Our school commutes were always so much fun. As I lived at the top of the hill, I would make my way down to school every morning, knocking on a few doors and eventually a little crowd of school children would form.
We would chat on the way and share the bread that our grandmothers made for us to have for our mid-morning snack. We would hop and skip and quite often try and outrun each other. I was still the only girl amongst them.
Mum continued dressing me in pretty dresses. She insisted on buying me these pretty white crochet leggings, but by the time I would get to school, my leggings would have a few twigs stuck to them or some thistle balls too. My mum would also, every morning, put my curly locks into pretty little pigtails, tied up with red ribbons. These always came off by the time I got to school. I was a nightmare! She eventually gave up when I was about ten; from then on, I was mostly dressed in boyish shorts and polo shirts.
Our school commutes were such fun and wonderful, unless we had to walk to school and back in winter.
To me, our winters were magical. The snow would usually start falling in November, sometimes earlier, and it would snow for days on end! Then it would freeze over and the sun would show its face through the clouds. It would be sunny for days, but cold enough for the snow to stay intact and shimmery. We would come home, have lunch, do our homework and then we would grab our sanke, our wooden sledge, and we would spend most of our afternoons sledging down this steep hill near our house, only coming back into the house when it was getting too dark to keep going or when our fingers and toes became numb. Once we were inside, we used to sit next to our wood burning range and our granny would rub our little freezing hands and feet with her woolly gloves, to get our “circulation going”, she would say. She always used to make us some aromatic herbals tea too. Baba used to pick her own herbs for tea, on the hills nearby.
But when the weather was really bad, that’s when our school commutes were quite tough. Dad always used to go out first, on foot, to make a path for us to follow to the main road; only then we were allowed to go to school. I have never known our school to close, even in some of the worst winters. No matter how deep the snow was, our school was open.
By the time we would come back home from school, we would be absolutely soaked through by the snow and we would feel terribly frozen. We had no choice but to walk up the hill, to go home from school. Sometimes our feet and hands would get so cold that we would cry.
This was especially tough for our family once my brother started school. He was the kindest and the gentlest child, ever. But he was very physically tough, he never moaned. I used to get so upset if he was hurt, or when he was cold. We were very protective of one another.
Sometimes our winters would last until early March.
I think this, seeing how hard it was for us to go to school in winter, more than anything else, prompted my mum and dad to move.
They decided to buy a house five minutes’ walk from our school. When my parents got married, they had agreed that whenever they got paid for anything, they would put half of their earnings into a savings account. They bought their house in cash, at the age of 28 and 30. How times have changed!
This home was their first home that belonged just to them. It didn’t belong to the rest of my father’s family; it was just theirs.
At first, we were all so excited. We moved into this brand-new home which seemed luxury to us, compared to our cosy wooden cottage that we had lived in. But our lovely Baba took our move quite badly. She had looked after us from the day we were born, and suddenly she could no longer care for us, feed us and tuck us in when we had our naps; we were no longer living right next to her. She was sadly, but understandably, quite upset when we moved. I think she was actually quite angry with my mum and dad.
Once we were in our new home, at first, our life seemed so much easier. Our walk to school and back was a doddle! But then we started missing our granny and the farm. We missed our animals so much. We no longer had this vast space around us. I suppose, it was as though we had moved to the suburbia of our village.
Eventually, most of our animals from the farm, the sheep, the cows and most of our horses, were sold off and there were only a handful of animals left for our granny to look after. She simply had to keep some or she would have felt completely lost without her beloved livestock.
I remember, my brother and I were so upset, our best memories came from that farm, but there was nothing we could do to stop it.
At first, we brought our loyal German Sheppard Johnny with us, but he got so sad that he refused to eat. He didn’t like being in our new surroundings, he didn’t like being on a lead. This was heartbreaking for my brother and I, but we knew that we had to take him back. We both walked him back up the hills and the closer we got to our farm, the bouncier he became. Once he was back with Baba, he was so much happier, and he started to eat well again. He was our wonderful, loyal old friend.
We missed our old friends too. I missed my “wild friends” & my wild ways.
Soon enough, our parents ventured into all sorts of businesses. They invested almost everything they had into wood processing machinery and building materials.
Within a few years, our one house turned into three terraced houses, with the original one in the middle. Each one had three levels, with solid concrete floors and breeze block walls. My parents’ view was that one house was for me, one for my brother and one for them. Just in case things didn’t work out for us in life, we would always have a home of our own.
They opened a mini supermarket and a pool club on the ground floor. My uncle opened a café in our house too. Dad also had a sawmill, which gradually grew into a small factory. They employed a lot of people from the village; their workers were all nationalities. We all had to work; even my brother and I had our delegated jobs, every day. These were very busy times!
