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Nomad of the Balkans

by Tom J. Winnifrith

Part I: 1998

I visited the Balkans four times in 1998. Retirement has brought many advantages. Threatened with a party to celebrate my sixtieth birthday I flew out to Albania on April 1st and spent a solitary birthday in the Hotel Dajti, Tirana. My main purpose was to find out whether Albania was safe. I was reassured that it was fairly safe by the British ambassador, just due to retire after a gallant stint when he had heroically rescued a number of Western residents in 1997. Two days after the Ambassador and I had left, two British Embassy staff were shot and wounded. I made contacts with various members of the University and with representatives of the two Vlach associations, who refused to meet each other, so that I had to cross Tirana’s main street to meet the parties separately. Both greeted me warmly, and assured me that I would be safe in their care.

In May I went to Bulgaria visiting the south-west corner, known as Pirin Macedonia. In the first half of this century this area was a battleground between those who wanted an independent Macedonia and those who wanted Greek, Bulgarian, and Yugoslav Macedonia to be part of Bulgaria. In this complicated struggle, reverberations of which are still felt today, the Vlachs did not get much of a say. Indeed national feeling is still strong, and efforts are made to deny the presence of Vlachs and Greeks in such towns as Melnik and Gotse Delchev, formerly Nevrokop. I had met Vlachs in this area during 1982, but was assured that I would not find many today, even in a village called temptlingly Vlasi. There is confusingly a Vlach association in Bulgaria based on Vidin in the northwest, but the "Vlachs" here are actually Romanians. In the middle of Balkan turmoil Bulgaria is comparatively stable, but suffering badly from inflation. Five dollars bought an excellent lunch, and I noted that when I went to a museum costing a thousand leva (fifty cents) the ticket had the original price of ten slotinks on it. There used to be one hundred slotink to the leva.

In June I visited Larissa, Greece, for a conference paid for by the European Union and organized by a Greek association for minorities. We visited Aryiroupoulion and spoke Vlach to the waiters. This conference was encouraging, although at one stage it was interrupted by truculent Greek nationalists. I met old friends and made new ones, including a man who claimed that he had heard the story of Daffyd Ellis in the village of Philiro (Editor’s note: See the last issue of our Newsletter). I am pursuing this contact. My wife joined me after the conference and we spent a pleasant week retracing the steps of St Paul at Philippi, visiting the Pomaks north of Xanthi, and even going round Athos in a boat. I sternly pointed out that no woman had been allowed on the shore since some Vlach shepherdesses dressed in trousers had caused a scandal in the year 1104.

In October I was summoned by the Albanian Ministry of Culture to attend a conference on Voskopojė. This conference had been planned for September, but it had been postponed as a result of political unrest. I had been hoping to meet Greek scholars and Max Demeter Peyfuss, the Austrian expert on the Vlachs, who were due to speak in September, but they had cried off. Foreign scholarship was represented by one learned Frenchwoman and one Italian. The Romanian and Bulgarian ambassadors were present, as the French cultural attaché. I held the flag for the English speaking world, and, since the Society Farsarotul had generously contributed to my fare, I tried to make my presence felt. The President and Prime Minister of Albania attended the conference, the former shaking me warmly by the hand. Again I met old friends, including inhabitants of Voskopojė who remembered me from previous visits, and made new, including the secretary of the Vlach association in Korēė, and a man who was Mr. Ciufecu’s cousin. As far as I could tell, the two Vlach associations had buried the hatchet for this occasion.

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Pleasa di sus (above) and Pleasa di ghios (below) – photos by Tom Winnifrith

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Albania is still vaguely dangerous. There were protests organized by the ousted Democratic government both in Tirana and Korēė. The ministerial cars drove in convoy. The new British ambassador had an armed bodyguard. At a very good dinner in Korēė I noticed with pleasure Catholic and Orthodox and Muslim priests all sitting together; this would not happen in Bosnia. But when I talked to a German woman attending the conference, civilized conversation about the Universities of Oxford and Heidelberg took a grimmer turn when she told me she had had to learn how to use a gun. Nevertheless, I have already been invited to go out to Albania in February by the British Council who this time are paying, and without a gun, which I could not use if I tried, I shall go.

The actual conference was disappointing. It will be published in Albanian and English. Most of the papers were on art history. I was given a resumé of the papers. Stress was laid on the Albanian nature of Voskopojė’s culture with the Vlachs being regarded as honorary Albanians and the Greek presence underplayed. Things might have been different if Greek scholars had attended. In talking about "Voskopojė Past, Present, and Future" I drew attention to the town’s period of prosperity as a multi-cultural center where Greek, Albanian and Vlach were all spoken, and expressed the hope that it could become so again. This seemed to go down surprisingly well.

