A POEM A DAY

We are still celebrating National Poetry Month in the States, and, as I promised my dear friend and an exceptional poet Susan, I’m taking a break from all my writing and current preoccupations in April so as to share some wonderfully provocative verses with you.

Of course, the intention behind action is what matters, and mine/ours is to inspire more people to read poetry more often, if not all the time. The more the better, that is if you want to look after your well-being. You see, I believe that poetry is among the healthiest foods for our heart and brain that can improve blood flow to both if consumed on a regular basis. Believe it or not, reading poems may help lower your blood pressure, keep your blood sugar levels steady and your skin glowing. Hm? Yes, yes, and so much more. It enhances your memory loss and focus, and boosts your immune system. Altogether, poetry is that magic pill which keeps the mind in tip-top shape, nourishes the soul and enables us to attain inner peace. Remember, a poem a day keeps the doctor away.

I would like to contribute to Poetry Month by drawing further attention to some bloggers I love who are equally good at poetry and prose: captivating Lou Rasmus and his Oranges and Metaphors and talented Michael P. Powers at Sketches from Berlin and his poem A Dryness Hollering Out for Death.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like us to go on reading Adrian Mitchell (1932 – 2008), who was first and foremost a ‘responsible poet,’ concerned with social and political issues of the day, which set him apart from his more tight-lipped contemporaries. Today, I give you two challenging poems of his which altered the conscience of English poetry:

 

SONG ABOUT MARY

Mary sat on a long brown bench
Reading Woman’s Own and She.
Then a slimy-haired nit with stripes on his collar
Said:“What’s the baby’s name to be?”

She looked across to Marks and Spencers
Through the dirty window pane,
“I think I’ll call him Jesus Christ,
It’s time he came again.”

The clerk he banged his ledger
And he called the Cruelty Man
Saying:“This bird thinks she’s the mother of Christ,
Do what you bleeding well can.”

They took Mary down to the country
And fed her on country air,
And they put the baby in a Christian home
And he’s much happier there.

For if Jesus came to Britain
He would turn its dizzy head.
They’d nail him up on a telegraph pole
Or he’d raise the poor from the dead.

So if you have a little baby
Make sure it’s a legitimate child,
Bind down his limbs with insurance and a mortgage
And he’ll grow up meek and mild.
Meek and mild.., meek and mild.., meek and mild.


 

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain,
Couldn’t find myself so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.
Made a marble phone book and I carved out all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains.
They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Where were you at the time of the crime?
Down by the Cenotaph drinking slime
So chain my tongue with whiskey
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out,
You take the human being and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
Chain my tongue with whiskey
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

POETRY MATTERS

Our lovely Susan recently reminded us that April is National Poetry Month in the States, inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. This month, I’m joining this unique celebration of poetry in hopes of inspiring more people to read and celebrate it throughout the year.

BTW, Susan’s outstanding poem Letches was shortlisted for IS&T Pick of the Month, so I’ll kindly ask you to read it and show how wonderfully supportive of one another we are by voting here until April 15.

Now, I would like to contribute to Poetry Month by drawing attention to some bloggers/poets I love besides Susan herself and magnificent Wulf she mentioned who are a must for serious poetry fans. If you love poetry or don’t but are open to new experiences, please check out these guys: Wilde Taylor at thereckoning and her poem Marrow, Silent Hour by Basilike Pappa, the poem How Demons Get their Wings, highwaybloggery by David Redpath, The Happiness Report, and Moonlit Pieces by Eli Kyoko and her Panic. Make sure you check out Morality Park too where you can find all four, and so much more.

I generally love poets who make me think and tackle controversial topics and social injustices, also using humor as a powerful weapon against oppressive forces. Ted Hughes described one of my favorite poets Adrian Mitchell (1932 – 2008) as “a voice as welcome as Lear’s fool… Humor that can stick deep and stay funny.” Today, I give you a statesman of literary protest and his thought-provoking:

 

A TOURIST GUIDE TO ENGLAND

Welcome to England!
England is a happy country.

Here is a happy English businessman.
Hating is money, he spends it all
On bibles for Cambodia
And charity to preserve
The Indian Cobra from extinction.

I’m sorry you can’t see our happy coal-miners.
Listen hard and you can hear them
Singing Welsh hymns far underground.
Oh. The singing seems to have stopped.

No, that is not Saint Francis of Assisi.
That is a happy English policeman.
Here is a happy black man.
No, it is not illegal to be black. Not yet.

Here are the slums.
They are preserved as a tourist attraction.
Here is a happy slum-dweller.
Hello, slum-dweller!
No, his answer is impossible to translate.

Here are some happy English schoolchildren.
See John. See Susan. See Mike.
They are studying for their examinations.
Study, children, study!
John will get his O-Levels
And a O-Level job and an O-Level house and a O-Level wife.

Susan will get her A-Levels
And a A-Level job and a A-Level house and a A-Level husband.

Mike will fail.

Here are some happy English soldiers.
They are going to make the Irish happy.
No, please understand.
We understand the Irish
Because we’ve been sending soldiers to Ireland
For hundreds and hundreds of years.

First we tried to educate them
With religion, famine and swords.
But the Irish were slow to learn.
Then we tried to educate them
With reason, poverty and unemployment.

They became silent, sullen, violent.
So now we are trying to educate them
With truncheons, gas, ribber bullets,
Steel bullets, internment and torture.

We are trying to teach the Irish
To be as happy as us.
So please understand us
And if your country
Should be forced to educate
Another country in the same way,
Or your own citizens in the same way –
We will try to understand you.

YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY

The 1990s were the time of an unstable political situation in Serbia, heavy economic and political sanctions enforced by the international community, hyperinflation, a large decline in production and employment, a public health crisis, a huge impoverishment of the population, and an influx of over 850,000 forced migrants (refugees and internally displaced persons), which inevitably put a strain on people’s nerves. It was difficult to say no to negativity that sucked many a man dry so the fact that quite a few lost their raison d’etre came as no surprise. A total of 300,000 young educated people emigrated from Serbia during the first two war years, whereas as many as 16,620 took their own life in the war-torn 90s, with the highest number of suicides occurring at the time of the culmination of the crisis connected to the disintegration of Yugoslavia (1991-1993) (source: ResearchGate).

