Twenty years ago today, on the first of May 2000, the Butrint Foundation trustees and directors were generously invited by the Averoff family to spend Greek Easter in their home at Metsovo, in the Pindus mountains of Greece. We were discussing future collaborations in this celebrated Aromanian (Vlach) shepherds’ town that might help Albania as it inched out of a distressing decade of struggle.
Metsovo is a mountain town, full of tightly arranged Ottoman houses around a large square graced with trees, now celebrated for its cheese production. It was at a cheese factory that I joined the group who had brought a guest, Joanna Lumley. Tall, even gangly, she was at first sight just as she is on television. She had asked to visit Butrint and beforehand she got to see Metsovo over Greek Easter. Of course, she gamely tried cheeses and was curious about the new production methods, but what was immediately apparent was she was not going through the motions; she was fascinated.
[Picture reference https://www.irishnews.com/picturesarchive/irishnews/irishnews/2017/05]
Greek Easter arrived with a mass in the church of Agia Paraskevi; hundreds crammed into the basilica, the light almost orange with plumes of candle-smoke and incense. This was followed by the ritual hurling of ceramic pots into the streets. Then the warm mountain night was alive with cascades of fireworks. Well past midnight everyone peeled off to dinner.
And I spent two hours into the night, sharing red-painted boiled eggs and grilled goat in an angle of a long, crowded table with Joanna Lumley. As everyone threw back pitchers of wine and the laughter and chatter loudened, she focussed intently upon the topic of higher education. I had to lean towards her, head down, to hear. She lamented that education was treated so lightly and wanted to see it embracing the world in the round. Not for a moment would anyone have recognized the celebrated comedienne as she built and mused upon her arguments.
The next day, across the border in Albania, at Butrint she smiled and joked as she toured the archaeological site, radiant in its spring vestments. Her infectious laughter cloaked a thoughtful intellect with a strong sense of how society always needs to be reminded of the central importance of education.