There was an afternoon free from papers, and to please my French colleague I organized a trip to the villages of Mborjė and Boboshitcė which have beautiful churches and Vlach speakers. I had visited them before, and should have instead gone to Pljasė, tantalizingly near. On Sunday we went to Voskopojė. The road has improved, and some effort has been made to restore the churches. There are also many well-restored paintings in Korēė museum. At Voskopojė there was a round table conference attended by the President who again spoke movingly of the need for culture and the need to preserve and restore Voskopojė as a symbol of that culture. There seemed some doubt as to whether the church or the state should be responsible for the buildings of Voskopojė. The Prime Minister, who is about as old as my eldest son, said, as Prime Ministers do, that the state had not much money.

In my paper – which at the moment is with the Albanian Ministry of Culture – I had stressed the need for support from the international community. I will be sending the text of my paper to the Society Farsarotul. I will also be sending it to the various foundations of which I know, such as the Soros Foundation. I am not over-optimistic. Foundations are frightened of Albania’s political instability. The British Butrint Foundation, which aims to restore the ancient Greco-Roman town of Butrint was hit badly by the events of 1997. It has recovered, but is putting its energy into that task. I do not know of many similar organizations.

Shortly after returning from Albania I went with my wife to Peru. She wanted me to celebrate my retirement, and I wanted to celebrate her continued good health. We say the remains of Machu Picchu, now South America’s most famous monument, in 1911 totally covered by jungle. Machu Picchu is more remote than Voskopojė, being still now only accessible by rail through the jungle, and was never even in its heyday all that large or important a place. And yet through the energy of one man, Hiram Bingham, who thought mistakenly that it was the lost city of the Incas, it was excavated and now stands as an almost perfectly preserved example of Inca civilization. It will not be possible to restore Voskopojė in the same way, but with time and money (possibly, like Bingham’s money, coming from America), something could and should be done.

Part II: The Vlachs of Albania: Once More unto the Breach

It was in 1976 that I first visited Albania. Enver Hoxha was firmly in charge of an extremely communist and isolationist regime, and foreign visitors were not encouraged. Those who came were put up in smart Albturist hotels, shown the tourist sights and, escorted strictly in controlled groups, were lectured on the virtues of Communist Albania, a land free from pollution, capitalism, and envy. Some believed what they were told. Under such strict control it was surprising that I found Vlachs and information about them and felt confident enough to write a little about the Albanian Vlachs in my first book, published in 1987. Further short visits in 1987 and 1989 added little to my knowledge, but the publication of The Vlachs brought me in touch with the Society Farsarotul, many of whose members had family origins in Albania. It was indeed during a visit to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1990 that I became aware that the Communist regime was cracking as Vlachs there were receiving telephone calls from relatives in Albania, from whom they had not heard for fifty years.

In 1992 I received an official invitation from the Vlachs of Albania to visit their communities. This visit coincided with the elections which brought communism to an end. We saw the country in difficult circumstances, but another journey in the early summer of 1993 brought more grounds for optimism. I recorded both visits in Balkan Fragments, published in 1995. From 1994 to 1996 I made several short visits, aided by generous travel grants from the University of Warwick, and conceived the ambitious idea of visiting as many Vlach villages as possible in order to record their present state and to discover their past history. I usually traveled with an Albanian speaker, and often at considerable expense hired a jeep to travel to remote villages, but sometimes felt bold enough to go on my own in local buses or on foot. I made some discoveries about the Vlachs, although rereading my notes on my journeys I find that more often than not they take on a humorous note, inappropriate for a serious scholar.

In 1997 things started going wrong. Albania underwent a violent revolution, from which it has not entirely recovered. I decided to retire from the University, thus depriving myself of academic funds to support my researches. Simultaneously I developed a painful arthritic condition which greatly reduced my mobility. But I still hoped to complete my work on the Albanian Vlachs and to this end between April 1998 and February 1999 made three more visits to Albania, aided on these occasions by the Society Farsarotul, the British Foreign Office and the British Council.

The Albanian Vlachs are worth studying for a number of reasons. Firstly, little work has been done on them as for geographical and political reasons they have been inaccessible. Secondly, while in all Balkan countries, and particularly in Greece, Vlachs have been subject to assimilation, this phenomenon is less marked in Albania, and even in my last visit to the little village of Vithkuq I was able to see the reason for this. This village, often described as a poor man’s Voskopojė, is in fact more prosperous than the latter. It has three hundred houses of which only thirteen are Vlach. But in the café a charming and intelligent young Vlach was pulled out of school to talk to me. He said that he spoke no Albanian until he went to school at the age of six. Like many Albanians he was being brought up by his grandparents while his parents worked in Greece. In Hoxha’s days these parents would not have been allowed to go to Greece, but would both have had to work in the fields or in factories. Grandparents are a good source of strength for preserving a language.