Back then, people were lucky not to starve to death thanks to food obtained from rural households. In addition, our moms and grandmas were constantly making home-made bread. In times of crisis, people learn to be resourceful to survive. The 1990s in the Republic of Serbia provided favorable grounds for a great number of illegal businesses or activities conducted in the so-called gray economic area. The smuggling of wardrobe, cosmetics and canned food from neighboring Romania and Bulgaria was flourishing. I remember some strange soaps, and toothpastes we used and awful canned fish we ate all the time. Gasoline purchased from across the border was obtained in plastic bottles or 2.5/5GL (10/20L) containers in the streets. Although there was no legal import of cigarettes during the embargo, a market of low-quality and fake cigarettes, alcohol, and various street drugs took its place. Of course, smugglers and dealers made a big profit. The sanctions also affected industry greatly with numerous companies recording tremendous losses, which resulted in mass layoffs. Who didn’t dare to smuggle or wouldn’t buy smuggled goods could not survive, so the violation of the law became justified.

One of the features of the time was a specific way of conducting cash exchange operations. Black market currency trading was prevalent, cash being mainly exchanged by street dealers who handled large amounts of money. Basically, they would purchase foreign currency in banks at the official exchange rate and then sell it at a significantly higher one, thereby earning large sums of money. Citizens were not only content for obtaining more money but, more importantly, preventing it from losing value because of being transferred into foreign currency on time, mostly Deutschmark (DM). In 1993, the German mark was worth a thousand billion dinars on the black market and practically became the only means of payment.

The U.N. embargo on the import of weapons was applied to all opposing sides in the war. However, this did not represent much of a problem since the civil war in Yugoslavia drew an extensive network of arms depots already in the country. According to a State Department official, the Yugoslav military was probably the best armed in Europe, aside from the Soviet Red Army. Before the fighting erupted, our arms industry had produced most of the Yugoslav military’s weapons and was also one of the top world’s arms exporters. Furthermore, the conflict proved a magnet for the world’s shadowy arms dealers, with a weapons flow difficult to trace (source: The New York Times). Needless to say, organized crime in Serbia grew enormously during the collapse of Yugoslavia when local criminals plying their trade in Western Europe returned home to take advantage of the chaos.

Stability, certainty and comfort seemed to have belonged to the past, while archetypal heroes – honest, hard-working and noble people – were seldom held in high regard. The never-ending war, financial and existential crises were accompanied by the crisis of morality and values, creating new heroes to be imitated and looked up to, along with new ethics and rules of conduct. Not rarely, the meaning of life was radically redefined and a new reason for existing found. Before long, antiheroes, embodied in crackheads, loafers and lowlifes, became new role models for the young. The reality their parents were facing was harsh and the choice between being an outsider or joining the new elite and its values seemed an easy one for some.

Plenty of felons took part in wars, joining paramilitary forces. Both big shots and small time crooks earned a reputation as scavengers, feeding on people’s material possessions and confiscating everything left behind by those who had to leave their homes in Bosnia and Croatia. In spite of this, the members of the criminal underworld were frequently perceived as tough and uncompromising people, ready to get to grips with a terrifying reality. I’ve read an amazing research paper called ‘Social Context and the Rise of Antiheroes’ in which a sociologist and a criminologist with expertise in social psychology ‘analyze the development of social heroes, as well as the substance, functions and dichotomies of heroism’ in Serbia in the 90s. In their opinion, in times of crisis, people often turn to biologically powerful individuals who are believed to be able to survive in difficult times. It is to be expected, they explain, that we then do not admire poets but warriors who are able to defeat the enemy, be it internal or external ones (the neighboring peoples). In the absence of a legal state and rule of law, tribal perceptions of justice were reanimated. The overwhelming feeling of disappointment and powerlessness pushed people towards the mythical and imagined, romanticizing criminals and turning the negative hero into a constructive social one. Their anti-heroism was thus perceived as a lack of respect for the given reality, and ‘a rebellion against the deficiencies of the existing system.’ They were ‘our’ protectors from ‘the others,’ fighters against evil and social injustice, defenders of raison d’état, and patriots ‘bleeding for the common good. Rebels with a cause.’

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During their ‘heroism’ in Bosnia and Croatia, mobsters continued with intense criminal activities in Serbia, buying real estate, coffee shops, nightclubs, restaurants, etc. from the money they ‘earned.’ I don’t think they questioned anything; they just followed their instincts that were obviously telling them to steal and kill so as to indulge in all worldly pleasures at disposal. What frustrated decent people most was the fact that lawbreakers were given the status and reputation of national heroes. They understood the importance of the media very early, having a great deal of journalists on their side to glorify them; therefore, each had a carefully built image. Our ears were filled with their commitment to sport, attractiveness, discipline, dedication to family, Orthodox Christianity and tradition; we listened about invulnerable, unstoppable, unbeatable and uncatchable guys to whom cunning came as second nature. Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the intention of the state to divert people’s attention from the real problems. Stories of gruesome crimes were replaced by odes to successful businessmen and ‘savers of the people.’ The national television spoke the language of soap operas day in day out. At the same time, they were ‘a prodigious and attractive consumer model that at the time of general scarcity had the image of success and dictated trends.’ A portrayal of bad taste at its best.

Needless to say, nationalism was extensively used by the political elite in Serbia in order to justify the widespread conflict and maintain absolute power. Furthermore, the political and state leaders utilized the chaos in the national economy for the ruthless theft, ripping the state-owned enterprises to shreds. ‘The beginning of privatization practically represented the legalized form of illegal enrichment of the privileged managerial lobby and the political and economic elite.’ Economic inequality was already visible in the second half of the 80s, while the gap between the rich and the poor skyrocketed to extreme levels in the early 90s. Both vieux and nouveau riche used financial hanky-panky and illegal distribution of humanitarian aid, military, and military medical supplies, opening offshore bank accounts in tax havens. Many ‘reputable’ business people became filthy rich upon stepping out of state-owned enterprises and founding their own companies, along with entering politics which additionally secured their position, and guaranteed the continued pursuit of personal interests.

With crime booming, lots of illegal weapons were in the streets, brought from the war by organized crime groups, involved in gunfights, robberies, aggravated assaults, kidnappings and liquidations. 90s Serbia witnessed thousands of brutal killings, with culprits and controversial businessmen dropping like flies. On top of it, numerous government officials were assassinated. Journalists too, despite the fact that some were under police surveillance at the time. Everybody who dared to unmask a connection between organized crime and the authorities, or expose corruption in judiciary and law enforcement was proclaimed a national traitor, not rarely suffering abduction, threat, torture and/or assassination. None of these murders were ever resolved, nor were the perpetrators captured. Once ‘the safest city in Europe,’ Belgrade became a city with the most unsolved murder, fraud and embezzlement cases.

