Forty years ago tomorrow, my mother left behind her village in Macedonia with her brother Meni and arrived in Melbourne, Australia. She has returned twice to Boshoftsi (Mavropigi – black stream) to take her mother back to the village and to bring her back to Australia. The last time she was there was in 1999. Since then, the rocky stuff that made the stream in the village black (coal) has transformed the place and the community, making it Almost no place to go back to.
The Thei open pit coal mine grows, stretching its terraces closer and closer to the village. Other villages have already gone under the shovels and dozers, creating a different sort of space in these once dwelt-in places.
On the edges of the village (or is the anchor of reference now the coal pit?), fields (horafia) lie abandoned, except for those still walked by my Thio Fani who still keeps his herds of stock here. Our relatives and other village dwellers have almost all moved to the nearest big town. Their safety is no longer guaranteed, explosions from the mine rocking the earth and breaking apart its substance, the materiality that has fed existence in this land since the great forests laid down to sleep.
I wanted my parents to go back to the village when they were in Europe earlier this year. It is only now I can sense the heartbreak that would have ensued if they had.
My father once told me about the way in which the fields were laid out before they had been consolidated for tobacco farming. Each family had fields scattered on the outskirts of the village, each bounded by pear and walnut trees and vines. Then someone had the bright idea of redistributing the land so that everyone had big plots they could tend for cash crops, so the pear and walnut trees and vines went. The waves of industrialisation – some small and soft, others big and violent – of the land have removed people from the places with which they were connected.
When my family and I were talking about our family tree, I would ask my mother and father where so and so came from… “the village” and this person who married such and such… “the village”. In living memory, all but one of my ancestors has come from this village. I went there once, when I was nearly sixteen. I walked the voono (mountain) with my father and spoke to a relative herding goats. On top of the mountain is a tiny church and a view of the fields, village, open pit coal mines and smog from the nearby coal-fired power station. My time in the village (4 weeks) did not foster within me a sense of home or feelings of belonging. I have always felt confronted about this. Like so many other first-generation Australians, the place of my ancestry exists in the imaginary of my parents’ stories about ‘the village’. Their village is a place from 1968 (dad) and 1974 (mum), the home they left behind.
What will remain of ‘country’ and feeling in country when the fields, houses, mountain, trees and birds are all gone? In the space that used to be place, a home…