“Especially when times are hard. That’s not when you should be walking away, that’s when you should be walking there.”
The phrase struck me as especially poignant when I was deep in discussion with Anna Smutny, Montréal-based moksha teacher/dancer/artist, for many reasons, but most of all because this was one of the rare moments when such a statement could be taken literally. Anna was sitting before me, after an adventure of a lifetime, just back from literally walking to Greece.
Walking to Greece?
The first question I imagine one would ask is, well, from where? Not from Canada, that’s for sure. But nevertheless from a considerable distance of 1600 kilometers, from Brno, Czech Republic, to Thessaloniki.
Anna and her sister, Christina, raised in Toronto with a Czech-Greek family, have had their hearts set on opening a yoga studio in Athens for a while now. Two years ago Anna was ready to make the move, and shipped everything she owned from Montréal to Athens. And then the crisis hit. Anna had her stuff shipped from Greece to the Czech Republic, and the sisters decided to re-strategize.
“A lot of work went into a lot of business plans and discussions about building communities that we were ready to create,” Anna explains. “As this was happening, simultaneously Greece was getting hit with all these austerity measures and we kept hearing about this heaviness and depression and desperation. Walking came out of the need to do something now. If we want to do yoga let’s do yoga now. If we want to get to Greece now and we can’t afford it, let’s walk there. Let’s work with what we have.”
Walking was actually Christina’s idea. Anna was hanging out at a friend’s dépanneur when her sister called from Prague. The conversation that ensued was a simple as,
Christina: Anna, I think we should walk to Greece.
The Smutny sisters come from a family that knows what it is to journey towards Greece. Part of a family that migrated from Asia Minor to Greece in the 20′s, the Smutnys identify their own roots and solidarity with migrants and refugees, as a the driving force behind the walk. Anna describes the walk as in many ways a walk back to Greece, re-creating a path footed by many.
“We knew we wanted to start where our grandparents ended. We started the walk in Brno, Czech Republic. From there we wanted to hit Salonica. We said 30 km a day, which ended being more like 45 or 60 km a day. And that’s how we planned it.”
The walkers departed in August 2012, commencing their journey in Brno, passing through Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Niš, entering into F.Y.R.O.M. and passing through St Nicholas before entering Greece at the border near lake Doirani.
In the first part of the journey the walkers followed bike paths along the Danube, where the roads were clearly marked and organized. When they reached the Balkans there were fewer paths, and mostly followed secondary roads or walked where farmers had driven their tractors. Exhausted both physically and mentally, the walkers would usually have to walk over 30 km because they would lose each other, all walking at different speeds in unknown lands, and for the first month, without cell phones.
“I think walking has many levels. There’s meditation, clearing the mind; there’s another angle that feels like this is the way people have travelled for thousands of years, maybe they had donkeys, but it feels extremely natural and healthy. I’ve never felt better. I felt like I finally understood what this body was for. Once you get over the weakness and soreness, you’re so vital, you are connected to how people used to be, to the way that refugees often travel, to the design of the body. This is what we’re supposed to do. It wakes you up on every level.”
The walkers were a varied bunch. The sisters were joined by two Montréalers, a woman from San Diego (she hopped on the bus in Belgrade one month in), and others who joined for shorter legs of the journey. Upon joining the troupe, Apostoli from Crete, driving their equipment, food, and finding camping spots for the group each day, said in typical male-Greek fashion, “I don’t know how to cook, but I’m going to stay with you guys until the end.”
Anna tells me that every day of the walk was like walking through the Wizard of Oz, where Greece is that tantalizing end point. After a frightening moment getting lost in the Belasica mountains (cheerfully described as, “It was one of those moments when you’re like—and we almost made it, and then we died on the mountain.”), they found their way and crossed the border into Greece that very night.
Most heartwarming is the story of their arrival in their family’s village, just outside of Thessaloniki. Everyone was upset they didn’t know about the walk when it was happening. The villagers were as overjoyed, incredulous, likely repeating to themselves over and over, “Τα παιδιά ήρθαν με τα πόδια, ρε μαλάκα!”
Journalists they met were even more disbelieving. “They were like, ‘Greeks would have never thought of this – they’ll stay at home and play Nintendo.’ But we were like, ‘we are Greek!’ I was trying to tell them that when we spread the word about our walk, we received all these responses from Greeks, saying ‘I’ve always wanted to walk’. The idea of walking is in there.
Walk to Greece was an attempt to uplift everybody affected by the austerity measures in Greece; by walking and living outside and practicing yoga we wanted to motivate people to connect back to the land, to help them feel empowered in a difficult time to bring energy into land and community.”
This is probably not the last time Anna will tread this path. “It feels like we have to do it it again. Like we just got to break the seal. And now we need to go deeper.”
Sitting across from me in a buzzing Montréal café, Anna exudes an energy that tells me she could get up right now and start walking all over again.