A onda prođe: Ann Čavlović

April 25, 2017

 
Priča koju se upravo spremate pročitati istinita je. Govori o iskustvu Ann Čavlović, mlade Kanađanke koja kreće u potragu za rodnom kućom svoga oca – u Bjelovaru, u Hrvatskoj, nakon što je godinama svjedočila očevom traumatičnom sjećanju na mladost i odrastanje. Ann nam je poslala svoju priču koja je prvi put na engleskom originalu objavljena u kanadskom časopisu „Event“ 2008. samo nekoliko tjedana nakon što joj se rodio sin, a s prijedlogom da priču prevedemo na hrvatski ne bi li se i na književnoj razini uspostavio dijalog između njezinog materinskog engleskog i očevog hrvatskog jezika i hrvatskog nasljeđa. Naša suradnica Sara Kopeczky s radošću je prevela priču, a uredništvo se priključuje Anninom pozivu da svi koji nešto znaju o obitelji Čavlović iz Bjelovara kontaktiraju Ann na njezinim internetskim stranicama: www.anncavlovic.com.

 

Fotografije je Ann snimila na svom putovanju u Bjelovaru, a prikazuju rodnu kuću njezinog pokojnog oca i njezine sadašnje stanovnike, a tu je i autoportret autorice u parku u središtu grada. 

 

 


The story you're about to read is true. It speaks about the journey of Ann Cavlovic, a young Canadian who travels to Bjelovar, a town in the continental Croatia, searching for the roots of her father's heritage. Growing up, she was a witness to the restless nights and troubling silences of her father, all connected to painful memories of his homeland during WWII. Ann explains: 

 

"This piece was first published in Canada in 2008 in the journal "Event", a few weeks after my son was born, and four years before my father passed away. Although I wish I could have showed it to him, I never did; my mother felt it would only have worsened his anxiety."

 

Ann contacted ZiN Daily inquiring if we'd be interested in translating the story.  Thanks to our contributor, poet and translator Sara Kopeczky, we were happy to oblige. Thus, in a way, we hope to have helped create a sort of circle, not necessarily providing closure, but at least an opportunity for coming to terms with the past. We'd also like to ask anyone reading this who has stories to tell about Ann's family to please get in touch with her via her website: www.anncavlovic.com. The photos featured here along with the story were taken by Ann herself during her visit to Bjelovar. 

 

A onda prođe
 

Došla sam u kuću svojih roditelja posjetiti oca neposredno prije ukrcavanja na avion kojim ću odletjeti u njegovu domovinu. Kada sam odložila svoj ruksak, otac se pobunio: "Nema dovoljno vremena. Zakasnit ćeš", sve dok mu mama nije rekla da "začepi" pa je sjeo na kauč. Prekrižio je noge otkrivajući crvene, otvorene rane oko gležnjeva. Pitam ga kako se osjeća. "Sve je usmjereno ka jednom cilju" kaže, smijući se. "Sve ide svojim prirodnim tokom." Ne želi mi stvarati pritisak pa ponavlja svoj savjet za slučaj da posjetim njegov rodni grad zapadno od Zagreba. "Nemoj se truditi razgovarati s mladim ljudima," kaže i dodaje: "Samo oni preko sedamdeset znat će za mene i mog oca."
Iako bih za odmor bila izabrala drugu destinaciju, odlučila sam se za posjet očevoj domovini jer sam znala da će mom ocu ovo na neki način pomoći. Mama mi kaže da se većinu noći još uvijek budi uz jauke – ima noćne more o Hrvatskoj, o događajima koje počne objašnjavati, ali zastane na pola puta, kada podigne svoju suhu, ukočenu ruku sve do lica i kaže: "Jad i bijeda. Nemam ti što reći. Bolje da ništa ne znaš."


Većinu mog života otac je bio distancirani čovjek koji je skrivao novac u našoj staroj perilici posuđa, jeo sam za kuhinjskim stolom i rijetko se tuširao. Kad bi me moji novi prijatelji došli posjetiti, govorila bih im da mi je to djed. Sve je to zbog rata, tako mi je objašnjeno. Činilo se da su moja starija braća shvatila to prije mene – je li primio udarac u glavu, je li vlak eksplodirao ili se možda nešto dogodilo njegovim roditeljima? Koji god bio razlog, imao je svoje čudne navike. Tata je jednostavno bio takav. Kada smo nešto trebali, obraćali smo se mami, osim onda kada smo tražili gumice i spajalice.


