9. Words and Languages
My mother told me that my first words as a toddler were: “tedi betz.” Immediately after saying this, I would break into hilarious uncontrollable laughter. After enjoying it for some time, she would stop me, according to the severe Serbian belief that too much laughter brings tears and sorrow. Although it is a superstition. there is some physiological truth to it: ups and downs, blacks and whites, fullness and emptiness.
It was then that a new space burst into my being, until then in complete accord with her. A place of secrets, a dark hidden and safe place where I could keep to myself my laughter, my words: never to be said, and only later to be written in diaries or stories or fantasies.
My best time of fantasizing was in a car driven by my father and away from my mother’s lap. Sitting behind I would look through the window far away, and my thoughts would wander while I would coordinate them in images and stories. Boredom was one of the first things I learned to fear, tremendous instinctive fear of the world made of rules and laws of reality was looming over my excited little head. I imagined I could fly, and that I could teach others how to do it: close your eyes, press your fists against the eyelids and wait until your body dissolves and only your eyeballs feel real. Then steer them in the direction you want to fly; skies, past, future, dreams, love.
My mother disapproved of this attitude of mine, but did not bother me. My father instead thought it was unhealthy and insane. As soon as he noticed it happening, he decided to give me concrete assignments night and day, all four seasons of the year. As a consequence, I never had holidays from school, even though I was always one of the best students in the class, thanks to his demands and admonitions. He would say every year at the beginning of my school:
- I work a lot for your school, I pay a lot for it, and you have to shine. I will not go there, never ever, I will not speak to your professors or work on your home-work. It is your responsibility and it must be done.
I did it, I sure did, it hardly cost me any effort, less than to see him around in school boasting of me and his work and money. With a Nikon camera round his neck, a big jolly man who could not begin one sentence without lying, or end it without lamenting. The high Herzegovinian style which I worshipped as a girl in love with her big dad. I even think that I inherited this high narrative style. The stories of woes of the poor and noble were never narrated with a humble tone.
My Dad knew how to tell a tale, especially about himself. Only as an adult writer did I appreciate his talent, and see it a performance art. I remember vividly him improvising weird stories in verses while driving a car on endless journeys, so he would not fall asleep. I remember him singing to me forgotten folk songs, so that I forgot being carsick while he drove. His way of talking to me while we were alone was completely different than when my mother was around. He would become more boisterous, sincere and a bad boy. Alone with me, he treated me his peer and heir, while in her presence he had to be the gentleman and father. He played that role for her sake, not for mine. I liked my bad dad better than my gentleman dad. My bad dad never lied to me, although life was unbearable without lies — as he would put it.
My first words, “tedi betz” turned out to be “teddy bear,” which stood for my big jolly father, master of lies and laments. When I was born, he left for England where he spent months on end studying, working and sending us love and money. Then my mother went to visit him and she stayed there. I don’t know for how long: lies and laments differ every time they are performed. She was gone, however, long enough make me stop talking and laughing. I became a somber little girl who, when she saw her mother back from England did not dare to recognize her. Mom tried to embrace me, but I held back hanging to the skirt of my grandma, who had cared for me in her absence. Then when she managed hold me I stuck to her as if glued, never ever to let her go again.
When my father returned from England, life became spectacular. He came out of a train surrounded by many many balloons, being himself bigger by 30 kilos and wearing a huge fancy suit with a colorful tie. His balloons were actually condoms, blown up to impress me and my mother: maybe the first condoms in Serbia.
My mother stood back in shame. I stood back in fear. My father handed me a big teddy bear who spoke to me with his huge sad eyes of a dead mammal. He screamed: Help.
I helped him. I snatched the bear, hugged him and started laughing…until this day whenever I see a big person with those trapped, animal eyes, I think it is my tedi betz.
When I speak out, when I write, the sky is my only limit yet the earth trembles under my feet. Those who never transgress will never learn their limits. Did I touch the sky?
