Wednesday 23 May 2012

Neither Here nor There: memoir

Neither Here nor There

I’ve always thought of my roots as hot and cold- red and blue. My body a mix of blood, a Petri dish of conflicting cells. My beginnings a union of different cultures, the clash of them. Much like a frog who hops in and out of a pond, I too have different homes. My birth place, Croesor, in the wild Welsh landscape, holds my physical memories, cups my childhood in its green hands. It is as familiar to me as my own face; the valley that bore me nineteen years ago is an old friend. My family place, however, where my Mama was born, where her roots first grew, is far away towards the East.

When I think of Serbia- my mothering country- I think of a place in the psyche, built of memories, vague notions, secret words. A place from the photos- exotic, chaotic. When I go there I almost feel a part of it, like I belong. It’s as if there’s a pull, a gravitational attraction towards the ancestral pool. And how easy it is to dive in. There is always a fiery warm welcome, family there means everything. We were forever to be greeted with open arms- even though we are “Engleski”- by our relatives and their surrounding orbit of friends and neighbours. How memory works in such a blending of the senses. Like watercolours, images, sounds and smells swim into each other creating a distinct flavour, the splutters of car engines, a haze of heat, husky voices, those deep booming vowels of the language, vibrating your heartstrings. Always the smoke, a constant blanket of hot smoke wherever you go.

I remember the excitement of ‘going back home’, my home away from home, a borrowed home. Walking off the plane in Belgrade, I would feel a drunken giddiness, the excitement of airports that seems to get lost with age. The heat would always come over me like a lick of crimson paint, and as we collected our suitcases and scanned the crowd for familiar faces, I would get sticky with sweat, and I knew we had arrived. Someone would always meet us, usually an aunt or an uncle. It would be a jubilant reunion, a generous spatter of kisses, the European way. Walking out to the car, the enduring smell of the country would greet us, hugging our nostrils with pollution and cigarettes. If I paint an unsavoury picture, it is not my intention. The halcyon nature of childhood memories means everything becomes a patchwork of nostalgia and innocence. Perhaps had I visited Serbia only in my adult years, I would have wrinkled my nose at the foggy atmosphere, but my seven year old self thought it was a wonderful place, any smell a new smell, and therefore to be treasured. Instead of being dirty or stifling, the sometimes run-down surroundings were transformed by their unfamiliarity. Wow, look at those towers of flats! I’ve never seen anything like them in Wales! And everything here is covered in dust instead of grass!

Relativity was a curious factor in our visits. As part of our pentagonal family I felt privileged, rich, BRITISH. I would sometimes feel oddly ashamed of how Mama would always pay the bill, or how our clothes always seemed newer and trendier than the other kids’. Instead of being a cause of pride, our wealthiness there was a flashing light bulb, drawing attention to our Western advantages. Seeing the poverty there was a frightening education. Gypsy kids, street urchins of sorts, would drag their feet forlornly along the street, begging for money or asking the street vendors for food and water. They looked very foreign, like little Mowglis. Walking past I would feel incredibly white, not only in appearance but in culture, and I would get a wave of unease, embarrassed by my own luck.

There were sadder sights still. In Bosnia, especially, there were leftovers from the war. A confused aftertaste of destruction hung in the air. We would go there to visit my grandmother Baba Rosa, who lived there for a while working as a doctor. It was a small, rural village, almost a wasteland of bare brick buildings and rickety roads. I remember seeing a sign outside a school there, it read something like ‘Donated by the American Charitable Society’ and I thought, it must be poor here if other countries are helping them out. That really shocked me. Old women dressed in mourning black would beg in the streets, frail and wrinkly, they looked like chicken bones in headscarves. Mama would always give them money, saying her grandmother could have turned out like that. Grief and hardship seemed to seep from every crevice. But loyally, the art of childhood memory manages to gloss over these ugly scars, I still saw beauty in the cracks, if only because I had never seen them before. The family atmosphere still ran strong, many times we would visit the houses in the village, meeting the neighbours and eating big tropical smiles of watermelon, the sweet juice sticking like glue. Even though there were ruins, and a basic feel to everything that we were not used to back at home, I never felt superior. We left that British arrogance at customs. In fact I deplored being an outsider, I wanted in.

Back in North Wales, we were not especially privileged. That air of having it all faded with our tans. This accentuated how little some people had over there, and still, they lived in a culture where glamour and materialism ruled all. Brought up in a down to earth middle class family, I had never been exposed to flash displays of wealth. In Serbia people would wear clothes screaming misspelt designer names and show off their new phones. It was a curious swap of roles- we were usually seen as the rich British relatives and yet everyone made fun of our country bumpkin ways, lacking in gadgets and gizmos. The attitudes towards sex and sex appeal over there are also a much brasher, overt affair compared to what I was used to back home. The women all seemed beautifully made up- bright make up, curvaceous bodies with tight clothes to show them off- exuding glamour I had only seen in films. My aunties Sandra and Irena were like real life twin Barbie dolls. I would reach the height of luxury when they painted my nails or plucked my eyebrows. They were so different to Mama, who rarely shaved her legs or wore lipstick, my aunties were real women. I suppose, not that real, as both of them have gone on to have excessive plastic surgery. The ingrained female sexualisation there seemed almost aggressive.

