Island in the Nartë (or Narta) Lagoon

A day after we drank coffee with the two border guards from our previous report, a regular police car drove past us without stopping; they just waved and drove on. Could they have been warned by their border colleagues not to risk being invited for coffee?

One of the guards had only taken a few sips from his cup. The other had emptied his but declined a refill. Later, when we had left our wild camping spot and returned to civilisation, a lady we offered coffee to said she only drank Turkish coffee. A man who was curious about ‘Dutch coffee’ tried an espresso-cupful, said with a smile, ‘no sugar’, and refused to touch it after that. Is our filter coffee without sugar really that hard on other palates? Apparently. Of course, we might have offered sugar, except we didn’t have any. You can’t offer what you don’t have. Only politicians can do that.

Sugar is an interesting word from an etymological perspective. Suiker in Dutch, Zucker in German, sucre in French, azúcar in Spanish, zucchero in Italian, ζάχαρη in Greek, сахар in Russian, sheqer in Albanian and similar-sounding words in Arabic and Farsi, this is one of those words that is not traced back to the usual roots (Greek, Latin, Germanic) but beyond them, to Sanskrit and a common Proto-Indo-European root, which gives clues as to where sugar was first produced, and when.

Bakery in the citadel that overlooks Berat

What our coffee had been to them, Albanian bread was to us. The tasteless white stuff that is often the only option in bakeries and supermarkets made me wonder why people inflict this kind of misery on themselves. And who would aspire to baking it? But then we found round, generous bukë e zezë, or black bread, and it, together with fig jam and kaçkavall, or tomato and kaçkavall, was a delight.

Kaçkavall, referred to in English as kashkaval but perhaps more recogisable as linguistically related to Italian caciocavallo, is a term that can be found throughout the greater Balkan region in various spellings. It generally means yellow cheese, as opposed to white cheese, and it can be made from cow’s and/or sheep’s milk. After stuffing ourselves with Crete’s graviera during the winter, we had bought some kaçkavall from the mountains around Gjirokastër on our first day in Albania. This area happens to be the home of some of Albania’s most flavourful cheese, and we had continued to be very happy people.

Saying goodbye to the coast, we stayed in Berat for a few days, at a campsite that was no more than a courtyard with sanitary facilities but had the advantage of being within walking distance of the historic town centre.

View from Berat’s citadel

There seems to be a pattern in this: the campsites we have seen in Albania so far have been small areas near private houses or restaurants that provide an extra source of income for the owners. These are not campsites that one would take children to for there is no swimming pool. Nor are they places where groups of friends will sit around a barbecue and produce increasingly more noise as the night progresses. Instead, they are simply places to spend the night, run by people who take an interest in their guests.

Similarly informal was a ‘restaurant’ that we had lunch at. Three tables outside a private home were waited on by the owner while his wife did the cooking inside, in their kitchen. Dolma (in this case stuffed tomato with rice), Imam Bajalldi (Turkish İmam Bayıldı, which one of my first cookbooks translated as The Swooning Imam) and Fërgesë (in this case a dish of porridge-like consistency made with white cheese and tomato) made for a very satifying meal, while in the informal setting all six guests (and the host) ended up chatting together and staying much longer than had been intended.

View from a hill opposite the citadel

A trip to a rafting spot was useful to better understand Albanian driving habits. The basic idea seems to be this: if everybody gives a little, then everything is possible. Our driver drove faster than I would have and overtook vehicles in tight spots, but others moved over and slowed down so that it always ended well. He also managed to combine driving with maintaining conversations on What’s App, answering his phone and tugging on a rear window that wouldn’t move up. None of this seemed to worry him or his companion: they had not fastened their seat belts and were visibly relaxed. During lunch, when a traffic accident was shown on tv, he told us that there are many traffic deaths in Albania because the roads are so bad.

The rafting was great, by the way.

Charlotte was going to fly to the Netherlands, so we drove to Tirana. She had found a restaurant in the countryside with an artificial lake and with spaces in its parking lot for campers, not far from the airport. We settled in there and prepared for the night.

Just before sunset, I noticed a column of smoke that seemed to come from behind a hill next to the restaurant. Shortly after that, flames were visible at the top of the hill and ashes started to descend around us. It was a bush fire and the wind, though not very strong, was blowing the fire our way.

I went to tell the people at the restaurant about this but from where they were they could not see the flames and so they didn’t seem to take it very seriously. By the time the flames had descended halfway down the hill and their crackling could clearly be heard, they were taking it very seriously. The wind shifted, though, and instead of the fire heading straight to the restaurant, most of the flames were now spreading away from it. Most, not all. A small front was still creeping closer.

In the meantime, a police van had shown up. It sputtered up the driveway to the restaurant and disappeared from sight around the back. Later, some frantic engine-revving could be heard and I wondered what could be going on up there. Then, the police van could be seen hurtling down the driveway without its lights on. It stopped at the bottom of the driveway. There was some discussion and two policemen got out. They tried to push, but the van didn’t budge. More discussion. Eventually, they managed to push the van next to where we were standing. Did they need our help? No, another vehicle came up to them and its driver produced a set of jump leads. There was more frantic revving. The engine of the police van reluctantly came to life, then wailed while it too was being revved. We were enveloped in black smoke.

They left. We turned again to the bush fire. The flames had continued to inch their way towards us. We had had enough fun for the day, packed the car and went to spend the night in a hotel.

While Charlotte boarded her flight to Amsterdam, I drove off into the mountains north-east of Tirana with food and water for a week. Not without apprehension, I had filled the main diesel tank for the first time since Greece. It seemed that every service station in Albania had its own brand name, although there were a few names that came up more than once. An online report suggested that the smaller service stations only existed for money laundering purposes and claimed that a few samples taken from established chains had shown Albanian diesel to vary mostly from bad to unusable. But the majority of Albanians drive diesels, and those were still running, so hopefully, it would be OK.

The idea had been to withdraw to a quiet spot and do some hermiting, purify the soul, that sort of thing.

The first night was spent above Krujë, a town with historic buildings, souvenir shops and a bartender in a café who made me coffee, was happy to chat in German for a while and then said, ‘coffee is on me’.

For the second night, I took a fairly random unpaved road into the mountains with a vague idea of looking for a place to stay next to a reservoir. But then I came upon a point where several of those unpaved ‘roads’ met, decided to spend at least one night there, reversed the car onto a small hill and unpacked. Here is why:

There was very little traffic. Occasionally, someone stopped for a chat, but no one spoke anything other than Albanian and so they would smile, shake my hand and carry on.

