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my book…in English
I My Life Without Me
To My Late Father and Fatherland
To Gojko and Yugoslavia
1. My Mother
Where was I when it all started? In the hospital, some fifty years ago, but not in the delivery ward, where most children get their umbilical cords cut. No, I was in the cancer ward, where my mother worked. She was a cancer ward pediatrician, and that night, the 7th of March, after a long game of cards with her friends, she went to work on her night shift.
You must understand that my late Mom was a historical communist, one of those who risked her life when she was seventeen for ideals of justice and truth. An activist pediatrician she chose to work at the toughest places, with dying children alone in the ward without their own parents. My mother was all they had, and she loved them more than herself.
She even loved them more than my own little self, who, in her eyes, lacked the stark appeal of a dying creature whom she could save. On the contrary, I was big, healthy and plump. She called me spoiled, and furthermore, denounced the rest of her rich family as “kulaks.” The original kulak was my grandfather, a gentleman father of six who, as an ignorant first-generation capitalist, invested his money in the first bank founded in Serbia. The bank failed immediately because the owner ran off to London with the loot (an evergreen characteristic of Serbian banking system).
Then my mother, the failed banker’s youngest daughter, set fire to her library as a political act. Luckily the rest of the house stayed intact, remaining the family’s last grand possession after decades of depredation by Serbian swindlers, German occupiers, Russian liberators and the communist regime.
My pretty little mother, convinced of her ideological merits, implemented them in radical deeds. She married her husband, my father, the moment she set eyes on him. He was a Communist, clean and hard working: dating and love was for sissies.
The ambitious young couple had no time to waste. My mother was obliged to complete her medical studies, so her husband used to heave both her and her medical textbooks on top of a cupboard, a towering structure where she could not climb down alone. He was ahead of her in his studies, which was why he got to freely pace the floor of their small student dorm. She always admired him for this decisive act.
My mother, small and dainty and dressed in her worker’s clothes, was hugely pregnant as she passed her last exams. The professor quizzed her on infanticide. She didn’t blink, she answered with her usual precision and melodic absolute pitch. He bowed at her in admiration, offering her his hand as a sign of respect. But when she stood he blushed in deep embarrassment:
– My comrade colleague, but you are pregnant!
– My comrade professor, my mother answered promptly, the fact that I am a woman does not make me less a colleague.
She worked throughout her pregnancy. From her first months she vomited incessantly, finally dosing herself with American imperialist pills to stop the nausea. I still wonder if those hazardous pills made me the way I am: the dissident traitor writing this book.
She may have miscounted the weeks and months, for, after the night’s card game, she felt a sudden and violent pain in her uterus.
She screamed for help, and the comrade-colleagues diagnosed her.
– The delivery is underway…
– No way, she started scolding them, no way, it is too early…
They examined her.
– Your baby is indeed on her way and she is arriving upside down, ready to jump on her feet.
At that news my mother lost control and every facade of comrade bravery. She started screaming that she would not survive the shame and pain, and demanded a caesarean delivery. Too late: the wrong headed baby was kicking her way out. In order to calm her down, the comrades doctors lied to her (another common method between comrades), telling her that they were preparing the room for her operation. In the meantime I managed to abandon her body. They took me from the cancer ward and put me two flights upstairs in the delivery ward.
The next day my mother returned to her senses. Small as she was, my mother had huge milky breasts. I can still remember pumping them and playing with them, but I had to earn a right to them, and that was not simple.
In those days in that country, newborns were densely swaddled, much like nuns and bread loaves. My mom received her identical white loaf, she examined the wrapping professionally and the bacterial aspect of the cotton… She then glanced at the baby and looked severely at the nurse:
-Comrade nurse, this baby is not mine.
The comrade nurse glared back at her even more severely. Maternity ward nurses in communist regimes were emergency workers, like firemen. They called all women “Mothers”, screaming, scolding and barking orders at them so that the women never had a moment to relax and experience postpartum depression.
– Comrade doctor, said the nurse, this is the baby you’ve got and you are going to feed it.
My mother stubbornly snatched the baby and unwrapped her little hand to check the bracelet around her wrist. The bracelet was there, it had her own name on it…
– There you go, triumphantly and defiantly said the comrade nurse.
But wow, once the hand was unwrapped the rest of the swaddling went.
– Comrade nurse…this infant is a boy…I was told I had a girl.
The nurse wrapped the baby back in a businesslike manner, not much upset, and said,
– Couldn’t you feed it anyway while I find yours?
At that moment, the search for myself conclusively began. I have never had any certainty that I am who they claim I am. No one has ever done a blood test or DNA test, and in those days the locals went physically searching, seeking clues like detectives: who worked the shift last night, who carried the baby, where? Finally they found the personage that is now writing, being breast-fed by a gypsy woman who had delivered her fourth child the same night my mother gave birth.
The comrade nurse said to the woman:
– Woman, this baby is not yours.
The gypsy mother angrily replied:
– I love all my children and even if I am poor nobody will take them from me!
The nurse undid the baby wrap and there I was, nude as only a girl can be.
– You had a son, you silly woman, said the nurse. The gypsy mother backed down with some sadness and yet relief… girls are far harder to bring up.
– Let me feed her first, look how hungry she is.
And she did it. My first milk was a milk from a gypsy whose name I never knew and which was not meant for me but for her son, my milk brother.
Many times I have asked myself, is he dead or alive? A gypsy’s life is often brief. Did he ever go to school? — gypsies in Belgrade at the time scarcely allowed their children to go. Was he handsome, was he miserable, did he have children of his own? Did he beg in the streets as a child and collect rubbish as a man, beautiful as only gypsies can be in orange dashing suits of the garbage men? Am I risking incest?
Today as I walk the streets of Belgrade I look at the men of my age who could be gypsies, and I think of him. I am an only child, so, thanks to that first meal of my life, he was my only relative. It seems I enjoyed it so much that even the comrade nurse didn’t complain. Although my mother never admitted it to me, my gypsy milk brother sucked my mother’s sweet odorous milk. It was some kind of rape, she confessed to her best friend. The nurse made her do it.
I fantasized about my milk brother. In school I always sat beside a gypsy boy during classes. When I grew up to be a young woman, I started dancing with the gypsies, singing in those mysterious and segregated places where only gypsies were admitted. Though I was blonde, they would let me in (besides, where my mother comes from, the gypsies were all blonde). One of them said: if only you were not so blonde I would marry you, since you sure can dance and sing and make money. (Maybe he was my milk brother!).
2. My Parents
My Father was an engineer, a successful businessman later, and, finally, a spy. As he put it, spy work was something everybody had to do. That was the morality of a time and place, to which individuals had to comply. Spying was a civil duty for the communists in the fifties, much like free love among hippies in the 1970s.
Given our own apparent privileges as a family, there was something I never could understand: were we rich or poor? My father used to tell me: we are a very poor country, we are very poor people. We are communists: here is some money for you, but you should not spend this, just keep it. As a kid, I had money that I was not supposed to spend but treasure. To this day, spending for me feels like bleeding, tearing the flesh off my bones, skinning myself. I like the cheap secondhand stuff that used to belong to people I love: that may be communism, or just my personal family dribbling. When drunk, however, I can spend money on unknown people, throw useful things away , squander orgasmically, easing the financial constipation with a sense of joy and relief.
I once asked my mother for a brother or a sister. She smiled naughtily as if I had said the biggest joke in the world. My father become really upset, first red then pale but stayed silent. Since I was seven, I rattled on.
– Mom, if it is born here in Egypt (we lived in Cairo for a couple of years because of my father’ s diplomatic job), will the baby be black? My mother burst into laughter. My father stood up from his chair.
– Jasmina, he said menacingly, if you had a sister, you would have to share everything with her… Your room, your clothes… your shoes… We are poor people, we can afford only one dress and one pair of shoes. So in the morning you would use them, in the afternoon she would, while you stayed in bed.
I pondered this seriously and said: OK.
My father had caught the mumps after my birth and could no longer sire children. Worse yet, in his region of Herzegovina, girls didn’t count as children. My grandma, his mother, used to say wailing:
– My poor eagle ( that is how she called him) he has no kids.
Of course they all blamed my mother for this, claiming she was too small to bear the male heir of the eagle.
My grandma Lile had my father when she was 53. Grandma was a capacious woman, tall and strong. She grew her own tobacco, some of the finest in the region. She died when she was 103, gone half blind, but with her long curly reddish hair still not entirely white. Her last regret, expressed on her deathbed, was that she hadn’t said “yes” to more of the numerous men who begged for her favors.
Suspecting that my mother’s short stature had something to do with her lack of a grandson, my grandmother strung a laundry line high across the garden. Then she called her sisters and daughters in law to come and sit next to her on a bench and have a smoke.
Every day the local women sat for hours in silence, smoking. The third day my mother washed the laundry and came to the garden to hang it. Of course the laundry line was strung too high for her, a tiny delicate southern girl. She hopped a few times, making a gracious effort, and then without a word disappeared into the house.
After a few minutes my father came out with the laundry. He was tall and could easily reach the clothesline. My grandmother and her ladies on the bench were totally humiliated. Deeply shamed, they fled into the house, unwilling to witness such a deviant scene: an eagle hanging the laundry! What a shame for the household, and for the name he bore.
Having achieved this victory, my Communist feminist mother never returned to the home of her husband’s mother, and forbade me to go there, too. And I have never gone there, although by now the last of them are dead.
When my grandma came to visit her son in Belgrade, she would behave as if I didn’t exist. Once I nearly injured myself seriously because she conspicuously ignored the 2 year old in the room with her who snatched big scissors and started cutting everything in sight, including her own clothes.
Fifty and more years passed, but whenever I achieved some success, my father asked me: who did that for you? Worse yet, l also still ask myself: who made me do that? Is it really me who did anything? I credit circumstances for my success, while my failures are taken for granted. Because I was born a girl.
The Stone people, they called themselves in Herzegovina. In a village of tobacco, of cattle, in a barren land, a minor province of the Austrian empire, my granddad, my father’s father, ran an Austrian prison for Serbs.
I will never know the truth about him, that imperial jailer, my grandfather. My father claimed that he was a violent alcoholic and also very poor. My cousins, who met him and knew him, claim he never drank and was not poor at all, quite the contrary. He ran a coffee shop, he owned Austrian Biedermeier furniture and had a fine gun.
As a spy, my father was a professional deceiver, so I never bothered to undo his tales. With much effort, I managed to stop believing them blindly, rejoicing in them and forwarding them to others: manipulative laments and authoritarian education were parts of the Herzegovinian oral tradition. Objective truth didn’t exist: only songs.
I never got my black Egyptian sibling, though I did look around myself, counting the goods. In Egypt, my poverty-stricken Communist family somehow lived in a rather big fancy mansion. After kicking out King Farouk, Gamel Adbel Nasser saw fit to redistribute some royal property to Yugoslav diplomats, his fellows in the Non-Aligned Movement.
My Egyptian closet was mysteriously full of clothes. Under these new circumstances my mother discovered a talent for dressing me like a doll: making clothes for me, putting jewels on my hands and hair. As a blonde plump girl with big blue dreamy eyes, I enjoyed playing an Egyptian concubine.
I started doing homemade theatre with all those props and decor. My nurse in Cairo would join me as a peer in these games, although she was a beautiful teen who happened to be called Nefertiti. She always behaved as a slave: she never wanted to sit with us to eat at the same table. When she put me to sleep in my bedroom, she would lie on the floor.
The children playing outside my palace in the streets were dirty, and would snatch my chocolate from my plump clean hands. I would hand it over just to see them eat something they had never eaten before. Why shouldn’t us communists give everything we possessed to those children?
I fantasized that there were hordes of chained enslaved children buried in the dungeons under the desert sand. Sometimes, during the night I could hear their voices.
Why was it that everybody spoke of God when I didn’t even know what God was?
Because we were poor and communists, I suspected we could not afford a God.
One day a group of chocolate-robbing children screamed at me: you will be punished, you will be punished for not praying, for not going to the mosque.
I had a fit after that: my first mystical crisis. In the middle of the street I was struck by a strange aura visible only to me, a glass jar bell separating me from the rest of the world. I saw myself from high above as if captured by a heavenly ray. Who was I? Where did I come from?
The paralyzing light faded and I was free to move. I was frightened but also relieved by my strange experience. I dared not confess it to anybody. My parents would scold me, and I was sure my peers would not understand.
I tried to tell it to my best friend but I saw that she was frightened. God was forbidden in her communist family too — especially so because her mother was a Jewish communist living in Cairo.
At the age of 8 I lacked words to express God and the lack of it. ‘Allah…’ I vividly remember the name of God, shouted around me by beautiful thin long legged children with mouths full of molten chocolate…
From those drugged and over-scented Cairo days I can still recall my Nefertiti walking towards me, across the mobile dunes, with an icy Coca Cola on a tray. A vision of paradise. She was not allowed to carry my heavy bags full of my school books. Nor was my father’s chauffeur to drive me in a car to school, like all the other privileged foreign children. That was a class matter. I had a communist God.
Some time later, my aunt took me to the Serbian Orthodox church in Belgrade, telling me not to tell my mom about it. She said that God did exist, notwithstanding the fact that everybody denied it nowadays, and that she wanted to protect me from their sinful ignorance by baptizing me. I must have had a nervous breakdown, small as I was…I endured the priests, the singing, the beards, the water thrown on me, the secret…everything without uttering a word.
Even my mother noticed my serious sad face and my silence. She wanted to take me to the therapist, thinking he would give me some good injections. I started talking small talk, just to lead her astray from my great sin, but from that moment on I knew I had a secret. I knew I was not innocent anymore. I knew what hell meant, and what Eve and Adam did, and a irreconcilable gap between me and my mother was opened. An abyss, really. I wonder if my aunt ever told her anything about it. I never did and only after decades did I tell here why I feared big chandeliers. Because they reminded me of a church, and I thought I would be set on fire, because I sinned. I was sinful from both sides: for going there and for not going there.
As an only child, with mother a pediatrician and father a spy, I was the object of permanent observation and control, a fertile field for the implementation of 100 percent parenthood. I was scanned and ruled from my earliest days, and I knew it: they knew me inside out, and nothing was random or free. Everything was planned and implemented by a major force, called Rules, and they, the biggest loves of my life then, were my very Cosmos.
I didn’t mind their realities: I wanted to serve and please. Very rarely I would oppose anything, and if I did, it would be while abiding by the rules and using the language that they allowed me.
When my mother denied me ice-cream saying:
– Ice cream is not good for you, you will get sick and die…
I would tell her the next day when she confronted me with plain cream:
– Cream is not good for small children, they will get sick and die…
The word ‘no’ was forbidden. I remember vividly how one day I really felt sick. I didn’t want to eat the soup my parents fed me every day, twice a day. So I said to myself, I will eat this — but it won’t be me eating it.
After that firm resolution, my life started working without me. Nobody noticed much difference. I was not there, not doing whatever I seemed to be doing. Nobody cared. Things ran smoothly, better than ever. I was happy that I could manage my absence and invisibility with such magic. I felt like a witch and a saint: I thought I was building a great power in me, the power of the invisible, of a secret, of true and absolute freedom. It never occurred to me that nobody needs a freedom from living.
I was eight. We are in Venice for summer holidays, the three of us. It is my first visit to Italy, I don’t understand Italian; it is hot, August. I recall this oppressive smell and sound of the tourist city in heat. I feared the churches and sinister old buildings, the crowded shops. My parents were dragging me all over the place, buying me coconut or a watermelon to cheer me up. I was in the midst of that human theatre while an invisible wall of heat and silence grew around me.
Enlivened by Italian fashion, my mother was dressing and undressing me like a doll. I let her do it but then I asked her to buy me a doll, which I myself could dress and undress. She said:
– We have no money for that, we are poor, we are communists. It is idolatry and a waste of time to play with dolls.
My father promptly barked:
– How many people in the world are dying of hunger and she wants dolls!
I felt so ashamed that my feet sank into the melting Venice tarmac. I had a feeling that everyone had heard me and despised me. While my parents were forging decisively through the Italian crowd I put up a reluctant trudge of shame… and very soon I was lost and they were out of sight.
I felt I deserved to be abandoned. They would not bother to look for me. They didn’t in fact look for me, not at first: they couldn’t believe that a thing like that would happen to them.
Eventually I found myself surrounded by a screaming crowd. I put my hands over my ears, but that didn’t help me: they still weren’t speaking Serbian. A loud Italian woman dragged me to a police station. She had hair like a lunatic, at least according to my mother’s standards where decent women wore neatly dressed hairstyles kept taut by a net.
All in Italian, to my growing dismay. I stayed firmly silent and without tears: I don’t know how many hours went by while I sat in the station with the lunatic woman waving her hands. Then another woman with my mother’ s hairstyle, came up to me and hugged me.
– My dear child, she said, in my mother’s language. I recognized her: while my mother was dressing and undressing me in one store, she borrowed me kindly from her, claiming that she had a daughter exactly of my age. Would I care to try some things for her, too?
The woman was from Belgrade. She took me out of the police station straight to my parents’ severe reproaches. They were much more worried about my behavior inside the police station than by my disappearance in the streets of Venice.
Many years later when I worked as a model in Italy, people dressed and undressed me. They took photos. Living in Italy, I had a sense of continuity: of my invisibility and my life without me. My face was published all over the place, and yet while walking down the street nobody would notice me.
In Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Purloined Letter,” only that which is fully exposed can be effectively invisible. I decided to act-out, in order to hide. My worldly sorrows started with that frightened little girl, lost among alien words, unknowable people.
3. My Father
– Never make decisions out of fear, he used to tell me.
I didn’t know how else to decide, so I stopped making any decisions.
– Take care of yourself, don’t give a damn what people demand from you if you don’t like it or want it.
He called me Jale when we were alone and intimate: and he talked to me as a man to man. It was a shame I was not one: I could tell from the way he talked to me. On the other hand, my father was pleased with my stubborn character and independent traits. That seemed manly enough to him.
I always hated my never born brother. I could only imagine him: small, tender, a sissy, getting all the privileges I didn’t have just because he was a man. If I loved my brother, perchance, that would have been even worse for me. It was easier this way, to turn into a man when necessary to pick up all the male wisdom my father was willing to share with me. God forbid that my mother heard any of that: the selfish advice, about economic and emotional independence, options to avoid marriage and children, free sex/secret sex, fast cars and an engineer’s technology instead of girlish pets and flowers.
Usually my father and I would end these sessions by going out for dinner together: alone, to fancy places. My father like to show off, with money and me. I pretended I was a man in those couple of hours, to please him. I didn’t mind being a girl, but he tried hard to give me a life where this handicap would not cripple me.
– When you were born, a girl, he told me, I was so ashamed. What will my colleges say, such a big man and he got a girl? But then a Serbian proverb says, that only best womanizers get girls. So you were my prize.
Once I entered the Italian office where my father worked. He had become the general manager of a big import export firm.
In those greatest hours of his success, he didn’t have much time to spare for me or family. In the hours he spent with us, he scarcely saw or heard us. From the point of view of a paterfamilias, his family had important things to do: collective walks with traditional family rules, telling tales about the past of the family, singing in verses, issuing warnings and orders, and preparing for the death of each of us.
The secretary let me in without announcing me. He stood up from his desk, offered me his hand with : pleased to meet you.. He simply didn’t recognize me.
I was on the verge of tears; what is it that’s different about me today?
My father started guessing, he didn’t even try to turn it in a joke:
– It’s the hair?
– Oh I know, the London dress?
– Wait, you have high heels.
– No way.
– So. says he, giving up, what?
– Nothing, said I, there is nothing new on me.
– Maybe that’s it then, said he… It’s that there’s nothing ‘new.’
I was not yet seven when my father bought us a fancy family grave in the central cemetery of Belgrade. We could have bought a flat for that amount of money, but Serbian culture is pagan and necromantic. A graveyard means more than a flat, for a grave lasts forever, while a flat lasts only while you live there. Plus, a very important distinction: the grave belongs to the family, while a flat by communist laws belonged to the state.
My father took us all to our graveyard and showed us our names engraved in marble. Date of birth and a dash…I didn’t even know what was missing there. I thought that now that we were officially born and registered in marble, we had to do something about it; like being admitted to a school.
I was proud, but then my best friend who knew all about that kind of stuff (and also that babies were not brought by storks), told me that the only thing that was expected from me in a graveyard was to die. I felt worried: shall I make it through the cemetery gates? Was I supposed to die at a certain time? My parents hadn’t given me instructions yet.
Of course those instructions arrived for me in due time: very soon my father explained to me all the possibilities in a mathematical way, who among us would die, first or last… We would be a family forever after, he said.
I felt taken care of and reassured. I never thought I would have any other family but them. How could any other family compete with this fine marble plot in the center of Belgrade, among the war heroes and anonymous rich people whose tombs were bigger than their homes? They persisted forever there, as opposed to those squabbling mortals whose houses were destroyed by bombings, looting, earthquakes, miseries…
When my father turned eighty, he changed all his funeral dispositions after a long dramatic brainstorming. Every time I would visit him before going on a long or a short trip ( for him this made no difference, the physical distance between the two of us was the only thing that mattered, the length of the umbilical cord was transgressed) he would seat me and repeat the funeral dispositions. And as time went by those schemes were longer and more detailed. We would not even be seated anymore, but we would rehearse his funeral.
That day he was lying in his very neat white bed, on his back and his eyes turned to the ceiling…he was hardly moving his lips, but his concentration was infallible. I wonder, can that man ever die? Or lose concentration on his death, and we whom he controls, as his proof he is still alive?
– So, my dear, I will probably die and you won’t be here. I will die alone but never mind, that’s the cruelty of life. Children never pay back their parents. The love and care they were given, they pass on to their own children…
I wriggled and felt guilty, even though he was ghastly right in some ways. I knew he meant harm, though. He was jealous of children — of all people that could not take him as the central figure of the world. And now, I, his own daughter, should pay for his hurt feelings. Who else?
– Don’t dad me, take that safe (he had a mobile safe from World War II, a very heavy metal box) and open it…you have dispositions in two copies there. The news is that I want an open coffin funeral, announced in the public media so that people don’t miss it.
– But who would miss it? All your people are already gone, even Mom.
– I count on your people, and my granddaughter’s people. You are a public person, so you will write a nice necrology, publish it.
– But Dad…
– Don’t you dad me, he said and put the white sheet over his mouth.
That meant the conversation was over and he wanted to go to sleep. But his face was covered like that of the newly deceased.
My father talked to me always as a commander to a soldier. His own dad talked to him that way… and everything different was considered a joke. He could joke, oh yes, but never when funerals and coffins were concerned.
OK dad, a big public funeral, I lied to him… and that would be my revenge, I thought. But a couple of years later, when he indeed died, I was not sure whose revenge it was, his or mine. How would we know we had won?
4. Dad’s Funeral
– All these years he really treated you badly, said my good friend attending my dad’s funeral.
And thus I didn’t give him an open coffin funeral. So many years of his mortal fear, rage and fantasized abandonment of life, and here he was, at his life’s end at last. Would that rage kill me, too? When my mother died, he had turned to me to care for him. In his last decline, he had become my child. Two family traumas for the price of one.
When he died, on March 30, 2008, I lost a father, a husband and a son. Oh, nothing incestuous in our relationship: only culturally perverse. But when the whole nation behaves in one way, feels strongly about it , as a tribe, what’s perverse about it? Even I, who felt weird at first, accepted it quickly. We play the games we are taught to play by our parents, peers, enemies, frenemies. And I love games.
So as to play my father’s favorite game of death obsession, I had to learn all the rules. Time was on my side.
After twenty-six years of his funeral rehearsals — in the last nine years, particularly meticulous and dramatic fantasies — the day came that I had to perform. Without him. Gosh, what a stage fright. My Life without me became, all of a sudden, my life without my father. An orphaned life with only me in it. Not that I came into a full existence then. On the contrary, I dropped off his stage altogether.
At his funeral, I struggled to remember the forgotten lines and instructions, too bewildered even to weep.
What did I think: that I could invent his funeral from scratch? How silly of me…
After his death, I had rushed through his desk drawers in search of written notes. Among an incredible rubble of metal, money, photos and notebooks, I find a few jottings, written years ago. They hardly spoke of his funeral. Instead, his notes advised me: give some money to my housemaids. Make sure that your daughter does not marry before she finishes university. Watch out for that leaking tap on the first floor in the mountain house…
That was my father speaking, the father I lost when I inherited a widower and a child. What about the suit he wants to wear in his coffin? The photos and texts for the funeral announcement?
I found another file folder. More of his notes, but full of trivial doubts. In his obituary, should he be announced as an engineer, or as the general manager of his firm? Should only our beloved relatives attend, or must we put up with the whole crowd of them? What about food for the mourners? Well, yes. What about food?
– I heard his voice: Jasmina, wake up.
– Jasmina, you know very well I don’t eat hot and greasy food, and I don’t approve of alcohol. I cannot stand seeing drunk people at my grave.
– No booze at your funeral, dad, no, God forbid! Even though Serbian people will get offended by that lapse in hospitality. You know how strongly they feel about a real drink at a funeral.
– Ok, says dad’s voice. – Cut their booze with water. White, the color of brandy. Ha ha ha.
When he died, I wore my silver leather jacket: it was new, it was fancy. When I feel down, I have to perk up. Wearing leather, I went to the funeral agency. They seemed knowledgeable. Endless questions and prices. I found myself saying nonono to everything the said, every bossy remark and demand for funds. Burying him with my own hands would have been easier. At least I would know what I was doing.
– Why that silver leather jacket? his voice asked me, enraged. – I told you to dress like a lady, like your Mom would dress! We still have a whole closet of her things! Pull them out, put them on! They are expensive and well suited for any serious occasion.
– But Dad, she was small and fat, and I am big and thin.
– Never mind. A silver jacket is more outrageous than a small cashmere one! You are not paying due respect to me, his voice was raving.
OK, I know he is not watching me, I thank God he spared me that religious crap. I was policing myself, now that my life was without him. I no longer needed him in order to be who he made me. Is that the function of a parent, or of any authority?
My performance at his funeral was as sloppy as his scribbled instructions. If I could have stopped crying, I would have laughed. I was not crying much. That’s why I was not laughing, either.
The coffin came first, and without an escort. The flowers were late. The mourners were scattered, mostly early because of a faulty time announcement. Everybody stood around, idly smoking. Inside the cemetery’s kapela, it was damp.
My daughter and I entered the kapela to take our place by the coffin. Music was already playing. We had to take condolences. A gallery of old faces I could not remember, but should have. As they spelled their names or just shared tears, I witnessed bits and pieces of my childhood. So fragmented, so scattered. Cairo, Milan, Lugano, London, all those exotic places where I flew with my Dad. A globe at his graveside.
They played some commonplace funeral repertoire. I should have taken care to play music he had loved. Like his favorite Bosnian song about “Jasmina,” the sentimental song that gave me my own name.
– You look better now than when you were a youngster, quavered one of my father’ s friends.
– I was a kid then, I said, now I am a woman.
– Right, he said, with senile agreeability.
-You hardly changed! said another old friend. Remember when I brought you medicines for your dad?
– Yes I do, I lied.
-You remember when we sat in that café, and we talked about your childhood, and how I took care of you once when your parents were away?
– Sure! Yes!
I am startled at his aged grin and his will to go on chattering. There is a funeral underway, and I am supposed to run it! Gosh, I always had this nightmare of being a director of a huge important orchestra, when no one knows I am really an impostor. The blazing stage lights are on me, eager faces stare at me from the audience and the orchestra pit. The first violin awaits my signal to start….
– And I held you in my lap, remember? Until you ran away from me and I had to chase you! When I grabbed you finally, I had to beat you so you would never do that again!
This ancient man in his cashmere black coat, with a stick and a Bogart hat, had beaten me as a four year old?! My God in heaven! I felt like battering him with his own stick. Instead I sadly smiled.
-Yes, I always used to run away from grown ups.
– I certainly taught you a good lesson, he said proudly, and here you are now a successful adult!
– You have lost a great man, says one fine old lady.
– Was she his lover? I wondered. It was no great secret that he had many women besides my Mom. He used to ruefully boast: I could not eat the same soup every day — but I never neglected my family.
So, this little old lady, what does she want from me today?
– Yes madame? I say.
– He was tall, strong and a man.
She flees, ashamed. Yes, I got it right.
– Oh my dear, oh my dear, weeps an old widow who lost her husband. They were family neighbors for a couple of years ago. The husband drank a lot of vodka at my Dad’s house. When he collapsed at last, my father tried to revive him with a bottle of oxygen. Had he died from the vodka, or died from the rescue attempt? That was the metaphor of my father’s emergency care. Once, when our pet parrot escaped its cage, my father, in attempting to keep it from an open window, killed the parrot with a broomstick. How desperate my mother was, and how angry I was. We scolded and sulked as if a cow had given us milk and kicked the bucket.
– My husband could not come, I came just to see you… says the mother of my dead childhood friend.
