The great thing about grandparents is that they are so ashamed of the terrible job they did as parents, when they were young and didn’t know any better, that they can hardly wait for the chance to do it all over again and redeem themselves. Grandchildren seem to know this instinctively and learn pretty quickly that they can get away with just about anything.
When I was a little girl growing up in Belgrade, my parents used to have an active social life and traveled quite frequently and so I spent a lot of time at the home of my paternal grandparents, Nicolas and Darinka.
Many years before, my grandparents had had a scandalous romance due to the fact that my grandmother was already married and sixteen years older than my grandfather. But when I knew them, all that was over, and they had settled into a premature and extended old age. They were both amazing story tellers and there was nothing better than cozying up to them for a long weekend of overeating and entertainment. This pattern was regularly interrupted by my grandfather’s monthly chess games, which were played in tournaments that lasted from Friday afternoon to Monday morning. The players remained in their chairs and their only break was when my grandfather would declare, ‘Let’s snore our way through one match.’ I was very unhappy with this arrangement and refused to learn the rules of the game since I considered chess as my greatest rival and nemesis.
My grandfather would have to compensate for his inattention with lots of story telling the following weekend. But once when the poor man fell asleep in the middle of a story, I decided to take action by hitting him over the head with an ivory hairbrush, which pretty much stunned him for the rest of the evening.
‘You’ve managed to produce blood thirsty spawn,’ he told my father at pick-up time.
Now my grandfather was a large man, both in height and girth, owing to the fact that after the war, he began to compensate for the hungry years with huge meals. He had a massive sweet tooth, and the only way he could justify it was by claiming he was treating me. His favorite combination was halva and boza, a sort of wheat soda, which could be found at the many pastry shops in the city. This was our secret, so that neither of us would get in trouble at the hands of our true masters. And so after we would stuff ourselves, we’d take a stroll and then he would insist that we needed something healthy to eat to make up for it—a little bean stew to top the afternoon off. My mother never could understand why I was getting fatter and fatter.
Between meals, I was imbibing at the fount of his wisdom, and he would often put me up to things which caused extreme embarrassment to my parents, such as the time I announced in front of my father’s colleagues that all communists were thieves and liars. Though most sane people believed this to be true by that time, it certainly was never articulated, since such sentiments carried heavy punishment. Fortunately I got off with a pat on the head and the acknowledgement that they too had crazy grandparents at home who poisoned the minds of their children.
My grandfather was fairly candid with me about the political situation and also about the terrible years during the German Occupation during WWII. Those were sad stories, though true. However I liked stories about life in the country which I suppose would be considered to belong to the genre of magical realism today.
One of the best was passed on to him by his father, Dimitri. Our family, the Simic clan, had come up from Montenegro to Shumadiya and settled in the Topola and Arandjelovatz area. My grandfather claimed that his ancestor Sima Simic was one of the twelve Voyvode who put Karadjordje on the Serbian throne after they rose up against the Turks. A voyvoda is a Slavic military leader but it might be translated as duke into English.
‘I have blue blood,’ he would insist. My grandmother, who had a much more interesting family history, could never tolerate his airs and would rejoinder,
‘Nikola, the only thing your ancestor ever saw of Karadjordje was the back end of his horse.’
Now when Dimitri was a little boy of about seven, he got up during the night and saw something fantastical transpiring in the garden. He hurriedly woke his elder brother so they could both witness it. They both described a circular greenish glow descending to earth. They were mesmerized by it and stayed up watching, hidden out of sight. Afterward, it was said that grass never grew on that spot again.
Years later, reading about the crop circle phenomenon, I was reminded of that story. However, the way it was told to me was that Vile [ you should say Vee-lay] had held their festivities on that spot. Vile and Vilani, are magical beings, beautiful maidens and men respectively, with cloven hoofs and supernatural powers, who are the protectors of natural places: forests, mountains and streams. Needless to say, they are none too fond of humans, whom they enjoy enticing to their bacchanals and enchanting into total forgetfulness. When humans desecrate the Vilas’ sacred places they are either mortally shot through with poisoned arrows or permanently cursed.
