There are plenty of ways to feel like an outsider; for me it was that I was a Balkan girl growing up among the lily white. Not all white is white-white, which we Eastern Europeans, particularly the Balkans, understand. Growing up, I attended Catholic elementary school in a Chicago suburb. My classmates were all Catholic like me, but they were overwhelmingly Irish, with names like O’Connor or Connolly or Sullivan or Smith, and I am sure none of them had met a Balkan before.
At first they thought I was one of them. As children, our features did not vary widely. We all had cute, small noses and foreheads and craniums—important because the Balkan adult has a large, square cranium—usually a giveaway. We also dressed identically in Catholic school uniforms.
However, there were names to consider. My first name, Maria, was close enough to Mary that nobody paid much attention. But the Irish-American schoolchildren had not encountered a surname like mine, with its “-ic” ending. I tried to explain: “You pronounce the ‘i-c’ as ‘eetch,’” but they insisted on pronouncing those letters as “itch.” I knew even then that “itch” rhymed with bitch and witch, and this was not a good thing.
Adding to the difficulty, Balkan surnames have a way of pairing difficult consonants. Mine paired “v” and “k” to form Ivkovic. I explained that the “v” was practically silent, more like a quick “f” sound, resulting in “eef-ko-veetch.” Instead, they insisted on “ick-a-vitch,” which sounded like “ick I itch” or “ick a witch.”
I told my father over dinner. He sat hunched over the kitchen table eating fish. Its white flesh stuck to his fingers when he pulled it from the bone. He said, “They need to practice. Tell them to try saying ‘Na vrh brda vrba mrda.’” A tongue twister meaning, “On the top of a mountain the willow sways.”
I did not follow my dad’s advice. Instead, I lowered my eyes whenever “ick a bitch” elicited giggles and my classmates left me standing alone on the chalked-up patch of pavement where we had been playing hopscotch. Or maybe there was no hopscotch, but this is how I remember it.
Then the day came, during a time we were learning to write in cursive, that my teacher, Miss Walsh, asked the students to gather on the floor in a circle and share with the class what it was our fathers did. “Go on and sit Indian style, everyone,” she said.
Each student took his turn. They all seemed to have firefighter fathers named Bob or Tim. Straightforward professions, straightforward names. I wanted to disappear into the grey carpeting of the classroom.
“And Mary, what does your father do?” Miss Walsh said.
“My father’s a doctor,” I said with finality, and then looked at the girl sitting next to me, to indicate it was now her turn.
“What is his name?” Miss Walsh said.
I felt the blood rush to my face as I said his name softly: “Dragan.” I made sure to pronounce it as differently as possible from the fire-breathing figure familiar to my classmates.
But one of them blurted, hot-faced, “Dragon? What kind of name is that?” Giggles followed. I did not correct them this time. Instead, I said he had a dragon tattoo, hoping the class would be afraid.
“Mary, tell the class where you are from,” Miss Walsh said.
I searched my brain for the word that represented where we came from. “Yugoslavia.”
“So you are Yugo-slav-ian,” she said.
I remembered what my parents had told me, and recited: “No. I’m Croatian, but I’m from Yugoslavia.” I hoped they wouldn’t ask me what I meant. It was all so complicated.
I wondered if the children told their parents about “the girl from Yugoslavia.” Perhaps they asked their parents if such a country did in fact exist, or if this was a mythical place where dragons came from. It seemed to me that even then, before Yugoslavia became associated with concentration camps and shelled out buildings, the children treated me as someone not to be trusted.
During lunch they exchanged Fruit Roll-Up flavors with each other, but turned away from me when I reached into the crinkled skin of my paper bag. It may have been that they knew I wouldn’t have Fruit Roll-Ups. Instead I had strange meats and bread far darker than the white Wonder Bread they were used to.
After a while I convinced my mother that buying me strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups was a matter of survival, as if I could barter for trust. But the Fruit Roll-Up trick did not work. Nobody took them from me, and I didn’t enjoy how they stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Instead, their distrust of me deepened in the summer, when I disappeared to Yugoslavia and came back brown-skinned and shorn. During those first days back, the children would sit at their desks excitedly, the girls with their long ponytails as blonde as halo light. I would enter the classroom as late as possible, knowing it was impossible to hide my skin but wearing a hat to hide the mullet cut my Croatian Aunt Gizela had given me weeks before. The teachers would say, “Run along Mary and find a seat,” and it always seemed to take a very long time to find one, or maybe it only felt like a long time because I walked among whispers.
