Translation from Macedonian: Kalina Maleska
The first image that came to me of my grandfather’s house was snowy, perhaps because I write this story before New Year, when it snowed in Skopje, which had not happened for a long time. Unlike these past few years, in my earliest childhood, snow was a common winter phenomenon. The roof of the house in Pajko Mahala 1F, in which four generations of my closest relatives lived – my cousins, my aunt and uncle, grandpa and grandma, and my great-grandma Marija – as well as the bare tree crowns in the yard, were under a thick white cover. It was snowing night and day, so that when we would come back in the evening after playing games around the neighborhood, we were white and frozen as little Laponians, with boots filled with melted snow and tiny ice particles aligned on the wet wool socks. I would take them off quickly and, encouraging myself “oh, oh”, I would put my legs into the washbowl of warm water waiting for me, prepared by grandma. While I was rubbing my legs, grandpa would come down to bring a bottle of black wine from the cask in the cellar. With the same feet that were now warming up in the bowl, in September I was stomping the grapes in the wooden tub in the cellar.
Pajko Mahala survived for a few years after the earthquake, all the way to 19 The houses continued their lives, but somehow each for itself. As I was growing up and started going to school, it seemed to me that the children on the streets were much less interesting than those in the school yard. And the girls that I started staring at, and for whom I was having lustful fantasies. I was definitely entering my puberty, hair and pimples appeared on my chin and body, while my nose and a few other organs grew larger; I found it difficult to deal with this accelerated transformation of my own body, while a new kind of unrest and questions were curling up and down through that enlarged new body. Besides, I moved far away with my parents, at the edge of the city, among the orchards of Taftalidze.
Looking from a distance, however, the map of Pajko Mahala was still leaving the same image. The house of grandpa Pavle was the penultimate one among those with even numbers in Mara Josifovska street, i.e. it was the last one that was inhabited, since the neighbours from number eight, a Serbian officer’s family, moved away, although their house was not destroyed in the earthquake, to one of the new settlements, donated by the foreign friendly states. On the other hand, the house number 3, on the other side of the street, intensified its life, especially when, in the spring of 1966, our neighbour Emil brought a wife from The Netherlands.
Emil was one of the rare heroes of my childhood, who remained equally interesting both during the period before and the period after the earthquake.
Mara Josifovska 3 was a family house in which Emil lived with his sister and parents. His sister Bela was a decade or more than a decade younger than him, in fact, more than a year older than myself. In early childhood, one and a half year is a great difference, especially if the girl is older than the boy. So, Bela in before-the-earthquake Pajko Mahala had no desire to hang out with us, the immature boys running around crazily, kicking a rubber ball, swinging with wooden swards and shouting “kamaj”2F.
There were places where Bela and her friends could go. Their yard was the largest in our neighbourhood, and it was somehow different from the others, with carefully arranged lines of tomatoes and peppers. There was a nice, relaxing disorder of nature there, with two tall trees, most likely walnut tree and oak, and between them, just as in a colourful 4th grade book, fruits – sour cherries, apricots, plums. There, concealed under the shadows of the trees, the girls played “lastik”3F or exchanged napkins in their untouched space.
However, sometimes they had to go out in the alley, and expose themselves to our looks. For example, they could not play hopscotch inside, in the garden, but on the hard pavement, jumping on one leg to get the stone, in their dresses of varied colours, just a few steps from us, who were staring at them with dry throats. Bela was truly the most bellissima, in dark blue Perlon stockings, pretending not to pay the slightest attention to us.
What can I say about Emil? In the presence of Bela we were confused, and in his presence we were stone-still, almost enchanted. When he would open the yard gate, in his Brando-like jacket, much taller and stronger than the kids of our street, rough, but handsome, with a lighted cigarette on the tip of his lips, we really felt as though he had come from the screen of “Kultura” cinema. He would come back to the yard strolling like a victorious cat. After a minute or so, we could hear the roaring sound of his “cindap” (that’s how we called his black motorcycle of the brand “Zündapp”), after which, riding the large machine, Emil would rush through the alley, leaving behind him the open gate and the amazed audience.
Come to think of it, Emil and Bela had “more foreign” names than the Dutch woman Suzana. Yet, although for me they were sufficiently unusual, the event with the Dutch girl will remain the memorable image in by biographical film forever. I heard of her arrival in Pajko Mahala from none other than grandma Nevenka, the main informant and commentator of the events in the closer neighbourhood. According to my fast-legged and fast-speaking grandma, Emil met the Dutch woman during the summer holiday, in the camp of Kupari, from where, riding the cindap, he returned with the long-haired, suntanned woman on the back seat of his motorcycle. They were quick to marry, although they did not organize such a wedding as required by our customs, but only marrying in front of a corresponding state official, in the presence of his sister Bela, his parents and a few of his motorcycling friends. – Imagine that, he did not invite anyone from the family. I don’t really care, but couldn’t they have invited us, after all, we are their neighbours? – grandma was asking herself, obviously caring very much.