I cry with her, but I cry for my dead friend, her daughter. Last time we met at the same place, this same cemetery, my friend was in the coffin. My father was unconcerned with the dead woman, but full of pragmatic concern for her father. His cruel words drove me crazy:
-The poor old man, now he has nobody to bury him.
My relatives are talking behind my back. Something has going wrong.
Oh no, dad’s coffin is full of flowers but there is no name! Just a slip of paper saying “No Sign Requested or Paid”.
No way, I made that clear in the funeral office! I said no Orthodox cross and no Communist star, I didn’t say no name!
It’s a bureaucratic mixup of funeral administrative language. Why should one know such things, really? My mistake, my sloppiness, his mistake, his sloppiness; all those instructions about matters which were none of his business.
I wring my hands, an administrator finally comes to help me.
– Where is my father’ s name! I cry.
– You said, madame, no sign requested. You didn’t pay for that.
– But his name must be announced. How should people know they are coming to the right place?
– Well, you should know.
– Oh come on, I don’t know all those people, all his friends!
My friend once went to the wrong funeral. She cried her head off there, only to see her friend standing in the opposite kapela, so she had to do it again. The dead and the old are just like babies, anonymous, all the same, like flowers…
– I can fix that, says the funeral clerk.
– How much? say I promptly, echoing dad’s words. When something goes wrong, just offer the money. Oil it.
Money money money…I wonder, when my father is really gone, will I stop fretting about money and start having better sex, as Freud once promised?
Off he runs, into the crowd… The music adagio is now very loud My father’s best friend starts giving a last oration.
– We knew each other for 80 years, he begins…
We are flabbergasted, but it is the truth. Young people shiver where they stand. These old men knew each other from the day they went to school, as neighbors, as little kids.
Then this survivor, this octagenarian, starts telling a long, long tale: of friendships, miseries, woes, wars, and scandals. He attacks the present politicians who failed to give my dad a state funeral speech. He blames the new regime. He commiserates with himself, about his own fallen career…
Yes, my father’ s best friend was cruelly deposed in one of those purges so typical of communist regimes. If we don’t purge them, they will purge us, a politician explained to me. That’ s the nature of the business of power in a communist regime, where opposition parties are forbidden, but factions must fight each other. As an engineer and technocrat, my Dad managed to escape a thousand such purges. He could even play the outspoken patriot, talking some common sense to ideology. Not just another power-broker, but a capable expert, a creator of national wealth. A man of good will, sensitive to human weakness and trouble. He had helped fallen people who never forgot him.
– The businessmen of your time were responsible and serious people, the friend’s oration goes on.
– They took care of all the people in our country. They didn’t put money in their pockets and lie to the people. We communists had a morality and a responsibility towards the public. Your integrity never failed anybody, either personally or politically. Even during the darkest times, when dark forces tried to undo the work of revolution, you, Gojko, chose the right side. Often, you were reduced to silence. Yet you preferred to carry your secrets to the grave rather than to accuse any man of wrongdoing.
I wondered what intrigue the old man referred to. Something important and historical, and I knew he was right: those secrets had indeed been buried. We children never get to know our parents’ secrets except through accident or some mistake. Some bungled gaffe, like this funeral. Like this untidy gush of love and admiration that his best friend, an honorable but dishonored man, was giving to him in earnest.
This was his honest fifteen minutes of glory. Nobody from my father’s huge firm had showed up to deliver this graveside speech. My father was their famous manager, a capable manager never in trouble with law or business. Why then? Because, it occurred to me: because of them, not him. Because of the corruption and political scandals that had trapped them after he left. Until his very last day, my father could not believe the stories he was hearing about his own firm. He thought he knew all these people, his employees, his successors, his nation. And yet he didn’t. Dark times made men dark.
All his long, long life, this old man had served silently as my father’s his best friend. Now his last words were coming:
– Even though, on the last day when I came to see you, you could not recognize me, I fulfilled my duty and took the honor to bury you. Here I am now, performing…
Tears are coming to my eyes, but the funeral clerk is standing before me with paper and a pen.
I sign, and he points to my wallet.
Monemoneymoney: I gave it, a lot, in a hurry, oiling the death machine. Everybody is staring us, instead of listening to the speech or meditating on my dad’s career.
Off the clerk runs. Hopefully he will return with my father’s name properly written on a big wooden board. I gave him the money. A lot. But wait, I forgot to say the name!
The music is playing. We don’t know what to do next. We have to kill another twenty minutes in that kapela. People are fussing.
A strange photographer comes in the first row and takes photos. I am used to being a public figure, and I used to enjoy it, but not today. Or maybe so. Why would this celebrity be different? So I pose, I put up my hair. For some reason I always think I look better that way. Even at my dad’s funeral.
Here runs the clerk again, without the board. The music stops abruptly.
– Madame, this is the bill, our computer is not working, I don’t know his name.
My cousin, behind me, is pushing me.
– Mina for heaven’s sake, give him more money!
I pulled out of my pocket heaps of red money, bank-notes scatter around.
– Get them, I scream to the clerk. He does it deftly and swiftly and runs off with the loot.
– Ooooooh echoes the crowd.
Most of them were at his funeral because, at some distant date, my father had given them money. A friendly act in times of their miseries, woes, wars, and scandals. They say of him, that he was a generous man. And he was.
He always wanted money, but never believed in money. He believed in transactions, to buy people and love and respect and his worldly goods. Among the people of his generation, he was a guru. Yes, a communist guru, and now I realized it.
The clerk is finally coming with his big wooden board. God knows what is written on it. He props it in front of the coffin, and the music commences again. My cousin the musician taps his ears.
Couldn’t you tell them to play a decent record?
Next time. I could bring much better music and more people, next time I bury my dad. But there will be no next time.
And his coffin is not yet buried.
It requires more money, I guess. OK, no more crying, but paying. I shoot another heap at the clerk. The coffin starts sinking. The photographer takes pictures. The audience is shuffling, gossiping, leaving… planning their own funerals…
They will want it done better, less sloppily… but they did admire that crowd of mourners. Some great old guys and spies, like only my father could gather.
Then that hole closed on him, and they dispersed.
5. My Grandmother Zivana, my Grandmother Lile
In my mother’s family, by contrast, death was never considered possible. My grandma would always say, if somebody died:
– Oh death is a lie, God is the truth.
She used to tell me this story as a proof:
A man in her hometown died. Then, after a day, while he was lying there on display as is common in the decent houses of southern Serbia, as the mourners stood around him in his own house, eating and drinking and wailing, suddenly the dead man opened his eyes and came to his senses.
Then he told his amazed guests what had happened to him. He’d been conducted through dungeons in a dark place under the earth, where a man was sitting behind a desk, in an office. The dead man had been dressed very properly, in a suit and tie, exactly as he was dressed here now, on display, in his own coffin.
He had to approach the man behind the desk, walking across a red carpet.
The man lifted his cold eyes and asked him, are you Nikola Petrovic? The deceased man said, sure I am.
The death clerk looked at him more carefully.
– How old are you?
Our man said, 54.
The man behind the desk stood up angrily and shouted at his escort:
– What on earth have you done, this is the wrong Nikola Petrovic, not the one who was supposed to come here!
The escort was really upset. He ushered out the deceased man in a hurry, still in his funeral clothes, led him to the air and space and here he is now, breathing and talking.
He rose from his coffin. His wife embraced him, weeping with joy, and his mother too. The children were slightly afraid.
The funeral turned out into a feast which lasted for three days, as was planned for proper funerals. At the end of the third day, while the former mourners were properly tired and drunk, some news arrived. On the other side of town, an eighty year old Nikola Petrovic had died.
I never doubted my grandma’s stories. But I asked: was his suit really from the underworld?
– Of course it was, nobody in southern Serbia at that time wore the English tweed suit and a Burberry.
When my dad brought our first TV set home, I was making dinner with my grandma Zivana, meaning Viva in Serbian. That name suited her like a glove: until her very last day she stayed alive in the full sense of that word. Blind, she listened incessantly to the radio Half crippled, she tottered through the house using a chair as support. She refused doctors, hospitals and operations, as a matter of course. Zivana had cataracts and a broken hip, so she limped in the dark with her hands outspread, but she used to say:
– This is my home, I know every bit of it, I built it and I lived in it. Children, for heaven’s sake, let me die, let me die at home, I must die of something.
Because her children were doctors, who wanted to operate on her, cure her…
She died when she was nearly ninety, with many grandchildren, some of whom she raised herself. All of her peers were already dead and some of her own children, too. Others were broken in many ways. Communism had taken a toll of that old landowning family with its fertile lands, horses, cattle and lordly manners, which were considered decadent, rather than merely primitive. My cousin, a man of an older generation, married a very nice, educated girl from Belgrade, after raping her in a train. He was a handsome, intelligent guy, and his pregnant bride came to terms with the marriage. Still, though, sometimes she would tell us, the younger girls in his family, how cruelly he treated his own daughter.
Well my grandma cared little enough for the old ways of life. Once communism came to power, she became keenly interested in Marshal Tito. Grandma much admired Tito’s fine uniforms, his elegant white officers’ gloves, and his weird accent that belonged to no specific Yugoslav region. Tito spoke like a foreigner schooled in Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, and Macedonian, who had never quite captured any proper accent. His careful dress and regular features promised a proper, respectable country with severe political manners. And Tito did fulfill some of that promise, in exchange for a population that was silent and well-behaved. Tito raised big international credits. He made people buy cars and bananas. The people could travel abroad, east and west, with one of the best passports in the world at the time. Life was secure if one never meddled in politics.
When my father brought the TV home, my aunt commented:
– How ugly this box is, like a power meter.
Being an incorrigible anticommunist, though a great fan of aristocratic white gloves, my aunt commented about TV news: How come all of Tito’s friends are black and dictators?
My vital grandma, her mother, hushed her scornfully:
– Oh shut up woman! Look how well we are living again! You even finally have your own flat, and one day you will earn a pension. True, for a kulak renegade like my aunt, this was an achievement. But only those who were masters knew how to serve, and my aunt could never settle for new communist commodities after having once been a true lady.
I never got much about those arguments between mother and daughter. I loved them both, for spending time with them was a holiday, compared to time spent with my Mom, whom I loved best yet feared most. Just as they did. Though Mom was by far the youngest, she was the one in power. She was the empress of whatever this new world was made of. Only she knew the rules properly, those unwritten rules which could cost your life. She seemed not only to know those rules by heart, but to invent them from her heart.
So Mom would explain to them, severely, at the end of the day, why Tito’s friends were black men, and why his gloves were white, and why their religion was the opium of people. She was also the accomplished mistress of many other things intruding on their daily reality, which her mother and sister were hard-put to handle. Such as televisions, cars, and washing machines.
My mother came to them one day with a new vacuum cleaner.
– There, she said, this machine and the washing machine are the two authentic female liberation discoveries of the twentieth century. Next to the antibiotics! (which she gave us on regular basis, to prevent the existence of germs).
Then she would switch on the TV, to admire her favorite handsome TV news presenter. My father was promptly and bitterly jealous of him, though he never admitted that publicly.
One day, my grandma and I were alone and she switched on the TV. There on the screen a cook, properly dressed in spotless white, was baking cakes, and finally whipping the thick white cream. I stared at him in awe, saliva dripping at the corners of my tiny, four-year-old mouth. Cakes were prohibited to me, for I ate nothing but cakes if allowed.
My grandma took up a crystal plate and humbly approached the television, with this words:
– Sir, will you be so kind to hand one piece of cake to my granddaughter. She promised she will eat her dinner, after all.
I watched dumbfounded. I think I knew real people were not inside the box, but after this miracle! The cook seemed to hesitate…panic stricken, I fled the room. What if my mother found out, she would spank me for eating cake from unknown people…and my grandma would get a hard scolding for misbehaving in the new society.
When Mom switched on the TV and watched with that particular smile on her face, her handsome baritone reader, presenting the communist news… News in which everything was fine in the world, because the proletariat was conquering it day by day, and step by step, and social justice was about to defeat all poverty and class discrimination… I thought she would leave my father some day, enter that box and never come out again.
Because my father never spoke as cheerfully as that guy in the box. My father was lamenting angrily at new rules which made his work impossible. He declared that the party comrades ignored reality. My mother countered that reality as such did not exist, but was a matter of interpretation and transformation.
I heard Yugoslav couples fighting and even divorcing over famous literary authors, over the preeminence of Andric versus Crnjanski. Like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, these writers were symbols of two different classes and two conflicting styles. Yet they were both true voices of their time and place, and its contradictory values. My parents fought over reality. My mother fought for justice, and my father for prosperity.
We needed both, and we never got both. My parents never managed to agree — and not only them.
My other grandmother, Lile, that big Herzegovinian grandma puzzled me all my life. I don’t believe that I ever loved her, or that she ever loved me. That was the state of affairs in Herzegovinian families. Women rarely loved each other, or even helped each other to manage the day. They might be close relatives, living cheek by jowl day and night, only to fight for a place at the table or for room in the bed.
The more you fight the more you get, and if you fail to grasp for life, you deserve to perish. In Herzegovina, if a woman lost her men and inherited a household, she wore a man’s clothes. These tough-minded widows cut their hair and chewed tobacco: tall, hard-working, bossy women.
My grandma Lile, according to one story, was abducted by my grandfather, literally ravished and carried off. The violent old man imprisoned his young bride in his home, where she gave him six surviving children, the first two being twins. He was such a disgraceful, abusive old reprobate that rumor claimed that he bedded his daughter-in-law and denied fatherhood to his last son. That child would be my father. Now what does that story make of me, a bastard of a bastard, an invisible female bastard?
According to an entirely different family story, Lile eloped with my rich grandfather, a man twice her age. To flout the will of her family, they staged her abduction and they lived happily.
My mother used to tease cruelly my father:
– Maybe a Jew crossed your mother’s path. Lile always boasts how you are fair and bright and know a lot about money.
My father, when I was born, ventured to the clinic to make sure that I really was his child. Somehow, the doctor reassured him. My mother found that out, and she never forgave him.
Grandma Lile would just wave her hand at these dreadful legends and legacies. Lile grew very old, yet she was still red-haired, curly, blue eyed and stately. She buried her husband, whatever his crimes, as she buried most of her children. As for my mother, who cared for that tiny worker-bee, buzzing around…
6. My daughter
I am feeling my first delivery pains, I don’t want to go to the hospital. I know the staff will call me “Mother” there, and scold me for failing their communist motherly codex. I don’t want their medicines, I don’t want their shots. I don’t want the special treatment I will get as the daughter of a pediatrician. I just want to be a common woman having a common baby, just as women have babies all over the world.
I want that simple feeling of connection to the earth and the sky. A simple condition of being invisible, nothing, zero, like a flower in a sea of flowers. So, my amniotic liquid, that ocean of life, is all over my legs. I jump into the car and tell my husband, the genetic donor:
– Drive me fast to that hospital or we will have the baby in the car.
He is trembling. Fatherhood has made him a gaunt, frightened shadow of the tall, slender, lively character I used to know. Womanhood was never his strong point. On the contrary, he always thought women were a natural disaster. Aliens in a man’s life, for good or ill.
Babies? Well, this one was a supernatural phenomenon to both of us. I relied on the statistics of childbirth. Everything will likely be OK, as long as the doctors don’t get their hands on me.
That day, the hospital was trenched all around with public works and workers…
– Hurry, I was screaming.
– Take my bag, I’ll need it, there is nothing in the ward, no cotton, no night gowns, no aspirin.
It was moment of general stasis after the death of Tito, but before the wars of Milosevic…
One thing I never regretted about my husband was his excellent genetics. But he was breathless and knock-kneed in the crisis of childbirth; until his deathbed, twenty-three years later, I never saw him make such a face. It was just plain fear of a major force — not in his body, but in mine.
Sometimes, he claimed I stole the oxygen from a room when I breathed so heavily. He was a poet. He stole other people’ s lives by telling tales about them. He was a poet.
When he was a small boy, other boys would beat him, even girls would beat him, for ignoring their childhood games to tell them amazing lies about fairies and mermaids. His mother was a female masterpiece of soaring, hysterical imagination. His father was an eccentric war hero. After the turmoil of World War II, his victorious talents turned into obsession and paranoia: he was continually reading and writing the same books, which he showed to no one. They were genetic treasures for the child I cherished.
– Hey nurse, I screamed seeing a white figure passing by me…
I ran after her, but she serenely ignored us. My poet simply collapsed. Small white nurses jumped to their quick feet, keen to aid the mustached, good looking pregnant father. I seized that opportunity to dodge all of them and find a delivery bed. In those days, to find such a bed was a luxury, and I had spotted one that happened to be empty…
– Hey you, wait, you cannot go there in your shoes… I heard the nurse shout.
Giving birth is actually a birthday for a woman: a day of birth, to be celebrated, to be remembered. But what for? The baby travels the shortest tunnel in her life, to join the longest and most dangerous adventure in the world. The mother should be celebrated just for being there and enduring it. For having a female body which can put up with tons of pressure. The massive force of biology, evolution, humanity, whatever…
But once again, it goes without saying, life could have happened without me. Dead women have been kept alive by machines to deliver a baby. Months pass, and they deliver an heir to the family, the president, the flag. Bereft of the live within, they are buried with a lot of glory.
The woman next to me was screaming her head off. It was a clear hot day of July, no air conditioning. She was in labor pain, a pain I thought sooner or later will strike me too, for daring to meddle with nature, to play the genetic lottery. But I didn’t suffer: I plain forgot the pain, and started hallucinating. I saw the mermaids wagging their long tails in the air around me and the hospital clock in front of me seemed huge as the moon.
– Mother, pull yourself together! a stern female voice shouted at me.
My moon and the mermaids vanished and I found myself sitting upright in a hospital bed.
– Don’t you see your baby is coming, hey, you are going to drop the baby, stop it, and hang on for a minute, wait, I need to wash my hands…
I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about, but I felt real guilt.
So I pretended I was keen to please her, and the baby came out smoothly and happily.
– Oh what a lovely baby, said the nurse, all dolled up in her white overalls. For some reason all nurses are cute in uniform. Even ugly women become attractive as nurses. Likely because their suffering patients need to see them that way.
– Mother, hold the baby, for heaven’s sake, she kept shouting at me. She was beaming at the baby, whom she obviously preferred to me, a problem patient who could not pull herself together.
– She looks like me, you know, said the nurse. She looks like Liz Taylor, not at all like you.
She was right. The baby did not look like me. The baby was a black and hairy creature screaming her head off. I was at a loss. This was the price I paid for reading the entire works of Thomas Mann while pregnant, instead of self-help books for mothers.
– Well, give her your breast.
– Which one? I asked in alarm.
– Oh any one, you silly, don’t you see she needs your warmth…
I saw no such thing. My baby looked to me like an alien who would someday bury me. She had a slightly crooked neck and her left side was smaller than her right side. She reminded me of my husband’s uncle. A kind, but simple minded little guy. A bus driver.
– Mother, the nurse screamed, your breast is bleeding! Give me that baby; you cannot give blood to a new born, oh for heaven’s sake!
She snatched my baby and took it away somewhere. It was a baby boom year. In the previous year, for months on end, we had lacked electricity: blackouts sent the whole country to bed. That quiet failure of power was the beginning of the fall of my country. My country, the country that my parents built and fought for, had nearly died for. That country that gave my family honor and privilege, that I was born into as a “red princess,” but denied any chance to inherit.
I often do feel like a Hamlet figure: the heir of a state with a rottenness in it. I wonder if Hamlet was gay, or maybe a woman. Ophelia was a saint or a madwoman, but Hamlet? Oh, he could have been any of us hesitant women, awaiting birth in that delivery ward. Did I have any hint of my troubled future: the princess with the pea beneath her mattress…?
No, no hint whatsoever. That is one of the secret conditions of being a princess: princesses don’t know if other women eat bread or brioche. Women may be already starving, freezing, imprisoned, losing their jobs… Or they may face all that experience, and then take a bullet or a guillotine blade, like Anastasia and Marie Antoinette.
– Mother, come on…
Oh I did come on; I jumped to my feet, snatched my bag and ran from the room.
– Mother, wait, you can’t walk away, you just delivered a baby, you must rest…
But I am OK really, I offered, stammering helplessly and holding my big bag tightly. I can walk now, don’t worry… I was doing my best to escape the cute bossy nurse and my role as Mother, but whatever I said made her angrier, whatever I did made her furious…I was just breaking all the rules; I wish Thomas Mann was there to see me!
My mother came to visit me, although the hospital was closed to visitors because of a salmonella infection. Three babies had died. Top secret in the hospital, but my mother, as a doctor, was the first to know bad news, and always keen to tell me.
My mother came all dolled up too, in her white coat with her stethoscope around her neck. She gave me an official kiss, as other nurses gazed at her in awe and respect. She was the toughest of them all, a goddess and whip to the lot of them. She then scrutinized the baby: yes, she is pretty, she sentenced. My mother definitely looked like Liz Taylor, and this baby, oh well, took straight after my mother, without bothering for one atom of a cell to look like me.
Believe it or not, I was relieved. I imagined my baby’s future as a stern successful doctor, free of self-doubt. Relieved also that my baby was a girl: what on earth could I have done with a boy? How can a woman give birth to a man? Makes no sense, men should do that.
I snatched my baby defiantly and faced down the nurse:
– I am going home, I don’t want my baby to die of a state secret called salmonella. And I will tell other mothers to do the same.
The two women, nurse and doctor, could not believe their ears. Or their eyes, because I left, holding my silent baby like a breadloaf. Why do babies like to be carried upside down. My mother never told me this.
My mother never forgave my rude behavior in fleeing her hospital, nor my savage upbringing of her granddaughter. But at least, as a new grandmother, she had a role to perform: to undo my own doings as much as she could.
When my daughter was four months old, her father, my husband, disappeared in his car. I carried her on my breast until dawn, searching for him in the hospitals and morgues.
I imagined myself a widow with a baby who would never know her father. What kind of proper story could I tell her? I asked the sleepy morgue keepers if they had any tall, thin young men killed by car crashes during that icy December night.
– You mean the poet? said the morgue man very enthusiastically.
– Well yes. He’s that poet.
– That’s your dead man, your husband?
– Well, yes.
– And this is his daughter?
– Wow I never knew he was married, can I see the baby, can you autograph his book?
This was the Zemun district of Belgrade, an area where poets were considered of major community value.
– If I receive his body, you will be the first to know, he promised. He’d been reading the poems to pass time in the morgue.
A book, a body, a child, a signature…
When I found him, alive and shivering along the road after abandoning his crashed car, he had broken arms and a lacerated face. But he was walking briskly: he always wanted to live or die in his boots. I took him to the first hospital.
– Man, said the male nurse, I have to fix you at once or you will bleed your life out. Come on, we cannot wait for the doctor, lie here, I will give you an injection.
– Nooooooooo! My sturdy genetic donor could pull a cart out of deep mud, thin as he was. But he could never bear to have a cruel needle jabbed in his body.
– Come on, man, I have to cut that sweater off you and fix your arms and sockets…
– Nooooooo, the refusal came even louder. He prized his beloved sweater more than own skin.
Three male nurses came in: two held him, the third one cut his name-branded yellow sweater. They closed the door and set to work on his broken arms. The screams we heard were inhuman. An old lady lying on the wheeled bed, having just been whacked by a tram, skipped off that bed and limped away with a trail of blood after her. In those cold and dim early hours, any hospital is like a butcher’s shop.
– Man, you are strong, said the main butcher, praising him. – My heart would not have stood that much pain.
Twenty three years later: after I dyed my hair, the phone rang.
– Mom he is dying, my daughter said. Her tearful voice was trembling with responsibility.
– I cannot handle this alone, and he won’t have anybody. Come inside his home.
– OK, said I, I just dyed my hair and it is midnight. Give me the phone numbers of his best friend, his girlfriend, and his doctor.
– But he does not want anybody here, he will kill me, if he knows what I am doing!
– Nobody will kill you. Give me the numbers.
I phoned each and every one of them. He had refused to see anybody in his last months. I haven’t seen him in the last years and knew his friends not at all. But I made them come gather at his door. We staged a raid. First, his doctor, then his best friend, then his girlfriend, then his old friend. Then me, his ex-wife..
I heard him talking humbly as a patient , flirting as a lover, laughing as a buddy, shaking hands as an old pal. Then I entered the scene and gave orders.
– You must take care of your body or commit suicide. This won’t do, I won’t allow you.
– How cruel you are Mom! said my daughter in dismay.
– She is right, said her father, called to his biblical duty.
– Tomorrow you go to the hospital and you take your therapy.
– Yes ma’am, he said.
I left, we all left, the next day we put him in the hospital.
That evening when I got back home, my hair looked really multicolored and pretty, like a lioness’ crown.
– At least I dyed my hair properly, I said to my friend.
He died after a couple of weeks. I was in San Francisco. I flew back to Belgrade immediately: I entered my flat. On the sofa of the living room, his big black tuxedo was spread. On the floor his big black shining shoes. His wallet was on the table.
Somebody knocked on my door.
Two efficient young men in uniforms conquered my living room. They were full of ideas and written plans for his lively and elegant funeral. As if it were a party: they were proud of this honorable man they were entrusted to bury, but they had some concrete problems: a coffin extra size, a client who was a freemason and had his own burial rituals.
What did all this have to do with me? Nothing: I scarcely managed to dress for the funeral, All in black. But I felt that things were falling into place. This is what is expected from you when you marry and have children with a man. To take care of the children, and to bury him. Not even a divorce can spare you that.
7. Marriages and Divorces
–To court, to court shall I take you all, because to nunnery shall I not go…
I was muttering while getting inside the courtroom where I was supposed to get married. It was a foggy rainy day in Belgrade: people tend to get married on those days of inner loneliness, when the bones ache from humidity and the blood pressure slumps. Our brains become slow and our archetypes pop out as strong as skeletons in cupboards. Our own buried bodies, our great great aunts.
Where was I when that happened?
Oh I remember very well. I was shooting my film, the whole night; it was actually an art performance. The camera was there, the video on stand by, and we, the performers were playing with our instruments and other props and toys. It was all happening in my parent’s house. Life was art in those days.
Early in the morning my husband-to-be rang the doorbell, all dressed up, pale with worry. I was exhausted and half drunk. My friends were lying everywhere on the floor. The film was done, but we were too tired to screen it. I told my collaborator:
– I have to go to a wedding.
– You to a wedding! Oh for heaven’s sake, you never cared about those! Let’s see the material first! He gave a dismissive wave.
– Well, it is my wedding.
– Oh, said he promptly.
He never asked me who I was marrying, discreet or disinterested as he was. I never asked him about the unmarried mother of his children, either.
So I left my former life at my parents’ house to hurtle into my new life with this tall and handsome near-stranger. I wanted to marry, and I wanted to live with a stranger. Art was life in those days.
Serbia was a new country for me. I had just come back from Rome and decided to live in Belgrade to get to know my “roots”, my native earth. Jasmine does not flower without mud, as my mother used to say.
We entered the courtroom. I shrank: a woman judge twice my age told me to leave the place and spit out my chewing gum. She commented on my ragged hair and shabby worker’s clothes (she had never heard of punk). She compared my rags to my husband’s nicely ironed shirt, that charming polite young man.
The polite young man could charm women twice his age and seduce their daughters, but I didn’t mind that. I just naturally refused to obey the law in the courtroom. So I remarked:
– No, I won’t spit out my chewing gum, no matter what.
My future husband, that nice young man, gazed sideways at me, embarrassed; he definitely agreed with the judge. I could have dressed better and spat out the chewing gum, but he stayed silent about it. That decision brought us ten years of marriage and a child.
The judge repeated her demand about the gum. She switched off off the horrible background wedding bells. The judge was a big and bulky woman. I suddenly noticed a black ribbon around her arm; she was mourning somebody. Maybe an office comrade? She had a tight small bun and a big tight bust.
I gazed steadily at nothing, standing as if alone on an iceberg. I was ready to say my simple “yes I do” or leave the courtroom.
That nice young man, my future husband, turned to the bun-wearing, responsible official:
– Madame Judge, he said, please do this for me. I don’t know the girl well enough, we just met, but I guarantee you that I will take care of her in the future.
The stern judge sighed, melting her eyes on the fine young man: ah, if only…
And I muttered my simple yes, without the wedding bells.
The divorce, ten years later, had a different judge; a young fancy woman of my age, with dyed hair and plenty of make up. She was in a hurry and was looking not at the people but at the papers:
– So, no alimony?
– No, I said, just a simple “no”.
The judge disapproved facing the papers:
– You can’t do that, the child is under age, we have to put down a number.
– Put any number, I said.
What a hypocrisy, the inflation was eating not only the money but the very stones in the falling country of ex-Yugoslavia!
My ex husband-to-be embraced me. The judge sensed this without raising her spectacled glance.
– One dinar, is that good for you?