Sometimes, unfortunately, I resented my parents, my dad especially. From our early teens, my brother and I started actively working for mum and dad. When all of my new friends were going swimming in the river, I had to work in our shop, or clean the lorries etc. When I worked in the shop, my dad used to make me weigh all different types of foods and goods, different sizes and textures, in various sizes of paper bags, until I got it right. He used to make me wrap things over and over again until they were wrapped to perfection. I swear I hated him sometimes. “Customer is always right! Even if your worse enemy walks into this shop, they are your customer first of all. Always greet them with your brightest smile.” These words will forever stay with me.
They became very successful and my father’s transport company grew to a sizeable fleet of lorries. The success was great, but however, we got to spend less time together as a family, we had fewer meals together.
I can’t say that I enjoyed these times. We had to grow up quite quickly.
But make no mistake, I was always, always immensely proud of my parents. They worked incredibly hard. They did it all on their own, from scratch. They did it for us, so that one day we could have comfortable lives. Don’t be fooled, however; as I mentioned, we had to work bloody hard for it all.
They never allowed us to be lavish or to show off. We never had expensive clothes and we never went on expensive holidays. They didn’t want us to stand out visually from other children around us, but we always had good quality shoes and good protective, practical clothing, to protect us from the sometimes very harsh elements. Also, we always had good, healthy organic food. My mum’s cooking was delicious!
Our parents wanted us to learn what hard work was truly like. They would say to us:
“This is for your own good; if we dropped dead now, you’d be capable of looking after yourselves. You could work anywhere in the world and you wouldn’t starve.”
These seemingly harsh words would dig deep into us; we couldn’t protest or argue against this. I don’t think we understood fully what this meant, until we got older and until we learnt how important good & honest working ethics are.
One luxury we did have however, was our annual holiday to Croatia. Which was amazing! We would always stay with a local family, which always felt so homely and right for us. Mum, my brother and I would usually go on our own first and dad would stay behind to work, but he would sometimes stop by and spend a couple of days with us. We loved getting up early and going to the beach before everyone else. We also loved fresh figs. When dad was with us, he used to take us on a fig hunt. This was such fun! He would usually do a recce the night before, around the area where we were staying, to find out who had the best fig trees in their gardens and then he’d take us there the next morning to steal the figs! On one of these adventures we got caught. We walked to this house and dad picked my brother and I and lowered us over the fence. We quickly climbed onto the nearest fig tree, we turned our tee-shirts up and started picking the figs and putting them into our tee-shirts. When suddenly we heard this almighty bang and a dog barking. This old lady came running out of her house, shouting at us in a typical Dalmatian accent. She was little and dressed in black, but she had a big boxer-type dog on a chain, right next to her which was barking louder and louder. My brother and I froze! Our dad quickly jumped over the fence, grabbed both of us, practically threw us over the fence, and jumped back over it himself.
The figs that we had picked, were everywhere! We quickly ran away, laughing hysterically. I know it’s naughty, but we loved it! My Croatia memories are some of my favourite.
Unfortunately, when we moved to our new home, very quickly we got to see who our real friends were, as my parents’ success wasn’t always met with support by everyone around us.
This was painful. I genuinely believed that everyone was good and that they meant what they said to me, as I was always naively honest with everyone. I believed that everyone was my friend. I got hurt so many times, without seemingly ever learning my lessons. I trusted everyone. You see, this is where my undying hopeaholism comes from. But our parents kept saying to me to be kind back and that my time will come. I kept waiting for my time to come and I often had these imaginary arguments and come-backs in my head, but never really had the courage to say them.
I was no longer surrounded by just boys; I found myself to be part of a group of six girls, who lived in our immediate neighbourhood, in the “suburbia” of our village. I had no idea what to do with them! I was so ill equipped. They played games that I wasn’t familiar with, that I didn’t understand. Those were real and mind games. I eventually learnt all the real, popular games that girls played, but I don’t think that I will ever understand some girls’ or some women’s mind games they play with one another. I still don’t see the point of them, and frankly, I see them as waste of time. Why be ingenuine and have ingenuine friendships? I just simply cannot stand the meaningless statements like: “Oh, darling, it’s been ages! We must do lunch!”, and then never actually get together to have this lunch! You get the picture.
My brother and I didn’t have any concept of “socially acceptable” friendships, when it came to race or different religions, background or wealth. We became very good friends with some children from our village who lived a little further away from our house. We simply had many things in common with them; we loved playing and exploring together. And that was that. We didn’t care who they were. They were Muslim children, Serbian children, Croat children, Muslim-Croat children or Serbian-Croat children. We used to eat at their homes, they used to eat at ours, everything was shared. We would spend time together at school, come home, have lunch, do our homework and then we would stay out all day, until dinner time.