People were desperate and needed to believe in something, which made them an easy target for innumerable scumbags and cheaters that appeared in the 90s, and spread like an epidemic. Namely, psychics, mediums and fortune tellers were constantly occupying the media, robbing people of their money and dignity. Unbelievable supernatural powers they were thought to possess were demonstrated using various cards, pendulums, beans or crystal balls. The majority of citizens were making ends meet. They were hopeless, frustrated, vulnerable and susceptible to deception and the promise of a future full of hope too tempting. While the Serbian economy was dying away, and the existing banks experiencing widespread closing, an assurance that better days lay ahead was embodied in two energetic middle-aged individuals, and directors of private banks, founded in ‘91/’92. They offered a stupendous return for money: 15% on a 30-day deposit of foreign currency such as German marks or US dollars, 280% on a 6-month deposit of Serbian dinars. One such bank was at one point offering 160% interest rate per month. Serbia was thrown into a savings frenzy.

A sad realization that banks were set up by opportunistic criminals supported by the state and President Milošević himself came too late. People were losing it. We can’t blame them. It’s easy to be smart now on a full stomach. The government needed to fund the foreign trade deficit and that’s why such crooks were invented. Some citizens invested as much as 100,000DM; however, when bankruptcy was announced, they had to say goodbye to their money. Many a man who fell for the fraudulent banks were left homeless. Billions of German marks were coaxed out of the people’s mattresses in less than 2 years. The state started returning the debt to the deceived in 2002, the process lasting until 2016. Only a small sum of money was found after the bankruptcy. It was never determined where the rest of the money ended up.

In 1994, almost 40% of the population in Serbia were below the poverty line. The unrestricted printing of money was stopped that year but the consequences of the disastrous economic policy were visible many years afterwards. The Dayton Peace Agreement, reached in November that year by the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, helped bring the war to an end. I graduated from high school the following year. I was 18 and full of hope.

POETIC JUSTICE

There are problems that challenge our ingenuity. There are events that challenge our attention. There are people that challenge our beliefs. And then, there is art that challenges the imagination, touches the heart and engages the brain.

It started with a challenge set up by Brooke who dared Tom to upset the universe by inviting him to take part in a poetry game. Both earthquakes brought about by their poems resulted in damage of varying severity with violent shaking extending to far-off locations. The ground shaking is expected to cause landslides, and avalanches in days and weeks to come. The cup was then passed to Wulf whose poem was felt across great distances, apparently thousands of miles from the epicenter. The ground opened up and there were numerous instances of severe injuries after people had fallen into fiery pits. He then passed it to Susan whose poem led to a deadly quake, with a warning made only minutes before it struck, causing total destruction and most likely permanent changes in ground topography. The cup, one of the lucky few survivors, was passed to me yesterday evening. I’m still wondering how I made it.

I am honored beyond words to have been chosen to join this wonderfully unique tribe. I like big challenges and they rarely come much bigger than this. You set a high bar, my dear friends. Please take into account the fact that I was in junior high when I first attempted at writing poetry. Needless to say, this is when my endeavor to be something I was not ended.

Anyway, this is my first poem ever since. So, be gentle.

Let’s challenge the rapids together, my fellow rafters, shall me?


 

WHERE I’M FROM

I am from witches. I am from bitches
I am from demons. I am from ghosts
from cockroaches and from moths
from snakes and from dragons
from seraphims with flagons
I.AM.

I am from water and from flights
from eastern darkness and southern light
from northern distance and western might
from betrayals and from trusts.
I am from smiles and from frowns
from flaws and from scars
of perseverance and wishful thinking I am composed
I wish, I wish…
of non-perfection. I.AM.

Once upon a time, I was killed from the air.
Big Daddy’s whim.
An attack with a knack by someone with a flair for external decorating
someone who didn’t care about fellow Earthlings in a kingdom far far away
you’re not my masters nor the heirs to the throne of the world
you who blare up in the air, paired up with like-minded spirits. Beware, for
you’re just numbers for many out there. We shall all die one day.
Despair no more. We’re square.

I was stuck with a needle, I was tied to the bed
I lost my head (too much to mention)
aching, I said,
I need a med
I bled, I shrank, a shadow of my former self
oftentimes I fled (too much unsaid)…
Until one day I saw a flickering light ahead
and thought: ‘Drop dead!’
I’m off to get some French bread.

I’ve traveled afar, but
was out of range and out of reach
out of touch
away and apart, broken asunder, disjointed, disconnected, split in half, torn to shreds.
Touched by new friends. Strangers once. Skinheads for all I care.

I am from my son, from my women and my men,
from a profound silence, a profound chasm,
from profound sleep awoken
A profound thinker who renounced reason (sees no treason)
howling at the Moon. The rooster going cook-a-doodle-doo!
at the crack of dawn, ah bon?

I’ve dived to the ocean depths and aspired to great heights
I’ve touched the bottom
I’ve reached for the stars
I am not from here, I am not from there
I’ve seen paradise and been through hell.

I am from connections, separations
taking action to desperation
I am recollections. I am retrospections;
from equations to tax evasions
from elections, masturbation;
invaded, misdirected.
I am the stroke of a pendulum repeated in a back-and-forth motion.
A request I am
Redirected to a different department.
I am confessions over coffee
From a connection to an obsession
One Direction
One Conviction
A black Caucasian with a Persuasion. I.AM.I
who cries

Fuck colonialism, imperialism, absolutism, fascism, nationalism, radicalism, terrorism
Fuck racism, sexism, immoralism, determinism, egoism, ageism, heterosexism, classism, ethnocentrism, plagiarism, hypothyroidism and veganism
Fuck communism, fuck capitalism
Fuck ME baby, please fuck me! (Oh, fucking hell!)
Hail altruism, pacifism, humanitarianism, criticism, hedonism, onanism, conceptualism, if you will.
Atheism or deism? (If God were a DJ)

I am from sensibility to utter nonsense
from the utter limit, I utter a growl. I utter a ‘no.’
Utter bliss. I see an utter fool that is me.
Utterly in love with words. In love with the silence.
In love with the absence, in love with the presence.
In love with the Sun, over the moon.

I am yours but don’t fucking belong to you
I am myself, and you are too.


 

Aftershock…after aftershock…after aftershock. The ground is weak and giddy long after a sequence of strong earthquakes prompted by their poetry. So far, it has been shaken by an idealist, a visionary, a romantic, a philosopher, and a realist/wishful thinker.

It’s my turn now to pass the cup to the next poet. I spy with my little eye…..(I can feel seismic waves traveling through the Earth already)…

… a star-gazer.

Everyone’s a story, born, unfinished. What’s yours Tanya?

WELCOME TO ABSURDISTAN

No hypnosis is required this time. I still have a pulsating feeling of a heartbeat in my head at the very thought of the good old 90s in Serbia. It all started a little earlier though, late President Tito being undoubtedly responsible for many successes and failures of socialist Yugoslavia. Some bad choices he made led to the prolongation of the crisis that appeared in the 80s, along with the appearance of radical ideologies, ultimately resulting in war.

