Toto Cutugno won the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Insieme, while we were farther away than ever from being “together.”
I was living in Skopje. Summer break had ended and I was preparing to return to Sarajevo. Although it was strange my dad hadn’t called me all summer, not even for my birthday, I decided not to think about it. I had work to do—I had to pack my clothes and, yes, my skateboard too. I couldn’t forget that. I didn’t have many other things.
I sat there in readiness to hit the road, and waited for my mom to get home from work. She was stunned when she saw me. She didn’t understand what was going on. I told her that I would be going to Sarajevo for a while to see my friends, but that I would return at the first opportunity.
“Where will you stay?” she asked me, as if in shock.
“Well, at home,” I replied, confused.
“But, you live here now . . .”
Most of the words we hear in life are meaningless and forgettable, but some words change your life forever. “I live here now” became my mantra in the coming years and I did everything I could for it to truly be the case.
I gave up my language, my customs, and the person I used to be. My natural sociability turned into a desire for solitude. My dislike of books into a love of books. My slack study habits into obsessive studiousness. I turned from being one person into another. I don’t know if that was a good thing or not, but what I do know is that it was necessary.
After several months spent in self-imposed “isolation,” I began to go out again. There was a Goth club in Debar Maalo called “Doors,” a mystical and magical place. Candles burned inside and it smelled of incense. There for the first time I got to know the Macedonian alternative music scene, which wasn’t well known in Yugoslavia. Apart from the famous rock group Leb i Sol, we didn’t know anyone else. Macedonia was generally fairly marginal within Yugoslavia, and as the years passed this began to piss me off.
My life turned into a struggle for the rights of the disadvantaged, the victims, the silent and unobtrusive ones, the condemned ones, the abandoned ones, the forgotten ones, the neglected ones. I wanted Macedonia to be recognized and respected, but that wasn’t often the case. Me and my new homeland were pretty much snubbed by everyone, and all we could do was to work on ourselves—obsessively, and with great sacrifice and devotion. And if others recognized us for this, then good for them.
One night, my sister and her boyfriend, Bobby, decided to take me to the movies to drag me out of my self-imposed isolation and away from my negative thoughts. The film was called Green Card. It was playing at the small theater on the first floor of the Mcedonian Cultural Center. The lights dimmed and the movie started. Comfortably seated, with popcorn and drinks in hand, we were suddenly startled by the sound of loud drumming. On the screen, a boy in the subway was pounding away on a plastic bucket with this incredible drumming skill. The film continued and, even though it was supposed to be a romantic comedy, it exposed many social truths about America. Maybe it just wanted to erase white people’s guilt of racial and social tension in America. Nevertheless, it was a great example of the films of the 90s, a time when the entertainment industry still cared about its audience and not just their money.
In seventh grade, they placed me in what was called the “Serbian class” because my knowledge of Macedonian wasn’t good enough. I came from Sarajevo, a city that fostered a spirit of unity. I didn’t even know which of my friends was a Serb, Croat, Muslim or Austro-Hungarian. So I found it especially strange that a class made up of people of all sorts of nationalities—just like a mini-Yugoslavia—was put under the label of only one of those nations. There were nine of us in total. And it was hell!
t my new school in Skopje, I felt a sense of fear and dread in every class. You could be given a test at any moment, on any day of the week. And to my amazement, everyone knew the answers to everything. In the first SC, CS or Serbo-Croatian class (and every other variant title), the teacher introduced herself and immediately proceeded to test my knowledge.
The teacher was an elderly woman with pink lipstick smudged above and below her lips. She was an old-school Soviet-style teacher, but without a rod in her hand. She interrogated me thoroughly, while I remained close-mouthed and silent. Exasperated, the desperate woman began to sweat and to squawk, with steam coming out of her ears and nose.
My throat clenched and I looked down at my seat. I covered my face with my hair, which even back then was long, as tears dripped from my eyes. Drip, drip, slowly and quietly . . .
People say “still waters run deep.” Those tears etched grooves in my brain, which suddenly at that moment snapped to life. I became infuriated, wanting to break, smash, destroy, burn—not the teacher or the school, but me, myself.
The fact that my father had made his own life easier by getting others to help me study and worry about my grades so that he wouldn’t have to do it himself was rather shameless on his part. But what about my own sense of shame? From that moment on, I decided that things had to change. And so in seventh grade I began to study: “A, B, C, D . . .”
Round the clock, without going out, without sleeping, without playing—I studied until my head hurt. And suddenly I realized that I could do it, that I knew how to, that I was worth it . . . and that’s the most important realization a young mind can ever come to. You don’t need others to believe in you, as long as you have faith in yourself.
At school I had a friend who looked a little like Vanilla Ice—tall and blond, with a pompadour hairstyle. Physically we were total opposites, but we soon became best friends. We sat together in class and were rarely apart, even outside school—either he was at my place or I was at his. Sometimes he got teased because he was tall and awkward, and that would make me blind with rage. His name was Timur and he was my best friend. And more than that, most probably he was a substitute for all the friends from Sarajevo that I’d lost and that I would never see again. He was my own personal superhero.
At the time, “Ice Ice Baby” was a popular hit that was driving people mad—some with joy, others with despair. I remember that several of us from my neighborhood were together at my place, and when “Ice Ice Baby” started playing, we just went wild. Timur was doing his famous arm-flapping dance. That is, he would open and close his denim jacket with his hands while throwing his head back and forth like a bird.
Timur was a boy who dreamed of building lasers, airplanes, spaceships, and who wrote science-fiction stories. He used to buy Galaxy, a magazine dedicated to science and technology. I started collecting new and old editions of the magazine too. I can honestly say that I learned all the basics of science from those magazines, because the content of them was expert and objective. Even today when there’s excitement or furor over some kind of natural phenomenon, and everyone goes half-mad with fear, an old logical and scientific article from Galaxy comes to mind, and I just smile to myself.
We talked about astronomy and the universe. We knew which of the planets had rings and satellites and how many they were, what the maximum and minimum temperatures were, whether or not it rained sulfuric acid or there was any evidence for the existence of water on them. We knew everything about the universe. However, we knew nothing about girls.
But who needs girls when you’ve devoted yourself to science . . . and with some good music playing in the background, of course. But music was also changing. MTV Unplugged was born, and I bought my first record—The Razors Edge by AC/DC. The song “Thunderstruck” and the sound of the records themselves hit me like a real thunderbolt. I was addicted.
I didn’t have the money to buy records, but I desperately wanted them. My mom gave me money to buy my lunch from “7” the fast-food place because she thought that would make it easier for me to fit in. But I kept the money instead. Going hungry each day was a small price to pay to buy a new record each week.
“Where did you get so many new records from?” Mom asked me, and that put an end to me “buying” my lunch. That’s how the legend of my lunchbox pies began, for which I became famous in both junior high and middle school.
Some of us lived for music and progressive ideas. Smiki was one of them. He was the future founder of the band SAF and he wore Doc Martens and listened to noise metal in seventh grade. A rumor circulated about him that one time, when he was in hospital with a broken bone, out of boredom he read the Bible from cover to cover in just two days. And on occasions, he would recite verse in English from a Shakespeare play.
But Smiki was one in a million. And our country wasn’t interested in progressive children, but in really retrograde ideas. People began talking openly about ethnic conflict. To us kids, the idea of a nation being torn apart was unthinkable (because for us Yugoslavia was one single nation). We were a single united entity. But the older people, who recalled a different Yugoslav past, knew otherwise. And they were proven to be right.
We rode the wave of carefree youth while we could. But not for long.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015