When the international sanctions gripped Serbia in the nineties, everyday life stopped abruptly. Nothing was to be taken for granted, from bread to heating. Some people around me took it really hard: those who loved their small rituals, based on the smell of the morning cake, or their favorite Turkish coffee, with a favorite cigarette.
Others saw a great opportunity in this crack-up of the system. They struggled to make a go of it, smuggling goods or even producing them.
As commodities disappeared from our shops, our kitchens and closets, new habits and values arrived. I took it as it came, without panicking or doing anything much, I was surfing the economic wave of hyper-inflation, trying to stay healthy and sane.
When the medicines disappeared, my mother said solemnly and bravely, as comrade doctor Mom always did in these political enterprises:
- We will not get sick, OK people, what else?
And we didn’t get sick. We were sick much less often than usual, and even when stricken, we realized that we could recover without medicines. What else?
The hospitals were chilly because there was no heating. The medicines were lacking, so only urgent cases were treated, and God knows how, in some urgent new-old methods. My daughter became an urgent case all of a sudden. She had her tonsils pulled out without anaesthetics. I thought I would die waiting for her to come out of the operating room. Instead I drank half a bottle of whiskey. She emerged with a rosy face and a different voice: instead of her loud low infected growl, she had a tiny Minnie Mouse pitch.
- Honey, I hugged her, did it hurt?
- Can I eat an ice-cream now Mom?
- Of course, all the ice-cream you want! I bought both my hands full of ice-creams, my eyes full of tears, slurring the words and wobbling in my legs…
- Mom, are you alright? She ate her ice cream with the speed of a Biafra survivor.
That day, I queued for more ice cream, although I made it a matter of principle not to queue for anything. Queuing itself is very miserable, commonly worse than the lack of the item you stand in lines for.
A sad New Year’s Eve was approaching. It was snowing. The heating in Belgrade was scarce, but we had a chalet in the mountains, where we could burn firewood. That heat was the plus side. The downside was that in the mountains there was hardly any food. The rural shops were closed. We could either garner food from the woods and fields around us, or ask the local peasants to sell us some.
Before leaving for the mountains I queued for four hours, with a big plastic bottle, to buy wine from a truck. The wine was good, if not cheap. Later I heard that it was Arkan’s wine, Arkan being Serbia’s most notorious war criminal and profiteer. I carefully avoided the rackets of Arkan and his Tiger militia, but for the sake of some wine in the mountains, I broke my principles and gave in.
I said to myself: Mina, you stink. My nationalist, Communist mother, an asthmatic, an old woman, had the guts to defy the black economy and say:
— I’ d rather starve than give any money to war profiteers.
I could not give up wine for the sake of a better world?!
Her voice echoed in my thoughts.
- Mina, I’ m ashamed of you, you have no character, if all the people were like you, we would never have defeated the Nazis…
That line of hers still rings in my head.
The troubles of the whole world bounced on my shoulders. In my family, we always considered the whole world our backyard. The blame for a whole planet was always to be distributed between us few .
When my daughter was four, she heard this phrase so often
- Who is guilty? that she would scream:
- Memememememe, wanting to take the blame as the utmost privilege distributed within my family, as a token of our respect, really.
So, guilty as I was of the wheel of history turning wrong in my own society, I decided to go to my chalet with my wine, and test my skills with the nature and its laws. It was an expiation, this Robinson Crusoe mission. At least, in those days of no petrol, the air was no longer polluted, and all the roads were clear. The silence was so deep that one had the feeling of speaking to gods when addressing the squirrels.
In that small house in the mountains, squirrels were the most frequent guests… jumping from the trees to my terrace…stealing food, nibbling whatever. I was a city girl who loved concrete, the smell of traffic, the noise of sirens, the fast food and drinks out of nice designed bottles. I despised Nature, trees, flowers, wells, fountains, animal cults…
However, my capable girlfriend chose to share this adventure with me, and our two kids, up in the mountains. She said, practically:
- We all have to eat something. You go find some peasants and bargain for food, I will search the forests.
Fine. It worked out this way. In one day, I managed to get hold of hundreds of eggs. My friend made notes of seven different types of wild greens and five mushrooms. In the basement of the house I found some dusty provisions my parents had stored in case of trouble.
I had considered this a silly notion of theirs, a gesture from their guerrilla days in the Second World War. But in this new war of economic sanctions, of killers that lacked guns or faces, their provisions worked fine, real fine. We didn’t need guns or bullets. We just needed grain sugar rice …
Every day we would bake something different, made of eggs, nettles, grain or rice. To make it seem different to the children, we used food coloring that we found in the basement.