In the morning, the sun had barely come up when a man arrived on foot at the junction. In spite of his limited English vocabulary (hello, bye and geography teacher covered about all of it), I understood that he was on his way to work in Tirana. In the distance, about five kilometres away, I could see the village he had walked from. From a different direction, a minibus bound for the capital arrived and he got in. He had about 30 kilometres left to go, and since much of the road was no more than a stony path that could only be safely negotiated in first gear, that part of his commute would take an hour and a half.

Road to Tirana. (Sounds like a movie title, doesn’t it? Bob Hope, Bing Crosby…)

From that junction, there were four ways I could go. One would take me to Tirana, which was not where I wanted to be. Two others led to villages and then stopped. The fourth option was to go back to the paved road I had come from, but not to worry: I had been told that if I continued east on that paved road, after a mountain pass, it would turn into a track that only 4×4’s could take for a few kilometres, and then into one of those stony paths that the locals commute on, all the way to Burrel. So that was the obvious choice.

Soon after setting off, I passed a man walking in the same direction. I stopped to offer him a ride. He got in and when we reached his village he said, ‘pimë kafe’. That I understood and I gladly accepted. He led me past several small plots with crops, apparently for personal use, some fruit trees and a few chickens to a cabin in which there was just enough space for a double bed, a couch, a refrigerator and a few cupboards. He took his shoes off before entering but intervened when I began to take mine off as well. Don’t, he motioned. I protested. Don’t, he motioned again.

Inside, he took some meat from the freezer compartment and made Turkish-style coffee while his wife busied herself putting the meat into a casserole, cutting tomatoes and cheese and going to find olives. It wasn’t going to be just coffee…

What is a guest to do? Politely refuse? Accept graciously? Whenever I stopped eating from what was offered me (they took very little themselves), I was urged to continue. No really, I couldn’t… Eat!

Two more men came in. They, too, spoke only Albanian, but the younger one had a smartphone with Google Translate. This, however, did not offer the unmitigated help both he and I had hoped for. It produced sentences like:

Will you take the shoemaker?
With the beating you do well.
How do you look in the ship?

Part of the confusion could be attributed to the use of names and to spelling errors. The latter of these examples had been translated from a sentence in which he had written shiperi. That looked like Shqipëri or Shqipëria, the country’s name in Albanian, so I thought he might mean ‘How do you like Albania?’ and I replied that I liked it very much. He seemed satisfied with that.

I managed to convince my hosts not to put the leftovers from the meal in a doggy bag for me, but I still left with a few fresh eggs and some hazelnuts…

Very hospitable and generous people

Next, on the way to Burrel, a collection of abandoned army barracks provided a perfectly secluded spot to camp; I stayed a few days.

Inside the buildings were swallow’s nests. Thorny creepers had found a way in through the open windows and grown ‘feelers’ several metres long, looking for a place to grow new roots.

Though hidden from the ‘road’ that led past it, the place had sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. At night, it was absolutely still. During the day, fruit trees, abuzz with several types of bees, bumblebees and carpenter bees, dropped petals like rain. Barn swallows flitted back and forth, sat in the tops of as yet leafless trees and chattered away. Various kinds of tits sang their songs but, apparently not used to humans, kept their distance. One bird sang a particularly brilliant song – what was it? Resembling a marsh tit without a bib, it was a blackcap. A lone jay immitated the buzzard’s call, then reverted to its raucous crow-like screeching. What was probably a raven soared across the valley, occasionally doing a half roll, gliding upside-down momentarily and then rolling back. A kestrel appeared; the swallows darted around the intruding raptor and managed to chase it away. A few hours after the sun had come up, gusts of cool air indicated that thermals were forming. The sky remained cloudless, the thermals were short-lived.

Top: one would have to assume that we are looking at a male (right, standing up) and a female specimen (left) of the same species. Bottom: I looked away for a moment. When I looked again, she was gone. Had I been too intrusive?

It was bliss. But once again, bliss proved to be ephemeral. After four days there, the sky clouded over and I left the mountains to stay at another of those small campsites, this time not close to a house or a restaurant, but at an Italian catholic mission with four nuns. ‘I cannot remember when it last rained’ said one of them while the rain came pouring down. Albania continues to surprise.

We had heard about Albania from others but we had to experience it for ourselves: this is not just a must-visit country, it is a must-visit-now country. That is, for those who travel and sleep in their own vehicle.

Top: in Germany, EU founding member, many things are not allowed. In Albania, EU candidate member, for many things, no permission is needed – for now.

What I thought I knew about Albania consisted of fragments of memory, bits of information picked up from news media long ago and stored in dusty corners where they would have languished forever. Albania was a country inhabited only by those who had the misfortune of being born there, prisoners in their worker’s paradise, desperately poor, divided into criminals and their victims.

Watching Theo Angelopoulos’ film ‘Eternity and a Day’ recently had not helped: it showed a Greek-Albanian border post as a cold, foggy, desolate place with a locked gate and the shapes of people stuck to the border fence in climbing postures, the ghosts perhaps of those who had paid the ultimate price for trying to cross the mountains in the dead of night and slip into Greece, land of hope.

And I had seen Albanians gather in a village on Crete at dawn. Greeks who needed workers for odd jobs drove up to them and hired them for much less than they would have had to pay their fellow countrymen. And without declaring them, of course. Sure, that didn’t help the Greek economy or the unemployment statistics, but hey, in these troubled times…

We crossed the Albanian border, it was a beautiful day. Ahead of us lay a wide plain with mountains on either side.

With a few days of bad weather forecast we decided to spend those in nearby Gjirokastër. After a first night at a ‘campsite’ next to a restaurant outside the town, Charlotte found a room in one of the oldest houses in the historic centre, a magnificent stone building with, so we learned, walls 110 cm thick on the ground floor, 100 cm on the floor above that and 90 cm on the top floor. Part of the house had been destroyed in an Italian bombing raid at the onset of WWII, but what remained was carefully maintained by the current owner, who left only the work on the roof to professionals. The house must have been the family home for many generations and he had never lived anywhere else. For some, destiny is something that is written before they are born.

To get there, we found a road on the map that would bypass an area where we knew that extensive road work was in progress and seemed to lead straight to our destination. It began as a fairly narrow cobblestone road going uphill. It narrowed and steepened. I switched to four-wheel drive. It became even steeper. There was nowhere to turn around and uneasy about reversing out, I switched to low gearing and pressed on.

Photo: Charlotte

We came to a point where two houses jutted out towards each other, sentinels of the world beyond. We folded both side mirrors. Only when there were scraping sounds on both sides of the car did I resign myself to what could no longer be denied: we were not going to pass and back in reverse was the only option left. The sentinels had been implacable; we had made it to within a few hundred metres of our destination when we started the long way down.

