Faith in a Forgotten Place, by Julian Hoffman

Faith in a Forgotten Place

Prose + Photography by Julian Hoffman

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Winner | 2011 Contest in Nonfiction
Selected by Elizabeth Dodd

For such a commonly used word faith isn’t easily defined. It cleaves to concepts that are shifting and difficult to pin down, stemming from as many sources as there are relationships of any kind. Our most fundamental, as well as pedestrian, connections—to people, places, and philosophies—are built upon unique articulations of the word. Faith can encompass trust, constancy, and belief, religious or otherwise. It hints at fidelity and kept promises, duty and exactitude. At times faith might be summoned to express allegiance, honesty, and confidence, but it’s mutable all the same, a word significantly narrower than its needs. But of one thing I’m sure: it can bind us to the world as easily as unfasten us with its loss.

On the far side of the lake basin where I live in Greece is the Albanian village of Zagradec. Though I can’t see the stone houses and narrow lanes themselves, tucked up on a boxwood slope behind the knuckle of a limestone hill, the view toward it never fails to stir me. It is dramatic, evocative—often drowned in a wild and compelling light. I’m looking not only at the end of a lake, but also the mysterious beginning of another country.

The basin contains two lakes, Great and Lesser Prespa. The wetlands and their high, attendant mountains are internationally renowned for the richness of their flora and fauna, their collection of Byzantine monuments. Colonies of rare water birds, including Dalmatian pelicans and pygmy cormorants, fill up the sky in summer, while endemic fish species course the rivers and lakes. The white coastal cliffs are inset with obscure, Orthodox hermitages, and the island monasteries and churches are steeped in dark frescoes. An astonishing variety of wildflowers, reptiles, and butterflies also make their home in this crossroads habitat, a meeting place of alpine and Mediterranean environments.

The Prespa region is equally well known as a crossroads of Balkan borders. Great Prespa Lake is divided between Greece, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the territorial lines meeting invisibly in the water. And while most of Lesser Prespa Lake exists in Greece, the great bowl of open water throws an unexpected arm around an oak-clad mountain at its southern end. The hill-slopes close in, like parallel lines running together in the distance, until only a thin finger of water touches the shore, a reed-tangled wedge belonging to Albania. That’s as much as I can see from my side of the lake, a series of impressions—mountains and water continually altered by light.

But when I move closer the image begins to clear. Anila Manelli is categorical when I ask her about living in this part of Albania. We’re standing in the courtyard of a restored brick building in Zagradec, around the tip of the shore from her own village of Shuec. “It felt like the worst place on earth,” she says quietly. Behind her I can see the edge of the lake, blotted with pale reeds. White egrets huddle among the stems. “There was no future for us here,” she continues. “There was no work and no hope, nothing.” The mountains slope darkly to the shore.

The restored building is the Zagradec Information Center, which is run by the Women’s Association of Micro Prespa. Other members of the association are arriving for a meeting while we speak. Smoke curls from the chimney of the coffee-shop next door, and in the muddy lane men lead donkeys laden with hay.

I notice how Anila’s bright eyes keep darting away from me while she speaks. There’s a lot going on around the center, and her attention is divided. This is a busy time for her and the association, a mark of how far they’ve come.

“People have had so much faith in us. I don’t know how I can ever thank them,” Anila says suddenly. She smiles and hurries off but that word, faith, seems to hang in the air after she’s gone. People are moving about the courtyard, drinking coffee and catching up. A charm of goldfinches sparkles in a walnut tree. Putting away my notebook, I ask the translator if she thought Anila had overstated her bleak description of the area. “Not at all,” she replies simply. “This was a place forgotten even by God.”


Boys on horse-drawn cart.
Village boys with their horse and cart.
The mountains are imposing, a limestone ring around the finger of the lake, studded with boxwood and juniper scrub. Zagradec stands in the shadow of the scree. It’s a compact village, radiating out from a single main track, the stone and cement houses molded to the curve of the hill. Water runs at the sides of the rocky lanes throughout the year, streaming from mountain springs. Chickens scrat about and scatter quickly, scrambling over mounds of manure or slipping through the willow fences that mark out the vegetable gardens. A series of brick stables huddle at the edge of the village. Throughout winter I watch them being emptied of hay, which is loaded onto donkeys or slung over shoulders in great woven baskets.

