Seasons

Do I have a favourite season? Which is my favourite season, you might ask? Well, for me all seasons were good, they all have their distinct phases, they all highlight different aspects of nature and I enjoyed all of them as they rolled on with time and as one season gently fused into the next season.

The coming of spring was announced by the appearance of the first swallow, a slim black bird with a split tail. Soon there would be dozens of swallows, all looking for a nesting spot. Every year we had a pair of swallows building their nest out of mud in the corner between the two walls and the balcony ceiling of our house. It wouldn't be long before the nest would be full with chicks with their yellow mouths stretched open and waiting for their parents to fill them with insects.

As the warmed-snow melts exposing the rich brown ground and the melted water seeps into dark brown soil, one can feel the warm soil and actually see the water vapours rising from it. Soon enough the wheat that was sown the previous autumn will crack the soil open and the new wheat will shoot upwards like bright green spears. From now on everything speeds up, if you stayed long enough in one spot you will see the wheat stems growing vertically upwards, the grass stretching along the ground, the fruit trees blossoming, the nearby hills being covered with bright wild flowers and finally bees and insects buzzing around all happy now that the white winter left us and brought colour and sound to the land. The young lambs that were born late in winter are now mature enough to start grazing on the fresh grass. The start of spring brings the rare and wealthy tourist eager to see nature at its best even if the air was cold enough to bite their ears off.

One day in early spring I had taken the lambs and their mothers to graze along the edges of our nearest wheat field when a young couple driving in their new car stopped and the man asked me if they could hold one of our lambs and if he could take a photo of the young lady holding the lamb. "Yes," I said, happy to please them. I watched the young lady as she cuddled the lamb with true affection. That made me feel good inside, at that moment I thought how lucky we are to be part of this natural and beautiful environment.

It's amazing how the social-political situation changed for the better in these last few years, because about ten years previously, in that very same wheat field, my grandfather nearly lost his life while he was tending the wheat in his field. He was shot at by a Hortophilakus (field policeman), a man from our village none the less, with the intention of killing him. Fortunately for Dedo he missed. Unnoticed by the field policeman a lady who happened to be walking nearby heard the shot and saw the action and at that point in time she called out to Dedo "Petre run, they are trying to kill you," (our people always spoke in plural). The attempted cold blooded execution was averted, the Pontian Hortophilakus (Greek immigrant from Turkey) walked away as if nothing happened. Nothing was said about this, a Macedonian's word and life for that matter had no value in Greece at that time (during the 1950s).

The land in spring is beautiful to look at, but there is a lot of hard work ahead, starting with the constant weeding. The weeds grew quicker than the plants. Then the watering of the vegetables and strawberries starts, a constant job during most of spring. We also had to keep our animals from eating the growing wheat, corn and vegetables. Still, it was a pleasure to watch the cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, watermelons and strawberries swell up and grow. Soon enough as the days become longer and the sun hotter the fruit will ripen, the tomatoes, the cherries and strawberries will blush with their bright red colours. There will be lots of food for all including the birds. Fortunately for us the birds prefer to eat and feed their chicks insects before they attack the fruit and because there were plenty of insects flying around the birds left the fruit for us to collect and eat. The chicks grew fat in no time at all, but not all was well. As the ground warms, the horrible snakes come out to absorb the sun's energy and start to look for bird eggs and chicks to eat. The birds are careful in choosing the location of their nests to safeguard their chicks, but their safety is not always guaranteed. The swallows in their mud-nests who built high up in the cornices are safe from snakes, the sparrows and finches have no problem keeping their young safe with their nests built deep inside thorny bushes. There is a particular bird, a medium sized speckled bird that lays its similarly speckled eggs on narrow horizontal ledges up high on vertical cliff faces. The eggs are exposed on flat rocky bases, apparently safe from predators because nothing can reach them there, well almost nothing. One day I actually saw one of those cliff dwelling birds feeding its chicks and as I looked around the cliff face I saw a dreaded snake making its way towards the young chicks. Like a rock climber, the snake inched its way from one ledge to another. It's during these situations that one would be convinced that snakes have tiny legs, I too thought that snakes had legs when I saw how this particular snake moved forward without the usual sideways movements that snakes normally use in the open fields. But no, they don't have legs. They press their body against the cliff wall for grip and slowly move forward. At long last the horrible snake reached the nest and had its monthly meal. The sight of the snake swallowing young chicks made me sick. Looking at plants growing, insects feeding on plants, birds eating insects and finally snakes eating birds, it was for me like watching a practical biology lesson.