My aunties would always say that I looked like them, that I was a proper Serb, my dark eyes given to me from Mama, my high cheekbones echoing a Slavic femininity. My skin also tanned well. I was proud of this, it seemed to show that I was more Serbian than my brother and sister, who glowed an Anglo-Saxon pink, and hid blue eyes behind their sunglasses. Our blood, on the other hand, would measure out equally, a perfect half of Serbian red, the rest a cold British blue. But appearances meant more to me, my competitive side strived to be the most exotic. I even had an advantage with the language as Mama had spoken Serbian to me as a child (which I eventually rejected as ‘weird’, ‘different’- how the tables turn!) so I could understand snippets of conversation.
“Aide bre!”- “Lets go!”
“Kako je lepa”- “Isn’t she pretty”
“Ja hocu pivo”- “I want beer”

I revelled in the deep notes and cutting consonants, yet all the while we remained in our bubble of English. The words sounded familiar, they would dance around my ears with their bobbing rhythms, never to be fully understood. I envied Mama talking fluidly, laughing to jokes I could never grasp, the punch line would always get lost in translation. Even though we were accepted because of our family ties, it would bug me that there was such a gauze of misunderstanding between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Yet that is the linguistic side of the coin, flip over and love transcends verbs and nouns- generosity reads the same in any language.

The evenings there were the most magical of all. Those husky dusks, the sun setting with a long kiss goodnight. We would walk along the bustling streets, in Novi Sad or Belgrade, and I would invite the chatter and smell of popcorn gladly. Group outings with the whole family were common; we would sit at the outside tables of cafes that were sprawled across the city quarters. I would guzzle up fizzy drinks and ice cream, sponging the atmosphere until I was heavy and dazed with it.

One of my favourite places was our great aunt Tetka Mira’s balcony in Belgrade. She lived in an apartment block that was one of many on a long street following on to a shady leafed park. The main road was not far, we would climb up a row of steps, passing all the old women selling bric a brac, to the buses and cars and the roadside watermelon stalls. This balcony though, felt like a little square box of paradise. Whether it was a hazy morning with sleepy eyes and the smell of Turkish coffee (thick and syrupy, with the grains left at the bottom) or a midnight hour where the heat became bearable, sitting at the table, looking at the city’s vastness was transporting. We were transported! It was otherworldly. Coming from the sticks and stones of our little Welsh village, the contrast was mind boggling. Sand coloured apartments, high and repetitive, stood tall and proud instead of mountains. The sound of sheep and twittering birds was replaced by far off sirens, connoting mayhem and a constant flux of events. We would sit at the balcony and look down on the passing pedestrians, walking along the pathway towards the park. We felt so high up and to prove this we would spit watermelon pips off the edge to watch how long they would take to hit the ground, which seemed miles away. It was like those games of ‘pooh sticks’ we would play at the rivers around Croesor, throwing sticks into the water, just to watch them come out at the other side of the bridge. There was fun in throwing things into the oblivion.

In Serbia the climate is sticky and humid like a stewed peach. Dust and sand seem a part of everything, lending my mind’s eye a filter of yellowy brown. There are not many mountains or hills; everything seems to be on the same plane. Instead of beaches, the coastless country offers its wide, murky rivers as places to swim and sunbathe. The water is grey and uncertain, with a bed of waterweeds which can twist around your ankles as you swim.

Back in my birthplace I admire the levels of the countryside, there seems to be more clarity. From the peaks of the mountains to the earthy underground, I can sense the creatures high and low, living in their element much as we live in our four walls. I can scan the bumps and curves of the mountainside, finding surprises of purples and yellows in the textured quilt of grass and stone. My surroundings feel like a multi coloured canvas you can paint with your feet. Growing up in the V shaped valley, in our old farmhouse Croesor Fawr- Big Croesor, one notices the timeless quality of the untamed. If you were to watch a sped up video of the last fifty years, you would see a flurry of the seasons: white, green, grey, sunset pinks. No new roads built, no upheavals of architecture, no growing fog of pollution. The changes of nature remain unchanged.

Growing up in the open air was a free and happy affair. I was allowed to roam the fields as I pleased, finding spots to play in, an abandoned, crumbling barn where I encountered my first game of Truth or Dare, or at the river bed, sunbathing and paddling in beneath the canopy of trees. It was much easier to believe in fairies in a place like this. Croesor is a village placed beneath the mountain Cnicht, allegedly named after the English word ‘knight’. It has a protective quality, I always thought it looked like a gorilla. It has always attracted a variety of characters, people from all around the world, and once housed the ‘Orange People’ in the 60’s, a hippie commune who wore orange robes and must have stuck out amongst the Welsh farmers. I attended the primary school that used to run in the village, which only had two rooms and had thirty students at most, meaning we all knew each other as family.

Even though I was born in a tiny cottage at the foot of Cnicht, it was hard to place my finger on where exactly I had come from. Other children of the village were part of a long generation of Croesor inhabitants, with grandparents next door and a solid sense of national pride. Where were my aunties and uncles and cousins? Where did I grow out of? It didn’t seem to matter that I had gasped my first breath on Croesor soil, while my school mates had been born in the local city hospital, because they had family here, they had it in their blood. This feeling of one foot in, one foot out, carried through into my family life. My parents split up when I was a few months old, so I have always lived with Mama, my stepdad and my half brother and sister. I was always slightly out of focus at home, a full figure, yes, but blurred around the edges. Visiting my dad on the weekends meant an ongoing upheaval, not quite belonging with him either. Now he has his own family, I am even more of a floating cloud. It is the same when I question my identity, which part of me is British? My bones? My hands? Are my lungs of a Serbian origin? My lips? I suppose I should count myself lucky, not many people can claim such duality.

What contradictions, what opposite poles, these places I call home. I have always found a beauty in that, the differences, the feminine and masculine, the yin and yang blending of darkness and light. There is beauty in this mix of flavours- the sweet and savoury of family trees and childhood roots. I bask in this mixing bowl of memories and mismatched cultures, celebrating this distant place where I also belong. My blood has travelled far from the Adriatic Sea, which is neither here nor there, but remains in me.