In the north-western corner of
Greece, a stone’s throw away from the borders of Albania and North Macedonia,
lies the city of Florina. A few kilometers east of Florina lies a village of
ancient lineage, incomparable beauty and immeasurable importance. The allotment
of these attributes to this village is not based on any unreliable esthetic
criteria or mere human judgment. It is based on the simple fact that I was born
there. Armenohori is the most beautiful village in
There is archeological evidence (not based on the fact that I was born there) that the village has been inhabited for at least the past three and a half thousand years. Alexander the Great’s grandmother, Eurydice, was a princess from Lynkestis (the ancient name of the area) and I firmly hold that he went by my village many times on his way to visit his relatives. In this case, faith trumps lack of historical evidence.
I spent about a decade of my
childhood in Armenohori, back in the 1950’s and it has left me with memories
that are, as Ernest Hemingway said about
In the 1950’s Armenohori was an agrarian village where little had changed since the time Princess Eurydice of Lynkestis (mother of Philip II) left to marry King Amyntas III of Macedon. There was no electricity, no plumbing and nothing mechanical. Water was brought in from a well at the edge of the village in pitchers that resembled those used in the Bronze Age. Although horses were around, the most frequently used source of power was a team of oxen. It was an integrated society that still told stories about the Turks (the area was liberated in 1912) and had lived through world wars, famines and a civil war. The villagers were completely self-sufficient and remembered with pride that while people were dying in the streets of the big cities of Greece during World War II, no one went hungry in our village.
Life in the village was centered around work and religious holidays. Easter was the most important religious event but Christmas provided the most excitement for the children. One great tradition was the kalanda which started with the lighting of bonfires in every neighbourhood (mahala) during the night before Christmas Eve.
Gathering the wood for the bonfires was the job for youngsters and it took weeks of scavenging to find enough (mostly) twigs. Armenohori is in a valley with very few trees around and the houses were heated mostly with coal. Finding wood therefore was no easy task and we had to go out in the country looking for some dead tree or shrub that had not been carried away already.
There was an open space near the gate of my house and that was where the bonfire was lit around midnight. We piled the wood in my yard near the front gate and got up as soon as our mothers would let us. We carried the wood across the road to the open space and lit the fire. I still remember my mother telling me that I had to get some sleep or she would not let me go.
Naturally, there was fierce
competition about which neighbourhood would have the biggest bonfire. That
depended on the number of youngsters of the mahala and their industry. My neighbourhood
had pride of place when I was small but by the time I was ten, many of the
houses had been left empty. The villagers had started leaving for
My mother woke up the other neighbors
(my father had already left for
The tradition was that the youngsters started the fire and the men joined them before dawn. The men brought tsipouro and chestnuts and sat around the fire eating and drinking. The women were at home preparing for Christmas.
Just before dawn all the children from the village gathered at the gate of a house on the edge of the village. This was the starting point for visiting every house in the village where we were given a chestnut or a potato. The chestnuts were usually boiled and sometimes raw; the potatoes (given by poorer families) were always boiled.
The anticipation for the woman in the first house to come out and give us the chestnuts was no less than waiting for a rock star to appear. When she came to the gate, we rushed at her as if she were about to distribute manna to Moses’ followers. From there we followed a well-defined route that allowed us to visit every house in the village.
There was even more excitement when we stopped by the homes of relatives where we could expect a coin in addition to a few extra chestnuts. Five, ten or twenty centimes was the going rate depending on the wealth of your relative. These were the coins with the hole in the middle and, to put it in context, a drachma had one hundred centimes.
It took several hours to visit every house in the village, and you ended up with a satchel full of chestnuts and maybe a couple of drachmas. In short, you were wealthy.
The fat guy with the red suit and the ruddy cheeks also known as Santa Claus had not heard of Armenohori yet and we had not heard of him either. I first saw him on a Christmas card that my sister sent me from Canada, but he made no impression on me and I had no idea that he was supposed to drop in through the chimney on Christmas and bring me presents. The only presents we got were a couple of luxury items such as apples or oranges and they were just handed to us. The Christmas tree had not been invented yet. My version of Santa Claus was of course St. Basil but he wore a halo and looked like all the other scary saints that I saw in church and had to kiss on Sunday.
The traditional Christmas food in the village was pifti, boiled pig’s fat that had formed into a jelly with pig’s feet, knuckles and other such delicacies in it. It was larded with garlic and eaten cold. I could not get enough of the stuff. More than a half a century later, my sisters still make this item of peasant haute cuisine but, alas, my enthusiasm for eating it has been reduced to honoris causa and only a small plate, please.
The bonfires were lit again on
New Year’s Eve and the same tradition was followed.
January 6 is the Epiphany and for Armenohori it meant that the whole village went to the river after church service. The priest, my grandfather, conducted a service there and threw a cross in the river. The water was cold and frequently had a thin sheet of ice on top but this did not stop the young men from entering the river in order to catch the cross. My mother would not allow me to get near the water – I was simply too young. The man who caught the cross was considered lucky and he and his friends went around the houses where they were given money.
Armenohori is still there but my village has disappeared. When I returned as an adult the bridge that was a couple hundred yards from my house and where I used to play had changed completely. The huge steel span across a roaring watercourse of my memory had shrunk into a pot-hole ridden, rusty bridge that could fit only one car at a time. The river was a mere rivulet that in the summer went almost dry. I used to swim and catch fish in it when I was a child. The water buffalos, the sheep and cattle that crowded the muddy streets are gone and finding a parking space has become an issue. The grass was not as green, the sun was not as bright, even the roads had shrunk; all had changed.
The best parts, however, still remain. Like Keats’s Grecian Urn, what Armenohori has left me shall be forever new, forever warm, forever young and still to be enjoyed: it has left me with prime memories of undiminished splendor.