We were constantly warned about the dangers that snakes presented, not only to birds and animals, but also to ourselves. As a precaution against snake bites, we, the shepherds, always carried a sharp pocket knife with us and we were advised to keep a fire burning when we were looking after the animals. In case of a snake bite, we were told to sterilize the knife by heating it in the fire, cut across the two puncture points where the snake bit us and then with our mouth suck the poison out, without swallowing it of course. I was terrified at the thought of going through this procedure and hoped that I never had to go through such an ordeal. But something more alarming happened to me one day when I was walking along a path through a dense bush leading to an open grass area where our cows would usually go to graze. I was confronted by a coiled snake, sun baking on the path about a metre in front of me. On seeing the snake I instantly froze on the spot, I could not move, I could not make a sound, the only thing I could do was look at that coiled snake. The snake raised its head above its coiled body, with its mouth open and its tongue poking out it began to dart menacingly towards me. It was a stand-off, with me frozen and the snake like a dart thrower was taking aim at me. When all of a sudden and without a sound a hand touched me gently on my right shoulder and a voice said to me "Don't look back, just walk backwards very slowly." The stand-off was diffused. The snake lowered its head and slid in the bushes. I turned around and saw "Kole", my saviour beside me. He explained to me that the snake was just as scared of me as I was of it. The snake was just defending itself. If I had moved closer the snake would have bitten me in self-defence.

We were always exposed to danger, sometimes of our own making. The incident with the bullets in the fire was one of the most stupid and dangerous things we did amongst many other dangerous and silly things. One day whilst walking along a water trench I saw a shiny object protruding from the trench bank, the water had eroded the bank and exposed buried objects. The shiny object that caught my eye was a short machine gun bullet-belt with eight or nine shiny brass cartridges in it. Well, what a find, we now had something illegal in our possession. One person in the group said "Let's explode them" and without waiting for a response he set out striking the end of the cartridge (where he knew the primer was) with a rock against another rock. The cartridge was soon mangled by that rock smashing but it did not explode, it simply exposed the explosive material inside it. It looked like thin brown spaghetti. The next move was to put them in the fire and explode them all at once. We returned to the fire that by now had turned into hot coals. We placed the bullets on the hot coals, all facing away from us and directed towards a clear spot in the valley, clear of people and animals. Within few seconds of being in the fire we heard a volley of gun fire. We couldn't see the bullets flying off into the valley, but I heard them whistle past my ears and down into the valley. I thought to myself how stupid that was and how lucky we were that no one got hurt.

There were other dangerous situations, not always of our own making. One happened to me and another happened to my brother Steve. Both of us still have the scars as a legacy of our accidents. Steve was sitting on Mum's lap who was riding side saddle on her horse just outside of the village heading towards Lerin for shopping. The horse was walking gently along the road, close to the ditch along the road. Next to the ditch was a harvested corn field with the stalks cut about 30 centimetres above the ground at an acute angle. The corn field resembled a booby trap with the cut stalks looking like sharp spears sticking out of the ground. At that moment, the only bus for the day was also heading towards Lerin and it accelerated hard as it passed the horse. The horse was frightened by the sound of the bus and it jumped the ditch and galloped into the corn field. Steve bounced off Mum's lap and fell on one of those spears, jabbing him on the left cheek. Mum held on, she was a competent rider, having ridden horses for many kilometres up and down mountains when she went to collect fire wood. Mum took Steve back to her Mum's house where they stopped the bleeding. They did not take him to a doctor. There was no doctor in the village and Lerin was too far for such a minor injury. As a result of his misadventure Steve gained a movie-star style dimple in his left cheek, which made him look distinctive.

