I stared down at the six Barbie dolls lined up neatly on our plush orange carpet, their hair combed back, their dresses smoothed down flat against their legs, their eyes looking back up at me, unblinking. I was seven years old and my mother had asked me to pick one to include in her care package to Yugoslavia. The shampoos, soaps, and clothes would go to my aunt’s house in Belgrade, and the Barbie would go to my cousin Maja.
I’d like to say I picked the most beautiful doll to send, but instead I chose the Barbie that I thought I could live best without. They were mine. Why did I have to give them up? They should just get their own.
I didn’t understand that they were poor. We had stayed with them the summer before, like we had every year since I could remember, out in the hills of Belgrade’s suburbs, in the one-bedroom apartment given to my grandmother by the government for her husband’s military service. My family had flown into Paris, rented a car, and driven across Europe, stopping along the way to see the sights before winding through Slovenia’s mountains and emerging on the other side into Croatia. The parking lot outside the building was shaded with large, overhanging trees that dropped their rotting fruit onto the cars and onto the steps leading down to the entrance. Countless feet had squished them into the asphalt, and their acid had worn away the surface into a moonscape of craters and exposed rocks, rounded and smoothed by age.
The apartment was on the top floor of a building without an elevator, so we hiked our luggage up the four flights of stairs, slowly climbing from the darkness of the lower levels where I ran ahead to hit the lights, to the top floors where the sunlight from the glass skylight lit the way. Inside, the apartment opened into a small hallway leading to a kitchen with one room to the right and one to the left. We didn’t call them the living room and bedroom, but rather the big room and the small room, because both were used for sleeping at night and living during the day. They both had large, wall-to-wall cabinets where we stored all of our clothes, and each had two sets of couches that converted into beds.
At night the cool air stole through the open windows, bringing mosquitos, so Maja and I turned off the lights and killed as many of them as we could before climbing onto the pullout, crowding together under the blankets and laughing until we fell asleep. In the morning my aunt bought a loaf of bread and cut slices off for us to eat with butter and homemade jam. After breakfast we took the four flights down and spent the rest of the day outside, only climbing back up when we heard our names being called from the balcony or when we got tired of holding it in.
We climbed the rusted rocket-ship in the playground beside the building until our hands turned brown, then swung on the crossbar of the swing set that was missing its swings, and shook the chestnuts from the trees and cracked them open with rocks on the knobby curb to eat the sweet insides. We played with the day-old kittens born to the stray cats that lived in the bushes, then made secret hideaways among the brambles, choosing who was allowed in according to children’s rules that I don’t remember. We made friends with the roaming dogs, the mutts with short legs and outsize heads, tails larger than their bodies, which dug through the trash and were always friendly.
I compartmentalized that world away from my other one in Canada. I didn’t miss the things that I knew existed in that other place, across the ocean, because they belonged as little to Belgrade as did indoor shopping malls and smoothly-paved highways and nicely-planted front lawns. It wasn’t much different then going to school in English and coming home to Serbian. Only once do I remember compounding those worlds, playing with my friend from school on our driveway when she stopped our game to stare at me. What are you saying? She said, and I realized I had slipped so naturally into Serbian I hadn’t even noticed. When my sestra Maja, my first cousin and deepest friend, asked me to explain what life was like for me over there, I didn’t have the words in Serbian to explain the difference.
But she was always curious, and as we got older we sent each other long letters on white ruled paper, covered in drawings and sharing our lives as best we could. I sent her photos of my house and my friends, all packed up in big envelopes with a collage of stamps in the corner, and then waited desperately for a reply. I didn’t even need to write her name on the envelope, because she was the only one on the postman’s route to get mail from Canada, and he knew who to deliver it to.
When I was ten years old, after years of unsuccessful attempts, my parents finally got Maja a visa to visit us in Canada. Because of the war, the government thought her parents were a flight risk and refused their visas, so my aunt and uncle sent her as an unaccompanied minor. We went to the airport early and I craned my neck excitedly each time the frosted glass doors in the arrivals hall slid open to catch a glimpse of her. She came out with a stewardess, her name and photo in a plastic sleeve on a lanyard around her neck, her long hair ruffled from her first airplane flight. I hugged her tight and then we linked arms, talking and squealing until we got out to the parking lot and were sitting in the back seat of our big blue Dodge Caravan.