About 150 people call Zagradec home, though from spring to late autumn that figure is significantly lower as the men journey to Greece in search of agricultural labor. The women and elderly men work the village fields instead, leaning into the donkey-drawn plow to keep the blade running deep, weeding the summer soil by hand. A few younger men stay behind to fish among the reeds, skiffing the narrow wooden boats called stanka over the shallow waters. This is strictly subsistence labor, however; it’s the wages from Greece that keep the village afloat.

As recently as twenty years ago the thin strips of cultivated land sloping from the village to the lake were owned by the communist state. The villagers rotated between working these local fields and making a five-hour round trip by foot to labor on a collective farm. Attendance was mandatory, and the meager payment carefully calculated for a single person to survive. With the end of communism, the fields were divided equally among the inhabitants, but they’re too small and poorly irrigated to turn a profit, and many are worked only for fodder to keep the community’s indispensable donkeys alive.

On a visit to Zagradec some years ago, a group of children half-followed and half-showed my family around the village. Their bright-eyed curiosity mingled with bouts of giggling and high spirits. Having led us around the lanes, the children showed us their schoolroom. What was left of the windows hung like jagged glass knives in the frames. Only a handful of desks filled the musty room, so the children scrunched up to show us how they worked two or three to a table. Between them and the teacher spread a rotten hole in the floor, a four-foot wide drop to the cellar.

It was a similar experience, Myrsini Malakou tells me, that resulted in the Society for the Protection of Prespa getting involved on the Albanian side of the lake. The SPP is a Greek non-profit organization that has been instrumental in safeguarding the natural and cultural values of the Prespa Lakes since its founding in 1991. As the organization’s director, Myrsini was the joint recipient in 2001 of the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work in the region. While on a tour of Lesser Prespa in Albania in 2004, members of the SPP’s international board were extremely taken with the area, but also dismayed by its quality of life. And so the idea arose, she explains, of the organization finding a way of working with its neighbors to address the imbalance between them.

The difference a line on a map can make. According to figures published by the World Bank, the GNP of the country on one side of the lake, a member of the European Union since 1981, totaled $357 billion in 2008, though recent economic events are affecting it badly. On the other side, where membership remains a distant dream, it amounted to barely $11 billion. The statistic is stark, but the reality is worse. Leaving the country remains the most common way of trying to escape its poverty. Despite providing employment and hard currency, the persistent emigration of Albania’s men and women, whether short term or permanently, deprives it of a dynamic future. Life is ebbing steadily away.

According to Myrsini, the gravest problem facing the Lesser Prespa area of Albania is its perceived lack of value. It’s a place that’s been forgotten right across the board, not only by God. While its inhabitants are regularly forced to leave to look elsewhere for work, regional and national politicians ignore the area in favor of places more important to the electoral rolls. Development NGOs that had been quick in the post-communist years to bring investment and ideas to many parts of Albania, including the communities of Great Prespa Lake, haven’t touched the villages of Lesser Prespa. Even environmentalists, who consider the lake basin one of Europe’s most significant and varied ecosystems, are rarely found working in this part of the country.

The SPP’s original intention was simply to restore the crumbling schoolroom; with hindsight, the intractable bureaucratic complications that led to the idea’s demise were a blessing. A single issue, whether economic, environmental, or educational, only brushes the surface of value and viability. Instead, the SPP embarked on a much deeper and more inclusive project; they bought an old building in the village and restored it using local skills as a center for eco-tourism in the area. Eco-tourism was seen as the most effective and pragmatic way of attaching value, through economic activity in a remote and thinly populated region, to the ecological wealth of the wetland basin. It was a way of entwining the strands of a community.

Through a series of local meetings, it was agreed that a women’s association would be formed to partner the SPP and implement the various eco-tourism related initiatives. Twenty-three women make up the association, including a president, treasurer, and secretary elected by the larger assembly. Coming from the three villages of Albanian Lesser Prespa—Zagradec, Shuec, and Rakickë – the women are knowledgeable about the area and one of the association’s primary responsibilities is operating the Information Center.