Još uvijek mi je čudno sjediti ovdje kao gošća koja posjećuje oca u njegvooj kući. Prije sam dolazila u posjet majci, a otac bi se jednostavno našao ovdje. Prvi put kad sam odlučila posjetiti upravo njega bilo je to prije dvije godine, nakon što je pretrpio srčani udar. Sjedila sam pored njegova uzglavlja, gledala oštre završetke cjevčica koje su mu probijale kožu na nekoliko mjesta i možda po prvi put u životu istinski pokušavala razgovarati s njim. On nije čovjek od čavrljanja. Pustio je da se ono što ga muči jednostavno izlije – maglovita sjećanja na tajnu policiju, Titovog vozača, način na koji su upucali njegovog vlastitog oca. Događaji koji uključuju partizane i ostale vojne frakcije koje mi moji nikada nisu u potpunosti objasnili jer su željeli da postanem prava "Kanađanka".


Otac je promijenio položaj nogu i nagnuo se prema meni. Ponovio je adresu svoje stare kuće i upute kako je pronaći ako krenem od parka u centru grada. Smijući se odlučno mi je dotaknuo ruku svojim vlažnim prstom. "Nemoj propustiti priliku, Ann." Gledam ga, nesigurna oko toga na što točno misli. "Neću," odgovaram.


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 U Bjelovaru, u Hrvatskoj sišla sam s autobusa na ispucali beton dok se preko puta pločnika pružao pogled na red zapuštenih, jeftinih trgovina. Bjelovar uopće nije turistička destinacija pa osjećam sebično zadovoljstvo što sam prošli tjedan drugdje u Hrvatskoj imala vremena istražiti plaže, kamene zidove i ugodne kafiće. No, sad sam tu gdje jesam. Krećem naprijed u potrazi za mjestima za koja je postojala mogućnost da je njima jednom koračao moj otac. Čvršće sam zavezala jaknu i uputila se prema onome što sam pretpostavljala da je stariji dio grada. Dok se uspinjem uskim pločnikom, na pola puta do vrha vidim obrise koje su njegove oči zasigurno gledale prije više od šezdeset godina: zgrade sa štuko dekoracijama obnovljene svježim slojevima bež i roza boje. Prozore uokvirene naborima izrezbarenog drva nalik na harmoniku. Rubove ublažene kamenim kornižama. Ova dostojanstvena barokna arhitektura nije viša od četiri kata, a povremeno je prekida pravokutna siva ploča, možda je tu da ispuni rupu iz posljednjeg rata ili iz onog prije. Na raskrižju balansiram stopalo na kocki kaldrme – u mislima mi bljesne slika mog oca na istom mjestu. Ogledam se oko sebe kao da provjeravam jesu li i drugi shvatili važnost ovog čina. No, grad se ne da smesti: ljudi izlaze iz restorana, guraju dječja kolica i zaključavaju vrata od auta. Dolje uz cestu uhvatim bljesak plave kose – bila su to dva desetogodišnjaka čija su koljena letjela nemogućom brzinom oko lopte koja je poskakivala uskim pločnikom. Obojica su nosila iste nogometne kratke hlače, sunce im se odbijalo o vratove i ramena koja su bila oblikovana baš poput mojih, poput onih mog oca. Još naprijed, desetak studenata izlazilo je uz veličanstvene zgrade na vrhu brda, a odjeća koju su nosili bila je slična mojoj. Odlučila sam ih slijediti. 
Moj otac rodio se ovdje 1922. godine te se otkako je napustio Hrvatsku 1945. nikada više nije vratio. Sjeća se geografije ove zemlje sa začudnom preciznošću, iako se često ne može sjetiti ni što je jeo za doručak. Zahvaljujući njegovim opisima shvaćam da me studenti vode sredinom glavne ulice na kojoj su automobili zabranjeni. Hodam sporije od čopora, očima tražim "stare stvari" za fotografiranje. Lijevo je crkva s uskim zvonikom. Je li to crkva u kojoj je bio ministrant ili je to ona veća crkva što se nalazi s desne strane? Uslikala sam obje, za svaki slučaj. U dvorištu kafića koji se pružao na ulici sjedio je stari čovjek strogog izraza lica u debelom kaputu dok su se mirisi njegove jake cigarete i kave izvijali na hladnom jesenskom zraku. Nekako ne vjerujem da bi on mogao biti moj prvi prijatelj u ovom gradu. S lijeve strane široke ceste zgrade zamjenjuje zelenilo. Već sam ga pronašla – trg koji je često opisivao, centar ovog gradića.


