Grandma Non-Oui – By Lidija Dimkovska ( An excerpt )


( Translated from the Macedonian by Christina E. Kramer )

June 2015 Split

      In 1996, at the age of seventy-three, Grandma Nedjeljka got her airplane ticket Trapani-Trieste-Split; she often held it in her hand, examined it, reread it, and I think she felt like it was a ticket to some other world, not like an ordinary airline ticket for a trip, and when she was supposed to set off that morning, my grandpa did not wake up, “out of spite” my mother later said, but quietly, so my grandma wouldn’t hear; Margherita thought Grandpa Carlo was pretending, making a joke so Grandma would be afraid she wouldn’t make her flight, but my father shook him by the shoulder and called to him “padre, padre” but my grandpa really did not wake up, and my grandma stayed home and never again traveled to Split.

      Nearly twenty years later, eight months after my grandma’s death, I went. Just like that, I bought a ticket on the Internet: Trapani-Trieste-Split-Trieste-Trapani, feeling both empty and aimless in my life. I thought that it was only in Grandma Nedjeljka’s birthplace that I could find her again, and along with her, my own joy in life, some meaning for my 27 years of life, some justification for my life, because those eight months without Grandma Nedjeljka seemed the worst months of my life. Although she had been sick for a long time and incapable of doing anything, the awareness that she only understood me, me and no one else, that I was her only connection to the world around her, and also that her actual physical presence in the house had meant so much to me, I simply couldn’t get used to the fact that she was no longer there. Why hadn’t I visited Split earlier and why in some way did I wait for Grandma to die first and then go to the place where she came from to Grandpa Carlo’s home? It wasn’t clear to me. In our home one simply didn’t ask the question about traveling to Split. After 1996, when Grandma Nedjeljka did not travel to Split with the already-purchased ticket, it didn’t occur to anyone to buy her another, nor did it occur to her either. When Grandpa Carlo died, Split died for her as well. At least, as a real, physical, destination. I once asked papa why we never made it possible for Grandma to travel to Split again, he answered: “Because your grandma wasn’t like that. As if she’d travel after your Grandpa’s death! And what would she say to her brother if she turned up at his place in Split? “Carlo died, so here I am.” Ah, she wouldn’t give her brother that pleasure. And besides, she wasn’t a widow like the ones I often drive on the bus to Skopelo or Erice. To tell you the truth, I sometimes have the impression that there are some women, and men, who wait for their spouses to die, the sooner the better, so they can travel the world alone. Either alone, with new partners, or simply in the company of others. Most of the time on trips organized through agencies or I some sort of organizations for pensioners, chess players, former teachers. You name it!” And so papa, because of opinions he had formed as a driver, had allowed Split to become an impossible mission for Grandma. But who knew Grandma Nedjeljka the best? Who spoke most often with her both in this world and the next? Who didn’t get bored when she told and retold her stories? Only me, that’s a fact. I was the only one who had learned her language. And so I was the one who felt most called to go to Split, and that was eight months after we buried Grandma under the orange tree in the garden. I did all the formalities: on Facebook I found Marina, Grandma Nedjeljka’s neice, but she didn’t accept me, just sent a message: “It’s good you got in touch, because my father has wanted to know something for a long time: after your grandma died, did you find a small bone hidden somewhere, one of her father’s bones, from when they dug him up in Sustipan and had to bury him again in the new cemetery?” Apparently, after his sister’s death, that’s all her father thought about, about where this bone was, the last remains of his father, and although when she was in Split Grandma had denied knowing anything about it, he was certain she had it. But we didn’t find anything like that among her things. In none of the cupboards, or drawers in her room, or in the whole house was there anything like that. I told mama, and she said that if grandma did have that bone from her father she would have hidden it in the pocket of the blazer we buried her in. “So let her brother now come and dig her up if he wants to find it!” That’s what she said, but I, of course, didn’t write that to my aunt or whatever she was to me. “We haven’t found anything like that,” I wrote to her, and, as politely as possible, I asked her a few questions – how they were, whether her father was in good health, whether she would come visit us in Castellammare del Golfo, alone or with friends, perhaps with her co-workers, I didn’t mention anything about a partner, since I knew she had remained unmarried, and was surely fifty years, but she didn’t answer me. But how happy I was that she had written me a message nonetheless. Blood doesn’t have to be water, at least that what I thought, although Grandma Nedjeljka, when she spoke about her brother, always said to me: “Ah, Nedi, blood isn’t water, but water is blood.” I have to admit that I’m not even sure today what she was trying to tell me.

