The Way Things Were

I was born in Mostar. My early childhood memories are hazy now. Every year the scenes fade. That time and place seem surreal, so far removed from my present reality. The fog thickens every year but some things I remember.

Being loved. Having two parents, a small sister and a supporting entourage of grandmothers, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins of every conceivable kind; first, second, distant in family line but known and close, cousins in name only through marriage. They were all a part of my world and I loved them all.

There is a well-established tradition in the Balkans of sitting in company, conversing for hours. People take their time in life. Afternoons were synonymous with a Turkish coffee ritual. Visiting friends and relatives would arrive unannounced to sip a thick coffee, sitting around for hours, talking.

On hot summer nights you could hear cicadas and feel the town’s energy. People were out and about, crowding cafes and restaurants or visiting each other’s homes. Evening visits were accompanied by meze and strong regional alcohol: Slivovitz. Raki. I remember thick clouds of cigarette smoke. The card games. Happily playing in the corner. This was our life. Enveloped in a safe familial cocoon.

My grandmother would take me to the villages sometimes. There we picked sticky figs. Once we picked cherries. We would take one from the tree and pry it apart. Some were filled with white worms. There were pomegranates on the tree next to our house. I loved those.

One summer I went to grandmother’s village. They were slaughtering pigs. The village was alive with festivities and numerous cousins. The next summer we went to grandpa’s ancestral village. I hung out with the cool older girl who looked after sheep. Grandmother was scared that I would fall into a cavernous ditch so she carefully monitored my time outside. I found a hammock and vociferously read ten ninja books. I aspired to become one but worried that it was already too late. And how would I find a proper trainer? The ninja training remained a fantasy. Instead, upon my return to town, I was sent to music school. I attended solfeggio classes followed by private piano lessons. At the end of the school year I played a piece in front of a crowd of fellow students and parents.

Daily I roamed the streets of town, alone, at a young age. I always ran into people; friends, parent’s friends, cousins, neighbors, schoolmates. Along the way, I made pit stops at my aunt’s house who spoiled me rotten or at grandmother’s who did the same.

In summers we would pack into our little car and drive to the Adriatic coast, often to Makarska, sometimes Neum or Split. There were two summers when, with grandmothers in tow, we drove to Greece. Thessaloniki was perfect. Herds of goats owned the beaches. Our skin burned easily and we resorted to copious amounts of aloe vera. At night, we heard the song of cicadas mixed with sounds of sea. Salty water crashing into land, lulling us to sleep.

Then everything changed.