I'm sitting with the laptop on my knees in the shade of an olive tree. The branches hang low on the ground because of the many fruits he carries. For hundreds of years his root system has kept him firmly anchored in the dry earth. In its trunk dark cavities give the tree a whimsical character.
There is no lack of olive trees here in the Greek countryside. There is no lack of traces of centuries-old culture either. Almost daily we cycle along old sites. Greece, the roots of our civilization, is sometimes said. The basic principles of our democracy, the Hippokrates oath, words like orchestra, technique and cacophony, and even the name of the Belgian chocolate-shop 'Leonidas' all have their origin in this country. Old concepts in a contemporary way.
We are not always aware of it, of the scope of our root system, just as I don't quite know the story of my birthplace, the origin of my name,... Yet it fascinates me, the genesis of things, the context in which something has become what it is today.
We reached Greece via the mountainous coasts of Montenegro and Albania. There, too, traces of history were everywhere, especially in the stories of the people we met.
Blerim, the 31-year-old man in Montenegro with whom we spend the night, takes us, after a glass of rakja, to the old house of his parents, which borders on the new one. He shows us the handmade table, the fireplace, the niche in the wall for petrol lights. Dozens of tobacco leaves are hanging from beams to dry. In a corner of the room is the wooden bridal box that mother used to move to the house of her in-laws 44 years ago. He proudly shows us the hand-painted colour patterns on the walls and the lid.
The coffin gives rise to stories about the arranged marriage of his parents. Coloured wedding photos in A4 format and printed on coarse cardboard are brought to the surface. Father and mother express the wish that their son will soon find a wife as well.
But that is not easy in the countryside these days. Many young people have turned their gaze to the world and are leaving the country in search of a place with more future. They are faced with the challenge of connecting the age-old culture in which they are deeply rooted with the challenges and influences from outside. ‘A few generations ago, a man would have looked like a man if he knew the traditional songs and rituals', says father Halil. ‘Today a man is no longer a man if he does not speak English'.
A few days later, when we are a guest at the 21-year-old Reghidi's house, he too spontaneously tells the story of the yard on which his parental home stands, on top of the mountain north of the Albanian capital Tirana. How the shepherds gathered there decades ago in the summer and his ancestors eventually built a farm there. His voice is also filled with pride.
While his father goes to the market with his donkey and cart to sell eggs and milk, Reghidi gives us an insight into his future plans. He too sees his salvation in the world, but with his roots firmly planted in Albanian soil. Because he wants to continue to live on the mountain and make it a meeting place again. Not for the local shepherds anymore, but for foreign travellers this time, with shady camping spots under the fig and pomegranate trees and home-made meals... And if possible also a parapente landing place in the yard.
The stories of the young men are now a few weeks behind us. Here under the Greek olive tree, in an environment that formed the language and history of my own culture centuries ago, I think of them again. I hear the pride in their voices again, when they talked about their heritage. I think of their look ahead and their search for their own place somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow.
And me? Meanwhile, every day I cycle further away from home, also focused on the world, curious about what's behind the next bend. Maybe that's why these young men here are going through my thoughts again. They stimulate my interest in my own roots. What traces of my ancestors and of my own Belgian culture actually run through my own veins? How far and deep do my roots reach? And how firmly am I anchored in it?
Every day I too try to give my personal answer to today's challenges, today in the form of a few kilometres on the bike. And the smell of the coal stove in the kitchen in the past, the Belgian tricolour, the struggle for emancipation of my female ancestors, ... they are deliberately hidden somewhere in my panniers, although I am seldom aware of that. And yes, the chocolates of 'Leonidas' too, of course. Especially the white ones with a note.