nightmare, by Fred A. Reed (Burnaby, British Columbia, 1996)

Finally, the Vlachs in Romania appear to defy a fundamental law of linguistics. This law, elegantly stated by Professor Trudgill, states that minority languages are most at risk when they fairly closely resemble the majority language of the state, and when they are a long way away from or in no way resemble the majority language of another state. Thus, Swedish in Finland is less vulnerable than Frisian in Germany because Swedish is very different from Finnish, being in an Abstand relationship with it, whereas Frisian is close to German, being in an Ausbau relationship with its fellow Tectonic tongue. Indeed the future of Frisian is gloomy, whereas Swedish in Finland is healthy. Elegantly and eloquently Trudgill shows that Greece by presenting Arvanitika and Vlachika as aberrant dialects of Greece rather than parts of the Albanian or Romanian language has helped reduce the status of Albanian and Vlach in Greece.

My own observations of Vlach villages in Greece over the past twenty years correspond very closely to the findings of Trudgill and Tzavaros in the Albanian villages of Attica and Boiotia. But it is possible to cast doubt on Trudgill’s thesis, not only in the Balkans. We can begin at the other end of the Mediterranean. It is a little unwise to select Catalan as an example of a minority language in a weak position because it is in an Ausbau relationship with Spanish. Catalan ought to be particularly vulnerable because it is both an Ausbau language and also a true minority with no geographical contiguity with a major state language. Provençal or Occitan has probably helped Catalan, but it is a minority language threatened with extinction. On Trudgill’s theory Catalan ought to be similarly threatened, but, as millions of Olympic games viewers know, it is Europe’s most famous and healthy minority language, knocking on the door of the European community as an official language. If it achieves this status Spanish might become vulnerable in Catalonia because of its Ausbau relationship with Catalan, while Provençal’s position might improve because of its contingency with a major language, although the French government is unlikely to be as unaccomodating as the Spanish. The decision to award Catalonia some kind of autonomy, the education policy of the Catalonian authorities and the economic success of the Catalonia region are in stark contrast to the treatment of Albanian and Vlach by the Greek state, and have contributed to the rise of Catalan’s fortunes, so different from the fate of the two Balkan minorities.

Trudgill tactfully plays down deliberate state interference, or more accurately lack of state support, as a factor in reducing Arvanitika and Vlachika to the status of a dialect, as opposed to that of Catalan, now nearly a state language. This reduction does support his thesis, but when we actually look at the Balkans as a whole there are some worrying arguments against this…

The survival of Vlach as distinct from Romanian in Romania seems to break all of Trudgill’s rules. In Slobozia I met several people whose families had originated from or near Štip in eastern Macedonia. On the whole Vlachs even after two generations have preserved not only their language, but also their customs and identity. Calling themselves Macedo-Romanians or, even more confusingly and perhaps dangerously, Macedonians, they think of themselves as somehow distinct from the main body of Romanians. If we accept this view and regard Vlach as different from Romanian, it is an Ausbau language related to the majority language, not geographically contiguous with any other Vlachs. In this respect it is worse off than north Frisian, Trudgill’s example of a very vulnerable language, but one which is at any rate fairly close to the Frisian of Holland.

The closest parallel I can think of to the Vlachs in Romania are the Pontic Greeks who arrived in Greece during the 1920s after the population exchanges between the Greeks and the Turks. My impression is that though Pontic Greeks have kept their dances and costumes, they have been less successful than the Vlachs of Romania in keeping their languages, in spite of the fact that the time factor, the adverse circumstances under which the group arrived, and even the difference between the main language and the minority language is roughly the same in each case.

The survival of Vlach in Romania appears not only to break Trudgill’s theoretical rules, but also to defy any of the practical economic or political explanations I have put forward for the survival of other minorities…

It could be argued that the harsh life of most Vlachs is a stern training for adversity, and the Slobozia Vlachs seemed to have survived their troubles remarkably well. Perhaps the language has survived because of its character. It has never claimed to be the language of the intelligencia, suitable for abstract thought, but is rather the language of the home, and it is in the Vlach homes that it has been preserved. Thus paradoxically Trudgill’s reduction of Vlach from a language to a dialect may actually help its survival.

