Photo: katiecooperx

Over the Mountains

Serbia. For me: baklava, sarma, palacinke, family, roots, the old country. For the uninitiated: a small landlocked country in southeastern Europe separated from the rest of the continent by the Danube river in the north, and from the Mediterranean by the Alps in the west.

My family, speckled from years of sun damage, followed the sun-starved Slavs across those mountains every summer to sit and bake on the rocky Croatian coastline. When I was seven years old my family rented a house in a tiny coastal town a twelve-hour drive from Belgrade. We packed up our car one evening after dinner, sitting in each other’s laps, our thighs sticking together in the heat, looking out the window to try to see where we were headed.

The car took us back in time, to a platform where a chugging black train waited for us, its enormous body veiled by clouds of spewing steam, the roar of the engine drowning out the excited screams of my cousins. We pushed through the rushing crowd, handing over our luggage and stepping up into the sleeping car, waving goodbye to my parents from the top step.

While my parents drove over the mountains, the train took us under them, weaving through three hundred miles of tunnels blasted out of rock. We were squeezed into a space the size of a small powder room: four children and one adult, three cots piled high like bunk beds joined together by a rope ladder, a small table that converted into a sink, and a window instead of a television.

We fought over who would get to sleep where, each of us wanting the middle bunk where we could lie on our stomachs and stare out the window. I watched the lights pass by, unblinking, until my eyes burned and I had to turn away. When my aunt whispered that we were crossing into Croatia I tried to see where the border began, but the countryside next to the train track rolled on without interruption.

When my cousins kicked me out from the bunk, needling their elbows into the space next to the window, I left the compartment to explore. The door at the back of the train slid open, letting in the night and the raging sounds of the dark, the monster squealing of train tracks and steam. I was surprised to find myself staring into a mirror. There was another girl looking back at me.

“Hi!”

“Hello!”

She stepped back to let me into the car, and then leaned on the windowsill, staring at me. Her right eye was half-closed, as if she was winking, the pupil stuck in place, like a glass bead. I looked shyly down. Her toenails were painted pink.

“Where are you from?” she asked, tucking her toes under her feet.

“From Belgrade.”

“You live there?”

“Nah. I live in America.”

“Really?”

Her marble eye didn’t move. I looked out the window.

“You speak English?”

“Yes.”

“Can you say something?”

“Like what?”

“Anything.”

Hi, how are you. I can speak English.”

“Wow.”

She smiled, her good eye watching my mouth as I formed the words.

“I have a game we can play, if you want.”

“Okay.”

“I see something, then give you clues, and you have to guess what it is. I’ll go first.”

We leaned our backs up against the sill and she looked around us.

“It’s big.”

There was nothing in front of us but a door.

“It’s blue and red and green and yellow.”

“All of those colors?”

“Yup. It also travels very far.”

“The train,” I said, “It has to be the train.”

She shook her head.

“No.”

“So then what is it?”

“It’s you.”

Her glass eye had seen through me, unclouded.

They call it the lost generation: those born to immigrants in a new country, a mix of the old and the new yet fitting into neither world, like a painting begun by one artist and finished by another, the colors never quite a perfect match.

 

My father told me you didn’t have to be born in Serbia to be a Serb. Ethnicity, like the morning’s groceries, could be obtained by going through a simple set of rituals. The first, and most important, was to speak Serbian. It was my secret language, the one I knew first and that no one had ever heard of, so obscure that I could safely talk about other people without worrying that they would understand.

My mother called me at work once, while I was serving a customer. She had started calling me like that, for no reason, after the U.S. began dropping bombs over there.

Da, dolazim kući,” I reassured her. “Ne brini.

The old man smiled at me after I hung up.

“What language are you speaking?”

“Serbian,” I replied.

He recoiled. He had been reading the news.

“Serbian?” He took the bag from me and turned to go. “I don’t like you people.”

 

My parents were waiting for us at the train station in short shorts and strappy sandals. We smeared our faces against the glass, waving, but they couldn’t see us through the crowd, and we watched helplessly as they scanned each of the cars. The train was no longer a vacation, but what was keeping us from enjoying one. We pushed through the doors, waiting impatiently in line as everyone crowded out with their luggage into the heat.

“How was it?” my parents asked, and I laughed and shrugged, not wanting to tell them about the little girl, not knowing why her game had made me uneasy, not understanding that she had seen something I wouldn’t see for myself for many years.

The car ride was loud and boisterous, filled with children talking and laughing. The road wound in and out along the coast, each curve revealing another beautiful ocean postcard, the blue and green and grey spotted with the white of boats, the little towns shoved as close as they could to the shore. We passed tourists on bicycles who rang their bells in greeting, and caught sunbathers returning from the beach along the main road, their wet towels trailing behind them. They waved at us too. Everyone was friendly.

 

In Zagreb, Croatia, 20 years later, the sign to Belgrade has been removed. My mother and I are sitting in the back seat, purses in hand, waiting for an explanation.

Zašto su to uradili?” my mother asks the cab driver. Our accents drip off the seats onto the pristine leather.

“It’s all changed now, you know,” he replies. “I have nothing against you, you know, but people don’t forget.”

My mother leans back and crosses her arms. “But Serbia is in that direction. So what now, it doesn’t exist? You can’t drive there?”

The man shrugs.

 

We had rented a white stucco house at the top of a hill that overlooked the water. The beach was half an hour away: you had to go to the bottom of the hill, cross the street, and walk along the main road until the small, overused patch of sand came into view. My father would wake up every morning at six, walk the road alone and place our towels on the beach to make sure we would have a place to sit by the time we arrived at ten. By then the sand would be covered in glaring umbrellas, our own little territory marked off with an army of beach balls, swimming tubes, blow-up plastic boats and mats, a stereo, bags and enough sunscreen for everyone.

One morning my father and I decided to take our little plastic boat and row out to the small island nearby. We began the journey lazily, lying down and using our arms to paddle, until we got tired and stuck our legs out the back, kicking in tandem like a propeller.

From far away the green leaves of the island looked like another world, and we were the foreign explorers. We created a culture for the islanders, these imaginary people. They had always lived there, and they didn’t like outsiders. We would have to be careful.

We dragged our plastic boat onto the rocky beach, and climbed up onto the pier that led out to a large patio overlooking the ocean. The center of the deck had collapsed, and a small tree had sprouted where a bar had once been. The palm leaves acted the bartender, inviting us for a refreshing drink.

“They’re all gone,” I said to my father.

A creak behind us made me jump, but I smiled when I saw a woman in blue totter in delicately on wooden sandals. My father and I exchanged a look, and followed her. A native.

Just outside the old entrance to the bar a group of people were sitting eating their lunch. The road was paved behind them and led to a marina where a small tourist boat was docked, covered with a canvas canopy and lined with little black speakers.

I looked back out towards the beach where we’d come from; my mother was just an invisible speck of sand.

 

We never vacationed on the coast again. Something else had grown up around the mountains, something stronger than rock, invisible, untouchable, that no tunnel could blast through. At first I didn’t understand.

“It’s nothing, really,” my parents assured me, “but they can tell.”

“Who can?” I asked, thinking of the natives eating sandwiches. Of the little girl staring at me with her glass eye. “What can they tell?”

“Who we are.”

“Who are we?” I asked them. “We’re from America. That’s okay, isn’t it?”

“We’re not American,” my father said, and I began to understand.

***

 Read more essays in Placed, a column curated by Miranda Ward.
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