Suspicious of fairy tales, I looked to my grandmother, who said, ‘Oh, yes, when my father was coming home from a party once, he stopped his carriage at a cross roads to relieve himself and the Vile cursed him. He died shortly afterward in terrible misery.’ Later I discovered the poor man had had bone cancer.
Another time, they told me they were driving back to Belgrade from the countryside right before the outbreak of the war and saw an orange ball flying low in the sky. Years later, I read that this phenomena was often reported in Eastern European newspapers prior to some impending disaster.
They both had quite a few stories up their sleeves, her favorite was about the Chudo, or Wonder, a small black hairy imp that inhabited chimneys and caused all sorts of domestic mischief, such as curdling milk and tying knots in girls’ long hair. His was about a devil goat which tormented a rider to death on a dark and lonely road. I think he might have gotten it from Gogol.
My father, their son, was the best story teller of all. His stories often focused on Greek Gods and Slavic heroes and magical horses, who could usually out think their riders.
Balkan readers, I know you already know these well, but I tell one for those who may not be familiar with the Serbian epic poetry.
Now readers, as you might know, the Balkans had flourishing kingdoms, which weirdly enough were fairly equitable socially considering the time period. After the fall of Rome when Western Europe descended into the dark ages, the east, under Byzantium continued to prosper, only to fall into its own dark age under the rather backward Ottoman Turks in the 14th century.
Prince Marko was a vassal of the Turks, which might account for his prodigious drinking and general misbehavior, or not. This Marko was an historic figure who ruled over a small area in what is now Western Macedonia. In legend, he grew up into a formidable physical specimen, huge, ferocious, with dark mustaches as large as six-month old lambs. He carried a Damascus saber and a sword, his mace weighed a ton and he carried a enormous skien of wine at his side to balance it out. Now when he wasn’t brawling, he was drinking, and half of his share always went to his wonder horse, the talking piebald Sharatz. ‘Half he drinks, half he gives to Sharatz,’ the bards sang.
Marko would usually choose his horses by throwing them over his shoulder by the tail. At a horse fair, the leprous, mangy Sharatz was the only horse that he couldn’t throw. So Marko bought him, nursed him back to health and was amply rewarded. In any case it was a great relationship.
Marko pretty much treated women like crap, although he loved his mother, a Montenegrin princess, whom his Serbian father wed after a botched attempt to steal her brother’s wife by trickery. In other words, both Marko and his dad were typical Balkan males. Now Marko had a gang of heroes that he often hung around with. One of them was Milosh Kobilich, so called because he was suckled on mare’s milk, kobila being the word for mare. Actually his real last name was Obilich. Milosh was quite the troubadour and so one day as they were riding over Miroch mountain, Marko asked Milosh to sing for him. Milosh explained that the Vila of mountain, Raviyoyla, had forbidden him to sing on her mountain, since she was jealous of his abilities.
‘I’ll handle her,’ Marko said, leaning back on Sharatz and enjoying himself. Milosh was pretty good at singing and when his strains reached the Vila’s ears, though she was beside herself with fury, she had to admit he was a better singer than she was. Nevertheless, she roused herself and flying over head, mortally wounded Milosh with poisoned arrows. Then Marko turned to Sharatz, and there are two versions of this, either told him that he would shoe him with gold and silver and decorate him with jeweled halters and what not if he caught the Vila, or he would break his back and claw out his eyes and wring his neck and he’d be counting his ribs, and all the things that Serbian parents say to their children, if he failed. In any case Sharatz sprang into action, Marko smote the Vila with his mace bringing her down, and then forced her to gather life reviving herbs for Milosh. He, in turn, became stronger than he had ever been, and the Vila and Marko became blood brother and sister, the Vila promising to aid him whenever he was in trouble, which was fairly often, given his penchant for keeping bad company. There are a lot of Marko tales in the cycle and reader, you can find them on-line by googling Prince Marko. He met his end at a battle, and as the legend goes, threw his mace into a lake. One day when the mace rises, so will Marko and the Serbian people. To date, dear reader, we are still waiting.