The 90s tested our survival skills day in day out. People must have wondered at some point how much more a human could take, how much more of humiliation, mental and/or physical starvation, deprivation, destruction, impoverishment, helplessness and the damaging lack of happiness. Demanding time. Children were robbed of their childhood, adults and elderly of their dignity. We were all robbed of our lives. It was as if someone had turned off the light, and left us groping in the dark. The world didn’t give half a fuck. Nor did God for that matter. After all we went through, I am sure he either doesn’t exist or is an indifferent asshole. Actually, he’s a phony, just another superstar who demands all of our attention, otherwise he wouldn’t exist. Still, in times of crisis, people often resort to the supreme being and we were no exception. Everybody suddenly turned so religious like you wouldn’t believe and started going to church on a regular basis. However, there came a time when quite a few realized God had failed to appear on time nor would he meet them at the after-party to at least apologize and that they were left to their own devices.

An extreme environment contains conditions that are hard to survive for most known life forms. We’re prone to thinking that most people would die if for example left in the desert. However, the will to go on, despite the odds, is an important concept when attempting to comprehend why we do what we do to keep our head above water for as long as we can. Still, I can’t help but wonder how the heck we pulled through, how on earth our parents coped with difficulties and stress, and how in the world we found a meaning in overwhelming meaninglessness. We are often told, loud and clear, what to do in an emergency. Recommended survival essentials for a short-length wilderness situation includes a lighter, matches, a flashlight with extra batteries, a multi-tool, a fixed-blade knife, a hatchet, a whistle, a blanket, extra warm clothing and a map of location. But, nobody has to date come up with a good First Aid Kit in times of war. Nobody could have prepared us for the brutal bloodshed fueled by ethnic and religious antagonisms and disappearance of the country we were about to witness, along with everything we had believed in. Nobody could have advised us how to avoid the hell you were about to live in as a consequence of war. The thing is, we made do and since we couldn’t make the crisis with all its absurdities disappear, what we mostly did was try to make our lives more bearable.

Not sure what to include on your war survival gear list?

For starters, remarkable resourcefulness and flexibility to handle change. Secondly, creativity and good humor. Next, steadiness, sobriety and courage. Then, you want to be sure you have enough perseverance and determination (there’s no giving up no matter what). Finally, having redundancy is also a wise approach. So, the more inventiveness, adaptability, endurance, nerve, and sarcasm, the better. You might lose self-esteem and dignity along the way, but as long as you can laugh at it all (sooner or later), you’re good. You know what they say, you can find bargains if you have the patience to sift through the rubbish.

As the world was crashing down around us, my pals and I were trying to lead a relatively normal teen life. Our parents didn’t like us watching TV which broadcast the war live, preferring we listened to a sweet sound of ignorance. But, we knew. We used to sing anti-war songs all the time and one of the best ways to vent out the frustrations, sadness, and anger was picking a dark enough street where we would yell at the top of our lungs till the lights started turning on. (Being an adult makes it too damn hard to blow off steam every time you feel like it. Where’s a good Lola when we need one?)

We had a need, a need for speed. We were growing up and wanted it all: smoking, loud music, house parties, no adult supervision, guitar nights, dark school yards, sleeping under the stars, upstairs rooms, day trips, sleepovers. Bukowski, Fear of Flying and Joyce’s Letters to Nora (‘Tired of lying under a man one night you tore off your chemise violently and began to ride me up and down. Perhaps the horn I had was not big enough for you for I remember that you bent down to my face and murmured tenderly: Fuck up, love! Fuck up love’). Friends with benefits, gatecrashing, dance floors, hitchhiking, music TVs, panhandling for money (just for laughs…and coffee), alcohol consumption, gigs, excessive drinking, drunken driving (not me, Scout’s honor), clearing up the next day, avoiding responsibility, skipping school with peers/ boy-girl-friends, craving more freedom and independence, craving love. A bittersweet symphony. The worst and best time ever.

Years of wars in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, with Serbia actively participating in them, affected our everyday lives enormously. A CIA assessment on the sanctions filed in 1993 noted that ‘Serbs have become accustomed to periodical shortages, long lines in stores, cold homes in the winter and restrictions on electricity.’ Like we had a choice. That’s true, we got so used to deficiencies in everything that we no longer found anything strange. We were practically best friends, the crisis and us. It became our shadow, following us everywhere we went.

The fun part began when the UN Security Council, declaring the Yugoslav conflict ‘a threat to international peace and security,’ imposed tough economic sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro in June ‘92 ‘in hopes of halting the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ (13-0 vote, with Zimbabwe and China abstaining. Thanks guys, much appreciated). In 1994, The New York Times reported that suicide rates had increased by 22% since sanctions were first implemented. The embargo lasted for two and a half years and had a huge impact on the economy, poverty reaching its peak in ‘93, with, according to Wikipedia, ‘39% of the population living on less than $2 per day.’ This is a sure proof why we can’t always trust Wiki. Guys, I think you got mixed up here. At one point, my dad, once earning 2000 DM (Deutschmark), was making 2 DM PER MONTH (per day would be considered living in abundance). My mom was even more successful, some 1-1.5 DM. BTW, both were medical doctors. In addition to our wallets getting thinner, diplomatic missions were reduced, and foreign assets frozen ($214 million in the U.S. alone), but, frankly, an average citizen didn’t give a rat’s ass about the latter two. We were more frustrated by the fact that our teams weren’t allowed to participate in sporting events. Sport and politics, best friends, huh?

Then, there was the suspension of air traffic (even though most people had no money for bare necessities, let alone travel) and ‘a ban on trade of all but humanitarian supplies.’ How very thoughtful! Even medicinal supplies in hospitals experienced shortages in antibiotics, vaccines, and anti-cancer drugs. ‘In Nov 1994, 87 patients died in Belgrade’s Institute of Mental Health, which had no heating, food, and medicine.’ We could neither import nor export goods. The bottom line is, the crisis took its toll on our everyday diet. You know how it looked like in reality? You go to buy a chocolate but alas! There’s nada. Zilch. Supermarket racks became empty over night, no chocolate, no bananas, no nothing. Wishful thinking. We dreamed of chocolate sundaes (with a cherry on top) and banana splits we had been devouring a couple of yeas before. Meat had also become a rare commodity on the table and I can tell you one thing, being a carnivore in Serbia back then was pretty painful. In addition, we had to deal with massive food shortages on a daily basis. ‘Many basic, locally produced foods became unavailable as food retailers severely limited their stock to save it from depreciation caused by hyperinflation.’ The fridges and tummies were empty. I remember waiting in long lines, senior citizens fighting, desperate parents and bewildered children. Waiting was bad enough, but ending up empty-handed was a killer. Coffee became a rare commodity (sob sob). There was a limited stock even of basic foods, such as sugar, flour, bread, cooking oil, and milk, which were rather hard to obtain. The allowed daily quantity was one loaf of bread or bottle of milk per person. Now, I want you to picture an extended family with lots of mouths to feed. Just so you know, Serbs LOVE bread. This really came as a slap in the face. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But, when it gives you peanuts, you can’t even make peanut butter, can you? Desperate time calls for desperate measures so our moms resorted to unconventionality and originality in times of crisis, that is making something out of nothing or hardly anything. Flour, baking soda, sugar, water, oil, and marmalade (or grated apples). Stir and bake. This was the infamous embargo cake and positive thinking for that matter.