If the guiding principle of the project is to restore value to the Lesser Prespa area, drawing together the skills, experience, and energy of local and non-local people, then the brick building on the edge of Zagradec is its focus. Everything radiates from its wood-beamed interior. The Zagradec Information Center, set in a courtyard garden shaded by a canopy of grape vines, is far more than its name suggests. It contains a new schoolroom, as well as a permanent exhibition about the region. A restaurant and coffee-shop anchor one end, providing meals and drinks for visitors as well as a valuable social space for the village community itself. The main office doubles up for meetings and workshops, and locally made products are displayed within. The Information Center is the heart of the project, a very real demonstration of long-term commitment.

Once the center was operational, the members of the association were offered computer lessons, training in financial management, and classes on the natural and cultural history of the region, spanning the three countries. They were hosted on the Greek side of the lake – meeting with producers of homemade products, restaurant owners, and local eco-guides to gain first hand experience of the socio-economic possibilities already in play. Dedicated to environmental education, the SPP were also looking for young, dynamic people who could be trained in the skills of guiding and would hopefully take a long-term interest in the lakes. Along with the aim of developing a viable future for the communities themselves, there is the concurrent goal of building relationships with people and organizations that will have a stake in future wetland issues. As an environmental group, the SPP has the protection of the entire lake system in mind, and their philosophy is clear: man and nature are inseparable.


Stone hut on hill.
Traditional stone architecture, Zagradec.
In the car with me is François Doleson, and we’re waiting in a queue at the border. A French environmental educationalist, François runs the cross-border project in Zagradec on behalf of the SPP. When I ask him how many times he’s made this trip since he began in 2006 he just laughs. After a short wait, we are waved through the checkpoint. Entering Albania, I am reminded of the ideological absolutes of border zones. Concrete bunkers loom from the mountain scree, rough-edged domes with empty eyes. They are a prevailing fact of the Albanian landscape, turning up in towns and fields, along rivers and beside trees. Before his death in 1985, Albania’s paranoid dictator, Enver Hoxha, speckled the countryside with 750,000 of these bunkers to protect against what he imagined were territorial threats. Driving along, we pass the empty husks continuously. They lend a surreal edge to the journey, relics of a misguided mind.

François isn’t well. He has a hacking cough and red-rimmed eyes, but this is just the beginning of his problems for the day. Stopping in a small town to pick up the project translator, she calmly hands in her notice as we pull away from the curb. In recent weeks the three original translators, who worked part-time and doubled up as eco-guides, have each left the project as well, having found full-time employment elsewhere. François has always been aware of this possibility, but for all of them to go in the same month is a significant setback, after the long hours and days of training, preparation, and building trust. François drives on through the tense silence, coughing alarmingly. I decide to keep quiet and look out the window.

It’s good to see fruit trees growing on the plain, long stands of young apples and pears, knee-high grape vines. In the summer of 2000, when I first visited Albania having recently moved to Greece, the plain appeared desolately empty. From the end of communism in 1992, the orchards and hillside forests were clear-cut for firewood when the state industries responsible for heating supplies shut down.

Despite the budding orchards, there are still major concerns about wood. Turning off the main road, we follow the long, abysmally pitted track that leads to Zagradec. Descending narrow mountain paths or riding along the edge of the track, men, women, and children lead donkeys loaded with thin trees. The paucity of the forests means that villagers resort to illegally felling smaller and smaller saplings to warm their homes in the hard winters.

We rattle over the deep, rocky wells. Abandoned agricultural terraces rise in rippled waves over the mountains. Autumn poplar leaves sparkle yellow with the wind. Riding side-saddle on their donkeys, kids haul cartloads of wild grasses and cut reeds for winter fodder. They keep to the edge of the ruined road, waving and smiling as we pass them by.


François is even less happy when we arrive in Zagradec. With the loss of the previous eco-guides, three local women are being trained in their place. Gerta Merxhani, Anita Hyselli, and Leda Merxhani are in their early 20s, and not entirely keen about their new roles, but as members of the Women’s Association they agreed that recruiting guides from within the community was a more dependable, long-term solution than hiring people from the cities.

