September 30, 2010

The Pull of the Old

Posted in Children, Family, Home, Serbia, Traditions, Travel, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:56 am by Liliana

Revelers at the wedding

Revelers at the wedding, 8/10

My sister and I spent the last few days visiting our father and stepmother in Florida.

They had just gotten back from a month long trip to Serbia. Neither has been there for over twenty years. They were full of stories and impressions.

They had lots of photographs; and an eighteen hour video of an old fashioned wedding of our cousin’s son. We watched all eighteen hours.

Our father grew up in a small village (about hundred and fifty households) in Northern Serbia. His family has lived there for many generations. We are related, by blood or marriage, to almost every member of the population. We know their stories, and the nicknames of their grandfathers.

My father left the village and went out “into the wide world” when he was a teenager. My sister and I grew up in Belgrade. But almost every summer of our childhood and young adulthood we returned to visit. Everyone there knows not only us, but everything about us.

My cousin Milan and I are the same age. As children we played together, roamed the orchards, picked mushrooms in the nearby forests. He stole a cigarette from my grandfather and we tried smoking it in a dark corner behind the house. We chocked on the bitter smoke and neither tried again.

As teenagers we went hunting together, and spent evenings at village dances. He confided in me when he fell in love and decided to get married. Our children are the same age. It was his son’s wedding that we watched for eighteen hours.

Milan’s father and my father are first cousins. The two of them are the same age, twenty days apart. They grew up during the difficult years of WWII, and their childhoods were a lot less idyllic. But they probably did most of the same things that Milan and I did.

My grandfather and Milan’s grandmother were brother and sister. When her husband got killed by a horse in a freak accident, leaving her a widow with four children, my grandfather took on the care of her family.

Their father, my and Milan’s great-grandfather, Milos, was an adventurous man. He traveled the world and came to America in the late part of the 19th century. But he couldn’t stay long away from the village. Just like my father, who traveled the world as well, but has always gone back.

Watching the video made Branka and me feel like the part of the tribe that we belong to. We couldn’t eat the delicious food, we couldn’t drink the home made wine and plum brandy, we couldn’t place our arms around our family and join in the dance.

But when the music started playing, we knew exactly how they felt. And we knew all the songs.


August 3, 2010

The Old Well

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Garden, Serbia tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 8:24 am by Liliana

The Old Well

The Old Well

In the corner of my grandparents’ garden stood an old well. It had been there for a long time, hundreds of years.

During the early part of my childhood, before there was plumbing installed in the village, all the water for cooking, bathing, drinking and animals was fetched from the bucket in that well.

The children knew not to go near it. The well was very deep and dark, and if anyone fell in, they would not survive.

Although there was electricity in my grandfather’s house, in the early 1960’s my grandparents didn’t own a refrigerator. No one in the village did. No one owned any kind of modern day appliance – no electric ranges, no washing machines and certainly no dishwashers. Those came gradually and later, in the late 60’s and 70’s. Before that, people used wooden stoves for cooking and heating, and all the washing was done by hand. The water was pulled from the well.

Because there was no refrigeration, the food had to be eaten quickly. Chickens were prepared by my grandmother the same day that my grandfather slaughtered them. Fruits and vegetables were picked and consumed the same day. We ate what was ripe and in season.

Sometimes, my mother made ice cream and we children helped. I still remember the steps.

My grandfather would bring a bucket of heavy cream, skimmed of the milk that his dairy cows provided that morning. He would place it in the cool of the veranda while we washed berries or pealed fresh peaches, or other fruit from the garden trees.

Our mother would cook the cream with the fruit, stirring and adding a bit of sugar if needed, until the concoction thickened. Then we poured it into porcelain cups, which she placed in the well bucket, and lowered into the coolness of the water so it would solidify.

But no matter how long we waited, and the time seemed awfully long, our ice cream was never the same as the ice cream we bought in the store. It was cold, but never frozen.

It was smooth, creamy, fruity and delicious. Different generations assembled in the cool shade of the veranda, eating ice cream with tea spoons out of those delicate porcelain cups.

“This is not frozen enough to be ice cream,” one of the children complained.

“Maybe not ice, but it is cream,” my grandfather answered. And no matter how many times he said it, we always laughed.

June 10, 2010

Mark Twain and I

Posted in Books, Travel tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:19 am by Liliana

Mark Twain and I

Mark Twain and I

From my earliest childhood, I loved to read. My favorite memories are of sitting in some dark, snug corner, straining my eyes, losing myself in a reality very different from my own. Any book, comic, pamphlet, magazine – anything with words or pictures (or both) – was fair game.

