That winter the temperature dropped below -20 degrees Celsius, but it didn’t prevent my father from taking us skiing to Mount Jahorina.
The song “Where the Streets Have No Name” playing on the old cassette player of our green, 1982 Lada Riva sounded as if it was coming from afar. The rhythmic sound of the guitar mixed with the hum of the car going up the mountain road as the snow-covered evergreen trees sped past us. My father deliberately jerked the steering wheel left and right, causing the car to skid and spin toward the shoulders of the road covered with huge deposits of snow, while we nearly split our sides laughing. I was happy.
The next song that came on was “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” by Simple Minds, but forgetting was something inevitable and life went on. It was 2001 and once again, for the first time in ten years, I was in my old homeland. My aunt was waiting for me at the bus station. She was still quite plump and she didn’t stop talking, apart from when she took a deep drag of her “Filter 57” cigarette that was always dangling from the corner of her mouth. The green packaging and the small red dragon on the box of cigarettes—which as a kid I used to think was a little frog—irresistibly reminded me of a swamp surrounded by a cloud of smoke in which my aunt was always enveloped.
Had I known that that would be the last time I ever saw her, maybe I would’ve told her how much she meant to me. Even when she sewed up the holes in my deliberately torn jeans with brightly colored patches, after which I never wore them again. Yes, maybe I would’ve told her that I loved her even when she urged me to hang out with the “nerds,” who I found unbelievably boring and who I fled like the plague.
In 1987, the kids in my street were the faithful type more so than nerds. “Do you wanna make a bit of trouble?” asked one of those people who today no longer exist, who was killed by a Serb mortar shell fired out of sheer Balkan spite on the first day of the liberation of Sarajevo. We called him—aptly—Troublemaker. He was the embodiment of street life that was hard, but fair, governed by unwritten laws and rules that every kid followed.
“Now,” cried Hare, and with all our might we tossed lumps of dirt mixed with berries that released a red dye onto the white-haired man’s balcony. It was our revenge for the broken sled just because we made too much racket for him out the front of his apartment. Nobody wrote the natural laws of street life, but all the kids respected them in order to maintain the peaceful equilibrium between the residents.
In 2001 my streets had no name. They had different names that to me were unfamiliar. The people around me were unfamiliar too, apart from my girlfriend who held onto my hand firmly. “Why are your hands so cold?” she asked me, but she already knew the answer to that. From the moment she came on this uncertain journey with me, she knew that my heart was clenched so tight that it no longer pumped heat into my body.
“I dreamed of those streets every night for years, but they were more real in my dreams than in reality,” I said to her later on, after we had already left and my city that was not mine and my streets that had no name were far behind us. Maybe it’s better to leave them back there.
Before, we genuinely believed that we were moving forward. But, we also knew how to laugh at our own expense. In the ’80s, we compared the one-time success of our “Brotherhood and Unity” project with the then reality. Fitting perfectly with that comparison was the Yugoslav TV series, A Better Life.
My grandfather didn’t want to watch it because it insulted Yugoslavia for which he had taken bullets, lost relatives, and languished in prison on Goli Otok. And perhaps out of similar spite he preferred to watch the American TV series Dynasty that, however remote it was from the lives of ordinary Yugoslavs, still offered some sort of appeal—probably suggestive of what in the coming decades would become our dream too, the Pan-American dream.
But apart from the dizzying effect of the opening credits of Dynasty, we kids got nothing out of those TV series. We were interested in wild, untamed, and endless play; we were boisterous, energetic, and we needed an outlet.
When Guns N’ Roses entered our lives something resonated within us. The times were about to erupt. People didn’t know what the future held, but they still believed in the preservation of the old ways. My cousin was part of the in-between generation.
“Turn that racket off!” he came flying into his room once when I was visiting him, and turned off the tape at the best part of “Welcome to the Jungle,” just as the snarling menace of the song enters your world and fills the space with soaring guitars, smoke and fire, guns and roses . . .
“Listen to something better,” he said to me, putting on another cassette. And as the room filled with the sound of Idoli, a New Wave band from Belgrade who I found totally boring and too commercial, I went into another room, and there I continued to dream of my idols. I took out a pen from the backpack that I took with me on weekends whenever I stayed over at my aunt’s place, and started to draw the band’s skull and crossbones logo on my skin.
My appetite for destruction was overwhelming.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015