deep sky, firefly (rainsinger) wrote,
deep sky, firefly

Home Is Where The Cockroaches Are

Well. It turns out that the biggest ennemy of internet use is not employment, or parenthood, or the demands of marital emotional engagement and intimacy, but migraine headaches now starring in Your Howling Unresponsive To Panadol Agony on 5 days of the last 7. I have dozens half-written posts and comments, abandoned mid-sentence when the computer's light would mutate from Pretty Thing to Thousand Stabbing Demons. Oh well.

Anyway. I am newsly-emerged from my cave and here is a chronicle of all the places I've lived from the ages of 0-20, brought to you by A Cocktail of Prescribed Medication and 16 Hours Of Sleep.

When I was born my parents were living in a two bedroom apartment in Central Belgrade, not far from this market. I don't have any memories of that apartment, only of the stories other people tell.

Such as how their friends in Split (Croatia) would sometimes ring up unexpectedly saying "I've got a nice catch of fish this morning! Start the grill, I'm hopping on a plane" and an hour and a half later there would be and an impromptu grilled-fish-red-wine-dice-and-cards party late into the night. (The fact that as a baby I never objected to these gatherings suggests that I was a vastly more polite child than my son.)

...Or of my mother's long-suffering cleaning lady who rang my grandmother in a fluster at the state of the kitchen saying "I can take no more! The gentleman has been baking again".

...Or of the time when my mother hired a Gypsy lady to clean, and the lady came with her granddaughter looking tired and sad and my mother asked her what was the matter and the lady said she hadn't slept all night because her son was in jail and my mother said 'Well have a rest on the sofa then for a bit, while I have a look at his case' and how my aunt came by to visit unexpectedly and was deeply horrified to find me and a strange Gypsy child in the bath together, while a Gypsy woman snored on the sofa and my mother tidied furtively.

These are mere snippets, but they weave a warmer, more carefree life than I ever remember my parents having and I like to think of them like that. To know there was this other time of hope and laughter and parties that came before the slammed doors and icy silences and shouting matches and warfare-of-gazes over the kitchen table.

Every story in my life, in my parents' lives seems to at some point brush against the indomitable, eclipsing life force of my grandmother and the first house I remember is hers. My parents would drop me off there before work and pick me up afterwards. Whatever other things she did she was a devoted and enthralling caretaker.

I was very small. My memories are largely hazy and imperfect, like fragments of a photograph. My mittened hand in hers, and a walk to the plaground behind the house. Broken pavement, an old blue slide and a construction of chipped red metal ladders and hoops. A one-armed neighbour and the knot of fascination and horror in my stomach at the sight of her pinned-up sleeve. And a pair of mourning dove eggs in a nest on the windowsill.

The mourning doves were absent-minded and neglectful parents and my grandmother (who mostly loved animals and hated humans) would keep the eggs warm in a wooly winter hat, and when the dovelings hatched they were small and grey and later they would settle in my outstretched hands.

When I was one and a half, my grandmother and my parents made the monumental (and as it turned out, ill-advised) decision to move in together. These being Socialist Times you could trade in two apartments and be offered a bigger one by the government.

The apartment we were given was a spacious, high-ceilinged ruin, at the time overrun with so many cockroaches that an adult walking to the kitchen would have their journey marked by the constant sound of crunching. I didn't witness the Cockroach Extravaganza since my family left me with my aunt and my cousins while they made the place habitable. (I remember being left, and my terror as to whether my family would ever come back for me. When they did, when the door opened and I saw my grandmother I froze on the spot. It was like the sky had opened and I had been given my very own miracle).

It was a beautiful, spacious apartment with tantalising views of rooftops and the tangled garden of the Italian Cultural Centre opposite (where we sometimes went to see incomprehensible cartoons about lost children and cannibals) and all kinds of nooks and crannies in which a child might hide (behind a pillar; underneath floor-to-ceiling ochre curtains; behind the heavy, musty coats in the hallway closet; among the tall jars of spices, salted cucumbers and preserves in the larder)and imagine an exciting heroes-and-villains-cowboys-and-indians-witches-and-princesses kind of life.

In many ways it was more a mausoleum than a family home - divided as it was into the Kingdoms of Grandmother and Parents, with underground conflicts and uneasy truces between them. The kitchen was a constant danger zone, the hallway was the No Man's Land and my parents' rooms were a bohemian chaos zone with their opera arias and mess and disorder and traces of card games and furniture you were allowed to bounce on and the constant, attendant fug of smoke.

By contrast, my grandmother's Kingdom was tidy. It was littered with the debris of history and with possessions she had accumulated, which stood patiently stacked in their rows and lines like soldiers on a battlefield. Like ramparts between her and the loss and poverty of her early life. Dinner services with gilded edges, with illustrations of fish. Hungarian teasets of Herendy porcelain. Japanese teapots. Ornate Chinese cups and bowls. Boxes of silver cutlery. Counted and polished dessert spoons. Rows and rows and rows of figurines (counted, dusted, treasured).

And the things she brought from Russia. Eggs of coloured glass. Earth-stained photographs of the Royal Family, hidden in and excavated from plant pots. Samovars. A handful of soil kept in a wooden doll.

And presiding over all these were the pictures of the dead. Grandparents, father, mother, siblings, husband, son. A chronicle of my grandmother's life is a history of loss, and it was a loss which seeped into all our lives too. Lost homes, lost men. The smiling blond boy in Georgian national dress, forever nine years old.

