Every day in Athens, people stroll past ancient statues; statues that were sculpted in classical times. Imagine if these statues could talk, tell their stories. Stories of a culture and a language that is far removed from a world of text speak or social media posts. Well, what if I told you that somewhere in the Mediterranean, there are statues that seemingly spring to life with their stories and history…
Deep in the mountains of Calabria, ancient Greek statues exist. Except, they aren’t motionless and set by sculptors. They’re human. Deep inside these mountain tops and along the picturesque coastline of Calabria, there are living, breathing “statues.” These “statues” are the guardians of our ancient past, a past that seemingly existed only in the history books.
These human statues are the link to a past via an oral language that has survived for over 2800 years, surviving conquerors, disasters, population decline, religious conversions and poverty to remain one of the richest spoken tongues in history.
Why are these people special? They speak Greko, a Greek dialect and arguably the oldest remaining Greek dialect in the world. The dialect is a connection to the ancient Greek colonists who once spread across the entire Southern Italy. The Latins called it Greater Greece – Magna Graecia, with the name Graecia being of real significance to us; we have only truly used the name Greece since independence, yet across the Adriatic, this name from Epirus was used to describe the Hellenes who dominated the entire region, from Napoli and the outskirts of Apulia, to Sicily, the name referred to colonists from what we now call Greece.
Greko is deemed an endangered language by the EU, and one that a group of energetic activists in Calabria are racing time to save. I will come back to this in a moment. Firstly, I want to take you on a journey to the heartbeat of the Greko language in Calabria. A heartbeat that must continue…
Sitting in the heart of the mountain with the Aspromonte (White Mountain in Greko) national park in the background, I toured a town or rather, a village that reflects everything about the language and culture of the Greko. A picturesque village that has seemingly been forgotten by time, with its more authentic and traditional homes, narrow streets and pathways with fewer than 60 people remaining. Modern development and apartment style living won’t be finding its way to Galliciano any time soon. Perhaps, this is the Calabrian Greko version of the Acropolis, set at one of the highest points of the region, and rather than temples we have this gem of a village with its living, breathing statues. Galliciano for easy reference, is pronounced GaddiciAno (insert strong Calabrian accent here) and was established by Byzantine Greeks in the 700’s as Galikianon, possibly named after a prominent land owning family.
Sydney based lawyer and writer Costa Vertzayias visited in 1987 with his family at a time when there was a population of 200 residents. In 2002, I came here with my friend and Condofuri native, Carmelo Nucera and there were perhaps 100 people. The decline has been rapid, due in part to people seeking work opportunities in other parts of Calabria or Italy, as agriculture and quiet village living is not always enough to make ends meet.
This time, I was lucky enough to visit with a young Condofuri Marina local and musician, Pandeli Danilo Brancati as our guide, joined by London based filmmaker Basil Genimahaliotis. In keeping with any Greek mountain, the drive up the mountain is spectacular. Except, we drive past a sign that welcomes you in Greko, rather than modern Greek! As we drove to the vivid outskirts of the Galliciano, it was as I remembered. Time has always stood still in the village, as I had a feeling of being transported to the period before mobile phones and computers. It’s as if the ancients look over the village, as there is an eyrie sensation unmatched by most travel destinations. As I did all those years ago, I closed my eyes and let the moment capture me. In my soul I could feel as if I was home, as this is the Athens or Constantinople of Calabria. There may be a dwindling population, yet it has a heartbeat that remains strong to the Greek world.
As I opened my eyes to regain my senses, my senses told me that we were in need of food. I realised that this would be a problem for it was a Sunday and the only taverna in the village was closed.
Danilo took us to the main square via a range of homes where older people greeted us in a language that initially seemed foreign to Basil and me. To Danilo, he was in his element; Despite his Greko heritage, he had learnt the language fluently just 3 years earlier thanks to the work and vision of Maria Olimpia Squillaci, helping teach the language to more people in her age group and younger in the traditional catchment of the Greko speaking region.
As we stood in the small square, a group Calabrian and Greko speakers surrounded us. With almost no understanding of the quick witted banter, we soon enough found common ground; the poor performance of the Italian football team. Of course! That discussion seemed to elevate the already animated square, dominated by younger visitors, grandkids of the older Greko speakers. In typical Calabrian, or should I say, Greek fashion, the conversation was loud and flowed thick and fast, until a small break in chatter. This allowed us to hear a clamour in the small snack bar nearby. Turns out some of the villagers were playing cards and backgammon, games that we soon had a seat at.
Danilo made the point that it would be ideal to actually eat. As Basil and I looked at each other in hunger and bewilderment, Danilo provided an expression that we will be fed! As we walked around and found a self-service kiosk which contained some agricultural products, soap and other items made in the village, Mimmo Nucera, a younger man in his 40’s who lives in the village with his family explained that in Galliciano, the taverna opens when people are hungry. The young man belongs to the Nucera family who manage the tavern.
