I traveled abroad for the first time in 1958, when I was 9 years old. My family lived in Zadar, a pretty town on the Adriatic coast in Croatia. There was a direct ship line to Ancona, on the Italian side of the coast, where my grandmother and I were picked up by my aunt and uncle in their little Fiat.
In those days it was not a small thing to travel abroad, either from any of the communist bloc countries or, for us, from Yugoslavia. I remember the excitement while I climbed the ship staircase, aware that this trip was something extraordinary and that it was going to take us to a magic place of wealth and beauty. I knew it because from time to time, as proof of the existence of this place, we would receive parcels with fine clothes, toys and chocolates. But I remember far better my first trip to the department store Standa in Naples, where my relatives lived. To a child used to grocery stores with not much food and the Narodni Magazin (People’s Store) department stores with not many products, entering Standa felt like entering a dream. Perhaps not even my dreams were as plentiful and colorful as that store. Things I saw there dazzled me.
The best thing about Standa was that just before our visit the store had introduced a new selling system: self-service. It was quite amazing for everybody, not only for a small girl from Yugoslavia, to pick things up by ourselves. At first I just strolled around, not really convinced that I could touch and take into my hands anything I wanted. But when I came to the toy counter, I could not resist touching the dolls. There were many kinds of dolls, but I was interested in those big ones that were popular at the time. A fortunate owner would put it on a bed or a couch as a decoration. All girls envied the lucky one who had it, although she was not supposed to play with it. In its overstated beauty, such a doll somehow personified the entire new world that had opened up in front of my eyes. But after getting approval from my aunt to choose one, I could not decide which one I wanted. I agonized for a while and then burst into tears. There were simply too many choices for a child who came from a land with barely any dolls at all.
Perhaps forty years later, I witnessed almost the same scene in Bloomingdale’s in New York City. I saw two women from the former Soviet Union, a mother and daughter, buying lingerie. The lingerie department occupied the whole floor, and the two of them wandered around with hands full of bras and panties, looking lost and exhausted. The mother was the first to break down. She just dropped the whole lot on the floor and burst into tears. “I can’t choose,” she said in despair and collapsed in a chair.
I did not collapse in Standa that day long ago, or on many later occasions. As I continued to travel to the West, I learned how to choose–but for that I needed foreign currency. Foreign currency, however, had to be exchanged on the black market and transferred abroad illegally–say, in a bra. This did not prevent us–the postwar generation–from traveling when it was liberalized in the mid-’60s. On the contrary, my generation made a habit of going to London or some other European metropolis once a year, to buy books and records and clothes. And shoes, for that matter–although for shoes (and bluejeans!) we used to travel no farther than to Italy, mostly to Trieste by car, as it was the closest place to go.
These trips abroad were very important for what happened later on, because they gave us the feeling of being free, being on the same level with Westerners. From such trips we would come back pacified, bribed by our foxy Titoist system. Moreover, we felt superior to our less fortunate neighbors from the communist bloc countries; when we traveled to Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary or Bulgaria, we would sell our Triestine jeans for a lot of money.
But we sold ourselves cheaply. When communism fell, Poland had Solidarity and Lech Walesa, Czechoslovakia had Václav Havel, Hungary had Fidesz, Bulgaria had Zhelyu Zhelev–and Yugoslavia had no democratic opposition at all. It seems to me that there is a connection between the fact that we suffered less repression under Tito’s soft kind of communism “with a human face” and the fact that no liberal opposition was created, as it was in the countries of the Soviet bloc. The big sin of my generation was that we did not see the need to create an opposition. We failed because we were the last communist believers.
A few years before the breakup of Yugoslavia, the political landscape was already filled with communists-turned-nationalists (like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman). Nationalism became the only political “alternative” in Yugoslavia, leading us directly to wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Yes, my generation lived too well, and obviously we mistook freedom and democracy for the freedom of shopping in the West. And as in a medieval morality play, we had to pay for that in the three wars to follow: our children fought those wars; they were killed, and their limbs were severed. When I go back in my memory to that day in Standa, I still somehow feel responsible.