      In the end, I wrote to Marina that I was coming to Split and I set off. My mother sent me off with the words: ‘Look around and find someone, so your trip isn’t just for spite, at least there you won’t have a problem with your name.” My father asked me whether I was going to visit Uncle Mario since I was traveling through Trieste. “No, I don’t have time,” I told him, although, the truth was that after Grandma Nedjeljka’s death, my father and the uncles had become estranged, and through them, so did the cousins. Especially with Uncle Mario’s family, but that had happened years ago, when he came to tell us that my cousin Antonio had become a neo-Nazi and he wanted us to take him in during the holidays and I cried and shouted that I didn’t want him to. Although I was a child, Uncle Mario apparently took offence and Antonio did not come to our place until Grandpa Carlo died. He, a confirmed right-winger, simply didn’t come to Grandma’s burial. Nor did we go to Trieste any longer, and now, when I had to fly from Trieste to Split, even though it would have been normal for me to at least call them, I could find no reason to, Grandma Nedjeljka was dead and with her death all the reasons for closeness with the wider family had gone to the devil. My father told me just to bring him back a shell from Split, so he could hear the sea more clearly. In the meantime, Margherita had fully moved in with Pietro, and was now pregnant, but unhappy. Pietro spent more time with the children in the rented apartment where their mother had moved, than with her, pregnant, in her third month, with their first child. “What’s the baby’s name?” I asked her before I left. “Will you name him in honour of grandpa?” “When you have a child, you can go and name him Carlo,” she said to me. “I won’t name mine that.” Whether because of Grandma Nedjeljka’s recent death, or because I was leaving, we were all tense and nervous. I boarded the bus for Trapani and from there took a taxi to the airport.

      Grandma Nedjeljka, my Non-Oui, I am flying to your city. Next to me on the plane is an older man; he’s been dozing the whole time, and his head hits the window. Seated in front of me is a young, unattractive couple watching a film on a white Apple laptop. The guy—brown beard, big head, and thick brown hair with short bangs. The girl— hair slicked back in a ponytail, short-sleeved t-shirt with “Hard Rock” written across the back. And I think to myself – did she put it on backwards or are some made like that? And I laugh to myself: maybe she put it on backwards to keep herself from being afraid of the flight? They love each other in a weary way, like an old couple, or maybe a new one, still not needing closeness. The Apple glows a fluorescent white. On my left, two men. They are speaking Croatian, one of them says he’s going to Split to sell his house in which a whole family from Bosnia found safety during the war and then stayed. “Yeah, what’s a house to you in Split? In Mestre you live in a one-room apartment, and there you have a house, at least this way you’ll be able to allow yourself more.” “But it’s no life living alone.” Said the man with the house. “You have to have people around you who are close: friends, relatives.” The other man was silent. After a while he says, “Yes, otherwise you become a loner.” “And how,” says the man with the house. “And how,” repeats his friend.