My injury was a bit more serious and it was of my making. It happened when my grandmother was coming home from Solun after undergoing a serious medical operation. The operation was of the nature of "women's business" as my grandfather expressed it. A taxi brought Baba home from Solun. On hearing the taxi approaching our home I ran to see the taxi, not Baba as she was thrilled to believe (I didn't tell her that of course). I didn't make it to the taxi. I tripped whilst I was running, fell on a sharp rock and broke my skull. Dedo came to my aid, looked at the blood gushing from my forehead, he calmed me down and ordered my Auntie to go and get some ground paprika which he placed on the wound and stopped the bleeding. There was no need for a doctor, no need for stitches, the paprika did the job. Some sixty years later I still have the scar on my head. It has to be a serious illness or injury for a person to be taken to a doctor. I was told by an Auntie of mine that when one of Dedo Pavle's grandchildren was sick for days, Dedo Pavle asked Dedo Petre if they should take it to the doctor in Lerin. Petre replied "It's not worth making a long trip for one child, wait until another one gets sick, then we will take both of them together." Back to the taxi: prior to the fall I saw the shape of the headlight surrounds of the taxi and memorized the shape. About a year later when we landed in Fremantle, Western Australia and Uncle Stoyan drove us to Manjimup in his car, I noticed that his car was the same model car as the taxi as it had the same shaped headlight. It was such a distinctive shape.

When you thought things couldn't get any worse, the unbelievable happened. We had to have a great fire, didn't we, a fire that terrified us but united the whole village in co-operative help. Give a child matches and he will start a fire, goes the saying and that is what happened. It was my brother Steve and younger cousin Tanas who had a box of matches in their possession. For no reason at all they started striking the matches and flicking them at the base of the dry bush near the front gate of Dedo Pavle's side of the house. Being a hot day the dry bush caught fire and spread quickly. I was there watching the whole scene in a curious amazement but did nothing to stop the fire from spreading. Steve and Tanas realized they would be in serious trouble when the fire spread to other bushes and fearing reprimand they ran up the nearby hill and stayed there till nightfall until things cooled down so to speak. The dry bushes were fully alight and the flames started to leap over to the adjacent hay barn. Now the barn caught fire and started to burn. At this point in time Dedo Pavle saw the severity of the situation and ordered Leta, his granddaughter, to run to the church in the centre of the village and ring the church bell for help. She rang and rang that bell with a monotonous weary rhythm for almost all day. Every free person in the village ran to help, the fire brigade in Lerin was alerted and came about an hour later, by this time the villagers had formed a bucket brigade from the creek to the barn and were dousing the flames with water. The fire truck arrived, I think it was a horse drawn red wagon with two petrol driven water pumps but I am not sure about the horse drawn wagon part, my memory is a bit unclear on this point. But I do remember the firemen rolling out two hoses that were made out of cloth and then they were trying to start the pumps without success. The fire truck/wagon was useless, it did nothing to put the fire out, nothing worked on it, the village people put the fire out, saving about half of the hay. Leta eventually stopped ringing the church bell. That day the different ethnic groups of the village put their differences aside and helped to put out what could have been a catastrophic fire.

On most days we would dig a hollow in the ground and start a fire. The fire wasn't always used to set off bullets, we did that only once. The fire gave us an identity as shepherds. Normally the fire is used to ward off wolves and other wild animals. We, the young shepherds, didn't venture too far where one would encounter wolves, so we used the fire as a social gathering point, we cooked in it and of course we could sterilise our knives in case of a snake bite. During late spring the corn cobs had grown and were ready for eating straight off the plant, but we cooked them over hot coals which gave them that smoky and delicious flavour. When there wasn't corn available because it was harvested, we cooked potatoes; they needed about half an hour in the hot coals. When we took the potatoes out of the fire and broke the crispy skin exposing the most inviting white fluffy starch inside, it was the best moment of the day. There is nothing better than eating freshly-coal-baked potatoes.

We had about one poyan (an area of about 1000 square metres) planted with corn for horse and chicken feed and also to make kachumuk for us to eat (a meal with corn flour and olive oil). The corn cobs were picked before summer ended, were brought home and placed under the hay shed's veranda where the women of the household would sit on the pile of corn cobs, peel the sheath from the cobs and place the bare cobs on to the slate covered yard in order for them to dry in the sun. When the corn cobs were dry we would pass them through our hand operated machine that removed the kernels from the cob; I loved using that machine with its large cast iron wheel and handle attached on it. And I remember the ladies seated on the pile of corn cobs and singing these gut wrenching soulful songs.

