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With each passing kilometre along the E55, my hopes for picturesque Pomak villages nestled in the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains became snarled up in the plastic debris that littered the fields and riverbanks of the valley.
Earlier, after breakfast, we’d checked out of our accommodation in Xanthi, a small Thracian city in North-Eastern Greece, jumped in our hire car and headed in the direction of the Bulgarian border. Touring conditions looked good; empty roads and a blue sky; but within minutes we were snaking along a valley of small, tatty farmsteads.
The area seemed poor and neglected; the buildings looked makeshift, shreds of polythene hung from skeletal poly-tunnels or had tangled themselves in shrubs or the branches of stressed trees. Empty fertiliser bags seemed to have found their way to wire fences and any inner corners the wind had licked. Used plastic bottles lay in the sun on the riverbanks, especially around the high watermark. It looked as if some great storm had swept down from the mountains and scattered this debris, but more likely the farmers and labourers couldn’t even be bothered to burn the stuff. But where were these keepers of the land? There wasn’t a person to be seen.
“Daddy, I’m bored, I’m hungry,” said Georgie.
I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw our young son gripping his embargoed Nintendo; he caught my eye with a pleading look. I tapped my husband on the thigh and glanced across at him.
“How far, Baba? I fancy a coffee, maybe a snack.”
He looked down and traced a finger across a vague map in the guidebook.
“Five minutes to Echinos then about half an hour to the baths at Thermes; we could even nip over into Bulgaria if you wanted; it’s just a few kilometres further.”
“Maybe. Let’s have a coffee first.”
The valley opened out into a plain, and I saw a white village up ahead, climbing the hillside. A minaret pierced the sky, its tip gleaming electric blue against the evergreen firs of the foothills.
“Echinos is one of the few Muslim villages in Greece,” said Baba.
“What does the book say?”
“Not much. Inhabited by Pomaks, a Slavic Muslim minority in Western Thrace da-da, less than 40,000 people in all, scattered mainly across a group of small villages near the border da-da exempted from the 1922–23 exchange of people between Greece and Turkey. Pomak is an oral language, not written. Listen to this, movement in and out of this area was restricted until the mid-1990s.”
“Sounds complicated. I wonder how different it will be?”
As we approached a long low bridge across two converging rivers in front of the village, I saw a large open cemetery to my left which seemed to cover more space than the village itself. I thought to pull over and take a closer look, but then I noticed a couple of police or army vehicles parked either side of the entrance to the bridge and a couple of uniformed men standing in the middle of the road.
“Who are they, Daddy?”
“Police, I think. It’s OK.”
I slowed down and scanned the bridge ahead; it was clear, though I could see more parked vehicles and uniformed men on the other side, near a church. I felt my stomach muscles tighten and a dull ache in my fingers as I held the steering wheel. The two uniformed men, carrying automatic rifles, stepped out of the road and waved us through. As I drove past, I gave a small nod, forcing my eyes to fix on the way ahead, not them.
As we crossed the bridge Baba took photos, Georgie stayed quiet for once.
“Don’t take pictures of the men or stuff,” I warned Baba.
As we reached the other side, it became clear that something was going on at the church. The Greek flag, and what I guessed was the Greek Army flag, flew from the flagpole next to the chapel. There were more guards around, and a couple of higher-ranked officers stood near a military bus that had parked up. I noticed civilians in the church grounds. The guards looked bored and thankfully uninterested in us; they waved us through and down the road away from the church.
“Do you still want to stop here?” I asked, unsure of myself.
“Yes, it’s on the itinerary. It’s meant to be pretty,” said Baba.
We parked up and walked back past the guards towards the village. When we passed the church, everyone seemed to have gone in, so I was none the wiser. I led the way and took us up the first road to the left, and as the church disappeared from view, I concluded that what was going on there seemed to have nothing to do with this mainly Muslim village. I turned to Georgie,
“You look out for a baker, I’ll look out for a cafe.”
As we walked along the small streets of mainly whitewashed houses, I saw crumbling boundary walls and cats warily stalking across old roofs. Here and there, parked cars and mopeds, but not as many as I’d seen in other villages in Greece. Even allowing for the fact it was only just after ten a.m. on a Sunday, the streets were empty of people; no children, no women, no men, not even old men. I saw one dog chained up in an earthen backyard, but also it skulked around in silence.
There didn’t seem to be any centre to the village, and my hopes for coffee were fading fast. Baba lagged behind, stopping every few metres to take photos. Maybe it was time to give up and drive on. I took one more turning uphill, and as Georgie and I rounded a tight bend, I whistled a short, coded refrain so that Baba would know where we had gone. The road widened, and some small mostly unsigned shopfronts came into view. We stopped at one with a stack of logs out the front and next to them a row of large square tins with circular openings at the top.
“What’s going on there?” I said.
“And what’s that?” said Georgie, pointing to a blackened long-handled shovel.
I could smell woodsmoke and then bread. I was just about to speak when the door of the shop swung open, and a tall, hefty man in dirty grey trousers and a white vest burst out onto the pavement. He grinned as sweat ran down his face and he prowled around the street as if he had just thrown another wrestler out of the ring. I smiled at him and held out my camera in the direction of the shopfront. He smiled back, nodded and started to talk in what I thought was Greek and then not. He pointed to the shop.
I looked at him and shook my head.
“Psomi,” he said.
I nodded. It was the Greek word for bread.
I made a kneading sign with my hands, and he laughed, nodding.