After arriving at the house via the centre of the old town, where all the roads were torn up but cars could still manoeuvre around each other on muddy passages, we realised that our front number plate was gone. Because the front centre spot of the car is occupied by the winch, the number plate had been fixed to the side of that and had protruded slightly. It must have been torn off when we started to reverse. Sure enough, that’s where we found it.

Photo: Charlotte

Our host didn’t hesitate, bought self-tapping wide-head screws and screwed the plate back in its place.

It rained from time to time while we were in Gjirokastër; the mountains on the other side of the valley received a sprinkling of fresh snow, even at the lower elevations. We had wanted to move into those mountains, but seeing that winter was not quite over yet, we decided to first join the coast and follow that north. Charlotte would fly from the capital Tirana to the Netherlands for a week, and after her return, in April, we would head back south and east.

Gjirokastër was to be our introduction to Albanian hospitality. Outside a café, an old man waved us over and bought us coffee. When we left, the owner of the café gave us some snacks to take with us. We bought sim cards and the man who sold them to us asked if we needed help with anything. In the street a retired Italian teacher spoke to us; we joined him for coffee and had a long discussion in Italian, French and Russian, all of which he spoke fluently, although his one remaining tooth and his stammer made understanding him a bit of a challenge. Our hosts went out of their way to ensure that we were not lacking in anything.

Photo: Charlotte

Our hosts’ eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter were learning English. We told the boy his English was very good. ‘I know’, he replied. Later we heard the two practise together, with the boy saying to his sister, ‘Oh my God! Are you kidding?’ I was reminded of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film ‘Like father, like son’, in which a young Japanese boy mumbles ‘Oh my God’ occasionally in a clear and intentional sign that someone has been cutting corners in raising him correctly. But then the question ‘what does that mean, raising a child correctly?’ becomes one of the themes that are developed.

Better weather returned and we left Gjirokastër. In Ksamil, at a stone’s throw from the Greek island of Corfu, we were welcomed at a small campsite with a tray loaded with coffee, tea, mineral water, cookies and sweets.

I asked the owner if the campsite is his main source of income. He said no, both he and his wife are teachers. I told him I have great admiration for teachers, because they have skills and character traits that I don’t have and they do important work. He hesitated for a moment and then admitted he had never wanted to be a teacher. The job had been selected for him, he had had no say in it. The more popular careers were reserved for party members back then. He would have preferred to be an engineer, an English translator or a physician. When the rules were relaxed, he had studied law for four years, but he would have had to study for another four years to get work in a law firm. Now however, his daughter is studying law. When she finishes, they will be able to open a practice together.

Having done a bit of homework by now, I mentioned the state-sponsored Ponzi schemes that rattled the country in the mid-nineties during the transition from a communist to a market economy. By then, the borders had been opened and he was in Greece. His parents told him that they wanted to sell everything they owned and invest in one of the schemes; this way, they would soon be rich. But people in Greece implored him to persuade his parents to buy land instead. Land was cheap because everyone was selling it in order to invest in something that seemed much more profitable. His parents heeded their son’s advice. Soon after that, a third of the population had lost all their life savings.

His time in Greece had been enlightening in other ways as well. For the first time in his life, he had had to consider, however reluctantly, the possibility that not all those who had been tried for treason and executed had been guilty of anything other than getting in Hoxha’s way. He could not believe it. Enver Hoxha, the father of the nation, had rid himself of adversaries in this manner? It could not be true! Or was it?

He had one more gem for us. He had been one of the first to establish a campsite in his area. Or rather, he allowed foreign campers to stay on the land around the house and built sanitary facilities for them. The neighbours watched all this and said to him, why do you allow gypsies to sleep around your house?
Just like riding a bicycle is sometimes seen as a sign of poverty in poorer countries, in Albania, camping had been reserved to those who did not have a proper home.

Finally, I asked him about Albania’s candidacy for EU membership. He shook his head. It will bring in money for infrastructure, I suggested. Bringing in money will only make corruption worse, was his reply. We have heard that from others in Eastern European countries.

Moving up the coast, we left the road and descended along a dirt track that was described as ‘four-wheel drive only’ by travellers who had been here before us but is negotiated, without much fuss, by the ubiquitous twenty-to-thirty-year-old Mercedeses the locals drive. At the bottom, there was a beach restaurant where chairs were stacked and cups and glasses from last summer’s last guests were waiting to be cleaned. We found a spot between a few olive trees and stayed for two nights. A goatherd came to see us, left with his animals, then came back with armfuls of oranges. Plenty more over there, he gestured. He watched me take our Coleman stove apart, then helped me clean it, occasionally saying things I didn’t understand.

The Gjipe gorge was another of those places that we had heard about. But the way down didn’t look good:

After trying to squeeze through a gap that was two centimetres narrower than our car was wide and reversing into a tree stump in less than a week, I thought I shouldn’t try this.

We walked down and found, besides the entrance to the gorge, a pretty beach with a campsite where only a few Albanian and German volunteers were staying. One of them was practising walking on a tightrope, some were cooking, a climber walked around on crutches, joking about ‘having been falling’. The bohemian vibe of the place made us wish we had driven down; with bigger wheels and more ground clearance, I would have.

Near the entrance to the gorge

Inside the gorge, which is lit up by the sun only briefly at midday.

The following night was spent on the grounds of a restaurant at a mountain pass. Having a restaurant nearby has definite advantages.

From its terrace, we spotted a Eurasian Hoopoe, talked to the waiter about it and showed him what it looks like on the Collins bird guide app. Spectacular bird. I asked him what the Albanian name is and realised too late that he couldn’t be expected to know, but now, being Albanian and therefore naturally eager to help, he had to find out. He took my phone over to a couple of Albanian guests, they looked at the illustrations and came up with a name. That turned out to translate into ‘jay’. No, not even close. Never mind.

North-west of Vlorë (Albanian ë is a schwa, so it is pronounced like a in vegan, e in maiden, o in station, u in cajun. In Albanian it is always ë: simple!), where the Ionian Sea meets the Adriatic Sea and the shore changes from mainly rocks and pebbles in the south to mostly sandy beaches in the north, there is a large lagoon. We stayed a few days on the west side of that, with the sea on one side and the lagoon, and a small lake, on the other.

The nights were getting less cold, while curiously, the days were uncomfortably hot in direct sunlight but uncomfortably cold in the shade. We saw few people besides the occasional cowherd. On the beach, tidal pools were teeming with shrimps and crabs. From the lake many different bird calls could be heard, although the birds themselves, shy and elusive, fled before we could see them. After sunset, frogs started croaking; fireflies lit up as they flew past. The sea rumbled quietly in the background. The sky was immense.

