The rucksack

Pinus nigra bark

The day I left Anavriti in June I was careful and well organised. In the big rucksack which was booked for the hold of the plane were old walking trainers, dirty clothes, maps and books, paracetamol and ibuprofen, long johns, cagoule and woolly hat (yes it was 28 degrees but earlier I’d been 2000 metres high on Kaimakcalan where crocuses creep out from under fat lips of melting snow), and souvenirs and presents. Two jars of honey, thyme and marjoram and sage I’d picked by the roadside, two thirds of a small bottle of tsipouro, (a simple, aromatic brandy – a sip after breakfast is good,) pieces of thick bark from a fallen Pinus nigra high on another, warmer mountain in the Taygetos near Anavriti (bark books: the cover shows overlapping scales in shades of warm brown and sandy yellow, look at the side and you see the slow accumulation of thin pages,) olive oil of course and most of all tea, mountain tea, tsai tou vouno, Maria gave me most of a pillowcase full of it, not intended as a pillow but a pillow nevertheless, stuffed with the dried grey leaves and inflorescences of Sideritis something – usually sold not shredded but largely intact like dried flowers so that you can appreciate the form of the plant – there are various species and they’re all similar and they all make good tea although no doubt there are discussions to be had about which is best.

sideritis (mountain tea) on Profitis Ilias, Taygetos mountains
bees love it too

I’ve often seen the occasional plant or two or three and wondered how could these supply thousands of people with tea, but George took me to a rocky, bare-from-a-distance mountainside to pick it, and the first thing I saw as we arrived was people coming down with sacks of it. June is the harvest time, at least in that place. It’s a bushy, herbaceous plant rarely more than a foot high, and breaking off the flowering shoots doesn’t damage the plant for the future. There were men, mostly men but women and children too, and it was fun. Serious work but still fun, a few hours on a saturday, not like working your way through fields of cabbages day after day. The importance of mountain tea in Greek culture (plain or with a teaspoonful of honey, it cures nearly everything) ensures the survival of this wild harvest and its convivial social scene on a lonely hillside. And from this outlier of the main range you looked across to the sharp ridge and peaks of the Taygetos above a forest of pine and fir. We were nearly done when George called out to me across the hillside and beckoned me over. He had come across a tortoise sitting on eggs. You could see where it had scraped away at the vegetation to make a nest of bare soil. Nothing she could do as George gently lifted up the back of her shell for a couple of seconds and I glimpsed a clutch of little white eggs beneath. Then George gave her a respectful stroke, though I don’t suppose stroking is something tortoises are able to enjoy. They remain common in Greece, people like them and the chief danger they face is down to their habit of walking slowly across the road, which gives them as it does us a much smoother pathway than any they might find through the rocks and thorns of the hillside.

I often remember reading that after the widespread and devastating fires on Parnon in 2007 (and in many other places in southern Greece, killing more than ninety people and sending a broad cloud of smoke as far as Sicily that you can see in satellite pictures, and which we in the west didn’t notice because we were so taken up with the banking crisis) that it was impossible to estimate the numbers of animals and birds and insects that had been killed, except for the tortoises. Their shells became urns for their ashes.

tortoise sitting on eggs near Anavriti
mountain tea laid out to dry, Clarissa and Greg, who were on ‘workaway’ and Maria

I was careful and well organised that last early morning and thought I would take my heavy rucksack down to the car, down steps and narrow lanes before breakfast. When I got to the road I thought I might as well leave the rucksack there and walk round the corner and bring the car to the bag. This I did and then went up to have breakfast and say my goodbyes. I came back down with my camera and a little rucksack, making sure I had my passport etc. safe, and drove off to the airport at Kalamata with lots of time to spare. At the airport I confidently opened the boot and found it was empty. It felt like a mystifying conjuring trick.

I had been convinced by an enthusiastic and helpful sales person not to put the new sim card they had just sent me into my phone but to keep the old one and swap the cards when I came back from Greece, but then they cancelled the old one and the new one was still in London so I couldn’t use my phone except where I had free wifi and sometimes felt anxious in case I broke down on a desolate mountain road and couldn’t call for help, but on the last lap, on my way to the airport, I felt relaxed, with the confidence that comes from careful planning and efficient organisation. A novel feeling. And all my little treasures were well packed and secure. I hardly dare admit it but in the end the reliable hire car gave me freedom although in Greece many slowly rusting corpses preach a warning as they sink into the undergrowth and indestructible but useless tyres rest in gullies and ditches having been sent on one last rolling bouncing flight.

tyre and marsh marigold on Kaimakcalan, Macedonia

So to be undone at the airport, to see how stupid I had been, and not to be able to call Anavriti was hard. I eventually found someone at the airport who let me use their phone and found out that the rucksack was safe and when I got home I made arrangements on the internet – impossible to speak to anybody – for my bag to be picked up and brought here by TNT, who offered the best price on a site called Parcelcompare.