François is going through the training process a second time, but this doesn’t trouble him; what concerns him this morning is that the guides haven’t prepared the work that I’m meant to be observing. A week earlier they were each asked to choose a series of three panels from the display in the Information Center and to present them, keeping in mind the training they’d received, as though I were an actual visitor. Each of the panels describes some aspect of Prespa’s wealth, illustrated with a series of beautifully produced photographs and drawings. Some detail the traditional, and often elaborate, fishing methods of the region, others the variety and global importance of the lakes’ breeding birds, or the rich archaeological record of cave paintings and prehistoric settlements. The information boards are a vital tool for communicating the various values of the wetland basin, and François is noticeably frustrated by the morning’s malaise. The young women shrug off his questions, and I can see the deep disappointment in his eyes.

A great deal changed when we crossed over from Greece. Borders not only delineate different political, religious, and territorial realities, they can determine different mindsets, cultural adaptations to historical specificity. For nearly half a century, Enver Hoxha had Albania sealed from the outside world like a time capsule. Few people came in, and to leave was an act punishable by death. When the country was finally unsealed after the fall of communism, the effects of its ideology remained intact. The bunkers haunt the land and minds of its people still, surfacing in often suspicious and withdrawn communities.

Unlike Greece, with its long tradition of being a visitor destination—from ancient pilgrims and 19th century Romantic artists to the island hoppers of the 1970s and package tourists of today—the idea of a guided tour is almost impossible to fathom in much of Albania. There is no cultural precedent to fall back on, no history of tourism. The residents are disbelieving at first, then quietly bemused that anyone would actually wish to visit the village, let alone listen to what they have to say about it. Since crossing the border no longer carries the penalty of death, many Albanians feel their country is little more than a departure point.

The project hopes to challenge this deep-rooted belief by highlighting the cultural and natural riches of a forgotten community, the worth of its traditional ways—to alter the perception of a place. The Information Center is only one method of illuminating these values; another is to get visitors into the landscape itself. Once we leave the building, the response from the guides is immediately more positive. The planned route takes us past the old brick stables heaped with hay, along a winding path through boxwood and juniper, and across an open escarpment until we reach a birdwatching platform above the lake.

Unlike in the Information Center, faced with a series of formal panels that meant little to them, the guides become volubly enthused when outdoors; they are in their element, their place of growing up, and François stresses the importance of the guides’ knowledge of home. Despite a nagging disbelief that this knowledge might be of interest to others, they eventually respond to his coaxing.

Leda finds edible plants tucked between the shrubs—sorrel and wild chicory—and talks about the use of medicinal plants by the villagers. Gerta points to a shallow bay overgrown with reeds. It was once a place of deep water, she tells us, where they swam as children and men harbored their boats in wooden sheds after rigging nets on the lake. Anita looks to a stretch of shore. Her great-grandfather used to journey along a road that hugged the coast in Ottoman times. Travelers tethered their horses and stayed the night at a Turkish hanthat once stood beside the water. The land and the lake come alive in their voices, stories less forgotten through their telling. As much as the disappearance of bird species around the lakes would lessen biodiversity, the drift from traditional knowledge is a knock against a cultural diversity that is intimately connected to place, a measure of complex relationships.

I ask questions of the eco-guides, as I had in the Information Center. But here, standing on a hillslope between the sky and the waters, the guides are more comfortable and relaxed, forthcoming in their replies. They’re at ease with the place, and their unexpected willingness to share some of its more personal aspects signals, perhaps, a growing faith in themselves. At the very least, there may be a recognition that their knowledge is of interest. There is strength to be found in stories, I’m reminded. As we turn back for the village a flock of pelicans rises through the falling light.


Military bunker.
Bunker overlooking the reed beds of Lesser Prespa Lake.
A graveyard sits on the lakeside plain beneath the village, an island thicket in a sea of fields. Nearby is a small cement building, an unprepossessing, white-washed box nestled in a hedge-lined lane. I pressed close to the cobwebbed window when I first discovered it. In the gloom I made out a spill of candle wax on the inside of the sill and a quilted mural on the far wall that seemed to depict, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the four corners of Mecca. I removed my shoes and opened the sheet-metal door of the simple mosque, stepping inside to the squeal of a rusted hinge.

In the light of the open door the interior unfolded. One wall held the mural of Mecca, its great courtyard swelling with the faithful. A patchwork of colored rugs warmed the floor. Plastic vines coiled up the corners, topped with a spray of false blooms—pink and purple in perpetuity. Something was wedged by the fake candle stand; I knelt down to find a prayer card of the Virgin Mary.

