Third prize winner of the hungarianpresence.ca competition on the immigrant experience
Jumping and Landing
by Visnja Milidragovic
...Let me jump over the moon,
Oh let me jump over it soon.
Let me before the night runs away,
Before the moon is not there...
I looked for inspiration everywhere....yet it did not lie in paprikaš, my fear of mice, my mama, or world maps. I knew this story would have to exclusively begin from within Višnja Milidragovi?. Me.
That was my poetic voice, in grade three. I thought the most important part of the poem was making it rhyme because I didn’t know what the moon was. Now, I do. As though after growing older, my arms, now hanging lower, longer, and my head propped up, certainly higher, I see the moon from closer up. The moon is bigger, more vivid, more daunting and white. More mysterious, though I see its eyes, its figure, and its edges fighting the darkness. It is that other world on which I never stood that other life, the one in my imagination, all those distant places I never dreamt I’d see made solid in a bright orb. My footsteps did not line its surface, but rather walked the path opposite, on that green and blue sphere that holds on of purpose and life and freedom. I grew on this earth like a branch that could not see its roots.
I first tasted paprikaš at age four. My mother fed it to me. Red and orange and mushy all over. Dip. Dip. Soak up the bread. This was the same time that I recollect also beginning to like mustard and pickles. Before then, I ate all that my mother put in front of me, as I was not allowed to leave the table without finishing my ru?ak. I mostly preferred sweets. Like my mother, I had a sweet tooth. Two, actually, and they both stuck out and made me look like a rabbit. Crunch. Crunch. I have no memory of ever seeing rabbits (or tasting them) before my move to Vancouver at the age of six. My first memories of a white winter – and a Canadian one at that, though not so Canadian since we did move to the west coast after all.
Sarajevo streets I’ve been told, back in the late eighties (and to this day), are gray and muggy, like a giant Jugoslavian ashtray. But wet. The city looked like it, and smelled like it, even in winter; the weight of wet white snow could never cover up this city life. But it was still a gray frame filled with a translucent plume of cigarette perfume hovering over the Miljacka waters, (also gray). Oh, but there was colour to our Sarajevo. Sarajevo’s city life brimmed with lights, neon dessert signs and high heels. But in the day, the gray returned, and as I’ve been told, was coloured by the browning of vegetables leftover from the pijaca, three-legged cats rummaging through the market’s leftover rot, two-legged trousers hanging off of laundry lines above, and one-legged drunks who survived both wars. Many of them didn’t survive the third. Many of those who did, lived to tell about it, letting it fill the air in streams of new nationalist voices, graying the air only more. Puff puff.
Then there is the voice of my mother: anxious, afraid, quick-thinking. Past the denial stage only by virtue of being a mother. Only by virtue of being a virtuous mother, thinking only of my well-being; the health of her four year old daughter, the childish innocence she hoped would be preserved past the age of five.
When war came, my mother felt it first. She knew of fear, of that empty hole inside you that fills the back of your throat, leaves little room for the heart, and even less room for the brain. Fear comes from outside, but is felt inside. It takes over, and becomes reactionary instinct. Maternal action.
My first fear, I remember well. It was dulled with broken words and yelling screams – not those of war, but of personal battle. My parents fought most of my early childhood. Their voices were the only competition with the imminent fear, my reaction. It was a race to see which would fill me first. Fear of the intensity of hurtful words, whose depth of meaning escaped me, or screams and yells, and more screams, which vibrated in my little scull? But, I was young, two or three, or four (or five) so the loudness always filled me before fear of it could. I met its match with cries and screams. Life can be so loud.
My mother, on the contrary, is an adult, with the capacity to fear such depths. Yet the depths of silence, always echo longer. My father’s remarks (the insults of her one and only true love) she could battle, with screams and cries as I did. But, when there is war, there is always a silent heaviness competing for space. The cold and gray night streets screamed this silence in gusts of soundless wind through the windows; fear had competed for my mother and won. Winter had gone, and April rains only dulled the streets with a superficial shine. Fear could only reflect back at her. She knew it would come. And it did. On my fifth birthday, my mother and I left for Sarajevo on the last evacuation convoy.
My mother and I arrived into a brisk Serbian night, sweating in our winter coats. My mother wanted us to bring as much as could of what was most valuable and useful. She chose for my navy woolen petticoat, lined in plaid. She had closed it tight around me by carefully pushing through the wooden buttons through its carefully sewn leather hoops. It kept the cold out, but not the chicken pox. I had unluckily caught them on the plane. I don’t blame the coat though. I blame the heated metal plane, in which we crouched low to the rumbling and shaking metal flooring, or stooped over wooden benches, crowded and still in the darkness.
Thankfully enough, symptoms didn’t show and had the chance to enjoy my fifth birthday, or what was left of its night. My mother’s best friend Zora had baked me a cake, with all the best ingredients a Belgrade family could muster up in times of rising prices (or rather, the plummeting value of money). We soon went out to a pizzeria down the street. Come to think of it, my birthday was a mid-war splurge, useless in practicality, but fond of colourful memory. It was luxurious out of love and effort though, not out of irrational fear that consumed my mother. She gave all that she could, and should have. Always.
My father arrives seven months later at our doorstep, shriveled, like a ghost, or one who has seen a ghost. Perhaps that ghost still haunts him to this day as something haunts me here in Vancouver. Maybe he is still looking for refuge through our apartment’s high-cut windows in Sarajevo, with a future no less bright in 2007 than that day in November, fifteen years ago.