I should have known it wasn’t going to go well when the site gave me a pick-up time and date which was already in the past. And then I thought – TNT? Isn’t that a kind of high explosive? In the end they picked up the bag a week after they said they would, and my friends in the guesthouse kindly brought it down the mountain to Sparta as they were apparently reluctant to wind their way up the hairpin bends to the village. I got onto ‘tracking’ a few days later and over the coming weeks they took it to Kalamata and then they took it to Athens. The tracker said:

In transit

Awaiting customs clearance

In transit

Awaiting customs clearance

In transit

Awaiting customs clearance

In transit

Awaiting customs clearance

…..over and over and over again, I don’t know how many times.

I’ll spare you most of the details; the highlight of a very boring story came when in response to my enquiries, weeks later, I got an email admitting that they didn’t know where my bag was but! – they were going to initiate a world wide search! and someone said he would get back to me by 5pm on friday, a couple of days later. That was the last I heard from him. Soon after that I heard from my friends in Greece that the bag had been returned to Sparta without any explanation.

I have occasionally woken up and imagined a lively and entertaining way to tell this story but when I try to write it it just seems boring and ridiculous and my command of the facts, like TNT’s command of my bag, is very insecure. This has been going on, or not going on, for nearly five months. The other day I got a demand from an organisation called Controlaccount, they’re debt collectors, for more than £70, because I am liable for fees paid by TNT at an airport in England for import duty/VAT and possible other unspecified charges, even though the original invoice, of which they sent a copy, is dated about six weeks after the bag was returned to Sparta, so where was it, where had it been? But I began to worry that although I feel like an innocent victim of injustice somehow I will be found liable, that the debt collectors, and TNT/Fedex and Parcelcompare and HMRC will get their way, that I am, in some way unknown to me, guilty, and then my sense of outrage begins to ebb away. I’m just the idiot who left his rucksack by the roadside. I’m always to blame.

At the end of October I went back to Greece and got my bag. That’s not why I went back, but I got it. At some point on its travels my friends at the guest house had taken my dirty clothes out and washed them, then carefully repacked them. At the bottom of the bag was a broken jar of honey, a big one, nearly a kilo. I had carefully wrapped it up in a fleece and other clothes. It wasn’t just broken, it was in smithereens. The mixture of thick honey, shards of glass and the heavy fleece material was like molten tarmac on a very hot day. In the end I sorted it out, and when I came home I just walked through customs, no questions asked, no VAT, no excise duty.

Parts of the Peloponnese produce only goat and sheep milk and meat, olives, honey, oranges and mountain tea. Best kept are the olive groves near almost empty villages which now belong to the descendants of the former residents. People stay attached to the idea of their village, people in Athens or Thessaloniki speak of ‘my village’, they don’t want to sell their olive trees or their half ruined house. And you can cultivate and harvest olives with just a few visits a year. The commercial orchards on the plains are ploughed regularly. The little family ones in the hills are sometimes strimmed, it’s often too rocky anyway for the plough. A state of partial neglect is ideal for the wild flowers. But Anavriti lies at about 700 metres, winters are cold, it’s too high for olives. And there are few sheep and goats. The literature on wild flowers often laments intensive grazing but in places now I’ve seen the obverse effect on biodiversity: strangulation by thorny shrubs. I followed a rough path to a little church built into an overhanging cliff in a valley just below Anavriti, and instead of turning back – why is it often so hard to turn back? – I went on to get back up to the other side of the village. The path grew more and more difficult. It turned into an animal path, suitable only for creatures on four legs no taller than a sheep, so I stooped and ducked and once I crawled and looked for a reasonably clear way up, and when I was so near that I could hear clear voices coming from the road nearby I became stuck in brambles, which sheep and goats both enjoy, biting off the fresh growth so that they stay dwarfed, as does the ubiquitous shrubby oak, Quercus coccifera which would like to become a small tree. I managed the last ten yards by creeping between the wall of a ruined house and the menacing thorns and came out into the little garden of an empty house which had been kept free by the strimmer. In places the wild boar are a help; they imitate the plough, just as the goat imitates the strimmer. Or the other way round.

