MY POEMS IN DOWN IN THE DIRT

I’m super excited to have four of my earlier poems in Down in the Dirt, an excellent lit journal, also publishing previously published works.

Interestingly, I was first notified they’d accepted two, but then I sent a follow up letter with two additional poems saying although I know they don’t want the rhyme in their magazine, I’ll take my chances, knowing that the one that rhymes here and there is a good one, and assuring them that when I use it, though rarely, I do it for a good reason, never for the sake of the rhyme itself.

So, persistence pays off.

You can read my poems here, here, here and here.

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.

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.