She was ironic, she meant it as a joke, but one two three, the deal was done and we left the court, smiling, he sadly, I twice as sadly because everybody will tell me now:
– Oh I am so sorry to hear you have divorced, oh how sad. Then I will feel sad because I am divorced and because my presence made other people sad: my parents desperate, my friends confused, my child, well, yet to see…
I won’t abandon her to those conventions. Mine, mine mine, she is, and nobody will tell me what to do anymore. Divorcing the nice young man who charmed women twice his age, I managed to divorce my Mom as well. She treated me and my daughter as two daughters/sisters, and my ex husband as hers.
I liked the idea of having a room of my own, a child of my own, in a town which will finally show its underside to a woman on her own: a woman without a job, money or property. I left all that behind to the nice young man who didn’t want to say just a simple no. But as soon as I left the keys, the savings, and the house, they all scattered. Property and power could not hold themselves together: they needed me and my life as territory.
I never took anyone to court, except my husbands.
Enough work for one woman — though not enough work to put the world in order.
After I divorced my husband, my good friend, a feminist, met me in the street, hand in hand with my daughter.
-What’s up, she asked.
– Nothing, I just divorced .
– Congratulations, she embraced me with deep but short emotion.
-Thanks, my dear. My heart felt relieved, and I thought afterwards: we should always say that, even when somebody dies.
“Congratulations” is just a word but it makes a big difference…it gives you the courage to go ahead with your life. Every torn sack finds its patch, and not only once. That’s how I see marriage.
And here I come to get married again: in the court with two men and one woman…
I really tried to be there this time; I dressed in black, and for some strange reason I wore multicolored, very thick socks over my shoes…
This time my parents did not know anything about it; I tried to keep it a secret because I felt that I was doing something socially unacceptable. I was a divorcee, so was my second husband. We had other people’s children to look after, and our judge was a silly middle aged woman who wanted to have some fun. The same kind of jolly fun at every single wedding she performed, as if it were hers… All dolled up with a ridiculous turbo-folk pop star hairstyle, and a sing-song voice. In a courtroom of the municipality in Belgrade, where the top notch gypsy bands, free lancers, wait outside to serenade the newly wed… Gypsies never charge you, they just follow you and play. You can give them a fortune, but you don’t have to give them a dime. Deprived of your cash, they will just stop following you.
I wanted to sing with the gypsies, but the judge woman started reciting in her silly voice a law which was not silly at all: a canon of life and death commitment which sounded like a last judgment. Plus some material property issues which sounded more like business. What about love?
– So , may I address you Misses or Miss, she asked my best woman. My friend takes a deep breath and turns crimson:
– Well, I used to be married, but then I divorced, and now I have a partner and she is a woman, I guess I am a Mr.…
The judge woman couldn’t believe what she heard: the best lesbian coming-out I ever heard at a wedding…
I started laughing so loudly that my husband to be, another nice middle aged man dressed properly in a suit with a ring in his pocket, gazed in apprehension at his best man, a hard core male chauvinist. What was to be done?
Since I could not pull myself together, my husband to be took it personally. He gave me a sour glance that made me state preemptively:
– Marriage stinks …
He was about to abandon the marriage but my Mr. Best Woman, relieved and happy about her coming out of closet, hugged us all, very moved:
– And I intend to marry my Missus, one of these days, here with the gypsies!
We went through the ceremony in a daze, as if drunk. The judge wanted to get rid of us in a hurry. Afterwards we went out to drink, and we put up a really heavy fight; my husband’ s best man left us, embarrassed, but he paid our bill. The waiter poured us free wine as if understanding what we were going through, while Mr. Best Woman witnessed our unofficial divorce. There and then we decided to split forever. Because marriage stinks.
– Because we are all compulsive heterosexuals, says Mr Best Woman, as a verdict.
The court room again, after many years of marriage: I am not in the court room at all. Instead, my female lawyer is representing me. My second husband, now a kind-hearted middle-aged man, is reluctant to proceed alone with this paper ritual. He thinks it is not proper, nor does the judge… So I don’t know how that proceeding really went. I was not there, this time literally. I received a piece of paper from that court saying that I was not present, but that my absence did not matter. I was divorced again, anyway.
8. My Aunt Rada and Family Plots
My mother’s best friend, whom I dearly loved, told me some 45 years later:
– When you were four, you were such a darling. You never cried, you never fussed. And whenever you did, you got spanked.
Back in those days, children were spanked on regular basis. Spanking was considered normal and healthy, something hard on parents yet good for children. I don’t remember getting spanked, I do remember however the silent treatments. I remember them as the cruelest and most painful stomach feeling. Even today, that can be triggered if somebody does not answer my email letters.
I heard from my darling old lady that anybody could beat me for my own good, not only my parents, but her, for example, and her husband, not to speak of my aunt, older cousins, in laws who all took care of me one after another, to let my hard-working Mom rest for her dying children.
I was the first child for a long time in that big family which lived together in those postwar years of communism and hardship. And my parents were privileged: they had a flat with more than one room, a car among the first ten cars in Belgrade, and tickets for summer holidays. They had a future which many respectable or wealthy people from the ancienne regime, plain didn’t have. Such as my aunt, the pretty landowner’s daughter. She had married to a rich lawyer, who not only betrayed her with the prettiest women from Belgrade, but also with her best friends.
When he died abruptly of tongue cancer, after an innocent incurable toothache, she found all of his letters neatly tied with a pink ribbon in his first drawer. He had lacked the time to hide them or destroy them.
He left her with two small male children and a handful of love letters. She could not stop crying the first days: she cried for her past, her innocence, her youth, her love, her beauty, her wealth and especially some pieces of her furniture that her grandma left to her. She sold them for food and saw them in the hands of gypsies in the black market. She hardly could cry for her unfaithful husband separately from her other griefs…she was too stunned by his rapid disappearance from the regal scene gone bad.
Her girlfriends who betrayed her were coming to console her. They didn’t know she knew. Patiently and slyly she took them as they came…in small doses, like poison. Then one day she really got angry, sold the rest of her property to the gypsies, moved to a poor district of the town, found a humble job with a shoemaker (her father after all, my grandfather, had shoemaking shops), sent her children to the countryside with her parents, so they would not be hungry… and?
Only many years after at her death bed, a Sunday it was, on my birthday, when she was dying at 72, she told me;
– I don’t have many days to live, and also many reasons but to watch you young ones live…you don’t even need my care anymore. And I don’t have many regrets either. After my husband betrayed me and died, I decided never to marry again, but have all the men in the world I wanted, rich or poor, old or young, handsome or not, married or single…and I did. I had them many, in secrecy…
To my utmost surprise she started listing the names. Her breath was short, she was dying really, but she needed to spill it out, and her memory was not short…She reminded me of another woman, a very old lady who could remember to the very last detail only pleasant things that happened to her in her life, the hardships were never there in her stories…and a third woman whose husband died in bed with another woman, and who, after all those years after his death talked of him as a saint. She never wanted to change that bed or that house where he died, pretending that it never happened. Why do women do that? Why do they reveal it only on their deathbeds, when things done cannot be undone?
My aunt smiled and even laughed feebly shaking her grey curly hair, the hair I inherited from her which I proudly wear nowadays without combing it: life can be fun you know. Don’t let anybody spoil the fun for you… You are a stubborn girl, I remember beating you once when you didn’t want to walk back home from my shoe shop, because I didn’t buy you a pair of red shoes I promised. I beat you so much that I got my period before due. And you didn’t shed a tear, you just stood there in that steep street as if glued to the hot pavement while I was panting and screaming and my hands and face were all red; what a shame for me, everybody was looking at us…
My aunt did not beat the other family girls that came after me; her granddaughters. The first one, who hardly survived the delivery, was a delicate sad baby abandoned by her parents to her, and the other two, left as well to her care while the parents were making money abroad. Those girls already had my protection and better times, when children were not supposed to be beaten.
– Even the English aristocracy beats their children, my aunt used to say: the whip comes out of paradise, was the Serbian proverb… When my mother tried once to beat me with a fly swatter which would leave checked patterns on my legs, I started running around the table: I was already taller than her and stronger… She was panting red in her face and I was laughing and plain having fun. All of a sudden instead of running away from her I turned around my heels and ran towards her and she started running away from me around the table, laughing too…
Do women who beat also kill?
But my aunt “saved” me, my childish memory tells me. Although my father never touched me, when I was four and refused to wear the clothes he wanted to dress me in, one Sunday morning when my mother was away working in her hospital, I thought he would kill me. He was a big big man, who could afford bananas not only for me but also for other members in the family. How dare I disobey him? He took me to our room, while we passed the other relatives in row waiting for the verdict for my incredible refusal, locked the door of our room, slowly took his big leather belt with a metal hair pin and asked me to take my panties off and lie over his knee…I was four and I didn’t know what was about to happen. Outside the locked doors female members of my family who shared his flat with more than one room were whining and gently knocking. He himself never did that before but was subject to it as a small boy from his father the manager of the Austro-Hungarian prison, a prison managed by Serbs on behalf of the Austrian conquerors for Serb political dissidents. He acted as a zombie but I refused to take of my panties. He started yelling and beating the chair with his belt…he put up a big show , as he knew pretty well, but at the time I didn’t know.
At that point my aunt burst in the door with super human strength and took me in her arms.
-You Herzegovinian beast, she screamed, even though he let her stay with her children in the big apartment…and he looked at her with bulging red eyes, closed his fists but dropped his belt and left the room…
Now, if it hadn’t been for my aunt I would have never discovered how dangerous my situation was…maybe my father would have beaten me with that belt, injured me seriously, maybe not. My father was always a coward really. I think this was the best way out for his manhood not to be damaged, my aunt saved his honor as a Herzegovinian beast. I didn’t get hurt and afterwards when my mother came, I was kindly spanked without having to take my clothes off. But the story is still there, even I remember something of that dark fear that young girls encounter with their big dads the first time they are left alone in a locked room.
My recurrent nightmare is: all the men I loved solemnly walk one by one in a row with a dagger in their hands inflicting a blow to my heart while I am lying on an altar. I see them but they don’t see me. I am there but invisible to them: even the beatings could have happened without me. Especially the omitted ones, the missed beating can hurt even more than the ones when actually a hand strikes a blow, your body feels the pain, you are touched, you exist.
My father also saved my life, I remember: again when I was four, he took me to a New Year party for kids in the firm where he worked with hundreds of other employees. There was a big Christmas tree, huge and many many presents for us, the first generation of communist kids who didn’t have Santa Claus or Christmas. Yet this neighbor of ours would dress as Santa to fake the bourgeois game. The Communist Icedad, as we called him in Yugoslavia, brought same gifts to all children, rich or poor ( we were all poor anyway).
The party was not a family one, but colossal event for all parents and all children: on the fifth floor of a new metal construction. We children had to tell him in public something about our sins and promises and he would give us in return a present.
My turn: I lack some front teeth, but that is not stopping me. I sing with all my might, no stage fright only a problem: I was too small to reach the mike so Icedad took me in his arms. But then, I had to admit I bit my nails to earn my present and promise I will never do it again. Instead I set free wildly from his grip. Icedad stumbled back into the big tree full of real candles and his huge beard made of cotton caught fire…The fire started spreading fast over the cotton snow… smoke opened windows, children started screaming, parents fighting their way to get hold of them. My father was holding somebody else’s child in his lap, but seeing the fire he just dropped it and started looking for me. He found me trembling on the ledge of a window convinced it was my sin of biting my nails which set fire to the whole place.
Dad rescued me, and then went back to try to rescue the child he dropped in order to rescue me, feeling terrible about his instinct. The neighbor pretending to be Icedad got rescued too. He had face scars until the end of his days: all children could tell that he was not the real Icedad now, and we never ever pretended again we were nothing else but atheist communists.
When I got my first period, I was young and I knew nothing about it. We were on vacation, on a beautiful
Croatian island. I woke up one sunny morning in my room, with blood on my sheet. I was frightened terribly, I thought it was a too serious matter for my mother to tackle, so I had to get my father first. I did.
He laughed heartily and explained to me that now I am a real woman, that I could bear children and that soon enough I will have a sexual life. Then out of blue, before he summoned my Mother to tell me how to cope with the practical issues of bleeding once a month, he told me that women like men have sexual desires but that women unlike men are not allowed to have them. Then he told me to do whatever I please with my sexual desires in my life as long as I don’t get in trouble with men and children. Just take care of yourself, be independent, live on your own money and never marry if you don’t want to. I was listening to my first feminist lecture and strangely enough from my patriarchal father! I was dumbfounded but I to this very day remember every word he said, first and most important being: to be a woman is not such a bad thing. I guess only a real chauvinist can say that!
When my little Mom was buried, our graveyard in Belgrade was full of people to be buried, who died immediately after the bombings in 1999: stress, lack of medicines, depleted uranium. We could hardly bury her, we had to wake up early in the morning and the sky was angry. Snow was falling, wind was blowing. It was the first snow of that winter.
I had to think of a wish to come true, that‘s a Serbian custom she taught me. I looked at the angry sky: it was actually beautiful, just as I remembered her face, full of passion with her blue eyes shining like the patches of sky behind the snowy clouds. And her hair was striped with white just like those snow flakes falling on my head, on my shoes. I was in her shoes, three sizes smaller and yet as a Cinderella I fitted my feet perfectly, protected from cold and wet. Never ever could I wear those small shoes again, nor could I wear them before. Just that day on that occasion. My Mom was everywhere around me.
Her best friend hugged me, saying: you don’t have your Mom anymore. I felt strange: my thought was, I don’t want to have my father anymore, either.
My good friend told me how she was robbed by her own father after her mother died. Another one told me how she had to take care of her father as senile fool who told her about women he raped and men he killed during the war. What is my fate, what had become of that sweet little girl of four who is being held by her dad, and taken into deep water with a smile of love and confidence, until he slips and falls and a wave comes and they both start drowning…
I learned how to swim some years later, I learned what revenge was many years later, I thought of putting the two things together. But I never took revenge on my father: whenever I wanted to a voice inside me would scream: Stop it, you beast, you bad woman!
With my Mom it was different. I was allowed to take revenge, treat her badly, to murder her. She was a woman just like me and I never ever doubted her love for me.
9. Words and Languages
My mother told me that my first words as a toddler were: “tedi betz.” Immediately after saying this, I would break into hilarious uncontrollable laughter. After enjoying it for some time, she would stop me, according to the severe Serbian belief that too much laughter brings tears and sorrow. Although it is a superstition. there is some physiological truth to it: ups and downs, blacks and whites, fullness and emptiness.
It was then that a new space burst into my being, until then in complete accord with her. A place of secrets, a dark hidden and safe place where I could keep to myself my laughter, my words: never to be said, and only later to be written in diaries or stories or fantasies.
My best time of fantasizing was in a car driven by my father and away from my mother’s lap. Sitting behind I would look through the window far away, and my thoughts would wander while I would coordinate them in images and stories. Boredom was one of the first things I learned to fear, tremendous instinctive fear of the world made of rules and laws of reality was looming over my excited little head. I imagined I could fly, and that I could teach others how to do it: close your eyes, press your fists against the eyelids and wait until your body dissolves and only your eyeballs feel real. Then steer them in the direction you want to fly; skies, past, future, dreams, love.
My mother disapproved of this attitude of mine, but did not bother me. My father instead thought it was unhealthy and insane. As soon as he noticed it happening, he decided to give me concrete assignments night and day, all four seasons of the year. As a consequence, I never had holidays from school, even though I was always one of the best students in the class, thanks to his demands and admonitions. He would say every year at the beginning of my school:
– I work a lot for your school, I pay a lot for it, and you have to shine. I will not go there, never ever, I will not speak to your professors or work on your home-work. It is your responsibility and it must be done.
I did it, I sure did, it hardly cost me any effort, less than to see him around in school boasting of me and his work and money. With a Nikon camera round his neck, a big jolly man who could not begin one sentence without lying, or end it without lamenting. The high Herzegovinian style which I worshipped as a girl in love with her big dad. I even think that I inherited this high narrative style. The stories of woes of the poor and noble were never narrated with a humble tone.
My Dad knew how to tell a tale, especially about himself. Only as an adult writer did I appreciate his talent, and see it a performance art. I remember vividly him improvising weird stories in verses while driving a car on endless journeys, so he would not fall asleep. I remember him singing to me forgotten folk songs, so that I forgot being carsick while he drove. His way of talking to me while we were alone was completely different than when my mother was around. He would become more boisterous, sincere and a bad boy. Alone with me, he treated me his peer and heir, while in her presence he had to be the gentleman and father. He played that role for her sake, not for mine. I liked my bad dad better than my gentleman dad. My bad dad never lied to me, although life was unbearable without lies — as he would put it.
My first words, “tedi betz” turned out to be “teddy bear,” which stood for my big jolly father, master of lies and laments. When I was born, he left for England where he spent months on end studying, working and sending us love and money. Then my mother went to visit him and she stayed there. I don’t know for how long: lies and laments differ every time they are performed. She was gone, however, long enough make me stop talking and laughing. I became a somber little girl who, when she saw her mother back from England did not dare to recognize her. Mom tried to embrace me, but I held back hanging to the skirt of my grandma, who had cared for me in her absence. Then when she managed hold me I stuck to her as if glued, never ever to let her go again.
When my father returned from England, life became spectacular. He came out of a train surrounded by many many balloons, being himself bigger by 30 kilos and wearing a huge fancy suit with a colorful tie. His balloons were actually condoms, blown up to impress me and my mother: maybe the first condoms in Serbia.
My mother stood back in shame. I stood back in fear. My father handed me a big teddy bear who spoke to me with his huge sad eyes of a dead mammal. He screamed: Help.
I helped him. I snatched the bear, hugged him and started laughing…until this day whenever I see a big person with those trapped, animal eyes, I think it is my tedi betz.
When I speak out, when I write, the sky is my only limit yet the earth trembles under my feet. Those who never transgress will never learn their limits. Did I touch the sky?
My mother loved to shop without buying. She just loved to spend her time looking at beautiful things and imagining herself owning them. She loved to shop for me, her doll, and for my father, her status symbol. My father was clumsy, untidy, large man. But very clean, and a big show off. He always wanted to look good and smart and rich, because he was. She had to make that happen: so they were bought classic brands in fancy shops, classics that never wore out, clothes for a funeral. Clothes for posterity.
– Mom , I don’t think I will be able to wear your clothes.
– Of course you will, they are pure cashmere, furs, silk…they will last forever, they are an investment.
– But Mom you are small and fat, I am thin and tall.
– It can be fixed, just a stitch here and there and you will look perfect.
She did! But I didn’t. She proclaimed me tasteless because I had lacked her taste. I liked endless variety, all styles, bright colors and rags… The world was painfully but rapidly changing: girls were allowed to wear pants, uncombed hair, jeans… We threw away our ladylike bras, high heels, make up… while my mother looked on in bewilderment and disgust, shame and sorrow. She suffered in her high heels, Chanel suits, Swiss expensive dresses, overheated fur coats. I thought she was the last victim of the patriarchal middle class, while she thought I was plain going mad. Another civil war at home, not much different than the one she had at her own home when she was young, except that she had forgotten hers.
– Come on Mina, today I will buy myself a nice dress for New Year’s Eve. You must help me.
In the dressing room she tries two dresses. She has a frown on her face. She is unhappy, she is suffering.
– So which one do you like better?
– I don’t know, I really don’t know…I like them both. I don’t know which one to buy.
– Why don’t you get them both? My brilliant idea.
She looks at me and smiles , relieved.
– Why, of course, I will take them both. Off we go home with two New Year’s dresses. She unpacks them , hangs them in front of her mirror and then the real trouble starts.
– It’s all your fault, I should have bought only one. Now I don’t know which one to wear.
I got this trait from my Mom, whatever decision I take, I regret for not taking the other one. If I switch to the second one I will regret for not staying with the first one. You see, the variety of life is never ending. I am aware of that all the time. To take one course through this entangled jungle is reductive and wrong. It’s like a dead-end street.
Whenever my father moved us to a new country, a new town, my mother would beg him: please, nothing too big for us to live in, please please. He would stare at her, eyes bulging in anger, impotent as he always was against her requests, which were actually orders. What was it all about?
They were communists. Lacking historical tradition, they had to invent their own rules of propriety. They suffered a lifetime of doubts.
My mother, as a communist doctor, could not stand having a big house that she could not clean alone. She wanted it perfectly clean, yet she didn’t want anybody else to clean it. This was clearly a class issue, yet as a doctor she was never satisfied with the state of our sanitation.
– Woman, you are driving me crazy. We must have a big house. We must entertain. It is my job.
– Well it is not my job, she would retort promptly.
He would stare even more wildly.
– You got your job as a representative of a communist country. No showing off!
– But that’s not how the world works! Communists need money too. Our country needs it, we must make money. I must. That is my job.
– Not at all costs! I draw a line. No putrid capitalist habits in my house! I don’t want anybody to serve me or serve my guests. We are the working class and we clean our garbage and our houses and yards.
In Egypt, the Arab guests were fascinated by the communist rules she imposed. At that time, the people in power in Egypt were living in Farouk’ s palaces, in his shoes. They had just kicked him out of country, and accepted all the goodies as granted.
We Yugoslavs thanks to Tito/Nasser Non-Aligned Movement, were their favorites.
My father secretly hired a man who pretended to be his office employee, but who actually helped him with errands. My mother didn’t allow him a chauffeur, nor was I allowed to drive in a car to school. I had to walk, with my bag on my back — as did most children all over the world, she said.
So one day, Mustafa, who shopped for my father secretly, met my mother in the shop close to our house. An embarrassing encounter for both of them: Mustafa had to pretend he was shopping for himself, and not for the party at her home that evening. My Mom was caught in an even deeper transgression. She had a street kebab sandwich in her hands, which she was devouring against the rules that foreigners in Egypt should never consume street food or drink tap water. She already cured many Yugoslav people sickened by the local bacteria. She was very stern with her patients about that matter. Mustafa didn’t comment on what he saw. She allowed him that evening to be her waiter.
– I cannot enter that house! my Mom screamed.
– It is too big, it is too fancy and it smells of other people. It is not mine.
– It is a privilege. We cannot refuse it, it would be rude.
– Just tell them, my wife is a communist, and she also knows that you keep Egyptian communists in prison!
My father was glad she didn’t speak out during those official dinners with the local authorities. But in a crisis, he would ask her to speak out, and she did. She confronted the local police authorities, asking for a communist activist, the husband of my school teacher Layla, to be released from prison. I don’t know why he was arrested, but I do remember Layla’ s lovely big brown eyes full of tears, while she was told my mom a tale of woe that made my mom explode with rage.
My father was not an ambassador, he was a tradesman and a spy. My mother was not a diplomat but a doctor, yet everything they did abroad had to do with politics and power. The invisible rules were all around me, they were my first school of behavior.
It was hard, it was doubletalk, communist doubletalk, or parents’ doubletalk. Sometimes both at the same moment. I remember the contradictions better than the rules, the conflicts more than the victories. It’s hard to grow up. Children need firm rules in order to transgress. My parents were inventing the rules as they were lived them: they were communists in power from a new regime, a tabula rasa situation, an empty life to fill with a new order. That task was too big for them, for all of them. And we, outside Yugoslavia, could see the contradictions.
I was fourteen, graduating from high school in Milan: I was the best student of the British school in Milan, a Yugoslav, a Serb, a foreigner to the school, to Italy, and even to her own parents, who spoke Serbian.
– I used to love you so much, said my father on his deathbed with a void in his eyes, first looking at me and then at the ceiling: as if I were not there, as if I were not there all the time, during all these years.
– Girls are born to take care of their parents and boys to take care of the girls. But girls marry boys, and take care of their own children, said my father sadly.
It is the way of the world, that children take the love they get from their parents, and pass on to their own children, and never repay their parents.
I am all dolled up for a school occasion, the ceremony of the honor roll, where I am supposed to go out on the stage and get my award. I have a specially made white dress, a miniskirt like a ballerina’s, made of silk and satin. I wear white gloves and white high heels and I feel fantastic: important, pretty, dignified. Happy.
My father, who never came to my school as a matter of principle, is beaming from the front row. He is pushing everybody around, boastfully showing off his expensive Nikon camera.
He used to tell me:
– I give a lot of money for your school. Every year you cost me like a brand new Volkswagen (cars, like cameras, were his toys).
– You have to become the best student, and even more than that, you have to finish in two years what others do in four.
– But why, Dad?
Because you are a Yugoslav, my daughter. Because we never know where we will live next year. We must move on.
– Right Dad! And I did it.
And here I was now to get rewarded on the stage.
As I wait for my name to be called, I was lost in many thoughts: why didn’t my Mom come? I wanted to show off to my friends my beautiful small Mom, but then would they ever appreciate her beauty? Her shyness, her refusal to speak English or Italian? Better not to see her suffer in the first row with boasting Dad, who spoke a dozen languages loudly and badly.
As time goes by I see dad getting angry and worried. Then the curtain closes and the lights are down. The show is over. My honor roll came and went without me. They forgot to call my name. There will be no photos for my album, no proofs, nothing my father can boast about. He is furious, and I felt it was all my fault.
After the failed ceremony, we went out for a walk, and my Mom joined us to console us. At that point I was immortalized in my white dress and gloves: in the Piazza Duomo. Many years after, when my mother died, I found that dress in one of the suitcases in the garage. Neatly folded, small and beautiful. I took it home, and in a day or two, moths spread all over my house. It was a swarm, an army, I didn’t know how to get rid of them and save my other clothes. I took the dress to my Dad, and I called it the just revenge of the dress. But he burned it, and we never mentioned the episode again.
10. Nobody at Home
– If somebody rings the door bell while I am away, you shout at them: there is nobody at home.
My nanny told me when I was four.
– That’s what decent girls do.
I had many different nannies, they didn’t last long: they were unclean, or unable to cook, or dishonest, or cheeky, or lazy. But this nanny lasted a little bit longer, enough for me to remember her. She spoke with a funny Hungarian accent. She was beautiful, red haired, long legged and dressed in red. As soon as my parents left for work, she would dress herself and leave as well, telling me to be a good girl, behave well, never open the door or go out to play with other children in the garden.
She would return in some time accompanied by different men — rarely the same man. The two of them would smile at me, and sometimes give me candy strictly forbidden by my mom, since I would get constipated by chocolate. They then disappeared into her room.
Once the man left, she would feed me quickly and ready me for my parents’ return. She would tell me severely to keep my mouth shut about the men and the candy, because otherwise something terrible would happen to me. She was never rough or cruel with me, but she never defined this word, terrible. She left it for me to imagine it, and I did.
The terrible things always had to do with my parents; they would abandon me, I imagined.
So, when my mother would urge me to go out and play in the garden, I was terrified. I thought it must be some provocation, a bait for me. I would just say no, stay in my room and play with my dolls. One doll ate with me, slept with me and bathed with me. I never abandoned her.
One day, I saw my mother screaming at my nanny, my nanny crying and slamming the door of her room, my mother knocking boldly and loudly, and my father coming to force the issue:
– There is nobody here, nanny’s voice was wailing…The next day her room was empty of her stuff, as if she had never existed. My mother said:
– Forget about Ruska…
I never did.
Many years later, I was spending holidays with my parents in the seaside. I was in the hotel room with my younger cousin. One night a male friend of mine who lived in the nearby town lost his last bus. We told him he could sleep in our room. During the night, my father came knocking loudly at our door,
– Open the door, who is there?
We all woke up frightened, looked around and answered without opening:
– There is no one here, nobody in the room.
– I know there is a man inside the room, he shouted.
So we hid the friend in the cupboard, opened the door and showed him.
– You are right, there is nobody in the room.
He went away.
I am booking my plane, an expensive ticket, I have no choice. I must be in Milan Monday morning. I am privileged to be there, in a hospital where the best doctors in Europe work, in that ward where they told me they will cure me.
What a feeling of freedom to walk into an airplane and not be afraid of crashes anymore. My body is my worst enemy now.
In Milan, in a cancer ward. Everything is allowed except the word “cancer.” Patients drink, smoke, the meals are like in a five-star hotel. Visitors are all over the place, laughter is common, children are playing. Everything is clean and shiny. The doctors are tanned good-looking pleasant people who behave as your friends.
– Signora, we cannot find the tumor our tests indicate, so we will shoot randomly in your head, in your throat.
Why is the cancer vocabulary so militaristic? OK, my body is your domain, your business. I am a Madame, as my Mom always taught me. Real ladies lack real bodies, ladies never do bodily things that other people do, like go to the toilet.
-You may lose your hair. Your throat may ache and be sore for some time, and your skin scorched, OK?
OK. Shoot the lady randomly, there is nobody at home.
The medical council is perplexed, the nice tanned Italian doctors cannot reach an agreement about me. These peacemakers of that troubled war zone, my body. Although nobody is at home, I am a refugee in my body now, my stricken body is a foreign country. The peace makers fight heavily among themselves: they write papers and scan me with different machines. Once they even asked me to choose a side and decide on my own therapy
– This is not like buying shoes, I snapped, as a true lady…
So, they make me take a short holiday. My body is on the plane again, afraid of nothing anymore but the interior enemy. Is my body still mine when occupied by invasive presence? When my phone rings in Belgrade, I answer :
– There is nobody at home.