I don’t know how old I was when I first discovered Mark Twain. It was love at first sight. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn became my favorite people in the entire world. I loved the mischief, the humor, the danger, the exotic atmosphere of the land that I knew nothing about. I loved the English names of the people and curious words like Mississippi and Missouri. I loved the sense of adventure.

Years passed. My parents, sister and I traveled to the US and I went to college in New York City. I moved on to other writers and other worlds. I hardly thought of Mark Twin in those days.

But during my senior year of college, while deciding where to go to graduate school, a professor suggested St. Louis, Missouri. And that word, Missouri, brought with it a flood of memory. I applied, was accepted and got a scholarship. All the stars were aligned just right for me to travel westward, and I decided to get my degree there and then move back to Yugoslavia.

The first month in St. Louis I met a young man named Jeff.  We went to movies, theater and poetry readings. We talked about philosophy and argued about Nietzsche and Heidegger for hours.

But the way he won my heart was by suggesting, on a whim of a moment, in a middle of an ordinary school day, that I miss my Milton class and that we drive the couple of hours to Hannibal, Missouri. This is the town where Mark Twain lived as a boy and where he set two of his most famous books.

Jeff had a very old, ugly and beat up yellow car that he called – the frog. We drove the frog down the banks of the Mississippi and I looked out in wonder. Here I was and this world was real. Mississippi. We walked all over the small town of Hannibal and it seemed frozen in time. It was touristy, and tacky, but I loved it. The old houses were small, the rooms miniature and childlike – fitting for memories of a young girl. We ate fried trout at the Becky Thatcher diner. We had ice cream in the Tom Sawyer ice cream parlor.

I never made it back to Yugoslavia.

May 19, 2010


Posted in Children, Family, Traditions, Women tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:47 pm by Liliana


Ponijao (left) and friend

Last week, I went to see the movie Babies with two friends. Babies follows the development of four infants for about a year, from birth until their first words and steps.

The babies inhabit four very different societies: Ponijao is from a village in Namibia; Bayar lives in a yurt (nomadic tent) in Mongolia; Mari resides in a modern high rise in Tokyo; and Hattie lives in San Francisco.

I loved the movie. It also made me sad.

My own three babies had childhoods not unlike Mari and Hattie. They have all grown into happy and well adjusted people. Maybe it is my own sentimentality that gets in the way, when I wish their early years back so that I could do it all over again.

I found aspects of Ponijao’s childhood most comforting. She lives in a communal society with few material belongings. Mostly what we see is women and children of different ages spending time together. The women sit and talk to each other, tell stories, make jewelry out of rope. They grind flower for food with stones. They hold their babies, or hand them over to older children. Babies crawl around on  the dirt floor. They put things in their mouth. They taste, smell, hear, see. They are fed when hungry and reassured when frustrated. Expectations are clear. There is time for everything.

Punjao meets all the milestones that babies in other societies do at a similar rate of development. She (together with Bayar from Mongolia) seems to have gotten there at a more relaxed pace, though.

Mari and Hattie have wonderful childhoods, also. Their fathers are present and involved in their upbringing. But these two girls and their parents are living hectic, distracted lives. With their busy schedules they seem to be trying to recreate in baby classes what Ponijao and Bayar have as a starting point. And even though they live in large, populated cities, their existence seems more isolated and restrained than Bayar’s and Pujao’s. Punjao has her community; Bayar has his animals as companions and the expansive landscape around him is wide open for him to explore.

What do infants need to grow and flourish? Love, time and patience from their parents; response to their needs and concerned company of other beings (both human and animal). These seem to be the ingredients of a happy childhood. Most other activities seem to be a distraction.

February 22, 2010

Memories From My Childhood

Posted in Children, Serbia tagged , at 6:45 am by Liliana

Memories from my childhood

Memories from my childhood

  • Skipping  to school in new, red leather shoes on a warm spring morning – the soles make most pleasant sounds against the sidewalk.
  • Sledding in winter from the hill above our house; hands frozen; running into the house and holding my hands over a warm, wood burning stove; unbelievable pain; crying.
  • No eclectic power in our house on blackout evenings; lighted candles; stories; magical shadows on the walls.
  • Pressed blue school uniform; new crochet lace collar my mother made; fist fight with my best friend; torn lace collar; face dirty from dust and tears.
  • Two dolls; one old and beat up, with a hole cut in her mouth; the other new and untouched; both named Rose.
  • Climbing the cherry tree in our yard with my sister; picking  big, red, sweet cherries; eating some; ornamenting ourselves by making earrings, necklaces, crowns with others.
  • Running very fast down the hill on a warm spring evening; two older cousins holding my hands; flying.