A border police vehicle on patrol passed where we were camping. We waved at each other. When, having reached the end of the dirt road, they passed again on their way back, we had coffee ready so we held it up to them. They stopped the car and joined us for coffee and a chat. Far from being authoritarian, they were the friendliest people and we had a great time piecing sentences together from words in different languages, gestures and a lot of laughter.

Soon the snow in the mountains will have melted sufficiently to drive through them on roads less travelled.

The storm raged for three days. We had been lucky enough to find a campsite that accepted to have us even though it was officially closed and that had excellent shelter between trees and bushes. While the strongest winds thundered mainly down the Adriatic to the west and the Aegean to the east, bringing heavy rain and creating havoc in Croatia and Crete, we huddled in our car, thankful for the diesel-fired heater that a few good people in Wales had repaired for us last summer.

On the morning of the fourth day, we woke up to a cloudless sky. The Gulf of Corinth, which had been swept into a frenzy for the duration of the storm, brown with stirred-up sediment, had returned to the placid blue we had seen when we arrived.

We crossed the bridge near Patras, headed north into the mountains and found a quiet spot to camp on the shore of a large reservoir.

The idea was to go visit Meteora, the world heritage site consisting of monasteries perched on top of rock pillars, and to avoid major roads on the way there. Of course, in late February, early March, there would be snow, but hopefully, we would make it through.

We followed the river Agrafiotis upstream, gradually climbing to where there was only patchy snow at first, in areas that received less sunshine, until we reached a village without people, where only a trickle of water fed what had been a stream further down. Ahead of us, the terrain rose steeply. We switched to four-wheel drive and continued on the road that now snaked up the mountain side. At least this part of the road was paved and although snow had begun to fall, only a thin layer covered the road surface.

It was slightly higher up, in a switchback, that the wheels lost grip and we started to slowly slide backwards. Mercifully, the sliding soon stopped. We got out to assess the situation and nearly fell flat on our faces… Underneath the thin layer of snow was a couple of centimetres of clear ice. During the slide, the wheels had broken through the ice at the edge of the road, which is why we had come to a stop.

Carrying on was out of the question, even with snow chains: fraught with danger on the way up, going down on the other side of the pass would be suicide. We turned around and backtracked for an hour and a half before finding an alternative route.

Photo: Charlotte

We reached Meteora two days later. You may have seen photos of Meteora and therefore have an idea of what it looks like: karst-like pillars (it is actually sandstone and conglomerate) with monasteries precariously situated near vertiginous drops, and all that surrounded by lush forest. The monasteries are works of art, but other man-made objects such as electrical wires, cars and souvenir shops, if not avoided at the time a picture is taken, are usually carefully edited out. When you’re photographing history and nature, there is no room for modernity.

So the visitor who approaches this area for the first time may be forgiven for experiencing a momentary feeling of disappointment when seeing this:

We stayed for a week, going on hikes, sampling excellent local cuisine, enjoying the hospitality and friendliness of the locals. The Canadian skipper with whom we had sailed the Mediterranean for several months a few years ago came to see us and brought a friend, so time for reminiscing, more hiking, more cuisine and a barbecue. The days became warm, the sky cloudless, life could not be better.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Next, we headed back into mountainous terrain, this time to the Pindus mountain range, home of the Vikos gorge, which has justifiably been bestowed with accolades and superlatives.

Many bridges in the region were built by itinerant bridge builders, some of them centuries ago. They started to become obsolete when modern roads were built, and modern bridges – from 1950 onwards…

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

The locally abundant rocks (left) are hewn into bricks and used with varying quantities of mortar to build just about anything (right).

We stayed a few days, hiking and camping in a superb spot. Then, it seemed school holidays had started in Greece. Children everywhere. Parents, too. We packed our things and drove towards the Albanian border, filled with excitement about a country we know nothing about but which has been given rave reviews by fellow travellers.

Nearly five months in Greece… It was time well spent.

Need another definition for happiness? Try this.

The northerly wind that we have grown accustomed to is raging again. Originating near the Black Sea, it accelerates while squeezing through the Dardanelles, thunders across the Cyclades and then heads towards Crete, bringing cold and very wet weather. And since we are on a northern shore, we bear the brunt of it.

South of the island, having passed the mountains and unsure where to go next, it loses its determination and purpose, begins to err and eventually lies down, panting, with perhaps a vague feeling of satisfaction about a job well done.

This is the both famous and infamous meltem, as it is called in Turkish, or meltemi, as it is known in Greece. But something’s wrong. It normally blows in summer and is a dry wind. It is not supposed to blow in winter, much less this often. What is happening to the weather? The owner of a restaurant tells us he hasn’t seen a winter like this in… And then he checks himself. He has never seen a winter like this.

Let’s ignore the waves that come crashing onto the seashore, the wind that is howling as if trying to make sure there will be no tomorrow and the rain that no rain gear can cope with forever. That is all happening outside. Let’s snuggle up inside and talk about languages and their interaction. After all, being in Greece means nothing less than being at the source, and some attention to that, coupled with a good measure of awe, is appropriate.

Consider the number of loanwords that different languages have. English has been called a mongrel language and the same can be said, to varying degrees, of other European languages. Greek on the other hand has supplied the western world with countless words and adopted very few in return.

Of the many thousands of words that the English language has adopted from French, many had found their way from Greek into Latin and on into French.

Some words of Greek origin are easily recognised by their prefixes, such as peri, epi, meta, apo, kata and so on, or by parts that we are familiar with, like pneu, ortho, graph, logy and tele, to name but a few.

Greek ancestry is not always this obvious: hero, crisis, idiot, irony also come from Greek.

Interestingly, Greek (χιούμορ) and Russian (юмор) borrowed the English word humour, but the English did not invent it. Originally referring to wetness, particularly the bodily fluids that were long thought to influence character traits (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic), the Latin word umore had first entered French and from there found its way into English. It seems people started to laugh in the 16th century (which is when humour came to mean: something that makes you laugh), and from then on everybody wanted to get in on the act.

Remember Catweazle, the medieval sorcerer who is transported into modern times and sees electric light for the first time? Something like this:
– Thou hast catched the sun in a bottle!
– No, that’s just electric.
– Teach me the elec-trick!

New words can be added in various ways: by borrowing from others, coining something completely new, giving existing words new meanings or combining existing parts in a new way. And they can then be written in different ways: with the original spelling, phonetically or by using a different script.

For instance, the French word vaudeville was accepted in English and written the same way, and also in Spanish but written phonetically as vodevil. Couvre-feu was probably considered unpronounceable by the English and became curfew. Freak and freaky seem to be popular words: Spanish friki or friqui and Greek φρικιό (frikio) are both written phonetically. Slightly off-topic but worth mentioning is that Spaniards can go to a pharmacy and ask for something that sounds like bixbaporoop. Without hesitation, they will be given Vick’s Vapor Rub.

