Saturday, September 19, 2009

Velestovo Cemetery

During my time at the language seminar in Ohrid, I went on a little trip to a village in the mountains above the lake called Velestovo. There were a few more new vacations homes than most villages, and an interesting gallery for a local artist, but aside from those things, it was typical of any other village I had been to. There was a public spigot for water in the center, and cobblestone streets leading off through the hills. Newer houses were built alongside mud-brick dwellings from who-knows-when. Goats were far more abundant than people.

There's also an interesting old church. What really caught my eye, however, was the cemetery surrounding the church. Orthodox Christian graves almost always have an actual picture of the deceased on the tombstone - those who died in the earlier part of the century have glazed porcelain pictures, while the more recently buried have photographs laser-etched onto the stone. It's a portrait gallery, and you can walk around looking at what the people looked like in life.

And what long lives they were. Aside from the occasional tragic under-30 death, these villagers had all lived for 70, 80, 90 years. There were even several who made it just past 100. Imagine - born in 1900, this person had lived in the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, then Yugoslavia, and finally an independent Republic of Macedonia. . . and they never needed to leave Velestovo to do so. 100 years of carrying sacks of peppers and onions up the side of a mountain, of rakija and ajvar-making, of sheep-shearing and goat-milking. They seem like hard, hard lives at first - but how hard can a life be, when it lasts for most of a century?

Most of the Macedonian (as opposed to Albanian) villages in Macedonia are dying, in that there are no young people. The older generations remain, unable or unwilling to adapt to a new way of life, unwilling to leave their ancestral home. The younger generations, however, have no incentives to remain in the village. Near-subsistence farming and a social network of under 25 people are a tough sell these days. But the older generation - those 60 and 70 year old people - are still working. Go to a village in Macedonia, and you'll see ancient ment and women, still lugging 50 lb sacks of onions on their backs, chopping wood, slaughtering goats for a feast.

It's really amazing - after all, I have trouble imagining a good number of healthy 20-somethings, myself included, managing these activities. But these old villagers do. They just keep working until the end. And it sounds cliched, but they really do seem like relics from another time. It's not just that their lifestyles are so different, so integrated with the seasons, intertwined with the Old Church Calendar, with families and friends. I can understand that, at least in an academic sense.

But without fail, if you wander through a Macedonian village, there will be a shriveled old woman or man sitting on their steps, or under a tree. . . sitting. And if you say hello, they will respond with the warmest, most genuine "Good day, boy!" you could imagine. And maybe they'll invite you for coffee, or maybe you just continue wandering.

And that villager will continue to sit, slightly smiling, seeming wholly content - with what? Reflecting on life? Or are they simply content with their own contentedness? There's the gap that I just can't cross. Superficially, our lives are much more complicated, the village life 'simpler'. But that's really not true. Our lives are just more cluttered, not complicated. And the real complications of village life - the relationships, the legends, the church calendar, the best spot to find mushrooms, and how much ajvar to make for winter - just don't register with me anymore. I just can't understand them in any deep sense. It's too different.

So trying to figure out what's on that villager's mind as they sit, smiling, really is impossible. It's not just a matter of "I think of movies, they think of folk dances". I can't just translate my experience directly to theirs, unless I want a shallow, superficial understanding. Everything in their life, leading up to that thought underneath that tree at the age of 90, has been wholly strange to me.

It just leaves me at a total loss.

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