By Senaj Alijevski

After eighteen years in Australia, my mother decided to return to Macedonia. One evening, she dialed the number to our family overseas. It sounded like they were right in front of her.  From both ends they spoke with a different accent. One that sounded both familiar and unusual to me.

‘We’ll be there on the 30th of July at 12:30pm,’ she said, twirling the phone cord.

‘What do you mean you’ll believe me when you see me there?’

She hung up the phone slowly, like she had put it down on so much left unsaid. My mother bought four tickets from Modica travel. She looked at them for a couple of minutes, reading the times of arrival and departure. Then, she folded the itinerary and put the tickets in between.

‘Only two weeks until we go. I hope it’s going to be the same way we left it,’ she said.

‘There’s still a lot of time from now until we reach our destination,’ I said

She handed the tickets to me and I looked over the itinerary. My first impression was the travel consultant sold them to us at an expensive price. When I hinted this to my mother, she took the tickets and put them away. I immediately thought of other people who might miss us while we were away.

Packing luggage in my dimly lit bedroom, I felt a shadow of a doubt creep into my mind. It felt like the last time I was going to see my Australian home. Perhaps as an anchor, I left a lot of my jewelry behind. Everyone seemed puzzled as to why I packed my luggage so soon.

The evening before we left for Macedonia visitors came to our house. Most were relatives who lived near us, like my aunties and their children. A neighbor from a similar background to us brought some gifts to send to her family overseas. Most of them chatted about their experiences in Macedonia. It didn’t take long before they started to give advice about all the changes. Other guests gave souvenirs, or presents, mainly clothes or money for their family living there.  My mum, reluctant about what or how much to take, returned some of the items. I’ve never seen people so caught up in the idea of material items giving them a sense of happiness. It predicted the things to come.

On the day we left, people rushed around to sort out the last minute things. We let the relatives overseas know of our arrival time and found out what was needed for the hot weather, since it was summer in Macedonia. Apart from the occasional phone calls or chats via Skype, I knew so little about my heritage. It left me thinking there was always something lost; I didn’t know what to expect. My mum had tried her best to keep us up to date about the country we had left behind, until there was no choice but to return.

Once our luggage was packed and weighed, it was twelve noon. From doorway to doorway, everybody continued to rush about. The last of the Turkish coffee was consumed, as if it signalled a final goodbye. Perhaps it foreshadowed the events to come. I listened to them sharing past experiences of their childhood and the moments that made them memorable.

I could remember my mum saying, ‘People who visited the villages in Macedonia keep saying it’s changed, the lifestyle and the amount of work they needed to do to support themselves.’

She started to giggle and looked into the empty cup of Turkish coffee. It seemed like she wanted the coffee cup to answer her questions. In some of the cultures from the Balkans, there’s a tradition of fortune telling from reading symbols into the sediment left in the cup. Supposedly, the symbols represented events destined to happen in the future. Symbols on the bottom of the cup are meant to represent the past, while symbols on the top of the cup represent the future. Tasseography never made sense to me. In my opinion, it was just a means to pass on gossip in an indirect way.

True to the coffee reading, twenty-four hours later the plane arrived in Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia. As soon as I walked out of the plane, a wave of heat blew straight to my face. It felt like a hairdryer on full blast. It took a while for me to adjust to the warmer weather after the cool climate of the plane. The stockings I wore stuck to my skin from perspiration and the rubber from the soles of my shoes almost melted from the heat of the pavement. They were too flimsy for the terrain. We entered the airport and I saw a sign: All very welcome, Dobrodosao Skopje. Oh, the bittersweet irony. The lady at the front desk initially gave us a blank expression, perhaps thinking that my family and I were foreigners to the country. But when my mum spoke the language, she decided to point us in the right direction.

At the entrance, I saw a swarm of people waiting for their families. At that point I couldn’t recognise any familiar faces, until a couple, I couldn’t remember from which family photo, came forward to greet us. The most amusing part of our arrival was when a total stranger mistook my mum for his daughter; a

One of my relatives gifted me with a bunch of roses, wrapped in purple cellophane.

‘Hi honey!’ She said, in a heavy accent.

‘Good to meet you.’ I half-smiled.

I could see from her body language she was expecting something, probably from one of my other relatives. Maybe they had let her know what they purchased for her. She handed me the roses reluctantly, talking all the time about how much they cost – as if roses were rare.

Again, I had the impression she was expecting a gift in return. I’m not too sure if this was a custom or just her mannerisms. Then she decided to take the roses back, claiming they came from a farm hours away. Personally, I’m not a fan of roses, so I didn’t mind that she took them back.

The two-hour trip took us through the rough terrains of the villages from Skopje to Bitola. I could remember a folk song about Bitola. There were a couple lines from the lyrics that made the trip meaningful:

I have been to many cities, many villages,

Dear to me, like you, nowhere did I find.

Bitola, my hometown.

At Kafanas, the customers would make special requests for that one song. I didn’t grow up in Bitola to appreciate the tune, but it did resonate with me. Despite its annoying background vocals of the woman singing that Bitola is her hometown, repeatedly, I never thought anything less of the place because of it. I could almost picture the city. So close, yet so far away, just like some distant memory lost in time.

My uncle drove past the rural areas. There were homes that resembled cottages, all painted white with hardly any windows. Some had fences in the front yard. Most of them placed chilli peppers out to dry, perhaps to make paprika when they were ready. There were gardens full of chilies and tomatoes or grape vines. Most of the villagers provided for themselves since they had no Safeway or Coles as a backup supply. I could imagine, when winter came around, how difficult it would be to provide for themselves. I suspected most of them would stock up during the middle of summer to prepare for winter.

I could hardly adjust to the changes around me. It took a while to recognise the familiar areas. My grandparents’ house was painted white on the outside with a flimsy gate at the front. The gate looked like it could be easily blown away by the wind at any moment. Strangely, there were many taps present at the front of the yard. A large number of clothes were hung out to dry in the front yard. They didn’t have a backyard. All those clothes gave me the impression a large number of people lived there. The rooms were small, and there were occasions when many other guests would arrive and they barely had any places to sit.

We stayed at their place for a couple of days, until one night, when my mother came into the room I was sleeping to wake me up. At first she shook my shoulders. It was four in the morning.

“What do you want?” I opened my eyes.

“We’re going to Ferizaj.” She smiled.

I was reluctant to go. Emina smoked in the room, waiting for me to get ready. I couldn’t stand the smell of smoke, so, I opened the window to not breathe in the fumes. I stumbled out of the room, carrying my red bag packed with items to pass the week. I nearly tripped over a rock on the way to the front yard. The others got the luxury of a car ride. The rest of us needed to take the train there, so we all made our way to the station, to get tickets from Bitola back to Skopje, then to take a bus ride to Ferizaj.

The station was dark and dreary. I could hardly see anybody come in or go out. The only light I saw came from the fast approaching train. I was aware of the station’s unpleasant odour, like it was built a long time ago. To my surprise, I later found out it was built in 1991. At that moment, I stepped into my mother’s shoes, and began to understand her uncertainty. It took four hours to reach our destination.

I visited my auntie’s place, I figured out what happened to the roses. I saw them in a vase on the table. This time, they were wilted and all the petals were tinged with brown, although they didn’t fall off completely. The water was this chlorophyll green. They had completely changed because of the weather. I felt like I deserved an explanation. Then it came home to me: anything good adapts to its surroundings, despite its qualities.


Image by LoboStudio Hamburg