Shattered Eagles/Balkan Fragments, by T.J. Winnifrith (London, 1995)

Immigrants to Australia from Florina have a complex and multilayered system of categories with which they conceptualize the various collective identities that both unite and divide them. At the level of ethnic identity the categories that were and are important to village social life in northern Greece continue to organize social interaction among immigrants from Florina living in Melbourne. The major ethnic groups, which are generally referred to in Greek as “races” (ratses) or “elements” (stihia), are the refugees from Asia Minor (the majority of whom are Pontians), the Vlachs, the Arvanites, people from southern Greece, and the “local Macedonians”, who are often referred to simply as “locals” (dopii in Greek, tukašni in Macedonian) or as “our people” (dhiki mas in Greek, naši in Macedonian). According to widely accepted ethnic stereotypes, the refugees are “hardworking”, the Vlachs are “clever”, and the local Macedonians are “peaceful”, “simple”, and “backward”. At the most general level, the level of national identity, all the refugees, the Vlachs, the Arvanites, and the people from southern Greece in the Florina area and in Greek Macedonia more generally identify themselves as Greeks, others as Macedonians.

The term dopios “local”, “native”, or “indigenous”), which is derived from the word topos (“place”, “country”, or “land”), links the people referred to by this term with a particular place, a particular geographical area. Dopios (or in more formal contexts topikos) is used to refer to the “local language”, the local dialect of Macedonian spoken in the Florina area, and to the “local dances”, which are characteristics of the area. The precise boundaries of this locale, the exact size of the place referred to, varies greatly depending on the political orientation of the speaker.

The Greek term dhiki mas, like its Macedonian equivalent naši, is used to refer to “our people”, as opposed to “foreigners” or “strangers”  (kseni in Greek, tugi or cuzdi in Macedonian). These terms designate relative social boundaries and are used in a segmentary or hierarchical manner to define categories of inclusion and exclusion at various levels of identity. People who are defined as dhiki mas or naši can include relatives, friends, fellow villagers, people from the same region, people of the same ethnic group, or people of the same nationality. For example, a local Macedonian from Florina whose son was going to marry a woman from the village near Edhessa or even Bitola, who was also a local Macedonian, could describe his future daughter-in-law as “a foreigner from another village, but one of ours”, because she was an outsider with respect to her village identity, but an insider with respect to her ethnic identity. She is from another village, but she is a local Macedonian, not a refugee or a Vlach.

When local Macedonians from Florina use the terms dhiki mas and naši to designate their own ethnic group, the defining feature of this group is generally said to be language. “Our people” are people who speak “our language” the “local language”, the Macedonian language. At this level of the segmentary hierarchy, the terms dhiki mas and naši clearly contrast with and exclude refugees and Vlachs. More significantly, these terms also contrast with and exclude “Greeks”, that is, “Greeks” in an ethnic rather than a national sense. “Greeks” in this ethnic sense are people who speak Greek as their native language, as opposed to people whose native language is Macedonian or Vlach; they are Greeks from southern Greece, from “old Greece”, from the Greek state as it existed prior to 1913. Greeks in this sense are also referred to as “real” or “genuine” Greeks, Greeks “from south of Mount Olympus”, as opposed to local Macedonians, Pontians, and Vlachs, even though these local Macedonians, Pontians, and Vlachs identify themselves as Greeks at the national level.

The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World, by Loring M. Danforth (New Jersey, 1995)

Voskopoja, dating at least from the 14th century, was once a flourishing commercial centre with an art academy, a university and a printing press. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was Albania’s largest and most cosmopolitan city with about 40,000 inhabitants and 24 Orthodox churches. As an Orthodox stronghold and a city of intellectuals, it ran foul of both the Turks and conservative fuedal families who controlled the country. It was invaded and plundered in 1769, 1772 and 1780, and the people fled to Korça. Finally only a few shepherds remained. Fierce fighting there during the two World Wars almost finished its destruction…

… Today it numbers about 200 houses.

Of Voskopoja’s five remaining churches, Shen Kollit (St. Nicholas) is the most impressive. Constructed 1721-26, almost every inch of its walls–inside and out–is covered with frescos. More than a thousand figures have been counted in the paintings. Because the church was built under Turkish rule, its outer appearance from a distance is unimpressive but the seven arched porch is covered with rows of brilliantly coloured saints. The inside is dim, and weather and the army once stationed there have taken their toll, but the rich colours and flamboyant figures are breathtaking, nonetheless.

The interior is primarily the work of David of Selenica, who took six years to complete it. The paintings of SS Michael and Gabriel are in reasonably good condition; others must be studied closely to pick out a Christmas scene of Vlach herdsmen in traditional dress or the portrait of a leading citizen, Haxhi Jorgji. The narthex paintings are by the brothers Constandine and Thanas Zografu.

Albania: A guide and illustrated Journal, by Peter and Andrea Dawson, and Linda White (Connecticut, 1995)


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