However, before we could fill our hungry bellies, we were taken on a walk further along the mountain path. As we walked next to some of the locals, you pass a Greek flag fluttering next to an Italian. Most in Galliciano have never been to Greece, yet in their hearts, is a more authentic Greek heartbeat than that found in most. Their blood almost certainly bleeds Hellenic blue.
As we walked around we visited a small church, and one that I had been inside 16 years ago. The church marks an interesting change in the recent history of the Greko, who are all Catholics, with the exception of a few. During the 1500s, the Catholic Church had overseen a period of confiscating Greek Orthodox churches and property, forcing churches to adopt the Catholic rite. Almost overnight, the Greko had lost a key element of their Greek identity, the religion that was the hallmark of the strong Byzantine Greek era of Southern Italy from the Sixth Century AD until the Eleventh, and strengthened further by the refugees of Constantinople and the Morea of the mid-15th Century. By the end of the 1700s, the last remaining Greek Orthodox monasteries had closed.
The Church, was opened by Patriarch Bartholemeos of Constantinople, over two decades ago and marked a change for the Galliciano people as it gave them a Greek Orthodox Church and another outlet to connect with their Greek past and the Greece across the Adriatic. The church named for Panagia, has come at a time when other smaller churches have opened in Calabria and we had the pleasure of meeting an ordained Greek Orthodox priest Daniele Castrizio.
Just below the church, we found ourselves seated on a picturesque patio overlooking the village with the Aspromonte Mountain almost touching us, calling to us. The food of course was simply divine, local and fresh, with wine to match. We were soon joined by two Dutch tourists. The Dutch nationalists told us that they had heard that there was a piece of Greece in Calabria and wanted to visit for themselves.
Sitting a taverna that has been opened specifically for us, and sitting with a Greko speaking musician, and with table service provided by the Nucera family, who seemed to be musos as well; there could be just one outcome. MUSIC! For the next hour, Danilo and his friends played accordion and tambourine, playing a song that seemed to have no end, just a beginning and a future. Perhaps a symbolic reflection of Galliciano.
Soon, children who had been playing in the small playground joined in to dance and occasionally play the tambourine. Danilo introduced us to a young boy who spoke to us with a few words in Greko to welcome us. If the food, music and the village had not already captured our imagination, this young lad making an effort with a seemingly endangered language, was inspiring enough, for it is these young people who will save the language.
The language itself, is apparently spoken fluently by almost 2000 older people, some say much less, yet through the work of To ddomadi greko, l’Associazione Ellenofona Jalò tu Vua di Bova Marina, and led by the young people, the language in the Aspromonte region has a future. In fact, I met one of their leaders in Bologna, Eleonora Petrulli, someone who spent hours talking to me in three languages: Greko, English and some Italian. Bologna is on the other side of the country, yet here I was listening to someone in her original language! The young people are running a campaign called:
An me platespise ZIO (in Greko) – If you speak me I LIVE.
The campaign title is poignant, as it requires as many of us to speak the language to stem the decline and take it forward.
In Reggio, my friend Carmelo Nucera and his Apodiafazzi Association are also teaching the language. This too warms my heart as I see the language remaining in the most important city in Calabria, led by a group of people who are passionate and who over the years stayed in touch with me, always encouraging me to return.
Anyway, I digress a little. When we finished our meal, and asked for the bill, the Nucera family explained, “Pay whatever you wish!” This is the first time I had come across this anywhere in the world, and I have been to over 50 countries. The meal and location were essentially priceless.
Danilo had of course one task for us which was set by Maria Olimpia, to make sure we returned to the coast at Bova Marina by 4.00 pm as a group of children from Palizzi village, with their parents and teacher were waiting to sing us songs in Greko and to swap letters and cards of well wishes. These cards and letters were provided from students in two countries. The first from Australia, with UNSW Modern Greek Department via Dr Efrosini Deligianni in Sydney and Oakley Grammar in Melbourne, from teacher Natasha Spanos. Both had enthusiastically embraced the chance for their students to connect with Greko students and speakers. The second coming from my friend and teacher in Thessaloniki, Christina Michailidou, from Δημοτικό Σχολείο Νέας Ραιδεστού. A gesture that will be remembered by the recipients in Calabria.
One of the villagers somehow tricked me into taking a ride on his scooter and to another hidden piazza, where various generations of Greko speakers were playing music and dancing. When I noticed Danilo and Basil turn up, I felt a quick getaway looming, instead, we all joined in another round of music during what can only be described as Greek time, with 4.00 pm approaching and the kids from Palizzi almost certainly waiting!
Eventually, I was able to usher us out of the piazza and to the waiting car for a drive down the mountain past the old dried river that once connected dozens of Greko towns. The river may have dried up, though the spirit of Greko and the language never will. As long as there are people who can speak the dialect and enough people who care about the Greko villages, then these statues will remain on speaking terms with the rest of us for millenia to come.
For more information to help save the Greko language visit https://buonacausa.org/cause/se-mi-parli-vivo
Note there are a number of groups in Calabria all working toward preserving the language, including Apodiafazzi.
*Billy Cotsis is the the author of the Many Faces of Hellenic Culture