Thursday, November 21, 2013

Chevi: The Rebel

Chevi is a criminal. There's no getting around it. As a middle-age woman in the 1980s, she committed a criminal act not just once but for several consecutive days and weeks until she saw fit to give it up. But it was very uncharacteristic of her law-abiding, sweet nature so it's sometimes hard to believe it actually happened. However, it's true, and it was that one unforgettable story her grandmother had told her when she was a young girl, that dictated her actions during her crime spree.

Yiayia Vasiliki told Chevi, this:  There once was a little girl who did not have enough to eat.  She was starving but she was also too shy to ask for food. When people offered her food, she said no, because she felt it would be rude to accept, knowing that it was most likely not even enough food with which to feed that person who was offering. And so the little girl died of starvation.

True story? It doesn't matter. It governed Chevi's actions for the rest of her life and it personifies the cultural norm surrounding the Greeks' insistence that you accept their food. 

Don't ask the person if he wants food or drink. Give it to him and insist he take it.

So in the 1980s, when the government of Albania collapsed, and the Greek government relaxed the guard at the Albanian borders, just north of Margariti, a flood of illegal immigrants came over the mountains and passed through the valley on their way south in pursuit of a better life. I don't know the political aspect of this situation and neither did Chevi.

But one day Chevi went to tend to her animals on the farm and she saw some young boys eating the stale bread she had left in the dog’s bowl. When she spoke to them in the local Albanian-like dialect, they understood her. She gave them food and water and then they continued on their way. Somehow these moving bands of young Albanians heard about this kind woman on the farm in Margariti and there were always more boys to feed each day.

One particularly skinny 15-year-old, stayed on the farm with her for a while. Perhaps he was worn out from the journey over the Pindos Mountains, or maybe he just saw Chevi as a surrogate mother and didn't want to leave her. But he stayed down on the farm in the goat shed and she gave him fresh food every morning.

Then one day someone reported him to the police. It’s likely that others had seen him prior to that day and had stayed silent. In those days there wasn't much vegetation in the valley or on the mountainside so people could easily see from the top of the surrounding mountains down into the valley of the farmland.

The picture on the right shows how barren the landscape was back then.

Now, this flood of immigrants also came with the characteristic racism that usually accompanies them, so maybe someone reported him because, instead of a small 15-year-old boy, hungry and alone, they saw an Albanian, or a criminal. In any event, the police came to get him. But before they could, Chevi was alerted by someone in town which gave her a few minutes to guide the boy from her farm to her house.

Across the front yard was the beginning of construction that would someday be the home Nick and I would live in, and there was one piece of cement that sat atop the walls for a hallway ceiling, so the boy climbed up there and hid. The police searched the farm and found nothing so they came to the house and questioned Chevi. She wasn't fond of lying but she had no second thoughts about it in this case. This continued for many days, until the police assumed the boy had left Margariti.  

Each morning, before she lit the cooking fire or began her chores, Chevi would call the boy down from the cement slab when she thought no one would see, and she'd give him a meal inside her house, usually pita that she'd made the day before. Then the boy would climb back up into his hiding spot so as not to be seen by the numerous visitors who came unannounced at various intervals of the morning, hoping to get a piece of Chevi's fresh pita as she began her daily cooking. There was always that one small pita, that she'd hide from her guests. 

That skinny little boy is now a legal Margariti citizen, a grown man with a wife and children. He was a frequent visitor of Chevi's while she was alive and if she needed anything, he was quick to help her.

Chevi was a remarkable woman. She'd witnessed atrocities during World War II and the civil war that followed. Over the years she'd experienced the tumultuous changes that came with different ruling parties and different governments. But she, herself was always governed by the simple laws of morality.

For her, the greatest crime, is in withhold food and water from a hungry child.


  1. I finally had a chance to sit down and read your blog. It is wonderful. I especially enjoy the photographs. Thanks so much for sharing the inspirationally stories of Chevi, especially "The Rebel".