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There’s more. In October 1993, in an attempt to conserve energy, the government began cutting off the heat and electricity. You would eat cooked meal not when you wanted to or when hungry, but when the stove was fully operational. Lucky were those who had good old wood burners which were real life savers at the time. Cold apartments, cold hospitals, cold schools, cold fingers and cold toes. Coldness made our bones ache and it sometimes took ages to warm up from being frozen (how long do you think it takes for the chicken to thaw out?) One of the best ways to raise temperature was partying in unfinished houses, half-completed attics or unheated basements and spooning with your significant other or whoever appeared to be nearby. At school, we’d bundle up in tons of layers when the bad weather set in. We rarely took off our hats, scarves, gloves and jackets inside, which was an excellent excuse for skipping classes and avoiding assignments more regularly. Studying by candle light was unproductive, and a complete and utter waste of time, since we we would always end up playing with candle wax or smooching under a blanket, that is the lucky ones who had a cuddling buddy during cold, snowy winters.

The import of cigarettes came to a halt too. Needless to say, everybody was smoking, young and old, though some didn’t find it so agreeable. It’s called going with the flow. In the absence of the real thing, we started smoking grass. By that I don’t mean weed, but dry grass, hay. True story (cross my heart and hope to die). Desperate time calls for…Remember?! In addition, international sanctions included oil and gas restrictions (would you kindly go fuck yourselves) and at one point people looked like they wanted to give up on everything when gasoline stations stopped providing fuel. Episodes of compulsive hair pulling were noticed as a way of soothing or to focus on a different type of pain, since no driving is not an option in Serbia. The citizens then turned to regular exercise – walking, running, cycling – thinking to themselves: ‘Well, as long as we profit by the crap we didn’t cause, then it’s not that bad, right?’ hoping that daily workouts might slash their risk of developing serious illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and strokes. A 55-year-old man was reported to have been seen on his (that is my) bike (dad, you’re stealing again), on his regular commute cycling tours (37miles/ 60km a day). Way to go dad, that’s the way to stay fit. Happy 81st birthday!

Wait up, we’re not done yet. A total of 10 million people were injured after a roller-coaster had derailed and crashed on our currency at the Serbian and Montenegrin theme park, causing a massive monetary tsunami. One eyewitness said: ‘I saw lots of people trapped upside down on the ride, stuck. It’s like a horror movie.’ However, the amusement park was not closed. Life went on. The hyperinflation of the Yugoslav dinar felt like being thrown backwards by the blast, with the dinar recording a monthly inflation rate of 313 million% in January ’94 and reaching a crescendo when it came to a staggering 5,578,000,000,000,000,000% (let me help you with the pronunciation: 5 quintrillion, 578 quadrillion). This makes our baby ‘the second-highest and second-longest hyperinflation in world history, 4 orders of magnitude higher than the Weimar hyperinflation, but well below Hungary’s record’ (source: CATO Institute). Basically, the state budget needed money and turned to the National Bank that supplied it with cash, used to finance the salaries in the state administration and the army, as well as to cover all military expenses. The money was, however, worthless since there was no production behind it. The inflation was so out of control that the price of supermarket products (when available) would increase twice every 34 hours. The salary was received in billions of dinars, and for one say 5 billion dinar salary, you could buy bread, cigarettes, and oil, that is only bread the next day. In ‘93, a loaf of bread cost 4 billion dinars, and a bottle of milk 9.5 billion. Head-scratching, right?

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Let me give you a visual. My mom has her mind set on making the embargo cake. She gives me her whole salary to buy her baking powder, but there are so many banknotes that I need a plastic bag. Unless I hurry up, our cake will be eaten up by the high inflation, instead of us. I dash into the store, feeling the quick pant of my bosom. The cashier shrugs her shoulders. I’m afraid you’re too late. The prices have already gone up. I’m staring at the transparent bag filled with millions of dinars. The irony of fate: I’m a fucking multimillionaire stranded on a desert island in the middle of nowhere who can’t buy herself some happiness. Is all hope lost? No, I can still afford a box of matches. The Little Match Girl leaves the store, laughing off the thought life’s a bitch. Today’s special: nothing brûlée.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

Bojana, are you ready to go on? Alright.

I want you to focus again and try to remember everything, even things you forgot, wanted to forget and think you don’t remember. You limbs are getting heavy…heavier. It feels as if your hands and fingers were made of lead…You are sinking into perfect relaxation. I’ll count backwards now. 10, 9, 8…Inhale. Exhale.7….deeper still…6…let it all go now…5. Still drifting down…4, 3, 2…You feel this heavy relaxation in all parts of your body…deep and misty…Allow yourself to relax. Open your mind and your heart. Unburden…1.

Tell me what is going on.

 

It’s Sunday afternoon, May 4, 1980 and we’re enjoying our weekend. The TV screen goes black for a few seconds. A statement is read live on national TV:

Comrade Tito has died. His great heart stopped beating at 3:05 PM.’

I’m 3. ‘Mom, why are you crying? Mom, don’t be sad. Is it me? Did I do something wrong?’ I’m too little to understand, too little to remember. Scenes of mass crying in the streets and during the live broadcast of a soccer match. The whole country is mourning Tito’s demise, expressing numbed disbelief and promising to remain loyal to his policy. He is buried in Belgrade, Serbia, in the House of Flowers a few days later, in the presence of 209 delegations from 127 countries, 700,000 people and a direct television broadcast of the funeral procession in 58 states. Tito’s funeral is noted as the most attended presidential funeral in the history of mankind to that time. To date, 17.5 million people have visited the Mausoleum.

Tito’s regime outlives him by as many as 10 years. An average Yugoslav lives in blissful ignorance throughout the 80s, that is the one who has a job. Life is comfortable. My family travels a lot: France, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt. Little do we know that in a few years from now everything will fall apart. No one sees an economic collapse and civil unrest on the horizon. Nobody could have predicted such a downfall, really.