Dakle to je taj park. Park u kojem je uvijek jeo sladoled u kornetu ili zavodio svoju najnoviju djevojku. Znam da ih je imao puno, ponekad čak i u isto vrijeme, što mi majka mirno potvrđuje. Lako ga zamišljam kao mladog časnika, kao na slikama koje sam vidjela, ali ovaj put u pokretu – bio bi baš kao čovjek koji je upravo prošao pored mene, s očima boje lješnjaka i izvijenom usnom koja mi privlači pogled. Njegov osmijeh bio bi jednako atraktivan domaćim djevojkama kao što je meni privlačan osmijeh moje najnovije simpatije. Promatrala sam svojevremeno očeve crno bijele portrete iz vojske ne shvaćajući da je nakon fotografiranja taj čovjek ustao i nastavio koračati dalje, u svijetu u boji. Moj tata bio bi iste visine kao i ovi ljudi ovdje, vragolast i pretjerano samouvjeren, ali zbog njegove kovrčave plave kose laka bi mu srca opraštali mane. Kretao bi se jednako brzo i grčevito kao ovaj ovdje stranac koji je naglo ustao s klupe u parku, zaštitio lice dlanovima i zapalio cigaretu. Taj će čovjek jednoga dana biti moj otac? Taj čovjek, za kojeg sam s jezivom sigurnošću znala da mi se ne bi svidio da sam ga upoznala u ovim godinama? U mojim očima on bi bio ženskaroš i umišljeni tek unovačeni vojnik, spreman počiniti užasne stvari, stvari koje šest desetljeća kasnije može tek dati naslutiti prije nego što će napustiti sobu. A on je onaj koji mi je dao život i ja ga prihvaćam takvog kakav jest, znam da mi je to jednostavnije jer sam najmlađe dijete. 


Što si učinio ovdje? Koliko si ljudi ustrijelio?


Naoružana samo s nekoliko osnovnih fraza hrvatskog jezika zapisanih na komadiću papira, počela sam tragati za pristupačnim starijim ljudima koji bi mi mogli nešto reći. Dok sam hodala Preradovićevom ulicom, u trapericama i s ruksakom, predstavila sam se starijem muškarcu koji je koračao prema meni:


Oprostite, ja sam Canade. Moj tata rodenje u Bjelovar. Moj otac je Dragutin Čavlović.  Moj djed je Vjekoslav Čavlović. Sjetiti se?


Sjetio se! Pomalo govori francuski – što je rijetkost u ovoj zemlji – i kaže mi da je njegova obitelj običavala ići u crkvu zajedno s obitelji mog oca. Fotografija obitelji mog oca i dan danas je na njegovom zidu. Ne znam što bih na to rekla pa mu zahvaljujem. Njegove tamne oči smiješe mi se dok nastavlja hodati. Poželim da sam iskoristila priliku i postavila još koje pitanje. Je li moj otac bio dobar čovjek? 


Drugi put ću se više potruditi. Šačica ljudi šeta ovom ulicom. Još jedan starac mi priđe te mi kad progovorim kimne u znak prepoznavanja. Široko se nasmije, udari me po ramenu, zaljulja ruku prema natrag kao da mi predstavlja cijeli horizont i kaže nešto poput: "Nije li Bjelovar prekrasan?" Možda je osjetio da se ovaj razgovor ne može više nastaviti jer je opet kimnuo i nastavio dalje.  


U malom hotelu u Supilovoj ulici našla sam mapu grada i lako uočila bivšu ulicu mog oca – Istarsku ulicu koja je vodila do groblja, kako je moj otac i opisao. Zaputila sam se u tom smjeru. Na idućem uglu telefonska je govornica. Prava prilika da obavim "T-tata-tu-sam" telefonski razgovor. Javio se. Pita me nekoliko puta da mu ponovim svoju točnu lokaciju. 


"Odakle me zoveš?" On ponovi.


"U govornici sam."


Na trenutak utihne. "Gdje si?"


Objasnim po treći put.


"Ali tamo nikada nije bilo govornice!"


Glas mu je poletan i pun energije, ali čujem kako ga majka požuruje da prekine razgovor prije nego što se previše uzbudi. 


Tada ugledam još jednu stariju osobu i osjetim kako mi uzbuđenje raste. Odjevena u mantil koji je jedva uspjela zakopčati preko masivnog tijela, iz kupovine nosi dvije vrećice koje je savijaju kao da su cvijet pretežak za svoju stabljiku. Pitam se je li ona jednom bila jedna od vatrenih ljubavnica mog oca. Ljubazna izraza lica, sasluša me i pristojno zatrese glavom, kaže nešto što sam protumačila kao da nema pojma o kome se radi, i pozdravi me. 