I prefer not to be in my home, in that body in a condition I cannot accept.
In my dreams the door bell often rings: it wakes me as an imperative. There is somebody at the door. The world expects something from me. It is a relief when I can call out to the mailman, leave your mail outside in the mailbox, there is nobody at home.
I bought that expensive ticket once again: the doctors want me back in Milan. I am supposed to fly the next morning, I am packing: I am looking at my family members, they know nothing of my trips. They think I am having fun in Italy, or that I am earning money to buy them presents. Suddenly I enjoy the fact that they are spoiled; that is not my grave mistake anymore, but on the contrary a great achievement and a luxury. They will remember me after I am gone: maybe for my apple pie. I will remember my Mom‘s Russian salad to the end of my days. Its dense and acid taste. She always made a Russian salad for me for my birthday. That day when it all started, and I was not there.
Early in the morning the phone rings:
– Madame your flight has been cancelled, the plane cannot land in Milan because of fog.
A new plane ticket, somewhere close to Milan. I must reach my foggy hospital ward. On foot if I must, and I know I must.
I fly an expensive jaunt all over Europe : I wait in strange waiting rooms on the waiting lists, my luggage is lost. I reach Italy but the trains are on strike. I hitch-hike, but I miss my medical appointment by many hours: it is a sign, I was not meant to be cured in that dandy and tanned place. Maybe I was not meant to survive.
I am trying to face the void in my head in the hotel room. The phone rings: yes, I am here. Even though I missed my appointment with life.
– Madame we have decided not to do any therapy. We must research it more, the doctors wrote their papers and reached an agreement.
Good thing, then, that I missed that appointment with whatever. Thank you fogs and doctors, thank you devils…
Back in the cancer ward waiting for the check-up news; my hair is loose and long:
-What a nice wig, says one of my cancer pals, a woman with a bandanna on her bald head.
– What a brilliant idea to get a fancy wig instead of these caps that we wear. How cool!
I dare not tell her that my hair is the sign of my health, that I am abandoned by the doctors, that I was never really sick, that I had a fake execution, that my body is the object of research now. Nobody is at home.
My cancer pal is young and self possessed:
– I am at the end of my cures. It went exactly as I told them. I knew it was cancer and that I had to be operated on, but my doctor in the village didn’t believe me. I am now cured and I will go back home.
What a privilege, home and cured!
Respected by her village doctor; only now with one breast cut off in a big town in the big hospital. Finally the Amazon woman is at home.
I reach the ward for pathology tests in Belgrade. Very lively turbo folk music is playing, the hospital somewhat falling apart, but the employees seem unusually happy in such a miserable place.
-Is this the pathology ward?
– Yes madame.
– I was told you can do a DNA test.
– Sure we can, where is the cadaver?
– It’ s me really. I need to know if that section of gland they say they removed is really part of my body.
You are the cadaver? The woman in charge was amazed and then she burst in loud laughter.
– But we do only cadavers madame, we do mass graves… we just got a big grant for that from the Europeans.
– But what about us who are alive?
– What about you? If you are alive, just stay so and be happy, every day is a gift!
She turned on her heels amused.
I was on the verge of tears, I could not even tell why, because of the mass graves, or me…or both.
Her young male assistant hopped to me and passed me a visit card secretly.
-There you go, a private doctor will do it for you, if you have enough money…
Money money money…
Since I was giving money, I decided to go to the Italian morgue and do it.
On a gloomy day, while approaching the pathological centre in Pavia, I met a woman of my age dressed in black.
We were both lost in the parking lot, trying to find the big hospital entrance hall. We were both obviously the only two people on foot in Italy. We were in some distress beyond medical pain.
– Signora, says she, can you tell me where the morgue is?
I have to identify my son. They told me to come here and see the body… My son disappeared some months ago, he was such a nice young man, why would he commit suicide on the northern side of Italy? You see I am from Southern Italy. She opened her arms as a sign of honesty.
– Oh, I don’t know, I am not from around here either, I come from further away.
– Who did you lose?
– Who do you have to identify?
Myself, I said.
Sitting in that really comfortable train, The Trans-Europe Something-or-Other… Europe is small compared to US, a bathtub compared to a river… yet Europe is big in languages borders peoples brands and police…
My Serbian country is outside Europe. My Serbian passport needs all the European national visas, plus the collective one of United Europe. I think I have them all, I always try to gather most of what I can get, even if I don’t travel… The visas travel for me…
I am somewhere on that beautiful Croatian coast which is no more my coast: even my little Yugoslav sailboat has been taken away from me, a Serb anchored in the Croatian sea. But I manage to get my Croatian visa. I manage to fake it silently, I manage to look like an Italian tourist not a Serb, and to visit alone all those Adriatic islands where mermaids once filled my dreams and hopes. Where I had my first period, where I had my first love affair, where I planned to live forever, one of these days…
As I visited those numerous islands in the same old ships I used to travel in before the wars, with those names nostalgic of a non-existing, dead state… I realized that my heart was no longer in it: even though the Adriatic scenery was as pretty if not prettier, the colors and the dimensions were too small and fake for me. Too good to be true, a forbidden city of the non-European.
I was a fake Briton because I went to a British school all my life: a very authentic fake Brit, I could even name the most famous British coal mines. I was a fake Italian because I grew up in Italy, as a sincere patriot who never got a citizenship. I was a true Yugoslav, but my country disappeared and I lost my citizenship.
Now here I am now as a wannabe European woman traveling alone. Because you see, women don’t travel alone; they travel with their men, families or friends. If they are alone, it means they are lost or dangerous. I always get those looks and check ups, even friendly offers.
I entered in the first comfortable train heading north… to even more United Europe.
Border officers were entering my train, checking us, and it all went well, until we managed to come across one small piece of one small country that once used to be called Yugoslavia, that once used to be my own country.
I didn’t have the proper papers, they claimed. Politely, they took me out off the train, and even more delicately, they locked me behind bars. A small prison hut, really, with two young officers watching me from outside with guns.
Then they went through my suitcase, then through my hand bag and then through my computer.
They were amused:
– So, what are you doing here, madame, smuggling yourself in our country without a visa?
– No, I wasn’t , I said bewildered, I was just traveling back home.
– But you took the wrong train, you cannot travel Europe without a visa.
– No, I said, I just took a train that happens to cross this small country, a nation smaller than the city I come from, a country where the plastic covers on the haystacks look fancier than tablecloths in my country.
– We will have to charge you with an attempt to cross our border illegally.
– But I legally gave you my passport. It was a mistake, my country split up and Europe united…you know, it was such a big confusion…
– We don’t remember your ex-country. The two young blonde border officers stared at me.
I looked at them. Of course, they were too young to remember or even know, why would they care, they were just doing their job.
– You are a writer, one of them says.
– Yes, I am.
– What do you write about, asks he.
– Stuff like this really, I answered vividly, crossing the borders, messing with laws and people.
He was taken aback.
– We must take you immediately to your embassy, in the capital.
– No, I must call my lawyer, you must give me the phone.
It was actually a moment of hands-on struggle between us: the European new order and non-European individual.
The young officer said:
– If we let you go into no-man’s land between borders, you can wait for a couple of hours over there, and then enter Croatia, the country you travelled from. Since from tomorrow, the visa regime in Croatia for Serbs is abolished. You could sleep in the no-man’s land if they don’t let you into Croatia.
– It’ s a deal, I said.
And we did it.
They deported me a couple of kilometers, into nobody’s land where there was literally nothing. I walked slowly, dragging my luggage to the border, which soon enough would stop being one. I reached it, I crossed it because of a kind officer who looked the other way, and I took another train south.
Then a middle aged train conductor checked my new ticket to the south.
– Didn’t you go north only a couple of hours ago?
– Yes I did, I said. I tried to reach to my same destination but I took the wrong direction.
– Don’t you read your tickets, check your trains?
– No I don’t, I said peevishly, as if admitting that I never go to doctors for a regular check up.
– Well you should madame, this world today is all about trains and proper tickets and papers.
He was right: I looked at his kind elderly face with wrinkles, the devoted body bent over his conductor’s heavy bag, his stamps lost in a smaller bag. I imagined his long-sought pension round the corner, his future life, that of a railway clerk in pension: a little bit of gardening, a little bit of cooking, and a lot of memories of trips, and people he met and treated, or mistreated.
I remembered Walter Benjamin’s suicide at the border while waiting for a visa that arrived only hours too late. A Jew trying to escape Nazi Germany: a philosopher trying to describe the world he was living in. Which Benjamin did perfectly: only he did not have the patience and strength to survive it.
11. First and Last Love
I remember reading in some chick newspapers how passionate love is often accompanied by violence and jealousy, much like rock and roll musicians use alcohol and drugs.
My first love looked like Mick Jagger, and had many girlfriends besides me. We had nothing much to do or talk about in common, but we liked to kiss and listen to the music.
He told me one day:
– You know what, even if you lost your leg, I would still be loving you.
He was seventeen, I was fifteen. I looked at him wondering, if his leg was cut off, would I still want to be with him? He would not be able to dance, ride a motorbike… I loved the way he never wore a coat during the cold foggy days in Milan and how he always wore the same turtleneck sweater notwithstanding the weather. He never went to school. We didn’t date much. We played music over the phone and would meet during the weekend, bored to death with each other’s company if we could not ride his motorbike, dance or kiss.
When I was seventeen, I went to university. One of those foggy days, when we sat together on a bench in a deserted park in Milan full of junkie needles, I told him;
– I think we should stop seeing each other. My heart was breaking, and I hoped he would deny me. He didn’t.
He was a derelict at heart and a rebel without a cause.
I was lucky to hold his slender body in my arms, speak of the world to his frank proletarian mind, listen to rock music with him, ride on his motorbike at full speed, sleep in the sleeping bags in student dorms, laugh and cuddle. I was lucky my first love was a street smart love. Ten years later, I phoned him, because we had an agreement that I would do it: exact date and time.
I was in Milan again, perchance, because my father just had a heart attack and was fighting for his life in a hospital. Back in the city where I made the appointment with my first love, ten years before. Serendipity! He told me his father too just had a heart attack. We agreed on a place to meet. But I never went there, and never found out if he did.
Instead, I went to see if my father would live or die. I took my mother with me, she was weeping and unable to function, she was lost. On our way to Milan, she lost control several times. I had to help her, saying:
– Mom he is not dead. Yet.
At the airport the plane was waiting for us. They knew we were emergency case, and of course my father was a spy, so the police asked the plane to wait. I didn’t know that at the time, I only knew that my mother had forgotten her passport. Notwithstanding that fact, they let us board the plane. She also managed to enter Italy without a passport, don’t ask me how.
My mother, the lady, had forgotten her passport and carried no money, but she was wearing gloves. Why do doctors and ladies always wear gloves when they visit their dying ones?
My mother died many years before my father, but she buried him many times before she died. That effort wearied her, and killed her eventually. My father killed my mother softly and with love, and she let him do it, pretending she was burying him. This was the first time I had fully assisted in their lifelong love-and-death story.
She was wearing her leopard fur coat, her black gloves and her big Sofia Loren sun glasses. It was winter time, foggy and rainy. My father was all in white, with nurses, tubes around him…behind a curtain… Every patient was behind a curtain, half open, completely exposed or completely closed… a curtain like a flag of life or death: I feared the closed curtain, but my father was half opened…and the curtains were like shower curtains, made of plastic in lively colors.
The whole place had something lively and childish about it, like a kindergarten. The lights were bright, and soft music was playing. The same atmosphere I encountered in the delivery ward: those places are definitely designed by the same artist. I don’t believe it was God, for I don’t believe in God, if even God existed he would not like this design. It is a design of denial of life and death, maybe a designed denial of the patients themselves.
The doctor spoke to us separately, mother and daughter. He asked my mother if I was a drug addict, or any other source of heart-trouble to my father. He asked me about my mother and my parent’s marriage. I told him that their marriage seemed sound. My Mom told him that I was an ideal daughter. We both believed in what we were saying. My mother really believed that I would go through my life fulfilling all her expectations, from that plain ladylike hairstyle to our silent support of whimsical and dominating husbands.
How did that work out? Where was I when it happened? I was shooting a film when I married, but the marriage was something my mother decided for me. Marriage was expected from me. From the intimate point of view, hers, to have grandchildren. From to public point of view, my father’s, to buy me a car and get rid of me. The Serbian proverb was: I didn’t lose a daughter but gained a son. In real life, though, everybody wanted to get rid of a daughter or switch her for a son. Even if the daughter was invisible, like me. Then a husband was even more necessary, because they needed somebody to be visible and to boast about.
My mother was fond of my husband. He reminded her of her beloved brother who died of alcoholism when Communism came in power. Never a worker, he was an aristocrat who loved to shoot wild geese and raise tame pigeons. He went to bed the day they took his hunting rifle from him. The Communists confiscated firearms from all people, not just him; but he took it personally. He stopped eating and started drinking.
My father forbade my mother to cry when he died, because of his act of rebellion and his irresponsible attitude toward life and family. My uncle left two sons and a wife behind him. I saw him in his last days, he was skeletally thin, scarcely able to speak. He whispered to my whimpering mother who was dressed in her gloves and high heels:
– Please Veroschka, look after my children.
How delicate, how tender, how cool and gentlemanlike. The guy was existing the stage in high style.
My dad was from a different background, where people lived a hundred years, dying each and every day, and never letting go of their lives for one second. In that part of the country, even if they cut off your hands and legs, blinded your eyes, a person would live as a trunk, like a sunflower tuned to the sunlight. Among my mother’s people, men and women were like crystal vases: once the body breaks, the soul shatters too.
When my cousin, many years later, was lying in the AIDS ward, she told me:
– It is nice here, everybody is kind and everything is clean except for the patients. They really make awful noise. They frighten me. Last night this Mileta died, remember him? He used to be my boyfriend many years ago. Well, he screamed as if they were beheading him. He was always such a nuisance.
My cousin’s eyes were wide open and green. She had lovely moon skin and thin beautifully carved limbs. She was the best looking patient in the AIDS ward: a top model really. My father too, his rosy cheeks and perfect line-less skin were even more pronounced in the emergency ward. We are a doctors’ family really, we look great in such settings. I was a great mother to be, everybody was complementing me on my looks and elegant attitude while giving birth. I could have done it in high heels while dancing and singing.
My father smiled when he saw us arrive in his Milanese hospital ward. My mother started crying. I approached his lips, knowing that he was not allowed to move or speak. He started whispering fast:
– I have a list in my pocket, take that list and do the errands I wrote there.
I took the list. I glanced at it. It was a shopping list: a spare part for a dish-washer, a pair of black shoes Bardelli, a perfume Rive Gauche small size etc…
– But Dad… I protested.
– Just do it, I have no time to do it and maybe I will die. I told my friends I will do those favors for them, and I can’t let them down just because I am in the hospital. What if I survive?
I thought my dad was losing it, but I was wrong. My father understood survival. Nobody would take in account the fact that he was stricken, maybe dying. Not in his world, where friends and allies were bought by small, intimate favors. They were dependent on personal favors in order to do big political favors which cost them nothing: the working principles of a communist economy.
The curtain of the stall next to my father was spread with a big wow by a great-looking woman in a fur coat. She flung herself onto the dying young patient, lying nude as a shrimp.
This golden haired invalid growled in excited amazement at the invasion of the furred woman, in her miniskirt and fancy boots. He stared at her open mouthed and trembling. I stared at his male organ in erection. It seemed bigger than his small, gaunt body, and his pointed Italian nose.
I glanced at my father. Neither he nor my mother noticed a thing. They had their own love story going on there, which I, as their offspring, took for granted. My mother hung Goya’s Nude Maja above their matrimonial bed, a print as big as Goya’s original. Once, and only once, I saw my parents touch: they were holding hands in that bed. When she saw me, my mother rapidly pulled her hand out of his, as if she were caught stealing something.
It must have been my mother who set the tone for that arrangement between them. It was always my mother who was determined the course of the marriage, while my father was publicly responsible, and paid for it. They were both happy with that deal. I gather that they never discussed their terms as man and woman, although they were as plainly stipulated as a signed insurance loan. For them, marriage was all about that. In so many ways, they were right.
– Love does not cook a dinner, my father used to say,
– Love does not wash dishes, my mother used to retort.
The hospital curtain next to us started to tremble. Moans and groans were speeding up louder and uncontrollably…even the nurse heard it, she ran to the curtained box tripping over my foot and unwrapped the lovers having wild sex in the death bed. The woman didn’t even take her fur coat off and the man still had tubes in his arms. It wasn’t a porn scene or even a sex comedy, it was true.
– Are you crazy man?! the nurse screamed, You can die because of this and it will all be my fault!
She pulled the curtains back, the moans ceased altogether. My parents and I discussed buying presents for family and friends. My father was mentioning his bank account with a code number, the hidden account he kept, in case of his death.
I don’t know how many minutes passed but another woman tripped over my chair:
– Mi scusi, she said in a polite detached Milanese voice.
– Sure, I jumped to my feet.
She was dressed in black from head to foot. She had red eyes and carried a silk handkerchief. Behind her two small children dressed as Catholic catechism students were shyly holding hands, pale and curious. Especially the red haired girl, who was slightly older. The woman had a wide hat too and she was extremely pretty, I noticed; the children looked just like the nude, golden-haired, dying man. They were overdressed and really contained, as rich people’s children often are: don’t speak to strangers was written all over their faces.
The next theatrical opening of the curtain is called accelerated karma in some cultures. The sexy woman in the fur coat and boots had escaped through a rear door. She left the sick man fatally stricken. The dressed to kill widow is falling on her knees, the children are holding hands, the boy is clinging to the girl, the girl is clinging to thin air.
Her dad has died, mine is surviving. When those curtains finally closed on her dad’s improvised room, they never opened again to her or anybody else.
Did the wife know about the mistress? Who will sign the papers of the death? Will the nurse tell the doctor who let the fatal woman into the deathbed of the dying man? Would he have stayed alive otherwise? What will become of his widow, of his children? I was most interested in his daughter who had his looks, probably his temperament. Just like me, a pale and honorable copy of my spy daddy, the strong genetics of a survivor, the lies which turn into fiction, into fantasies.
I wonder what were the last thoughts of the guy who shared his last breath with all of us behind a curtain, did he know he was leaving us for good?
A family friend of my parents died in the same way, but in his own house. His wife and daughter were away for holidays. The girl was some random actress, he smoked and drank heavily anyway… My father was the first to hear the news, for the actress called him: the dead man had passed away in her body.
But my father could never stay silent about such a matter: he told me what really happened. Other friends of my father had the luck to die that way: a famous football player, a businessman… My father took care of all of them and of their families, he told me all the stories. He took care not to tell my mother about it, if she was the friend of the wife. It was a generational way of dealing with sex and what comes out of sex, be it life and procreation, be it orgasmic death.
My death, without me.
12. Sex and Money
Once in a dark movie theatre when I was only fourteen, a long haired blonde boy sat next to me and that really excited me: During the film I was restless… he seemed to respond to it: at a certain point he tenderly got hold of my hand and asked me in a whisper:
– What’s your name?
I became upset all of a sudden.
– What’s this all about, I hissed…and he let go of my hand in one second. He was my age I think and he left before the lights went on again, embarrassed because of his bad judgement. But it was not his fault; I acted as a bitch and I hated myself for doing it.
That repulsive hiss slipped out of me before I managed to understand it; I played the historic game of a temptress who dares not fulfill her own desire. Women who blame men for their desire. I never knew I had it in me, desire or guilt, and it all turned against this young blonde angel in the dark. I only hope I didn’t traumatize him and turn him into a devil.
My friend’s boyfriend could not have sex with her for years, because the first time he was was necking with her, the girl’s father showed up. He insulted and threatened them. This father, whom I know as a egomaniac and a womanizer, later on falsely accused this boy of drug addiction, drug dealing, whatever… The truth was the opposite, his daughter was doing drugs, and probably because her boyfriend could not make love to her… A man’s Oedipal game of sex and incest. We women become accomplices, if allowed.
When my father burst in the bedroom where I had smuggled my boyfriend and hid him in a cupboard, I stood defiantly in front of the cupboard door, trembling: the message was: over my dead body. And my big father left, he turned on his heels, shamed and impotent. The daughter has chosen the younger man.
I didn’t choose, I was acting on impulse, I was protecting the weaker one, but men don’t get that. Because yes, Medea burned her own children: because they were the children of betrayal. That’s what men are afraid of in real life: of their own sons. Sons will take a male revenge on them and their male power. They live in the fear of castration of power. We women are sometimes accomplices, if we are allowed.
Once a notorious serial rapist asked me to dance in a night club in Belgrade. I didn’t know who he was, but I liked his polite manners. He instead liked so much my incessant talking and my lack of fear that he admitted that he was a rapist. He had planned to rape me too, but all my chatter had rendered him impotent.
Once, on a rainy evening, as I walked back home, half-blind without my eyeglasses, I was confronted by a street exhibitionist. I heard the sounds he made, and I thought he needed help. I went up to him and asked him:
– Do you need something sir?…
He was nude under his raincoat, holding his penis in his hand and twitching in fear at my words… he turned on his heels and ran as fast as his feet could carry him.
The first time I had sex, I remember being there, and really. I was a young teenager and he was an older teenager. Just a guy, and a neighbor really, very nice and kind to me. I didn’t love him, I was honored to be the object of his attention, the rival of his grown up and sexy girlfriend. And according to his words: he really enjoyed talking to me.
Now, ever since then, men would either run away from me when I would start talking, or talk with me till dawn, never touching me. Even when I asked to be touched, they would have doubts as to what to do with me. Men fear women who talk too much. They are even more fearsome than the women who know what men are talking about.
My first boyfriend told me;
– I wish I could put a needle inside your head and see what is going on there.
Fear and shame were going inside my head, and a lot of random literature I had read about the business, from Saint Augustine to erotic novels. I wanted to get rid of my virginity and have sex: I was ashamed to admit I was a virgin, and not only but that I never ever kissed a man before him. Only a few months ago, I was a fat pigtailed spectacled creature who preferred to eat chocolate with a book in her hand than to dance with boys at parties.
But one summer it all changed suddenly: I cut my hair because I was away from my Mom in a boarding school. I bought a light blue mini dress with laces and I took off my glasses: then I went to a party. As Cinderella, my schoolmates could not recognize me, boys asked me for dances, and girls stared at me with envy and admiration. It was a process that made them marvel, this rapid change from a nobody into a star. I myself wondered if it would last after midnight, but it did.
Ever since then men have been hitting on me with some regularity, and in patterns: only ugly men could stand my talking, and only attractive men could ignore it. I started picking up the real male chauvinists in order to have proper sex: the more they ignored my mind, the better they loved my body. Since I had no self-esteem through my words, I could not respect people who appreciated what I said.
I was grateful for attention and kind to anyone who gave it, but considered myself a loser. Nobody my age wanted to discuss Spinoza and Dante. Clearly there was something wrong with me, and in order to understand the world, I had to do a lot more reading.
Lost in the jungle of my words, only the body treated with violence could give me a clue as to what was right or wrong with me… In that rich inflated ego made of words, I was driving at high speed, day and night. I told my first boyfriend:
– You know I can never stop thinking, even while we are having real sex…
– Well, he said confused, don’t you enjoy it?
– Oh I don’t know, I blushed, I think I am still a virgin!
– A woman can never know really, it is a social construction. The point of fact I was: I lost my clinical virginity on the abortion table some years later, after I became pregnant even without having proper sex.
– One in a million said the doctor who examined my body.
It was in Italy, it was in the seventies. He was a young good-looking politically rebellious gynecologist; he was a member of the network of alternative political structure of doctors who were pro abortion. Abortion was strictly prohibited in catholic Italy, together with other means of contraception.
These rebel doctors wanted to take Italian abortion out of the closet, out of the nunnery where abortion was performed for big money, and to treat women legally and with dignity. As a student, I had a membership card, free. As a pregnant student I was a guinea pig, a case, willing to go public. It was the seventies, fantasia al potere, la donna e’ bello…
But my life inside me was not allowed to be my life: the handsome doctor all of a sudden bent over my naked body and pressed his loins heavily panting: I pushed him away so violently that we both fell of the table.
– Goodness me, I started screaming. He put a hand over my mouth gently; please don’t denounce me, he begged, please…I want to date you, you are so lovely…
The scream froze in my throat. I felt sorry for him: how terrible it must be for a gynecologist to love the bodies of his endless patients, like being an alcoholic bartender. Life of repressed passion and guilt. I looked at his anguished handsome face and I forgot my body, my feminism, my lotta continua. I turned from the small life I carried inside me to the general fate of my Life without me.
– So, I am pregnant.
– Yes, said he and you are also a virgin he exclaimed with passion: you are like the Virgin Mary.
I couldn’t believe his words, all these years I have been having sex with different men, and now he is telling me that I am the Virgin Mary, almost raped by an alternative gynecologist.
– At first it was rape, as the Virgin Mary said in a Monty Python comedy…
Sitting on the pavement in front of a maternity ward, department of abortions, on a hot July day in Belgrade. I have a wide gypsy skirt and I have dyed my hair very red. My mother is sitting two blocks away in a coffee shop; she took me to the clinic, had me meet with the doctor who was to perform the abortion, and has left so as not to bear the shame. I sat obediently accepting her shame as the Virgin Mary would, although I knew she had two abortions before having me.
I gathered the difference was that she was married and I was a virgin who had sex repeatedly. Did she know that? Maybe, but even if she did, she pretended it didn’t happen. Even after they performed the abortion, kicking me out of the waiting room, onto the pavement, in order to have more space for other women, who had to go back to work.
I sat, my head spinning in silence, not daring to ask her to come and pick me up until I manage to walk properly. I had no other feeling of guilt, pain or missed motherhood. Something altogether missed me in that issue except a brief wave of liberation: I am not a virgin anymore. The doctor in the clinic, after examining me, laughed horridly, just as a socialist atheist doctor would. He said:
– Hey baby, how old are you.
– Eighteen I said proudly.
– Oh well, then, he said and at that moment my eyesight dimmed and that’s it.
I connected my joints and stood up looking for my Mom who was sitting with big eyeglasses and talking to a colleague:
– Oh here she is, she said as if I had been gone to buy an ice-cream, come on my dear, meet my friend Dr. This-and That…and tell her about your studies.
I did. I told my mother’s colleague about my art studies and how I loved studying cinema.
Mom and I never mentioned the issue again
When I told her a month before;
– Mom I am pregnant, she said
– Oh no no, it is impossible…you are not married…
That coded our communication on the topic, it all never happened: even the injections I had to take for months for suffering an postoperative infection, shots that she give me herself, did not count. She told everybody it was vitamins because of my low immunity system. And after years of gynecological problems verging on catastrophes, we never mentioned when it had started, and where was I when it all started. According to my Mom, I was not there, because good girls don’t have sex before they get married, and afterward, they do it in order to have children, and after having children, they do it in order to keep their providers happy. And when that all is over they finally get relieved of their painful biological duties and become grannies.
And you know what, in many ways things happen exactly that way, not because that is really how things work, but because nobody bothers to make them work in any different way: we swim downstream carried by the current…
Sex and money just go together. Yes, Freud again; I never understood him, but I believe him. I observe things I don’t understand better than things I do, and the things I understand only half way, wow those things really turn me on: music, philosophy and money.
I never knew how to make money. I considered myself so useless that every atom of every second I had to prove the opposite by working. Working to achieve the economic positive zero; the amount you consume equals the amount you produce. I never knew the criteria or the standards of that measurement.
What I knew from early childhood was how to count money, in cash, in decimals, as if I were autistic. How to to turn numbered sums of money into in other values, such as food, school, clothes… Whatever my Dad, the Big Boss, said mattered in real life, meaning in the life without me.
Though I never visited my father’ s family house in Herzegovina, he managed to bring the attitudes there in Belgrade, into our daily lives. He subtracted every penny, which he invested in me, from the day I was born. I was told about my patrimony: whatever he himself did not consume before he died, and our expensive family graveyard.
When I told him, after my mother’s death, that I had a legal right to one fourth of the goods, inheriting from my mother, he looked at me blankly as if failing to understand the depth of my madness.
– But how? Your mother never made a penny…besides she is dead.
My mother was a doctor: she did earn money. She inherited values, and she had me, but my father could simply not understand that such things mattered. The real world without women.
Many years ago, when I earned my first money and used my first bank account to save it there, he just picked up the money, on the behalf of his parenthood and family needs. It was illegal, impossible and immoral. But he did it, and when I protested, he smiled at me in amazement:
– But it is small money, I needed the cash. Anyway, one day it will all be yours.
I believed him, though he lied to me. He should have been impeached as a father for lying to his daughter, as presidents are impeached for lying to their people. But the supreme court for women does not exist.
After decades of wealthy life and promises from my rich father that the future belonged to me: I found myself penniless and lifeless, to the point of dying before him.
He sadly shook his head:
– I am sorry my investment didn’t work. Daughters don’t inherit the genetic structure to run a family business.