One such song starts like this:

(Macedonian) (English)
Puska pukna, A rifle fired,
vo gora zelena, in a green forest,
ajde sho me oubee, oh what shot me,
dve mludi unatsie. two young warriors…

And it goes on…

This is a simple but emotional song that relates to the Civil War in that region. It tells me more though; it shows that the men faced the danger at the front line and the women bore the pain at home.

Scenes of the ladies at home or in the fields singing sad songs and sometimes happy songs left me with a wide range of emotions. Dedo Petre used to sing this childish but happy song which relates to a typical village life in that region. It goes something like this:

(Macedonian)

(English)

Babo babo grebabo, Grandma grandma with a hunched back
imash chupche ubavo, you have a pretty girl,
daj meo chupcheto give your girl in marriage
i jas ke tio prasham lozeto, and I will look after your vineyard
i ke tio jadam grozjeto. and I will eat your grapes.

And you can add whatever you want to it…

And so on…

Moments like these are unforgettable.

Spring morphed into summer, the days were getting longer, the temperature increased, the crops and fruit were growing fast. The river water-flow slowed down, the water holes warmed up and we were looking forward to our regular swimming days in those water holes. We would walk from our house over the trench that led to the small waterfall then we continued walking down a gentle slope past the samovila's house (witch, a spinster living alone) and straight to the river where there was a large flat rock jutting over a deep water hole. We spent lots of time at this water hole, jumping from the rock into the water, sunning ourselves like snakes and generally having a good time. It was in this water hole that I saw a water snake slithering underneath me as I swam one day. It was gently slithering in an "S" shape. There was no drama this time as I knew water snakes were not poisonous.

Fishing was another pleasant activity for us during summer. We fished for fun and for food. There was one place in the river where the water flowed on either side of a rocky-bank in the middle of the river. At the bottom end of the rocky-bank we would block off the river with rocks that allowed water to flow but trapped the fish, and at the top end of the rocky-bank we would divert the water to flow in the other side of the river. This procedure reduced the depth of water on one side of the river where the fish weren't able to swim, so then we were able to catch the fish with our bare hands. We felt like heroes walking home with several fish strung on river reeds.

Summer meant hard work for the adults, starting with the cutting of the grass which would eventually become hay when it dried. Both grandparents would cut a field of grass in one day with their scythes. Three or four times during the cutting they would stop to sharpen the long curved blades of the scythes with a sharpening stone and then have a rest. The sharpening action had a distinct sound, as they hit the blade at one end and then scraped the sharpening stone along the blade. I enjoyed watching them sharpening the scythes and then cutting the grass with their skilful swings of the scythes blades, swinging them only a few centimetres above the ground. Baba sent me to the livada where my grandparents were cutting the grass so I could fetch water for them from a nearby spring so they could have a drink and to cool down with it. I say cool down because they first poured the water on to the handkerchiefs that they wore over their bald heads and then drank some water to quench their thirst.

I have a vision of the back of me and slightly above me; even now I can still see myself walking on the edge of the concrete water channel that was bringing water to the village. The water was crystal clear. The remarkable thing is that I remember clutching my precious lunch in my hands, a piece of cheese in my left hand, a slice of bread in my right hand and a mixture of salt and pepper in my right pocket; that was my lunch for the day.

Left: Harvesting wheat. Right: Cutting hay.

At lunch time my grandparents laid down on the ground with their elbows on the ground, their heads in the palm of their hands and close to one another waiting for me to return with another buklei of water (buklei, a hand-made wooden bottle). One day after their drink they stunned me with a direct and factual statement; they said in unison "Well, Manoli, you will be going to Australia soon and you will not be back to see us again." I didn't know how to reply to that statement, I knew there were plans in action for all of us, that is Mum, Steve, Silvi and me to go to Australia, but coming from my grandparents confirmed it and made it sound like a crime that I was about to commit. They were no nonsense people. I took it all in and I thought to myself that I will go back to see them one day, not sure how, but I will. Their statement together with my vision of the two brothers laying on the livada stayed with me forever, that was the last time I saw them together, a sad and memorable moment in time.