Kada sam skrenula u Istarsku ulicu, nisu se začule nikakve fanfare koje bi obilježile njezinu posebnost. Bila je to ulica kao bilo koja druga u bilo kojem drugom gradiću istočne Europe; s jedne strane nalazio se uski kolnik, a s druge su se ugnjezdile štuko kuće sa crvenim crijepovima, neke pomno održavane, a neke zakrpane jeftinim plastičnim dijelovima sa zahrđalim željeznim vratima. Nebo je oblačno. Ja sam jedina osoba na vidiku. Uhvatila sam se da sanjarim o nekome kod kuće. Prestani. Obrati pažnju. Sjeti se – ovdje je on igrao nogomet; ovo je ruta kojom je išao do vojnih baraka. Ovo je groblje koje je viđao svaki dan, iako je tada bilo manje. Pusti da ti ta činjenica dopre do uma – ovo je ulica na kojoj je čovjek koji mi je dao život započeo svoj. Ovdje mora biti nešto za mene. Ne mogu biti toliko bezdušna da mi to promakne.


Jesi li se smijao kada si na crnom tržištu prodavao boce vlastitog urina kao da su ulje za kuhanje?


Nastavljam po Istarskoj ulici nastojeći "ne propustiti priliku". Opisi mog oca sve više oživljavaju: oštri ugao između ove i Jelačićeve ulice, široki kameni ulaz na groblje. Ali nema velikih stabala koja štite kuće, nema voćnjaka vidljivog iz daleka. Odbrojavam kućne brojeve dok ne stignem na svoje odredište – Istarska ulica 2. Bolje rečeno, nalazim se ispred sive betonske zgrade gdje piše 2a i 2b. Sa svake strane izgrađene su nove kuće. Pozvonim na prvi, a onda i na drugi parlafon - nitko ne odgovara. Okrenem se na uglu kako bih istražila što se nalazi iza kuće.


Rekli su mi da je moj otac sin poznatog čovjeka u ovom gradu. Moj djed je bio uspješan krovopokrivač i posjedovao je veliko imanje zasađeno brojnim stablima voća, a imao je i nekoliko svinja. No, gledajući dvorište jasno mi je da je imanje već odavno podijeljeno. Neki čovjek nešto radi ispred jedne od kućica u nizu. Priđem mu isprobavajući svojih par uvježbanih riječi na hrvatskom; debeljuškasti čovjek sumnjiva izgleda dobro se sjeća moje obitelji.

 

Rukom mi pokazuje da sjednem s njim ispred kuće. Pristanem s obzirom da smo još uvijek dovoljno blizu ulice što mi daje osjećaj sigurnosti. U bačvi kišnice isplahne dvije čaše za žesticu pa ulije zlatnu tekućinu iz neprepoznatljive boce. Uzmem mali gutljaj. Nadam se da je dovoljno je jaka da ubije bilo kakve bakcile. 


Potvrđuje mi opise mog djeda do kojih sam došla uz pomoć znakovnog jezika u prethodnim internacionalnim susretima: prsti u džepovima koji se pretvaraju da u njima nema novca, prsti koji potajno broje hrpu novčanica, prsti koji drže bocu iznad otvorenih usta, tijelo koje se gotovo ruši na tlo. Moj djed bio je toliko bogat i toliko su mu zavidjeli da su ga komunisti došavši na vlast odvukli  iz kuće i upucali ispred očiju njegove djece, a zatim ga pokopali izvan grada na mjestu do kojeg moj otac još uvijek zna put – nekoliko kilometara istočno od Jelačićeve ulice. Bilo je to 1945-te, kada je ubijeno još mnogo ljudi. Stavila sam ruku na prsa da upitam "Dobro srce?"

 

Debeljuškasti čovjek slaže se lijenim slijeganjem ramena, kao da govori "Da, naravno". 


Nije bilo lako izvući se iz njegovog društva. Uspjela sam tako što sam mu obećala poslati fotografiju na kojoj radosno podiže svoju zamrljanu čašu.


Mislim da ovdje više nema ničega za mene. Po Istarskoj ulici vraćam se natrag do centra kako bih našla toalet i nabavila nešto hrane. Jedina druga osoba na cesti je stariji čovjek koji se kreće veoma brzo za svoju dob. U odgovor na moje pitanje, odmahne glavom kao da se ispričava. Vrijeme je za kratki odmor.


Dok dovršavam obrok u kafiću koji gleda na glavni park, desetak ljudi pristiže sa vjenčanja u obližnjoj crkvi. Za šankom je žena odjevena u nježno ružičastu haljinu, a njezin partner nosi zgodno sivo odijelo s odgovarajućom ružičastom kravatom. Na njihovim licima sada mogu kao tipično hrvatske prepoznati izražajne noseve i jagodice. Lice mladoženje moglo bi, da se na njemu izglade bore, biti lice mog oca. Par dijeli piće, svaki put kada se nasmiju primiču glave bliže jedno drugome. Čine se sretni. Bi li marili, u ovom trenutku, za priču o mom djedu, o jednom životu i jednoj smrti koja se dogodila prije šezdeset godina, nakon što su od tada preživjeli još jedan rat i bezbrojne smrti? Ja sam ovdje uljez, žena koja živi u prošlosti koju nikada nije doživjela, postarala sam samu sebe promatrajući "mlade ljude" i smiješeći se. Oni uživaju u novom dobu. Trebaju zaborav. Vjekoslav Čavlović je zaboravljen. Pustimo ove dobre ljude da žive svoje živote. 