Yet when her heard of my illness, he was shaken: he kept saying, I can’t believe it, it’s not possible, it’s not true. I enjoyed telling him the frightening details of my illness, returning the health scares he had inflicted on me so many years. It was my cruel revenge on an old man, to confront him with the likelihood that I might die before him.
He had never been able to face my mother’s sickness, her death. I remember that he would creep to her door as she was sick, and not dare to enter it, until she would laugh and yell at him: — Come in, you coward!
I was convinced that he loved us both to the end… Why would I doubt it?
When I have sex, I think of philosophy. When I read philosophy, I feel really sexy. When I see other people having sex, I feel embarrassed for my own species.
I refuse to allow that other people have sex as a matter of course; no, only I can have sex, smoke, drink… The very thought makes this world an ugly crowded place of sexual animals. Deep down inside me, I know that’s exactly what is going on… but as long as I manage to handle my illusions, I can ignore the truth. The truth is, we are not what we think we are.
In the seventies, in Italy, “heterosexual” was a restrictive word, for women especially. It was called compulsive heterosexuality, the worst being to have married sex with the purpose of reproduction. To avoid the shame, most seventies feminists tried their very best to test their marriages with other men, other women…
I remember them older than me, fancy, loud, bright beautiful rich and successful women. I don’t remember myself: I was shy foreign and plump: I dressed in rags and mostly staid silent. I was not even a feminist, I was a vase full of somebody else’s knowledge, as Pasolini put it after trying to talk to me for two hours. I was so offended by his words, yet afterwards I found out that he described Medea in his film in that same way, and that Maria Callas played a beautiful vase full of somebody else’s knowledge.
But my condition was so poor that even his compliment hurt me. I tried to avoid all kind of experiences: men and women, marriages and liaisons, children and pets.
I managed to flee from my family, from my prescribed fate, that of a Balkan princess who would inevitably fall back to her historical condition, of a woman slave to some kind of man. Even though she had studied abroad, even though she knew languages, even though she was something else. But who was to say that, to see that? Who bothered, who dared? Not my father: To him I was just an underdeveloped girl who could not get a proper job. For my mother I was a sissy who could not dress or marry properly.
And you know what, once you are out of school, you plain have to do such things, really dress, really marry, and find a real job until real children come underway. I was expected to surrender my ambitions and follow the steps of my imaginary successful husband.
As a fairy tale in reverse, the Balkan pink tale for women is somewhat unfair, but with a touch of novelty. Women get educated, they even get to work, but never to earn more money than their men, and God forbid they should do so after the birth of the children. Diplomas are attractive for women, like a nice ass. They allow you to get a better husband, and they last as long as your shapely young ass lasts.
Once your husband gets addicted to you and the two of you start a family, you are allowed to get fat and ignorant. The Balkan dream for women means a nice house somewhere on the seaside, a solid graveyard in your hometown. A sense of nausea, of hate and impotence, still grips me today, as a woman born into the privileges of a patriarchal society.
I once feared my future as much as I hated my past. I realized how it was all planned and connected: my clothes, my room, my schools. They held an empty space for me, a throne where nothing else mattered, once you accepted the role of the royal fool queen.
I felt doomed and unable to fight back. It meant fighting centuries of heritage, embodied by people I loved. My father, whom I feared and never understood. My mother, unable or unwilling to be on my side. She had the explicit double talk, my father the hidden one. Those intense moments I had in their laps and arms, those moments of childish love and freedom, vanished as the real world engulfed me. A world of severe demands, as I grew up, and they grew old.
13. Birthdays and Funerals
My birthdays, I don’t remember , except the few that that were dramatic. When I was about to turn eighteen, I lived in Milan: in that rich and money-centered city where drugs and fashion were supposed to be the fun part. It was a big deal to party at eighteen.
Inevitably we all do and parents are pretty happy if, at eighteen, we are any good. If they can show us off as adults, if they can trust us, declare us their legal heirs. Or else, if we are delinquents, drug addicts, revolutionaries or just ugly and rude, they can at least say: we tried hard. This is what we managed. From this day on, we will not try anymore.
I felt saddened by these perspectives, especially because I hadn’t the faintest idea how my parents saw their work as parents in the public eyes. I was shy, thin and reclusive, yet wild, ambitious and unpredictable… I think they never saw that big picture.
They did some legal paperwork when I turned 18: I was supposed to drive the car. I could use their bank accounts, mainly for their business transactions. I could enter my first year at the law school, in Milan, where I had no friends and hardly spoke proper Italian. A future among my legal classmates, who were ninety-five percent male yuppies, young men dressed in dark suits who could not rock and roll… the children of famous lawyers or just the famous and rich. They would marry me, give me rich children, buy me fur coats.
So, on my eighteenth birthday, I sat alone in my university café, in my red miniskirt and my long white boots sulking. I resolved to become even thinner, and so I ate nothing and spoke no Italian whatsoever, not even to the waiter who was insistently trying to make me buy and drink a glass of red wine. His barmaids were cute young students in miniskirts.
Looking back at that gloomy day, I believe that my most resolute adult decisions were made in those few hours. Those decisions were basically no’s to the many compulsive yeses in women’s lives. They left a wasteland in front of me: if I had eaten something that day, or even enjoyed a drink, my life would have taken a different course.
Likely, I would have finished that damned law school, with the high grades that I was already accumulating. I would have married the most brilliant guy of the lot, had his children, and even made a joint law firm with him. Then I would have divorced him, because we would have been unfaithful to each other. Then I would have fallen out of life for good…
My stomach burned in pain, my eyes were swollen from unshed tears, my legs were cold in that miniskirt and plastic boots . Yet I was strong and determined and I knew it. To stand against the wind of the mainstream, alone, young and half nude, was something that gave me a sense of a freezing lonely identity. Even today, after many years, I consider that ordeal a good lesson.
That brief fit of anorexia split me from my body. I felt a turning point in my relationship to my body. I felt its mortality, its function, its finality. I realized that I had a body, and that only I could feed it.
I had another memorable birthday, the year after my mother died. On that birthday I baked and cooked the whole day. I did it in order to remember the woman who gave me birth. She was no longer there to nag me about taking care of myself.
When my mother died, she lost her body, and my body was the only vessel where we both could live. So I stuffed it with memories, recipes, all kinds of symptoms of being alive in a body. Although she never approved of what I wrote, or ever read my books, she used to say proudly when people warned her of my dangerous ideas:
– My daughter is a writer and she writes what she pleases.
Now we were doing it together.
Funerals: my granddad’s was my first funeral, and a really happy event. Everybody loved me there. I was twelve. My grandma slaughtered a chicken with which I had played that morning. She fried it in deep oil with baked potatoes, and made a soup of the rest. The taste of death, of feasting over a dead body, so pagan, so wild, so real: like riding a horse you turn into salami, once it breaks a leg.
Whenever a dictator died, that was also a momentous funeral, a death in the family death. Two dictators had the power of life and death over us. We all knew it.
Tito was my grandad, and Milosevic my dad. The first dictator made me rich, while the other made me famous. Once they departed the Balkan family scene, I was no long rich or famous. I was merely happy to be alive, because so many people never survived their delusions: Yugoslavia, Greater Serbia, whatever… They faked their realpolitik, and they played with our lives… My life was their toy.
Tito was handsome and he wore fancy uniforms. Milosevic looked plain and mean. But my Mom loved them equally, she called them dolls, and considered them great communists, world heroes.
When Tito’s dead body was exposed to the public, I was living behind the Parliament in Belgrade. All the foreign diplomats drove through my narrow street to pay their tribute there. He was indeed a major figure to the world of Cold War diplomacy, big on charisma, big on deception… big on keeping his wild Yugoslavs on a tight leash.
I took up my shoulder camera, eager to film the King of Spain from my terrace. But the police arrived immediately, suspecting I had a machine gun. I got bored, I went to bed.
My parents started screaming at me:
– What a beast you are; people are weeping all over the country, instead you are sleeping.
I had such an urge to sleep that I felt sick. It was like catatonia, I just could not find my own place in that mass hysteria. It didn’t seem real, but I had no way to escape it. My only refuge was to hide inside myself. I slept 24 hours notwithstanding the screams, the tugs, the insults.
When I woke up, the funeral was all over. My dad didn’t speak to me for a week while my mother treated me like dirt, apolitical dirt. I felt bad, but not sorry. It was my coming-out as a dissident.
Then my favorite aunt died. I saw her for the last time on my birthday, the seventh of March, at her home. She went back to the hospital the next day, and died. She was emaciated, and they said she was in pain, but she died singing and drinking rakija. She spoke lucidly to me: worried about her favorite granddaughter who was in Amsterdam, she nagged me to phone Biljana and see how she was doing.
I did that. I found out that my cousin Biljana was working in a topless bar as a waitress. As Biljana put it, an honest job, out-drinking most of the customers, ( you know how much I can drink, she said), living with a drug dealer ( he only deals drugs, I use them, she claimed) and getting a degree in drama ( she always knew Shakespeare by heart in the original English).
I told my aunt:
– Biljana is doing great, she has finally a life she could never get in Belgrade.
– Does she eat enough meat? asked my aunt.
– Definitely I said, she is not a vegetarian anymore. She says only feminists are vegetarians, and she does not want to be mistaken for one.
My aunt’s last words to me were: take some meat out of the freezer, Biljana will come here for lunch. That aunt loved sex and food. She died while a young male nurse was singing to her: Oh Rado, oh Radmila , what did you do to me today… a folk song. He was teasing, for Radmila had pissed in her hospital bed from a drunken swoon of rakija.
Actually, we relatives smuggled her rakija to the hospital: there was no hope for her to recover, the doctors said. The doctors themselves were her relatives, because in my mother’s family everybody is a doctor, excepting a few bad girls like my aunt, myself and Biljana.
When Biljana was dying, some years later in the AIDS ward her husband smuggled her drugs. There was no hope of recovery for Biljana, either. After snorting some of white powder that had killed her in the first place, Biljana had a feeling of continuity in her life. It is a great feeling to die knowing that your life was not one big mistake — just because some doctors tell you so.
My lovely cousin used to say:
– I am just your sidekick, your guinea pig. You used me for your experiments on life.
I was six years older than Biljana, and often keen to play my sidekick’s little mother, but I could not turn her into someone like myself. I offered her all I had to give her, but that was not what she wanted or needed. She knew that I loved her, and dreaded what she was becoming, but I had no power to save her. Just like myself, my cousin made a choice.
At my aunt’s funeral, at the peak of a Belgrade hill where she’d expressed her desire to be buried, the family gathered. It was convenient for the family to meet for funerals, since weddings cost too much nowadays.
After initial kisses and handshakes, we started drinking and talking. Pretty soon we were joking and laughing our heads off. It was my first funeral as an adult, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was embarrassed and sad, and yet elated. I had a feeling that my favorite aunt’s death had put me in contact with life, more so than ever before. I could not restrain my giddy elation, my laughter, so my cousin asked me to leave. I did so, relieved.
I came back to her grave the next day, and promised her that I would never forget her, and that I would take care of her favorite granddaughter, my junkie beautiful cousin. I did that. I gave her money shelter medicines to stay out of drugs, and alcohol to stay calm. Biljana survived another fifteen years, only to die in my care and be buried close to her grandma.
My cousin’s funeral was not a pleasant one. Because of her living relatives, who insisted on crying and kissing everybody. Her father, whom I call the beast, had kicked her out of home when she was a kid. The mother, after three suicide attempts, was unable to grip her own life. My cousin was lying in her closed coffin, alone. I patted the part where her head was, and left the ceremony.
– Hey Mina where are you going, the beast father asked me,
– we have food and drinks yet to come…
That was Serbia, or rather Yugoslavia… The tyranny of the failed red aristocracy took a terrible toll on the Communist princess and princesses; they were children of privilege, devoured like the children of Saturn. Fathers buried daughters and danced on their graves.
My family, my friends, the Balkan people of my generation, were dying in unruly disorder, a generation of rebels, dissidents and outcasts, pre-deceasing a generation of guerrillas, Fascists, and Communists. A barren mystery perplexing even the atheists, death came to us in fits and starts, always anticipated and yet always denied.
14. La Dolce Vita and the Cold War
One day, on impulse, I did it; I left my fancy home, my clothes and books and piano and music. I had been lying in bed, depressed and courting anorexia, for a couple of months. I could find no motive to do anything in particular. Then one day, I went to my university, which I successfully finished, and I met an acquaintance.
– I am going to Rome, I am going to visit my uncle who is a movie producer, and try to get some work. Come with me.
I jumped into his Citroen, which was literally falling apart: it had very bad brakes and loose windows. But it was a warm June day and we puttered on slowly to Rome. We didn’t speak much, but I gathered that my new friend was also eager to escape some looming situation in Milan; an expected marriage, a steady dull job?
We were a team, a sad but stubborn one. His uncle gave us errands and a roof over our heads. He fed us and made us accomplices of his baroque, immoral, movie-producer life, which featured servants, children, wives and lovers, lovers of the wife…
Everything in that house rotated around money and sex, as if nothing else existed in the movie business. It was a crude, carnal, artless version of La Dolce Vita… and maybe the only real one, for as my father used to put it:
-You cannot cook your wife’s cute ass when you have no money.
The wife of the producer asked me to become her confidante: to help her with the family bills, with the children, and with her lover, whom her husband planned to kill one of these days, she alleged. This lover was merely a common banker, rather than a cinematic artiste, but a man who loved her for what she was. Faithful and simple, the banker was keen to marry her and take care of her and her children.
Her husband, by contrast, was perverse and a crazy womanizer. He brought other women into her house, into the marital bedroom. I saw some of these women, aspiring starlets, rather ugly and downtrodden.
What dreadful fate were these people trying to escape? I disguised myself carefully, so as not resemble any recognizable category of the people in their scene. I dressed in baggy rags to cover my young shapely body, shunned cosmetics and spoke as little as possible. But I listened as I waded my way through this pitiful jungle. These were the seventies, the years of feminism, of a fancy coming out of women. A storied decade that ended in burnout, leaving traces on our bodies, in our heads.
I was crossing via Giulia, one warm summer morning in Rome. I wore a huge black straw hat, hiding my face and even my shoulders. It was fit for a diva; I was in shadow, but I could see through my shutters of black straw.
Then I saw him: a young energetic man with a shaved head and blue eyes. He was crossing the street as if he owned the whole world, with a beaming smile on his face, an exuberant stride.
He too, is not Italian, I thought, but he feels good about that: I never did, even though I spoke a native Italian, with a Milanese accent. I often had to tell Italian friends: – I am not crazy, I am just not Italian.
He said to me:
I just waved my hand to him. Then he changed his direction, and, rather than crossing the street, he walked next to me.
– My name is Kolya. He offered me his hand.
– My name is Jasmina. I told him the truth.
– Do you want to come with me to my place, it is here around the corner.
– Yes, I said without hesitation.
He didn’t see my face I did this, but he didn’t seem surprised.
We went to his small dainty apartment:
– A friend is letting me have this, she is working now…
– Oh, said I, still with my hat on. Nevertheless he was holding me already, next to his sturdy body, and kissing me all over the place.
I felt great, I just felt fantastic: a scene from an erotic love stories. Yet this one was real, and happening to me and the guy was handsome and seemed normal and even bright. Surely only a really bright guy could pull with this stunt he was doing with a nitwit like I was…
Finally I can tell my friends in our weekly workshops that I had sex with a stranger without having to invent anything. All my girlfriends in these earnest workshops had sex with women, men, husbands of their girlfriends, together with their girlfriends, with strangers, old and young people, whatever… and they never seemed happy or satisfied. They just methodically broke the rules and then talked about it, lamenting and experimenting and explaining their sexuality, desire, organs… I listened dumbfounded, amused and shy. Not once did they mention love, lust or longing… It was all about those three for me: I invented love, lust and longing when I had none, inventing stories they wanted to hear.
My fantasies were naturally more interesting than their experiments. Yet now, my life was following my own stories, in orgasmic jets of pleasure on a soft silky bed of an unknown Roman palace. A borrowed place where I did not exist, and could leave without a trace.
I did leave. Kolya and I didn’t even shake hands. I went straight to the workshop and recited what had happened to me briefly and without emphasis.
Nobody paid much attention. Me, either. I was so proud of my daring feat that my whole body screamed with need of recognition, but I kept silent and haughty. I had my sweet secret for ever.
The next day I took off my black hat and sunglasses, put on my loose silk pink dress and went to the same spot. I sat at a bar and waited: Kolya did not not turn up. I waited for three hours, drinking one espresso coffee.
I went the following day, too.
The third day however, the barman asked me: – Is your name Jasmina.
– Yes, I said amazed.
– I have a letter for you, said he, and he handed me a carefully folded note: it had an address written on it and a date and a time. Signed Kolya.
– Grazie mille, said I, calmly, as if this was the reward I expected for hours spent in the bar: and I guess it was.
– Di niente, said he, di niente.
The date was the next day, the address the seaside resort of Ostia, outside Rome. A Russian immigrant colony, I realized, and not only Russian. Ostia was a refugee haven. A place to hope for freedom, to wait for legal papers;
I, too, wanted to be free… I wanted to be a refugee. I ran away from my fancy Rapunzel castle, I fled from my punk no-future into this random street… I don’t mind if I sleep with degenerates, if I don’t spend my every night with my prison guards…
I took a train to Ostia, following the precise instructions: and when you reach the station turn into Via Such-and-Such, and at this number…Yes, there he was: sitting on the floor, among other Kolyas. Bearded men, toothless young men, all Russian men drinking vodka and smoking…
They greeted me with huge grins. Kolya came to me and embraced me fondly. This was a guarantee, about the other men. I sat myself on the floor and accepted a glass of vodka. Alcoholism in Russia is known as mood and friendship. This code of trust is based on common suffering and is never to be questioned. I sat on the floor with my pals and drank as a Russian soldier.
Some years later, when I visited Russia, Moscow, to interview Andrei Tarkovsky, on whom I was a thesis, I had a Russian bearded guy follow me every single day, step by step, to the museums, shops parks, opera restaurants. One day I approached him, confronted him. He counter-attacked with a bunch of flowers. He said:
– My name is Kostya, I am supposed to follow you and report on your movements. I wonder would you like to do some things with me, together, because I am a movie director myself, I was once an assistant to Vajda, the Polish giant…
And he really was, so I said yes. He was doing his job, while I was merely trying to do mine: without much success, for they never let me meet Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky was in his dacha, he was sick, he was busy.
Some years later again, I heard from Tarkovsky’s good friend at the time, Aksioniov, a Russian writer in exile, that Tarkovsky was really busy, sick or in his dacha when I was in Russia. Kostya the spy was telling me the truth, though I never believed him. On the contrary, as soon as I stepped back to Italy I reported to the press that Tarkovsky was under house arrest. This very soon became dramatically true, to the point that Tarkovsky fled the country, irreversibly, into exile.
We Yugoslavs had a fraught relation with Soviets. I learned that from my parents: from my father, who had to deal with them in business but could never drink like the Russians did; from my mother, whose efforts to play the diplomatic hostess were risky, full of gaffes. We knew Moscow, where they had their own variety of red elite.
Once my parents took me to a military fancy party, where the privileges of the official regime were on displayed; caviar, champagne, uniforms, mink… this during Breznev during hard times for common people, with empty shops and pockets.
I sat between my father and my mother at this Soviet party, bored to death: I didn’t like the music, the huge ballroom, the food, the smoke, the drinks and the loud echo of power. A fat Soviet soldier, decorated in medals, came up to my mother and asked her if I could dance with him.
I said no, in my name and with my own voice. His face became purple with rage and shame. Then he looked to my father with the same demand which now sounded like a threat.
My father hastily pulled my chair under me and made me get up to my feet. Here in Russia, he said, you cannot say no when a man asks you to dance. That shows lack of respect for the country and the army.
I was trembling with rage and humiliation: I danced clumsily in the arms of this bear, all pleased with his prey. When the dance was over, I stepped on his boot with my pointed high heel.
Milena Jesenska once wrote to Kafka, explaining that she could never leave her soldier husband for the likes of Franz Kafka. Milena had to polish her husband’s soldierly boots every morning; a chore whose delight Milena could never forgo. Reading his books and letters, I loved Kafka. I suffered for his death, and his lack of love from Milena, and those boots.
I missed my last train back from Ostia to Rome. Kolya was very drunk. I was lying in his lap while he was lying in somebody else’s lap: we were singing sentimental Slavic songs of prison and freedom, of life and death, of communism and Stalinism. Finally we went to sleep rolling on top of each other in trust and vomit. Early in the morning, the sun was penetrating through the window candidly and saintly. An airplane was hitting the clear blue sky at high speed :
-This is the picture of God and future, said Kolya, holding my hand: nature and technology together. That is why I want to go to America. Jasmina, come with me.
– I cannot I said taking my hand out of his, in utmost awe. Kolya was a famous scientist who escaped from the secret labs producing God knows what, nuclear weapons, rockets… I read about it the next day in the papers. He managed to get a visa and escape to US where he got a job and freedom I hope. I never heard from him again.
On my way back from Ostia, when I stepped out of the train, I was waited upon by the police and conducted to the station. My father, the secret service guy, said I was missing, somehow he knew that I was with the Russian immigrants and was worried that I might get come to harm. Not me as me, but me as his daughter.
Later, he told me the whole story: he had millions of dollars on his bank account that were not actually his, and that he used in his secret operations between countries. Italian kidnappers checked for people with big bank accounts. He feared I would be kidnapped and that he would be unable to pay the ransom and that I would be killed.
I didn’t breath a word about where I had spent the night. Those few hours of dolce vita were supposed to stay out of history of cold war, meaning out of history altogether. And they brought freedom and happiness to Kolya.
15. Love Stories and Marriages
One night, I had to do a press event for a film. A film-editor friend invited me to come to his birthday party later, at a bar in Rome, downtown. He was twice my age and real good looking. Mustaches, half Armenian, little bit plump like Buddha and real sexy… This guy was the so called secret author of many Italian successful movies, because he knew how to patch them, mend them, and tell a story, as opposed to the talented and wild Italian cinema artistes.
This film editor was the first sexy guy I ever met who treated me as a woman and as a woman only. He was also really ill, and I found that attractive. He had been through operations, but was not recovering: he was a heavy drinker and smoker. He had lived in Belgrade in the sixties, fixing Yugoslav movies and girls, as he told me. He loved Serbia, rakija, women in Belgrade. He sounded like a cowboy without a six-gun: he had a soft voice and a big belly, dark skin and very big and warm slanted eyes. He had a girlfriend, a mousy creature, his assistant, his nurse… but he was famous for getting all pretty women in his bed.
The press conference went well. It was for a film I had scripted and helped to shoot. The director failed to appear because he always had stage fright. The director sent me there instead, saying: you are young pretty and bright, the press will all want to talk to you. I am depressed and dark person besides, my mouth stinks, I don’t drink or smoke and I don’t like people.
Well, yes, I do like people, I always did like people. There are two categories of people: people who like people and people who don’t like people. People who like people usually spend their time alone and craving for company. People who don’t are usually deep in other people’s business, craving to be alone.
I think people are just great and I am grateful that they exist in big numbers, everywhere. With people around, I never mind doing anything. My being one part of this big entity of living fellow beings justifies my own life, in a philosophical existential emotional way. People who need me are my cup of tea; they can be of all ages or colors or nationalities.
This film editor was one of them. Every evening he needed a new young woman to escort him to a painless death. I told him:
– I must go home now, the director is waiting for me, he is depressed and nervous.
– So am I, said he swallowing his fifth whiskey and giving me my second.
I never managed to say no to a man who needed me. What’s the big deal in turning down men who need you, in taking for granted that you are desired and appreciated, just because you are a woman? I measured with the second whiskey who needs me more, the depressed director or the dying editor. And I stayed with the editor. We drank and smoked until dawn: evviva la morte, then he took me to his apartment where we took off our clothes and I slept in his arms. I saw the surgical cut under his beautiful big belly. His dark skin got even darker round the scar: it reminded me of a pregnant woman’s belly. He told me:
– I am impotent, maybe because I am drunk all the time, maybe because I am on drugs…maybe because I am dying and you are not.
I wondered if cancer was contagious: I knew that doctors claimed it was not, but my director never touched sick people, cancerous or not.
My urge was the opposite; I kissed his scar with my lips and tongue and I felt sexy about it. He looked at me amazed and grateful: he said, if only I could live longer, I would have married you for this. I cried a little bit at this thought but then we both went to sleep like angels.
In the morning he was as kind as gentle to me as the night before. We dressed, drank coffee, spoke about the film. I told him I thought it was a great film but stillborn, and he agreed. Then I finally went to my director, who was waiting for me in a nervous breakdown. The newspapers came out. They had rather bad reviews of the film, but real good reviews of my press conference.
– Where were you all night? he said, I was about to call the police.
– I spent the night with our film editor, I said, he is dying.
– Oh my lord, did you take a bath, you touched me…
– The night before he slept with your lover, I told him and it was the truth. My director nearly fainted:
– Women, women, what piggies you are! He was turned on and frightened, by death and by women, but he was not the dying one, the editor was. The director’s film was stillborn because he didn’t have the courage to live or die.
Our stories of death are a yardstick for our lives. Every vivid life story has to sacrifice a human life or two on the altar of credibility.
My marriage proposals excluded men who had sex with me. And there were also certain guys I really found sexy and was ready to marry, if only…if only …
Many years later, in Ireland, I attended another press conference with another film of mine. A black haired guy, half my age, approached me with a smitten look. He asked me out to dine at one of his own restaurants in town.
This Irish restauranteur was one of the sponsors of the festival, the owner of a chain of restaurants, a humanitarian worker and a gay activist. He was gay and beautiful in a manly way that only gay guys can be. Sexy.
Yes, I told him gladly, very happy to avoid the lesbians and straight married men who regularly hit on me during film festivals. John took me his own restaurant, which had the best wine list I ever saw in Europe. We started sampling them all, while chain-smoking…
– How did you find out you’re gay? I asked him.
– I didn’t, he said. How does one ever find out one is gay? My mother did it for me. There were six Irish brothers and sisters, and we all watched the TV together. One evening, I must have been 11 or 12, I stared at the TV at a beautiful man, and my mother just came to me and slapped my face.
I asked her:
– Why did you hit me?
– Because of that way you look at him.
– Out of six of us, two of us are gay, me and my youngest sister. The other four are straight. I think it is all about genetics.
It was a long film festival. Seven days of drinking and talking led us to hold hands on the last evening of my stay in Ireland. John looked at me seriously, with his huge green eyes slightly wet with eagerness.
– I have something important to ask you…
I was quiet, trying to guess what that might be.
– I want you to marry me. I want to take care of you and your daughter. I am rich and lonely and I cannot sleep. I have sex only with men in the toilets whose faces I never remember. Please say yes…you have time until tomorrow morning to decide…if you say no, I will never speak to you again. This is my way of dealing with this issue, forgive me…
I forgave him, he never got in touch with me again; the next morning at four o’ clock a.m. he phoned me to say goodbye, I said:
– Goodbye my dear, I know I will miss you…
But I didn’t really. Those seven days in Ireland were like a lifetime. If I only had had two lives, one of them would for surely be with him.
Another gay man also proposed to me. He was an Italian writer whom I translated. He wanted to marry me so as to save me from Balkan wars and because I had a daughter, and he always wanted live with women, and to be a woman himself.
– How feminine you are, he used to say admiringly.
– That way you sit, the way you move. I am a woman myself, but it does not show.
– It does show, Aldo, it does. It shows in your books. Only women can write as you do, with abundance and neatness, as if life were a garden and not a jungle.
Aldo was pleased to hear that from me. I doubt that he truly wanted to be woman: only a woman can really want to be a woman, when and if she ever does. Yet it did sound good; his marriage proposal, his gender admiration. When men propose to you, desiring your body, they dwell on things women don’t really want in a marriage. They talk about your pretty legs, your tits and ass, your reproductive belly… A man’s married life without you. That desirable wife could be anybody, she does not even have to be a woman. She has to be, not herself, but the Other, a non-man, a nonentity to be filled with their manliness. And that is not sexy. It is only sex.
I was sitting in a square in Valencia, San Miguelito, with my two lesbian friends and two straight friends: they were all people half my age, twenty something . Women of my age were so boring to me: they never wanted to dance all night, drink themselves to sleep, or talk about love…
A young guy with dark hair and blue eyes asked me with a strange accent:
– Do you have hashish?
– No, but I have a bottle of whisky, I said and pulled a big bottle out of my small bag.
– Wow! he approached me. So, what are you doing in Valencia?
– I am attending a feminist conference, I said, these are my colleagues.
– Oh, said he taken aback- Are you a lesbian?
– I am a mother really, said I. I have a daughter slightly younger than you are, how old are you?
– I am Danish, he said, and I love women older than me. My girlfriend is 45 and we are trying to have a baby.
– Good for you, I said.
My two straight friends were talking to other Danish guys, exchanging names and cell phone numbers. My two lesbian friends were visibly bored with these boisterous Nordic sex-centered males.