The mid 80s are challenging time for a country poising precariously between economic welfare and social catastrophe. Yugoslavia is falling into heavy IMF debt due to the large number of loans taken out by the regime. Another concern is the unemployment rate, severely aggravating in the second half of the decade.  Self-management ultimately drops the ball by the end of the 80s because of its bureaucratic degeneration and authoritarian political structure, where the seemingly autonomous working class has always played second fiddle to strong leaders, accepting their decisions uncritically. Basically, CEOs have been responsible to higher CEOs, instead of workers’ councils, and have as a rule had strong political ties. Knowing that the party has been god of all gods there, I’m sure you get the picture. What is more, after Tito’s death, political elites promote the idea of republican or ethnic working classes, as opposed to the united Yugoslav working class advocated by the late president. In other words, republics and autonomous provinces favorize their own working class by for example giving their workers inordinate wage increases, which creates even a bigger gap between the more developed and underdeveloped republics. The regional inequalities result in an economic crisis which further leads to a deterioration of the living standard. Let me put it into perspective for you. The scope of work is decreasing, companies are becoming insolvent, low wages, unsteady paychecks, lower wages, minimum wages, no paychecks AT ALL, millions are behind on bills, workers’ motivation is non-existent, work discipline zero, efficiency fictional. The outcome: the end of the movie for self-management. It was nice while it lasted. Two thumbs up for workers’ councils that survived for 40 years. Wow. Honestly. No kidding. I guess it would have been too much to ask…

However, there’s another problem. Besides the financial crisis, there’s also the crisis of system legitimacy after Tito’s death, with the long-simmering revival of nationalism coming to a boil by the end of the 80s. The introduction of self-management and decentralization was meant to encourage the liberalization and democratization of the mutual space. However, market competition turned the companies and republics into competitors, which then made republics’ party oligarchies act first as the guardians of republic interests and then the nationalist ones in the 80s.

With Tito’s death, Yugoslavia’s 6 constituent republics gain more autonomy, with a rotating presidency. The main issues troubling the elites in the post-Tito era turn primarily into a Serbian-Slovenian debate, marked by a growing divergence in the ‘national question.’ Confusing time. Before long, the fragile union he held together starts to unravel. The forces of nationalism he kept under control are unleashed, culminating in a brutal three-sided civil war hard to imagine in 20th century Europe. The outbreak of nationalism is followed by the awakening of patriarchal values, as is often the case. Surely there are civil initiatives, organizations and groups in all republics warning of the rapid militarization of society, nationalist mobilization and consequences they might have. Unfortunately, none of these anti-war movements is strong enough to prevent or stop the war. The end result: over 100,000 people killed (and God knows how many missing), 2 million driven from their homes, and Yugoslavia disintegrated.

The Croats and Slovenes, always reserved about Yugoslav unity, decide to secede. The latter try to avoid warfare, suggesting a plan for a loosely united country, based on the Swiss model of independent yet confederated cantons. The proposal is however turned down by other parties wanting full autonomy. Slovenia is the first Yugoslav republic to hold multi-party elections in the spring of 1990, which comes as no surprise. It is the most western-oriented, prosperous and ethnically homogeneous. Tensions are growing. The future of the country is at stake. We are cool…or just pretending. I’m an 8th grader about to take the grammar school entrance exam in Serbian (easy peasy) and math (ouch). My parents are panic-stricken and worried about my future. She’ll never make it. She sucks. Yeah, I know. But I’m cool (for real, not pretending). I rarely study.

Croatia is next to request more autonomy. First armed incidents begin, with open hostilities escalating in the majority-Serb populated areas in March/April 1991. Practice questions and tests, exam registration information, FAQs, tips, prep books, workbooks, study guides…not for me though, for my sister. She’s ready (read: if she’s ready, I’m ready too). I walk into the big room full of students and teachers, cool as ice. A kick-ass cheater, Tito’s school. Slovenia declares independence on June 25, 1991. Belgrade sends the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to take control of its borders with Italy and Austria. Fighting breaks out on June 27, which will last 10 days. A total of 47 JNA soldiers are killed, aged between 18 and 22 from all the ethnic groups of Yugoslavia. The whole nation is shocked. I pass the exam with honors by applying the infamous partner (sister)-cheating method, that is copying down the answers sissy wrote on a ruler, and disposing of the evidence without getting caught. I’m shocked. I knew I’d pass but never thought my test scores would show such brilliant performance. I’m 14 and happy. I’ve got a crush on an out-of-towner. In September, the Republic of Macedonia gains its independence from Yugoslavia. My freshman year in high school may officially begin.

As violence erupts in Slovenia and Croatia, predominately Muslim Bosnia and Herzegovina (43% of the population) is ominously quiet until the fall of ‘91, when President Izetbegović starts to pursue independence. Bosnian Serbs (31%) oppose, creating their own ‘state’ and enjoying military support of Serbian President Milošević and JNA. The stage for a bloody secession is set. On the first school day, I sit down at a random empty desk in the third row by the window, where I remain till the end of high school. By the time I become a senior, it’ll be full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone but me.

The methods used by Croatian President Tuđman are extreme, invoking the spirit of the fascist and ultra-nationalist past. Its more than half-million Serb residents see the writing on the wall and begin to rise up, declaring independence from Croatia. JNA, now dominated by Serbs, sweeps in to put down the Croat rebellion and keep the nation together. The standoff lasts from 1991 to 1995, throughout my high school, and is full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone to date, let alone me. The now well-equipped Croatian army retakes the Serb-occupied areas in two offensives, retaliating for earlier ethnic cleansing by doing pretty much the same: torturing and murdering people, and destroying their homes. Scenes of warplanes opening fire on refugees. An eye for an eye. Most of remaining 300,000 Croatian Serbs, many of whom have been killed, are forced into Serbia. Up to now, few have returned. Croatia immediately establishes the borders that exist today.

In spring 1992, the Serb take control of a strip of Muslim-majority towns, also invading numerous mixed-ethnicity towns and villages, executing, and arresting thousands of Bosniaks and Croats (17% of the population), many of whom are taken to concentration or rape camps, while the remaining ones are forced to leave their homes. Bosnia, with its gruesome attacks and unthinkable atrocities, is torn apart, along with many families forced to choose sides. Absurd time. I now live in the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, created from the two remaining federal republics of Yugoslavia after its breakup in ‘92. Cut-off phone lines between post-Yugoslav republics become an everyday reality. The best is yet to come. In the beginning, Bosniaks and Croats fight together against Serbs but, once tensions increase, the former allies engage in open conflict. There’s the so-called Croat–Bosniak war, or ‘war within a war,’ part of the larger Bosnian war, lasting from Oct 1992 to Feb 1994. Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Violent time.