Baba caught up with us and came over and touched me on the elbow.
“I’m going to walk on and take some photos. You going to get a snack?”
“Sure, leave it to us. See you in a minute.”
I saw the baker looking the three of us over, taking us in, trying to work us out, read our story. Georgie pulled me closer to the row of the tins, and I saw that they had been filled with charcoal. The baker came alongside us and gestured to a gap, less than a metre wide, between the bakery and the building next door. He pointed from the logs then to a closed metal door in the wall halfway down the gap.
“Fire,” he said.
He pointed back to the tins of charcoal.
“I sell too.” He laughed.
As I explained this to Georgie, a middle-aged man with a tidy moustache and wearing a smart, patterned brown jumper came out of the shop carrying four white plastic carrier bags of bread. He walked over to a green moped propped up against a wall and hung two plastic carriers on each end of the handlebar. He stepped through the frame of the moped, eased his backside onto the saddle and turned to us.
“Do you want any help? Translation?”
I shook my head. “Thank you. I think we’re OK.”
The man turned the handlebars to one side, released a catch with his foot and began to freewheel silently down the hill. I turned, and holding Georgie’s hand stepped into the baker’s shop; I heard the baker mumbling behind me.
Inside, a youngish woman wearing a beige cardigan and dark hijab stood behind the small counter. I found myself immediately drawn to the open, empty oven. I stepped closer, crouched a little and peered in; the ashen interior looked like it could hold maybe a hundred loaves. I straightened up and looked around. A table next to the counter was piled up with white carrier bags containing bread, but the small glass display case was empty, and I couldn’t see any display shelves behind her. I pointed at my chest.
She shook her head, pointed to the carrier bags and waved her hands around as if to indicate the village around us.
I turned to Georgie.
“I can’t see any snack things, can you?”
His head dropped as he shook it.
The woman must have seen the look on Georgie’s face because from under the counter she produced what looked like a couple of sesame-coated breadsticks, wrapped them in a sheet of white paper and with a small smile passed them to him. I took out my wallet, but she shook her head. I nudged Georgie.
“Effaristo,” he said, looking down at the floor.
The baker, who had followed us in, laughed. I took a picture of the oven but felt too shy to ask to make a portrait of him and the woman. He talked to the woman over my head as we said goodbye and left.
We found Baba sitting on a bench at the bottom of a marbled flight of steps leading up to one of the mosques. As Georgie showed Baba the white package from the bakers, an older man in a smart grey suit and taqiyah came past and made a small smile in our direction as he set off up the steps.
As Georgie unwrapped the sticks of bread, the rustle of the paper echoed around the general silence of the village. Georgie passed a whole stick to Baba before breaking the other and passing one half to me. The breadstick felt warmer and softer than I’d imagined. I inspected the dough and the soft raisins it held; it looked like it had been platted in some way, certainly twisted or twirled. I took a bite, it tasted sweet but with a savoury hint of tahini.
As we ate, we heard the sound of a moped moving around the village, then getting nearer before appearing from around a corner. It was the man we’d seen outside the bakers, but now the handlebars of his moped were clear of carrier bags. He slowed and stopped in front of us next and switched off the engine.
“Ahh, you got a little something. Good.”
“Yes. It’s delicious,” I said.
“I’m sorry I interrupted before. Emin, the baker, was talking Greek and Pomak before; you know, the language we sometimes use around here.”
“Pomak?” said Georgie, before taking another bite of the bread.
The man smiled at Georgie.
“Yes, Slavic Muslims. Some say ‘we were born when Greek and Turkish souls got tangled together. Psomi is bread in Greek, but the baker used the word hlap; that’s a Pomak word.”
“They don’t speak Turkish?” asked Baba.
“Only at home.”
“Are you the bread delivery man?” asked Georgie.
The man laughed.
“Yes, no. I’m a teacher, but I also deliver the bread to the old people on Sundays. It’s not a job.”
“Do you deliver all the bread?”
“No, people will come out and start heading up to the shop in a short while.”
“It’s a good thing to do. Delivering bread to those people,” I said.
He blinked slowly and lowered his head a touch.
“I have the time. My wife died a few years ago, and my eldest son works in a boat-repair yard in Germany. He’s away at the moment, as are most of the younger men in the village. He’ll be back in a couple of months, but his wife is still here bringing up their two sons, one is about your age,” he said, pointing to Georgie.
“Why wasn’t there any spare bread?” I asked.
“The baker knows every order for his customers. Very few other people stop in this village, and if they do, they go to the smart cafe at the top of the village, it also has a bakery and sells cakes. It will be open soon.”
Then the man looked at us, Baba in particular.
“Where you all from?”
“We live in the UK,” I said.
“I’m British, but originally from China,” said Baba.
The man smiled and seemed to think for a minute.
“My youngest son, he’s at university in Bremen. I think he will stay there permanently after he completes his studies, if he can.”
He looked between Baba and me and then Georgie.
“I think he would like you guys.”
“Where now for you?” he said, readying himself to start the bike up again.
“Thermes,” said Baba
He pressed the starter on his moped, and it came to life.
“Ah good. Have lunch in the main restaurant there; it will be roast goat and potatoes today.”
He turned the throttle towards himself, slowly pulled off up the hill, and waved without looking back.’
We meandered back down the streets towards the riverside and where we’d parked the car. Every now and then we passed a white carrier bag of bread resting on a ledge or an upturned box near a front door; and finally, a wicker basket hanging down from a balcony on a string, holding today’s loaf.