 

Ostavljam novac i nekoliko komada liganja i u žurbi se zapućujem prema stanici. Ako uhvatim rani autobus mogu se vratiti u Zagreb na vrijeme da uživam u večeri. Presiječem put kroz park i ugledam krhkog čovjeka kako se snažno naslanja na štap. Je li vrijedno pokušati još jednom, posljednji put? Čini se da me razumije, ali čim spomenem imena, namršti se, nešto ljutito promrmlja i nastavi dalje. Dođe mi da prestanem s ovom invazijom. Ubrzam korak na nizbrdici i dođem do autobusa koji je već čekao.


Što to radim? Zaledim se kraj vrata širom otvorenih očiju. Vozač me upitno pogleda. Uđem unutra. Bus se počne kretati. Sjenem na sjedalo u prednjem dijelu vozila mučeći se pitanjima. Trebam li vozaču reći da stane? Autobus vozi sve dalje i brže. Imam planove za sutra; bilo bi glupo vraćati se natrag. Ulazimo na autocestu. Sada je prekasno. 


U ruci držim papir na kojem piše vozni red povratnih buseva za taj dan – mogla sam ostati još nekoliko sati. Mogla sam napraviti više snimaka. Mogla sam upoznati nekoga važnoga. Baš sam idiot. Moj otac sigurno je mislio na ovo kada mi je rekao da "ne propustim priliku". Tko zna što bih još naučila? Nikada neću znati odgovor. Zapravo se vjerojatno nikada neću ovamo vratiti.


Sjedim i gledam polja kako prolaze, potamnjela i prorijeđena nakon žetve. Traktor zapinje po neravnoj cesti. Možda mi je to rođak u trećem koljenu. Nikada neću znati.


Ali što bi to sada uopće moglo promijeniti?


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Povlačim se iz rijeke ljudi koji šetaju pločnikom do nekorištenih vrata, brišući suze maramicama i kartama za tramvaj koje sam našla u džepovima. Nitko na ovoj užurbanoj zagrebačkoj ulici – još jednoj ulici na kojoj je moj otac jednom stajao i marširao u vojničkoj opremi – ne udostoji me niti jednog pogleda. A onda shvatim...
Ta osoba više neće postojati.


Moj otac nikada nije bio crno-bijela fotografija. On je živa osoba s malim željama i velikim ambicijama. On je čovjek koji je ovdje jeo, disao i sklapao veze s ljudima, čovjek koji je možda nositelj gena koji kontroliraju osjetljivost mojih suznih kanala. Njegov otac umro je ovdje. A život se nastavio. Ni ja nisam iznimka. Rađanje djece neće me učiniti besmrtnom. Možda ću i ja biti strankinja svojoj unučadi. Slava me ne može održati na životu. Ove ulice više ne mare za moju "slavnu" obitelj. Život se uvijek nastavlja.


Mlada djevojka šeta ulicom i radi planove za večeras. Njezina ružičasta naušnica udara joj o mobitel svakim korakom.


Ovakav život mora imati i svojih prednosti.


Osobno više volim užitak od boli.


Nadam se da će svi ovdje biti sretni.


Drago mi je da me nitko ne zaustavlja da me pita što mi je.

 

*    *    *

 

Za kuhinjskim stolom mojih roditelja pokazujem ocu fotografiju betonske kuće. Šokiran je. Ne vjeruje mi. Nadao se da će vidjeti svoju staru kuću, ali ovo je moderni, nepoznati blok. Ipak, adresa je točna: broj dva, i to je ta ulica. Sve mu potvrđujem dok mu oči bubre. Sjedi za stolom nad fotoalbumom pritiščući oči zgužvanom maramicom. Glave zakopane u prsa ramena mu poskakuju gore-dolje dok su mu usta širom otvorena od boli. A onda se zaustavi. "U redu je, u jednom trenutku imaš taj osjećaj," kaže, uspravljajući se, " a onda prođe, nastaviš dalje." Odloži maramicu na stol i jednostavno nastavi okretati stranice. Mama mi se nasmiješi. Jučer mi je rekla da je tata prestao jaukati usred noći već nakon mog prvog poziva iz Bjelovara. 


Dok se spremam za povratak kući, ponudim mu da zadrži album na neko vrijeme. Kaže da je bilo dobro pogledati ga na nekoliko minuta, ali ništa više od toga. "Sve ide svojim tokom, sve prolazi jako brzo."


"Jako brzo..." upozorava nas u zadnje vrijeme, sa smiješkom. 

