After the old boys – well, chiefly Patrick Leigh-Fermor – (see the plant itself ) with their eloquent and scholarly non-stop talk of heroes, heat, old gods, pirates, ecstacies of alcohol, Venetian merchants, Frankish castles, peasant girls whose faces have an intensely aristocratic bone structure, cruel Ottomans, resistance and rebellion, (but almost nothing about the civil war) Byzantium, star-crowded skies and all the wonders of the sea –
Petrobey and three thousand Maniots with Kolokotronis and a number of the great Morean klephts advanced on the Turkish garrison of Kalamata……
….she was extremely beautiful: a pale, clear face both virginal and spiritual with an intensely aristocratic bone structure… her few gestures were deft and distinguished and informed by a patrician lack of fuss. It was a miracle that these waterless rocks, alongside the cactuses and the thorns, could give birth to her as well
…the sun was already high in the limitless Greek sky: a sky which is higher and lighter and which surrounds one closer and stretches further into space than anywhere else in the world.
– After an overdose of this I was grateful to find, in the crowded second-hand basement of the Hellenic Bookstore in Junction Road Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village, by Juliet du Boulay, published in 1974. The preface begins:
‘It will quickly be evident to readers of this book that what insight I have gained into the life and way of thinking of the people of Ambeli is largely through the world of the women. As a woman myself the only possible course of action was to go where I was invited and where I was least an anomaly and this was into the houses.’
Ambeli in the mid 1960’s was a village of 145 inhabitants, accessible only by muletracks. Du Boulay lived there for over a year and got to know everybody. She writes about their lives and values and beliefs, their gossip and jokes and secrets, at a time when the pace of change was quickening but the old way of living was still valued. She begins with The House. The members of an extended family may live in several houses, or may have moved to other villages or emigrated. A special bond unites the people who live under one roof. ‘In the house the family gathers in a mutual affection and trust which are in many respects the antithesis of its external relations. Within the house secrets are kept, while a son or daughter who marries out of the house, whether or not they continue to live in the same village, will both keep some secrets from their family of origin and likewise be kept out… I was entrusted, by the young widow in whose house I was living, with a secret which she would not tell her brother or father because they were ‘in another house’.’
And ‘parents, or parents-in-law, have in their own house an authority which they lose the moment they go into the house belonging to another, even that of their own son. The house, representing the continuity of the generations as well as the years of their own toil…. invests them with the dignity of a status within the ancestral hierarchy which they are stripped of when they move, mere helpless old people, into a house which to them is nothing but a place to live.’
She then describes a typical house, beginning with the living-room, which is essentially where everything happens. It is there, because it is the warmest part of the house, that the oldest couple sleep. There ‘the fire burns all winter, … and not only does it provide heat for cooking, and warmth, but it gives light in the evening when, to save paraffin, pieces of resinous wood are laid one by one on the fire and burn with a bright golden flare.’ Only from June to September – the village is in the mountains, remember – is cooking done in the yard outside.
She then describes the fire in more detail:
‘.…the hearth is the centre of the living room, and members of the family gather round it not only at meal times, but at any other time of day when they are in the house, for all activities which take place in the house take place around the one source of warmth in it. From mid-October to mid-April a fire is lit every morning for heat as well as for cooking, and is kept alight all day. The fire-places are large and the fire is built by propping some logs, about 3 feet long and often very heavy, fan-wise up the chimney. Smaller branches laid up against the bottom of the logs are essential, and the fire is lit initially with a little pile of pine shavings – resinous crescents of wood which are sliced away from the tree when they are being tapped.’ (resin from pine trees on the mountains just above the village was a valuable cash crop.) ‘Once the fire is burning well it is kept going easily by knocking away the burnt ends of wood and drawing the unconsumed ends together again. This means that the fire needs continual attention, but has the advantage of not only reducing the time that would otherwise be spent chopping wood, but also of bringing it about that if the fire is left unattended for any length of time and the logs are securely placed, they will, as they burn away, simply fall apart, and the fire will go out.’
And I immediately understood the strange business of the fire at the guesthouse in Anavriti. Maybe it wasn’t altogether a serious fire. It was April and just a bit chilly in the evenings. The other part of the house had very expensive central heating on. I had to turn it off in my room. I said to Maria, don’t bother, it’s fine. She said the French and the British and the Germans don’t mind, but the Athenians complain about the cold. In a big fireplace were two or three massive, barely smouldering logs. Every few minutes George or Maria or Christina their daughter would crouch down and blow into the fire through a long copper tube which was pinched at one end. After a minute or so the fire would flare up, but then quite quickly reduce to a smoulder again. After a couple of days I asked if I could have a blow. When the fire began to blaze Maria kindly said “Bravo!”
The old way of life still smouldered gently in the fireplace. But it took lots of puffing to keep it alive. A fire that needs constant attention, as du Bellay said. That must be the point. Cutting logs small is no longer a problem; they are left long because that’s how it always was. A whole way of life has gone, except for the hearth at the centre.
I think if the Mayor did ban wood stoves, I might have to leave town.
Jay Talbot sent me this:
“Your story about the log fire reminded me of a superb example in Takayama in the Japanese mountains. We visited in the year 2000. There was a exhibition village nearby created from traditional houses transported from various parts of Japan – nearly all timber framed with sliding paper screens for internal walls. They were elegant and beautiful to look at. And in one was this perfect fire burning.
but so far I haven’t managed to copy or download or save the photo: it shows a hearth which looks like a square frame of polished wood, in the middle of a floor, with four logs on it. Each log runs from a corner of the frame towards the centre, making a cross. At the centre the four logs are quietly smouldering.
It’s about 4 feet square. When you want heat or want to cook, or you need heat, you simply push the long logs in a bit. Otherwise you just leave them smouldering. So economical. So simple. So practical. So Japanese.
These old house didn’t have chimneys but the smoke was well drawn up in to relatively high roof spaces so the atmosphere wasn’t smoky; unlike house with open fires I stayed in in Nepal where you could barely breathe (especially when as a visitor you were put on a high platform to sleep). Although of course it was much colder in the Himalayas so ceilings probably needed to be very low.
Afterwards we had something to eat in a nearby museum with an emphasis on art nouveau. It had a restaurant based on one designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, down to the furniture and cutlery. For cuisine it however forswore Scottish cooking in favour of Italian.
Later I was idly looking through the dictionary, chewing much more than I could swallow, when I saw that in Greek to be ‘from the hearth’, apo tzaki, means to be from a good family.