After university, one of my friends moved to
Lithgow to work. She'd lived almost all her life in Canberra, which ought to have made her provincial. It didn't, in fact, but even if it had, she would have seemed thoroughly cosmopolitan compared to many of the people she met up there.
For example, on her first Friday night in the town, she went out to the pub with the rest of her office. Soon one of her new colleagues was bending her ear with a long explanation of how he'd overcome his homesickness. When he'd first moved to Lithgow he'd suffered dreadfully, he told her, but now, two or three years on, he'd finally got used to it. As he said himself, 'I can honestly say that these days I hardly miss Orange at all.'
Orange, I should add is just over an hour's drive from Lithgow.
This anecdote - and other similar ones that she told me - confirmed a theory I'd come up with when we used to drive through the backblocks of Yugoslavia, en route to Albania, Bulgaria or Romania in the mid-1980s.
Every now and then we would pass through some ramshackle little village where there was scarcely a sign that anything had ever changed or ever would and no evidence that anyone was aware of a world beyond the horizon. There were always a few half-dressed children mucking about in the dusty side streets and whenever I glimpsed them, diverting themselves with bits of wood or chasing ducks or engaging in the age-old pastime of throwing stones, I would wonder whether, if you were one of them, born in a place that no-one in the wider world was aware even existed, a place that had no significance except to those who lived there and into which very little came from the world beyond, you would find it difficult - or even impossible - to really grasp the concept that there was an elsewhere, a place where there might be more opportunities or where things might be bigger or better or more exciting.
You might possibly feel an obscure yearning, I thought - especially in adolescence - but the extent of your ambition would probably remain limited to the immediately comprehensible.
Having been born in London, New York represented the pinnacle of sophistication in my mind in those days. If, instead, I had been born out in those endless empty Balkan grasslands, Pristina or Skopje might have been as high as I would have been able to dream - or, if I'd turned out a really big thinker, perhaps, just possibly, I might have made it as far as Belgrade in my imagination.
I remembered these speculations when I went to Lipova this summer. Lipova is not far from Arad and, although fallen on slightly hard times, it looks as though it must once have been quite prosperous. It made me think of the forgotten provincial towns that were the backdrops for plays like Chekhov's Three Sisters and Gogol's The Government Inspector - places that were substantial but off the main stage of political and artistic life.
Certainly, the teenage girls who yelled at me while I was taking photographs seemed to have broken free from specifically Lipovan traditions. They were dressed in the kind of jarring yellow and pink stretchy clothing that I think may have been inspired by gym videos, and their hair, make up, garish fingernails and huge hooped earrings all suggested they were focussed less on local role models than on the likes of J Lo and Britney Spears.
What made them so cross with me I don't know, but maybe it was the outrageous fact that I was interested in the place that they were rejecting. The idea that someone would think anything in Lipova actually merited attention, when they had their eyes set on places so far away, may have been what annoyed them. On the other hand, perhaps they were just expressing an instinctive small town dislike of strangers - or they simply found something extremely irritating about my face.
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