      No one is waiting for me in Split. The day before I left, I wrote to Marina on Facebook to tell her I was coming to Split, and when I would arrive, but they didn’t need to feel any obligation towards me, I would make my own way. But I would like to see her father and become acquainted with her. Also, that on the Internet I had found a little apartment and I would be spending two weeks there, and that was it. “Blood is not water, but water is blood,” isn’t that what you said to me? Even today I’m not sure what you wanted to tell me. Still, somewhere in the bottom of my heart I had hoped I’d find Marina,  your neice through your brother, now already a grown woman, waiting for me at the airport. But there was no one. So I got on bus 37 and arrived in the city. It wasn’t difficult finding the little street where the apartment was located, but I had to follow the app on my telephone. In front of the entrance I had to wait a bit longer for the owner of the apartment to give me the key. My Croatian surprised her. She said to me: : Ah, if only all the tourists knew Croatian like that! It’s just dobar dan and hvala. All they learn is ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’ and, even that, with mistakes and they think they’re very clever.” Evidently the woman had a hard time with the tourists in Split. But I was in your city for the first time and I had no time for anger. I opened the blinds and windows in the small apartment, unpacked, and went out. I devoured the city where I fell in love with each new step along its narrow streets. Still, my thoughts led me to the Old Town, to your old house where your 85-year old brother and his 51-year old unmarried daughter now lived. If the genes are passed down, it’s possible that I’ll live to such an old age like you did, and now your brother, though, God protect me from being struck by dementia. But if the family fate follows us, that means both Marina and I will either remain old maids, unmarried, or I’ll get married at an old age like your brother. I’m well along that path, aren’t I, Grandma Non-Oui?

      It wasn’t difficult to find your house; with a smart phone in hand everything is easier, except for life outside. I stood ten minutes in front of the house, looking at it, trembling with excitement. I saw the stairs you told me about that led up to your floor, after your aunt had left the house. And I remembered your father’s fishing boots that your aunt tripped over and miscarried for the second time. It now looked like no one was living upstairs, although the upper windows and shutters were wide open, but on the lower window, right by the entry door, only the shutters were open. I rang the bell. Marina immediately opened the door. It was her, even though I had never seen her before. She looked quizzically at me, but then it was clear to her right away who I was, and to me, that she had seen my message on Facebook. “Neda? Is that you?” I went inside and from the hallway I saw your brother, in a wheelchair. “Papa, your sister Nedjeljka’s granddaughter has come,” she said to him loudly, word by word, as if to a thick-headed child, “The bone…” he muttered without offering me his hand, without raising his head. “I beg your pardon?” I asked, not understanding his first word, “the bone.” “Don’t pay any attention to him,” Marina whispered to me, “he doesn’t recognize anyone any more, he only mutters something about the bone that your Grandma supposedly took from their father, when they reburied him. At least that’s what he said to me awhile ago, when he was still healthy.” It was apparent that Grandpa Krsto, if I can call him that, was in no condition to have any conversation, any meeting with me.

      ‘I couldn’t leave him to come to the airport,” Marina said as she served me juice and wafer cookies. And then we fell silent, but after awhile I asked whether I could go upstairs to the floor where Grandma Nedjeljka had lived. “Go up, but there isn’t anything there now. I threw everything away. Three days ago workmen whitewashed the apartment, I put in a new parquet floor and the bathroom is new. I’ll rent it out to tourists, I was left without work at the school, I wasn’t suitable for teaching history, and papa’s illness is expensive, with one pension you don’t make it through the month.” So that’s how it is, Grandma, Marina threw everything out, into the trash! She didn’t preserve the smallest scrap of your past. And she had apparently been a history teacher. Or maybe that’s why? The furnishings on the ground floor were old, but not that old, it looked like new furniture had been bought in the eighties. “What will you do in Split? Have you come on holiday? It’s already full on Bačvice!” Marina said to me. Your brother slept the whole time in the wheelchair. He didn’t lift his head once, and I’m not sure he could. I got up, there was nothing for me to do with these people in this house. Grandma, you were no longer a ghost or even someone who had once lived there. I’m sorry I have to tell you this, but I felt you had died twice: first, the true, physical death in Castellammare del Golfo, and then as a person, a spirit, in Split.