When I asked the women about the building they told me it wasn’t a mosque, although the village is nominally Muslim. “It’s theholy place,” they insisted. “Neither Muslim, Catholic nor Orthodox, just holy.” After the fall of communism, the shrine was raised on the site of an earlier place of worship and is open for anyone to use, regardless of denomination.

Albania has a long history of religious pragmatism. Conversion to Islam was common during the Ottoman Empire, carrying additional privileges along with its adoption. Rulers throughout the ages have tended to avoid religious appeals, stressing instead the concept of Albanianism as the root of the nation’s identity. In 1967, Enver Hoxha explored the idea’s extremes by banning all religious observance, proclaiming Albania the world’s first officially atheist state. He even went as far as banning beards throughout the land, as they were worn by imams and priests. But faith has a way of resurfacing.

I’ve gone back to the holy place many times. Never have I met anyone on the way, nor disturbed prayers inside. But it’s always immaculately swept out, the reed broom left in a different place each time. And the plastic flowers keep growing. They climb and trail in shades of peach, yellow, and blue, unfurl in crimson and purple blooms, slowly engulfing the tiny room.

Faith can flourish in many forms. In the absence of traditional religious practice, many Albanians have borrowed older, more pagan rites and furnished them with populist touches. When I look more closely at the large window ledge, I see that it’s a place of votive offerings. The sill is pooled with candle wax, the last shreds of burnt wicks sealed inside. Missing a single drag, a cigarette lies on the sill as though its owner will return in a moment. A few sunflower seeds are scattered across the sill, and a solitary biscuit leans against the smoke-blackened window. There are coins among the offerings, but none of them are Albanian. In honor of the border gods, Greek euros are piled like stone cairns beside a trail of coffee grounds.


Wildflowers and mountain.
The view from Zagradec in spring.
Borders are ubiquitous. They surround us everyday, sometimes subtly and without notice. In the car one morning with François, we discussed how the wildlife of Prespa criss-crossed the political lines all the time. “Except the bear,” François pointed out. Ever since the forests were cut down in the aftermath of the Albanian state’s collapse, the bear faces a territorial border that is more or less the same as the political, one that reflects the lack of woodland for denning and foraging. The loss of the forests affects other species as well—woodpeckers, cyclamen, wolves—along with the humans that live without them. These borders are constantly being rewritten through need or use; it’s not unknown for Albanians to slip over the national boundary with a donkey to fell trees in Greece, taking enormous personal risks in order to heat their homes.

François himself is a good example of the complexity of territories. He is a French man living in Greece, while working in the English language with Albanian women. Every day he must move beyond his own personal, cultural, and linguistic borders, step out of his certainties. He admits to failure and frustration when he doesn’t. While talking about the divisions in the region, Myrsini Malakou of the SPP emphasized the plurality of borders: “You can’t say that the national border is more important than any other. There is a geological border here, between limestone and granite, an ecosystem border between wetland and upland. There are borders of interest and activity—the fisherman, the farmer, the environmentalist. Borders are a limit or a challenge, a restriction or an opportunity. I prefer to see them as a challenge, where differences can enrich.”

With an endeavor of this scale and cultural complexity, challenges and differences are inevitable. In 2007, the SPP nearly stopped the entire project because of serious mismanagement and conflict within the Women’s Association. I’ve seen the association members struggle to understand alien ways of doing things, frustrated by a reasoning that isn’t their own. In private, I’ve seen the heavy price that François pays for his involvement. He has a wearying schedule, and gets run down by the petty grievances, worn out by the politics. But when the Women’s Association nearly folded in 2007, the various parties involved went back to the basics, asking themselves if continuing the project was worthwhile. Despite concerns, they reaffirmed their desire to work together, feeling the project deserved more than dissolution, and eventually found a way forward. There is a common belief, a quietly shared conviction, that the struggles are ultimately worth it. “Where there are borders,” Myrsini tells me over coffee, “there are bridges.”