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My generation is coming of age, watching the war live in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, with its unspeakable cruelties, monstrosities, sieges, shelling, mass murders, mass rapes, mass graves, attacks and counter-attacks, led by regular and paramilitary armies, with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, displaced and disappeared on all three sides. The world loathes it, the world is disgusted, the world is watching in discomfort, the world condemns it. The world is sending over ‘the Smurfs’ (UN Protection Force). They have the best seats in the theater, sitting in the first row. They are watching. The world pays no mind.

We’re boisterous, feisty and tough, my friends and me, or just play tough. We don’t suck up to upperclassmen. We’re no underdogs. We’re the intolerant and contemptuous ones. There are no cuties to crush on either so we might as well hate their guts. Eventually, we decide to pursue a middle way. We’re sort of on speaking terms, but I can’t say we’re friends either. Befriending refugees with a suitcase full of memories. We hate rules and being told what to do. We hate things that are compulsory. We defy authority. The principal’s a jerk. Teachers too (with a couple of exceptions). Many look down on us, so how can we look up to them?! We are smartasses with superior intellect, perception and wit, beating them so easily that it hurts.

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No one gets suspended or expelled. It’s not that kind of school. There’s nothing much they can do, which annoys the hell out of them. We’re unbearable. When a teacher starts asking too many questions, we sneak off for a quick grope in one of the empty classrooms on the 3rd floor. Experimental time sharing. The remains of soldiers are shipped like parcels back home on a daily basis. When we’re bored or restless, we play hooky. We hate kissasses. Currying favor with teachers is a big no-no, inconsistency, reluctance and fear being punished in not so subtle ways. Truancy is always intentional, though unjustified, and unauthorized. So, we show up every now and then, which in our world means attending school but not going to class that often. Skipping. Yes, we stay away from school without explanation (or with a lousy one), we are absent without permission, we shirk work, and evade duty. I study only the things I’m interested it, in which case I’m enthusiastic, pro-active, resourceful, detailed, alert, studious, meticulous and nerdy. I dodge the stuff I find utterly unappealing and pointless for that matter, in which case I’m idle, lazy, sluggish, passive and neglectful. I’m pretty good at it. Packed orphanages and shabby refugee centers wherever you turn. I don’t move in a girl pack only nor do I need at least two besties with me at all times when entering the school, going to the bathroom, or walking to class. We attend funerals, walk behind coffins and listen to funerals speeches, saying a last goodbye to those killed in war, ‘too young to reason and too grown up to dream.’ I shave my head, and have different-colored socks on, along with my grandpa’s funky ties which I love cutting off. I wear a Sex Pistols sweatshirt/T-shirt, cuffed pants or worn out jeans with frayed edges and big holes at the knee and black boots that I never ever take off.

Ethnic hatred grows as various incidents fuel the powerful propaganda machines on all three sides. We’re told who to love, and who to hate. We live in a black and white world in which we’re the good guys fighting the bad ones, that is evil incarnate. Our religion is better than theirs. ‘Our flag is the embodiment of history,’ and OUR leaders the epitome of courage, determination, commitment, principle and vigor. By contrast, THEY are the personification of omnimalevolence: their politicians, their soldiers, their citizens, their males and females, their children, their dogs. Confusing time. 18-year-olds are drafted into the army in the middle of the night and transported to war zones like cattle in trucks to fight for ‘our cause.’ On our way to school and back, my girlfriends and I touch each other’s breasts and send them kisses, waving hello and goodbye, and we can’t help but wonder if that’s the first and last time we’ve seen them. Mixed feelings of desire, lust, sadness, rage, fear and impotence.

 

We’ll call it a day now, alright? In a few moments, I will awaken you. This time much quicker than the last one….more relaxed. I’ll count from 1 to 5. At the count of 5, you will open your eyes. You’re relaxed…1, 2…You’ll feel wonderfully refreshed when you wake up…3, 4…so relaxed, so calm…whole day…5.

How are you feeling?

Like shit.

THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL

Some time ago, a fellow blogger, a remarkable person and an intellectual par excellence (hi Paul) responded to my challenge to unravel a piece of his history through the portrayal of his rebellions youth, fight against the authority and ways of expressing his civil disobedience, which he did marvelously. In the comment section, both he and equally striking Wulf asked me to share my story of ‘good old times’ in Yugoslavia/Serbia, as well as what prompted hubby’s and my decision to permanently leave the country. We have a long journey ahead, so bear with me.

All set?

(head nodding)

Bojana, how about you? You think you can pull this through?

(head nodding) I’ll try. I’ll try my best.

I want you to focus and try to remember everything. Focus your attention on your body parts. Your limbs are getting numb and heavy. They feel like logs…You are drifting down now. I’ll start counting backwards from 10 to 1 so that you can go on drifting even deeper…You are not thinking of anything now. 10…deeper…9….deeper with each breath…8…7…6. Too relaxed to think. 5…4… This heavy relaxation in your mind is flowing into your eyes and face. 3…You feel it in your chest, your back, it goes down your spine, it’s in your legs, your toes. You feel it in your arms and hands, your fingertips…2…deep and dreamy, heavy and relaxed…1.

Let us start with the late 70s and early 80s. What is it like?

 

It’s nice and cozy. It feels right. Life is uncomplicated. Nothing is missing. People are smiling. They are relaxed and unburdened. Their fridges and tummies are full. Prosperous time. Everybody has enough, some more than enough. Not a single person I know has nothing or not enough. I am not sure what homelessness is. I saw it in a movie once.

We are in southeastern Europe, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), made up of 6 socialist republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, each with its own parliament and president. I live in southern Serbia where I was born. Yugoslavia is not part of the Eastern Bloc. It has pursued a policy of neutrality since the Tito-Stalin split in 1948 and is a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. It is way more open to Western popular culture, unlike other communist states. There is an easy access to commodities from the West that people can afford. They have money. They buy. SFRY is a relatively small country with an international reputation that far exceeds its size. It’s a role model, a dream come true for countries under the Soviet influence, where things like Western magazines, books, records, cassette tapes, chocolate, chewing gums or Levi’s jeans are only a pipe dream. Yugoslavia is ‘something in between’—neither East nor West. President Tito ingeniously balances between Washington and Moscow, refusing to ally with either, and ‘saying to both: If you don’t pay me off, I’ll let the other guy build a base here. Everyone pays up.’

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Time of a great ethnic diversity. Time of equality. Civil rights are respected. Freedom of religion. Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims live harmoniously under the same roof. Mixed marriages. Nobody cares. Nobody questions. An average of two children per family. Certain future.

