“But why don’t you just get the bus?” asks my bus-driver out of Thessaloniki, when I tell him I’m going to hitchhike. “Where would be the fun in that?” I reply with a smile, and he drops me at the road to Vertiskos.
I walk a little way up the small dusty road and extend my right thumb. A few cars pass, some look at me, none smile – none even consider stopping. A small white dog notices me from a nearby house and announces his disapproval in a repetetive, yappy little way. This has the usual effect of provoking all the other dogs in the vicinity to join in. Half an hour later it’s getting cold, the dog is pissing me off and I’m beginning to get “that fascist feeling” from the passing cars. This is reinforced when I notice a ‘White Power’ symbol graffitied on a wall on my way back into town. I’ve decided the bus might be more fun after all.
The main square of Vertiskos village might be big enough to squash one more bus into, but not much bigger than that. It’s raining lightly and my umbrella, gloves and coat are all collectively broken or missing in action, but it’s not long before a dark blue four-wheel drive turns up with my new friends inside and we go for a drink in the one and only tavern in the village.
Here are Maria, Yorgos, Constantia and little Maya – Maria and Yorgo’s 19 month old daughter. After a beer we drive down the track to the two Forestry Commission buildings they’ve been occupying for the past three years. Originally there were more people here, but slowly they all drifted off leaving Maria, Yorgo, Maya and another girl who’s not here. Constantia is just visiting, like me.
It feels geat to replace towerblocks with trees and wake to the sound of the goose (quacking?) rather than cars honking and the mechanical sound of men flogging vegetables from car tannoys. There’s no internet of course and no sun for 12 days means rationed electricity, but there’s a wood burner inside and it’s cozy and warm.
It’s “Clean Monday” – the first day of lent. There are celebrations happening in every village and we’re just getting ready to leave when we notice small white flakes floating from the sky outside. Could it be? It certainly could, and within half an hour they are very large white flakes and rapidly covering the ground. We decide to go out anyway, but only to Vertiskos. We will visit Maria’s parents in the village. In the Orthodox religion, “fasting” is basically just veganism, so this is a great time of year for people like me – but I’m disappointed to discover that fish doesn’t really count as “meat” and a lot of people cheat and eat yogurt anyway.
Still, there’s plenty to eat. I’m especially pleased with the tradtional dolmathes which I helped to prepare – wrapping the cooked rice, leek and herbs in vine leaves and boiling them with a plate on top to weigh them down and stop them from unravelling. Another part of Clean Monday seems to involve drinking a hell of a lot of tsipouro, which doesn’t seem very clean at all.
When we have scoffed and drunk a fair bit we walk to the main square, where an “orchestra” of two cold looking men – one with a keyboard, the other singing and playing a bouzouki – play to a small group of drunk old men. Gradually more people arrive, the second round of eating and drinking begins and much dancing and merriment is had by all.
I’m developing a routine: wake up, make the fire and sweep the floor as Anna wakes and we lay our mats down on the floor – twin yoga shadows in black trousers and polo-necks bend and stretch in front of the fire. Maria, Yorgo and Maya arrive and I go over to the other house to meditate, then back for breakfast and coffee before my walk – my favourite part of the day.
I sit on the hill, check my phone messages, dance to the music I have stored in my phone and sing out loud on the way back down. Often I take a detour or walk on further, explore the forest, climb a tree… and always I am escorted by at least one, if not two, dog escorts. I’m told when some couschsurfers came to visit on bicycles, the dogs followed them over twenty kilometers and they had to shut them in a cafe and call Anna to come and get them, lest they follow them all the way to Turkey. More loyal canine friends cannot be found.
I’ve never been very good with children, I don’t really know how to speak with them. Usually we just gaze shyly at one another or ignore each other completely. Not so with Maya. This little girl demands attention, and she knows exactly how to get it. By day two we’re already building up a relationship. She adds “hello” and “bye” to her few words of Greek vocabulary, and will often potter over to where I am to see what it is I’m up to, turn my laptop off unexpectedly by pressing the pretty blue button, or simply demand “pano!” (up) with her arms outstretched.
The snow is slowly melting away and Maya can hardly find any “xoni” (snow) on her “voltitsa” (little walk). The sky is blue for the third day in a row and it feels like spring is really here.
The Hunger Strike continues in Thessaloniki. We listen on the radio for news. We hear first that two women have been arrested for preventing doctors from giving the men food in hospital. Then something astonishing happens – the hunger strikers win! The strike is ended! Ok, they didn’t exactly get their demand of “unconditional legalisation for all migrants living and working in Greece” – but they did get rolling six month “tolerance” permits, until they have reached the new eight year work requirment to entitle them to stay permanently, with the ability to leave and return to Greece in the meantime. Many of the men have already been working in Greece for more than eight years and so will be legalised right away – more details here.
City day – well, town day at least. Anna and I drive to Langada to collect Constantia and Sma. They and some others are visiting for the first firing up of the big cob oven which has now been finished. We also need to buy food and wine for the occasion.
Five men are driving up to visit us – very exciting, but their car breaks down and they go back to Thessaloniki instead. Everyone is very disappointed, but we drink wine, bake cake and pie in the new oven and barbeque vegetable kebabs, mushrooms (and meat for the others) on the fire. Barbequed mushrooms are definitely the most underestimated culinary phenomenon ever to hit my pallet. Smoked delisciousness – I could eat these forever.
Sma and I are both leaving. The others are driving to Thessaloniki, but there’s no room in the car for all of us, so Constantia, Sma and I walk for a few kilometres while Anna drives the others to the village and comes back to collect us. The walk is spring foresty goodness, mountain views and a surprise waterfall – the perfect goodbye to the forest I have called home, if only for the past week. Sma and I get a lift to Langada before we get a chance to say goodbye to the others. Maya is asleep in the car. I have to whisper – “Bye Maya! Bye!”