Poetry & Words, Theology

I Came to America After the Tanks Rolled in: Remembering the Former Yugoslavia

I came to America after the tanks rolled in, just barely before they took Sarajevo. After the helicopter shadows moved across of the fields of buttercups and horseradish and daisies and wisteria, but before the mortars fell. I came to this country when the shelves started to empty of bread, of meat, of corn flakes. I came to this country after the money had already begun to crash, after sunken stacks of rubbery, hollow-eyed gas masks stared back at me at the check-out, but before pensioners had to stand in line to trade bag after bag of devalued coins for stale bread. I came here when the skies had already begun to darken, when the fear had started to slink down the quiet gravel streets.

I said goodbye before dawn. I said goodbye before the perfect pearls of dew on the weeping willow had broken. I said goodbye to the magpies who chattered and tilted their heads down at me, goodbye to the sparrows who hopped off the hedge and scurried after me as I walked away down Taborska Cesta. I held my daddy’s hand and thought it would all be okay and thought I’d come home to Ljubljana again.

America doesn’t remember.

It’s been twenty-five years since Sarajevo. Twenty-five years since the shells started falling and the buildings started crumbling and the cemeteries crept down the mountain, over the valley, into the alleys, the city squares, the hospitals, the banks, the churches, and the blocs. Twenty-five years since the blood flowed.

“Is there a time for keeping your distance?” Bono sang. “A time to turn your eyes away? Is there a time for keeping your head down, for getting on with your day?”

I Came to America After the Tanks Rolled in: Remembering the Former Yugoslavia

I came to America wide-eyed and homesick. There were hundreds of rows of light in every store, shining down in blindingly unaware excess. There were thousands of packets of food, all lined up. There was a whole aisle just for feeding cats and dogs. There were Cocoa Pebbles and Cocoa Puffs and Fruity Pebbles and cheese-colored spread and hot dogs in shrunken plastic and the shelves were deep, deeper than my eight-year-old arm could reach. People just tossed all these things head over heels, heap upon heap, into an enormous rolling wire cart.

There were rows of cars in everyone’s driveway and the houses swallowed us all. There were televisions and advertisements and everywhere, at every turn, America was a kaleidoscope of color and noise.

America forgot her. American forgot the Balkans, the conflict, the siege.

America forgot about the Iron Curtain, the fall of Communism, the rush of freedom and the rush of overload, and the way it felt when the bottom fell out, and millions upon millions of dinar tumbled down, worth less than the paper they were printed on.

Tonight, I remember it all.

I sat down at my desk on this side of the globe, underneath the oversized world map beside the glowing lamp, went to Google Earth, and for the first time, I walked my digital feet all over the streets I used to know.

It was all there, familiar and bruised by the passage of time.

I walked all over, and I cried.

“There’s a house, that’s not on a hill
And the paint’s chipping off
Of the old window sill
There’s a tree in the front yard
That’s older than me
And older than all of you…” *

I remember the yogurt and the brown-crusted bread, the sour cherries, and the apples that would fall on our concrete balcony. I remember how we’d say “Jupi!” when we were excited, and I remember the grey woven chair in the corner, the tapestry on the wall and the garish scalloped wallpaper, a vision in Soviet orange — an ode to egg yolks or perhaps sunrises.

Yupi soda beverage sticker label from Slovenia, the former Yugoslavia

I remember the first books I read, and my first American pencil, yellow, with the most beautiful pink eraser I’d ever seen. I remember how I had to learn about nickels, and didn’t see the point, because I only needed to use dinar and žeton. I remember letters from grandma, and my old green shoes, and laughter and boiled potatoes. I can tell you of bus tokens and ant-covered climbing vines and the way the trail twisted up to the top of Šmarna Gora, and how stubborn chamomile can grow up, dauntless, through even the rockiest gravel.

“But things they fade
Things turn to grey
As much as I try to save them
They turn grey
Just like the house, that’s not on a hill
With all of the rust on the gate
The chips on the sill
But I love it still” *

I remember the magpies, tottering on clay rooftops, calling out the hymns of the morning, and way the grey coal soot would filter down over the city, entangle with the mist, and settle down over every crooked branch, down into my lungs, over every window pane and into the crevices on every leaf.

“I remember her
I remember her
I remember her so well” *

But most of all, I remember the way I never worried, even in the dark.



10 thoughts on “I Came to America After the Tanks Rolled in: Remembering the Former Yugoslavia”

  1. Gina, your words helped me visit you in Yugoslavia–although I had not been able to travel there! Your descriptions are excellent! Thank you very much. Love you, Gram Audrey


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