Greek usually writes foreign loanwords in Greek script, but recent additions are written in Roman script.

Screenshot taken from Vodafone Greece’s website. Note all the loanwords of which only one is written in Greek script. Αξεσουάρ comes from French accessoires, which of course means accessories.

And one example of a loanword that always makes me smile: when walkie-talkie was introduced into French, the original spelling was kept but the word order was reversed, just like NATO is OTAN in French and Spanish, so walkie-talkie became talkie-walkie. Written phonetically, it would have looked like this: toqui-ouoqui.

Being the mother of all (European) languages, Greek can still form words without having to borrow from other languages. Τηλεόραση (teleorasi, literally: farvision) is home-grown, while its equivalent television was made up from Greek and Latin parts, as is Russian телевидение (televidenye). The Japanese copied the English word and did a few Japanese things to it: テレビ (terebi) is written in katakana, a phonetic script reserved for thousands of relatively recent, mostly English, loanwords.

The way the English word automobile is pronounced is a dead giveaway: like so many other English words, this comes from French. Like in television, the first part is of Greek descent, the second is Latin. Greeks don’t need to juggle like that. Αυτοκίνητο (autokinito) is 100% Greek and means the same thing: selfmover. The Japanese word also shows that the new thing about automobiles was that no horse was needed to pull them: the three kanjis (characters) that constitute 自動車 (jidousha) literally mean ‘self move car’.

Did the Greeks invent electricity? Well, the word electricity comes from ήλεκτρο (elektro), which means amber (the origins of the word amber, by the way, have been traced back to French and Arabic). Some very ancient Greeks (who were probably not aware that they were living in what we now call antiquity) found that rubbing amber and fur together caused the amber to attract dust and feathers. Static electricity had been discovered, but it would take over two thousand years for man to ‘catch the sun in a bottle’ by creating what would come to be known as an electric current (from French, from the Latin verb currere, to run). Dutch stroom and German Strom, related to stream, also use this imagery of a flow. The Japanese coined their own word by combining two kanjis to form 電気 (denki), of which the first one is almost identical to the kanji for thunder and lightning: 雷. In Thai, electricity is ไฟฟ้า (fai faa), which literally means blue fire. Back to Greece: the Greek word for current is ρεύμα (reuma), which is also the origin of rheumatism, because rheumatism was once thought to be caused by excessive flow of fluids in the body…

Let’s look at trains and in particular electric trains. Familiar story for Europe: the Latin word trahere (to pull) led to French train, which was then loaned to English and via Italian (treno) to Greek (τρένο). The original concept of something that is pulled or drawn (including drawn with a pencil; trait is also related) acquired new meanings, and since people spoke of a train of wagons, the word was naturally applied to railroad cars that move together. German and Scandinavian words (Zug, tog, tåg) followed this same imagery of cars that are pulled. Railroad? Other languages call it iron road, with no similarity in pronunciation: chemin de fer, Eisenbahn, железная дорога, σιδηρόδρομος.

In Thai, รถไฟ (rot fai) literally means fire car. Join the fire car and blue fire together and you get รถไฟฟ้า, rot fai faa or blue fire car, in other words: electric train! This is what Bangkok’s Skytrain is called in Thai.

Something similar happens in Malay languages like standard Malaysian and standard Indonesian. Train is keretapi or kereta api (literally fire car). Similarly, a volcano is called gunung api or fire mountain. To get an electric train you add elektrik, while a monorail is simply monorel.

Japanese, meanwhile, has several words for train. 電車 (densha, electric car) is the most common one, but 列車 (ressha, row of cars) and 汽車 (kisha, steam car) also exist. And since we saw that volcano is fire mountain in Malay languages, note the same thing in Japanese: to get volcano, the kanjis for fire and mountain are combined into 火山 (kazan).

While I’ve been writing this, the wind died down to nothing and the sun came out, filling everybody’s hearts with joy. A new turbulent episode is forecast a few days from now, though, with winds up to force 8 Beaufort on Crete and up to force 9 in Athens. For American readers who don’t do Beaufort: that’s, like, a lot of wind. We have arrived at the end of our three-month lease in Chania, are going to take a ferry back to the mainland (while they still run) and seek shelter somewhere.

After Chalkidiki (see previous post), we spent two weeks near mount Pilion at a campsite that is open year-round.

A dozen cats kept us company in exchange for food. They would greet us with expectant meowing in the morning when we got up and they quickly became like family.

There was an adorable male kitten who was the first to climb onto our laps and purr happily but who turned into a ruthless monster when there was food to be defended, spreading his paws over as much food as he could while wolfing it all down. There was a female with unusual colours who preferred to be hand-fed rather than eat from the ground and who made more fuss than Neymar whenever one of the itinerant tomcats arrived at the scene. She earned points for being pretty, but lost them all with her antics. There was a skinny female with second eyelids showing, who was being sucked dry by kittens of various ages. And one of our favourites, a large, phlegmatic white tomcat who spent much of his time napping in our car, the only one allowed to do so.

There was also a dog who followed us everywhere, into the hills during a hike or to a nearby village for lunch, where he invariably got into difficult situations with packs of stray dogs on whose territory he intruded.

And there was a Dutch couple that we became friends with. They were planning to spend the winter in the Peloponnese, in their camper.

Around mid-November, I dropped Charlotte off at the Athens airport for a visit to the Netherlands and headed towards Crete. I had been looking forward to spending a few months there, not just because of its mild winters, but also to enrol in an intensive Greek-language course. Two language schools in Chania offer intensive courses at all levels, according to their websites. By this time I had spent four weeks cramming in order to build enough vocabulary and grammatical knowledge to be able to start speaking.

On Airbnb, we found the perfect apartment to spend the winter months in: bright and spacious, with sweeping views of the sea and within easy walking distance of Chania’s historic centre.

Next, I visited the two language schools to check out their courses. I had not applied online because we did not know in advance when we would be there, but surely, the schools would be able to squeeze me in somewhere. Besides, past experiences with language schools, teaching methods and teachers (some very good, others depressingly ineffective) had made me weary. There would be no more signing up for two or three months without knowing anything about the school. I was going to first get a feel of a school, maybe do a trial lesson, enrol for a few weeks and only then decide whether to stay longer.

The first school I visited had no courses going on. It was possible to take private lessons, but that would mean two hours a day instead of the four I wanted.

The second school had one student, who had started as a beginner two weeks earlier. Good, I thought. I would join that student. From personal experience, I was confident that with everything I had done on my own so far, I would be ahead of that student, though not by much.

The school director shook her head.

