“We need to go to my village in Montenegro,” my new and only friend, Darko, says casually to me. “You need to reconnect with your heritage, and plus,” he takes a puff of his cigarette, “it’s time you tried some real homemade Rakija.”
“I’m all about heritage,” as I bite down into a freshly grilled pljeskavica—its fatty juices running down my chin. I wanted to moan out loud from delight, but I didn’t want Darko to think what we had was anything more than platonic. Meat moaning will give off the wrong signs, for sure. I rip off a piece of lepinja and dab it against my chin indiscreetly. I wasn’t going to let an ounce of fat go to waste. “Where are we going to stay?”
“At my grandma’s place.”
After hours on a non-air conditioned bus, what a joy, we arrive at Darko’s village in northern Montenegro. We walk from the bus station to his village house, passing through rolling hills of green. A miniature hunched-back baba greets us at the front door.
“Ćao, baba,” Darko says as she clings onto his leg happily.
“Oh, my soul,” her voice mumbles, “Oh, my life, my love.” She continues stroking his leg. “Baba is so happy to see you. Son, you look thin. I made you your favorite soup.” I can see the top of her head twitch ever-so-slightly towards me, dropping her grasp.
“Ivana, is that you?”
“No, baba,” Darko replies. “This is my friend, Natasha.”
She didn’t hear him. She clings onto my leg, stroking it as she whispers sweet nothings about her granddaughter. I don’t want to ruin the moment, so I go with it. If I’ve learned anything with old people, it’s to play along. If it makes her happy, I’m happy. Though I’m noticing she doesn’t say I’m thin. Is she fat shaming me? She unclings herself from me and wobbles in front of us with her walking stick, leading us into the house and right into the kitchen.
I take a seat on a small wooden stool and quickly catch a glimpse of her face as she makes her way to the kitchen. Her mauve floral scarf covers her peppered hair; her face, laced with deep grooves, become deeper as she gives me a snaggle-toothed smile. Darko leaves to the market to get some juice, as his baba insisted. Well, this…is…just…great… Next to me is Darko’s grandfather, a white-haired man, lying in bed, staring at the beige water-stained ceiling. Well, this is certainly inspiring.
With Darko gone, the room is silent. The only noise is the static coming from the miniature television set sitting on the window sill. Every couple of minutes, the static sound breaks with the grandfather repeating dates, listing his family member’s birthdays. I ask him what his birthday is – he doesn’t know.
I look at the kitchen – the Baba is nowhere to be seen. Fuck, did she fall in front of the stove? I’m gonna age ten years on this trip, I swear. I look around the room and spot a short shadow through the smudged window, wobbling towards a goat and her babies – they’re tied to a tree. The goats buckle away from her; she hits them with her stick and yells at them. I stare in silence. What a lovely lady. She unties them and moves them to another tree. Though I’m sure they’re traumatized, they immediately start munching a fresh patch of grass. Who knew goats were emotional eaters? The Baba slowly returns back into the house.
Darko finally comes back, but I didn’t notice. I’m busy watching the Baba in the kitchen. With her walking stick in one hand, she spoons out some liquid from a pot, pauses, adds salt, pauses, tastes again, seems satisfied, and turns off the burner.
With her stick in one hand, the Baba balances the pot of soup with a fresh loaf of bread on top of the lid. Oh man, this is totally worth hanging out with old people – is the bread steaming? Just don’t moan. With my mouth salivating, she ladles two large scoops of chocolate browny-gray, unusually chunky soup in my bowl. What…is…okay…
I’m concerned about the soup. I take my spoon and lightly jab the grey meat. It doesn’t move; it’s rock solid. Natasha, just eat the soup. No, don’t eat it; you’re going to shit your pants. Just eat it. No, wait. How about for every spoon of soup, you take three bites of bread…yes… that’s it. That’ll work. I take the first bite; the taste of the meat triggers a childhood memory I have ending with me vomiting. I know this taste. I’ve tasted this taste. I’ve felt this sloshing around in my mouth before my head was in a toilet bowl.
And then the memory hit me. I was twelve years old, coming to visit my great-uncle and great-aunt after a soccer game. I was covered in dirt and sweat, even though I didn’t do much running. I was more of a speed walker, which disappointed my parents. No one likes to watch their child walk up and down a soccer field for 90 minutes. I was given the very same dish to warm up after the game. Ten minutes after eating it, my head was in a toilet bowl, puking up chunks. I wasn’t into chewing my food. This isn’t what I think it is… it can’t be.
I’m as aware as I’ve ever been of soup, and my bites are microscopic. “Are you good?” Darko asks me with suspicion. “Yeah, of course. I’m just like, doing this thing where I chew my food 28 times before swallowing. It’s apparently good for digestion.” As a chubby teenager, I was always looking for ways to lose weight without actually changing my life. But it’s hard to chew 28 times when I pride myself on my ability to savor my food with a technique I like to call vacuuming. Darko nods and takes a heaping spoonful of soup. Oh, you’re in the friendzone, Darko.
But it was the next spoonful of soup that was of great interest. I have never seen this object lay lifelessly on any of my spoons before. White, tubular, and squishy, I chew it while I politely ask Darko what the object was. “Oh, it’s sheep intestine,” he replies, shoving another spoonful into his mouth. I swallow down the remaining fragments and push my cheeks up to form a smile. Great.
Darko tells his Baba that I love the soup, and well, she now feels it’s her time to shine. She proudly starts describing how the soup is made. The conversation starts right off with the specifics of the sheep. Put some water in a pot, and place intestines, liver, kidneys, and hearts inside. Add a pinch of salt, and set to boil. Ta-da! How could I have been so blind?
It’s time to start doing some math. I stare at my bowl, calculating the ratio of stew to bread. I failed grade 11 math twice, so I feel this is going to go well. Numbers are going off in my head, visuals of soup bowls flash before my eyes. Got it. I finish the meal eating half a loaf of bread. With my bowl empty and my stomach bloated, the baba turns to me and says, “Someone a healthy eater! Good thing we have enough for tomorrow!”
I turn to Darko, “get me the Rakija.”
Nataša Franzisca Ivanović