I grew in the flotsam of all those lives, playing with the toys and reading the books of a boy 40 years dead feeling the ghost of him flit on the eges of my vision
I like horses. That book is my favourite.

We all lived there until my father died, and I was sent away and things began to more visibly fall apart. (And years and years later, when the Fire came and ate through everything in two rooms devastation would be followed by a feeling of lightness and relief, that some of what had been stored and carried there had been set free).

I left Yugoslavia in 1991 and began a long-trek featuring many borrowed spaces and a succession of student hovels. From the age of 10-11 I lived in Rotterdam. First with Ivana in a house that radiated warmth and coziness, then with my mother in a grey-carpet and black-leather couches one-bedroom apartment she rented from a middle aged Dutch couple with identical platinum haircuts and a yappy little dog. Since the Dutch Period was marked by language barriers and social isolation, I largely had to make my own entertainment. Like leaping over pylons on the sidewalks, and feeding the ducks on the canal opposite the house and going to the Chinese restaurant around the corner to eat lychee in syrup and watch the amazing speed and grace with which the waitresses moved serving, packing, clearing like they were all cogs of a beautiful and well-oiled machine. I remember so many things about Holland, but it never felt like home.

A year later I was in England in a posh penthouse with my aunt and uncle and maternal grandmother (sharing a room with my cousin, much to his contempt) and finally in a flat with my mother (which also started as a hovel with exposed wiring, but was renovated into something cluttered but quite lovely). Sometimes it's hard to be a minimalist immigrant. You've lost your history, your connections to the family and friends you knew. You've learned a new language but no one knows your stories here and few people welcome them. You ae a stranger, and an Other. At best Exotic, at worst Undesirable. And I accumulated things, and kept them all, trying to lay down new roots, to infuse the new house with meaning and connection, to make a life.

It was a sweet little flat, residential and safe. Its windows looked out onto an American School where my mother wanted me to go (it's so near! you could run home for lunch!) but I vehemently resisted change. The London years 1993-97 also coincided with my love affair with the anonymity of public transportation, with the idea that in this city no one knew me and I could go to a random destination with all these strangers and walk unknown streets of an unknown city, the tube and bus map like Ariadne's thread to lead me back home.

In 1997 I graduated from school and moved to Sheffield. The first year was spent in student housing, tucked away in an ensuite room of my own, behind the brutalist grey edifice of Halifax Hall - with its onsite student bars and unpalatable canteen food. Sheffield is a hidden gem of a city, warm and lively and even aesthetically pleasing in parts once you get over the remnants of the steel industry. I walked everywhere the first six months - twenty minute trek to lectures, twenty minute trek up Broomhill to the shops. Tall trees and magipes and washed out grey sky. Largely happiness, not least through rooming almost-next-door to Susan. We shared a sense of humour and odd waking/sleeping hours and enough physical similarity to share clothes and be mistaken for one another at a distance.

The year after a shared, detached, 5 bedroom house in Walkeley with an overgrown garden, and masses of visiting long-haired cats and a wall-to-wall lounge window and a gate that few people knew how to open. Electricity and gas was on a meter (and Lord help you if you ran out of pound coins) and a shower that it took me several weeks to learn how to moderate (the previous time having been spent leaping in and out of jets of alternating ice cold and boiling hot water). The house was down the street from Netto a Swedish? German? store of low prices and random products. On one aisle cheesecake and German meat products, on the other hoses and sinks.

The year after that two of the housemates moved away (Susan graduated and was reclaimed by America, Julia did a year abroad) and we moved to a three bedroom house two streets away. It was small and crowded and cold - the lounge had been converted into a bedroom and a sofa had been shoved into the cramped kitchen - you could have sat on it and eaten off the table, and you had to more or less jump over it to go upstairs. My room was tiny but had accomodated a deceptive amount of delipidated furnishings, and its window looked out onto the jungle-come-workshop of a weed-governed piece of land that contained our landlord's furniture.

(Things I have forgotten since University - how to live in the cold, how many £coins it takes to secure a week's worth of light and heat, how to regularly stay up until 3am, how to share a single bed with another adult human and wake without cramp in the back and hatred in the heart).

I had chosen Sheffield since it seemed to offer the best student life and I was not dissapointed. £1 movie showings at the Student Union, Friday nights dancing to cheese 90s songs at the LoveShack, Saturday nights and 80s tunes at Pop Tarts. Sometimes LeadMill in between. Late nights and strobe lights and a succession of horrifying alcopops. Making out with random strangers. Coat queues and winter wind and all five of us sharing a taxi home. Mornings in which early lectures were ditched in favour of watching Sunset Beach episodes on Channel 5 with Susan (since the others were too responsible to cut class; good thing too since two of them were training to be doctors). Days of frantic pre-exam cramming with the other Psychology students in the Union building (kept open 24h during exam week).

(A chronicle of my hilarious and misjudged clothing choices during the student days really deserves to be a post of its own, but let me just say that a high point of my attire was a pair of black, flared, crushed-velvet leggings that I got at T.K.Maxx and considered the most hawt stylish thing EVAR).

I think I'll pause here. If you feel inspired, tell me your own. (Preview of coming attractions, part 2 - places I've lived 2000-2009).
Tags: belgrade, childhood, family, history, introspection, memories, misspent youth
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