I put my bags down, taking a minute to relieve the stress of feeling like I was in a scene of Taken. Anyone could imagine having my anxiety; my dad was no Liam Neeson, he just learned how to text. I didn’t stand a chance in that taxi. But luckily, this was just a part of what I call, “Balkan charm.” You may get into a real taxi cab, or get driven by some random guy who was looking for a way to pay for his tank of gas. Either way, I made it to my brother’s place in one piece without the support of a language translator.
I try to get a decent look at my brother’s place, but he keeps me by the door. While tapping my foot at the front door, I notice the floor has a stickiness to it. Note to self: never take off shoes. Before I ask where my bedroom is, my brother takes my luggage and places it next to the grey fabric couch. Well, I guess I’m sleeping on the couch. Is that a stain? Another note to self: do not expose skin to couch. Ever.
“We’re invited to my friend’s baba’s house for dinner,” he says, checking the time on his phone while grabbing the house keys. “They wanted to meet you, and I’m tired of living off of apples.”
“Right now?” I whine, “but I just landed. Can’t we grab take-out and chill? Wait, all you’ve been eating is apples?”
“I already said we were gonna go,” he says, gently nudging me out of the doorway, “we gotta catch the bus. And yeah, I eat like… six-ish apples a day.” I never expected the thought of apples to disturb me until now.
I haven’t used this many public services in the span of ten minutes before. The last time I took the bus was, well, I actually can’t remember when that was. Since this very moment, I’ve only been picked up and dropped off everywhere I went. In university, my nickname was “Proletarian Princess.” At first, I was proud, and then I googled the definition of ‘proletarian.’ It’s safe to say I’m a peasant in denial.
The arrival of our bus disrupts my train of thought. The faded yellow doors open up, momentarily covering up the “this bus was donated by the state of Japan” sign. Man, they sure know how to make an ugly bus. A flood of people leaves the bus, we hop on, heading out of the center.
“We’re going to New Belgrade,” my brother says while staring out of the window.
“Just a tad out of the center, over the bridge. We’ll be there in ten minutes.”
In all the times I’ve visited, I never went over the bridge. What happens on the other side of the bridge? Who lives there? Is it safe? It was a new world for me that I was uncertain to explore.
We hop out of the bus and head towards a series of grey Commie-esque looking buildings. Are you sure this is safe? I ask out loud. With no reply, my brother leads the way, weaving through small graffiti-filled walkways and dim corridors, eventually stopping in front of a plain apartment door. Seems safe. He knocks, and a small, plump baba opens up, giving me a warm smile while gesturing us to come inside. I try to translate the Serbian phrase in my head quickly, but give up once I realize I’m mumbling to myself.
The apartment has a Balkan coziness to it. Thick wooden furniture fills the room, with Turkish carpets rubbing against the balms of my feet. The baba hands me slippers, firmly gesturing me to put them on. Though I prefer to be barefoot, I slip them on quickly, and we follow her into the dining room. My brother’s friend sits at the head of the table, munching on a piece of bread.
“Hey man!” he says enthusiastically, putting the bread down and getting up to greet us. My head tilts to the side as I catch a glimpse of the table full of food. Oh my god, yessss. Get in my belly. The one good thing about anxiety and fear is that once they subside, you’re pretty hungry.
“Hi!” he says, looking at me while extending his hand, “I’m Marko.” Oh, thank god, I don’t need to translate Serbian. We shake hands, and I ask him how he learned to speak English so well. He says by watching American movies and MTV. God bless MTV. We take our seats at the table and start to dig in. I look at the baba, but she isn’t eating. Instead, she’s sitting in the corner watching us eat. I take a little bit of everything, making sure to compliment the baba every couple of minutes on her kitchen skills, hoping she would stop staring at me.
The sarma, kupus, šopska salad, gibanica, ćevapi with kajmak, and Karađorđeva šnicla – I’m eating all of it. And though I’m pretty sure I should have stopped eating ten minutes ago, food keeps ending up on my plate. Am I full? Yes. Am I close to vomiting? Absolutely. But saying no is virtually impossible. With every no I say, the baba gives me a sad face partnered with a whining noise. And then she spoons out more food onto my plate. It’s like clockwork. With my brother and Marko staring at me, I accept the food out of pure, defenceless guilt. I’m alone in this battle.
“I can’t eat anymore,” I whisper to my brother, as I open the first button of my pants. “I’m going to throw up.”
„Tell the baba ‘Sita sam.’ It means ‘I’m full.'“ I repeat the phrase to myself, making sure I have the Serbian-English translation perfected.
With one ćevapi left on my plate, I stuff it into my mouth, using my palm to help me chew. Is this what death feels like? I can see the baba staring at my plate, calculating her next move. I know what she’s thinking, maybe I’ll give her the kupus, no wait, it’s too light, let’s kill her slowly with beans. She bends over the table with a large spoon and digs into the pot of beans, scraping the burnt ones from the bottom of the pot.
“Sita sam,” I try to say, but it comes out as a drunken murmur. “I can’t eat anymore… I’m going to die.” I look at her with defeat in my eyes. “Don’t feed me, I’m going to die.” My hands covering my plate. “Please,” I whine with desperation, “don’t feed me. I can’t anymore.” I feel like I’m in a low-budget Turkish soap opera.
The baba smiles, putting the beans back into the pot. She grabs my plate and goes into the kitchen. For a moment, I feel relief. She gets me, I think to myself. Now I can digest the food in peace. See Natasha; you don’t need to speak the same language. People understand body language and basic desperation. Leaning back into my chair, I shut my eyes, dreaming of the moment where I can lay on the stained couch. Clothes on, clothes off, nothing matters anymore.
The baba comes back to the dining room, and with my eyes closed, I can hear a plate being placed in front of me. Reluctantly, I open them. The plate glimmers with a stack of small, syrupy cakes and cookies. Oh my god, is this what hell feels like? I look up from the plate, tears forming in my eyes as she says something with a smile.
Marko turns to me, “my baba wanted me to tell you, dessert doesn’t go straight to your belly. It goes to your heart.” I smile back politely, “The coroner will probably agree.”
You wanted Balkan charm. I say to myself, holding a piece of baklava in my hand. Now, you have no choice but to eat it.
Nataša Franzisca Ivanović