Even though summer is a long season, it eventually comes to an end and turns into autumn and then the interesting work starts. The adults would cut the wheat with their sickles by hand. Wheat harvesting is perhaps the most difficult job. It needs to be cut and tied into bunches before the grains start to fall on the ground. When the wheat is ready and ripe for cutting, all available hands go to the approximately 1,000 square metre wheat field and try to cut it down in one day. Strina Noumitsa (Uncle Noume's wife) told me that during the 1948 harvest in autumn while I was a baby mum took me to the wheat field and left me on the ground besides the field while she was helping with the wheat harvest. When she returned to check on me, Mum found me covered with ants and a smile on my face. Now is an opportune time for a parable that Mum told me once, it involves wheat harvesting.

Vreshime chenitsa (threshing wheat) with the horse in the gumno.

There is a species of a tiny golden brown bird that makes its nest in wheat fields; the nest is woven around several wheat stalks. At about harvest time the young chicks are ready to leave the nest. Now the parable starts: During autumn a farmer comes up to check on his wheat field for harvesting; the chicks in the nest over heard him say "The wheat is ready for harvesting, I will ask my friends to come and help me cut it down tomorrow." The chicks were alarmed and when their mother returned they told her that they should leave the nest because the farmer was going to cut the wheat tomorrow. The chicks' mother told them not to worry as it's not the time to leave yet. Well, next morning the farmer appears again, but no friends turn up to help him. Now the farmer says "I will ask my sons to help me cut the wheat tomorrow." The chicks heard the farmer again and now told their mother that the farmer will surely cut the wheat and that they should leave the nest by tomorrow. Tomorrow and the farmer came, but the sons were nowhere to be seen. The farmer now in desperation says "I will pay people to come and cut the wheat tomorrow." This information is again conveyed by the chicks to their mother who now said to the chicks "Now is the time to leave the nest." Moral of the story is: If you want something done, do it yourself or pay someone to do it.

The cut wheat is placed vertically in bunches in the field and allowed to dry. It's these dry bunches of wheat that attract field mice that in turn attract snakes. Snakes are a constant menace in our region, especially in summer. The dried bunches of wheat are picked up using a three pronged folk (to avoid being bitten by snakes) and placed on the wagons where they are transported to the gumno (a round, flat horizontal and smooth dirt oval covered with dried paste made with cow manure).

The gumno has a round pole in the middle of it for the horse to be tethered to it by a rope. The harvested wheat is spread on to the gumno where the horse will tread on it crushing the wheat heads and releasing the grain as he goes around the pole. The horse would tread along the whole gumno as the rope winds around the pole. After several cycles of the horse winding and unwinding the rope around the pole most of the wheat grain is released. After removing the wheat chaffs and stalks with the wooden pitch fork the wheat grain is then separated from fine bits of broken chaff by tossing the wheat vertically up into the air and allowing the breeze to blow the light chaff away. The wheat then goes through a series of sieves before it is bagged and taken home and stored in the silos. Every month or so several bags of wheat are taken to the flour mill for milling and every month or thereabouts the ladies of the house make dough and bake it in the furna. The furna is an integral piece of equipment of farm life as it bakes our bread, cooks our pastry and bakes whatever is in season. Firing up the furna and baking was an all-day affair. In addition to baking enough bread to last all month, we would bake cora (pastry), chicken, potatoes and pumpkin. The furna-baked pumpkin was a special meal, lovely orange colour, beautiful aroma and honey sweet taste.