 

 

Then It Passes


I’m at my parents’ door to visit my father, just before I catch a flight his homeland. As I drop my backpack, he stands up and protests “No enough time. You be late,” until my mom tells him to “shuti” and he sits down on the couch.  He crosses his legs, exposing the red and open sores around his ankles. I ask how he’s feeling. “It’s all going in one direction,” he says, laughing. “All going with nature.” Without pressuring me, he repeats his advice in case I visit his hometown just west of Zagreb. “Don’t bother talking to no young people,” he says. “The ones over seventy will know me, know my father.”


It wasn’t my first choice for a holiday destination, but I think this will somehow help him. My mother tells me he still wakes up screaming most nights – nightmares of Croatia, things he begins to explain but stops half-way, when he circles a dry, stiff hand near his face and says, “So miserable. Nothing to talk about. Better you know nothing.”
For most of my life, my father was a distant figure who hid money in our old dishwasher, ate alone at the kitchen counter, and rarely showered. When new friends came to visit I claimed he was my grandfather. It was the war, I was told. My older brothers seemed to understand before I could – was he hit on the head, or did a train explode, or did something happen to his parents? Whatever the reason, these were his quirks. That was just Dad. Go to Mom when you need something, besides knowing where the elastic bands and staples are stored.  


Sitting here, intentionally visiting my father, still feels strange. I used to visit my mother and dad would just be there. The first time I visited him was after his heart attack two years ago. I sat by his bedside, seeing the sharp ends of tubes piercing his flesh in several places, and tried, for perhaps the first time, to make conversation. He’s not one for small talk. He let what was on his mind seep out – partial memories of secret police, Tito’s chauffeur, and the particular manner in which they shot his father. Events involving partisans and other military factions that were never fully explained, since my parents wanted to raise me “Canadian”. 


My father uncrosses his legs and leans towards me. He repeats the address of his old house, and how to get there from the park in the centre of town. Laughing, he touches my arm with an insistent and moist finger. “Don’t miss the boat, Ann.” I look at him, unsure of what he means. “I won’t,” I reply.


*    *    *

 

I step off the bus in Bjelovar, Croatia, into a crumbling concrete depot, looking out across the pavement at a row of run-down discount shops. Bjelovar is far from a tourist spot, and I’m selfishly glad I’ve already had time to explore beaches, limestone walls, and fine coffees houses this past week. But, here I am. I head out, looking for places my father’s feet were likely to have fallen. Bundling my jacket, I head toward what seems to be the older area of town. Walking uphill along a narrow sidewalk, halfway to the top I see shapes his eyes must have seen over sixty years ago – stucco buildings restored with fresh coats of beige and rose. Windows framed with accordion-like folds of carved wood. Edges softened by cornices of stone. This dignified baroque architecture stands no more than four stories high, interrupted at times by a rectangular grey slab tower, filling in a rupture, perhaps, from the last war, or the one before. At an intersection I balance my foot on a cobblestone curb– an image of my father in that very spot comes to mind. I look around, as if to check whether others realize the significance of this act. The city seems unruffled: people are stepping out of restaurants, pushing strollers, and locking car doors. Down a side street, my eye catches a flash of blond hair – two ten year-old boys, knees flying at an impossible speed around a ball ricocheting between narrow sidewalks. Both wearing the same soccer shorts, sun reflecting off of necks and shoulders shaped like mine, shaped like my father’s. Up ahead, dozens of students are spilling out of a stately building at the top of the hill, wearing clothes much like mine. I follow them. 


My father was born here in 1922, and has never returned since he left Croatia in 1945. He remembers the geography of this country with uncanny accuracy, even though he frequently cannot remember what he had for breakfast. His descriptions help me understand that the students are leading me along the middle of the main street, on which cars are no longer allowed. I walk slower than the pack, eyes peeled for “old things” to photograph. On the left is a church with a narrow steeple. Was he an altar boy here, or in that larger one on the right? I take a picture of both, just in case. On a café patio extending into the street sits an old man with a thick coat and a dour expression, the scent from his strong cigarette and espresso curling through the cool autumn air. I don’t think he’ll be my first friend in town. The buildings on the left side of the wide street give way to a green space. I’ve found it already – the square park he often described, marking the centre of this small town.


