10. Nobody at Home
- If somebody rings the door bell while I am away, you shout at them: there is nobody at home.
My nanny told me when I was four.
- That’s what decent girls do.
I had many different nannies, they didn’t last long: they were unclean, or unable to cook, or dishonest, or cheeky, or lazy. But this nanny lasted a little bit longer, enough for me to remember her. She spoke with a funny Hungarian accent. She was beautiful, red haired, long legged and dressed in red. As soon as my parents left for work, she would dress herself and leave as well, telling me to be a good girl, behave well, never open the door or go out to play with other children in the garden.
She would return in some time accompanied by different men — rarely the same man. The two of them would smile at me, and sometimes give me candy strictly forbidden by my mom, since I would get constipated by chocolate. They then disappeared into her room.
Once the man left, she would feed me quickly and ready me for my parents’ return. She would tell me severely to keep my mouth shut about the men and the candy, because otherwise something terrible would happen to me. She was never rough or cruel with me, but she never defined this word, terrible. She left it for me to imagine it, and I did.
The terrible things always had to do with my parents; they would abandon me, I imagined.
So, when my mother would urge me to go out and play in the garden, I was terrified. I thought it must be some provocation, a bait for me. I would just say no, stay in my room and play with my dolls. One doll ate with me, slept with me and bathed with me. I never abandoned her.
One day, I saw my mother screaming at my nanny, my nanny crying and slamming the door of her room, my mother knocking boldly and loudly, and my father coming to force the issue:
- There is nobody here, nanny’s voice was wailing…The next day her room was empty of her stuff, as if she had never existed. My mother said:
- Forget about Ruska…
I never did.
Many years later, I was spending holidays with my parents in the seaside. I was in the hotel room with my younger cousin. One night a male friend of mine who lived in the nearby town lost his last bus. We told him he could sleep in our room. During the night, my father came knocking loudly at our door,
- Open the door, who is there?
We all woke up frightened, looked around and answered without opening:
- There is no one here, nobody in the room.
- I know there is a man inside the room, he shouted.
So we hid the friend in the cupboard, opened the door and showed him.
- You are right, there is nobody in the room.
He went away.
I am booking my plane, an expensive ticket, I have no choice. I must be in Milan Monday morning. I am privileged to be there, in a hospital where the best doctors in Europe work, in that ward where they told me they will cure me.
What a feeling of freedom to walk into an airplane and not be afraid of crashes anymore. My body is my worst enemy now.
In Milan, in a cancer ward. Everything is allowed except the word “cancer.” Patients drink, smoke, the meals are like in a five-star hotel. Visitors are all over the place, laughter is common, children are playing. Everything is clean and shiny. The doctors are tanned good-looking pleasant people who behave as your friends.
- Signora, we cannot find the tumor our tests indicate, so we will shoot randomly in your head, in your throat.
Why is the cancer vocabulary so militaristic? OK, my body is your domain, your business. I am a Madame, as my Mom always taught me. Real ladies lack real bodies, ladies never do bodily things that other people do, like go to the toilet.
-You may lose your hair. Your throat may ache and be sore for some time, and your skin scorched, OK?
OK. Shoot the lady randomly, there is nobody at home.
The medical council is perplexed, the nice tanned Italian doctors cannot reach an agreement about me. These peacemakers of that troubled war zone, my body. Although nobody is at home, I am a refugee in my body now, my stricken body is a foreign country. The peace makers fight heavily among themselves: they write papers and scan me with different machines. Once they even asked me to choose a side and decide on my own therapy
- This is not like buying shoes, I snapped, as a true lady…
So, they make me take a short holiday. My body is on the plane again, afraid of nothing anymore but the interior enemy. Is my body still mine when occupied by invasive presence? When my phone rings in Belgrade, I answer :
- There is nobody at home.
I prefer not to be in my home, in that body in a condition I cannot accept.
In my dreams the door bell often rings: it wakes me as an imperative. There is somebody at the door. The world expects something from me. It is a relief when I can call out to the mailman, leave your mail outside in the mailbox, there is nobody at home.