I remember the musky smell of Gizela and the swish of her long skirt along the floor of her salon. I sat in the black plastic swivel chair across from the mirror, watching her gather her tools. She told me that punks are cool in America. The word she used was not punk, but “punkeritsa,” which roughly translates to “little punk girl.” I couldn’t bring myself to disagree—I wouldn’t tell any adult they were wrong—and I let her snip away. As a last defense, I widened my eyes in horror as my long dark hair fell into a heap on the floor.
My mother—who was known in her seaside town in Yugoslavia for her wind-swept and bare beauty—was a different woman in America. It appeared that she, like me, only wanted to fit in. She mimicked the American women by wearing the same sporty outfits and lining her eyes with a blue pencil. She chewed bubblegum too.
My mother learned from a neighbor that the girls and boys in the neighborhood would sometimes sleep at each others’ homes, and that in America these social events were called “sleepovers.” Although my mother found the whole thing peculiar, she thought it would be “good for Maria” if she organized a sleepover.
We invited seven girls and three girls came. They were timid coming into the Balkan home, but our dog Targa won them over because Targa—a German Shepard with a fat neck—would let them hold up her front paws while she danced like a bear. My father played good music too; it might have been the Rolling Stones.
I thought during the sleepover how happy I was to have friends like Annie and Sue and Molly, who danced with Targa, and I didn’t want anything to ruin it. So I stole away into the kitchen and let my mother know that American children ate donuts in the morning, and if we didn’t have frosted and fried dough shaped into rings with sprinkles on top, we could forget future sleepovers.
In the morning my mother peeked her head into the room where we slept like logs along the floor. I saw from where I lay that she held a pink cardboard box, and I sprang up to give her a hug. The other girls padded behind us into the kitchen, and we chose among the colored food. The dough tasted too sweet for morning, but after a few mouthfuls I tasted the flour and oil more than the sugar and I liked it very much.
This simple pleasure did not last. My father, who was a healthful man, happened upon the kitchen and lifted the donut box, and for a second it made me think of the school priest Father Murray who lifted the Bible, but my father did not bow his head.
“Isuse Boze,” he said, and I knew that meant Jesus Christ in Croatian. He was not yelling but he was very serious. “Junk. Smeca. Garbage. What is this pizdurija? Dunkin? Junk. Junkin Jonuts. You will not eat garbage in my house.”
The girls looked at each other with pink faces and then scurried out of the room like mice. I heard them giggling “ick a witch” when they had gone out of sight.
Word spread of the “Junkin Jonuts.” It was clear that Annie and Sue and Molly were not my friends. Sometimes I would pass them in the hall, and they would cup a hand to each other’s ears and make hissing sounds. If I ever saw one of them alone I would stare at her until she looked a little ashamed.
And then the week came in gym class when we were supposed to do gymnastics. I gave my father a chance to repent for making me a laughingstock, when I asked him to teach me how to do a cartwheel. My father kept calling them zvjezde or “stars.” He had been a gymnast in Yugoslavia so I hoped I could make stars as he had.
He stood with his arms crossed as my colt-like arms reached down to the grass outside. I tried many times but my feet would not swing into a swift and graceful circle above my head. I remember seeing my father’s eyes moisten before he walked away in his sporty outfit. The gymnast blood I could have inherited from Yugoslavia—had there been a more merciful God—was not running through my veins.
When the war came to Yugoslavia and filled our television screens with rubble and ribcages, my teachers spoke of the tragedy as we all sat in a circle, Indian style. I would turn red even though I had nothing to do with it, and the other children kept more distance from me than usual. The teachers asked, “Mary, can you explain why people in Yugoslavia hate each other so?” They explained how that sort of savage bloodshed would never happen in this country, heavens no it wouldn’t, and here, thank God, we had a system that would prevent such monstrosities. I thought of monsters and dragons and how the other children probably had long ago thought of Yugoslavia as a dangerous place and that this war that was a horror to me was probably no surprise to them.
After school I would run home to my parents, who sat ashen in front of the television. They told me they would take me back to this place they now called Croatia, and we would sit in a café by the sea even if grenades fell like snow in the hills.
As my hair grew out and my skin paled, I had a sense I was losing something without knowing what. Maybe it was that I knew that something greater than abandoned hopscotch was happening to a place I almost called home. That the home, that could have felt like home, was now itself a freak: darkened, shorn, devastated by monsters.