Voskopojė is of course a third reason why the Vlachs of Albania are peculiarly interesting, since all over the Balkans and indeed in America and Australia there are Vlachs whose ancestors came from this place, now a poor small hamlet, but in the eighteenth century a large and prosperous town full of beautiful churches, a center of culture and learning. Its history has been written but not in a very satisfactory fashion, as Greek and Albanian writers dispute whether it was a Greek or Albanian town, both tending to neglect the Vlach element. In October 1998, as described above, I attended at the invitation of the Albanian Ministry of Culture a conference on Voskopojė. Greek scholars had been invited to attend, but there had been political trouble and they had declined when the conference was postponed. I made a plea that Voskopojė had been a multi-cultural center in the past and that it could and should be revived to have the same role in the future; this was received with applause. Rather wearily in February my friends in Voskopojė, though pleased to see us slithering through the snow, said they had heard a lot of talk about the revival of Voskopojė, but there did not seek to be much action. The churches are subject to vandalism and neglect, and they are of course not the only churches in this plight. In Vithkuq, where there is no priest, our kindly guide informed us that icons which had remained safe under communism had in the past decade been stolen and sold in Greece. He also surprisingly informed us that a new church was being built with the aid of Greek Americans. The museum at Korēė, housed in a church, does contain some magnificent, well-restored icons, and at least this is an improvement.

But, as will be apparent from my rather melancholy tone, I was beginning to despair of whether I or anybody else would be able to record the full history of the Vlachs of Albania or to revive the fortunes of Voskopojė. We traveled in February 1999 with the financial support of the Foreign Office and the moral support of the Ministry of Culture. We also received considerable encouragement from the University of Tirana, where we gave several lectures. I was traveling with my wife, Professor Bryer of the University of Birmingham, and his wife. I had been to Albania in 1976 and 1987 with Professor Bryer, one of the world’s leading Byzantinists, and noted his surprise at the changes he saw. None of us was in our first youth, and we found our visit difficult and dangerous, uncomfortable and expensive. Our drivers and our guide supplied by the Ministry of Culture were brave and kind, patient and honest. One of them kept in the bonnet of his car water for cleaning the mud off our boots and raki for cleaning the sadness from my soul. Nevertheless they did not like travelling by night and they liked to travel in convoy. They cost a hundred dollars a day each and the guide cost a further sixty. Of course we could between us easily afford this trip, which we paid out of own pockets, but younger and fitter researchers might not be able to. They might be tempted to do as I did five years ago and travel on foot or by bus or by local taxi. But this would be very dangerous. Since credit cards are virtually unknown, except in a few smart restaurants in Tirana, the foreign visitor is forced to carry vast amounts of dollars with him. No doubt this is known. We heard sinister stories of violence in Korēė, whose proximity to the Greek border makes it a haven for smuggling. A certain amount of prosperity in the region – the result of people working in Greece – has led to envy. One of the street gangs working a protection racket in Korēė is known as "The Vlachs." It all seems very sad, because if not for this danger, then the scenery, the good food, cheap prices and pleasant people of Southern Albania would make it an ideal spot for a holiday, and an extra bonus for those such as me who have found our work in this area.

But even work among the Vlachs presents problems. Dutifully I have wandered from village to village, asked a few questions in my rudimentary Vlach, conjugated the verb to be and to have, noting surprising differences even in villages quite close to each other, and decided that were the country safe to visit, a team of philologists, such as that led by the German scholars Kramer and Dahmen studying Vlach villages in Greece could and should visit Southern Albania as soon as possible. I am not a philologist but a historian and my historical inquiries in the various villages have not been very fruitful. This is not surprising. In England we have a tradition of interest in local history often centered round the local church; centuries have passed without external invasion or violent revolution and a visit to any community will produce a wealth of information and a series of village elders only too anxious to unload their knowledge upon you. It is all very different in Albania. Life under Hoxha was clearly unpleasant, and sometimes villagers will tell you about this life, although one has to be tactful. The war is remembered by the elderly, and here it is fortunate to be British rather than German. We won good marks on this score in Vithkuq. But before the war there are only dim and distant memories. Hoxha apart from preaching a fierce nationalism, clearly not favorable to Vlachs, also taught that the past was bad in contrast to the glorious present and the still more glorious future. This was not helpful for the study of history. Churches, a source of historical interest, were neglected and sometimes destroyed.