It took some time for this to sink in. No??? No. I was not going to join the other student because, having done only self-study, I would not be up to it. The director did not speak to me in Greek or ask me to speak Greek or otherwise offer to test me on what I knew, she had made up her mind based only on her own pre-conceived ideas. I would not be able to do it. Now here was a fine example of a school that knows how to motivate students!

I was stupified. And instantly defiant. The hell with language schools, I was going to continue studying on my own.

With our landlady’s Maltese, while she is away on holiday.

Winter is a good time to be in Chania. Brimming with restaurants and cafés, the hordes (or herds) of tourists that reportedly clog the Venetian Harbour and the old town in summer have all read that winter is not the best time to visit and are dutifully staying at home. What is left is a very local population and a handful of foreign long-termers.

Ideal for learning Greek? Well… maybe not. Many of the locals speak good English and are justifiably proud of that. Some will patiently allow a foreigner to express himself in beginner’s Greek and then let out a stream of sounds that may or may not be Greek, like native speakers do. And then they will switch to English. For others, the language of choice when speaking to foreigners is English from the beginning. We witnessed an extreme example of that one day when our landlady invited us for lunch in a restaurant. Not Greek herself, she has lived in the country for 30 years and speaks the language fluently, but the waiter, detecting her accent, stubbornly replied in English to everything she said in Greek. For her, that was embarrassing. For me, being constantly spoken to in English does not help to stay motivated.

It may have been a mistake to continue on my own. As motivation slumps, so does productivity. Well, at least being your own boss has the advantage of giving yourself a day off whenever you want. Or is that a disadvantage? I have been giving myself a lot of days off recently.

But life is pleasant.

There is a shop that sells some of the newspapers and magazines that I like to turn to for news, background and opinion articles: the New York Times, the weekly edition of the Guardian, German weekly ‘der Spiegel’, French daily ‘le Monde’. Reminiscences of past times: leisurely hours spent with coffee and a newspaper, the printed kind, the trusted kind, before the word ‘news’ had been smudged with the epithet ‘fake’ and social media had allowed disinformation to spread.

We found and quickly adopted as our go-to place for lunch a taverna where a good dozen dishes are prepared each day, nothing fancy but good, hearty food made with local seasonal ingredients and placed on a counter for patrons to choose from. From around two-thirty, the place is usually packed, so we go early.

Yes, two o’clock is early for lunch, like it is in Spain. The fact that most people have lunch and/or sleep between two and five was brought home to us one afternoon when our downstairs neighbour came up to complain about the noise of our vacuum cleaner. In an hour we could continue, she said. I looked at my watch: it was four o’clock.

Speaking of vacuum cleaners. English can be quite a sanitized language sometimes, like when people talk about neutering a dog or taking the dog out ‘to go to the bathroom’ so that it doesn’t have ‘an accident’ inside the house. Vacuum cleaner (or Hoover®) is another unexciting term that avoids unpleasantness. Greeks call it an electric broom, not much better. The Dutch, on the other hand (and some others, including Russians) don’t beat around the bush: their word for vacuum cleaner can be translated directly as: dustsucker.

Spending the winter in an apartment was a good choice. Everyone around us seems to agree that this is turning out to be the wettest, coolest winter anyone can remember. Our new friends who had joined other campers in the Peloponnese reported that one after the other left for Italy and Spain. In the end, they too took a ferry to Italy, and from there did not even try to find better weather, but drove straight back home.

Next… should I? All right, let’s. I have said or at least thought so many times that I have identified the European country with the worst drivers that it seems pointless to dwell on that subject much longer. Let’s dwell just this once, though, and then I will let it rest.

As a self-declared odigophobiac, I find certain behaviour that is quite common in Greece, such as motorists denying the right of way to pedestrians who are crossing a road at a designated pedestrian crossing and with a green crossing light, inexcusable.

Greeks are proud of their two and a half thousand years of history, as was demonstrated by the decades-long row over their northern neighbour’s right to use the name Macedonia.

But. Being proud of what others did long before you were born is easy. Sure, ancient Greece was great. Alexander was great.

If you look at the way today’s Greeks treat vulnerable road users (the famous quotation about society’s weaker or vulnerable members has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, Pearl Buck and Hubert Humphrey, as far as I can tell), there is suddenly a lot less reason to be proud.

Don’t, by the way, bother to look up the word odigophobia in a dictionary: meaning ‘an extreme or irrational fear of motorists’, I used the Greek word οδηγός (odigos or odegos: driver) to make it up. Of course, only non-motorised road users can be odigophobiacs, so driving our Land Cruiser is great therapy.

I would have liked to think of odigophobia and related words as candidates for inclusion in future updates of dictionaries, but there is a catch: it is debatable whether a pedestrian’s or cyclist’s fear of motorists (who, while operating potentially lethal machinery, allow themselves to be careless or even plain stupid) can be called extreme or irrational, given the devastating effect even a small mistake can have on them. Without the extreme and the irrational, there is no phobia.

Oh well. Flawed as it may be, I’m going to keep it. It describes a very real fear that has crept up as a result of one accident and many incidents. Seeing occasionally what motorists are capable of does little to alleviate it.

Such as. One of the most recent incidents occurred shortly after I had dropped Charlotte off at the airport.

On a country road in the northern Peloponnese, I saw a cyclist ahead of me and decided to slow down, because there was a bend up ahead and with the possibility of a car coming our way around the bend I felt it was not safe to overtake the cyclist. Sure enough, a car did come around the bend. At that moment, I realised a truck had just begun to overtake me. He came alongside and kept going. It was clear that he was pressing on in spite of the cyclist and the opposite traffic but there was no way this could end well. Not wanting to be a part of the impending accident, I now braked fairly hard. Luckily, so did the cars behind me.

Somehow, miraculously, there was no accident. The car coming our way must have veered off the road and onto the grass; the truck stayed in the middle of the road and did not hit the cyclist. I… was shaken.

It’s interesting. I had almost forgotten this. It is only now by writing about Greek drivers who behave like utter fools on pedestrian crossings that the memory comes back. Nearly forgotten. That’s good, that is a good sign. Maybe time does heal.

The view from the apartment we’re staying in can be quite striking, given the right lighting conditions

And yes, I have ‘enhanced’ these photos a bit with the help of software. OK, maybe more than a bit.

Our first days in Greece were not quite as I had imagined them. We made several attempts to buy a sim card but each time the chaos and anarchy that make driving in Greek cities a formidable challenge, together with the chronic unavailability of parking spaces and the somewhat surprising fact that shops are closed in the afternoon soon made me give up.

Closed was going to be a keyword in Greece.

