Smoke and memories

Dunja Kaczmarek was born in Yugoslavia in 1989 and moved to Australia with her family as a baby.  Dunja is one of the Founding Co-Editors-in-Chief of be:longing and enjoys interacting with others who feel similar connections to other places and cultures as she does.


It’s 7:30pm and the summer sky is flickering towards darkness.  I’ve been sitting at an outdoor cafe with my friend Jas for the past hour and a half, just chatting.  But as we’ve been chatting, I’ve also been watching a colossal, multicoloured smoke cloud rise up from the edges of the mountains and progressively fill up the entire southern half of the sky.  We’re in Tuggeranong, in the south of Canberra, and this part of town is getting the brunt of it today.  Beyond Tuggeranong has it even worse.  Namadgi is burning.

As I’ve looked around at my fellow Canberrans this week, I’ve gotten the feeling we’re all trying to stay business-as-usual about this.  This whole fiery summer.  It’s been bad, but no big deal.  Nothing we haven’t seen before.  Bushfires happen, and we’re in Australia, after all.  But at the café, as dusk gives way to night, I notice others starting to look around, too.  We were the ones who had convinced ourselves to be brave and go out for dinner instead of staying inside, but with the evening speeding into night, it seems our confidence is waning.  We’ve all started to imagine the worst with this smoke; this fire, just over the hills, which has grown from 2,000 to nearly 8,000 hectares since the morning.  Eight thousand hectares of healthy, living bush.

At nightfall, a process within me starts up.  A quickened heart rate at first.  Tightening muscles next, particularly in the neck.  And then sped-up breathing; just the teensiest bit accelerated.  It’s enough to distract me from our chat and make me feel uneasy.  Enough to set off my mammalian instincts.  And as the ink of night and this psychedelic smoke cloud join forces at the crown of the sky, my mind races to thoughts of my childhood home.

Earlier in the day, my parents had asked me if they could sleep over at our place, “Naravno, dođite kad god hoćete.”  “Of course, come whenever you want.”  At first they said they’d sleep over and drive to Batemans in the morning.  But then, over the course of the afternoon, they told me they had decided to go to Batemans tonight, before the fire got much closer to their home in Lanyon Valley.  Self-evacuating; getting away from the stress.  I fully supported them in it, and off they went.  But now, with the smell of smoke building and my parents already on their way to the Bay, I start thinking about our possessions and memories still in the house.

My parents have taken the passports, photos, diplomas and dog, but what about all the things still in there – the things that really made our life in that house?  The old clock that we brought with us from Yugoslavia, with the village scene etched into the front panel – the one that ticked so loudly whenever you tried to nap in front of the TV.  The full Opća Enciklopedija set that we brought with us in 1990, and that I used in primary school assignments here in Canberra.  The complete works of Vuk Karadžić and Ivo Andrić, in editions that will never be repeated.  The old child-size piano accordion my brother played as a child, and which I myself played when I got good at the piano here in Canberra.  These things spoke to who we were as a family; to where we had come from.  They were part of our past – things that connected us to our history – in a country where everything we did was the trailblazing, unappreciated work of first-generation migrants.  These things didn’t mean much to anyone else, but they told a story – and they couldn’t be replaced by a trip to Target if the unimaginable happened.

Interrupting Jas mid-sentence, I tell her I need to go.  I feel like I’m being a bit panicky, but Jas is totally supportive.  I apologise, but she reassures me, “Nah man, of course.  No problems.”

An hour later, my husband Mat and I are in Gordon, packing things into suitcases.  I’m going from shelf to shelf and from room to room, picking up every little thing that means something to me and that tells a part of the Cvjetićanin story.  I see the babushka doll my deda Radovan – mum’s father – brought back to Yugoslavia from a trip to the USSR in 1984, and I remember all the times I played with the doll myself as a child, here in Australia.  I would undo each figurine and then reassemble the matriarchy on the carpet – all seven generations – carefully lining up the patterns on each doll’s dress and head-scarf so that they were perfect.  It had to be just-so.  Behind the babushka, I find the Barbie-sized figurines of folk dancers in beautiful traditional costumes.  The jeleks, the kecelje, the marame – every little piece of their costumes is so intricate and accurate.  I smile at how similar the folk costumes I’ve worn while doing Serbian dancing here in Canberra, on the other side of the world from where these dolls were produced, look to these little guys.

Walking to the bookshelf in the living room, my eyes land on “Čudesna Jugoslavija” – “Miraculous Yugoslavia”.  It’s a beautifully photographed picture book that I always admired on the shelf but never once found the time to read.  Now that I’m here, choosing what to protect from the Orroral Valley fire’s possible path of destruction, I’m devouring it with my eyes.  The book showcases all the natural wonders of the now non-existent nation, SFRJ, taking the reader on a journey from the hills of Macedonia through the valleys of Bosnia and Montenegro, up to the flat agricultural plains of northern Serbia and Croatia, and finally to the lakes of Slovenia.  I stop and wonder about what the publishers, Svjetlost, must have been thinking in 1985.  Did they know what would happen to the country in five years’ time?  Could they have imagined how it would go?

When I finish my read and close the book, I look at the title again, and it makes me think of the beautiful leather-bound book our kumovi brought to us last year when they came to attend my wedding in September, all the way from Serbia.  “Čudesna Srbija” this time – “Miraculous Serbia”.  Another incredible, beautiful tome, once again showcasing all the natural beauty of that part of Eastern Europe.  I love that the Cvjetićanin library bears witness to the difference that 30 years can make in the world.  I love that our kumovi came to Australia last year.  I immediately go upstairs and grab their beautiful present and pack it into the suitcase.  I pack every other Serbian book I find along the way, too.

In 30 minutes’ time, we’re pretty much done.  All of this first-generation Australian family’s books, dolls, artworks and memories from the old country are carefully packed up, and Mat and I have put the lot of it into my car.  As we close the boot, he gives me a hug and I thank him for coming with me.

The smoke around us is inescapable now – we’re both coughing when we close the car doors and put on our seatbelts – but as we drive down the street and head back northwards, my heart and mind feel a thousand times lighter.  This fire is scary, and this summer has been tough.  But I feel a bit better now.  And even though a week later, my parents are back in Canberra and the Gordon house is still standing, thankfully untouched, it’s weeks like these that really make you think about who you are and where you come from.

If only there had been a way to go out to Namadgi and take the now 80,000 hectares of bush that have burnt down; pack it all into my car, protect it from the fires, too.  The memories and stories this land has lost through those fires, Mother Nature only knows.

© Dunja Kaczmarek, 2020