Every day I would give a new, exotic name to our newly colored dish. The children loved it, so did we. We never ate the squirrels.
That chalet was our school of survival, and we took new principles back to Belgrade, to our cohabitants: invent the dishes, invent the words for the new dishes, invent its taste, its smell, and associate it with a new way of being. Instead of a miserable loser, you become an inventive pioneer. At least, through our Robinson Crusoe play-acting, we had taught ourselves to try that. But we had not outlasted the troubles: Belgrade was still wartime Belgrade.
We had cars and buses and trains from our previous lives, but no fuel to run them; no petrol, no gas often no electricity. A lucky few had coal, and the old-fashioned coal stoves to burn it; ironically, these were mostly the poor people. I had a new big foreign car that I bought just before the breakup of Yugoslavia. I bought it with all of my money in the bank, and a good thing I did, since only a couple of weeks later the bank collapsed.
So rather than vanished money, I had the burden of a car. I could scarcely drive it, since the black market fuel cost a fortune, and was often a horrible mix that destroyed car engines and put lives at risk. The smallest car repair cost more than my monthly inflated income: all in all, that car cost me much more than the education of my child. My neighbors, poor and nationalistic, despised the foreign car. Commonly they would scratch it or spit on it, or slash a tyre. That model of Passat was also the official car of the Serbian police at the time, so it was often mistaken for one, for all that meant.
However, like many other citizens, I clung to civilization’s twentieth-century values. One day, I was invited to go to a small town on the border of Rumania, to promote a book of mine, published in that town. I was able to drive there, along with an Italian author, Sandro Veronesi. He was in Belgrade to report on the Spaski/Fisher chess match, Fisher being anti-American dissident and tax evader, keen to play chess in outlaw Serbia.
I had translated some fiction by Sandro, and he was invited to speak at the literary event as a foreign guest of honor. Curious about the situation on the Serbian border, he gladly accepted. A woman friend of mine, an accomplished pianist, seized the chance to come along and help us smuggle Rumanian fuel.
It was a gloomy autumn day: we drove in my car toward the no man’s land of the border, the trunk rattling with empty petrol cans. In Hungary, Greece and Romania, swarms of border black-marketeers had sprung into action to profit from the dire straits of the condemned Serbs. The border police on both sides were on the take, or simply indulgent to the buyers and sellers of diesel and toilet paper. Housewives, writers, pianists, police, we all became smugglers.
My friend Sandro was amused and excited by this opportunity for adventure, as only a writer and a foreigner could be. We were cool, slightly worried that something might go wrong, but brave and determined to accomplish our mission. My friend the concert pianist wore high heels as usual, a lot of make up, dainty feminine gear. Her shiny presence always lightened the dark heart of the customs police. Harmless women, motherly providers, commonly managed to smuggle more goods than suspicious-looking, profiteering men.
After our glorious presentation at the house of poetry, we drove straight to the border and started dealing for the petrol. It was a big place, that no man’s land, full of bags, tanks, mud and sinister people in trench coats. As in the Bogart film Casablance, business ran fast and loose, according the unwritten rules of underworld street-smarts.
Hustlers of all nations spoke in strange border creoles. People spoke haltingly, revealed nothing, found their illicit goodies, paid and left.
As we concluded this routine, something went wrong, somewhere. A black-market deal broke down, sellers started shouting, there was turmoil. Some guy pulled out a gun and started shooting… quickly, we entered our laden car and fled.
We were stopped by the Serbian customs police. Our petrol tanks were disguised with books, but the smell of fuel was heavy. My friend Sandro was taking thorough notes.
The officer inspected the trunk:
- Books he exclaimed.
- Yes I declared, I am a feminist author, and I would like to give your wife, as a present, a personally signed book of mine.
- I have a daughter too, he said.
Even better, I mused,
- I will give you two books of mine, and I will also introduce you to this world-famous Italian author.
Even though shotgun blasts echoed behind our backs and a strong smell of petrol clung to our pianist’s stylish clothes, the officer just blinked at us. Deeply satisfied for his cache of literary fame, he let us go… No questions, no bribes, no criminal charges… That’s how literature works in some countries, I told Sandro. That’s why I write, and what I write about.
This episode ended up in a nonfiction book of his: it sounded far more exciting than it was in the grim reality of Serbian everyday life. Still, I liked my role as a bold and dashing smuggler heroine.