Campsites where we thought we would spend the night were closed. Hotels that we then turned to were closed. Restaurants, cafés, supermarkets – closed.

We abandoned thoughts of camping on a beach in a National Park when park rangers passed because I really did not want them to come back in the middle of the night and send us packing.

It was a pity. I was soon fed up with driving around, looking for a place to stay, and wanted nothing more than to find a part of Greece that was not closed. In hindsight, we could and should have camped in the Nestos Delta National Park, we did see good spots. It is not allowed, of course. In fact, camping outside authorised campsites is not allowed anywhere in Greece, and there are road signs to remind us of that.

But what does that mean, not allowed?

In all of eastern and southern Europe, littering is as bad as it is in Indonesia in spite of anti-litter laws. In Romania, not a single car had stayed behind us when we drove through towns at 55 kmh in a 50 kmh no-passing zone – they had all overtaken us. In Greece, we had our first lunch in a restaurant that had no-smoking signs everywhere, which did not deter anyone from smoking cigarettes and cigars.

So what does that mean, not allowed? We hail from a part of the world where laws and rules are thought to exist for a reason and are therefore enforced. We are now in a part of the world where laws are not taken too literally and law enforcement does not strictly mean enforcement of the law.

Right. So we did, briefly, visit the Nestos Delta National Park and saw flamingos and all sorts of migrating aquatic birds, as well as smaller stuff that hid in the reeds, and birds of prey looking for, well yes, prey. We saw a short-toed snake eagle get in the way of a kestrel, and what followed was the same scene I once witnessed in Japan when a red kite intruded on territory that crows considered theirs: the smaller, more agile bird attacked the intruder from above and behind, going for the tail feathers and succeeding in driving the bigger bird away. Kites, I learned later, tend to take food away from crows. The crows do not seem to appreciate that.

Next, Charlotte steered us to an area that, on the map, looks like a hand with three fingers and we settled down for a few days in the easternmost finger, the one that is taken up for two-thirds by Mount Athos.

Mount Athos… I had to look it up. Mount Athos is an autonomous region within Greece (autocephalous, to be more exact) that has been called one of the holiest spots of the Orthodox church, one of the world’s most secretive states, the only monastical state in the world, one of the few remaining theocratic states, and an enclave.

It comprises twenty monasteries, and since the monks’ vow of chastity is taken seriously, only male domestic animals and male visitors are allowed (it is assumed, apparently, that the danger of straying from the path comes from the opposite sex).

Those male visitors have to apply for a visa, are screened and can only arrive by boat because walls have been built on land to keep unwanted individuals out.

We were first told about those walls by an elderly couple who had lived most of their lives in East-Berlin and were therefore something of an authority on walls. Of course, theirs had been built to keep people in, whereas the purpose of the walls of Athos was to keep undesirables out, just like walls and fences built or planned by the Israelis, Hungary and the US.

While enjoying their freedom to travel, the German couple had continued to believe the misinformation and innuendo they had been fed all their lives and were still being fed. Angela Merkel had worked for East-Germany’s secret police, but that was being hushed up, Germany was paying to sustain the rest of the EU, the monks living in Mount Athos were probably getting ‘Hartz IV’ (German unemployment benefits) and sitting on their arses.

He had worked at a nuclear power station that had been bought by the West ‘for one Mark’, and been made redundant (how is that for a euphemism?), because workers were brought in from the West ‘and getting hardship pay’, he sneered. But never mind, there is still so much to enjoy, like watching the sun set over the Aegean…

What is it like, I wonder, to be sent off into retirement and to be basically told that everything you have done and achieved amounts to nothing?

Night after night, we watched the Moon wax and the planet Mars approach the Moon and then pass it. Or was it the other way around? It’s in the eye of the beholder.

The middle ‘finger’ turned out to be a great choice for camping in the wild. Things were taking shape: the ‘hand’ which is situated south-east of Thessaloniki is called χαλκιδική (Chalkidiki is one of many possible transcriptions), the fingers are known as Athos, Sithonia and Kassandra. While in summer, apparently, all the little creeks and bays are occupied by campers and the police writes tickets for illegal camping, the off-season is heaven for those who like to find a quiet beach and spend one or more days there.

We found a nice spot on a small beach and stayed until, four days later, our dwindling supplies and Charlotte’s infected eyelid forced us to find a town and solutions.

The doctor took one look, said there was no reason to worry and charged us 70 euros for a prescription for eye drops and anti-inflammatory pills that turn out to have been banned in most of Europe because some people had died from the side effects.

We stocked up on essentials, drove back down the peninsula and found a beach that was only accessible by 4×4. We stayed there a few days.

Let me show you how we found it.

This screenshot of Google Maps shows Chalkidiki, southeast of Thessaloniki. At the moment the screenshot was taken, we were at a cape in the south of Sithonia which we had found by looking at this map and zooming in.

Zooming in on the cape, a road can be seen leading to it.

In satellite view, it becomes clear that the road leads to a sandy isthmus with the sea to the east and the west. What cannot be seen is what kind of a road leads there. We went to check it out and found that the last 50 meters of the road, coming down the hill, were for 4x4s only: coming down might be possible with a normal car, but going back up would be out of the question.

View of the isthmus taken from the hill in the south, looking north.

Zooming in, the car can be seen where there was shelter from the easterly wind that was blowing when we arrived.

My study. This is where I studied Greek with the help of the Colloquial Greek e-book and mp3 files. The winds have changed: this spot offers shelter from cold northwesterlies.

With the northwesterly wind come clear skies and brilliant sunsets.

After the wind shifted to the northwest, a storm developed. In the middle of the night, I got out of the car and into an inferno of howling wind that blasted me with sand. Back inside the car, the canvas of the roof tent was holding – for now. We closed the roof and sat ‘downstairs’ for a while, until the storm subsided and we thought it safe to raise the roof again.

Then the storm picked up again and another concern came up: although the Aegean Sea has no tidal changes to speak of, the wind was driving the waves ever further onto the shore and ever closer to us. Not wanting to get stuck in quicksand, we moved higher up, just to be on the safe side. And snuggled up on the lower bed, with the roof closed.

We did not get much sleep that night.

The water came close to, but did not quite reach, the spot where the car had been.

In the morning, we took stock. The wind was still blowing hard. There was sand in everything that had been outside. The car was covered in salt. Making coffee and breakfast was possible if we stayed inside, but… No, let’s move on to the east side of the peninsula. A strange-looking cloud obscured the rising sun.

Charlotte took this photo from the lower bed in the car.

On our way, then. A few more examples of how all of Greece seems to go into hibernation in October. Places where we thought we’d have breakfast were closed. Campsites where we thought we’d freshen up and clean our gear were all closed. Shops where we wanted to buy water to clean everything with did not exist where indicated.

