It wasn't just a property. It was a house, a farm, an orchard, a
vineyard, a work place and a social place. Above all it was our land
and we were the people of that land. We were attached to that land
and our existence depended on the management of that land.
The seeds to establish and develop the property in Mala were sown early in 1900 when the two young brothers (Petre and Pavle) decided to leave the village of Neret and start a new life for themselves in the more promising and fertile village of Mala. Mala was situated at the base of the mountain we called Leskata and at the start of the valley where the land was more fertile and easier to work on. It was a monumental and well thought out plan. To raise the money needed to buy the land and build the necessary buildings Dedo Petre went to America during 1915-1918. He was 30 years old then. Dedo Pavle went to America and to Australia independently from Dedo Petre. They worked at menial jobs. Dedo Pavle worked as a waiter in New York and when he went to Australia he cleared land in Tallangatta north east Victoria. He also worked at the St Moritz ice skating ring in St Kilda where I, as a student, learned ice-skating and competed in interschool speed skating competitions. I love these accidental connections. I too built a house (a holiday house, but not to the same grand scale as that of my grandparent's house) in Mt Beauty which is near Tallangatta. I don't know what jobs Dedo Petre did, but he taught me how to count to ten in English (this was the only English I knew before I arrived in Australia). He also told me that in America there was a drink called "beer" which he liked very much, but drank it in moderation as he had to save as much money as he could. They saved enough money to buy several acres of land at the north west end of the village and in 1924 they left Neret and moved to Mala.
After excavating and transporting stones from the side of a nearby
hill, the two brothers engaged stone masons from the village of Belkamen
(literally, White stone) to build the duplex-style house. It was a
solid and imposing two storey structure with a cellar underneath and
a built-in stable for the animals behind the house. The scars where
the stones were excavated are still visible today; so is the track
that was used to bring the stones to the building site by a horse
drawn wagon, pulled by our horses. At one spot the track is very narrow.
This is where they lost one load of stones when the wagon together
with the horses rolled down into the creek. Fortunately the horses
were not injured. The stones are still there, they stand out from
the surrounding stones in the creek. The stones are piled like a stack
of dominos, creating hiding spaces for birds to build their nests.
There is a particular species of medium sized birds with a long and
narrow tail that make their nest under such stones. We named this
type of bird "petropoulo" (stone-bird in Greek). I remember
watching one of these birds darting about in very quick and short
movements around those stones. I knew it had a nest under there and
I wanted to find the entrance to it. Well, the bird dazzled me with
its quick movements and managed to go to the nest without revealing
the entrance, a very effective survival technique.
The house was the most important building in the whole complex of our property. It consisted of a large utility room on the ground floor with a central wood-fired stove that was used for heating and for small scale cooking. The ground floor was earthen with a paste of cow manure over it to contain the dust. The cellar floor was of natural soil, while the floors above were constructed of raw hand-sawn timber. The flue from the stove ran along two cornices before it exited into the atmosphere in order to utilize the heat from the gasses. The perimeter of the room had built-in beds that were used for seating as well as sleeping and there was a low dining table in the middle of the room for eating. It was a modest room with no other furniture except for the mantel piece on which rested the kerosene lamp, our only source of light for the evenings. As you enter the house you are faced with the utility room on the left; adjacent to the utility room we had an umbarr (silo) with three separate compartments, each compartment with an opening at the bottom and each compartment with a hopper on the first floor. Past the silo and at the end of the house is a stone stairway leading to the first floor with two bedrooms and a store room. In the store room we kept preserved food such as dried peppers, green tomatoes, walnuts, leek sausages and dried apples (I remember during one day in winter Baba slicing a small piece of dried apple for each of us). Halfway up the stone stairs there was a landing with a small window facing east. The small and only window on that side of the house provided a good view of the creek behind the house. From this vantage point I have seen the creek when it had turned into a torrent, usually during autumn. The volume of water and the power of the fast flowing water was scary, rocks and broken branches where carried down by what appeared to be boiling muddy water. At the first floor we poured the year's supply of wheat, corn and barley in the appropriate silo hoppers. Walking past the hoppers westwards one will end up on the balcony that was overlooking the yard and past the yard one could see the hay field, the strawberry patch and the orchard. The balcony was held by steel posts that went past the balcony and supported the roof above. On one very cold winter morning I was on the balcony with Dedo looking at the frozen hay field when Dedo said to me "Let's see how much you have grown by showing me how far up the pole you can touch with your tongue." I stood on my toes, stretched my neck and touched the pole with my moist tongue. Instantly my tongue was glued to the pole by my frozen saliva. As I pulled back I could feel my tongue starting to rip, the pain stopped me from moving further. Fortunately for me Dedo came prepared with a cup of warm water which he poured over my frozen and glued tongue and thus released me from the pole.
Looking to my right from the balcony I could see the melon patch.
Here we grew rockmelons and watermelons; beautiful fruit. Watermelons
were and still are my favourite fruit. I learned how to tell when
the watermelon was ripe for picking. Firstly, the last leaf where
the melon is attached to the stem had to be brown and shrivelled.
Secondly, you could tap the watermelon with your finger and listen
for a deep satisfying sound. If you were still not sure you could
cut a square pyramid-shaped piece and actually see if the melon was
red inside. If it was not red you would replace the cut out piece
and it would grow back again without the melon going rotten. At the
north-west perimeter of our property was a channel carrying irrigation
water to the village; at that point the water cascaded down a short
waterfall and into a pool. I remember one hot day Dedo sent me to
place one of our watermelons in that waterfall pool for it to cool
down so we could have a cool watermelon after our evening meal. It's
amazing how much cooler the water was after it cascaded down that
small waterfall. Looking straight ahead (westwardly) and past the
stone wall that surrounded the back yard where the sheep were kept
at night, one could see the mud brick kitchen set in the livada (hayfield).
In this kitchen we cooked stews, beans and other similar meals in
cast iron pots held over an open fire by a tripod. Other meals that
required a frying pan or baking were cooked in either the wood-fired
stove or the furna (wood fired oven).
Other outer buildings included the hay barn, the wine room, the wagon port, the stables, the furna, the rakia still and finally the outside toilet. The toilet was actually three mud brick walls in the shape of a "U" about two metres high and built over a ditch that could be flushed occasionally by rain water. The entrance to the toilet was covered with a hand-made rug. Fortunately the toilet was a good distance away from the house for it was a horribly smelling thing and in summer it was buzzing with flies. I for one very rarely used the toilet.