While speaking to the Albanian women, I am aware of a few words and phrases returning again and again: self-esteem; opportunities to communicate with others; a growing confidence. Over the course of a year I’ve witnessed a strengthening spirit, a resilience and fortitude being channeled into practicalities that are slowly paying dividends, all without assistance from the state. Zagradec now hosts children on school visits where they learn about the villages and their traditional techniques, and play games aimed at raising environmental awareness. The members of the Women’s Association sell teas they’ve gathered in the wild to visitors and shops in the area, and are being invited to speak about their work and experiences throughout the region. What is so startling about the Lesser Prespa project is how small, but significant and wide-reaching, changes can be affected through the dedication of a handful of individuals and organizations. The SPP may have placed their faith in the people of Lesser Prespa, but the women of the villages have made an equally large leap; in the wake of a long history of suspicion they’ve embraced the idea of trust itself.

“There will come a time,” Panjola Barmashi says, “when the villages will look after themselves.” Panjola is the current project translator, having taken over from the translator who resigned in the car. A young, committed teacher of English at a city school, I asked her why she took on this job as well. “It’s more pleasure than work,” she replied, being involved with people dedicated to finding a balance between livelihood and ecosystem. Panjola sees the Women’s Association as becoming gradually more attuned to the connections between the two. “The environment is where we breathe,” she says, “and people are realizing the benefits of looking after the places where they live.”

One practical project under consideration by the various partners would have significant impacts on the independence, economy, and ecology of the area. It also encapsulates the aims and promise of the project itself. In the 1970s, the Albanian government diverted the Devoll River into the lake. The river, which had never been naturally connected to the lake system, suddenly flowed into Lesser Prespa in the winter and was reversed via a pumping station in summer for crop irrigation. The diversion flushed soil and sediment from the river-cutting into the Albanian corner of the lake, creating the ideal conditions for the proliferation of reeds. The density of the subsequent reed beds reduced the fish catch by hindering the spring spawning, hurting the very community that didn’t reap any benefits from the distant irrigation.

Currently being studied, however, is the possibility of using reed briquettes as a fuel source. It’s a known technique in some parts of the world and, according to the positive preliminary results, it could provide a renewable resource on the doorstep of the villages. The reeds would be harvested in winter, remade into fuel through an artisanal process set up and operated by the Women’s Association, and then distributed throughout the villages. Any remaining briquettes could be sold for profit to other communities. The quality of the spawning grounds would be improved, wet meadow bird species might increase along with the fish stocks, a source of independent employment would be secured for the region, and the pressure on scarce firewood decreased. In the long term it might even result in the regrowth of mountain forests, and woodland species extending their territories to their original range, undeterred by a line on the map. What is difficult to conceive while I consider the idea’s potential, is how impossible its implementation would have been until recently. The opportunity exists because the groundwork for change has been meticulously, and often painfully, laid. The bridges have already been built.

François is under no illusion when it comes to time. “This is a long-term project. Better to build slowly and make sure it’s right. I’ve seen places where organizations throw money at a village and nothing else. When the money is gone, there is nothing again.” He hopes the project will become a model of transboundary co-operation, a sustainable way to bridge differences in a single, shared place.


Inside the building.
François Doleson and the eco-guides, Zagradec Information Center.
December in the Balkans. Rainwater pools in the mudded lanes and a cold drizzle sweeps down off the mountains. Our breaths cloud with each conversation. But it’s not enough to dampen the excitement and cautious optimism of the day—the inaugural Festival of Lesser Prespa Lake. Determined to hold a celebration before the year was out, the Women’s Association want to showcase the Information Center, the new school room and coffee-shop, to proudly display their harvest products and homemade goods. They want to mark a new beginning. Local media film the festivities while a band sets up inside the coffee-shop. The flavors of wood smoke and grilled lake carp drift over the courtyard garden.

Many of the visitors are unsure what to do; they huddle in loose groups in the rain. After a while, though, some step into the Information Center and begin reading the panels, pointing out maps and photographs to their family and friends. Others pick up jars of quince and plum jam, handwoven rugs and delicate beadwork, and a few go on to buy them. Petraq and Dimitra Bellovoda have traveled here from the city of Korçë after seeing an ad for the festival. When I ask them why they came, they reply that “nature is life,” and that anything which strengthens that awareness is of value. Mapped against Albania’s massive economic, social, and political concerns, the environment is low on the government’s list of priorities. Which is why a day like this, explains Petraq with a smile in his eyes, organized around the themes of people and place, is a miracle. “There’s no other word for it,” he laughs. “Nothing like this ever happens in Albania.”