– I want to go back to the hotel, said the younger one.
– No pretty girls here.
– Ok let’s, go, I said. I kissed the cheek of my Danish father to be and left with the lesbians.
The straight girls stayed with the straight guys. They all went to a night bar and while the girls went to the bathroom, the Danish boys ran away from the table: without an explanation. However, they paid the bill. The astonished girls saw them running with all their might from the back door.
One night in the 1970s, my beautiful tiny pianist friend was coming home, on her high heels in her sleeveless mini black dress, alone in the darks streets of Belgrade. She heard steps following her. She had long blonde curly hair and a beautiful body posture and she could walk real fast even in stilettos. She sped up, and so did the steps behind her.
Often she would be alone in the streets and rarely was she afraid, but this time she panicked: she started running. So did the male steps behind her. She knew she needed only couple of seconds more to her front door… faster faster, her hand was reaching the bell but a strong hand at that point was swinging her backwards. She lost ground under her feet, her stilettos broke, she was a prey caught by her tail in a trap.
The man snatched her and in the dark turned her around towards him, close to his face and then suddenly dropped her horrified.
– My God in heaven, he screamed in dismay, how ugly your face is…and then without a word he disappeared in the dark.
My friend burst in tears.
– How could he?
– How could he what?
– Say such a thing, she said.
My girlfriends in Valencia also cried to me with the same words: how could they run away from us…
When we were standing as a Woman in Black in Belgrade, with banners, Stop the War, dressed in black from head to foot, with serious faces and upright bodies, sometimes holding hands, sometimes chanting, male passers bye who disagreed with our anti nationalist, antimilitarist politics would howl at us with distorted faces and drooling mouth from rage and hate: whores…
Women who stood in the streets, women who dressed in black and looked straight ahead were bad women.
Once, while driving my small red “Yugo” car with “genetically” bad gears, I found myself in the way of a cab driver; he started yelling at me whore. I opened my door, stepped outside, and with my fist banged his window. It cracked. The big fat man foamed with rage.
He closed both of his fists and ran up to me: I raised my foot and kicked the window so that it cracked into pieces.
– I could kill you, you know, he said.
– No you could not, I said and stepped back into my car, slowly put the motor in the right gear and left him with a broken window and a broken pride.
I remember this German girl I met in the seventies who told me her love story. At the time she was just a hippie, a squatter, a anarchist, who today is a famous rich lawyer dressed in a suit jacket.
She met this American guy in the airport of some transfer city. It was love at first sight, and a horny one. But it was also nobody’s land: she was an East German, he was an American. The only place they could be together was in this duty free, visa free zone without a flag. The only thing they could do there was fuck, since they could not even speak each other’s language.
The only problem was to find a room. And that wasn’t easy. Not many airports have hotels, but some do, like Miami. So Ana would just buy the ticket to Cuba with a transfer in Florida, and Paul would buy that ticket to Miami. They would fall in each other’s arms, get a room, have twelve hours of sex and booze and then part, without too many words, but another date settled.
Ana confessed she never even thought of visiting Florida. Her trip was to his body, and back to her hometown Leipzig. When the relationship was over and the Berlin Wall fell, she decided to visit Florida since she could travel freely now. In Florida she met this other American. She fell in love at first sight; they married and she stayed in US. His name was again Paul.
Another friend met her husband at the age of 60, on the top of a mountain in Switzerland, during a conference stay. They climbed the mountain together, breathing deeply, and once they reached the peak, he took her in his arms and kissed her. She was a divorcee who lived as a refugee in Milan. He was a married man who lived close to Milan.
He came to visit her in Milan a couple of weeks later. He wanted to kiss her again, but she said:
– Sorry I don’t want to get involved with a married man. OK, he said and went back home.
He rang her doorbell without announcing himself two days later. He had two suitcases with him.
– I told my wife about you, he said, she kicked me out. Are we on now?
– What could I answer him but “yes”?, my bewildered friend told me.
Now they live in a small flat without money or children. They are contented.
My daughter used to say:
– Mom, everybody thinks she is the center of the world, that nothing matters but things that happen to you.
Amazed I said:
– I always thought that the center of the world is somewhere else, that life is happening far from me, that I was just observing it.
– That’s why you are a feminist, she said. Because you don’t have a center, in you, because you are a weak woman.
She was nine when she said this, I felt like slapping her, but my mother instinct prevailed: may she never become a feminist and think that life is somewhere else, that we rotate around the sun, and not vice versa. May she be happy in love and may I never have to console her.
Maria never married, she never had children with her life long companion 15 years younger than herself. She nearly went to jail for seducing a minor.
– My grandma used to tell me, says Maria, When you meet the man you want to marry, do it in six months. If you don’t, better never do it.
A Serbian proverb says: if you marry once wrong you will always marry wrong.
I had a girlfriend who always married guys who became immensely rich. She divorced them because she could not stand the change that the money brought in their characters. She would pick a poor man and out of blue, with honest work and a stroke of luck he would become rich. After her third husband she had a line of young men wanting to marry her.
Another friend of mine married men who were rich but then went broke and changed their careers: they became bohemians, hippies…she unleashed aspects of their personalities they never knew were there. What else can a woman do for a man she loves but ruin him!
I had a friend who was a musician and who fell in love with a poet. As usual, men don’t know if they are in love unless a woman tells them so. Poets even more so. But my musician friend, even though she was a woman, was not good with words. Her talent lay in sounds: she could not sing him her love song and convince him they should have an affair. So she asked me for help.
– Sure, I said with great pleasure, I always loved matchmaking and experimenting with skills and feelings.
– I will tell you what I want to tell him, and you will phrase that for me, she said.
– Sure, I said delighted. I always wanted to have a street desk, as in the Middle Ages, when most people were illiterate and scribes wrote letters for people, whatever they needed. If I had any talent in this life, that was it: to be invisible, to be everywhere, to be anybody at any time, to be in anybody’s head.
So she said:
– Hey you!
– Nonono, I screamed, you cannot address a letter to a poet with “hey you”…
That’s how our collaboration started: she wrote down very concisely her thoughts and feelings, and I elaborated them for her, bearing in mind the target. Then she would read it, approve it, and we would send the final draft to him.
It worked! It was a marvel. The poet got interested, hooked: he was answering, writing his head off, trying hard to please. And he did. He pleased her a lot. After a couple of months of correspondence, they got together and lived happily ever after. Until his sudden and premature death.
Now when he died in Belgrade, I was in NY, on the other side of the world. When she phoned me sobbing, I started sobbing too. Of course, that was natural, since we were close friends.
But after some time I realized I didn’t sob for her but for him. I realized that in those couple of months we were writing to each other, I got really close to him. I was reading his intimate letters he was writing to my friend and she was answering them through me. I got to know him very closely, he was telling me his dark secrets and fears… We were corresponding.
Actually, after the first couple of letters, I was given a free hand in the matter. My friend was very pleased that I could cope with her poet’s tormented soul, and so was I. He was not my burden, but hers. She always liked tormented guys, but she could not cope with them. I never did like them, but I could cope with them. We were a perfect match, the three of us.
Now that he was gone, I was keenly suffering. I had lost a soul mate, my intimate. However, like lightning, it struck me that the dead man had never known this.
When he and I would meet, after he and the musician got together, he was friendly yet reserved to me, while I had to hide my knowledge and restrain my feelings for the sake of my girlfriend.
I didn’t feel bad about it, on the contrary, I felt like a Goddess. I only wished that I had many such experiences. Gratifying and not demanding: in some way, I experienced the pure love that troubadours sang about.
16. Nobels and Writers
It is a literary party, in Iowa, inside a big house which resembles a barn. It is an event for foreign writers thrown by the sponsors of the Writers Program at the Iowa University, in 1997. I am one of these foreign writers, and our hosts have prepared such a huge amount of food and drink that I am expecting a crowd from the streets to show up and join us.
But no, it is all our business, and it is actually businesslike. Very “what’s in it for me.”
– So, you are a writer! A huge American woman, dressed with Midwestern bad taste, approaches me in her wheelchair.
– No, no, I am a woman who sometimes writes.
A Polish poetess intervenes. – Oh come on, don’t be so modest, this is our hostess! The Polish poetess beams violently at our benefactor.
– Where do you come from, asks the hostess, edging her wheelchair closer to me.
– Serbia, I say, apologetically.
She stares at me blankly. Gosh, I dote on Americans, because they just don’t know so many embarrassing things. Such as where Serbia is, and what it means to be Serb.
– Europe, bounces in my lively Polish translator. ( She was married to a much older Polish poet, and during the Cold War she had learned all the survival tricks of the East-West literary life).
– And you write poetry? relentlessly goes on the hostess.
– No, no, I just write whatever comes to me, God forbid poetry, I say modestly.
– My ex husband was a poet. I add.
– He said that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky could not live under the same roof.
Why is this hostess picking on me? There are 11 other foreign writers with their spouses from the same program in this house. Did I dress badly? Am I not eating enough of her food, or drinking enough?
– My friend is very modest! crows the Polish poet. She writes incredible stuff! She is a Nobel prize winner.
– Oh my God! my hostess exclaims startled and puts her hand over her mouth.
– Oh my God, I cry, startled too.
The Polish poet takes another glass of wine, looking at me ready to kill if I stop her performance.
– She is a feminist writer.
I feel relieved: at least that part was true.
My hostess seems relieved too. Her face lightens up and she spreads her arms up towards me.
– I am so glad to hear this! I want you to give a speech to this crowd here. I worked all day to make this feast happen, and not only me, all the women from the family worked while the men played cards.
I look at the idle men of the family, who are not in wheelchairs.
– Play cards and drink! And besides that Nobel, that’ s no good! We had a writer in our family who got a Nobel. He just drank, and he never raised a finger in the household. This is a big farm, this Iowa land needs to be taken care of, the cattle and the weather are unpredictable. The whole family needs to be alert to survive and feed the country.
– I know, I say with full understanding, my granddad had farmlands and was always like that. He never let my mom study opera because of the farm work..
The Polish poet stood up: Let’s make a toast to my feminist friend who will give us a speech!
By now I was toast myself. I stood up and gave a short but effective speech on families, duties, crops, women and poets.
My hostess was in tears while my host was in deep shame.
After I crushed down on my chair, staring blankly in front of myself from the shame of such public exposure, the host came to me:
– Thank you so much for your wonderful insight! You made my wife and daughters so happy. All these years in this family, it was all about men writers and politics, and women did the hard work.
– Not only here in Iowa, I promptly answer, now ready to lead Iowa from the US Middle Ages, if possible.
My hostess struggles to stand from her wheelchair. I wonder if this is some miracle. Shall I witness a miraculous cure by words?
– You see, my dear guest, she says. I am in this wheelchair because of food. My limbs have grown weak and my joints loose. I have been eating all these years while cooking. Instead I should have been writing, just like you.
– But… I try to intervene.
– Never mind the Nobel Prize! chirps the Polish poet, taking over the conversation – Let’s all sing a nice song together!
– Oh let’s! The hostess is delighted.
She stands up, holds onto me on one side and the Polish poet on the other and begins, with tottering steps and a tiny voice:
-Siiiiiinging in the rain…
That’s how I got my Nobel prize for Literature.
This is how I lost my Nobel prize: I was in this hotel where the prize winners for literature stay when they come to Stockholm. I was keenly interested in talking to the waiters there.
I was there with my Swedish friend: she was getting really drunk at the table, where we sat with the wives of the Nobel Prize committee. That table had far more information than the official one. We seemed a random company but still a happy one.
My Swedish author friend was desperate that night. Her long-term partner was quitting her, after betraying her for many years, and infesting her with some sexual disease. Only now had she found this out. Only now did she realized how dominant she was in their relationship, and how dependent he was. Now that he was splitting, she saw it all.
– I gave him everything! The best roles in my plays! He even played women’s roles if I decided they were better for him!
The wives of the Nobel prize committee seemed really interested in this confession. Some were teachers, some were publishers, some housewives. But they certainly never dressed their men in women’ s clothes for the stage. On the contrary, often they had to wear men’ s clothes to perform when their husbands were absent.
Tonight, they had to hear the stories behind the curtains: who really wrote those fantastic plays and who deserved the Nobel prize.
– I am very unhappy that Franca Rame didn’t win the Nobel prize along with Dario Fo, I commented. After all, they always worked and wrote and performed together.
– Oh I know that, said my Swedish friend, he was such a womanizer too, gosh like mine…I can even understand that part, but why didn’t he tell about the disease? Why do I have to have a disease now?
– Franca Rame did a great feminist play on abortion.
– Oooooooh, there was a sigh around me.
I wondered: what was the Nobel prize committee’s stand on abortion?
– Personally, I think a hot Mexican chili hurts worse than an abortion.
After saying that, bravely and drunkenly, I emptied my wine glass and my last drops of credibility.
There is always a special atmosphere when you meet so called famous people. The intoxication of fame makes everyone seem more important, including yourself. Somehow, among the famous, every word uttered has to mean something, to need an interpretation.
I once met Max Sebald. Even better, I spent hours and hours talking to him about everything. Today, I cannot remember a word of it. We met in 1989, during the very days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was his guest in Norwich as a literary translator, in his international workshop. Sebald was still writing his book, or his books. He was not yet famous. He did not expect to become a Nobel prize favorite, or to be killed prematurely in a car accident in 2001. Sebald was an amiable guy who liked to talk about people and politics in an unusual way.
At the time, my own country was about to fall apart. I didn’t believe that would happen. I was a political idiot. His country Germany was re-uniting. He said mysteriously:
– Two Germanies should never be allowed to be together.
A dark and mysterious statement from a German emigre who had chosen exile. An odd remark in such hopeful times, but a reasonable statement for me today. I learned about the yearning of nationalist Serbs, who longed to create a Greater Serbia wherever Serbs might dwell, snatching those territories from other ethnic groups, and killing and exiling them.
WG Sebald was not a famous man as yet, just a man who knew too much. I knew he had a wife and a daughter, and that they had lived in England for many years. He was trying to recover some memory of the history of his country, to find some peace, to do history some justice.
Sebald spoke about a British police officer, coming to their doorstep on regular basis to check on them, since they were foreigners, since they were Germans. A strange story, to me, at the time. Milosevic was already in power in Serbia, and showing his worst traits.
Yet I could not guess that within couple of years Serbia would share the odium of Nazi Germany. In my life as a political idiot, I was often in the right places in the right times, and yet it was as if I were absent.
I had great luck to be with Max at such a crucial time, yet when people ask me what he said to me, what he did then, I have to admit that I don’t remember, I just don’t know. We were both friendly. We talked about literature, languages, history, exile, and the many things we had in common. But the passage of time proved that those were not The Things That Mattered. Instead, I will have to read his books, since I still can. He is not around to talk to, any more.
Another famous guy I met without the proper attitude was Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky just won his Nobel Prize, and he came to Belgrade to pay his respects to his Serbian translators, who had helped his work to reach the western countries. Translators had paved Brodsky’s way to the Nobel Prize, especially one, Petar Vujicic. Vujicic was the school friend of the Polish Pope Woytila, and a friend and translator of many famous East European authors, Czeslaw Milosz, Brodsky and others.
By chance, I myself had translated Brodsky’ s essays, too, from English. He came to Belgrade to give a reading, in Russian by the way (nobody really understood Russian, but we all faked that we did). Since Brodsky was an American citizen by that time, we translators were supposed to meet him inside the American cultural center. But I encountered Brodsky before his speech: because we were stuck together in an elevator.
So, I spent half an hour with Joseph Brodsky in this small iron claustrophobic cage, discussing elevators and poetry. I knew who he was, and he didn’t know me, or that I had translated his work. He asked me: who is your favorite Russian poet? I answered without hesitation: Gennady Aigi.
Brodsky was startled, almost offended. This old Chuvash poet, who never left his village, and never wrote in any other language but his own, was a sore spot for famous Soviet authors in the West. They knew how great a poet he was. They knew that Aigi would never be able to claim his proper fame, because of his political and geographical circumstances. They felt it was not right.
Brodsky was surprised that I knew of Aigi, that I read him. — Which poem do you like? He was testing me.
– The one about snow, I answered readily. It was an innocuous, beautiful, minimalist, maximally meaningful poem about life.
– Who are you? Brodsky asked me.
– I am your translator, I answered, and the elevator started with a jump.
Many years later, when Brodsky had been dead for a decade, I was at a party in the US, in Maine. A fancy party with famous people: musicians, authors…. I felt quite important myself, thinking that I should use this occasion to scare up some autographs. I was holding too much food in my hands, a glass of wine, speaking simultaneously, and endlessly to people. You know how superficially tiring cocktail parties can be: a moving hustle, a stage for making contacts, a business. So finally I lost my grip. The lovely carpet was stained with my red wine.
I knelt, and I found myself face to face with a maid, was was already scrubbing away my misdeed.
– Oh madame, she said, please don’t worry, this is my job.
– Oh I am so sorry, I said, I must help you. Where do you come from, I asked, noticing her Slavic drawl.
– I am Russian, she said.
– Really? I am Serbian!
– Oh, she cried, are you a writer too?
– Yes, I said.
– So am I, she said, all lively. I came here with my cousin, you must know him, his name is Joseph Brodsky. I stayed on here, when he died.
I felt like weeping as we both scrubbed away on all fours. I dipped my fingers into the red stain on the Persian carpet. I put the wet finger behind my both ear lobes, for good luck.
– To him! I exclaimed.
My fellow the fellow Russian maid did the same.
– To his poetry and his soul!
We quickly embraced and parted.
When I had my daughter, I was really happy that she was a girl, because she would grow to be a woman, and I was a woman. That would help me to raise her. A simple as that, as pragmatic as that, as true as a mother tongue can say.
After she was born, I went out to see my good friends and enjoy a glass of wine. I felt so proud and so rich. Everybody could tell that I had a baby, my face was glowing and my bust was bursting. Everybody was asking me: so, is it a boy or a girl? What is she like, what is it like to be a mother?
As if nobody had ever had a baby before, I was boasting and giving out details. I knew that all new mothers were terribly boring, but it was different now that I had a mother’s fame, too. I had to struggle not to show photos, to reveal morbid details, and female intimacies. I was gliding actually very successfully, light-hearted and witty, when I met Danilo Kis. This renowned Serbian writer was at the time living in Paris. Kis sat next to me, amused. He knew my husband, the father of my daughter: a poet.
Like poets, they had things in common: they both were extremely charming and bohemian. They both drank and smoked themselves to death from lung cancer. They were kind to people they liked, lavishing them with praise and honors and soulful sincerity.
Also, I really liked his books.
Kis said to me:
– I am so glad you have a daughter. My friend Rasha will be a happy man. It is so hard for a man to get a son. A son is somebody who takes it all away from you.
I agreed without thinking: yes it is so hard to have a son. But as a woman having a daughter — would that mean somebody who takes it all away from me? Not that I minded. But men did mind. Fathers did: they dreaded and hoped that a son would come. Poets were openly dreading, kings were openly hoping.
Kis was another king of literature whose premature death made him miss a Nobel crown on his head. Just like Sebald. And just like Italo Calvino, whom I never met, but translated. I did meet Calvino’s widow however: she disliked me as much as I disliked her. She spoke about her yacht, most of the time. Once, years before, during the wars, she had refused to give me the rights to a Calvino book, because my feminist publishing house lacked the proper sums. I found the money to get the book, and did the translation for free. I told her so. A small revenge that she didn’t bother to notice, for she went on speaking about her yacht.
I must say I have learned to understand the widows of famous men only too well. It’s better when they speak of their yachts than of their husbands.
17. Witnessing History
In the early seventies, poetry was my favorite place of soul lament.
I came across books of Eugenio Montale : I don’t know what triggered me to write that man a poem, and even send it to him. His poetry was simple but hermetic. His poems had many meanings and were hard to understand, as if he himself was writing in a foreign language. And in some way he was. Hermetic poetry written under the reign of Mussolini was self censored, in order for poets to stay alive. The political and other meanings were under a layer of synonyms, allusions, sounds. That elaborate, elegant style was developed thanks to the fact that the poets needed to hide something.
Montale was the maestro. His needy simplicity spoke to my lonely heart. I remember sitting in my blue velvet bed, which I still have, and writing a poem just for him. To the White Man, it was called. It started with this line: “Somewhere in this big soulless city lives a white man.”
I knew he lived in Milan and I knew he was white haired. I sort of knew his face, but it was wrapped in the white fog of my dreams.
I decided to send him the poem by letter, and I did. I felt deeply ashamed for doing it. I still feel that way but deep down inside, I was hoping he would answer me. Why on earth? Because he would recognize my loneliness and respond to it.
He didn’t. I stopped waiting after a couple of weeks and completely forgot the episode. I was happy that this white guy lived in my Milanese neighborhood with his small wife, whom he called The Fly. I was deeply honored to breathe the same polluted air.
Then I got a job as an interviewer, doing poll research in Milan. One day, when I randomly searched a street to interview my local citizens, Montale opened his door. I recognized him immediately. I could not believe my luck. I told him, trembling, that I came to interview him as a member of his neighborhood community.
Montale politely let me in, sat me at the table and with extreme patience answered all my questions. His wife was not around. I later learned about her death; I later learned that Montale had won the Nobel Prize. My own prize was meeting him.
Later, I married a poet myself. Then I lived exactly like that Fly, the wife of the poet Montale: silent, invisible, capturing the invisible poetry in the air. The poetry almost suffocated me, though it had no taste or smell. Poets really do not exist. Just poetry: words words and words.
Where did it come from, my eagerness to learn of the death of the famous? Perhaps from the fact that they publicly inhabited their lives of fame. They were protagonists of their own lives, not a distant, invisible woman, leading her life without herself.
Alberto Moravia liked young girls. Moravia, the famous
white headed writer with a cane, survived paralysis as a young boy. Out of boredom, he became a bestselling writer. He married and divorced brilliant women — writers who were also beautiful.
In Rome in the 1970s, it was obvious and socially accepted that men in power should have young intelligent pretty girlfriends whom they paid in goods and privileges: they took them to fancy public places where they could boast about them. The girlfriends met other influential people who might help out them out in their schemes and careers… whatever they might want to become…
One evening, Moravia came to the house where I was staying, bringing along Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet. Yevtushenko was drunk, and very high strung on poetry and power.
Yevtushenko, being Russian, struck me as somebody who comes from ”my” part of the world. I knew the rumors that he was a spy, since the Soviets allowed him to travel abroad. But that was beyond me, what mattered to me was this “Slavic” kitsch behavior: poetry and alcohol.
Westerners commonly confused Yugoslavia with the USSR. Once I went to yet another Roman party where everybody was famous. Who are you? somebody asked me. They expected a young woman like me to be a mistress, a wife, a model, an actress…
– I am a cosmonaut from Serbia, I declared.
– Ohoho… and the rumor spread instantly.
Liliana Cavani, the film director of “Night Porter” came over to me and said:
– I just heard that you are a cosmonaut!
Sure! I faked it all night, shamelessly. Nobody knew or cared that Serbia was not Russia, and Yugoslavia not the USSR.
Unlike Yevtushenko, Moravia never got publicly drunk, commonplace, and infantile. Moravia drank in moderation, and was, as usual, rational, self-controlled and centered on sex and money… He spoke of a beautiful girl he had just met, who was my cousin… he needed somebody to go with him to the cinema to help him understand the films. Moravia was somewhat deaf and had trouble following film plots. Yet he had a very well read movie-review column in a prominent weekly.
Because he was Moravia, he derived all sorts of practical benefits from these girls he escorted to film premieres.
Did the Roman girls mind that? No way: not one of them. My cousin turned Moravia down, saying, he was old and boring, and she had better offers in her life. He didn’t mind that at all. He seemed to admire her even more because he did feel old and boring, a dirty old man harassing young Roman women, sounding them out, listening to their explanations of movies, writing about them, and exploiting them. My mother, insensitive to literature, would have condemned him.
I took my young cousin by hand and confided: let’s leave all these pretentious fakes and return to real life — or, at least, a fantasy utopia of our own. She stared back at me in disbelief: what could possibly better and more real than Rome?! We were living in Rome, close to famous writers, wannabe writers, girls boys fans celebrities, corrupted politicians, Red Brigades, political martyrs, rebellious underground directors, activists and feminists, conceptual artists and their generous sponsors… in an eternal city, where the Pope reigned, but where all was permitted as long as you never became more papal than the pope!
She dropped out of my hands, and out of my life, in disgust and despair at my stupid innocence. She was disappointed with me as her older cousin who had brought her to Rome. She uttered with contempt her diagnosis:
– You still believe in books…
I do believe, ever since. Sometimes books change your life. Books often write your life. Not vice versa.
The stink of the streets of Rome, the sound of the rats in the basements of beautiful ancient houses, rats trapped in vases full of other people’s knowledge, trapped rats asking for help from the vases they were lured into… The words of fake prophets and true artists, or vice versa… The power of single mothers and flower power children in occupied governmental buildings…the pain of the slow motion towards cul de sac. It lasted ten years. We lived through utopia, but we also outlived it.
One night, 2nd November 1975, I as sleeping in the living room of Laura Betti, on her small uncomfortable sofa, happy as a clam. I was so happy; happy to live there as a nurse guardian to this hysterical 42 year old cabaret singer, this theatre actress, who also played in films of her friends and lovers, the most famous Italian directors in the seventies, such as Pasolini, Bertolucci, Bellocchio… Happy to be in Rome, happy to be Jasmina in Laura’ s small veranda dive, overlooking the roofs of dirty huge hospitable Pope’ s town. Happy to know Pier Paolo Pasolini, the heretic poet who was more Catholic than Pope.
“That certain kind of tenderness”, was the title of a poem I loved so much, written by that sweet, muscular but delicate man with his tiny intelligent voice, and such cruel thoughts and films, cruel as only life can be.
I was bewitched by Pasolini’s words and deeds.
– How on earth did she get her hands on you? Pasolini commented when he saw me silently enduring Laura’s diva tantrums. I was denying Laura food: her own food from her own fridge, which I locked to so as to keep her on her diet.
Laura had to have a role to perform, she needed the money, she needed joy… She needed somebody to love her, look after her… but all she could give herself was junk food, diet pills and hysterical relationships with people who didn’t understand her.
– You are two outcasts, Pasolini observed, – outcasts from the rich who fell into poverty, outcasts from the privileged who want to be children of nobody… Citizens of no country, vases of somebody else’s knowledge.
That night, November 2. 1975, Laura’s phone rang next to my improvised pillow on the couch. I picked up the receiver, and heard about the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini. I don’t even remember who was on the phone, or how they had learned about it. I do remember that I had the terrible duty to break this news somehow to Laura. Laura was his Pasolini’ s best friend and muse, or his “wife,” as she used to call herself… This actress, a singular man-hater and man-eater, was in love with her director, the gay damned poet.
I went to Laura’s room, and I just did it. She started screaming. She fell on the floor, she rolled and screamed and pulled her hair, her hands were full of her dyed lanky thin hair.
I managed to pull Laura out from beneath her cowboy-saloon double-doors… she had chained them shut in order not to creep into the kitchen and eat compulsively.
I washed her face, I dressed her. We phoned Pasolini’s other friends: Dario Bellezza, the gay poet, Pasolini’ s disciple, and other people… His cousin told his mother.
The morning of November 2, 1975, in the Roman wasteland of Ostia, in an abandoned field in the street of Idroscalo, a woman, Maria Teresa Lollobrigida, discovered the body of Pasolini. Ninetto Davoli, the actor from Canterbury Tales, identified the corpse.
A death in the house, a death on the front pages, sudden, awful, traumatic. Pasolini had been bizarrely murdered, clumsily and brutally crushed by his own car. The police report made terrible reading:
“When his body was found, Pasolini was lying with his face towards the ground, one arm in blood away from his body and the other underneath it.
“Hair mingled with blood was falling on his forehead, scratched and cut. The face deformed swollen was black with bruises and wounds. Black bruised and blood red also his arms, hands. The fingers of his left hand broken and cut off. Left side of the jaw broken. Nose pressed and deviated to the right. The ears cut in two, the left one torn apart. Wounds on the shoulders, on the chest, on the crotch with signs of tires of his own car which ran over him. A horrible cut between the neck and the back of the head. Ten ribs broken, broken the chest bone, the liver pierced in two points. The heart exploded.” ( From the police report).
His seventeen year old murderer pleaded guilty. Nobody among us believed him. We refused to treat this dissident poet’s murder as some cheap client/prostitute mugging.
His murderer received a short sentence, being underage.
Thirty years later, in a live talk show he admitted that he was blackmailed, and threatened to lure and lie…
While I am watching Pino Pelosi’s struggle with the cameras and his tight shoes, while I am listening to him repeating:
– I was a kid, I knew nothing back then, they killed him, he was screaming, I was afraid, they were bad…it was dark…
Tears came to my eyes…
Out of some tenderness; if only Pasolini could see him, he would have hugged him. Then laughter bursts through my tears; what kind of murderer is this one, who is afraid to admit he is not guilty?