Even at university level as opposed to local level, all is not well in Albania, although I would like to pay tribute to scholars at the university of Tirana, notably Professors Valentina and Ferit Duka for the help they have given me. Under Hoxha scholars were not encouraged to read foreign scholarship. With the collapse of Communism universities were in turmoil. Salaries suffered through inflation. Some scholars found work abroad, others were roped in to take on important political or diplomatic roles. The country’s leading Byzantinist was at one stage Prime Minister, the leading archaeologist became Minister of the Interior, and the compiler of the English-Albanian dictionary found himself ambassador to London. I had hoped to work, and still hope to work, with Albanian scholars to unravel the problems of Vlach history, but I sometimes think this might be more easily done in England or America than in Albania.

I had also tried to work with the Vlach associations in Albania, but here again difficulties arise. There are, as most Vlachs know, two Vlach associations in Albania, one linked with Greece, the other with Romania. In April 1998 I met representatives of both on opposite sides of Tirana’s main street as they refused to meet each other. In October both were present at the celebrations at Voskopojė. In February 1999 for reasons too complicated to explain, I met the Greek side in Tirana and the Romanian side in Korēė.

The reasons for this division are difficult to comprehend, although easy to deplore. As an outsider I am reluctant to condemn, particularly as my understanding of local factors may well be faulty. There was of course a pro-Romanian and pro-Greek faction among the Vlachs in the days of Wace and Thompson before the First World War. After this war many of the pro-Romanian faction left the Balkans for Romania or the United States. Thus pro-Romanian feeling in the Vlach diaspora is stronger than pro-Greek. Meanwhile in Greece itself there was a strong tendency to assimilation with the result that the number of Vlach speakers has been greatly reduced since Wace and Thompson’s day. On the other hand Greece is by Balkan standards a relatively rich and prosperous country and the Greek Vlach associations taking a pro-Greek line are more powerful and closer to Albania than the various scattered Vlach associations in Romania, Macedonia, West Europe and even Australia and America. These latter associations both separately and collectively have made accusations that Greek Vlachs have been very badly treated, accusations which are difficult to substantiate as those who have made them have rarely visited Greece or had much to do with the prosperous Greek Vlachs. The Greek Vlachs on the other hand robustly take the line that all Vlachs are Greeks, though not all Greeks are Vlachs, and back up this argument with historical and linguistic evidence of dubious validity.

Caught between these two camps the Albanian Vlachs do not know which way to turn and instead have turned against each other. Albanians throughout history have been faced with similar dilemmas and taken similar tragic action. In present day Albania there are a number of special factors which exacerbate the problem. A Greek visa or work permit is hotly sought after, and here a pro-Greek line obviously helps. The Greek Orthodox church is rich and powerful, and again, a pro-Greek line can help, although caution is needed, as too strong a pro-Greek line can offend Albanian nationalist sensibilities. There is an Albanian political party representing minorities, largely consisting of the Greek minority, and this party won seats not only in the strongly Greek area near Sarandė, but also near Korēė and Vlorė, where there are more Vlachs than Greeks. These latter seats were won through a complicated scheme of proportional representation, and I suspect, though I cannot vouch for this, that there is some kind of understanding between the pro-Greek Vlachs and the Socialist party, whereas the pro-Romanian party among the Vlachs would tend to be on the side of President Berisha’s Democratic party. In Korēė, just to make things difficult, parliamentary representation is solidly pro-Socialist with one representative from the minority party, whereas in local government the Democrats have a shaky majority. As everyone knows there is no love lost between the Democrats and the Socialists, and the problems faced by the Vlachs in choosing between a pro-Greek and pro-Romanian line, though less temporary, are less urgent than this particular stark choice.

I tried to avoid taking sides among the Albanian Vlachs. Feeling rather dishonest I tried to show my sympathy for both sides by claiming correctly that I knew leading figures among Greek Vlachs and Vlachs in other countries, that I was a student of ancient Greek and of Latin, and that I had visited Vlach communities in Greece, Romania, Macedonia, Australia and America. Although trained in Classical literature and history I kept my knowledge to myself when faced with absurd statements about Vlach words in Homer, Alexander the Great being a Vlach and Farsherot Vlachs being descended from the Roman legionaries at the battle of Pharsala. I kept quiet out of a mixture of politeness and self-interest. I wanted them to help me, and saw little point in destroying their dearly cherished views by some display of linguistic and historical scholarship. But of course as another disinterested scholar of the Vlachs in Albania, Dr. Stephanie Schwandner Sievers, has noticed, both parties among the Albanian Vlachs are polite to foreign scholars, not just out of the goodness of their hearts (although I do not discount this) but because they want the foreign scholars to take their side.