When the formalities wind down, we all pile into the coffee-shop where the band waits at one end and platters of food are being passed around. Squeezing onto a bench, we help ourselves to salad, grilled carp, and lamb, slices of goat’s cheese and home-baked pies. The men tuck into foaming beer and shots of raki in gold-rimmed glasses, pull cigarettes free from pockets. The room is hazed with blue smoke.

I can see the winter mountains through the windows, seeped in gray light. The reed beds look brittle with cold, and a solitary egret hunches in the rain. Inside is the warmth of the wood stove. The musicians have kicked in, way too loud for such a small room, but nobody minds; the young men and women are sparkled up and ready to dance. When I came here a month ago there were few men at all, but the harvest season in Greece has reached its end, and they’ve come back home with some money in their pockets.

When the first dance begins, the young leading man tucks a white handkerchief between his teeth. His black shoes are polished, his hair slicked back with gel. With the opening notes of the clarinet, he raises the cigarette in his free hand to the air.

Some of the older men and women have come straight in from the fields and stables. Mud is gummed to their boots, slivers of hay pinned like brooches to their coats. The two men next to us lean in and raise their glasses in our direction. They tend a herd of water buffalo used to manage the wet meadows on our side of the lake, and we’ve met them before. Today they’ve returned to their own village to celebrate with their family and neighbors.

The only place left to move in the room is from within the dance, where the eco-guides are dressed up and wearing glitter in their hair. The dancers turn in a circle—some joining in, others dropping out—but the dance goes on regardless. The lone clarinet soars, weaving and wavering in the highest range, crying in the far corner of the room.

The dance steps are dizzying to watch. They seem anarchic to the uninitiated, but there’s an intense internal order to them, wild and articulate. Although the village has little in the way of material wealth, the richness of its ways runs deep. Even the young children carry these songs, these steps, inside them. The circle of the dance is the whole.

The heady excitement is obvious. For this afternoon there is life in the village. There may even be a future. The women in the association are fully aware that these are only the first steps on a difficult and unproven road. They know the men of the village are a long way from being able to give up working abroad. And for a while at least, the young guides still wish to leave the village and experience the freedoms of the city. But maybe, just maybe, they tell me, there will come a time when it’s possible to stay put, building their lives around a shared and astonishing lake. “Our home no longer feels forgotten,” Anila Manelli had said to me before the band began. As I look around the room I catch smiles from people living on either side of the border and I realize how the image of a place can alter, how their joint persistence has resolved into change and possibility.

I step out to clear my head of the cigarettes and loud music. A man walks by and smiles. He’s coming up from the lake and carrying a long, double-bladed oar over his shoulder. The drizzle is like pale smoke drifting on the wind. I walk along the lane, where manure and old vegetable scraps, shreds of plastic and single shoes are rotting down in great heaps at the mud-clotted edges.

A donkey brays sharply from a field. Above the trees by the holy place twists a sinuous line of starlings, weaving as one. I watch them for a few minutes while they sweep darkly in the gray light. The clarinet needles the air behind me. As long as I watch the starlings the flock keeps tightly together, never sheering off into solitude or confusion. Their movement defies belief, an aerial constancy that could be a trick of the light.

I turn away from the lake. I’m cold and about ready for another drink, and start back toward the music in the coffee-shop. As I pass the brick stables and bare winter gardens I wonder about the starlings above the shrine. I think of quickly turning my head to try and catch them out, see the flock breaking apart. But in the end I move on, my eyes ahead of me, one mud-slipping step at a time. I decide to keep faith in their formation.

Faith in a Forgotten Place | Photos by Julian Hoffman

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Julian Hoffman was born in England and grew up in Canada. In 2000, he and his partner moved to the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece where they began an organic small-holding. His writing has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Southern Humanities Review, Kyoto Journal, Three Coyotes, Flyway, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Wild Apples, and The Redwood Coast Review, among others. “Faith in a Forgotten Place” is from the book manuscript, The Small Heart of Things. You can catch up with Julian at is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.