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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Serbia, briefly

From Srbija 09

The next stop on our Balkan tour was Serbia. There was a time when my pulse would beat frantically and my hands would sweat every time I crossed the border back to the home country. That was not the excitement from being back on the native ground, but a deep-seated fear of entering a black hole with no exit. Because, there used to be a time when we were so completely isolated in every sense that we were really just a black hole on the map of Europe that no one cared about much nor knew how to deal with. It didn't feel that good to be inside. In fact, it felt like being stuck in a small elevator, for about a decade.
From Leto 2011

Those awful times are gone now, and returning no longer sets off a panic attack (although residual feeling of slight discomfort never lies too far from the surface). Serbia equals family (and a handful of friends), and now that I have children of my own I realize how lucky I was to have my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins so near, all living in the same town while I was growing up. Boris and Andrej do not have that privilege, so making an effort to visit the grandparents is so important. It is also the only opportunity for them to hear their mother tongue in its natural environment, in all of its picturesque varieties.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Balkans under the summer sun

Jelsa, Hvar

This year our summer journey to the Balkans began in Croatia, on the island of Hvar. I had last been there in 1987 with my school. Back then we used to spend one week per school year having classes somewhere other than our hometown. There was an attempt to vary the landscape (a little bit of mountains, a little bit of the coast)so in the final year of lower primary school we were taken to Hvar. This was four years before the beginning of the war and little did I know that it would be many years before I will go to Croatia again; harder to imagine still that I would need a passport (even a visa at some point) to do that. But in 1987 it was still the age of innocence, soon to be rudely interrupted.


While we were watching the sea at the promenade outside of Split's old town, I tried to explain to Boris that this was once one country--my country--from there to granny's, that there were no borders from us to the sea. But of course Croatia means little to him and the Adriatic sea is just one of many, and not the measure of all things maritime. I noted with some sadness that Yugoslavia will be a completely abstract construct for him, a historical fact with no relevance. Will it be less real when there is no one around to remember it?

Jelsa, Hv
One interesting thing about Croatia is that it desperately does not want to be associated with the Balkans--in Croatia, the Balkans is others (primitive, backward, oriental). And yet if we take Kundera's homeland litmus test (obscenities are our strongest link with the homeland, to paraphrase) then I have to say I feel quite at home in Croatia. Swearing is rife, and curses identical (the great Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza was attributed as saying "God save me from Serbian bravery and Croatian culture," which sounds just about right to me). Maria Todorova`s fantastic book "Imagining the Balkans" would be a great read for anyone further interested in Balkan identities, both denied and acknowledged.