My favourite part of autumn was the harvesting of the grapes and the whole process of wine making. Right now I can metaphorically project myself above the horse drawn wagon and visualize the wicker baskets full of white grapes gently rubbing against each other and watch the fresh grapes wriggle themselves lower into the baskets. When the grapes reached home we would eat some of them, but most of them we would crush, then we would press them, filter the grape juice through a fine cloth and then drink the moss (grape juice) before it started to ferment into wine. We didn't make wine out of white grapes, in fact nobody made white wine in our village. We had another vineyard for the purpose of making wine, it was set on the side of a steep hill which was difficult to get to, but it was facing the afternoon sun, ideal for growing dark red grapes and therefore ideal for making red wine. The red grapes were transported by our horses in two large coshsess (wicker baskets) fixed on either side of the horses. There is nothing more organic and romantic as picking our own grapes, transporting them with our horses and then crushing and pressing them with our own hand-made equipment. The grape juice was placed in a botchver (large barrel) and allowed to ferment into wine. Nothing was added to the grape juice. If fermentation didn't start a warm rock was placed in the barrel in order to start the chemical reaction. If the chemical reaction was too fast a wet blanket was placed over the barrel in order to slow the chemical process of turning the sugar of the grapes into alcohol. If the chemical reaction was allowed to proceed at a fast rate it would generate too much heat and the wine would spoil, turning it into vinegar. I was learning Chemistry without realizing it. When the barrel stopped bubbling, indicating that the conversion of sugar into alcohol was complete, we sealed the barrel and waited for winter in order to start enjoying the wine. We drank the wine straight from the barrel, we didn't bottle any wine. We made enough wine to last the whole of winter, that is if we drank in moderation. We did drink in moderation, we ate in moderation, and in fact we did everything in moderation. Some evenings we didn't drink any wine at all because the wooden tap on the barrel had frozen. Dedo would say "Nema vino, zamrzna klino (there is no wine, the tap froze).

Nothing was wasted at the Germanchev property. The skins from the crushed grapes together with the residual wine were turned into rakia (an alcoholic spirit) by the process of distillation. I was fascinated by this fundamental chemical engineering process. My Dedo had the equipment and licence to distil and sell rakia; I was privileged to observe and take a small part in the operation.

The still and the fire place for it was built inside a simple mud brick building with enough room for the still, the basic hand-made condenser, several baskets of comiti (crushed and fermented grape skins) and of course most importantly the glass flasks covered with weaving in which the final product of this long awaited process was poured into.

The still, together with the rakia that it produced, nearly killed me one year, as was explained to me by one of my aunties many years later. I will try to describe the near fatal situation to the best of my ability as the event unfolded. The still was built on the south west part of our property where the land is at its lowest level. Along the western border of the land there was a water channel, carrying water to the rest of the village and when required into the still's condenser. When the still was not in use which was most of the time the water dropped about a metre over a small waterfall into a fish trap that was woven from willow branches in the hope of catching fish. Past the fish trap the stream water flowed into a large pipe that carried the water over the creek and into the rest of the village. The water pipe over the creek was an object of adventure for the daring amongst us. All of us have at one time walked along the pipe to the other side of the creek, but only the more daring ones among us have made the crossing by crawling under the pipe with their hands and feet. I wasn't one of them. During late autumn that part of our property was warm and wet which attracted all sorts of insects including fire flies. We spent hours there, catching fire flies, placing them in glass jars and pretending we made lanterns with which we could walk home in the dark night. I was careful walking home in the dark and not taking risks with crossing the creek by hanging underneath the pipe but what happened to me at the still was something different and it had nothing to do with not being careful. Perhaps Dedo could have avoided the mishap if he thought carefully about what he had asked me to do. He gave me a man's job to do, I guess Dedo had confidence in my ability to complete the job. Dedo and I set up the still, we placed a batch of comiti (lees, grape skins) in the lower semi sphere of the still which was made out of copper, then we placed the other semi sphere together with its tapered copper pipe which was coiled like a large spring on top of the lower hemisphere and sealed the joint between them with fresh dough. The coiled copper pipe was part of the condenser which fitted in a large cylindrical container. The water from the water channel was diverted into the cylindrical container. The fire was lit and set to burn at a slow rate. About ten minutes later the still started to boil and some distillate started to drip from the condenser and into the collecting glass jug. Dedo tasted the first few drops of the distillate and declared it to be "shpirt" (methanol), too strong and bad for drinking. He threw this out. After several tastings he said "Now we have rakia coming out." Dedo had to go somewhere that day so he lowered the heat of the fire and told me to keep the fire burning at this low rate. He also told me to keep on tasting the distillate at regular intervals in order to notice when the rakia started to taste watery. At the point of time that I thought the rakia was becoming too watery I was to stop collecting the rakia and remove the hot coals from under the still. Dedo's instructions to me were clear and precise except that he forgot to tell not to drink the tastings. I was supposed to spit them out in order not to get drunk. Well after few tastings I was drunk as a skunk, I remember being very dizzy and sick in the stomach. I stood up and started to walk away from the still but lost my balance and fell face down into the pond where the water from the condenser was collecting. From that moment I don't remember anything. The Turkish word "kismet" (fate or accidental luck) comes to my mind and is most applicable here and now. It was by kismet that Dedo Pavle was passing by the still and saw me face down and nearly drowned in the pond. He took me home and tried to revive me. I did survive as it turns out but it was touch and go. As a desperate measure (according to my Auntie) Dedo Petre drew blood from the back of my neck and placed it on my lips for me to taste it in order to give me the will to live. Apparently that's what they do to lambs when they are too weak to stand up after birth. Ever since then I have been squeamish about anything to do with blood, even now I hate taking blood tests and I am petrified of medical operations.