We live in a social state. Free education for all. Time of literacy. There’s overall state ownership. Small and big businesses are flourishing. We are producing loads of food. The land of abundance. Investments in infrastructure. Urbanization, and industrialization. Import. Export. Faster productivity growth leads to an increasingly better standard of living. The employment rate is very high. The middle class is thriving. The whole country is working. Jobs after graduation. Agricultural subsidies to thousands of farmers and landowners. Yugoslavia’s socialism is based on worker self-management, enabling the worker to become the dominant figure in the economy and society in general. It ‘provides job security and workplace participation unknown anywhere else in the world, giving them a much better social and working position than workers in the East or the West. Workers’ councils decide on wages.’ The working class is thriving. Workers are respected. They go on collective holidays. Freedom of travel. We go shopping in neighboring Italy and Greece. Life is simple here, says an American woman in the movie ‘Something in Between’ upon coming to Serbia in the early 80s; when Serbs want fresh fish, they board a plane to the Croatian coast. ‘Yugoslavs travel hassle-free in both East and West; their red passports are worth even more on the black market than American ones.’ Regular salaries. People earn, spend and save money in banks. Free health care for all.

Everybody owns a house or an apartment which rarely anybody locks. Assaults and armed robberies are extremely rare. A negligible crime rate. Apartments are given by the state, NOT to be paid for, simply given, as a gift. A token of appreciation. You don’t believe me? I’m in elementary school. I’m 12, I think. We spend more time in the neighboring town at our grandparents’ than at home, my sister and me. Carefree weekends and holidays. Happy time. My parents come to pick us up and take us home. We’ve lived in a huge downtown apartment given to us by the state for as long as I can remember. However, dad doesn’t drive us there but to a newly built, ready-to-move-in house. SURPRISE!!! Lots of rooms. Spacious and fully furnished. Closets big enough for all our stuff. A piano in a corner of the living room and a table-tennis table under a large balcony. There’s a big front yard and a vegetable garden behind. Different-colored roses have already been planted. Mom thought of everything. We see a puppy barking already. So, we stay there, leaving our 3-bedroom apartment with 2 balconies on the 4th floor for good. We don’t sell it, though we have every right to. It’s ours. We own it. Mom thinks we have enough so we pass it like a saltshaker during dinner to needy ones. Time of solidarity and social responsibility. Mom mends our socks and pants when she sees a hole before buying new ones. My friends and I wear our cousins’ or older sibling’s clothes. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We are taught modesty and responsibility towards resources, despite the riches we enjoy. Old school. Better time. I don’t mend my son’s socks. I buy him a new pair instead. Lesson learned, lesson forgotten. Different time.

It’s getting chilly.

Would you like me to get you a blanket? We don’t need to do this if you don’t want to.

No, it’s alright. A blanket, yes.

Tell me, what else do you see?

Time of enormous creativity. Investments in culture and science. Art is flourishing. The best movies in the history of our cinematography are shot, even subversive ones. Rich pop and rock music scene, punk rock and the new wave. Yugoslavia has, according to a historian, two faces. Politically, it is both in the East and in the West. In terms of everyday life and freedom, it’s not only a land of Hollywood and Cold War films, but also a land which prohibits the movies of the so-called Black Wave, with their dark humor and critical examination of the Yugoslav society at the time. On the one hand, it’s a land of the avant-garde theater, on the other, a land banning subversive theatrical plays. President Tito loves movies, being a frequent guest at movie theaters and festivals. He has a reputation of a great hedonist with a soft spot for beautiful women, tobacco, Chivas Regal whisky, wine, celebrations, hunting, horses, luxury cars, yachts, travel, navy blue uniforms, antique weapons, medals, jewelry, white suits, gloves and hats. A charismatic leader with a style. A ‘magician of self-promotion.’ A joker whose lousy jokes everyone laughs at. A demagogue whose silly speeches everyone nods at. A ‘soft dictator.’ A world-class manipulator.

The whole nation knows his birthday. The whole nation celebrates it. A relay race, known as the Relay of Youth, is held every year. A baton is carried through the whole country with a birthday pledge to El Presidente ostensibly from all youths of Yugoslavia. I’ll be among the kids running the relay, but I drop the stupid thing, cameras are shooting, I panic and forget my lines. It’s embarrassing. I’m disappointed. The race ends with a huge celebration in the capital of Belgrade on May 25, Tito’s birthday and Day of Youth. It’s a national holiday. The school is closed. Nobody’s working. Festive atmosphere. Lots of holidays and time off throughout the year. The government-driven cult of personality created around Tito equals divinization. The pictures of president for life hang on the walls. There is no opposition. One party to rule them all. A mild autocrat.

We are taught to believe in Tito’s motto of ‘brotherhood and unity’ years after his death. We sing the National Anthem and wave national flags on every occasion. I belong to the Pioneer Alliance of SFRY, ‘honoring the children and youth who fought as part of the Yugoslav Partisans of the World War II.’ It consists of kids aged 7 and older, attending numerous educational, cultural and leisure activities. A few times a year, on state holidays, and anniversaries, we wear our pioneer uniforms: white shirts and dark blue pants/ skirts. We have red scarves around our necks and navy blue hats with a red star on them (), associated with communist ideology and commonly used in flags and state emblems often in combination with the hammer and sickle. I still remember the text of a Yugoslav Pioneer pledge at the induction ceremony:

‘Today, as I become a Pioneer, I give my Pioneer’s word of honor that I shall study and work diligently, respect my parents and seniors, and be a loyal and honest comrade/friend, that I shall love our homeland, self-managed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, that I shall spread brotherhood and unity and the principles for which comrade Tito fought, and that I shall value all peoples of the world who respect freedom and peace.’ A time to remember.

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We are leading carefree lives, we who do not stir up, we who play by the rules. The strategies for dealing with political opponents have become much more subtle than in the Eastern Bloc, dissidents and critics of the regime being rarely stalked by the secret police, or suffering intimidation, and terror, which was previously the case. The once hard-labor detention camp for political prisoners and anticommunists, serving as a punitive measure against the unloyal in the past, has become a regular jail for criminals. Dissident lecturers rarely face stern measures like serving long prison sentences; however, they may suffer social isolation or relocation. You’re not obliged to become a member of the Party but those who do are privileged. Besides, if you want to move ahead in the political hierarchy, you have to be a member of the League of Communists.

Brave New World: a benevolent dictatorship, an efficient soft-repressive welfare state with no war, poverty and crime. History has not been abolished altogether; it’s just been slightly rewritten because it is always written by the winners. Its inhabitants find a new god to worship, this time a real one.

I think we’ve had enough for one day. You need to relax. I will start to awaken you in a few seconds. Next time we meet, you will begin to relax much quicker. Every time quicker than the previous one. Every time deeper and deeper…You will feel alert and alive when you wake up…Relaxed. Full of energy…I am going to count from 5 to 1. At the count of 1, you’ll wake up, feeling relaxed and wonderful. 5, 4…coming up slowly…3…relaxed and lively…2…(finger snapping) 1.