Editor: Jessica Nicholas (PhD Candidate in French); photos: Kathryn Nicholas
This is Part Two of a two-part series. Click here to read Part One!
Bio: Eda Derhemi (PhD in Communication, 2003) is a lecturer in the department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, and an adjunct assistant professor of Communications in the ICR. She completed her undergraduate studies in Linguistics and Literature at the University of Tirana, Albania, and her graduate studies in Illinois. She has extensive teaching and research experience in Italian Language, Linguistics and Media Studies. She worked as a correspondent journalist for Deutsche Welle, and is a regular writer of opinion pieces in the main Albanian media. Her interests are: linguistic endangerment and language death, minority languages and ethnicity in the EU, language of the media and propaganda, Balkan and Mediterranean studies, Arbëresh and Arvanitika.
Breathless, I enter in the main area of Hydra’s port. The tiny village that grows like a healthy plant up the rocks, the white houses and the deep blue sea-sky background shock you like the song of sirens. The tourists usually walk in groups: the American groups the noisiest and the most conspicuous of all. I can feel that being alone is not a normal thing in this island that is finally accustomed to tourism in the age of globalization. The islanders behave carelessly since I am nothing more than a tourist. They do not know that I can construe every single move of their head or eyebrows or smile they give to each other, not at all different from people from the small towns in Albania. And I like it. The beautiful sweet donkeys (or mules… it has been a long time I left my country, so I can no longer tell the difference) are the first villagers to greet everybody that arrives in this little piece of land fallen from paradise. They are tired and resting in the extreme noon heat of a sunny day. Once in a while the tourists load them with their luggage (or with themselves sometimes) and follow the donkeys towards their rented villas in the higher parts of Hydra. The donkeys behave slavishly, without any resistance. At that moment I caught myself wishing to be as peaceful and obedient as they were; my life probably would have been less hectic. Fortunately Hydra is not the most typical touristic village in Greece. Although touristic, it still gives you some space to be alone; it allows you to think, meditate and dream, and not just run crazily to fulfill your plan of activities and picture taking.
Then I decide to do what I do in every Greek village of Arvanitika origin: walk as much as I can, back and forth, to get a feel of the whole place and see whether the language is used in the village, where, by whom etc., and whether signs of pride or shame for the origin are noticeable. This is what had happened in my first hours in the island. And I found absolutely nothing visible: worse than any signs of shame that in fact would be signs of life. Any memory of Arvanitika in Hydra seems to have been wiped out. Not only do you not hear the language anywhere, but the words ‘Arvanitika’ or ‘Arvanites’ are nowhere either. There are many little squares and streets with poetic and patriotic names, and I thought I might find a little square named something like “The Arvanites.” After all, they were well known in Europe and in Greece, as a distinct ethnic group extremely active in the Greek War of Independence. But I find no trace of the name anywhere.
Although Hydra is a very small village, it is lucky enough to have its own historical museum, “The Historical Archives Museum of Hydra,” curated by the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs of Greece. In the streets of Hydra, I could not find Arvanitika, the language that was still spoken in the island till a few decades ago, but I was sure I would find plenty of data about the history of Arvanites inside this museum. The museum is an inviting structure with the architecture of a rich three-story family house with small corridors surrounded by normal-sized rooms, and with wooden stairs. The archives are not shown to the visitors, but the whole history of the Greek revolutionary war is there. Eighty percent of the portraits that are shown in the walls of the museum are famous Arvanites from the island of Hydra, some of whom spoke only Arvanitika at the time of the revolution or even until 50 years ago. I recognize the names of many Arvanites in the museum, because their last names are composites of Albanian words, like Krieziu, Kriekuqi, Kriebardhi or Zogu. The families of Miaulis, Kulurioti, Krieziu, Kundurioti etc, all very famous families of Arvanites, are the center of the museum, together with their well-known ships of the time which were as symbolic of heroism during the Greek War of Independence as their owners were.
I spent a few hours and carefully observed every picture, painting and document in every corner of the museum. As I found no trace of the word “Arvanitika” and “Arvanites”, I went around again to make sure I did not miss anything. Then I went back to the entrance of the museum where two young brothers in their early twenties, smart and outspoken, worked in the ticket and research office. Since it was not a busy day, I started talking to them. They were university students whose parents lived in Hydra, who during summer months worked in the museum.
Both had excellent knowledge about the whereabouts of every museum piece. I asked whether there still were any Arvanitika speakers in the village, and they said that nobody today speaks it. I asked whether they were Arvanites, and then added “Arvanites in origin”. The younger brother said: well, in that sense, everybody in Hydra is Arvanites.
“Then, why is it never mentioned in this museum, neither the name of their ethnic group, nor the language that most of the heroes of this museum spoke during all their life?” I asked.
“Hmm… In fact… it must have been overlooked… they were concentrated in the historical parts,” he answered.
I did not understand the reasoning, but it was obvious that the young man was wondering for the first time about this question, and was trying to rationalize what he had just realized at that moment. I asked them whether it was good or bad to be an Arvanites. One of them, the younger brother, unlike the older one who did not like my questions, was entertained by the conversation. He said “not that good.”
I said: “Isn’t it strange given that they have such a wonderful and eventful history?”
He said that he did not know much why it was so, and why nobody really spoke much about Arvanites. I mentioned the fact that recently there are a few critical programs in the main Greek televisions, and some of the most prominent Greek writers that are trying to break this long tradition of pretending that Greece is built by only Greeks and that you all have been Greeks from the time of Plato. The boy smiled again. I added that I read that even this museum was started by an Arvanitis, Gjikë Kuluri, a ship owner who in 1918 donated his house to the state to become a museum that told the history of his village and of many brave men from there. I asked the man: “Do you think Kuluri himself had wished that the language that he spoke from the day he was born till the day he died not be mentioned in this museum that tells his story?”
Then I asked whether there is anything from Arvanitika language still alive in the island. He said that Arvanitika is not even a minority language in Greece. I said that the fact it has never been recognized as a minority language in Greece, and has never had any institutional care, is one of the reasons the language is dying so fast, but it is not a reason for speakers not to use it. But there were still some expressions used in Arvanitika by all the old locals, he added, “and some that even we use sometimes.” He wrote a list of words and expressions that he and his brother could remember, some of which I immediately recognized as profane dialectal insults, still used in Albania today. The boy said “Some of these are dirty, and I cannot translate them to you.” I laughed and told him to not worry, because I understood those since I speak Albanian. Then we talked about the rest of the expressions and the situations in which they were used. The boy said that the Arvanites used them when non-Arvanites came to the village, usually to say things they did not want them to understand or to insult them. And I asked “When do you use these expressions today?” The boy answered, “I guess when tourists or non-locals come to our island.” We laughed again.
I asked him whether he had ever been to Albania. The boy said no, but that he wanted to go some day. I said that he should, since it was only a few hours away, and I joked: “You can even swim from here to Albania.” I also told him that nowhere else in the Balkans had I seen such similarities in traditions, behavior, and the way people looked as between Albanians and Greeks. If, instead of fighting the language of each other, we had only embraced them, we would all be bilinguals now (or probably trilinguals given the widespread use of Italian and English in the region). And probably we would have fought less and been able to communicate much better with each other. We said goodbye laughing, and I told them that I would be back in Hydra as soon as I could in the coming years.