Life

A sabbatical to visit relatives in Eastern Europe brings a chance to discover the language of a small village. By Patrick Hartigan.

A village in Europe

The village where the writer is living.
Credit: Patrick Hartigan

Lenka’s uncle says the storm is coming from Russia. We are standing outside the village shop, watching dark clouds come over a mountain to the north-east – something that rarely happens. Motioning to leave, I watch my wife’s uncle’s eyes turn playful then serious. He has a theory about those clouds and wants to share it with me. He tells me that when Russia hosted the 1980 Olympic Games they fired rockets into the sky to blow the clouds away. Now they are hosting the World Cup.

The storm delivered its wrath in less than an hour. It left the village monitoring its creek walls, on standby for floods. Through an open window upstairs, I watched with my daughter Elise as what looked like swirling iced coffee rushed by, carrying plastic bottles, Styrofoam and bucket shards.

After the creek had dropped, when Elise was fast asleep, Lenka and I sat with our heads out the same window. We breathed in the cool air after a night of slivovica and stories told by Aunt Maria about the family. We wondered, a little drunkenly, if I too might be returning home. Celts had been in these parts, brewing beer and building their wooden houses, several centuries before any Slavs turned up.

I hadn’t heard much about Pavol before that night. He was Lenka’s great-great-grandfather, the man who went to Australia with his wife and two younger children in the 1930s. He came back with his wife 30 years later, keeping quiet about having been deported for being a communist. On his return to the village he moved in with his daughter, the one who had been married off at 16 and left to take care of the family home. He kept in contact with the other two children, who’d stayed in Melbourne, through the post.

With a teetering forearm, Maria described a man who would lose himself to the drink the minute his wife died, who of a morning would say he was off to the post office before zigzagging home several hours later. Recalling Pavol’s fancy hats, she drew a rim around her head: there was a touch of class to the returned communist, even if he was drunk most of the time.

In a village like this everybody has a story. The stories of individuals and families are like jigsaw pieces. Locals may not personally know the people they glance or nod at across the creek or church pew but they will nevertheless be able to place them, a corner piece or a matching bit of sky, into the history and geography of the land.

There are no street signs and there is no official village map; people communicate through a series of descriptors, which Lenka recently drew and translated for me. Some of these were new to me, such as Hukarka – the street built over the razed house of a reputed witch. Others, such as Vierbiny, or The Willows, I already knew. The latter refers to the section of road and creek where villagers source the lean, flexible and strong branches once favoured for weaving baskets, now used primarily as the supports for climbing beans, peas and cucumbers.

What gets translated as Little Cart Road refers to the narrow grassy lane I can see from my window directly across the creek. I go up there to get to The Route to Pasture, where we have been rescuing an apple orchard belonging to one of the many abandoned and ludicrously cheap village homes. The increased rate of defection here relates to the opening of borders and vastly better work opportunities in the west.

It’s mainly young people who go in that direction. Those who stay behind rely on factory work and multinational companies that move into local towns before disappearing east, like robbers, towards ever-lower wages. It’s easy to know who’s been in town from the company T-shirts that long outlive the employment.

It might have been from seeing Pavol’s hats and other Western luxuries that Lenka’s mother first had the idea to follow her forebears and move to Australia. After the Wall came down her family would find themselves in a coastal area just outside of Melbourne, in a granny flat behind Pavol’s son’s house. John, formerly Ján, was retired by then. According to Lenka, he spent most of his time playing golf and poker machines.

I have an image, presumably from a photograph, of Lenka’s family – father, mother, sister, brother – sitting on a small beach. They are in swimsuits that don’t quite fit, or perhaps are being worn for the very first time. Smiling and shocked, they are a few days into their new life – washed ashore in a paradise they have given up everything for. They are adjusting to many things, including the custom of serving guests charcoal chicken bought from the shop, straight from the bag, with the snow-white bread you can squash to nothing between your fingers.

There was a story about Pavol that spoke of a similar kind of despair – the fate of a family dislodged – only in this case from the other end. Before a morning excursion to the bar and post office he was found sealing his envelopes with what he thought was a roll of sticky tape sent by his son. He complained that the tape was no good, that he was having to add glue to make it stick. Somebody pointed out that it was audio tape. A remnant was salvaged and played; family gathered and listened to the emigrants singing traditional Slovak tunes for their father’s birthday.

To get to the orchard from grandma’s house I first cross the creek, from Lower End of Main Street to the Other Side. As I enter Little Cart Road I pass a woman well into her 90s who is rarely not seen working in her garden, including on Sundays now that her memory has gone, and always in traditional dress: black leather shoes, stockings, pleated skirt with apron, patterned blouse, headscarf.

Before turning from Little Cart Road into The Route to Pasture I pass the treacherously steep track formed by decades of use by Lenka’s grandpa. It leads to a hill where he made and stored hay for his goats. He justified using the public land by pointing out that it belonged to his family before having been confiscated by The State. It was early one morning, on his deathbed, a few years ago, when grandpa saw the smoke rising above Little Cart Road. He understood immediately that his shonky hay house was burning down. It turned out that a young man had been taking shelter there, before accidentally setting it alight with a cigarette.

It may well have been this man that I saw 10 years ago, after I first ventured up The Route to Pasture. Returning from the orchard – exhausted and covered in scratches after freeing another apple tree from so much blackthorn, wild rose and plum – I recall these erratic, hard to decipher steps a few metres ahead of me. It was only when passing the boy that I understood what he was doing: playing football with a potato.

Until we arrived in the village a few months ago, I hadn’t experienced firsthand the anomalies and extreme weather of recent years: the May frost that last year wiped out an entire fruit harvest; the subtropical heat and thunderstorms; the strange, oversized insects that eat grandma’s kohlrabies and cucumber plants. Today is another very hot day; the clouds are again creeping over that north-east mountain. We take an evening walk but stay close to home, dawdling beside the creek. Along a bank of flattened weeds, a gang of chickens is looting their way, with urgency and delight, through the washed-up shards and limbs of yesterday.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "Casting shadows". Subscribe here.

Patrick Hartigan
is a Sydney-based artist.

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