In these days, in which I am a witness of a local and a global crisis that upsets deeply, why do I want to write of events from past lives? Transactional psychoanalysis would probably call that “regression of pleasure”. When objective reality does not allow the subject to satisfy his desires, he is looking for the source of pleasure in his internal world. According to Freud, regression of pleasure is frequently achieved through memories, fantasies of a former period in life when the subject was content.
For me, when I wander here-and-there through memories, the period of early childhood in Pajko Mahala, in the alley of “Mara Josifovska”, is under the protection of the pleasure fairy.
Let me go back to the event with the Dutch Suzi, Emil’s wife. It happened a few years after the earthquake, in 1968-69, in the beginning of spring, when the white flowers beautified the plum tree crowns in their yard.
As I told you, in the years after the earthquake, with my puberty, the high school and the new home, my visits to Pajko Mahala became much less frequent, although I did visit occasionally for an hour or two the house on Mara Josifovska Some other children were running through the alley, born after the earthquake in rather large numbers (as though the natural disaster terror wanted to make up by a numerous new generation), but for me they were completely uninteresting. From the former neighborhood company, I stayed in contact only with Mile Galevski, perhaps because we grew up together, none of us could boast to the other that he is taller and stronger, so the equality in age and height contributed to the continuation of our friendship. After the visit to grandpa’s house, I would whistle under his window or he would wait for me on the corner, near Papateodosi, and then we would continue on foot, across the Stone Bridge, to the center. And we would immediately plunge into unrelated talks, with a specific puberty-like obsession, typical of fifteen or sixteen-year-olds who constantly leave the impression of having something very important to say to each other.
Thus, Mile announced the great news: – The Dutch woman, Emil’s wife, is bathing naked!
– We all bathe naked.
– Yes, but in the bathroom. And she… – Mile’s voice got stuck – She is bathing naked outside, in their yard.
This truly was a bomb! – Whatwhat?… Whewhen?… – I, too, started stammering.
– Totally! – Mile readily answered: – She sits in the wooden tub, then she gets up to rub herself with the soap. It’s crazy, man. What a babe!
“Crazy”, “babe” belonged to the arsenal of new words (“party”, “totally”, “man”…) which we began to use after entering the period of elongated noses, pimples and dirty thoughts. And the details that Mile used in order to decorate the spectacle were so juicy that the following nights, all the way to Friday, when, according to what he had said, the special act was taking place between 11 and 12 o’clock in the morning, the sight of the naked, sex-appealing Dutch girl were filling my head and activating my right hand.
On Friday, at the beginning of the third class, I asked my Macedonian teacher to let me leave the class because of a sharp headache. I made such a sad and desperate expression that she immediately consented. I arrived running in Pajko Mahala at about Mile was already waiting for me in front of Papateodosi. Fortunately, there was not a living soul, but anyway we hid very cautiously between the bushes that separated Emil’s house from the alley. She appeared through the branches, the green leaves and white flowers, she set the wooden tub among them and started filling it with warm water from the bucket…It seems to me that all that followed was happening in trance, reverie-like moments: kneeling by the wooden tub, illuminated by the pleasant, not-so-hot sun, she was lifting and lowering her pink body in the wooden tub which was obviously too small for such a robust woman, so some of the water would spill occasionally on the grass, and then, exclaiming in a self-reprimanding manner “huhhh”, she would continue to rub herself and wash herself more slowly… We melted into the bushes, Mile and I, shocked by the wonder of womanhood that revealed itself in front of our eyes so freely for the first time.In
the following years, the house on Mara Josifovska 3 with the big yard and the stout trees was demolished, along with all other houses in the mahala. Including the one of grandpa and grandma. They were replaced by the big white pyramid of the new theatre.
ted a trailer to his cindap in order to take his Dutch wife somewhere outside of the town, in the big world from which he brought her, where there are neither earthquakes nor floods. I meet Bela once in two or three years, mostly in the city buss “22”, which she catches back from the clinic “Sandanski”, where she works as a pediatrician. As she told me the last time I saw her: my brother, Suzi and the youngest daughter (of a few, I thought) moved again, and are now in Norway, in the town of Bergen, he is still with the machines, works as a head of the representative office of “Renault”.
They say that time in post-earthquake Skopje is a history of building. To me it seems more that it is a history of destroying. Although “history” is too strong a word for something that is done too quickly. When I sometimes go to a theatre or a ballet performance in the theatre, I imagine that right at the place of the big scene was the alley of Mara Josifovska, with the houses and the yards, and I know that there, where now the imagination is directing a two-hour long experience, the Dutch Suzana in the wooden tub, closing her eyes, plunged in her thoughts, was bathing her beautiful body.
1. Neighbourhood of Pajko
2. Kamaj” is a children’s game, in which two groups of children pretend to shoot at each other (with plastic or wooden pistols/guns), shouting “kamaj” when “shooting” someone.
3. “Lastik” is a children’s game, played by girls, in which two girls standing at a distance (of about two meters) from one another put an elastic band around their legs, while a third girl is jumping around the band according to pre-arranged movements.