My mother loved to shop without buying. She just loved to spend her time looking at beautiful things and imagining herself owning them. She loved to shop for me, her doll, and for my father, her status symbol. My father was clumsy, untidy, large man. But very clean, and a big show off. He always wanted to look good and smart and rich, because he was. She had to make that happen: so they were bought classic brands in fancy shops, classics that never wore out, clothes for a funeral. Clothes for posterity.
- Mom , I don’t think I will be able to wear your clothes.
- Of course you will, they are pure cashmere, furs, silk…they will last forever, they are an investment.
- But Mom you are small and fat, I am thin and tall.
- It can be fixed, just a stitch here and there and you will look perfect.
She did! But I didn’t. She proclaimed me tasteless because I had lacked her taste. I liked endless variety, all styles, bright colors and rags… The world was painfully but rapidly changing: girls were allowed to wear pants, uncombed hair, jeans… We threw away our ladylike bras, high heels, make up… while my mother looked on in bewilderment and disgust, shame and sorrow. She suffered in her high heels, Chanel suits, Swiss expensive dresses, overheated fur coats. I thought she was the last victim of the patriarchal middle class, while she thought I was plain going mad. Another civil war at home, not much different than the one she had at her own home when she was young, except that she had forgotten hers.
- Come on Mina, today I will buy myself a nice dress for New Year’s Eve. You must help me.
In the dressing room she tries two dresses. She has a frown on her face. She is unhappy, she is suffering.
- So which one do you like better?
- I don’t know, I really don’t know…I like them both. I don’t know which one to buy.
- Why don’t you get them both? My brilliant idea.
She looks at me and smiles , relieved.
- Why, of course, I will take them both. Off we go home with two New Year’s dresses. She unpacks them , hangs them in front of her mirror and then the real trouble starts.
- It’s all your fault, I should have bought only one. Now I don’t know which one to wear.
I got this trait from my Mom, whatever decision I take, I regret for not taking the other one. If I switch to the second one I will regret for not staying with the first one. You see, the variety of life is never ending. I am aware of that all the time. To take one course through this entangled jungle is reductive and wrong. It’s like a dead-end street.
Whenever my father moved us to a new country, a new town, my mother would beg him: please, nothing too big for us to live in, please please. He would stare at her, eyes bulging in anger, impotent as he always was against her requests, which were actually orders. What was it all about?
They were communists. Lacking historical tradition, they had to invent their own rules of propriety. They suffered a lifetime of doubts.
My mother, as a communist doctor, could not stand having a big house that she could not clean alone. She wanted it perfectly clean, yet she didn’t want anybody else to clean it. This was clearly a class issue, yet as a doctor she was never satisfied with the state of our sanitation.
- Woman, you are driving me crazy. We must have a big house. We must entertain. It is my job.
- Well it is not my job, she would retort promptly.
He would stare even more wildly.
- You got your job as a representative of a communist country. No showing off!
- But that’s not how the world works! Communists need money too. Our country needs it, we must make money. I must. That is my job.
- Not at all costs! I draw a line. No putrid capitalist habits in my house! I don’t want anybody to serve me or serve my guests. We are the working class and we clean our garbage and our houses and yards.
In Egypt, the Arab guests were fascinated by the communist rules she imposed. At that time, the people in power in Egypt were living in Farouk’ s palaces, in his shoes. They had just kicked him out of country, and accepted all the goodies as granted.
We Yugoslavs thanks to Tito/Nasser Non-Aligned Movement, were their favorites.
My father secretly hired a man who pretended to be his office employee, but who actually helped him with errands. My mother didn’t allow him a chauffeur, nor was I allowed to drive in a car to school. I had to walk, with my bag on my back — as did most children all over the world, she said.
So one day, Mustafa, who shopped for my father secretly, met my mother in the shop close to our house. An embarrassing encounter for both of them: Mustafa had to pretend he was shopping for himself, and not for the party at her home that evening. My Mom was caught in an even deeper transgression. She had a street kebab sandwich in her hands, which she was devouring against the rules that foreigners in Egypt should never consume street food or drink tap water. She already cured many Yugoslav people sickened by the local bacteria. She was very stern with her patients about that matter. Mustafa didn’t comment on what he saw. She allowed him that evening to be her waiter.