After the fall of the communism, we used to celebrate all our religious festivals together. Easter festivities were particularly fun. The celebrations would last for three days and I remember our Easters always being very joyful and colourful. Traditionally, we, the Serbs, would cook and colour and decorate hundreds of eggs in various colours, but predominately in red. On the first day of Easter, our mum would give us ten eggs at a time to go out and crack them with our friends. The tradition is that you hold and egg upright and then a friend of yours cracks it from the top with their egg. Whose ever egg remains intact, they then win the other person’s eggs. This was tremendous fun! This was understandably only a Christian tradition. But our lovely Muslim neighbours would cook and colour some eggs for their children too. My friends’ caring parents didn’t want their children to miss out on all the fun that we were having by colouring and decorating the eggs.
We, too, used to sometimes go to their houses for the evening feasts after their fasts during Ramadan. We all absolutely loved it. It was such a special occasion for us. We loved “practicing” these new traditions; they were a wonderful novelty for us. We had these opportunities because ours and their parents let us, they encouraged us to learn and explore different cultures and customs. Mum and dad always used to tell us to be respectful of other cultures and customs.
During the summer holidays, I would, yet again, “borrow” a truck inner tube from my dad’s garage, blow it up with a foot pump and then race down to the river with the inner tube held above my head! My friends and I would all use it between us to float down the river on it. This was endless fun, unless we fell through the middle into the freezing water and scraped our backs on the valve. Ouch! We used to stay in the river until our lips were blue and our teeth chattering.
We used to walk for hours on end too, venturing into our local forest, sometimes even into our hidden away local cave system. We used to link our arms together and lower ourselves into one of the caves. I get scared just thinking about it now. Our parents never knew about this! Thinking about it now, this was crazy! Also, there were poisonous snakes everywhere, but we didn’t care. We had fun!
In the late summer, we would go into our neighbours’ corn fields in the evenings, steal loads of corn, and then BBQ it on a fire, in the middle of a field. If it was a clear night, one of our friends would bring binoculars out and we would watch the moon through them. We would also sing rock songs in English, pretending that we knew all the words, late into the evening. It was hilarious! Those truly were the times. Oh, we used to also make cigarettes out of cut up grape vine and smoke them. Ha!
After the corn harvests, we would play in the corn sheaves for hours on end. We would make tipis out of them & play cowboys and Indians or we would pretend that we owned a whole Western-type town, with all of us having different roles to fulfil. I frequently “worked” in a Can-Can bar; naughty minx!
During the winter we would mostly be sledging or building “igloos”. When the weather was bad, we would stay indoors and play card games, dominos or Ludo type games. We were never bored.
When we were growing up, our parents generally separated people into these groups:
Dobri ljudi – Good people, good hearted people.
Pošteni ljudi – Honest people.
Skromni ljudi – Modest People.
Dobri radnici – Hardworking people.
“Lopovi” – Deceitful people.
Neradnici – People who didn’t like to work, lazy people, profiteers. My parents didn’t trust them. Mum and dad said that these types of people would cheat, do anything, to gain assets dishonestly without much effort. “Nothing is for free.”
You see, our parents never said to us: “You shouldn’t be friends with them because they are Muslim.”, or anything like that. They didn’t teach us to hate one another. This is how we lived. This is what my parents still live by. This is how I try to live, even now when I am thousands of miles away. My husband and I teach our sons the same ethics and values.
When the general world talks about how the conflict in Bosnia started, they would generally say that the people of Bosnia hated each other all the time and that’s why they went to war. That’s absolute bollocks! We didn’t hate our friends or our neighbours. Yes, there were bad eggs here and there, but generally good people stayed clear of them, and that was that.
There was so much more to it. The trauma trail is very long. There was the centuries long influence of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the WW1, the WW2 & the breakup of the communism; The traumas that came with these were immeasurable. The whole history of the Balkans is so intricate and complex. It simply cannot be simplified into a worldwide acceptable short explanation or a media simplification to appease the general public.
The six countries should never have been put together to form Yugoslavia in the first place. There was too much oppression, suppression of people’s customs, religions, freedom and choices. Things would have exploded eventually anyway. We were six different “tribes” who were made to live together and who were made to accept and to conform to the same rules and customs. It was never going to work in the long term. If everyone was allowed to practice what they believed in, in freedom, then perhaps yes. But oppression always creates explosions.
Humans are roaming, adapting, expressive, migrating, questioning species. Realistically, we can’t be constrained to conform to extreme unrealistic rules that do not move with the times or match our aspirations or moral values. There will be leaders and there will be followers, but people need to be able to be free to be who they want to be, without having to fit a general mould.
The big move was when I started growing up too; when I learnt about the meaning of the word cautious.
The big move was when I started being bullied because of my family’s wealth, but even then, my mum would say to me: “Do you think that there might be something that you could change, in your behaviour? That you could be doing or saying wrong? They simply can’t all be wrong and only you right! Be careful, be cautious, but be open to compromise and acceptance.”
Even when people hurt me, she would try to be fair, to everyone.
She is still the same. She still tries to be fair to everyone. I love her so much.
“Live and let live. Love and let love.”