Just south of a town called Sarti and with the origin of the ‘cloud’ we had seen earlier obvious now, we were stopped by police. ‘Where are you going?’ Sarti. ‘No, you are not going to Sarti. The road is closed, there is a forest fire’.

We thought of taking unsealed roads and dirt tracks around the fire, but then decided against that and simply turned back. While driving back, it felt immensely satifying to be driving away from a forest fire. We read later that the fire was out of control and a local state of emergency had been declared.

One last try for a campsite,on our way out of Sithonia. According to its own website, this one was open until Oct 31. A smiling young woman greeted us at the entrance. No, not open. But we read it was open until Oct 31! Well yes, but it was so quiet that we closed earlier. But it was your website that said you’re open, you should change that. Yes, I will change that next year. No, not next year, change it now, so people will not come in vain!

She looked a bit taken aback by my directness. I wished her a pleasant winter. She wished me the same.

And to cut a long story short… 🙂

We are now in the far south of Kassandra, the westernmost of the three peninsulas. How different are these three peninsulas. Most of Athos had been closed to us, Sithonia had been a camper’s heaven, and Kassandra turned out to be an upmarket tourist destination with villas and towns full of shops with signs that advertise their wares in Russian: fur and leather.

Only the far southeast, where we are, is a haven of tranquility, with sunsets made of a million subdued colours and night skies that flaunt the stars of the northern hemisphere.

Photo: Charlotte

And yesterday’s lunch in a small restaurant where one enters through the kitchen and chooses from what a 52-year-old lady is cooking, after which she takes the time to come and chat with us, ah Greece, I love it.

We had found this road on Google Maps. At first glance, route 6206 seemed to stop and then continue a few kilometers further west, but when zooming in, a thinner line could be seen that connected the two bits. However, Google Maps refused to plan a route via that thin stretch. Same for Maps.Me. Waze didn’t even show it. Interesting. Let’s have a look.

‘Have a look’ would have to wait until the next day, because we made a mistake and ended up in a ski resort called Мальовица, written in English as Malyovitsa, Maliovitsa, Maliovica and what have you. Two pomas (drag lifts), two ski runs, two hotels, and a hiking trail that hugs a stream up into the mountains, offering otherworldly scenery and the possibility to continue on multiple-day treks.

The following day, we picked up route 6206 where we had inadvertedly left it and saw what had happened: we had stayed on the sealed road to the resort instead of taking what looked like a dirt road at first glance but turned out to be a semi-sealed road of which the tarmac had been churned up by logging trucks. This was still the part that our mapping apps considered OK.

At the end of that, what had been displayed as a thin line looked, err, well, challenging. Walking a small part of what was now a narrow uphill dirt track, we crossed a stream and encountered big rocks, tree stumps, muddy stretches with deep ruts, and rainwater gullies running down the middle of the track, about as wide as the space between our wheels and deep enough to not get out of on our own. This was serious 4×4 terrain, and yes, this was still route 6206. I would have loved to drive here, but only in a convoy of 4×4 vehicles and with bigger wheels.

We turned back. There was a mountain hut with a man outside chopping wood. We had not had breakfast yet because the early morning had been cold and we thought we would find a sunny spot to stop and make coffee somewhere along the way, or maybe a café. While still heading west, we had stopped at the mountain hut, but the man had looked up from his work only to make a gesture that seemed to mean: go away. We had done that, perplexed. Charlotte said maybe he had simply chased a fly away.

Now, on our way back east, we stopped again. As I walked over to him, he laid down his axe and walked my way, calmly but with a glint of something intense in his eyes.

I tried out some of the Bulgarian I had picked up in the past few days.

– Good day, I said, hesitantly.
– Good day! he bellowed. The eyes, still intense, contrasted with the frankness of his greeting.
– I don’t speak Bulgarian, I said. This phrase, in the language that I don’t speak, indicates that at least I’ll try and often does wonders to break the ice.
– Разбирам! was his booming reply: I understand! He bared his two remaining front teeth in what was probably a grin.
– Can we have something to eat?
– Sure! Come with me! (I think that’s what he said).

He pointed at two things on a hand-written menu: боб чорба and пърж. картофи. That was what was available. Bob chorba is a Bulgarian white bean soup, and the second thing was something with potatoes, as far as I understood. Great, bring it on. He nodded approvingly, disappeared into the building and reappeared not long after that with two bowls of hearty soup and two big plates of french fries. While we ate and tried to keep three cats from stealing our food, he looked on, smiling and saying things we intuitively understood. The sun shone. The forest around us was big and silent.

I’m not sure why he had bellowed. It wasn’t because either of us was deaf. Was it because we are foreigners?

We get all sorts of reactions when dealing with people whose language we do not speak. Many are curious and try to help. Some feel threatened and avoid us.

There have been a few who shouted at us, perhaps thinking that we would understand them better that way. Others have shaken their heads in disbelief about our lack of intelligence. That’s what a limited command of a language can do.

Then there are those who are used to dealing with outsiders, though not with Europeans. They will use the language that they routinely speak with ‘others’: in Thailand’s Isaan region, for instance, people switched to standard Thai, and in China’s rural areas people would speak standard Chinese to us instead of their dialect or language. In South-Afrika, San people addressed us in Afrikaans. In Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Kyrgyz will speak Russian with those who do not speak Kyrgyz. All of this is not strange. What makes it interesting is that whatever the lingua franca is, those who use it with us are in no doubt that we will understand it.

The idea that a lingua franca is universal is as understandable as it is wrong. I am sure that some of my readers think that English is a universal language. Right? In parts of the world it would seem so. In parts.

With a big detour, we arrived, a day later, at a chairlift that takes people up to the seven Rila lakes and that we had seen on the map. Just as well we didn’t know this is one of Bulgaria’s greatest tourist attractions. We don’t consult travel guides or websites like Trip Advisor, allowing instead chance to run its course and occasionally following recommendations from people we meet.

A long, leisurely ride on the chairlift took us up to the glacial lakes that are spread out over a relatively small area at altitudes between 2100 and 2500 meters. In summer, people will put up with long waiting times to go up, but now, in October, there were few people there. Perfect.

The pictures will describe this area better than I can:

The Rila lakes are situated in the Rila National Park, on the north side of the Rila mountain range. On the south side, we passed a town called Rila, on our way to the Rila monastery. Somebody must have really liked the name Rila.

Having ticked off the Rila monastery (again, October is a good time to visit, with only a few buses there), and with Greece ever closer, we gave in to the siren song that at least I had been hearing for a while, and pointed the car towards the border.

On the whole, we have been pleasantly surprised by Eastern Europe, so we will be back. But first: a few months in Greece.