      I walked every day through the town and every day I worked out a path that took me by your house. I don’t know why: revenge, memorializing, eternalizing? Everything was in your honour. But Split was full of tourists; in some of the narrow streets we, literally, had to elbow our way past one another. There was noise down below the apartment day and night. Languages, sounds, groups with tour leaders, morning cleaners and garbage collectors, nighttime merry-making. Sounds that sweeten the night like the jazz that flows to the square like water along a canal, and sounds that ripped through the night like a man’s shouting which awoke me the second night. Waves of people with their high, penetrating voices struck at my loneliness and unwittingly reminded me of yours when you moved to Castellammare del Golfo. One night in my dream I was driven crazy by a quarrel, in English, between a man and a woman. I thought to myself, people argue even when they’re traveling. But they usually travel to make peace. I woke up, fell back asleep, then woke again. I went to the beach early. The water was shallow and there were clusters of children, grandfathers, grandmothers, young people and babies. Everyone who wasn’t going to work or to school was already on Bačvice. The young people in the shallows were playing a ball game, and it was even hard to go into the water where, with their loud cries, curses, and unbridled motion they had taken over the sea as if it were theirs. There was a large billboard on the beach advertising Ožujsko beer and Picigin. That’s when I remembered that that was name of the ballgame, a game that existed even when you were little. So this was Bačvice where your brother Krsto sang Dalmatian songs to the Italian soldiers? Yes, I also found the Hotel Park, the former Italian headquarters, imagine that! And this is where grandpa Carlo broke his finger? But I hadn’t thought about his finger at all when I was there! How had that slipped my mind? Your brother’s hands were under a blue blanket, maybe that’s why. But Grandpa Carlo broke it in a way that lasted his whole life, right?

      On the third day I got on the rickety, gold No. 12 bus and went to the Bene beach below Marjan. Marjane, Marjane… Was there anyone left who still knew that song? It feels like, in Split, the Partisan past has been swept away forever without a trace. But more than that: I read in “Free Dalmatia” that just the day before, a huge swastika had been etched on the stadium pitch at the Croatia – Italy soccer match. 10 metres long by 10 metres wide! It gave me the goosebumps: did it have to be Italy and Croatia playing that day? “Out of spite” mama would say. Grandma, it’s a good thing that neither you nor Grandpa are alive. Fascism is returning to Europe. Perhaps it never disappeared. Though it wasn’t fair, how can I put this, until your death the word you said to us most often was “Fascists.”

      But many other things happened here, that’s really clear to me now. In the nineties even more than happened during the time of the Italian, and later, German occupation, that is, in your time. No, not because of the casualties, but because of the era. Wasn’t the Second World War to be a lesson for all nations in the world not to fight any longer? No, Grandma Nedjeljka. At least not here, especially during the nineties and beyond. As you know, the greatest crimes since the Holocaust took place in your Yugoslavia. Your brother’s wife experienced it herself, though only one percent of everything that could have happened to her. She was a Serb in Split. When the shooting began in Vukovar all of a sudden she was no longer a good neighbor or a good saleswoman in “Jadran textiles” nor a good Split wife, nor a good Split mother, everyone looked at her askance, as if she had killed someone. In some way it’s a good thing that she got cancer right at the start of the war. That is, that’s when she discovered she was in an advanced stage. She died quickly, with pain. Both physically and mentally. But Marina, frightened by the Serb half inside her, wondered whether she should beg us to bring her to Castellammare del Golfo—and you know yourself that we would have taken her—or remain in Split. She decided to remain in Split; out of shame she did not ask us, you, that is, the mortal enemy of her father, to shelter her as long as things lasted in Yugoslavia. Things that, you, thank God, did not witness. But your brother and Marina did. She told me about it herself, she came looking for me on my fourth day in Split and brought me half a Split cake, “In Split you must try our special Split cake,” She said laughing as if she didn’t feel right seeking me out only after I stopped going to their place. I told her that you made the best Split cake. Blood is, nevertheless, not water. She told me she left her father bathed and fed, with clean underwear and a cut banana in front of the television to watch soccer and she came to take me on an outing to see something outside of Split. “I’ll take you to Vrlika,” she said to me. I had not heard of that small, tranquil town beneath the Dinaric Alps; you had never mentioned it to me. Along the way, she pointed out to me the place where there had earlier been an artificial lake, created in the ‘60s when the leaders, by agreement with the villagers, flooded six or seven villages and an entire Serbian Orthodox monastery. Maybe you knew about something like that? On television once someone said that when the lake dried he saw the monastery: collapsed, mouldy, green. “What about God?” Marina said. “What do you think, Neda, is God also mouldy?” “It depends on the person,” I said and I clenched my teeth. “No, not on the person, it depends on the church, or more specifically on the priest who blesses the army,” she said back to me. We circled Vrlika: gorgeous beaches, on the right side fertile fields, and on the left a cliff that the leaders had planted with evergreens. We stopped by the stone bridge, down on the river Cetina, and the stones lay like hippos in the water. Marina pointed out to me an early Christian church—preserved ruins, a bell tower, and around it – Orthodox graves with inscriptions in Cyrillic belonging to the villagers from the nearby villages with predominantly Serbian population. “In the nineties, the houses here were torched,” she said., “First the Serbs torched the Croatian ones, and then, out of revenge, the Croatians torched the Serbs. Today they live apart, Serbs in Serbian neighbourhoods, and Croatians in Croatian neighbourhoods.” They forgave each other, but they forgot nothing about what they had done. I learned that the first Croatian opera, “Ero the Joker” was written in Vrlika in 1935 by Jakov Gotovac, with a libretto by Milan Begović, and it may have been translated into Italian as well. We stood in the amphitheatre where it is performed every year and then Marina took a book from her bag and gave it to me: “You can’t buy it anymore, it’s sold out, but if you want to know something about the dark side of Split, read it.” The book was called Poems from Lora by Boris Dežulović.  “By Boris Dežulović!” I cried out. “I read him in “Free Dalmatia’ on the Internet.” “You won’t be able to read him there anymore. He submitted his resignation yesterday,” she said and added “Croatia is much more complicated than you can imagine.” Grandma Nedjeljka, it seems that that is the truth.

