Lost in Vlach-land

3. Juli 2013 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

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Today I’m pursuing another elusive language, or rather, elusive people. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on the balcony of a hotel in Arnissa, northern Greece, that doesn’t know it exists. I had to ask several men sitting in cafes if it was possible to pay for sleeping in this place (explained with a gesture of both hands snug against my cheeks). At first, the impression was that there was no hotel here. Then there was one, but it was now closed. Finally someone remembered Giorgios whose family runs one. A call by mobile phone, and 5 minutes later he was on the main drag with his pick-up and he even spoke English. He unlocked his dormant guesthouse for me, the only guest today, but he excused himself immediately and rushed off back to work (at 5:30 pm); they’re in the middle of cherry picking here, a fact that was hard to overlook as I ahd approached the town set in lush cultivated lands. So I couldn’t ask him my question I posed to each and everyone today: do you know anything about Aromanians? The Aromanian language?
At first, I’d earned a lot of headshakes till I remembered the other name under which this Romance lingo goes: Vlach? Oh, the Vlashki? a man who’d come to help from his garden said. They’re in the villages near Bitola. That’s precisely what my Lonely Planet guide said. But alas, he meant the villages above Bitola, which I’d bypassed yesterday on an ancient cobble-stoned country road.
So I asked again. A man in a van for transporting glass windows actually stopped me to warn me that this road out of Bitola led nowhere. Greece is nowhere? I was going to say, but held my tongue, newly aware of the delicate issue of Macedonia (see a later entry). I explained about the Vlashki, but he also said that up there near Vrnovo, there had once been some. And perhaps in Greece.
It intrigued me that the South Slavic speaking Macedonians and the Greeks used basically the same expression, rather than Aromanian. Vlachs or Wallachians is a cover-all term applied to people speaking some variant of a Latin-derived Romance language. The name is an exonym, meaning it’s attributed to the speakers by people of other tongues. „All the Vlach groups used words derived from romanus to refer to themselves, such as Români, Rumâni, Rumâri, Aromâni, and Arumâni“, or, I might add to the Wikipedia entry, Rumantsch in Switzerland. In fact, one of my earliest blog entries when I set out from Urdorf in 2011 had been about the submerged Rumantschia, with place names attesting to their earlier presence on Walensee. Walen, it turns out, has the same root: welsch or walsch was probably the word, as J.R.R. Tolkien among others claims, that Germanic tribes used for the Celts, and later for the surrounding Latinate peoples other than Romans. It basically means „the others, the foreigners“, or perhaps just „ze neighbours we cannot önderständ very vell“. This would explain why the Welsh were thrown in with the Romance lot. The German-speaking Swiss used to call their French-speaking compatriots „die Welschen“ before political correctness dictated that it was derogatory. But it’s still a fact they’re hard to understand unless you take the trouble of learning the rudiments of their language. So the burden and the blame is really on you.
In the outskirts of Bitola I stopped brusquely as I spotted a sign over the entrance of a cemetery: MARMINTSA ARMANESHTI, it read. I propped up my bike and whipped out my camera, ready to shoot pictures of Aromanian gravestones. At least some names, I thought, as it’s practically a dead language spoken only in villages you have already passed by.
„Ne, ne, ne!“ A man with a tanned face and fashionable glasses came up to me from apparently nowhere. He fired a salvo of Macedonian at me. I apologised politely for not speaking the local language, slid my camera back into my pocket and pointed to my eyes, I only wanted to look. Aromanian, Vlashki, I said, immediately realising I shouldn’t have. But would he have believed me if I had signalled that I only wanted to visit the grave of my great-grandmother? He became rather vehement and poked my chest. I understood I wasn’t allowed to look even if I pleaded in Spanish, Italian or English. I also saw that he had been supervising two workmen nearby who were splitting wood with a big axe. Thinking better of it, I withdrew meekly though not without using my telephoto lens from outside the compound. Of course, there is no particular reason that Aromanians may have used Latinate names knowing under how much pressure they were to adapt. I only captured three family names: Desanova, Paligora, Gamosli, and one saying, which I’ll somehow have to decipher: Od sinot i desnaata. In any case, none of these inscriptions were in Cyrillic script. It really must have been an Aromanian cemetery.
Around the Greek area south of Bitola as in some other languages such as Czech, the designation Vlachoi is co-extensive with shepherd. That may be a long way from foreign neighbours, but it designates the livelihood that many of them had to or wanted to pursue, migrating their herds through the arid reams of land that weren’t usable for cultivation. Others though were traders and came into riches. Two reputable Vlachoi donated sums of money to help found a polytechnic in Athens and the bank of Greece. There were attempts by the Romanian state in the 19th century to pull the nationalist lever and get Aromanians to side with their reputed homeland, e.g. by funding schools in the minority language. But this failed in the end and the Aromanians pleaded allegiance with Greece, up to a point where apparently most Greek Vlachs oppose the introduction of their language into the education system as EU and leading Greek political figures have suggested, because they see it as an artificial distinction between them and other Greeks. This went so far that the Greek Vlach association strongly rejected EU recommendations that their language should be supported to prevent it from becoming extinct. It seems their spokespeople would do anything to appear like the most patriotic of Greeks and to avoid the status of minority. This may not be so unwise, given the Greek state’s record of dealing with uncherished groups such as the Macedonians or the Turks living on Greek territory.
I have no idea what the shepherd boy I saw in the midst of a flock of goats and sheep outside Vevi would think about all of this and if he even had Vlach roots. He shouted and did a little dance for me as I waved from afar. I later regretted not having gone up and tried to talk to him, but I was a bit shy of the dog as well as too lazy, having yet another ascent before me.
The last opportunity came in a beautifully located but rather neglected village named Kelli, where I tried in vain to strike up a conversation with a shopkeeper and a customer. Only some kids seemed to speak English in this hamlet; they came running after me as I was leaving. How are you, what’s your name, how old are you, what’s your favourite …. hm, I suppose they meant football club. In fact, they could do more than the standard repertoire, and as if to give credit for our rudimentary exchange, one of them went into a house and fetched … their English teacher. She was young and spoke fluently with an American accent. No wonder then that this village would soon catch up with globalisation, universal English and everything. Amid my surprise, I totally forgot to ask about the Vlachoi.
And now, in Arnissa, I witness dozens of pick-ups with crates of cherries coming to the sheds where they are counted and then loaded onto trucks, one of them with German license plates. The paper business is done by strong pot-bellied Greeks. But the pickers who have congregated on a street corner with plastic bags full of bread and tomatoes, dog-tired after a long day’s slog, are dark-skinned Moldovans. There is an invisible dividing line between them and the locals. Are they perhaps the modern-day Vlachoi? I wonder where they’re staying for the nights.
P.S. Talk about cherry-picking!

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