Old ways die hard in the mountains

Apostolos Katsiyiannis is one of the last of a rapidly disappearing breed: a nomadic herdsman who migrates twice a year with his flocks between Epirus and Thessaly. Katsiyiannis lives without the luxury of electricity or running water, in the sheepfolds where he was born in 1929, on the day that his family were leaving their winter pasture in Larissa for their home village of Kalarrytes, in Epirus, for the summer. He and his daughter Constantia are the last remaining inhabitants of a settlement of shepherds’ huts that were once home to 18 families. A wood-burning stove and a kerosene lamp are their only «modern» conveniences, but Katsiyiannis has no desire to live anywhere else and has never even been to Athens. Every day, even though he has formally retired, he sets out at 5 a.m. for the sheepfold, and looks back fondly on the days when his wife, who died two years ago, used to accompany him. At Kallithea, about 10-12 kilometers from Larissa, a steady rain is falling. The road up the hill to Katsiyiannis’s hut is muddy, but he is happy to see both us and the rain. «This is our sort of weather, it puts grass in the fields for our sheep to eat. In fall, when the rain started, I used to go outside to enjoy it. When it doesn’t rain, there is nothing to eat and the springs are dry,» he explained. From the top of the hill there is a view over the entire plain. Once the entire area (of about 1,000 hectares) belonged to the local tseligas, Spyros Fasoulas, who had 4,000 sheep on tseligata, pastures that supported over 50 families, almost 350 people. The tseligata were a type of pastoral cooperative in which brothers and cousins merged their herds to improve production and distribution. The head of this cooperative was the tseligas, a rich livestock breeder with large herds and superior administrative skills. He would hire shepherds, each of whom had their own small flocks and who lived in small groups of huts within the tseligato. One of these was Katsiyiannis’s father. Over the years, as Fasoulas’s land was divided between his children and grandchildren, the shepherds’ huts slowly emptied, leaving Katsiyiannis and his daughter behind. About 50 meters from their hut is the home of Panayiotis and Daisy Manolopoulou, Fasoulas’s granddaughter, who now owns just 50 hectares but no longer keeps sheep. She has allowed Katsiyiannis to stay on in his hut, which lies on her land. Since he retired, Katsiyiannis has worked for Manolopoulou’s cousin, the only descendant of Fasoulas who still keeps sheep. The contrast is striking – the two homes are just 50 meters away from each other but worlds apart. One is an ultra-modern home, the other is a hut without modern comforts. «We live in the traditional way here, but we lack nothing,» said Katsiyiannis. «This is how we are used to living.» We are sitting in the «cafe,» a small hut at the edge of the settlement with a divan, a coal burner for warmth and a large opening covered by plastic sheeting that provides a view over the plain to the west. «The young people from the 18 families who used to live here left for the cities; the old people soon followed. Now that just the two of us are left, we put the burner here to roast chestnuts and pass the time. In the old days, the place was full of life. There were 18 huts here and 30 more further up the hill, but those were burnt out in 1948 in the civil war. We were all from Kalarrytes, we didn’t mix with other people, with any other clan. In those days people had at least seven children, sometimes as many as 10. Now they are limited by the state of the economy.» Looking back on the golden years, he reminisces about the old way of life. «The tseligato had 3,000 sheep. Every May we would set out for our village for the summer. It took us 14 days to walk there – women and small children too. We had to carry everything. Every so often we would stop, milk the sheep, make the cheese, and continue on our way. Our village had about 6,000 hectares of pasture, where 18,000 sheep grazed. In fall we would come back down here to the winter pastures, a trip that took about 25 days. Wherever we found good pasture we would stay for two or three days. In spring we had bell-ringing contests – we would hang bells on the rams and see which one made the best sound.» «People didn’t go to school then. Even if they did, they would come back here, because sheep never leave you without a living if you know how to manage them,» he said. For Katsiyiannis, however, the sheep are not only a livelihood but a way of life. Since obtaining his pension (all of 221 euros a month), he has not missed a single day on the job. He calls his sheep «beauties,» pointing out their plump cheeks «which only our breed has.» A lifetime of shepherding has taught him all their ways, and so his services are much in demand. «I can’t stay at home; the time doesn’t pass and I just sit around and think about the past and how good things were then,» he said, again referring to the love of his life. «She was a great wife, everyone knows that. We married when we were 21 and had two daughters and a son. The other two live in Larissa now.» His daily routine hasn’t changed. Up at 4.30 or 5 a.m., he heads out for the sheepfold for the milking and feeding. Then he drives them out to pasture until 5 in the afternoon. As in most other pastures, the shepherds are mostly immigrants. Here they are mostly Romanians, with whom Katsiyiannis, who is a Vlach, gets along fine – the Vlach dialect has similar roots to Romanian. The sheep are now milked three times a day instead of two, as in the past. «Now there is poverty and greed. This breed is a traditional one and receives two different subsidies. They are strong, mountain sheep. Foreign breeds they have brought in now don’t produce much milk,» he scoffed. The next morning over a coffee and Constantia’s freshly baked bread with honey, oregano and cheese with the family’s speciality, sweet tomato. We ask him if he has ever been to Athens. «No way! I’ve heard about how everyone rushes about there, but if you go there, could you bring me back a piece for me to see?» he joked. He has been as far as Larissa, Trikala, Kalabaka, Kastania and Aspropotamo – all the towns between Larissa and Kalarrytes. «Once I went to Kalamata when I was a serviceman, but the sheep are like a shop without a key. You can’t go off on holiday. The sheep need you to be on your feet all the time, and now the life is much easier. Every May we load up a truck and are in the village in four hours’ time.» In the evenings there is no television to pass the time; sometimes Constantia goes over to Daisy’s to watch hers. Katsiyiannis is happy to have the radio to listen to, before going to sleep ahead of another day. This article first appeared in the April 30 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.