We pulled off the main road and began to climb to the remote village in western Macedonia where I had been born. Since I had last visited 13 years before, the coal mine had taken a big bite of the hills east of my neighborhood, leaving an open wound of crimson earth. From the road below, I tried to erase this lesion by focusing on the red-tiled roofs, the water trickling down from the spring, and the scent of mountain sage.
The Greek power company had discovered coal years earlier, had purchased many fields and now had plans to buy the houses themselves. In a few years Klidi would no longer exist, just like Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Its population, once a couple of hundred, now numbered 38.
I had come with my wife and daughter for a final look but was full of apprehension. Should I visit the few people I still was related to? Would they remember me? Would they want to see me?
I started with the school itself, closed now for years, where I last stood holding my grade four diploma, before poverty pushed us to immigrate to Canada and others to Germany or Australia. It was reassuring to know that this building still stood, that there was a place I could return to after all. When I attended this school, the world seemed small, limited to letters coming from abroad and the music and news from our battery-powered radios.
We then moved on to the main square in front of the café. The steam on the glass windows meant people were inside. But who? Would anyone know me or care? Suddenly someone came out and asked who I was. When I introduced myself he told me to go in and I opened the door with an unsteady hand. “Gregory,” shouted Mimis the owner. I was astonished that he could recognize me. “We thought you were representatives of the power company. That’s why we did not come out and talk.” Mimis told me he had bought the kafeneion 28 years earlier and had run it by himself all this time. “How is business?” I asked. He said he only made about 2-3 Euros a day as he passed out raki, the home-made spirit that men drink here and elsewhere in the Balkans. But he would keep it open until the end. And then he would never come back. He will be the last café owner of Klidi, the final man to serve coffee and raki on this spot of the globe.
We walked on to the house of my birth, in ruins for decades. I stood by the fallen stones, remembering my mother locking the door the afternoon of our departure. The houses near us seemed deserted. But then from the corner of my eye I caught a figure. Moving closer I recognized my mother’s cousin, Vangelis. When I told him who I was he broke into tears and took me inside to his 91-year-old brother, Tragianos, who could not believe I was standing in front of him. While he was holding my hand, I tried to figure out our relationship – second-cousins-once-removed. But to him, I could have been his son. Relations matter here.
I had vague images of the two brothers appearing at my parents’ threshing floor, with two winnowing fans, those wooden tools shaped like oars. Along with my family they shoveled up wheat, waited for a gust of wind, and tossed it in the air so as to separate the wheat-berry from the chaff. “What will you do,” I asked “where will you go?” They would move to the nearby town but could not imagine being buried away with their wives and parents, brother’s and sisters. I asked who was left in the village for me to visit. “You must go to Lenka,” they insisted, the daughter of my mother’s best friend. “She is also of our clan,” they reminded me, an important distinction.
After a visit to the cemetery to light candles at my grandparents’ graves, we went up to Lenka’s door and knocked. No one came. Feeling disappointed we were moving away when a middle-age man poked his head out. “Who are you,” he asked. When I identified myself, he admonished me for knocking at the door. And I remembered that it was rude and unfriendly here to knock. You just burst in and say hello.
The family was in the midst of coloring eggs for Easter. Over more raki I asked Lenka’s son, Vassilis, why our village was in decline while the one over the mountain was thriving. He said that they never abandoned their flocks of sheep and goats while our village wanted to modernize. “We didn’t want our children to be shepherds and till fields. We wanted them to get an education, like you did.”
We left the house, laden with red eggs, Easter bread, one large bottle of raki, and two bottles of homemade red wine. Overwhelming generosity by north American standards, it seemed a gesture of kinship and hospitality.
For our final stop, we made our way to a neighbor who seemed inconsolable when she saw me. When I lived in Klidi, they were the poorest family, sometimes not having enough to eat. She told me that my mother often gave her a slice of bread with sugar strewn on top as a treat.
How did she feel about the move? She said she could not wait to leave. For her the village meant poverty and grinding labor. She wanted to live in the city, closer to her children, near stores, and restaurants. She wished finally to be modern. And the electric company was going to allow her to do this.
I remembered my cousin from a nearby village saying the same thing about her washing machine. Unlike me, she had little nostalgia for village life, having worked in the fields since she was 12, either her family’s own or as a hired-hand. The washing machine represented progress – freedom from having to fetch water from the main spring in clay pots and scrub clothing by hand.
There was a connection between her washing machine and the threat hanging over my village. The power company that was freeing my cousin from manual labor was going to obliterate my house. Coal had enabling and destructive energies.
Now on my final stop, I faced my contradiction: On the one hand, I believe that climate change is the most serious danger facing humanity. At the same time, I realize that billions of people live in poverty. But will their modernization through fossil fuels lead to our own extinction? Can we avoid the fate of my village?