We drove past the cluster of airport hotels, Maja looking up at the top floors that scraped the sky, then out onto the broad four-lane road, past the sprawling shopping malls and gas stations surrounded by empty fields that had once been farms, and into the dense suburbs of cookie-cutter houses, their driveways dotted with one and a half cars and one and a half floors. When the van pulled into our driveway my mother clicked the garage door opener and the double doors swung upward to let us inside.
I took Maja up the stairs to my bedroom, painted pink with one side covered in rainbow wallpaper, and showed her the bunk bed she’d be sleeping on stacked against the wall covered in Care Bear sheets. We spent an afternoon in the playroom introducing her to all my toys, dividing up the dolls between the two of us so we each had a set of babies to care for. We took them outside into the backyard and played on the lawn under the plum tree, and when it got too hot we changed into our swimsuits and jumped through the sprinklers, shrieking at the cold.
In the morning, we poured cereal out of brightly colored boxes and drank two percent milk out of tall yellow glasses. We had just bought a video camera, and my parents let us use it to document our summer. If you had a VHS player you could push the bulky cassette into the slot until it swallowed it whole and watch as we washed the car in the driveway and threw soap at each other. You could go with us to the amusement park and buy Maja her first funnel cake, and then stand in line in the heat to ride the wooden roller coasters that we were finally tall enough to get on. You could visit Niagara Falls through a water-speckled view screen and take the tour behind the falls, the torrent of water cascading over the window of the rock like a set of liquid curtains.
We became closer after her visit to Canada. Our letters became more personal now that she had seen how I lived. I sent her letters detailing my deepest insecurities and dreams for the future, and when we saw each other again in Belgrade, I thought there was something new between us, an intimacy born between two people who fully understand each other.
She didn’t come back to Canada for another ten years, and by then my family had left the duplex I had grown up in for a bigger house in a housing development so new it was still surrounded on all sides by muddy fields. Her family had moved too, out of the apartment on the fourth floor and to a house on the north side of the city over the Pančevački bridge. Yugoslavia broke apart into nation states, Belgrade became part of Serbia & Montenegro, and then came into independence. My childhood in Yugoslavia dissolved into the fondness of a warm memory.
I miss the stray dogs, the rusted playground and the dilapidated concrete steps. I miss eating stale day-old bread, scooping out the mold from the homemade jam before being able to spread it. I miss holding in my pee for hours because I didn’t want to run up four flights of stairs, and I miss hot sleepless nights without air conditioners.
Maja’s married now and lives in a beautiful apartment made of glass to the west of the city in New Belgrade, with fish swimming lazily across her living room wall inside their six-foot long aquarium. I sit on her white couch and eat sandwiches made of pre-sliced bread from bags and watch American sitcoms on her flat-screen TV.
Remember your first trip to Canada? I say, I never asked you about it.
What was it like for you?
She pauses a moment before answering.
It was the first time I realized how little we actually had.
I feel ashamed for missing the past, for wanting things here to stay the same while my other life moves forward into the future. She hadn’t lived in two worlds, neatly separated from each other by a language and an ocean—her trip to Canada had bled over into her life in Yugoslavia, staining it with its colors. It had made her lose the childhood we had shared together.
Afterward, I drive out to the old neighborhood and take the steps down to the building where Maja had lived as a child. The building had been sold and the new owner has repaved the steps, the edges sharp and crisp on my feet. I walk down from the parking lot and out around the building to the playground. It hasn’t changed much. The rocket is still there, now painted green, and the swings have gotten new seats. The concrete is still cracked in places, with tufts of grass and clover sneaking out over the edges, and the trees still hang their branches over the playground, their shade deeper and darker than before.
I try to see it as Maja had, after her first trip to Canada—disappointed with what she had, and jealous of that other life she saw. But I can’t. The memories of my childhood keep getting in the way, crowding my mind with songs and laughter and happiness. I sit down on the swing and let my legs hang down to the ground, rocking back and forth. I haven’t changed much from that little girl with the Barbie dolls. I hadn’t been able to see the poverty of my other world back then, and I still can’t.
Sara Alaica lives in New York City where she manages the website for Columbia University. She graduated with an MA in literature from the University of Toronto, and since then she has been writing stories inspired by her experiences living abroad in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and throughout the Balkans. Her writing has been featured in Vela, Cleaver, Spry, Switchback, and the Tishman Review, among others. She currently writes narrative nonfiction for my blog, saraalaica.com.