I bought that expensive ticket once again: the doctors want me back in Milan. I am supposed to fly the next morning, I am packing: I am looking at my family members, they know nothing of my trips. They think I am having fun in Italy, or that I am earning money to buy them presents. Suddenly I enjoy the fact that they are spoiled; that is not my grave mistake anymore, but on the contrary a great achievement and a luxury. They will remember me after I am gone: maybe for my apple pie. I will remember my Mom‘s Russian salad to the end of my days. Its dense and acid taste. She always made a Russian salad for me for my birthday. That day when it all started, and I was not there.
Early in the morning the phone rings:
- Madame your flight has been cancelled, the plane cannot land in Milan because of fog.
A new plane ticket, somewhere close to Milan. I must reach my foggy hospital ward. On foot if I must, and I know I must.
I fly an expensive jaunt all over Europe : I wait in strange waiting rooms on the waiting lists, my luggage is lost. I reach Italy but the trains are on strike. I hitch-hike, but I miss my medical appointment by many hours: it is a sign, I was not meant to be cured in that dandy and tanned place. Maybe I was not meant to survive.
I am trying to face the void in my head in the hotel room. The phone rings: yes, I am here. Even though I missed my appointment with life.
- Madame we have decided not to do any therapy. We must research it more, the doctors wrote their papers and reached an agreement.
Good thing, then, that I missed that appointment with whatever. Thank you fogs and doctors, thank you devils…
Back in the cancer ward waiting for the check-up news; my hair is loose and long:
-What a nice wig, says one of my cancer pals, a woman with a bandanna on her bald head.
- What a brilliant idea to get a fancy wig instead of these caps that we wear. How cool!
I dare not tell her that my hair is the sign of my health, that I am abandoned by the doctors, that I was never really sick, that I had a fake execution, that my body is the object of research now. Nobody is at home.
My cancer pal is young and self possessed:
- I am at the end of my cures. It went exactly as I told them. I knew it was cancer and that I had to be operated on, but my doctor in the village didn’t believe me. I am now cured and I will go back home.
What a privilege, home and cured!
Respected by her village doctor; only now with one breast cut off in a big town in the big hospital. Finally the Amazon woman is at home.
I reach the ward for pathology tests in Belgrade. Very lively turbo folk music is playing, the hospital somewhat falling apart, but the employees seem unusually happy in such a miserable place.
-Is this the pathology ward?
- Yes madame.
- I was told you can do a DNA test.
- Sure we can, where is the cadaver?
- It’ s me really. I need to know if that section of gland they say they removed is really part of my body.
You are the cadaver? The woman in charge was amazed and then she burst in loud laughter.
- But we do only cadavers madame, we do mass graves… we just got a big grant for that from the Europeans.
- But what about us who are alive?
- What about you? If you are alive, just stay so and be happy, every day is a gift!
She turned on her heels amused.
I was on the verge of tears, I could not even tell why, because of the mass graves, or me…or both.
Her young male assistant hopped to me and passed me a visit card secretly.
-There you go, a private doctor will do it for you, if you have enough money…
Money money money…
Since I was giving money, I decided to go to the Italian morgue and do it.
On a gloomy day, while approaching the pathological centre in Pavia, I met a woman of my age dressed in black.
We were both lost in the parking lot, trying to find the big hospital entrance hall. We were both obviously the only two people on foot in Italy. We were in some distress beyond medical pain.
- Signora, says she, can you tell me where the morgue is?
I have to identify my son. They told me to come here and see the body… My son disappeared some months ago, he was such a nice young man, why would he commit suicide on the northern side of Italy? You see I am from Southern Italy. She opened her arms as a sign of honesty.
- Oh, I don’t know, I am not from around here either, I come from further away.
- Who did you lose?
- Who do you have to identify?
Myself, I said.
