This is where I grew up: at the intersection between Art Nouveau and socialist brutalism. In the middle of clashing cultures, where German precision was highly regarded, but Balkan resignation made everyone feel like they were living in a cage. A grey and beautiful cage, which only shines in the shadow of a long-gone era.
People’s hopes were rooted more in the glamour of the past, rather than the promising future. Optimism was undignified and acceptable only at the end of American movies.
It’s easy to take refuge in the past when you think of all the feathered hats and elegant high heeled shoes, deux piece costumes, and fancy white gloves, canes, and vests. Back when emperors and kings danced at balls and cigarette and hat factories were steaming the city sky.
Romanticizing the past does wonders to all the falling bricks and 14 stories high blocks that crammed people like sardines. It helps you walk past all the people sleeping under bridges and the children begging for food at every train station. All those desperately expecting small bags of “charity” with cheap bread, waffles, and sweet chocolate wheat in cemeteries.
My culture taught people how to be generous. Not out of empathy though, but rather out of fear. Fear that God will spite them, fear that they might end up on the other side, fear that people will speak badly of them if they aren’t benevolent.
Living abroad for some time now, the shock of western individualism finally sunk in. People don’t need to be generous when everyone is well off. When the state’s social system is efficiently set in place, the generosity of the individual loses its instant gratification effect. There is no need for it, it lacks immediate satisfaction.
I feel much better where I am right now, the need to imagine myself somewhere or sometime else has evaporated. My present circumstance is the best circumstance I have lived in so far. And yet, I sometimes battle with allowing myself to rejoice in it.
My past is deeply rooted in me, I have occasional episodes of mourning for the lonely and scared little girl, the traumatized and lost people surrounding me then. My eyes tear up when I think of all the stray animals I brought home and had to take back with a broken heart.
I smile when I remember the way back home from school, which lasted 12 years. It felt like it would be forever like that.
It wasn’t, I wasn’t.