|Bitola (Monastir), 1917 [Source: French Ministry of Culture]|
The peasants who are my hosts welcomed me cordially, without any fuss. The moment I remained alone in their midst they began to talk to me all at once in a language which I don't understand but which I never tire of hearing. There are two old men, one youth, five or six women, and a whole army of babies. They all live in two contiguous houses sharing a roofed verandah which is extremely long and wide. There kept speaking to me energetically, all at once, and smiling, until they realized that their language was completely incomprehensible to me.
"Ne znaish... ne znaish?" (Don't you understand?)
"Ne znai?!" (Doesn't he understand?!)
Then, all together, they stopped talking to me and instead began to discuss me among themselves, struggling to divine what answers I would have given to the questions they had been asking for such a long time. While talking they kept turning and looking at me. I looked back at them, and smiled rather stupidly. Then they burst out laughing.
"Ne znaish." (You don't understand.)
But I did understand one thing extremely well: that these were simple, industrious, tormented people. I understood moreover that their words were benevolent, as pure and unadulterated as their bread, all fragrant with compassion and sympathy. That was why tears had welled into my eyes when they surrounded me and wrapped me in their kindhearted loquaciousness; why my hands had strained to enlarge themselves sufficiently to clasp the immense, rough palms as cragged as the bark of an oak.
I tremble in the very depths of my being when Anjo's two little daughters scramble onto my knees. I am bewildered and awkward in their presence; I have been away from children for so long that I don't know how to behave. They rummage endlessly in the bottomless pockets of my greatcoat. Just as they think they've come to the last one they suddenly discover still another (there are no end of pockets in these French coats). I understand their exclamation: "So many pockets!" and I see that the adults share their wonderment.
These two little girls are twins, so identical that they seem like two brightly colored gumdrops pressed out of the same mold. They have red cheeks, blue eyes and blond hair. In their corn-colored pigtails Anjo has braided strips of red and blue cloth with turquoise beads at the ends. The children are always full of mischief, their tiny roses and entire faces always filthy from the roasted corn which they never cease munching. As for their mother, she works away at her loom, her bare feet large and white as they move up and down on the treadles. She too is blond, tall. She speaks slowly, with measured words. Quite frequently she stops, shuttle in hand, and cheerfully scolds my tiny girlfriends who, serious and vociferous, hold veritable conferences about the insignia on my cap. Am I "Grrts" or "Srrp," Greek or Serb? Declare yourself! Their mother tells them that I am a "Grrts," a "dobar kristianin," and... to be careful of my aching leg.
But truly, at this point I am neither a Christian nor a Greek nor a Serb, but simply a human being filled with expectations, nostalgia and fatigue: an exhausted, content human being who admires these people -- envies them -- for being the lovely, openhearted creatures of a beneficent God. I marvel because every one of them (with the exception of the emaciated son) is strongly built and tall, with the simplicity possessed by mankind as a whole before it departed from the straight and narrow path. There are near God and near the earth, all of them. This you perceive from the very moment you set eyes on them. Their home, lamps, clothing, bread, plough, furniture: each is a piece of work which has passed through their industrious hands. Everything inside this house represents a victory in the never-ending battle which these hands have waged against raw material. That is why they are so gnarled, all calluses and knots, as though made of oak.
Their diet consists of cheese pies, peppers, lentils, flour-thickened soup strewn with red pepper, whole wheat bread, and large baked squashes which they cut into immense slices and eat the way we eat melon. They drink cold, refreshing water. They work the soil, which accords them a simple, monotonous happiness. Afterwards, when they grow old and infirm, their large tormented bodies spread over the ground like overripe fruit fallen from a tree, and they return to the earth. There they peacefully dissolve together with all their ancestors. Above them the golden wheat sprouts to its full height once more, the corn soughs throughout the night, and the reapers sing their ancient meandering songs. As for their souls (if we must assume that such things exist) these ascend towards heaven from the earthen thurible, like incense.
I watch these people in the evening as they stretch out on the floor to relax. Propped on one elbow, and using coarsely-whittled holders, they silently smoke a kind of colossal cigarette which they roll ever so slowly and lick with infinite care. The smoke rises to the ceiling and disappears. They watch absentmindedly as its slender bluish-white ribbon leaves the end of the cigarette and, with gentle quavers, ascends either directly or with undulations into the peaceful air which smells of haystacks, threshed cord, and newly scythed grass. This is how their souls will ascend toward the Lord's feet when the proper moment arrives.
Reclining like this for hours, they smoke away in silence. Perhaps they are thinking. Now and then they utter a word or two in a conversation as brief as the exchange of passwords; then they relapse into silence. On the other hand, they may not be thinking at all, and this should be hardly surprising, for simple people have the habit of relaxing not only to the depths of their bodies but to the depths of their minds. Thought for them is not a sickness; it is work. Until recently, they never even realized how happy they were. Only now have they recognized this happiness, now that they have seen the foreign hordes pouring in from the four corners of the earth, rushing to the attack across their fields and cemeteries, trampling their unapprehended well-being underfoot. "They are trampling it," their philosophy must stammer; "ergo it exists." Crossing themselves energetically, they pray God to restore their peace. Months ago a shell came through the ceiling of the verandah and left this House of Peace gravely wounded. This happened one summer; a bit of swallow's nest is still attached to the splintered beam. If only all those responsible for war would come to this place where I am sitting and writing, could fall on their knees in the center of our large verandah and gaze upwards through the gash which the cannons have left in the ceiling of this beneficent home, murdering its swallows! Through this gash they would perceive the blue eyes of an austere, wrathful God -- and then (perhaps) they would stop making war.
I am filled with reverence for this wounded roof which covers so much kindness. Blessings upon this holy sanctuary which has received me so hospitably beneath its red tiles and has stretched its protection over my suffering body. May heaven repay it for everything, and restore its persecuted swallows. Amen.
(Translated from the Modern Greek by Peter Bien)