Our nearest neighbour, or at least, the person who owns the land which gives on to ours, is Nikos Abramis. He has the terraces above us on the valley side.Nikos, who is seventy, cultivates his olives - he has a thousand trees around the district - and he is also a shepherd, with a flock of fifty or sixty sheep.
When he comes down for a chat and a cup of coffee, he brings the sheep with him. While he sits on one of our white plastic chairs, scowling at his coffee and trying to teach us village Greek, the sheep wander off in search of whatever is edible beneath the olive trees.
He speaks to us in a kind of pidgin Greek, as if we were idiots, which I suppose in a sense we are. Geros (old man) he says, pointing to his chest. Nonsense, we say, though in truth his chest is bad and he is thinking of selling his sheep. After a time, the sheep which have wandered out of earshot begin to bleat anxiously and Niko stands up to shout at them. They go back to their grazing, reassured by the sound of his voice.
The life of a shepherd here follows a traditional pattern. He stays with his flock, often moving considerable distances as the sheep move about in search of good grazing. He is the father of his flock, the good shepherd.
When he is ready to leave, he shouts to them again and they materialise on the track. He wanders off in his straw hat and his split trainers in a sea of sheep.
The nearest actual dwelling to ours is about a quarter of a mile down the track to the sea, a marvellous sprawl of provisional buildings, ancient Mercedes trucks, flower beds, vegetable plots, palm trees and tree sized geraniums
All this belongs to Herbert, who is Austrian. For 37 years he was a long distance truck driver, and now, at 66, a farmer and a recluse. He lives here alone, alone, that is, except for his animals: two gigantic German shepherd dogs, Attila and Suloh: a horse: ducks: geese: and 37 cats. He has been here for eight years and only in the last three years has he started to build a house for himself. He used to live in a caravan. The new house, a small structure resembling a Tyrolean chalet (Herbert comes from Tyrol) has a wall a yard thick, for ‘isolation’, he says.It is a while before we twig that he means insulation.
Herbert has been very generous with us, ferrying building materials from Kalamata, donating plant cuttings and vegetables from his garden, as well as sacks of siegen scheisse, goat shit, for fertiliser.
He exchanges goat muck for geese with a friend of his in the mountains. Often, when we appear on his land he is boiling pigs’ heads, which he gets cheap from the butcher’s in the market, in a pan for his dogs.
Though he has little Greek, and Nikos has no German at all, the two men are close friends. They harvest their olives together in the winter months and Herbert’s truck is a great asset in the village. Though they clearly get on well, between spats, Herbert is dismissive of Greeks in general. ‘They have no logic’ he says, pointing to his temple.
Five years ago, Herbert took Niko back to Austria with him, the first time Niko had been out of Greece, and arranged for him to have dentures made there. At this time Niko had only two teeth left in his mouth. Now he has a flawless set of white teeth and his standing in the village is unquestioned.
Much has changed in the lives of Niko and Herbert, of which more anon.