Psarades

The village of Psarades ("Fishermen") is the only Greek village built on the shores of Great Prespa, a lake split among Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. One way to reach it is by an hour and half bus trip from Florina and a subsequent one hour hike past the isthmus that separates Great Prespa from Little Prespa. (As I read in "Macedonian Greece" (by John Crossland & Diana Constance), it was not possible, at least until 1980, to go beyond the isthmus without prior permission from the Greek military authorities; there is still a military post there, right next to a swimming facility.) In my case the trip took longer, as it included a stop at another village and a "politically charged" swim: there is a strong current there, toward a country not recognized, so far, by Greece ... (Only later I understood that the village toward which I was drifting was not Greek; it looked Greek, after all, and, although I was swimming very near the border, it did not look like a border area at all.)

The first thing that impressed me upon arriving at Psarades was the peaceful coexistence, on its swampy shore, of cows and frogs; those were joined next morning by donkeys who escaped from somebody's backyard and were racing along the shore. How come were seven or so donkeys kept together by someone? I was told that they were "community donkeys", their primary duty being to carry firewood from the nearby hills. Winter is always in the villagers' minds, and even an early morning in July can be quite chilly; that place is not exactly a Greek island village, even if it peculiarly reminded me of Lesbos' Molyvos.

After a morning walk around the village, the Macedonian architecture of which has been left intact thanks to rather limited tourism, I was ready for my boat trip; arrangements had been made the night before, at a local tavern, under the sounds of rebetico music. Instead of one of the traditional black "lake boats" (of shallow keel and with the oars closer to the stern), it was a power boat that was waiting for me at the dock. The trip started with a look at some religious rock paintings near the left end of the Psarades bay, the best of them representing the Virgin Mary; the preservation of the color, after five centuries of such rough weather conditions, is sort of an unnoticed miracle, I think.

Straight ahead at the exit of the bay is a "Yugoslav" island, while Albania is a couple of miles at the left; the so-called "trinational point", where three or more nationalisms collide, is not that far. (This setup reminded me of a visit to the Israeli port/resort of Eilat, on the Red Sea, squeezed between Jordan and Egypt.) There is actually a "Yugoslav" navy ship patrolling those waters, justifying, I suppose, the fact that the chief of the defense forces of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is ...an Admiral! (Well, such things can happen, although better not near "paranoid" (?) Greece; after all, Hungary was even ruled by an Admiral a few decades ago, wasn't it?) When I mentioned all this to a local man, I got a sarcastic reaction: "which are their prospects, to take over Psarades?" More realistically, the Albanians use their navy ship to supervise the stealing of fishing nets from the Psarades fishermen!

In contrast to the above "military considerations", Great Prespa was exceedingly peaceful on that morning, just as it deserves to be. The place was full of pelicans--I tried, in vain of course, to reach some of them in an extended afternoon swim--that gradually gave way, as we were sailing west toward Albania, to three types/colors of herons and other birds that I do not remember. The Prespa area is a bird watcher's paradise, especially if s/he has a permit to visit the bird sanctuary of Little Prespa; about 80 bird species can be seen there, some of them unique to the area.

The main attraction of the boat trip is probably the tiny chapel of "Panagia Eleousa" ("Merciful Madonna"), built (1410) inside a small cave and about 60 feet above water level; more precisely, it is an abandoned hermitage, one of many built around this "holy lake", a reminder of the days when monastic life was popular. The interior of the chapel is fully covered by religious wall paintings, reminding me of a similar chapel (Osia Maria) that gave its name to the famous Samaria Gorge at the other end of Greece (island of Crete); not that I am qualified to compare the styles of the paintings, of course--just an impression ... There are many interesting churches, of various styles, in the villages around Prespa; let's not forget, after all, that Prespa was a place of exile during the iconoclastic period, as well as Tsar Samuel's capital a couple of centuries later. (In 980, Samuel brought the remains of Saint Achillios from Larissa to a tiny island in Little Prespa and built a basilica there; he also settled there thousands of abducted civilians.)

Panagia Eleousa is probably the last Greek "building" before Albania, whose waters we entered a couple of minutes after leaving the chapel, in order to see "how these Albanian fishermen are doing". To my surprise, there were no communication problems between the two sides, as the conversation took place in ..."Macedonian"! (The boatman used the term "Slavic", to be precise; in any case, his unexpected use of that dialect (that I never heard in Psarades, where even old people had no trouble conversing in Greek) reminded me of the story--are you reading this, Fred?--of the Cuban-American who crossed an Eastern-Europeans-only checkpoint by pulling out his Cuban passport!) There was a big bush on the bow of the Albanians' shabby row boat: winter was in their minds, too. As the boatman explained to me later, Albanians were not allowed to own a boat or even to reach the water until a few years ago: that was considered to be a (potentially) subversive/capitalistic activity!!

Naturally, that "Albanian encounter" was the main conversation theme on the way back to Psarades. When I asked the boatman how many people in Psarades speak that dialect, he smiled and said that "everybody does". I did not feel like asking too many difficult questions, but when I asked "what if there was going to be a plebiscite ..." he cut me off: "listen, this is not something that we could ever accept". My interpretation: "we cannot accept "you" questioning us on being Greek nationals OR AT LEAST citizens". That is, after going over a number of relevant topics with him--such as his relatives who were forced to grow up in a communist country (and learn Greek, "Macedonian", Russian and the "host country"'s language) and the relation between the local tongue and the Skopje dialect (my analogy to "dimotiki" vs "kathareuousa" was gladly accepted as valid)--I reached the conclusion that, while he definitely feels Greek, he is not that fanatic about his "Greekness", not as much as I would probably have liked to see, anyway. He probably was one of those who participated to that "human-chain-around-Prespa-for-peace" event, organized later that month. (That trinational event went completely unnoticed by the Greek press, except for the communist paper, which I came very close to buying on that day--for the first time in my life, that is.) In any case, who am I to criticize the way that boatman feels? He spent his life there, he knows better ...

Nationality in border areas can be a somewhat undecidable issue in some cases, I guess; I felt this quite strongly when the boatman said about the Albanian fishermen: "THEY WERE GREEKS UNTIL 1922". (For those who may not know about this, there was a minor land exchange between Greece and Albania in 1922, with Greece gaining some territory across the straits from Corfu in return for Albania's increased access to Great Prespa.)

Upon returning to Psarades, I found out that it was sort of a big day for the village: loud-speakers were calling everybody to the community's office for a quick medical exam--a doctor was visiting! That couple of unspecified nationality I had seen at a Florina restaurant a couple of days ago was also there, selling all kinds of contraband out of their van--that was the only occasion I saw policemen in the village, rather interested, in a friendly manner, in the merchandise. Finally, an itinerant fruit merchant was doing good business around noon; he comes to Psarades twice per week--this is better than the bus from Florina, which comes only on Tuesdays.

(Memories from a trip through Northwestern Greece, July 1992)

[Posted on soc.culture.greek in April 1993]


"The (Prespa) basin seems to hide in it all the events that took place there from Samuel's times through the years of the Greek Civil War, yet it does not easily expose them to the careless visitor, who might simply be dazzled by the beauty of the landscape."

(From: "Prespa monuments", by D. Eugenidou, I. Kanonidis, A. Papazotos, Greek Ministry of Civilization, 1991.)

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