I am on the side of all Vlachs. I would like to see their language and culture preserved, and their history objectively related. I disapprove of their quarrels with each other in the present, their absurd claims about the past, and their strident demands for the future. I am glad that in countries like Macedonia and Romania, beset with economic and political difficulties, Vlach is getting some kind of recognition as a minority language, and would hope that the same might one day be true of Albania. There are promising signs in Greece, and even Bulgaria and Serbia, of the same kind of harmless recognition of the Vlachs as a cultural minority. Meanwhile in Germany, Australia, and above all in America efforts are being made to keep the Vlach cause alive. The trouble is that many of these efforts are being made in opposite directions, and we are back where we were at the beginning in the realm of divide and misrule.

I used to think that a way forward for the Vlachs would be to summon a grand conference of all interested parties to hammer out differences and seek a common way forward. I now see that such a conference would involve vast expense and skill in organization. It would probably produce neither sweetness nor light. I used to think that it would be good for the Vlachs to produce learned and objective accounts of their history, as I tried to do in an incomplete and unsatisfactory fashion in Balkan Fragments and The Vlachs. But an expensive book with a battery of learned footnotes, existing only in English, is not going to help Vlachs in the Balkans to come to terms with each other or their history. Various proposals have been made to translate my books into Albanian or Macedonia, and neither I nor my publisher would object, but this does not really deal with the other objections.

Faced with a summer when I will not be able to travel because of an operation to my hip I propose writing a short, twenty-thousand word account of the past and present history of the Vlachs. This would condense some of the previous work in my two books and chapters I have written in other books on minorities in Greece and Macedonia. There would be a section on Vlachs in Albania. These twenty thousand words could be translated into the major languages spoken by those of Vlach origin, namely Greek, Macedonian, Albanian, Romanian, and of course Vlach. It is now possible to produce manuscripts at a reasonable cost by desktop publishing. The selection of translators, their payment, and the problem of distribution have still to be decided and are open for discussion by anyone who reads these pages.

I like to end on a hopeful note. While in Albania we naturally heard a great deal about Kosovo. It was compared with Northern Ireland, a rather tactless comparison which I myself have made, as it appears to link Great Britain with Serbia as the wicked occupying power. But it is quite a hopeful comparison, as it is worth remembering that Southern Ireland, now a prosperous and friendly country, was seventy years ago in The Troubles riven by anarchy, civil war and violence as Albania is even now.

And then I found another hopeful comparison. After our ten days in Albania my wife and I decided we needed a holiday, and we went to Catalonia in the northeast of Spain where they speak a different language, Catalan, which is halfway between French and Spanish. This language was suppressed in the time of General Franco after the Spanish Civil War in which Catalonia had been on the losing side. This war ended in 1939 just before the Second World War, and in the century before that the history of Catalonia had been a disturbed and brutal one with separatist movements and other civil wars. It is all very different now. Catalonia with a measure of self government is a thriving part of Spain, which is a thriving part of the European Union. This might seem to provide hope both for Albania and for minorities. In an isolated valley of the Pyrenees there is a small department of Catalonia where officially they speak four languages, French (for it is near the French border), Spanish (for it is near the border between Catalonia and Spain proper), Catalan, and Aranese, a language close to the Occitan spoken in South Western France. I read notices in this strange language whose definite articule is neither el nor le but eth, and even bought myself an Aranese primer. As the total population of the Val d’Aran is just over six thousand people, and as the whole valley is filled with foreign skiers speaking a multitude of tongues, I did not have much chance to use my Aranese, but I did harbor wistful dreams of how one day, when there could be a Balkan community and prosperity might have come to Southern Albania as it has come to the Pyrenees, there

might be a little area near Korēė, still part of Albania, where there were four official languages, Albanian, Greek, Macedonian (still spoken in villages near Lake Prespa), and of course Vlach. Not, I fear, in my lifetime.

But life is full of surprises We came back from Spain to find war over Kosovo. Not a very encouraging sign for small minorities. But I also found a letter from the Leverhulme Trust offering me and a younger research assistant twenty thousand dollars to travel in the Balkans, specifically in Southern Albania. I feel I owe it to previous generous sponsors like the Society Farsarotul to make the journeys and to record at greater length the history of the Vlachs and other peoples in that area. It will not be easy, but I changed the title of Part II of this long and rambling article from "Mission unaccomplished" to Henry V’s rallying cry before Agincourt: "Once more unto the breach!" ·

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Signed 1915 Manakia photo of Vlach caravanari having lunch


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