      I asked her about Charlotte, and Marcel, and Yuri, about all the people you told me about, people I felt were also close to me although I had never met them. She didn’t know them. Charlotte was surely no longer alive, and maybe not Marcel either. She said she had never heard of a woman by the name of Charlotte in Split. But not long ago someone had mentioned that a photographer from France had visited Split, someone with a French name and a Croatian last name. But she didn’t remember either of the names. Maybe that was Marcel? From what you told me, I didn’t know exactly where they had lived, somewhere near the church “Our Lady of Health” in Dobri, but I couldn’t point out the exact place to her. She hadn’t heard anything about the Russians who had once lived there either. Her father, while he was still healthy, had never mentioned them to her. “His whole life he was either angry and shouting, or silent,” she said and then bit her lip. “But for the last three years he has just mumbled. He doesn’t shout and he’s not silent.”

      In the apartment that evening I read Dežulović’s The Poems from Lora. I had diarrhea that night. And I dreamt about a child that couldn’t dry his wet leg because the whole time Hitler kept an eye on him personally. In the end he manages somehow to dry his leg, but his skin was like potato peel, and he fled. In my dream I was relieved that the child had escaped and I woke up. At that same moment I understood that it was rare for someone to escape the camp in Lora, even here, near Split, where Croatian patriots had imprisoned Serbian prisoners of war, civilians, who had seemed suspicious to someone, and everyone who was not aware of what it meant to be a Croat. Each and every poem was a confession from the sick mind of the criminals. A reverse perspective on evil. A document for the archive, not just for the bookshelf. Such books could, and perhaps were, written about Knin, and Srebrenica, about Vukovar, and Sarajevo, and about many other places in the former, larger fatherland of Grandma Nedjeljka. Each war, it seems, has two perspectives.

      The second week of my stay in Split I tried to watch more Croatian television to see what was happening in the country. The lead stories were all about the migrant crisis, how it was hellish in the region that summer, not just because of the temperature but also because of the refugees from Syria and other countries who were attempting to get to Western Europe along the Western Balkan route. About how the number of refugees was greater than at home in Italy, but how, fortunately, in Croatia one didn’t feel it. And how at the borders between Greece and Macedonia, Macedonia and Serbia, and Serbia and Hungary there was chaos and it was only a matter of time until the wave of refugees would be redirected towards Croatia and Slovenia. One commentator stated that Europe was becoming more and more right-wing, and that reminded me of my cousin Antonio, who was now already one of leaders in right-wing politics in Italy.

