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When people think of visiting Greece there usually are visions of three categories: White-washed Mediterranean islands, touring ancient ruins, and the booming metropolis of Athens. While these are all quintessentially Greek destinations that are fabulous in their own right, there exists an entire “nation within a nation”, if you will, that lies outside of the usual Greek hotspots. Call it the “real Greece”, or “old Greece”, but no matter what you call it, the heart of traditional Greek culture still thrives in many tucked away hamlets and coves. Villages where footpaths replace roads, donkeys replace cars, and festivals and dancing are held beneath banners of stars and the full moon.
I was fortunate enough to experience life in one of these mountain hamlets in the tiny town of Amvrakia, located on the west-central Greek mainland. As part of a volunteer group named CVG, or Conservation Volunteers Greece, I caught increasingly more rickety busses until I wound up in a tiny village high in the dry Greek mountains where bus service to the outside world was a once a week affair. Living for two weeks in a simple stone building with other volunteers from as varied locations as South Korea, Germany, and Kansas City, we worked diligently during the day clearing fields and constructing footpaths that were to help gain access to increased terraced farming.
The village of Amvrakia is simple. Terraced homes and fields stack their way up the steep hillside, and the nearest water source is a half hour walk downhill to the local stream and swimming hole. There are no other villages as far as the eye can see, and the most noticeable aspects of the local wardrobe are the glowing smiles and vibrant personalities of the local villagers, particularly a man named Teo. It may be the homemade Greek schnapps that Teo makes in his garden, which to date is the strongest alcohol I have ever tasted, but nevertheless life is simple and good in the village of Amvrakia.
During my tenure in the hill country, there are two events that stand out above the rest in my mind. The first is a local festival we attended in the neighboring village, which was an hour long drive on an incredibly potholed dirt road on a narrow cliffside. Hugging the inside shoulder, I think we covered more distance side-to side than in actually moving forward. When we rounded the final bend, however, the panorama offered was one that will forever be etched in my memory, so surreal as to make it almost a dream. The silhouette of the neighboring village huts came into view as the bold horns of Greek music drifted in on the wind. Illuminating the entire vista was a moon so full and bright it turned everything beneath it to a magical silver hue. The only thought I could muster was awe-inspired, “where the hell am I, and how lucky am I to be here?” We spent the evening dancing traditional Greek dance in a large circle in the center of the arena, swilling home-distilled liquor and laughing at nothing more than the brilliant white sky. To this day I still question if the entire evening even happened.
The other event in Amvakia that stands out in my mind is a conversation I had with a ten year old boy we had dubbed, “Smelly”. Being the summertime and with school not in session, the local children found it fascinating to spend their afternoons conversing with the strange foreigners in town. Every afternoon, Smelly would come and try to chat me up, with the only problem being that the language barrier was a complete and total wall, save for a few words of general pleasantries. One day after giving up on trying to convey to Smelly that I didn’t understand what he was saying, I just sat there and let him talk to his hearts content. It turns out, he just wanted someone to listen, even if he knew they didn’t understand. The boy and I sat there and “talked” for nearly three hours, not once understanding a word the other was saying. While I have no idea where Smelly may be today, I wonder if that conversation held the same significance and importance for him as it did for this lone traveler.