In 1993, with Serbia already under sanctions, my daughter and I were alone on a Greek island. It was the end of the August tourist season. We had come there from Serbia, because Greece was one of the few places we could go. We were hard put to get a visa. Our bank accounts were blocked. Our credit cards were no longer valid.
So we went to the local bank. I showed my passport to the woman clerk.
- Can I open an account here?
- Of course you can Madame, she said.
I had heard from the Milosevic official state TV that Greece, a NATO power, was practically ignoring the sanctions against Serbia. A great deal of the regime’s offshore money was being laundered in Greece. Good news, but bad news at the same time. When you were a Serb under Milosevic, most of the news had such double standards.
So I opened my account.
I need to put my money in for ten days, I said.
- No problem, she answered, even smiling.
Those ten days flew by like the wind. Every Greek day was the same, sand, waves and Greek salads. I befriended some Italian tourists, My daughter played on the beach with some Greek kids.
It was an idyllic vacation. Freed of sanctions, warfare, sickness, and my parents, I felt no urge to write. I idly wondered why I had never written a happy book, in a happy place. Why not forgot about wars and misery? That’ s how life worked for many writers, those not under such shadows. Every day in Greece, I spent the kind of money that should last a month in Serbia. The money needed to last… but I could not worry about it.
One day, we sat at a port waiting for a ferry to another island. There was a café there: we were a company of ten people: women, men children. And the bar owner was bringing us drinks drinks drinks. And we really got drunk waiting for the tardy boat. Once the boat finally arrived, we missed it. It was too good to sit on the beach, admiring the sunset, with good wine.
And then the bill came: it was zero. We looked at the café owner and he said; it’s all on my house. You were my guests. We looked at each other in amazement. Was it because of that lovely woman in our company, or the brilliant poet, or just because we were Serbs? Greek Orthodox people often identified with Serbian Orthodox people, victims of centuries of Ottoman injustice that the Greeks were keen to resent.
But, no it was simpler that that. The ten year old son of the cafe owner had fallen in love with my nine year old daughter. After giving her endless ice creams, he bravely admitted his passion, turning red in his small face and declaring:
- One of these days I will own this place, and I will give for free ice cream to all the beautiful girls I want!
A big applause.
We were about to leave Greece: I had my plane ticket, so I went to the bank to take my money and pay my room. And then the clerk said candidly:
- Sorry madame, you cannot withdraw your money, for your country is under sanctions.
- But I deposited my money ten days ago, you said it was OK!
- To open an account with is, yes, to deposit money with us, yes, but not to withdraw it…
I stood petrified. I knew she would not back down. I knew she had known all this ten days ago. I could not understand why, to seize such a small amount of money, she had played such a malignant prank on a woman with a small daughter. The mysteries of human evil, of feminine cruelty, misogyny, revenge… Maybe she had a Serbian boyfriend who robbed her and her bank? A husband who left her for a Serbian woman with a nine year old daughter?
I had enough cash to take a local bus with my daughter to the next big town, Thessaloniki. To wait there, the next morning for the National Bank of Greece to open. There I hoped to speak to the general manager, to explain the situation or to reach my embassy, begging for help.
It was forty degrees Centigrade when we arrived in the city, and late in the afternoon. I had no money for a room but enough for a meal. I bought us a nice dinner, I sat my daughter on a bench close to the sea, and we fell asleep watching the moon.
Her head was in my lap, she was a bit bewildered, but not too much. I remembered myself at her age when stranger things than that would happen. Just a pat on my head by my Mom would keep me calm… Now I knew how my mother had trembled inside herself too, but how we would be a comfort and a universe to each other. Mother and daughter against the whole world. That was how it always worked.
Early in the morning, after a vagrant night on the beach, we were the first ones at the door of the bank. I went through all the rigamarole, pleading threatening begging and screaming. No way. Rules were rules. They were not applied to big criminal Serbian capital, but solid as a steel vault for my couple of hundreds of hard currency.
I left the bank on a quest for or embassy, or to throw myself on the mercy of the Greek police. A woman reached me on the street. She was a bank clerk, she whispered to me. She secretly handed me some small bills.
-Take a local bus, she advised. Stop at every local stop, go into the bank and ask for small amounts of local money. They won’t ask for your passport, they will give it to you…
After ten local stops, a tedious day of travel, I managed to get my money back, and to buy myself way out of that hypocritical country.
When I reached my own country, I wrote an indignant text for a major opposition daily. I told the entire truth. The Greek embassy in Belgrade phoned me to apologize for my suffering, saying that financial rules were rules. That’ s how I learned all about Greek democracy and economics.