      I went to the cinematheque “Zlatna vrata” several times. The first time I asked the people working there to load onto a memory stick the most important Croatian films from the Second World War, which, according to Marina were the series about Split, Velo misto, and Malo misto,” I watched them on my tablet while sitting on a bench on the Riva, with headphones on, and thought to myself the whole time: “Ah, if only Grandma Nedjeljka could see them!” They were films about her era, about the Split she knew first hand, but also about Grandpa Carlo’s era. In the cinematheque I saw they were playing an adult animated film with the interesting title “Rock in my pockets,” a Latvian-American co-production. The film is about madness, about women, about the urge to suicide. It was so good, and so mine. I noticed that all the seats in the hall were named for directors or actors. I laughed when I realized that I had been sitting the whole time in the lap of Almodóvar. Of course, I also went to the movie theatre “Karaman” where Grandma Nedjeljka had gone with her girlfriends and I think it hasn’t changed much since then. A brand new Croatian film with the title “You Carry Me” drained me and filled me with sadness.

      My second-to-last day I went to see the sculptures of Ivan Meštrović—Grandma Nedjeljka’s Meštrović. In the bookstore in Palermo we carried a large monograph about him in Italian, but it was so expensive we couldn’t sell it for two years. From this book I had become acquainted with all his statues, still, they were more beautiful and brighter in real life. But this time I asked myself the question: what had driven him, the worm of ego that not even the purest souls can avoid, or an angel, an archangel, that commanded him to paint himself, too, on the dome of the chapel in which he and his family were buried?  So he could see himself from that higher, divine perspective as well? In the garden in front of the gallery a turtle lazily nibbled a white flower and green grass. But the sculptures – large, smooth, superhuman —watched it attentively. From the entry desk I took a photocopy of Augustine Roden’s 1915 letter to Meštrović in which he let him know that he would send him as soon as possible the sculpture ‘Meditation – Internal Voice’, which now stands right beside Meštrović’s Psyche. I bought the 2016 calendar with his sculptures. In the bookstore next to his monument to Marulić, I looked for books by Dubravka Ugrešić, but they didn’t have a single one. I wondered aloud how this was possible, but the saleswoman just shrugged her shoulders. “Even in the bookstore where I work in Palermo we have four of Ugrešić’s books,” I said to her, “in Italian.” The Ministry of Pain, and The Culture of Lies, and Baba Yaga laid an egg and The Museum of Unconditional Surrender; I listed them trying to translate the titles correctly into Croatian. The saleswoman said nothing, just looked through me, is if gazing through the shop window. I was upset and I set off to the statue of Gregory of Nin, I pressed his huge finger for good luck, but at that moment I could not come up with a single wish to hope for.

      As I was leaving, I went by Marina’s house once more. I could no longer call it “Grandma Nedjeljka’s house.” There, my grandma was neither a ghost nor a person who had, in another time, lived at the same address. I found her brother, Grandpa Krsto, on the first floor dozing in his wheelchair. This time he wasn’t covered with a blanket. And I saw the little finger on his left hand, hanging like a dried up little bone. He was already a ghost with one foot in the grave. Marina gave me a small red bag as a gift: inside she had placed a CD by Oliver Dragojević.  “This is the most famous Croatian singer,” she told me. “Maybe your father will like it. He was born in 1947, the year your Grandma left Split.”  It was then I recalled papa’s request that I bring him a shell from Split. I went into the first souvenir shop and bought the biggest and loudest.

About the author & translator :

Lidija Dimkovska is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2013 European Union Prize for Literature for A Spare Life. She is also the author of the poetry collection pH Neutral History (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, and Do Not Awaken Them With Hammers (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006). She lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Christina E. Kramer, born in West Hartford, Connecticut, received her BA (1975) from Beloit College in Russian, Comparative Literature, and Modern Languages, and her MA (1979) and PhD (1983) in Slavic Linguistics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After completing her PhD, Professor Kramer taught at Murray State University, moving to the University of Toronto in 1986, where she is now a professor of Slavic and Balkan linguistics. She is the author of numerous books on the Macedonian language and the Balkans and a translator of Macedonian literature: Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski (Penguin Books, 2012), My Father’s Books and The Time of the Goats by Luan Starova (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012 ), A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (Two Lines Press, 2016, longlisted for The Best Translated Book Award 2017).