The gypsy woman shuffled the cards, blew on them, and cast them down, carefully, deliberately, with the skilled hand of a weaver of life and magic:
You will travel the world, A child will make you proud, You will marry a businessman, but you will still work to make your own way, You will live a life of adventure…
The Yugoslavia of my childhood was anything but dull. A fantastical place rich in history, populated with intense people, and shot through with wonders and deep emotions, it was part of the Balkans, otherwise known as the powder keg of Europe. It was the birthplace of diverse luminaries—from Nikola Tesla, inventor of modern alternating current, to Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, the Albanian nun who would become Mother Teresa, to top tennis star Novak Djokovic.
Touching Austria to the North, Italy and the Adriatic to the West, Greece to the South, and Romania and Bulgaria to the East, it was the place that started World War I, that pioneered its own grand experiment in socialism, and that would later be home to the infamous ethnic cleansing of the ’90s and some of the most sought-after mass murderers on the planet.
Given its strategic location, it had been in the path of many conquerors. Everyone from the Visigoths to the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians to Sovietera Communists had traversed its beautiful lands, leaving parts of their customs, language, and DNA behind.
The Ottomans brought foods and spices, the rhythms of the East, Islam. The Austro-Hungarians imparted Western European tastes, their own musical preferences, and industrial-age improvements. Finally, the Communists, the great equalizers of the diverse groups of people who now called this land home, were probably most responsible for the feeling of solidarity that I most strongly associate with it. To me it was an amusing and intriguing place. Strange happenings, outrageous gossip, black magic—all were part of the fabric of my childhood, along with the safety and stability of home that was always there in the background, the love embodied in my parents, grandparents, and the larger circles of family and friends.
As I read back through these stories, the word “fantastical” sticks in my mind. Its meaning ranges from “existing in fancy only” to “slightly odd or even a bit weird.” My Yugoslavian childhood was definitely both. These stories represent a lost world. Not only does the Yugoslav nation no longer exist, but the sense of solidarity among its peoples, giving way in the ’80s and ’90s to ethnic divisions and nationalist tendencies, will never be the same.
These stories also represent an odd world. In a young socialist country with pagan roots, ancient and modern worlds slammed together. The incongruities were sometimes jarring, sometimes hilarious. As a child, I tried continually to make sense of it all. As an adult, I feel lucky to have taken it all in. I feel fortunate to have had such a start in life—a strange start, perhaps, but one lived openly and in full color.
I sometimes describe my childhood as “socialist meets gypsy Woody Allen…”