Winter takes its time coming, but when it comes it stays on like an unwelcome visitor. Most adults complained about the cold days spent indoors without much to do and not much to eat. For me though winter was just wonderful. I loved the cold crisp snow that forms during the clear star-filled night sky, there was always something to observe or just play in the snow. I remember the winter of 1958 started slowly with cold slushy mud on the ground and on the paths. My brother, sister and I were coming from Mum's parents' house and we were going to Dedo Petre's house to be taken care of for a few weeks. The two sets of grandparents looked after us in turn while Dad was in Australia and mum was away looking for a cure for her infected ankle. It was late in the afternoon when we were walking rather rejected from one household to another household that didn't really want us. Head down and dragging my feet through the slushy mud I come to a junction in the path and there, on my right was a house very close to the path. I looked into the window of that house and for the first time I saw a small pine tree with bits of cotton fluff, empty egg shells and some coloured paper attached on it. Just then it occurred to me that it was nearly Christmas. I muttered to myself "So this is Christmas" and moved on. Christmas for us and possibly everyone else in the village was not anything special to look forward to, just the usual meal in the evening and of course the church service on Christmas day.

Some days such as Christmas day or when Baba Petritsa had finished her chores she would go and visit her widowed sister who lived somewhere in the middle of the village. Baba would take me with her to visit Baba Yana. There and during those rare occasions I was treated to Turkish-style coffee. Turkish coffee was a rare treat because it had to be prepared with sugar, an expensive item then. Those visits to Baba Yana's and the serving of Turkish style coffee are still commemorated by me when people visit me now.

When Dedo Petre needed to relax and have a break from the hard and stressful work, he would walk down to his friend's house which was near the café and partake in his favourite pastime of "mouahbet" (friendly discussion) outside the café. Dedo never spent money in the café. His friend Kole Noumev ran the second legal distillery in the village which was often the topic of discussion amongst other topics; they were both happy to stand outside the café on the main road and enjoy a friendly mouahbet for hours.

At the beginning of winter few snowflakes at first fall on the still-warm ground and melt, making the ground wet and slushy, but as the ground cools and more snowflakes fall on it, the winter transforms it into a wonderland, the whole visible land is then covered with pure white snow.

My teacher's words ring true: "The land is having a rest in winter and the soil is purified by the snow."

The long winter nights gave us lots of time to listen to stories in the evenings but during the day I preferred to go out and just look around.

During one cold day I remember going to the stables to see our cuddly little calf, such an innocent looking thing with curly and honey coloured fur. It had a curl in the middle of its forehead turning clockwise. The calf was happy to see me as I was happy to see it. We would butt our heads together and feel the love flowing between us. I could also feel its warm breath on my face coming from its upturned nostrils. It was a non-offensive yet soothing warm breath. I also had a tree for a friend as well. It was a bright green pine sapling that was growing vigorously in a rocky part of the ground near the creek and not too far from our house. I remember going to see how it was coping after a heavy snow fall. The young pine tree was struggling to hold the snow on its delicate branches. I brushed the snow off from its branches and relieved the tree of its burden. I was so happy at that moment, so much so that I threw myself backwards on the fluffy snow three times to form three imprints of myself, similar to a paper cut-out of three figures joined together. A heavy fresh snow-fall followed by a cold cloudless night would produce a crusty pillow-like hedge of snow along the road near our front gate. I would walk barefoot on this hedge just to see if the hedge could hold my weight, a simple task but very interesting for me. Walking barefoot on the snow was an endurance test and after walking on the snow hedge and eventually crushing through the crust I would then walk to the nearby boonishchair (compost mound) which was shaped like a cone and was covered with snow. There I would wriggle my cold feet into the middle of the boonischair and feel my feet warm up. I was amazed how this compost heap composed of straw, horse manure and scraps of vegetables could produce heat and how that substantial heat would not melt the snow that was covering the cone-shaped compost heap.