So this is the park. The park in which he used to eat ice cream cones, or seduce his latest girlfriend. I know he had a tendency to have many, sometimes overlapping, as my mother calmly verifies. It’s easy to imagine him here as a young officer, like in the photos I've seen, but animated – he’d have been just like that man walking past me now, hazel eyes and the curve of his lip catching my eye.  His smile would have been as attractive to the local girls as the smile of my latest crush was to me. I’ve looked at his black and white army portraits without ever realizing that he got up after the shot, in full colour, and kept moving. My dad would have been the same height as these men here, mischievous and over-confident, yet his curly blonde hair would make him easy to forgive. He would have had the same quick and jerky way of moving as that man springing up from a park bench, jutting his head into the shelter of his palms, and lighting a cigarette. That man would one day be my father? That man, who I know with an eerie certainty I would not like if I had met at this age? I would have seen him as a womanizing and cocky young army recruit, liable to commit such awful things, things that he can only hint at six decades later before having to leave the room. And he's the man who gave me life, and I accept him, knowing it's easier to do as the youngest child.  


What did you do here? How many did you shoot?


Armed with only a few basic Croatian phrases on a scrap of paper, I start searching for approachable seniors who might have something to tell me.


Oprostite, ja sam Canade. Moj tata rodenje u Bjelovar. Moj otac je Dragutin Čavlović.  Moj djed je Vjekoslav Čavlović. Sjetiti se?


Walking along Preradovića Street, presenting myself in jeans and a backpack, I say to that old man walking towards me: “Excuse me, I’m from Canada. My father was born in Bjelovar. My father is Dragutin Cavlovic. My grandfather is Vjekoslav Cavlovic. Do you remember?”


He does remember! He speaks a little French – rare in this country – and tells me his family used to go to church with my father’s family. A photo of them remains on his wall. I don’t know what to say next, so I thank him. His dark eyes smile at me and he continues walking. I wish I had used that chance to ask more questions. Was my father a good person?  


I’ll get better at this. A handful of people are walking along this block. Another senior approaches, and nods in recognition when I speak. He smiles broadly, slaps me on the shoulder, swings his arm back as if showcasing the horizon, and says something like: “Isn’t Bjelovar lovely?” Perhaps sensing the conversation couldn’t go on any further, he nods again and continues on. 


Inside a small hotel on Supila Street I find a map of the city, and easily spot my father’s old street – Istra Street, leading up to the cemetery like my Dad described. I start heading that way. There’s a payphone on the next corner, and an opportunity to make the ‘Dad-I’m-here’ phone call. He answers, and asks me to repeat my exact location a few times. 


“But how you calling me?” He says again. 


“I’m at a payphone.”


He’s silent for a while. “Where are you?” 


I explain a third time.


“But there never used to be a phone in that place!”


His voice is light and full of energy, but I hear my mother hurrying him off the phone before he gets too worked up. I spot another senior, and feel my excitement grow. Wearing a trench coat that she has barely buttoned across her wide girth, she is carrying two shopping bags that bend her over like a flower too heavy for its stem. I wonder if she was once one of my father’s fiery lovers. With a kind face, she listens to me and shakes her head politely, saying something that seems to indicate she has no idea about such persons, and bids goodbye. 


No symphonies start to play as I turn the corner onto Istra Street. It’s a street like any other in small-town eastern Europe, a narrow sidewalk on either side, closely nestled houses built of stucco with red tile roofs, some well cared for and others repaired with cheap plastic parts, steel gates rusting. The sky is overcast. I’m the only person in sight. I catch myself daydreaming about someone back home. Snap out of it. Pay attention. Remember – this is where he would play soccer; this is the route he would take to the army barracks. There’s the graveyard he would see each day, but smaller then. Let it sink in – this is the street where the man who gave me life first started his. There must be something here for me to find. I can’t be so heartless as to miss it. 


Were you laughing when you sold bottles of your urine as cooking oil in the black market? 


I keep moving along Istra Street, trying not to “miss the boat”. More of my father’s descriptions manifest: the sharp angle the street makes with Jelačića road; the large stone entrance to the graveyard. But there are no big trees sheltering the houses, nor an orchard visible from far and wide. The house numbers count down until I arrive at my destination – 2 Istra Street. Rather, I am in front of a grey concrete block housing 2a and 2b. Newer houses are built on either side. I ring the first buzzer and then the second; no one responds. I walk around the corner to survey the back of the house. 


I’ve been told that my father was the son of a notable man in town. A successful roofer, my grandfather owned a large property replete with fruit trees and several pigs. But from the back it’s clear that the property has long been divided. A man is working outside one of the tiny houses that now stand in a row. I approach and try my practiced lines; the pudgy and dubious looking man remembers my family well, and motions for me to sit with him outside his front door. I agree, since I am still within earshot of the street. He rinses off two shot glass in a bucket of rainwater, and pours a golden liquid from an unrecognizable bottle. I take a small sip. Strong enough to kill any germs, I hope. He confirms the descriptions I had been given about my grandfather through the sign language of international encounters: fingers in the pockets pretending there’s no money in there, fingers secretly counting a stack of bills, fingers holding a bottle over an open mouth, body nearly stumbling to the ground. So rich and envied was my grandfather, I’ve been told, that when the communists took over he was dragged from this spot, shot in front of his children, and buried outside of the city in a place to which my Dad still knows the directions – a few kilometres further east along Jelačica Road. That was 1945, when lots of other people were being shot. I put my hand on my chest to sign “good heart?” and the pudgy man agrees with a lazy shrug, as in: “Yah, sure”. Extracting myself from his company isn’t easy. I succeed by promising to mail the photo I am taking of him raising his grimy glass in the air with glee. 