He died as he lived, claimed Pasolini ‘s enemies. He died as he filmed deaths in his movies.
Laura Betti died 30 years later, in 2004. I never saw her again ever since I left Rome, she died with a broken heart.
Dario Bellezza, his close friend, a poet, died of AIDS. Ninetto Davoli, I heard recently on the phone during a public conference honoring Pasolini’s genius. He could not remember me, and I could not explain myself because of the emotions.
Pasolini became the cult personality among writers, filmmakers, cultists of all sorts. The latest I heard was that he foresaw his own death… As if I was not there, I attended this conference of literati and gays, thirty years after.
Nobody recognized me, except for a few people, who didn’t say a word to me. Surrounded by this silence, a wall of fear and respect, I finally became a vase filled with somebody else’s knowledge.
He predicted my life.
18. Cheap Life
I had a very shocking experience in Linz railway station, one early morning, an experience that changed my life.
It was pitch dark. A few drunk teenagers were waiting for my train, refugees from a closing night of an electronic festival, trying to get hold of some drinks from a machine. No police, only a few workers on the tracks. I wondered will they break the machine and give me a drink too? Or shall I give them some money, so they don’t break it? While I wondered the train came and I entered my compartment.
While stepping into it, I dropped my ticket on the railway tracks. The ticket was visible, it was within my reach. Without thinking, I clambered down to pick it up; hey, this is Austria, this is Hitler’s city, although Austria is a great country, much better than my own as far as law and order are concerned.
But isn’t that exactly what scares me? As these banging punk teenagers are breaking the vending machine, the rules, the law…and me without a railway ticket. If the police shows up, who will they arrest first: them the young Austrians, or me the old Serb, the new bad guys of the world? I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and panic. I stretched myself to get that ticket and at that moment a huge sound deafened me…screeching, alarming…the sound of my angel protector …Don’t do it…
My death, without me…
I stopped stretching and groping under the train, among the steel wheels, the steel rails… The teenagers broke the vending machine, the tins of Coke, Sprite… The vandals were rolling the cans on the pavement, kicking them off the landing and between the metal rails… Cans were screeching and bursting open with gas… It was like a New Wave Molotov cocktail… The punks were applauding, and screaming with joy, bathing in the spew…
And my train was departing… the sound that deafened me was my train crushing soda cans as if they were my neck and bones… I managed to pull away, just before the train overran my miserable 50 euro ticket.
I shivered. It was not fear of death, no…
I knew that fear already and it felt different: it is felt keenly in the cancer wards, under bombings, among the humiliated and miserable. This was a thrill more than a fear: I was too stupid and rushed to imagine the threat.
Once the thrill was over and my adrenalin level settled, I saw my gesture in its enormous stupidity and I felt like crying. For my uncontrollable squalor and misery. I was ready to give up my life over a cheap travel-ticket and the fear of transgression; those teenagers were doing the opposite.
Ever since that time, this image occurs to me in other situations. I was ready to give my life when I saved my own daughter, hastily jumping across a two-meter barbed wired abyss without getting a scratch… I might have scrabbled up my 50-euro ticket from beneath the train, and saved my honor as a paying traveller… But what if I died? What would have been on my gravestone: she died under a train from the shame of being a Serb.
Hard to bear. Does my life have that cost, that price tag? That was how much I valued my life.
Arriving in Berlin, I saw the punk teenagers getting off my train, not Austrians but Germans, sober now, with straight faces for their parents, their bosses. My face was white and shining… I had an epiphany…
When my father had his second heart attack, some years later in Belgrade, again a young patient next to him died, and again he survived. This young man did not have a lover, not even a wife, he was very young, wide eyed.
I fell in love with him and his imminent death. I talked to him more often than to my father when I paid my daily visits, bringing food. The young guy had never had a healthy heart, born with a defect, operated several times, and at the age of twenty three he was fatally stricken. His lips were blue. I wonder if he had ever had sex, but I knew he could love, because he knew how to love life. His parents never showed up. He seemed poor and alone but not unhappy, very contained and spiritual.
One day he was simply not there anymore. His bed was empty and clean ready for the next patient. Unlike in Italy, the modest but well-equipped Serbian hospital beds were without curtains and the hypocrisy of death.
The nurse told me that he left me a flower, that he picked the very day he died. He didn’t know that was his last day alive, but he did pick a flower for me during his walk, because he told the nurse: — That girl brings me cookies all the time, and I have nothing to offer her.
I went back home with the flower in my hand, just as I went back home when my cousin died with a flower in my hand, a flower I bought for her. She died in peace in front of me: I covered her face with a sheet, the face I saw a as a newborn 39 years ago, when I was 6: my female genetic code, she was the best one we ever had, and she left as an angel.
After my cousin died I went home, I prepared a fancy dinner for my writers and mates. I carried out my father’s errands my father: I counted the money on his bank account, and I went to bed without a sleeping pill, just with a beer. The angel died, the beast survived.
My memory needs its black-and-white composition; I do not speak of my angel’s dark side, or the bright side of my beast. I write from memory, but I cannot trust it.
Sometimes, I drank. I drank myself to stupor, to sickness, out of the blue, in public places. The first time that happened, I was already a middle aged woman with a small daughter, a divorcee, a dissident, a feminist, an author, a publisher… and under international sanctions during wars… in the Polish embassy.
In those dark times of the war, foreign embassies made parties for people like me, so that the democratic opposition would feel supported by foreigners rather than punished by them. And what about other people of Serbia, the people not like me, those who could not speak foreign languages, publish their own books? I don’t know. I never could tell supposed enemies from friends. The bottom line for me was always the same: I am one of the people. My privileges were never heartfelt. Deep down inside me, I always felt miserably happy to share their misery.
I entered the Polish embassy along with my partner, a dissident journalist. We approached a fine table clustered table with expensive bottles; the drinks we used to buy before the war, now unobtainable, from sanctions. Even if we could find those rare bottles on the black market, we would never be able to afford them. He snatched up an entire whiskey bottle, and me, a bottle of cognac. Boys and girls often have that dividing line.
Other dissidents and ambassadors were cruising around us, talking, and even shouting their political and other opinions. In those war days, love was blooming between different nationalities. Basically, foreign ugly old men were buying young educated and beautiful girls. The foreign diplomats knew well that, in their own home countries, they would never be so powerful and attractive to anybody. Who cares if it was real love or only convenient pretense! It felt the same.
A corrupted mafioso who ran the budget in his embassy was standing next to me: small and ugly, yet smart and sexy. He wanted all the Balkan women he could handle. He really wanted a Balkan harem, and he managed to assemble one, thanks to his restaurants, which he financed through the Serbian war mafia.
His beautiful, tall and innocent wife stood next to us, chastely drinking a fruit juice. She was Serbian, from a decent family, with small children and retired parents. Her marriage fed all of them.
I never knew if she liked her perverse husband. I know only that her dignity was badly hurt every time he flirted openly. She would twitch and speak loudly to pretend that she was not seeing that. Her situation was no secret in the Polish embassy. Other women confided in her: Yes my dear, he made a pass at me too… and I turned him down… and I am getting drunk and very drunk, my dear, because the cognac is good, and the company is hideous and I want to go home really…
All of a sudden the fancy hall swirled in my head: I felt like fainting and vomiting. I grabbed my partner’s arm:
– Take me out, I must breathe. I must vomit.
– I’ll take you to the bathroom.
– No way, I screamed, not in this foreign territory!
Heads turned around at my scream. People started to whisper; Not in this foreign territory… Journalists started to interpret it and write it down.
Hanging on my partner’s arm, balancing on high spike heels, still with a glass of cognac in my free hand I climbed down the steps with a queen’s majesty; Never lose your dignity in a foreign territory... I didn’t say goodbye to the ambassador or the other dissidents. I stepped outside the glass door which banged behind my back, turned my head to the right and vomited my head off.
At home I lay drunk in a cold bathtub for hours with my long hair and open eyes…I was like dead Ophelia; my patriotism died in me, yet I survived.
The next fitful episode occurred in the French embassy. The TV crews of the Milosevic state media spied on us, traitors getting drunk on French wine with the gay French ambassador.
Everyone knew that the French ambassadors gave the Serbian opposition really good treats during the sanctions. They also knew that the French were persuading NATO not to bomb the Belgrade bridges.
That day, in 1999, I was sitting on the wrong side of a soon-to-be bombed Belgrade bridge when I realized I was alone in a restaurant. Not a customer there, so near the bridge, just the restaurant waiter, nervously getting drunk along with me, on a lovely shiny May day… I saw the glint of TV cameras nearby: a CNN TV crew, I was told by the shouting Serbian cameraman, who knew me, and waved at me from a distance…
Then NATO airplanes started flying with big noise over my head, the air-raid alarm went off and we were showered with paper flyers… I caught one of them. Written in bad Serbian was our warning from NATO: stay away from the bridges…we will bomb them as soon as possible…
I realized my daughter was on the other side of the river, too near a bridge, just as I was… playing with her girlfriend, who lived there. Children get bored during wars… I had a quick image of blasted bridges flying high, together with me and my daughter, meeting somewhere in mid-air above the river, with a CNN camera registering it.
As in a daze I started running across the deserted bridge… A police car was honking at me…I might have been a suicidal mad woman but I was not… I crossed the bridge in a record time, a pity nobody measured my skill…
I snatched my daughter and started running on with her, away from the bridge. She was screaming, kicking me and cursing me: I don’t want to go home with you, I don’t want to die with you; if I have to die I want to be with my best friend, under the bridge…
That was our daily issue in the bombing raids of 1999. Whenever the air-raid alarms set off, we had to choose: where are we going to spend the time? Together, hoping to survive somewhere? Choosing with whom to die? My daughter was fifteen years old. She rebelled: she decided that she owned, not only her own life, but also her death. She grew up overnight in our struggle, when I even slapped her to keep her quiet and obedient. She chose her friend and left me the next day.
She was gone from home for a day and a night, and I had to let her go. I knew that when she returned she would be a different human being. My life would be without my child, as well as without myself.
She came back silently and sullenly. We went on as if nothing had happened. She just told me scornfully:
– The bridges were not bombed, as usual you were panicking.
When she had been nine, we had fled the war to live in Vienna, in exile. Vienna oppressed us and bored us. My little girl threatened me with suicide: a small refugee too bored and constrained to go on living. I said:
– OK, do it, you jump off the terrace, and I will come after you.
She looked at me sideways and said:
– No, you do it first.
-Why would I do it at all, I said?
She changed her mind.
When the international sanctions gripped Serbia in the nineties, everyday life stopped abruptly. Nothing was to be taken for granted, from bread to heating. Some people around me took it really hard: those who loved their small rituals, based on the smell of the morning cake, or their favorite Turkish coffee, with a favorite cigarette.
Others saw a great opportunity in this crack-up of the system. They struggled to make a go of it, smuggling goods or even producing them.
As commodities disappeared from our shops, our kitchens and closets, new habits and values arrived. I took it as it came, without panicking or doing anything much, I was surfing the economic wave of hyper-inflation, trying to stay healthy and sane.
When the medicines disappeared, my mother said solemnly and bravely, as comrade doctor Mom always did in these political enterprises:
– We will not get sick, OK people, what else?
And we didn’t get sick. We were sick much less often than usual, and even when stricken, we realized that we could recover without medicines. What else?
The hospitals were chilly because there was no heating. The medicines were lacking, so only urgent cases were treated, and God knows how, in some urgent new-old methods. My daughter became an urgent case all of a sudden. She had her tonsils pulled out without anaesthetics. I thought I would die waiting for her to come out of the operating room. Instead I drank half a bottle of whiskey. She emerged with a rosy face and a different voice: instead of her loud low infected growl, she had a tiny Minnie Mouse pitch.
– Honey, I hugged her, did it hurt?
– Can I eat an ice-cream now Mom?
– Of course, all the ice-cream you want! I bought both my hands full of ice-creams, my eyes full of tears, slurring the words and wobbling in my legs…
– Mom, are you alright? She ate her ice cream with the speed of a Biafra survivor.
That day, I queued for more ice cream, although I made it a matter of principle not to queue for anything. Queuing itself is very miserable, commonly worse than the lack of the item you stand in lines for.
A sad New Year’s Eve was approaching. It was snowing. The heating in Belgrade was scarce, but we had a chalet in the mountains, where we could burn firewood. That heat was the plus side. The downside was that in the mountains there was hardly any food. The rural shops were closed. We could either garner food from the woods and fields around us, or ask the local peasants to sell us some.
Before leaving for the mountains I queued for four hours, with a big plastic bottle, to buy wine from a truck. The wine was good, if not cheap. Later I heard that it was Arkan’s wine, Arkan being Serbia’s most notorious war criminal and profiteer. I carefully avoided the rackets of Arkan and his Tiger militia, but for the sake of some wine in the mountains, I broke my principles and gave in.
I said to myself: Mina, you stink. My nationalist, Communist mother, an asthmatic, an old woman, had the guts to defy the black economy and say:
— I’ d rather starve than give any money to war profiteers.
I could not give up wine for the sake of a better world?!
Her voice echoed in my thoughts.
– Mina, I’ m ashamed of you, you have no character, if all the people were like you, we would never have defeated the Nazis…
That line of hers still rings in my head.
The troubles of the whole world bounced on my shoulders. In my family, we always considered the whole world our backyard. The blame for a whole planet was always to be distributed between us few .
When my daughter was four, she heard this phrase so often
– Who is guilty? that she would scream:
– Memememememe, wanting to take the blame as the utmost privilege distributed within my family, as a token of our respect, really.
So, guilty as I was of the wheel of history turning wrong in my own society, I decided to go to my chalet with my wine, and test my skills with the nature and its laws. It was an expiation, this Robinson Crusoe mission. At least, in those days of no petrol, the air was no longer polluted, and all the roads were clear. The silence was so deep that one had the feeling of speaking to gods when addressing the squirrels.
In that small house in the mountains, squirrels were the most frequent guests… jumping from the trees to my terrace…stealing food, nibbling whatever. I was a city girl who loved concrete, the smell of traffic, the noise of sirens, the fast food and drinks out of nice designed bottles. I despised Nature, trees, flowers, wells, fountains, animal cults…
However, my capable girlfriend chose to share this adventure with me, and our two kids, up in the mountains. She said, practically:
– We all have to eat something. You go find some peasants and bargain for food, I will search the forests.
Fine. It worked out this way. In one day, I managed to get hold of hundreds of eggs. My friend made notes of seven different types of wild greens and five mushrooms. In the basement of the house I found some dusty provisions my parents had stored in case of trouble.
I had considered this a silly notion of theirs, a gesture from their guerrilla days in the Second World War. But in this new war of economic sanctions, of killers that lacked guns or faces, their provisions worked fine, real fine. We didn’t need guns or bullets. We just needed grain sugar rice …
Every day we would bake something different, made of eggs, nettles, grain or rice. To make it seem different to the children, we used food coloring that we found in the basement.
Every day I would give a new, exotic name to our newly colored dish. The children loved it, so did we. We never ate the squirrels.
That chalet was our school of survival, and we took new principles back to Belgrade, to our cohabitants: invent the dishes, invent the words for the new dishes, invent its taste, its smell, and associate it with a new way of being. Instead of a miserable loser, you become an inventive pioneer. At least, through our Robinson Crusoe play-acting, we had taught ourselves to try that. But we had not outlasted the troubles: Belgrade was still wartime Belgrade.
We had cars and buses and trains from our previous lives, but no fuel to run them; no petrol, no gas often no electricity. A lucky few had coal, and the old-fashioned coal stoves to burn it; ironically, these were mostly the poor people. I had a new big foreign car that I bought just before the breakup of Yugoslavia. I bought it with all of my money in the bank, and a good thing I did, since only a couple of weeks later the bank collapsed.
So rather than vanished money, I had the burden of a car. I could scarcely drive it, since the black market fuel cost a fortune, and was often a horrible mix that destroyed car engines and put lives at risk. The smallest car repair cost more than my monthly inflated income: all in all, that car cost me much more than the education of my child. My neighbors, poor and nationalistic, despised the foreign car. Commonly they would scratch it or spit on it, or slash a tyre. That model of Passat was also the official car of the Serbian police at the time, so it was often mistaken for one, for all that meant.
However, like many other citizens, I clung to civilization’s twentieth-century values. One day, I was invited to go to a small town on the border of Rumania, to promote a book of mine, published in that town. I was able to drive there, along with an Italian author, Sandro Veronesi. He was in Belgrade to report on the Spaski/Fisher chess match, Fisher being anti-American dissident and tax evader, keen to play chess in outlaw Serbia.
I had translated some fiction by Sandro, and he was invited to speak at the literary event as a foreign guest of honor. Curious about the situation on the Serbian border, he gladly accepted. A woman friend of mine, an accomplished pianist, seized the chance to come along and help us smuggle Rumanian fuel.
It was a gloomy autumn day: we drove in my car toward the no man’s land of the border, the trunk rattling with empty petrol cans. In Hungary, Greece and Romania, swarms of border black-marketeers had sprung into action to profit from the dire straits of the condemned Serbs. The border police on both sides were on the take, or simply indulgent to the buyers and sellers of diesel and toilet paper. Housewives, writers, pianists, police, we all became smugglers.
My friend Sandro was amused and excited by this opportunity for adventure, as only a writer and a foreigner could be. We were cool, slightly worried that something might go wrong, but brave and determined to accomplish our mission. My friend the concert pianist wore high heels as usual, a lot of make up, dainty feminine gear. Her shiny presence always lightened the dark heart of the customs police. Harmless women, motherly providers, commonly managed to smuggle more goods than suspicious-looking, profiteering men.
After our glorious presentation at the house of poetry, we drove straight to the border and started dealing for the petrol. It was a big place, that no man’s land, full of bags, tanks, mud and sinister people in trench coats. As in the Bogart film Casablance, business ran fast and loose, according the unwritten rules of underworld street-smarts.
Hustlers of all nations spoke in strange border creoles. People spoke haltingly, revealed nothing, found their illicit goodies, paid and left.
As we concluded this routine, something went wrong, somewhere. A black-market deal broke down, sellers started shouting, there was turmoil. Some guy pulled out a gun and started shooting… quickly, we entered our laden car and fled.
We were stopped by the Serbian customs police. Our petrol tanks were disguised with books, but the smell of fuel was heavy. My friend Sandro was taking thorough notes.
The officer inspected the trunk:
– Books he exclaimed.
– Yes I declared, I am a feminist author, and I would like to give your wife, as a present, a personally signed book of mine.
– I have a daughter too, he said.
Even better, I mused,
– I will give you two books of mine, and I will also introduce you to this world-famous Italian author.
Even though shotgun blasts echoed behind our backs and a strong smell of petrol clung to our pianist’s stylish clothes, the officer just blinked at us. Deeply satisfied for his cache of literary fame, he let us go… No questions, no bribes, no criminal charges… That’s how literature works in some countries, I told Sandro. That’s why I write, and what I write about.
This episode ended up in a nonfiction book of his: it sounded far more exciting than it was in the grim reality of Serbian everyday life. Still, I liked my role as a bold and dashing smuggler heroine.
In 1993, with Serbia already under sanctions, my daughter and I were alone on a Greek island. It was the end of the August tourist season. We had come there from Serbia, because Greece was one of the few places we could go. We were hard put to get a visa. Our bank accounts were blocked. Our credit cards were no longer valid.
So we went to the local bank. I showed my passport to the woman clerk.
– Can I open an account here?
– Of course you can Madame, she said.
I had heard from the Milosevic official state TV that Greece, a NATO power, was practically ignoring the sanctions against Serbia. A great deal of the regime’s offshore money was being laundered in Greece. Good news, but bad news at the same time. When you were a Serb under Milosevic, most of the news had such double standards.
So I opened my account.
I need to put my money in for ten days, I said.
– No problem, she answered, even smiling.
Those ten days flew by like the wind. Every Greek day was the same, sand, waves and Greek salads. I befriended some Italian tourists, My daughter played on the beach with some Greek kids.
It was an idyllic vacation. Freed of sanctions, warfare, sickness, and my parents, I felt no urge to write. I idly wondered why I had never written a happy book, in a happy place. Why not forgot about wars and misery? That’ s how life worked for many writers, those not under such shadows. Every day in Greece, I spent the kind of money that should last a month in Serbia. The money needed to last… but I could not worry about it.
One day, we sat at a port waiting for a ferry to another island. There was a café there: we were a company of ten people: women, men children. And the bar owner was bringing us drinks drinks drinks. And we really got drunk waiting for the tardy boat. Once the boat finally arrived, we missed it. It was too good to sit on the beach, admiring the sunset, with good wine.
And then the bill came: it was zero. We looked at the café owner and he said; it’s all on my house. You were my guests. We looked at each other in amazement. Was it because of that lovely woman in our company, or the brilliant poet, or just because we were Serbs? Greek Orthodox people often identified with Serbian Orthodox people, victims of centuries of Ottoman injustice that the Greeks were keen to resent.
But, no it was simpler that that. The ten year old son of the cafe owner had fallen in love with my nine year old daughter. After giving her endless ice creams, he bravely admitted his passion, turning red in his small face and declaring:
– One of these days I will own this place, and I will give for free ice cream to all the beautiful girls I want!
A big applause.
We were about to leave Greece: I had my plane ticket, so I went to the bank to take my money and pay my room. And then the clerk said candidly:
– Sorry madame, you cannot withdraw your money, for your country is under sanctions.
– But I deposited my money ten days ago, you said it was OK!
– To open an account with is, yes, to deposit money with us, yes, but not to withdraw it…
I stood petrified. I knew she would not back down. I knew she had known all this ten days ago. I could not understand why, to seize such a small amount of money, she had played such a malignant prank on a woman with a small daughter. The mysteries of human evil, of feminine cruelty, misogyny, revenge… Maybe she had a Serbian boyfriend who robbed her and her bank? A husband who left her for a Serbian woman with a nine year old daughter?
I had enough cash to take a local bus with my daughter to the next big town, Thessaloniki. To wait there, the next morning for the National Bank of Greece to open. There I hoped to speak to the general manager, to explain the situation or to reach my embassy, begging for help.
It was forty degrees Centigrade when we arrived in the city, and late in the afternoon. I had no money for a room but enough for a meal. I bought us a nice dinner, I sat my daughter on a bench close to the sea, and we fell asleep watching the moon.
Her head was in my lap, she was a bit bewildered, but not too much. I remembered myself at her age when stranger things than that would happen. Just a pat on my head by my Mom would keep me calm… Now I knew how my mother had trembled inside herself too, but how we would be a comfort and a universe to each other. Mother and daughter against the whole world. That was how it always worked.
Early in the morning, after a vagrant night on the beach, we were the first ones at the door of the bank. I went through all the rigamarole, pleading threatening begging and screaming. No way. Rules were rules. They were not applied to big criminal Serbian capital, but solid as a steel vault for my couple of hundreds of hard currency.
I left the bank on a quest for or embassy, or to throw myself on the mercy of the Greek police. A woman reached me on the street. She was a bank clerk, she whispered to me. She secretly handed me some small bills.
-Take a local bus, she advised. Stop at every local stop, go into the bank and ask for small amounts of local money. They won’t ask for your passport, they will give it to you…
After ten local stops, a tedious day of travel, I managed to get my money back, and to buy myself way out of that hypocritical country.
When I reached my own country, I wrote an indignant text for a major opposition daily. I told the entire truth. The Greek embassy in Belgrade phoned me to apologize for my suffering, saying that financial rules were rules. That’ s how I learned all about Greek democracy and economics.
20. Parties and Wars
Why do fancy places and fine events always make me feel miserable? They truth is, they don’t. I risk becoming a pill with my ceaseless laments about my miseries, because the truth is, fancy parties and the high life make me angry. They make me angry because I was a diplomat’s daughter, a girl of privilege, deprived by national disaster of my native milieu of fancy parties. By now, that must be obvious to my readers, if not to me.
Yet there is a deeper truth beyond my troubled personal and political history, because, looking back objectively, I must say: fancy parties are supposed to make people miserable. Just as jolly Christmas holidays make the family troubles surface, the ghosts of intimate hatred, rivalry, thefts and perversions that haunt every family, that human beings gamely struggle to deny.
I am sitting in the famous royal hall in Vienna. The famous Vienna Boys Choir is singing, the waltzes are playing without a flaw, the fancy haute society Viennese are dancing: ladies dressed in long dresses, gentlemen in tuxedos. I feel quite fancy myself; I am dressed in my best, I have a nice hairstyle and an elegant suit. I know that I look pretty. Men stare at me and women sometimes even smile. That’s the victory condition at a party, and yet I am the lost soul, without joy, without myself.
It is the beginning of the wars in my country: I am a Serbian Cassandra, but a frightened one. I feel miserable, and I want to get drunk.
I am sitting at an huge, almost empty table. An elderly Viennese couple is sitting with us, we few Serbs from Yugoslavia, that falling empire. We are not even conversing, just nodding amiably to each other. I notice with amazement that other tables are crowded, that people are laughing and congratulating each other. Other people are aware of the oncoming war: wars can be fun for those who are not the victims. We Serbs, the infamous aggressors, are sitting alone in that fancy European ballroom. Because we are doomed.
The nice fancy couple sitting with us seemed unaware of our odor of blood. They started asking us about life in Belgrade. I was describing that life, and my heart was sinking. First I was faking it, then I could not go on lying, and finally I broke down:
– Life is shit in Serbia, in Belgrade! Our men are being drafted, nationalism is soaring, violence is in the streets, our culture is in decadence. We are done for.
The gentleman in the tuxedo politely blinked.
– I know about that, he said, I was a Nazi myself, for fifteen minutes. My father was killed on the Russian front, and I survived the Allied bombings of Vienna by hiding under my mother’ s skirt.
– These fifteen minutes were when Hitler’ s army entered Vienna. My father lifted me on his shoulders and I waved and waved to the Panzer tanks. I felt proud, and never again have I ever felt proud of my nation or my history. After all these years, I became religious. In these times, I pray every day.
I stared at his beautiful kind wife. She beamed at me. She was a humanitarian worker. She knew a lot about poverty, wars, humiliation… and she didn’t fear those things. She was historically ahead of me.
She said simply:
– If you ever need a shelter, a place to survive, you can be my guests. You can count on staying here in Vienna.
I started crying.
– This empire here has fallen too, repeatedly, she said. The Austro-Hungarian empire, then the Nazi empire.
My own grandfather was Austro-Hungarian, I realized suddenly. Were we Europeans always the same crowd of fancy, miserable people: soldiers in gold braid who crushed democracy?
My host was an engineer, and so was my father. My hostess was a humanitarian, my mother a doctor. My misery in this lovely place was the underside of all such places.
I wiped my tears, and had a last waltz with my host. Later, I indeed came to Vienna, as his wife had predicted. We became good friends. We wrote stories to each other.
A very embarrassing matter, to be a civilized European. Very, very. It was during an International Pen Conference in Prague: Vaclav Havel, the legendary dissident president, made a party for the writers of PEN. Activists, literateurs, cultured people who claim they want to make the world a better place.
I am there as well, in my miserable Serb identity, as part of the Serbian writerly delegation, a crowd which is not behaving properly as far as dissident human rights are concerned. They were silent, for instance, about the resolution passed condemning Serbian artillery attacks against civilians in Dubrovnik. I know about that, but I have no power to act: I have no official assignment. I just drink, and observe other, prouder delegates, people with better passports, with better historical circumstances. Does that make them better than us? They think so, especially some of them.
A writer comes to me to inquire about my country. I say: it is Serbia.
– Oh, says he. And what do you do?
I translate books from other languages, I said peevishly, thinking, that’ s safer than admitting that I write, myself .
— And what work did you translate, this insistent delegate pressed.
– Well, I made a Serbian anthology of Italian modern literature.
– It, was you who did that! He jumped to his feet from his chair.
– Well yes, I said surprised that he knew about it.
– I am a translator from Italian too, he said. And I am Croatian.
– That’s fine with me, colleague, I said amiably.
– But are you yourself Italian? he asked.
– No, I am Serbian, though I consider myself half Italian.
– Do you have any Italian blood? he asked, with a slight edge of menace in his voice.
I thought of lying to him, just to cut short this terrible encounter, which I knew cannot end well. I realized that I had read his miserable anthology of Italian literature. I had done my own book in order to show a different perspective.
– I have no Italian blood, I said bravely, and looked defiantly at him. I just grew up in Italy and studied there, for many years.
– Then you are not half Italian! You should never have dared to make an Italian anthology!
There was no “but” for this enraged man. Serbs were shelling his brand-new Croatian country, and, worse yet, stealing his Italian culture.
We began yelling in English, since he refused to speak with a Serbian and I could not manage his Croatian demands. We had a war underway, and a messy scene ensued. Goaded by his insults, I threw a glass of wine on him.
The waiters rushed to him and gave him a handkerchief. He turned on his heel and left.
– Sorry pal, I said, in war and literature everything is permitted.
21. Women Who Loot
October 5th, 2000, a historical day for Serbia. Where was I? The invisible? I was on BBC, CNN, local TV etc… All day, every hour, with the subtitle: citizens looting the Serbian parliament.