I remember being afraid to sleep alone, still. Though I do not know whether there had been a fear of loneliness instilled in me when home was taken away almost a year before, I justified my fright with a more likely fear of a child: a mouse. I had spotted it on the balcony, and once it ran through the pantry, and I told everyone that it would run through my room. My dad however used his persuasive skills and handed me his yellow Camel sweatshirt, as a lucky charm, because ‘mice are afraid of yellow’. How trusting I was of my father’s words, despite every better judgment I had, and every bit of knowledge of the colour of cheese. So I believed him, and I slept, alone, finally. I remember having nightmares, but I knew they were only in my head.
Now I know the realistic nightmares of our situation. Oh how the politics raged! Worthless money flew down the streets, and I now know how my poor mother, a once wealthy lawyer, walked down Knez Mihajleva in borrowed shoes that were a size too big. Yet, my childlike memory only accounts her summer challenge: when the tar concrete liquefied in the spring heat she lost a heel, and comically limped all the way home. To me, it had been just a heel, but to Iris Ungar, it had been a blow to her pride, and it lowered her, not just literally.
But with losses come gains, and they are often not in proportion. So, with the loss of a heel, a dream-world was granted to me: Canada. We finally received the proper papers needed for our relocation, as far away as possible, on the other side of the map: to Vancouver. My mental preparations began. Mom told me of Vancouver’s clear April skies, and that when I look up, I will see no tram wires that polluted our skies with strips of boundaries that denied us the freedom to fly. She told me of squirrels that freely rummaged on neighbourhood streets.
My first nights in Vancouver I do not remember well. I also do not remember our family’s transition from living in a house to living in a home. What I do remember, was my big bed, in my big room, which was reserved only for me. During the day, I enjoyed it, played games, sat at my big desk and pretended to be a teacher with my mom as my student. However, at night, I was afraid to go to sleep by myself. For a while, after I called to my mom endlessly and persistently, she’d lay beside me and pat my bum with counts until I fell asleep. With each number, her hand would touch softer, and my heartbeat would become slower. However, this proved futile as I made this into a concentration game, a race, to see how high we could count. Oftentimes my mom would fall asleep before I did, and I would happily lie next to her, until her breath lulled me to sleep.
The entrance door on 26th and Oak. 220th day of grade one: Vancouver Talmud Torah Elementary School; It is April, but I feel like it is November still. I am sleepy. My thoughts are troubled, though no longer by family bickering or the lingering phantom mouse. My thoughts the night before were not at ease. It is now my second day of school and I am still only processing yesterday. Events of the day before rush through my mind, the Judaic curriculum meshing with unknown languages, both English and Hebrew, with hints of French. I could get no rest. I succeeded in closing my eyes to see tohoo vavohoo, but I hear something else. From this, I draw my first memory of my inner voice. The first time I prayed.
Every night, I feared that God, Hashem, (once better-known as only Bog), did not know who I was. So, I would strategically construct my prayer: Visnja Milidragovic, born in Sarajevo, Jugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. My father is Boris, my mother is Iris Ungar. I had to tell him who I was, where I came from.
But, it would not stop there; it couldn’t. I would have to let God know where I was now, for a dreadful sadness filled me. I feared that He could not place his hand on my life to move it if he did not know where it was being lived. I now live in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Marpole. ground floor of a brown building. I think the number reads 8790, kiddy corner to a park. I do not know the postal code yet for I have not yet received a letter – but I have sent one. God, can you hear me?
There are not many things I wished for at the time. I knew exactly what I had, but not of what was there to be had. I had my family (we were still together, at last), I had food (when other kids were starving), I had clothes (for both of Vancouver’s seasons, wet and sometimes wet), and I had things to play with (paper and pencils, Barbies, and hair). Only later did I start to wish and to hope, to feel envy for I knew I was different. I looked like everyone else though: navy and white. Only now, fifteen or so years later, do I see that my navy tapered skirt was just a bit too long, my white tights just a bit beige from the bleachless wash, my white shirt had just a bit of a pointier collar. But, I smelled different. A gray smoke trail followed me to school, as though it was a path to bring me home if I were to lose sight. The same stream followed me from Sarajevo, gray and hovering like an alienating aura, a halo of my homeland, mute and steamy with the heat of history, of war, Drina cigarettes, and asphalt. It made me feel dirty. I sought to be a wallflower, a gutter-plant. However, I acted in the opposite. I made friends, pretended and played, and became a star emerging from white stage smoke, lit by the perfect beams of the moon. Oh how I wanted to jump! And land.
Let me jump before the day turns to night
Before the moon is not bright.
That other world – the world of the moon, of dreaming, of imagining another place, is behind me. I jumped beyond, and landed in time to have it shape me significantly. Fifteen years after my first step over the ocean, I feel I have taken my first steps on earth. I have grown, become one with the people from this other planet far off over the Pacific. I have embraced this land that is Canada and all that it has to offer. I have bridged the gap in the cosmos, and no longer is the life of imagining separate from the real. I am studying English at the University of British Columbia (as an ironic E.S.L. student with straight A’s). I have found my Jewish identity with the help of the Jewish community here in Vancouver. I have reasserted my Jugoslavian identity and enriched it with the experiences of the west. And though I have pushed away the cigarette smoke, and swept some of the ashes of my past, I still sit at the dinner table with my mama eating paprikaš.
Sept. 19, 2008, Vancouver BC