In the phrygana – the greek term for garrigue, the french term (! which we use in English too) for the classic dry, rocky mediterranean landscape sometimes referred to as ‘degraded’ which consists mostly of short, often aromatic, grey leaved and thorny shrubs – often the only evidence of human activity is the sudden sight of beehives drawn up like a military parade, forty, sixty, eighty of them. The only plant produce in those parts, at least beyond the olive trees – is wild flowers. The hives are moved from place to place on lorries. In October, just as in Scotland, they are there for the heather which is common in places, a surprising purple-pink splash on the sere, sand coloured, late summer hillsides. And there is an awful lot of Calamintha nepeta, a great favourite with the bees, sometimes grown in gardens here.

In Greece they love their honey as much as their olives and the cheese from goat and sheeps’ milk. And the mountain tea. They swear by these things. (And they all cost just as much in the shops as they do here, if not more, although of course incomes in Greece are much lower than they are here.)

And there’s horta. Now grown as well as searched out and often on the menu in restaurants. Usually translated rather awkwardly into english as ‘greens’ but you can easily see the etymological connection with horticulture. Foraging for it is a traditional and culturally valuable practice, like picking mountain tea.

Here I need educating. On the tsai hillside George took out his knife and peeled the prickly stem of a thistle down to its fleshy core an invited me to taste it. It was very bitter, not nice at all. He said it was good if you were thirsty, something to chew at maybe if you were stuck in the wilds with no water. I don’t think it would appear on any menu.

One day Maria went looking for horta all around Anavriti. She spent two hours at it, she said. She didn’t seem to have enjoyed the time, it seemed to be a duty to which she was tied by tradition. It looked to consist mostly of some form of sow thistle and dandelions, and with it she cooked a really nice dish with the consistency of spinach which tasted mostly of olive oil and lemon juice and whatever herbs she added.

I have often looked around hot dry hillsides and seen nothing that I imagined could be eaten, except herbs, mostly thyme, also sage and oregano, but now I’m growing more aware of my ignorance. An American website by a woman with a greek name and greek heritage features a list of horta plants, astonishing by number and nature. A selection: the flower buds of ornithogalum! (star of bethlehem); black bryony; black nightshade, the leaves of which are edible even though the plant – which part? – contains strychnine; a little storksbill or erodium; salsify or goats beard, tragopogon, the buds make a pickle; various plants familiar in this country in gardens if not in the wild like mustard greens, nettles, shepherd’s purse, mignonette, borage, chervil, chicory, rocket, sorrel; as well as plants whose names and appearance are unfamiliar to me. And I thought I knew something about plants…. in my defence many of the plants she lists are weeds of field and garden, of the lowlands, and almost all my time in Greece has been spent in the hills and mountains. And I’ve done my own foraging, for bark, seeds, rocks, alpine grit to add to potting composts, in order maybe to take possession of places, as greeks forage for a sense of belonging, to a place, to a tradition, to stay in touch, to simply remember. Oh! Nearly forgot. And to eat well.

Here in London middle class white people go on courses and buy well illustrated books about foraging, sometimes gather blackberries and sloes, and think about making nettle soup or dandelion coffee. Poles in particular go to Kent to look for mushrooms: they find the same ones they know from home.

A friend just told me about akkoub, a thistle-like vegetable that grows in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon; a great delicacy which is foraged for on stony hills in spring. The plant itself and the foraging for it have an important place in Palestinian culture, and it is now illegal to pick it, on environmental grounds. Google it – a simple thistle as a microcosm of the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some say that cultivation is the answer, so that it can be protected in the wild, others say that the cultivated variety doesn’t taste so good, and the searching and the gathering are an important activity, part of the social calendar, that environmentalism is another weapon which the Israelis use against the Palestinians and their culture.

I stood a piece of pine bark up in the kitchen, against the wall by the window. A few days later I noticed a clear liquid pool at the base of it. For a moment I thought it was spilled water but viscosity make it thicker than water could be, I scooped some up with my finger, it was honey, saved from the ruin of my rucksack through absorption into the bark, and what had been a thick, dark honey, very slightly crystalline, had been purified.

In Exochori to Pefko, the bar, shut down a few years ago and last year to Pefko, the pine tree it was named after was cut down. It was dangerous, I’m told.

But most of the olives are still cultivated, young ones are still planted. And I’m drinking mountain tea, thinking it eases my cold and sore throat, specially with a spoonful of honey.

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1 Response to The rucksack

  1. Myna says:

    Jonny, what a story, not read it all yet, it needs savouring. For now, just to say that Edgar drinks the mountain tea every day. Ironwort. The tortoises are columbaria: nest and crypt. Pyre too.

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