Saturday, October 13, 2018


Although the sun had not yet completely set behind the leaden, brooding mountains overlooking the town, the arrival of cold was as sudden as the arbitrary opening of a refrigerator door. The wind sawed through skin with the subtlety of a blunt razor. Wrapping my scarf around my face as it tore at it mercilessly, I clutched at the wall and picked my way slowly, among the cobblestones.
“It’s not a minefield,” my friend looked back and laughed.
It may as well have been. When water pooling in the spaces between the precipitous cobblestone roads turns to ice in the Argyrokastro winter, it assumes the insidious form of a minute skating rink, one that is capable of sending the inexperienced pedestrian tumbling at the slightest hint of a misstep. I took a tentative step forward and then pressed myself suddenly against the wall, as I observed a car, its tyres having given up seeking to gain traction upon the lubricious thoroughfare, skid into one wall, and then the other in a zig zag fashion, and in that manner, a sort of dodgem car on a decline, slowly and rather loudly, bash and crash its way down the road and into the centre of the town.
“Welcome to Argyrokastro,” my friend teased, extending a hand to pull me up over the stones. “We’ve not long to go now.”
A pig, the same shade as the leaden slates on the roofs of the stone houses around me, was snuffling underneath an archway, through discarded rubbish on the side of the road. At our approach, he looked up anxiously, looked back down at the rubbish he was clearly rejoicing in and then trotted away self-consciously, as if seeking to distance himself from a particularly pleasurable but socially perverse pastime.
“Through here,” my friend gestured. In traditional Argyrokastro homes, one is compelled to pass through a gated entrance, before entering the main dwelling. The iron studs on the impossibly old portal, of Ottoman provenance, seemed to be the only things shaping rotting and falling flakes of wood into some semblance of a door. The sun had set now and the stone courtyard we had entered was sheathed in darkness. I stubbed my toe on something soft and yielding, and it began to assail the night air with bleats of protest.
“Must you persecute the goat?” my friend asked wryly. “Come inside.”
A door creaked open and I pushed my way inside, eager to escape the oppression of the glacial wind, only to be immediately pushed out again, by unknown hands.
“When entering an Argyrokastro home, it is a sign of proper breeding and respect, to remove your shoes,” my friend advised. “My people are townsfolk. We aren’t in a village, you know.”
Removing one’s shoes when the water of the road has seeped into them and turned to ice, rendering feet devoid of any sensation whatsoever, is a task of considerable gravity. Slowly, I liberated my feet from their frigid confines and, by primeval instinct, clumped into the central room where a fire was burning.
An old man was seated at the hearth, completely oblivious to my presence. His gaze was absorbed by the flames which flickered around the chestnuts he was roasting, like hellfire tormenting the souls of the damned. In their red glow, I could see his furrowed cheeks, drawn sharply inwards in support of a vast, aquiline nose far sharper than the honed peaks that lined the approach to Argyrokastro, centre of the Greek minorty in Albania. This was an olfactory weapon that could cleave even the most cutting of remarks in twain.
“Whose are you?” he rasped, spitting the words out from behind the gnarled stump of the solitary tooth that remained to him. His long, almond-sliver eyes, fixed in a perpetual squint bore into me like the probe of a particularly efficient inquisitor. In the West, it is customary to ask one’s name upon a first meeting or induction into the hearth. In the lands ancestral and Homeric, on the other hand, the family one belongs to and their tribal affiliation are the first things that need to be ascertained, if a complex array of obligations, social interactions and protections, are to be immediately invoked.
“He doesn’t belong to anyone you would know, uncle,” my friend cut in.
“No, I’m a stranger. I’m not from here,” I offered by way of tautological response.
“Where are you from then, stranger?” the old man asked, unconsciously running his tongue along his lips over and over again. An outstretched arm shot out from under the jacket sagging from his shoulders and encased my shoulders in a grip of tempered steel. “Where have you come from?” he asked again, peering intently into my eyes.
Where do you think he comes from, uncle?” my friend responded light-heartedly. “Have a guess.”
“Are you from Korytsa?” the old man mused. “No, your accent is thicker than that and your clothes are not the type of clothes that are worn around here.”
“You’re right, I’m not from Korytsa,” I confirmed.
“Are you from Giannena, perhaps?” the old man guessed. “You speak like them but you don’t move like them. There is something strange about that in you. I went to Giannena a couple of times before the War. That's before they closed the borders....”
“Uncle, he is from Australia,” my friend crowed with the triumphant air of one that has convinced Kylie Minogue to make a special guest star appearance at his house party, has advised all of his friends of her imminent arrival and has just had a confirmation call from her agent.
“Australia? What is that?” the old man let go of my shoulders and clasped his chin, perplexed.
“Australia, the southern continent,” I elaborated.
“The southern what?” the old man asked, agitated.
“Continent,” I explained. “Like Europe and Asia and America.”
“America, I know,” the old man spat back. “I am not stupid. My neighbour’s father’s uncle went to America and came back with cash with which they bought their shop and then Enver Hoxha sent him to the camps because he was an American imperialist enemy of the people, but I’ve never heard of this Australia.”
“Honestly, uncle? A big island below Asia called Australia that a lot of Greeks have migrated to? You’ve never heard of it?” I asked incredulously.
“No. I don’t know this Australia,” he answered. Then the arm came snaking out from behind the flaccid folds of the jacket again and took a firm hold of my upper knee. “What kind of place is this Australia?”
“Well, you know kangaroos, right?”
“Kanga -what?”
“Kangaroos, those animals with the big ears and long tapering snouts that balance on their tail, hop on their two massive hind legs and have a pouch in which they store their babies. They live there, along with platypi."
"Platy- what did you say?"
"You know, the platypus, a sort of beaver with a duck bill that also has a puch in which to keep their young."
“That’s it!” the old man screamed. Springing to his feet, poker in hand, he grabbed me by the arm and began to frog march me to the door, oblivious to his nephew’s protests: “Uncle, what are you doing? He is a friend. He is staying with us for the night….”
Pushing me out of the door and throwing my ice-block cold shoes at my face, the old man snarled: “I don’t know who you are, or what you want, but you don’t come into my house and insult my intelligence, making up stories of fantastical southern continents and mythical beasts with magical tails and duck bills. Others, more capable than you have come here before you from far away and have told lies that were far more clever than yours. Enver Hoxha is dead and we owe you nothing. There s nothing you can do to us that hasn't already been done. Now get out before I butcher you like a pascal lamb.”
Almost sobbing from borean induced hypothermia, I made my way into the bleak Argyrokastro night, my friend trundling after me, in search of a wine shop that sold anti-freeze. Taking hold of my arm, he enunciated through chattering teeth:“Do me a favour, Aussie. If anyone from here asks you from now on where you come from, just say Giannena, ok? For God’s sake, and the sake of our body temperature, just say Giannena.”
“Oi, oi, oi,” I gave the traditional Epirot exclamation of woe, by way of response. “Aussie, aussie, aussie, indeed.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 October 2018