Sitting in that really comfortable train, The Trans-Europe Something-or-Other… Europe is small compared to US, a bathtub compared to a river… yet Europe is big in languages borders peoples brands and police…
My Serbian country is outside Europe. My Serbian passport needs all the European national visas, plus the collective one of United Europe. I think I have them all, I always try to gather most of what I can get, even if I don’t travel… The visas travel for me…
I am somewhere on that beautiful Croatian coast which is no more my coast: even my little Yugoslav sailboat has been taken away from me, a Serb anchored in the Croatian sea. But I manage to get my Croatian visa. I manage to fake it silently, I manage to look like an Italian tourist not a Serb, and to visit alone all those Adriatic islands where mermaids once filled my dreams and hopes. Where I had my first period, where I had my first love affair, where I planned to live forever, one of these days…
As I visited those numerous islands in the same old ships I used to travel in before the wars, with those names nostalgic of a non-existing, dead state… I realized that my heart was no longer in it: even though the Adriatic scenery was as pretty if not prettier, the colors and the dimensions were too small and fake for me. Too good to be true, a forbidden city of the non-European.
I was a fake Briton because I went to a British school all my life: a very authentic fake Brit, I could even name the most famous British coal mines. I was a fake Italian because I grew up in Italy, as a sincere patriot who never got a citizenship. I was a true Yugoslav, but my country disappeared and I lost my citizenship.
Now here I am now as a wannabe European woman traveling alone. Because you see, women don’t travel alone; they travel with their men, families or friends. If they are alone, it means they are lost or dangerous. I always get those looks and check ups, even friendly offers.
I entered in the first comfortable train heading north… to even more United Europe.
Border officers were entering my train, checking us, and it all went well, until we managed to come across one small piece of one small country that once used to be called Yugoslavia, that once used to be my own country.
I didn’t have the proper papers, they claimed. Politely, they took me out off the train, and even more delicately, they locked me behind bars. A small prison hut, really, with two young officers watching me from outside with guns.
Then they went through my suitcase, then through my hand bag and then through my computer.
They were amused:
- So, what are you doing here, madame, smuggling yourself in our country without a visa?
- No, I wasn’t , I said bewildered, I was just traveling back home.
- But you took the wrong train, you cannot travel Europe without a visa.
- No, I said, I just took a train that happens to cross this small country, a nation smaller than the city I come from, a country where the plastic covers on the haystacks look fancier than tablecloths in my country.
- We will have to charge you with an attempt to cross our border illegally.
- But I legally gave you my passport. It was a mistake, my country split up and Europe united…you know, it was such a big confusion…
- We don’t remember your ex-country. The two young blonde border officers stared at me.
I looked at them. Of course, they were too young to remember or even know, why would they care, they were just doing their job.
- You are a writer, one of them says.
- Yes, I am.
- What do you write about, asks he.
- Stuff like this really, I answered vividly, crossing the borders, messing with laws and people.
He was taken aback.
- We must take you immediately to your embassy, in the capital.
- No, I must call my lawyer, you must give me the phone.
It was actually a moment of hands-on struggle between us: the European new order and non-European individual.
The young officer said:
- If we let you go into no-man’s land between borders, you can wait for a couple of hours over there, and then enter Croatia, the country you travelled from. Since from tomorrow, the visa regime in Croatia for Serbs is abolished. You could sleep in the no-man’s land if they don’t let you into Croatia.
- It’ s a deal, I said.
And we did it.
They deported me a couple of kilometers, into nobody’s land where there was literally nothing. I walked slowly, dragging my luggage to the border, which soon enough would stop being one. I reached it, I crossed it because of a kind officer who looked the other way, and I took another train south.
Then a middle aged train conductor checked my new ticket to the south.
- Didn’t you go north only a couple of hours ago?
- Yes I did, I said. I tried to reach to my same destination but I took the wrong direction.
- Don’t you read your tickets, check your trains?
- No I don’t, I said peevishly, as if admitting that I never go to doctors for a regular check up.
- Well you should madame, this world today is all about trains and proper tickets and papers.
He was right: I looked at his kind elderly face with wrinkles, the devoted body bent over his conductor’s heavy bag, his stamps lost in a smaller bag. I imagined his long-sought pension round the corner, his future life, that of a railway clerk in pension: a little bit of gardening, a little bit of cooking, and a lot of memories of trips, and people he met and treated, or mistreated.
I remembered Walter Benjamin’s suicide at the border while waiting for a visa that arrived only hours too late. A Jew trying to escape Nazi Germany: a philosopher trying to describe the world he was living in. Which Benjamin did perfectly: only he did not have the patience and strength to survive it.