Dedo liked taking me along with him for company and to help him when he went on business deals, even in the middle of winter. I too enjoyed the adventure and the feeling of being needed. I remember two winter journeys with Dedo, One was to Lagen, a village high up in the mountain and about ten kilometres away. And the other journey was to an isolated farm house in the valley; I don't know how far it was but it took us a long time to go there. The trip to Lagen was for the purpose of selling rakia, the mule was loaded with two jars of rakia, one on either side of the mule which meant none of us could ride on the mule. The whole journey was done on foot. The mule had a limp on its left rear leg from an earlier injury. I can now visualize the mule twisting its injured left leg in an unnatural way as it negotiated a steep left hand turn in the snow covered track leading to Lagen. The family in Lagen were Dedo's regular customers. At the entrance to the house we were greeted by a teenage girl, wearing her apron and holding a towel in one hand and a kettle of hot water in the other hand. She escorted us to a hand basin and poured the hot water from the kettle as we washed our hands in turn. I don't think she knew how hot the water was. I wanted to scream from the pain she inflicted on me as she kept pouring that near boiling water into my cupped hands but the etiquette of being a good guest prevented me from embarrassing the young girl on possibly her first time of receiving guests. I don't know if we were paid in cash or we exchanged our rakia for few bags of the famous Lagen potatoes. It's possible that we come back with a mule-load of potatoes because Lagen was renowned for the quality of its potatoes and the fact that Dedo took the mule was a good indication that we did exchange our rakia for potatoes as mules can carry heavier loads than horses. And the fact that we walked all the way back was another indication that the mule was loaded with bags of potatoes.


Taking fire wood to the isolated farmer in the middle of winter.

The trip to the isolated house in the valley was similar to the trip to Lagen, only the details were different. This time we took the horse loaded with fire wood instead of rakia. Dedo was leading the horse through the pristine snow. We walked for hours with nothing to see but pure white snow, not too deep as to make it difficult for walking through it. I was walking behind the horse and observed how the horse walked efficiently through the snow by carefully inserting its hooves and extracting them without disturbing the snow too much. I walked in the horse's footsteps so to speak. After the mesmerizing walk I eventually saw something in the distance that looked like a mushroom at first sight, a brown stem with a white rounded cap on top and with puffs of smoke coming out from above the rounded cap; it was the house of course. There was life in there, isolated and insulated from the surrounding cold snow. The people in that house depended on our firewood to keep themselves warm through the long winter. This time money was exchanged for the firewood instead of potatoes and there wasn't a teenage girl to burn my hands with hot water. The man of the house was happy to see us and engaged in a mouahbet supported with a glass of warm rakia that was later followed by a small cup of coffee (Turkish style). The trip back was very pleasant as we both rode the horse home, there wasn't much conversation between us but when Dedo spoke to me, he would come up with something worthwhile. It was either during this trip or a similar business related trip that Dedo gave me a brilliant piece of advice. With a serious tone in his voice and by choosing his words carefully he said to me:

"Manoli, you should learn how to do your own calculations so that people won't be able to cheat you when you go shopping."

I remembered Dedo's advice and I was able to fulfil his instructions of learning calculations to an even higher level than what he intended me to do. In retrospect I doubt if Dedo ever heard of algebra, of polynomials or of calculus, he was thinking of percentages and basic mathematical operations. Well, I can certainly carry out my own financial calculations now and solve more complex mathematical operations than that. This makes up for my failure to return and see him and his brother back in Macedonia. Eventually though, Dedo Petre came to Australia and we met up a few years before he passed away; but sadly I didn't see Dedo Pavle after that memorable time when he was cutting hay in the livada back in Macedonia.

I could talk for hours about winter and the snow in particular but these will be descriptions rather than recollections. I will move on to more childhood memories now and then talk about the last goodbye.

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