Yes, that was My life with me in it, alive and kicking. That day, when the Serbian people in the streets of Belgrade toppled Milosevic, I was in those streets together with a million people. The streets and squares in Belgrade were not big enough to support a popular revolution of that size. Knowing that too well, the people had to cling together in dense crowds, just as they clung when three Belgrade generations lived in a single small flat. Like people jammed into a rusty Belgrade tram. Like people huddled in a queue for oil, for pensions, for everything the war had denied us.
I stood glued to other people in front of the Serbian parliament, October 5th 2000, daring not to move or speak, because if I jostle or yell, the others will, and the vast million headed beast may get angry, and explode, or implode.
We all feared the beast we had become part of, the beast we had made after years of silence and suffering. This King Kong organism was slowly moving towards the center of government, and my position was slowly getting closer to the bolted doors of the politically gated clique that had looted our lives.
The first row of people approached the steps of the parliament, as in the Eisenstein film “Battleship Potemkin.” Individuals peeled from the million headed beast. As a bold and dashing political adventuress, I was safe in the second line
Then I realized that the first line no longer existed. There I stood, holding hands with my best friend, so as not to split and be shoved apart. We are meandering in front of the evil building, which falling under the attack of protesters turned rioters. Glass is shattered, furniture flung out out the windows, flags torn down and new flags hoisted, screams and tear gas…but the Bastille is falling…
Suddenly, flames and smoke…the police become firemen, revolutionaries become looters, journalists become historians… As we pick our way through the burned overturned cars and smoldering furniture, world media is filming us. Jasmina appears on the screen that night as a Belgrade scavenger and looter.
My father sees me on the TV: he is happy I am there. He does not care if I am the good guy or the bad guy, he cares for the winning side. I am winning there alright, he’d better stick to me, he thinks.
His nation is still burning, and I am saving what can be saved out of the flames. Forty years ago, his generation did the same thing to the predecessors of the communists. He was one of them; he always claims he never looted or killed anybody, and that he earned everything through civil service to the new government. I believed him. But I know that there were no borders between civil servants and the revolutionary Communists. Their system was set up to assure the total power of a party vanguard. And he was one of them, the rebels turned the privileged, who did their best to nail the casino wheel of history into place
Of course I was not a looter, the CNN camera makes all rebels into looters by definition. But my historical battle was that of yet another Balkan looting raid, against one’ s own parents and history. Not one Balkan war was ever won with clean hands. We all had to scavenge to clear the dirty backyards of our parents; every Balkan woman is a rubble woman. Today the revolutionaries, tomorrow the derelicts. A turbulent graveyard of other people’s empires and religions, where every firm foundation is a polyglot and multiethnic mass of rubble.
My mother died in time to preserve her illusions. She died eleven months before my revolution, and did not want any of my rhetoric. Her firm allegiance to her ideals, to her big utopian realm of social freedom, was never lost to her, and was warm in her heart until her last days. On her deathbed she offered us speeches of justice instead of departing kisses. She died with a light and free heart, asking for lemon cake. My mother was a looted soul.
Crossing through the gates, the invisible borderlines; Pier Pasolini wrote about prostitutes, going through the front-lines of war safe and happy, because as women, they were considered loot, trade-goods, by both sides. The camp-followers never bothered with causes or allegiances; for them it was just Rosa and Maria versus the armies of anonymous clients.
Whenever you trespass, and you escape apprehension and punishment, there, you are invisible.
Better sometimes to become visible, and face the punishment.
My daughter as a small child used to plead for attention:
– Please Mom , tell me it is all my fault and that I am guilty!
– It is all your fault, honey, and you are indeed guilty. But before you, it was me. And before me there was your grandma, and then before her Mom, great-grandma Zivana, and then her sick Mom with asthma in a wheelchair… and then I don’t remember those women anymore, but that is how it works.
Women, always doing something they should not have done. Grandma Zivka for example, dressed as a true lady, telling her husband she was meeting a lady friend for coffee, then sneaking to a military parade where she hoped to catch one glance of the awesome Tito.… The nowhere man, the self made leader, the self-named rebel who fooled his enemies with his parallel lives. Rumours flew that there were many Titos, all living and ruling under that name.
Well, my grandma Zivana didn’t read much… but oh, those big shining tanks that seemed never to have fired a shell. Those fine young men dressed so neatly in ironed uniforms. We women love uniforms, men say… but I think women like men in uniforms, as opposed to men in the raw. Just as women love women in cosmetics and gowns, as opposed to raw women, like themselves.
So dear old Zivana would stand well behind in the front row, jumping to peek over the shoulders of the taller guys and girls before her, with her handbag banging them. Until they lost patience, and so did she, and she elbow her way to the front of the crowd and once…
Just once she even crossed the great parade to the center of the road, where she could see the vehicles better, by crouching on her knees and her forearms, under the tires and treads. She emerged scratched and dirty, but with her dainty handkerchief and a little perfume, she restored herself. Zivana’s transgressions were those of a woman who never fought for political rights. Instead, she just performed them.
War criminals shopped in my favorite shops in the nineties , they strolled my favorite streets, their children went to school with mine, in Belgrade. How does that feel? Terrible in the beginning: then you learn to avoid them, to ignore them, to beware of them. You never get fully used to it, however, never ever. I didn’t speak to some of my neighbors, because I recognized their faces, menacing us from TV. Or from the indictments.
Dragan Dabic, alias Radovan Karadzic, the politician, the poet, the warlord, the quack, accused of genocide among other crimes lived among us in Belgrade for years, under cover as a local alternative-medicine guru, the architect of massacre turned crooked healer, deceiving people.
Milosevic is gone now, dead in prison in The Hague before the verdict was reached. But in 2008 Dr. Karadzic, warrior psychotherapist turned hippie quack, has been arrested on a Belgrade bus. This Transition to Nowhere, from Radovan Karadzic to David Dabic, is quite a tale to tell. I am working on a story about that.
We enter this squatter joint in the outskirts of new Belgrade, my American journalist friend, and I, his translator and guide. It is an illegal small construction amidst many squalid skyscrapers. These Communist housing projects, people call the dorms. All sorts of people live in there, anonymously, contentedly even. A place where you can get truly and permanently lost, like in a Mexican desert.
A bar-room of barely few square meters, two and half tables. A bartender with a sulky angry face. A bar owner with a pregnant wife and red aggressive eyes. A couple of customers with bottles in one hand and cigarettes in another. Of all ages, in all sorts of clothes. What brought them together was a visible aggressive misery.
I have my own share of that aggressive misery, only mine is invisible. That is the key to my absence from my life.
One of these angry boozers had only one tooth. The other could not hold his head upright. The third is quivering with some serious bodily disorder. He was the war veteran among them, the hero who fought on the wrong side. Meaning, the side of his own ethnicity. He lost his heritage, his nation, his pride and his own body, and now he is in this illegal speakeasy, singing about his losses. Serbian people celebrate their losses more frequently than their victories. Lamentation is a national talent.
My American journalist friend and I are both intruders here: we are not here to lament, but to get a story out of them. They do want their own story to be published, and their views supported. They don’t much care about the objective truth, but they care a great deal about revenge and fame. They are the scum of the earth. You can tell that at a glance. Another glance tells you that they will never understand, admit, or know that.
We sit with them and they talk, sing, scream, threaten, and rejoice.
Although I must find words, I cannot find words for what is going on there in that abnormal place. No normal person spends their time the way that they do… Or like I do.
That’ s the painful part about this. I cannot describe this world that made me invisible, but I know it all too well. That arrogant tone, that “we are the best” attitude that hides the fear and misery of a people crushed by poverty and rising in rebellion, for centuries. The war criminals of my day, of my wars, were the hajduk heroes of yesterday, of my ancestor’s wars. These indomitable fighters were the good guys, the bloody and Homeric role models in the epic poetry, the folk songs, the history, the literature of a simple, rugged mountain people. That s at least what they claim!
Their single greatest trait is a keen and deeply spiteful sense of justice, and in our modern times, those same people, with those same hands, took up rapid-fire assault rifles and liquidated eight thousand Moslem civilians. The work of Srebrenica took three days. That is why Radovan Karadzic is a war criminal in custody, as well as a visionary poet who considers himself the avant-garde of Western civilization.
Eight thousand men and boys — they had all been Yugoslav citizens, our friends, our neighbors, our countrymen, our comrades — were shot as helpless captives, because they were not Serbs, the best people in the world. I cannot believe that, and yet I can, I must. It is part of my being, that criminality that speaks the language of my father, the purest serbian dialect , as the linguists claim.
We are no longer the same people. We Balkan people have our generations, like anyone else. We change our ideologies, with particular ease. This is a different time. Srebrenica belongs to a different world. I should not identify with them so thoroughly: the victims, the killers.
– Wow, this material is great, says the American journalist.
– I know, I say, but I am trembling. I can feel the air curdling as they drag us into their magnetic field.
A local journalist from a nationalist Serbian tabloid comes in, and joins us at our table. He listens attentively to our basic questions about Dragan “David” Dabic. A transvestite guru who posed as an American émigré, a surrealist New Age façade with a topknot, thick glasses, and a thicket of beard, in which Radovan Karadzic, the world’s most-wanted war criminal, schemed to hide himself. This creature came to this very spot, hiding himself among the lost, rejoicing with them about their victories and losses in their lost homelands of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Where genocide disguised itself as heroic enterprise.
Karadzic the psychaitrist and poet was the ideologue of ethnic cleansing. His ambition was to transform Herzegovina into a purely Serbian territory, without its Muslims, without its Croats, purified, like a bad poet’s fanatical effort to purify a language.
My father, the Herzegovinian engineer, could not believe that such a crime was possible. It was beyond his practical imagination. When I told him what was happening in the areas seized by Karadzic, my father said:
– In the second world war, we always took care of our Muslims! We protected them from the Nazis and Croats and Italian fascists. We lived together happily, respecting each other.
– That’s not true any more Dad. The UN was supposed to protect them, but the Serbian militias broke in and killed all the Muslims, they killed thousands of them in Srebrenica.
He started at me blankly, in disbelief. Then he phoned his family in Herzegovina, to ask them if what his daughter said was true.
– Well, yes, my cousin said candidly, that’ s true, but don’t tell anybody.
What a joke, I thought, they were trying to hide eight thousand bodies from themselves, for the sake of my father? In point of fact they did their best, they dismembered the corpses and hid them in different locations, even trucking them into Serbia proper, even close to Belgrade.
My father pretended not to believe it — to disbelieve them, and me. He stayed aloof from politics, bewildered by the fall of Yugoslavia. He had outlived his nation, but could no longer follow events. Nobody could, really, except those who were wreaking the havoc. They, too, had their bodyguard of lies, a psychic war of denied realities.
The American journalist is forced to wear a cap with Serbian nationalist symbols. He doesn’t mind that, because he is getting a very good story. I am getting much more than that. I am getting more than I want.
My father was a Yugoslav from Herzegovina, and my father is dead. This is my moral and political inheritance. It is painful and familiar. Yet I am not one of them, I just know them. I know how dangerous they can get.
During the nineties, as war and crime demolished Yugoslavia, I lived in a certain street in Belgrade. When I moved, it was a raffish street of gypsies and the dispossessed. Soon enough, however, it gentrified into a the street for the nouveau riche, of privateers, profiteers and war criminals.
From my window, I witnessed a murder, a so called jealousy killing. A gangster blew the head off a rival who was with his ex-girlfriend. That kind of murder happens any time anywhere, but this one happened under my apartment window, in a fancy car where the high maintenance gangster-moll sat, smoking.
Her first beau purged her second one, likely because he feared the same thing happening to him. These underground killings became commonplace in those years, as terrible and normal as a war can get. We didn’t have bombs in our yards, those bombs were flying from our yards, but we had legalized crime on our thresholds. Money was power, and power was warfare. Warfare was robbery. Warfare was profit.
All other values died out in within months, after the war rhetoric and the warlords took over my city. All money became war money, tainted in blood. I wrote about war crimes and wars, obsessively, having forgotten all my other topics. I was even bored by those topics. Women, literature, memory, poetry, fantasy; no longer had any relevance to my squalid everyday life.
– We are done with our interview, I say. We must go.
– No way, says the owner of the bar, you must buy us a drink and we must all drink it together.
– Sure I will, says the American journalist, I will happily buy you a drink, sir, but we ourselves cannot drink any more.
– No way, I will not drink drinks bought with dirty American money, says the owner suddenly enraged.
The guy without teeth screams, completely drunk:
– I am offering a drink for everybody, I, I , I…
– We don’t drink, thank you…
We are trying to reach the door. The small room is getting bigger, almost impossible to snatch the door knob and see the way out.
The other guys stand up between us and the door. The journalist is cool, he has been to other dangerous places in the world. Me too, but this is my dangerous place. The story of my life, my father comes from those places.
– We must go, I repeat firmly.
– You cannot go without drinking the drink I am offering you, screams the toothless man.
– No drinks for the American bastard, screams the owner.
I look around myself with adrenalin. Sweat is breaking out of my skin.
I bang my fist on the table. I am the only woman in the room.
– Shame on you, you men! I scream. I am a Herzegovinian woman and alone in the company of you men, so called men of honor who cannot behave like true men! You are embarrassing and offending me! I cannot sit around with men and get drunk. I am a woman of honor, Herzegovinian honor.
It worked. It got straight into their Herzegovinian male chauvinist bones and the red eyed owner, angrily waved his hand towards me
– Go, he said with held back rage, go…
In this mess of war crimes and misery, I recalled my grandmother, the huge Lile woman of honor and tobacco. This is how she would have dealt with the situation. This was her life I was now acting out. She saved my bacon, she saved my honor, she saved my story. She was back here in my body as if I never left that primitive harsh land of stone .
The journalist says:
– Come on Mina, let’s have a nice dinner somewhere far away.
My girlfriends always brought me happiness. My daughter nowadays says: Boyfriends come and go, girlfriends last forever. I always had a girlfriend confidante matching the actual boyfriend of the time: to make the man/woman relationship more bearable, more human: to talk to, lament to, understand what was going on. Like a safety belt for love.
Maja and I, as six and eight year old, sang in deep water of the Adriatic sea: dreamdreamdream, a song by the Beatles. Every day we asked each other, for years on end: how much does you heart feel happy today?
Other girlfriends, later in my life, gave me food and shelter when I was poor sick lonely unhappy miserable. Always them, not even the same ones, but just like clones of a species that we all belong to, betrothed to each other, but forgotten and forbidden, like a gang of mermaids in the deep sea. But this memoir is not about them, hiding and lurking.
Dancing also made me happy, dancing and singing: I had a body which could rejoice.
The happiest day in my life without me was July 15, 2005. Don’t ask me why. I have a photo taken that day, in Los Angeles, dancing sweaty with a glass of red wine in my hand with some old hippies playing music. In a party on the top of a hill, overlooking a graveyard, at the opening of a rock and roll art exhibition…I was covered with sand, wind was blowing in my curly dreadlocks and I wore a denim mini dress my daughter gave me.
In my mind was something called nirvana, something called peace with life as it is, happiness for being there, and getting there. I was there and not only there. I belonged there. It seemed to me that all of my life-without-me had been aimed at that moment.
Fate was expecting me there. The future existed. The future would bring me all those simple things had I dreamed in the past: real existence, real words, real work.
That night I danced, I didn’t even need to talk. It was warm. I had an epiphany: things will go my way.
My other night of great happiness was August 23, 1975,
I was in Ormos that night, dancing at a party in a park, with the film crew of Miklos Jancso, the Hungarian director. They were making a movie for Italian producers with a crew of Italians, Americans and Yugoslavs. I had interviewed Jancso in Rome and he had offered me a job travelling with his crew, because I knew Italian, English and Serbian.
– Sure, I said delighted. To be involved in a working multinational film was exactly what I needed. So I became a Girl Friday on the set, a mascot, the darling of his crew. Everybody loved me and I loved them all. I spoke all their languages at once. I had the enthusiasm of an amateur and volunteered to do anything and everything.
I would spend time with a diva, trying to make her less lonely and more diva. I would fix the dialogues for the stern scriptwriter, who could not tell the difference between a film and a theater play. I would dance with a depressed writer. The director’s friend came by the set to cure his depression — I was there to sympathize
I would fetch buttermilk to the set to cure the editor’s gastritis…I would play the piano in a certain scene because, I thought the scene needed a piano player.… After a few days, nothing occurred on the busy set without me, and yet nobody knew what was I doing there. Including myself.
I was happy. I loved the film, that was coming on fast, in sequences full of weird things together: horses, whores gays and lesbians, orgies and prayers. The film was the portrayal of a royal scandal in Vienna called the Mayerling Incident; it was called “Private Vices Public Virtues.”
That happiness lasted for a couple of weeks, and it changed me for good. I was twenty-one, and now I dressed differently, I thought differently, I acted differently. I had run away from home, from the family of diplomats and emigres. My stateless condition was a statement now. The world loved me that way and wanted me that way. I existed.
One night, my room mate on the set, the actress Laura Betti, asked me to join her in her adventure with some local guys. She was 42 and I was half her age. We dolled up and went to a local casino.
Now this small town was literally a castle, on the border between Croatia, Austria and Slovenia. I didn’t know why people would go there, if they didn’t shoot movies, write books, ride horses or make love. But then I saw the gambling house: a world of its own where all those others things stopped mattering.
My companion Laura was a passionate gambler. After short time she began winning hugely and was surrounded by a crowd. Luck?
I was extremely excited but slightly frightened: I could understand the language, and I could sense that things were not going to end smoothly because of her Luck. People in communist countries such as Yugoslavia were not allowed to be personally lucky. Casinos were for foreigners like Laura, and forbidden to citizens like myself. Police could burst in anytime and I could be arrested.
I was not supposed to be there but I was, being Laura’s luck charm, as she called me.
And then a very handsome young man offered me something secretively. He pulled out a bag of white powder. I headed towards the door… I sensed danger was getting close. I fled the casino and ran fast in the dark towards my castle. Laura was rolling her fat body after me, screaming with rage and laughter… Casino money fell from her body as if it were scales… very soon I heard steps and voices. Someone pursuing us.
I pulled her by her arm and splashed her round body over mine, in the dark, putting my hand over her laughing mouth…
The voices passed us, we stopped almost breathing. Laura fell asleep while I was counting the minutes on pins and needles.
We managed to reach our castle safely. We had shootings the next day . We had to look good and work perfectly, but we were a mess: I was sure that had we barely missed being robbed, beaten, and raped, God knows what and God knows why. We even had some money on us. Would some gangster pound on her door to demand her winnings back, or shake down the film crew?
Nobody did that. Soon we wrapped up shooting and left the town. Later, Laura wrote a book that landed her in court, because of the outrageous things she said about famous people. Our episode was in her book, too.
In Laura’s version of our adventure, I was there with my foreign boyfriend, American actor and songwriter Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson was actually dating the likes of Janis Joplin and Rita Coolidge, rather than myself. Still, I didn’t mind it. I always liked that guy.
Where do the moments of utmost irrational happiness come from? Where do they go, in a second?
In Serbia there is a proverb: don’t laugh too much, the next second you may cry. So children who laugh too much are preemptively beaten. Grown ups after a good laugh hit each other on the hands several times, splashing palms until they get all red and thus send away the devil.
On another day, 8 of February in Amsterdam I was happy again: I was in a foreign city where I had never been before. I was about to go to yet another foreign city where I will be praised, get a prize, be famous and collect some money. I was pleased and proud of myself.
By coming to Amsterdam, I had abandoned a crisis of grief in Belgrade. I had decided to write a book about my dead mother. Every night I stalked the graveyards with a tin of beer and a pack of cigarettes.
Often it snowed. Then I wore a huge fur coat, and I tried on my mother’s gloves. They were beautiful, ladlylike gloves, the colors, the patterns, the softness. It was like her warm hand playing with my hair and head. Yet after every meditative walk, I would come back home without them. I would leave the gloves at some unknown grave as a token to the unknown dead.
I needed to sit every evening alone, in the silence, and think. In Belgrade in December holidays, that big dirty noisy city, the only peaceful, silent places were the graveyards. And I wasn’t alone there. Other people joined me there: hobos, mourners, religious fanatics, mentally retarded graveyard workers. I felt a community with all of them.
In Amsterdam, however, I was boisterous and jolly. It was all behind me now. I packed neatly my shoulder bags and went to a bar with friends, to chat about art.
Then, a thief in the bar absconded with my shoulder bag. A very neatly-packed item, with my money, my jewelry, notebooks, diaries, clothes… Gone in seconds, without a trace.
I hoped that whoever took it might abandon it without the money, but that didn’t happen. I had to go to the police and start life anew. It wasn’t easy for a Serb to get new documents to travel in Europe, but I managed.
I was wondering for days on end, who was this new owner of my personal life: a woman? a junkie? She had my diary in English to spy on my intimate secrets. She had my grandmother’s jewels, heirlooms that my late cousin the junkie gave to me before she died, saying: take care of these otherwise, I will sell them for drugs.
Maybe my invisible thief would publish my diary/memoirs under her own name. My bank accounts and credit cards could be useful for some minor or major criminal. My stolen passport and visas could be handy for smuggling or human trafficking.
Without my travel bag, my life took another road. Without hotel money, I had to stop and sleep at a friend’s house. She picked me up as a refugee at the train station, and took me home where she lived in a one room with her husband. They were young people, former refugees turned citizens of Europe, fighting for their rights and their happiness.
This young couple, my friends, had managed that, except for one great emptiness: they could not bear children. That night, after feeding me supper, they gave me their own bed, and slept together on the floor. That night they conceived a baby. When she was born, I gave her the name Mila, Amy.
I was really happy.
How on earth did I get a flying phobia?
Ever since I was a kid, I was flying, being flown… I could fly with my eyes wide open. When I told her about this, my mother wanted to take me to a specialist.
– Mom, you know, I can fly.
– What do you mean? she asked looking at me sideways.
As a doctor, she always suspected a brain tumor, whenever things became weird or hairy.
– Well, I just rise above the ground and I fly wherever I want.
– OK, she said slowly, looking intensively into my eyeballs. I guess that is where a brain tumor shows first: eyes bulging from their sockets, like in the cartoons.
– No, you don’t understand, before I had to use a flying carpet, but not any more. Now I just fly using my own body. I don’t even flap my hands.
– Mina dear, people don’t fly, come here to your Mom, let me see your eyelids…
I do come humbly. I love my Mom. Even if she plucked my eyes from my head, I would still love her, blindly.
– OK, now look up, fine, now down, then to your right , left, please…
– Yes yes Mom, exactly! When I do that with my eyes, I start to levitate.
– Aha! are you levitating now? She is making me lift my arms from the sides of my body.
– Yes, I am.
– Do you feel vertigo, my child?
– No Mom, I am doing fine. I am crossing the room and I will fly out of the window.
– Mina, stop that nonsense! The Mom beats the doctor in her.
She pulls me strongly to her side.
– I will slap you if you don’t!
– Ok Mom, I don’t want to upset other people just because I can fly and they can’t. Especially not you.
I don’t want my Mom to slap me, she would feel very embarrassed afterwards as a doctor.
– Tomorrow, we will go and scan your brain. I hope the lesion is not severe.
I spent a restless night. I hated to go and scan my brain, they might do something to make me stop flying. So I decided, to tell a deliberate lie. The truth hadn’t worked on my Mom, so I had to lie. It was traumatic moment to cross that borderline. Also because I feared she would find me out.
My efforts to skip kindergarten by feigning sickness had never fooled her. She kept me home but I knew she didn’t believe that I was sick. She knew I lied because I hated that teacher. The one that didn’t let me play with my doll in class. The one who scolded me for refusing to eat my kindergarten lunchmeat.
A doll! Poor children are starving in this world, and she wants a doll! Those children are hungry and she won’t eat her lunchmeat!
But this time was different. I lied, because I had to make her believe. And this time, she did.
– Mom, I lied when I said I could fly, I lied to her the next morning.
– Shame on you Mina, she said, visibly relieved. I almost believed you.
I felt sad at my success, but somewhat happy. To add to my power of flying, I had the power of deceiving my parents. Wow, I was supernatural.
For many years I exercised that power when alone, in the sun, in the darkness, for fun or for magic, And never, in all those years, was I ever afraid to fly. Flight was part of me, and my life with me. It was my safe place, my secret. It was my way of being human.
Then many years later, I had a real bad flight.
I was grown up. I was drunk in the plane. I was happy to be travelling, and yet that severe turbulence changed my life in a couple of hours. People around me were screaming vomiting and praying aloud. Plates were bouncing. The plane was rattling as if torn by the angry winds… I was trembling where I sat, especially my knees… I wasn’t afraid of death. I was afraid of dying: the ordeal went on too long.
My head started spinning, I was slumping over dizzily, even in a seat secured by a tight belt… At that moment of swooning terror, I lost my ability to fly. I became human. I became afraid of being airborne, of not touching the ground, of being swirled, of being deprived of gravity. I became afraid of being free of death. I became mortal.
I survived the ordeal. Rough weather is part of air travel. The next year, at the same part of that route, at the same time of the year, a plane of the same airline company, crashed. All passengers were killed. Among them was a woman who could have been me: a Serbian flying to New York for a grant.
When I myself safely landed in New York after my rough flight, I forgot about my grant and how proud I was of getting it. I spent weeks on end unable to regain my balance. Sometimes I had to crawl to find my way across hotel rooms. I was visibly changing my behavior and my looks. I grew thinner and more pensive.
I remember, I sang a song one night that impressed my friends — writers from all over the world. I got a voice, instead of my wings.
My attitude changed again when I was bombed by aircraft. Seeing the NATO planes fly low over our heads in Belgrade, sitting on a terrace and hoping they won’t drop anything deadly on us mortals, I started trembling again. I identified so strongly with the bomber pilots that I felt I was flying myself. I had become the prey, the hunter and the gun.
It was even screened on the TV, live. I could not get away from that reality show, which, escaping the confines of my own head, had now become the world . The whole world was bombing a whole bunch of us sitting on our terraces, being bombed. I identified with the imperilled planes that might be crushed by defensive fire. I became posthuman.
Whenever I enter an airport, anywhere in the world, I feel at home. Whenever I make a home anywhere in the world I feel trapped, obsessed. I have an urge to leave it and go to an airport.
I never really had a home, a single place where I felt safe in the world. I used to think that everybody feels that way about a home. Then I realized that people fight wars for their homes. Now, I think that they imagine the safety of home, and have no idea of their own ferocity where homes are concerned. They would rather bitterly lament the loss of a home than to dare not to have one.
But I can dare it. I am daring it now, and not lamenting.
If you are ready to kill for your home, for your homeland, then you are preparing to be killed in your own home. That approach to life is not wise. Life should be more precious than a patch of sacred earth.
Both of my parents died at their home. One in the left room, other in the right one. My mother’s room was blue velvet. She was looking outside the window and remembering her garden and a lemon cake.
My father died in his satin green room, still plotting about money and small errands. They were happy to be at home. For me it was terrible. Death turned their home into a tomb. This moment of intimacy with a deathbed, a piece of furniture, and the person you will see in it for the last time, is something unbearable, painfully raw; beyond the sense of life as it is.
The airports, like the Pyramids, transcend this parochial sense of belonging. In the airport, we all belong to each other, and the rules of nobody’s land are enacted. Your ego is deflated from its pathological aspects by the anonymous open spaces and practical issues such as boarding passes, security, right destination.
Once I am beyond the reach of a concrete city in this airport culture, full of its totemic items such as perfumes, bags, and airport-ethnic fast food, I have a feeling that I can change my boarding pass for any destination. A couple of times, I even did that: changed my ticket for another place, and the pleasure of making the change was greater than the change itself. It was like websurfing on the surface of the earth. Why write a masterpiece, if you can imagine it? Why imagine it, if you can do it.
And I did it.
And I lived happily ever after.
Yes I did; I had no body, I had no name, I had no country or anything that was mine. Nothing belonged to me, I belonged to nothing. I danced and sang my way through a life without me. Things that I refused mattered more than those I wanted. Everything that mattered happened without me wanting it.
And I survived, like a pumpkin growing on the garbage. I grew, and I was not swept away like the rubbish. I am here, I am alive, I have a different name and another world. Only my readers can see me…
1. My Mother page 1
2. My Parents 7
3. My Father 19
4. Dad’s Funeral 25
5. My Grandmother Zivana, my Grandmother Lile 38
6. My Daughter 46
7. Marriages and Divorces 58
8. My Aunt Rada, 65
9. Words and Languages 75
10. Nobody at Home 88
11.First and Last Love 100
12. Sex and Money 111
13 Birthdays and Funerals 125
14. La Dolce Vita and the Cold War 133
15. Love Stories and Marriages 143
16. Nobels and Writers 160
17. Witnessing History 172
18. Cheap Life 182
19. Sanctions 192
20. Parties and Wars 205
21. Women Who Loot 211
22. Happiness 225
23. Flying 233
THE END 241