Shto by stalo vse ponjatno Nado nachat’ zhit’ obratnofootnote1

Iknew them because I was friendly with their son when I was a student. Stanko and Vera lived in a small two-roomed flat in the centre of Zagreb. Stanko was a retired officer of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Vera a housewife. They had come to Zagreb from Bosnia. Their flat was like a little museum of Yugoslav everyday life. On the walls hung pictures of plump beauties lazing on the shores of romantic lakes densely populated by moorhens and swans. On top of the television was a Venetian gondola, on the fridge wooden herons—the most popular yugo-souvenir usually sold by Gypsies ‘from Triglav to Djevdjelija’. A picture of Tito hung on the wall beside family photographs. The gleaming polish of the heavy walnut furniture (the first post-war Yugoslav-made bedroom fittings) was protected by little hand-embroidered throws. Boxes decorated with shells and other seaside mementoes with inscriptions (‘A souvenir from Makarska’, ‘A souvenir from Cres’) made a kind of diary of their summer holidays. Those were years when everyone ‘went to the sea’ every summer on holidays organized by the trade unions.

On the shelves in peaceful coexistence resided various kinds of books: the ones my friend read (Schopenhauer, Kant, Hegel, Nietszche, Kierkegaard), Stanko’s (books about Tito, monographs on Yugoslavia and the National Liberation War) and Vera’s (cheap, paperback romances).

The flat was full not only of things but also of people, just like a station waiting-room. Through the flat came the neighbours’ noisy children; they would come for a drink of water or a piece of bread spread with Vera’s home-made jam. Every day Vera’s friends would come, for ‘a coffee’ and ‘a gossip’. Our friends would come as well, some of them would stop to play a game of chess and drink a glass of home-made Bosnian plum brandy with Stanko.

Vera kept preserves for the winter under the massive walnut double bed. There were tidy rows of jars of jam, gherkins, paprika, pickle and sacks of potatoes and onions. Once Vera called me into the bedroom, dragged a plastic box of soil out from under the bed and proudly showed me her sprouting tomato seedlings. Every day Vera baked Bosnian pies and fed her neighbours, friends, the neighbours’ children, everyone who called in. And many people did call, drawn by the life (and the beguiling cultural syncretism!) which bubbled cheerfully in the little flat like water in a kettle.

And then the children (Stanko and Vera had a daughter as well as their son) finished their studies and left home. Concerned for their parents, the children found them another, larger, more comfortable flat. When I went to see them, Vera burst into tears accusing the children of taking away her things, her souvenirs, her furniture, they had taken everything, she had only been able to save one thing. And Vera took me into the modern bedroom and dragged a picture out from under the bed of plump beauties lazing on the shores of a romantic lake densely populated by moorhens and swans. ‘I keep it under the bed. The children won’t let me hang it on the wall. . .’ she said in the hurt tone of a child.

Vera still baked Bosnian pies, only no one came any more. Stanko invited people every day for a game of chess and a Bosnian brandy, but somehow it wasn’t on people’s way anywhere, or they didn’t feel like playing chess. Yes, the flat was certainly larger and better, but life had definitively changed its taste. In the name of a brighter future, Stanko and Vera’s belongings, the guarantee of their emotional memory, had been ‘confiscated’. The two old people found themselves, like fish out of water, deprived of their natural surroundings. People are not fish, so Stanko and Vera did not expire, but they had somehow abruptly aged, or at least that’s how it seemed to me when I visited them.