Although it is Sunday I am up early, but to walk rather than work. As I drink my coffee I realise that my head is still full of images from the film I watched last night: The Weeping Meadow, by the Greek maestro Theo Angelopoulos. Planned as the first in another trilogy chronicling modern Greece, the film begins with the flight of the Greek community from Odessa in 1919, and follows the protagonists through to the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949. As it happens, The Weeping Meadow proved to be Angelopoulos’s penultimate film, since his life was cut short in a bizarre accident on 24 January 2012. During filming in Athens of the third instalment of the trilogy, provisionally entitled The Other Sea, the director attempted to cross a busy road and was run over by a motorcycle driven by an off-duty police officer. A story in the telling is left unfinished, the task of sense-making, of completion passes to the next generation. It might well be a scene from one of his films.
This morning the leading headlines are all about Greece. Make or break, high stakes, these are the words being used to describe today’s general election in Greece. The implication is that I should be anxious about the outcome, but it is not what I feel. In Europe there is plenty to be anxious about, but it doesn’t depend on the will of the Greeks.
Enough. I close the lid of my laptop, turn off the kitchen light and step out into the still dark day. The garden path crunches underfoot as I tread the woody seed capsules that have fallen during the night from the Japanese pittosporum, but once on the street my footfall softens. I look up at the waxing moon and feel content to be out at this hour, alone and quiet. For an hour or so that is all I do, walk alone and in silence, my only thought being how far removed this kind of walking is from displacement born of circumstance or fear. I walk through the woods and out the other side onto the tarmaced track that loops around beneath the hills that lie to the west of home. At the first fork in the road, I stop to drink from my water bottle and to eat a couple of the dried figs I had placed in my pocket before setting off. It is only then I notice that the place where I have stopped is marked by a mastic shrub. Until I came to live in Catalonia I’d never seen one of these evergreens, yet now I have become so accustomed to their presence in the coastal garrigue that I often pass them by unaware.
Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) near Sant Pere de Ribes
Until last week I was also unaware that despite being common throughout the Mediterranean it is only on the Greek island of Chios that Pistacia lentiscus trees produce the aromatic resin that is also known as mastic. In a recent article for The Island Review, Grove Koger explains how in early summer the inhabitants of the mastikahoria, or mastic villages, in southern Chios clear the ground at the base of the trees and cover it with a layer of white clay. Over the coming weeks they then make a series of small incisions in the bark of the main branches, thus allowing the sap to seep out. The droplets, which are also referred to as tears, fall to the ground and are left to harden before being collected for washing and sorting. The resin produced by these trees has been chewed as a gum for over 2000 years, and it is from the Greek mastichein (‘to gnash the teeth’) that we take our word masticate. Importantly for the island economy, mastic is also a key ingredient in various desserts and confectionery that are eaten throughout the Balkans and the Near East, and as a spice it is used to flavour the Greek liqueur known as mastika. I was once given a bottle of mastika by a friend who had just returned from Athens. Though it reminded me somewhat of grappa, mastika has none of the sweet fire of the Italian spirit, but rather a woody aftertaste that, if I’m honest, I found rather unpleasant. The next time you walk in a woodland after the rain, plunge your hand into the damp soil and then hold it close against your face, breathing in until the earthiness can be sensed not just in your nose but also at the back of your tongue. That, for me, is the trace left by a glass of mastika.
I take one more swill of water and head off down the right-hand branch of the forked track. The sun has risen now above the coastal ridge and in the vineyards to my right, countless corn buntings are jangling over and around the root stumps. This, more than the sun, is what warms me. Up ahead the track straightens into the distance, before disappearing as it rises into the copse of pine and carob that marks the south-eastern corner of Can Ramonet, the rural guest house in whose garden Paloma and I held our wedding party eight years ago. From out of the trees I spot three, maybe four figures coming towards me along the track. Gradually they come into focus and I see that the fourth figure is actually a bicycle being pushed by the older of the three men. As my puncture kit is at home in the garage, all I can offer him is a greeting: Bon dia.
In the opening scene of The Weeping Meadow a group of some forty or fifty persons walk slowly towards the camera across a sodden, grey landscape. The suitcases and trunks they are carrying speak of displacement, while their clothes suggest that a life of much greater dignity has been left behind. At the head of the group a man and woman are walking either side of two children. The boy is around five years old, the girl younger. She seems to be seeking his hand as they walk forward. Reaching the river’s edge the group stops abruptly, and the man begins to speak. We learn of their flight from Odessa and their arrival at the port of Thessaloniki. We learn too that the man and woman are not the girl’s parents, but that they found her amid the chaos, weeping over her mother’s body. As the man’s story comes to an end, the camera pans down to the water at their feet, and there we see the inverted reflection of a family suspended in time.
In an article published in The Guardian three days after the film-maker’s death, Costas Douzinas suggested that for Angelopoulos “humanity survives in the memories and dreams of exiled, travelling people who never fully make it back to Ithaca”. Or in the words that Angelopoulos himself gives to the protagonist of his 1991 masterpiece The Suspended Step of the Stork, “We’ve passed the borders but we’re still here. How many frontiers do we have to pass to get home?”
As in the opening scene of The Weeping Meadow, it is with this question that the beginning of our journey ends.