- I cannot enter that house! my Mom screamed.
- It is too big, it is too fancy and it smells of other people. It is not mine.
- It is a privilege. We cannot refuse it, it would be rude.
- Just tell them, my wife is a communist, and she also knows that you keep Egyptian communists in prison!
My father was glad she didn’t speak out during those official dinners with the local authorities. But in a crisis, he would ask her to speak out, and she did. She confronted the local police authorities, asking for a communist activist, the husband of my school teacher Layla, to be released from prison. I don’t know why he was arrested, but I do remember Layla’ s lovely big brown eyes full of tears, while she was told my mom a tale of woe that made my mom explode with rage.
My father was not an ambassador, he was a tradesman and a spy. My mother was not a diplomat but a doctor, yet everything they did abroad had to do with politics and power. The invisible rules were all around me, they were my first school of behavior.
It was hard, it was doubletalk, communist doubletalk, or parents’ doubletalk. Sometimes both at the same moment. I remember the contradictions better than the rules, the conflicts more than the victories. It’s hard to grow up. Children need firm rules in order to transgress. My parents were inventing the rules as they were lived them: they were communists in power from a new regime, a tabula rasa situation, an empty life to fill with a new order. That task was too big for them, for all of them. And we, outside Yugoslavia, could see the contradictions.
I was fourteen, graduating from high school in Milan: I was the best student of the British school in Milan, a Yugoslav, a Serb, a foreigner to the school, to Italy, and even to her own parents, who spoke Serbian.
- I used to love you so much, said my father on his deathbed with a void in his eyes, first looking at me and then at the ceiling: as if I were not there, as if I were not there all the time, during all these years.
- Girls are born to take care of their parents and boys to take care of the girls. But girls marry boys, and take care of their own children, said my father sadly.
It is the way of the world, that children take the love they get from their parents, and pass on to their own children, and never repay their parents.
I am all dolled up for a school occasion, the ceremony of the honor roll, where I am supposed to go out on the stage and get my award. I have a specially made white dress, a miniskirt like a ballerina’s, made of silk and satin. I wear white gloves and white high heels and I feel fantastic: important, pretty, dignified. Happy.
My father, who never came to my school as a matter of principle, is beaming from the front row. He is pushing everybody around, boastfully showing off his expensive Nikon camera.
He used to tell me:
- I give a lot of money for your school. Every year you cost me like a brand new Volkswagen (cars, like cameras, were his toys).
- You have to become the best student, and even more than that, you have to finish in two years what others do in four.
- But why, Dad?
Because you are a Yugoslav, my daughter. Because we never know where we will live next year. We must move on.
- Right Dad! And I did it.
And here I was now to get rewarded on the stage.
As I wait for my name to be called, I was lost in many thoughts: why didn’t my Mom come? I wanted to show off to my friends my beautiful small Mom, but then would they ever appreciate her beauty? Her shyness, her refusal to speak English or Italian? Better not to see her suffer in the first row with boasting Dad, who spoke a dozen languages loudly and badly.
As time goes by I see dad getting angry and worried. Then the curtain closes and the lights are down. The show is over. My honor roll came and went without me. They forgot to call my name. There will be no photos for my album, no proofs, nothing my father can boast about. He is furious, and I felt it was all my fault.
After the failed ceremony, we went out for a walk, and my Mom joined us to console us. At that point I was immortalized in my white dress and gloves: in the Piazza Duomo. Many years after, when my mother died, I found that dress in one of the suitcases in the garage. Neatly folded, small and beautiful. I took it home, and in a day or two, moths spread all over my house. It was a swarm, an army, I didn’t know how to get rid of them and save my other clothes. I took the dress to my Dad, and I called it the just revenge of the dress. But he burned it, and we never mentioned the episode again.