I think there’s nothing else for me here. I walk back to the centre along Istra Street to find a washroom and some food. The only other person along the street is an elderly man moving quickly for his age. He shakes his head apologetically in response to my question. I feel like resting for a while. 


As I finish my meal in a café overlooking the main park, a dozen people stream in from a wedding in the nearest church. At the bar, a woman wears a soft pink dress, and her partner wears a handsome grey suit with a matching pink tie. They have the prominent noses and high cheekbones of Croatians that I now recognize. His face could be my father’s if I smoothed away all the wrinkles. The couple share a drink together, moving their heads closer to each other each time they laugh. They look happy. Would they care, at this moment, to hear about my grandfather, about one life and one killing that happened sixty years ago, after they have lived through another war and countless killings since? I am an intruder here, some woman living in a past I’ve never had, ageing myself by looking at the ‘younger generation’ and smiling. They are enjoying newness. They need to forget. Vjekoslav Čavlović is forgotten. Let these good people live their lives. 


Leaving some money and a few pieces of calamari behind, I head for the station in a hurry. If I catch the early bus I can be back in Zagreb in time to enjoy the evening. Cutting through the park I see a frail man leaning heavily on his cane. Is it worth one last try? He seems to understand, but as I mention names he scowls, mutters angrily and walks off. I want to quit this invasiveness even more. I sprint faster down the hill to the station and reach the idling bus. 


What am I doing? I stand frozen and wide-eyed by the door. The driver looks at me quizzically. I jump on. The bus starts to move. I take a seat near the front, kicking myself.  Should I ask to be let off? The bus rolls further and faster. I’ve made arrangements for tomorrow; it would be silly to come back. We are entering the highway now. It’s too late.


In my hand is the piece of paper listing the return buses for that day – I could have stayed for several more hours. I could have gotten more photos. I could have met someone important. I’m an idiot. This is clearly what my father must have meant about ‘missing the boat’. What else would I have learned? I will never know the answers, and in reality I will probably never come back.

 
I sit and watch the fields pass by, brown and sparse after the harvest. A tractor bumps along a rocky path. Could be my third cousin. I’ll never know. 


But what difference would it make now?


*    *    *


I pull out of the stream of people walking along the sidewalk into an unused doorway, sobbing into the tissues and tram transfers I found in my pockets. No one on this busy Zagreb street looks my way – another street upon which my father once stood, and stomped over in army gear. And it becomes clear to me…


This self will die.


My father was never a black and white photo. He’s a living person with petty desires and great ambitions, who ate here and breathed here and had relationships, and who maybe has the gene that controls how easily my tear ducts release. His father died here. And life keeps going. I’m not exempt from this. Bearing children won’t make me immortal. I might be a stranger to my grandchildren too. Being famous can’t keep me alive. These streets don’t care anymore about my ‘famous’ family. Life just keeps going.


A young girl is walking up the street making plans for tonight. Her pink earring clicks against her cell phone with each step.


There must be something to living this life.  


I know I like pleasure more than pain.

    
I hope everyone here will be happy. 


I’m glad no one stops to ask me what’s the matter. 

 

*    *    *

 

At my parent’s kitchen table, I show the photo of the concrete house to my father. He is shocked. He doesn’t believe me. He was looking forward to seeing his old house, but this is a modern, unfamiliar box. Yet it is number 2, and it is the right street. I confirm it all as his eyes well up. He sits at the table over the photo album dabbing each eye with a wrinkled tissue, head down into his chest, shoulders bouncing up and down with a mouth wide open in pain. Then he stops. “It’s OK, you have an emotion,” he says, straightening up, “then it passes, then you go on.” He sets his tissue on the table and simply continues turning pages. My mom flashes a grin at me. She told me yesterday that Dad’s middle-of-the-night screaming has stopped since the first phone call I made from Bjelovar. 
As I get ready to go home, I offer to leave the album with him for a while. He says it was good to look for a few minutes, but nothing more. “It’s all going with nature, all going very soon.” 


Very soon…” he’s been warning lately, with a laugh.  

 

 


This story was first published in Canada in 2008 in "Event".

 

 

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ISSN 2459-9379

Editors: Natalija Grgorinić, Ljubomir Grgorinić Rađen & Ognjen Rađen

 

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