This article is the first thing I ever published after moving to Australia – it was published in 2007 in a Central European (Czech, I think) magazine called Plotki. For some reason, I didn’t have it archived on GS until now.
Mother used to recoil in horror remembering her younger sister saying, in full-force adolescent renaissance, Things aren’t like in your time! This was the moment of truth; mother was not at the forefront of history anymore. Mother was just one of the generations that got it wrong.
I understand my mother now. Things aren’t like in my space anymore, and Marx already established that space is time. The inevitable march of history means some societies are ahead and some are limping, looking at their backs. That’s why we have economic development: to even out time.
Things aren’t like in your time
My Australian parents-in-law and I went out for lunch to a Croatian restaurant. It was “traditional cuisine” right in the middle of Melbourne, Australia; the waiters wore national costumes and folk music was playing. I never returned. It placed my food squarely in some long-gone time.
Parents-in-law try to relate to my life, find things in common and, in a sense, we have a lot in common. We are mentally the same generation, they perhaps only slightly younger. They tell me about great-aunts and uncles. One in particular was legendary material; she learnt to cook from her mother, they say, like everyone in her generation. I remember my parents’ notes on the stove. After three hours taste the beans. Add paprika if necessary. I say nothing.
The age-old tradition of markets has recently been revived, here, so I buy unmediated food. Parents-in-law once came to lunch. I sat down with them over a big bowl of beans to shell. They observed very curiously, asked what kind of beautiful beans they were. I don’t think we’ve ever had them. I had to tell them brown [borlotti] beans look like that, purple, spotted and shiny, before they are canned. They wanted to help and asked how one shells beans.
Parents-in-law, instead, offer me only vaguely Asian food. None of that meat-and-two-vegetables stuff; that’s tradition, that’s passé. Father-in-law is proud how mother can cook anything, from Lebanese to Japanese, only if she has the recipe. (They haven’t learnt to cook from their parents.) They will happily tell you how certain people traditionally eat a cold dish in summer, a heavy dish in winter, and always cook from scratch, but then they will happily disregard it all and assemble a vegetarian substitute-turkey for their summery Australian Christmas.
Generations of the New World
In countries like Australia, people come to terms with their society by stereotyping each generation into results of market research. Baby boomers of the post-war, Generation X of the nineties, Generation Y of today, things I always thought were a crude joke, are a serious matter here. Government policies are based on fears of all baby boomers retiring together; all Generation X-ers refusing to have children; all Generation Y-ers being caring and kind. It is demographics gone science-fiction. Even the generation coming up has already been defined. The name is still undecided, however it is certain they will be scarred by their pessimistic, detached X parents.
There are many things this generation of twentysomethings, of people who look precisely my age, does not know. Market analysts will tell you. They do not know hardship. They do not know poverty. They do not know insecurity. They do not know political instability. They do not know welfare state. They do not know wartime. They do not know their own grammar and they were never educated for general knowledge, but for the labour market. They have never played on the street as children, never had to walk to school, protected from the unimaginable evils of the outside world, from the kidnappers and paedophiles. They are, thus: self-absorbed, naïve, simplistic, yet generous and well-balanced, natural-born givers. They are optimistic, and yet they do not take anything too seriously.
The older generation grumbles: the kids are delusional, they have never had it so easy, we went through real hardship. We lived through the fear of the nuclear winter, we had to buy our own houses. (We had jobs for life, free education and social welfare.) We had to play on the street!
I know insecurity, poverty, political instability, surreal inflation, welfare state and wartime. I know grammar and have general knowledge like shit itself. I played on the street. I am from another time, now romanticized. Where I come from, gay rights are not passé and Third-World poverty lives around the corner. Thus, I am not this Generation Y. I am reckless, selfish, pragmatic, organized, I cook from scratch and I am still concerned with the old-fashioned: politics, feminism, philosophy.
But not changing the world. Instead, my priority in life is to forget that nothing is solid, believe in stability. Sometimes it seems Australians of my age don’t really believe in war. Could it be that I, deep inside, don’t believe in peace?
There is a plausible explanation. I was born in a time heaving with history. I was born in a country that went through a historical transformation, the discourse went, in order to right centuries of historical wrongs. Croatia was a realization of a thousand-year-old dream, the megaphones were ringing, hundreds of years of history were fast-forwarding in those few years of my childhood. We had a quarter-century worth of inflation condensed in two years, a historical excess of death, the packaging and marketing changes in confectionery that had been pending for fifty years all occurred together. Enough events to inspire two hundred years worth of folklore, and pathological behaviour that will fuel a century of sociological research. I saw everything change, then change again.
I then found myself in a country with no past, country galloping into an optimistic future. Ten years ago is ancient history, I am told by people who roll eyes at the nineties. Their entire written history is shorter than the last outburst of ethnic paranoia in the Balkans.
Sometimes I feel like some modern-day Orlando who has witnessed human history. I have covered the period from pre-historic tribal hatred to iris scanning at airports. I watch neo-realist films with deep nostalgia, seeing my own childhood in those children running up and down car-less streets, barefoot and skinny, free from the overprotection of some other, idler, more suburban parents; and yet I am equally fluent in post-modern angst.
Time travel wears you out. I am not at the forefront of history anymore. I am, truth be told, somewhat tired. I have, accidentally, become the stereotypical migrant from the poor East, standing in the corners of old, black and white photos with a sour face. I get irritated over little things: dishes unwashed, lunch uncooked, train cancelled. I have an order that needs to be kept. The order gives me space for sanity. Mother used to be the same, coming home from work, snapping at some dirty dishes, some precious food that she had plans for, and that I had eaten without notice. Mother herself had lived through some heavy history.
Not all is lost, though. I hear proposals to listen to “traditional knowledge” of pre-modern people, and find a way to live without air-conditioning, cars and frozen food. This is a cause for optimism, because they might make a full circle one day, and from past I will emerge in the future.
The other night I was told about cutting-edge environmentally-friendly engineering: external shutters on windows to keep the heat out! I admitted it was a brilliant idea. They manufacture them now, although they still have not invented a mechanism to keep the shutters closed, but windows open underneath. I have offered to find contacts among the carpenters in rural Croatia. The technical solution of our village houses and their funky shutters might be exactly what they need.
“I have an order that needs to be kept. The order gives me space for sanity. Mother used to be the same, coming home from work, snapping at some dirty dishes, some precious food that she had plans for, and that I had eaten without notice. Mother herself had lived through some heavy history.” This is where I felt my ears ringing. This is my mother too, through and through.
Thank you for finding this, and for commenting. Thank you.
“I was born in a time heaving with history. I was born in a country that went through a historical transformation, the discourse went, in order to right centuries of historical wrongs.”
I just read your piece ‘The Critic’ in the Lifted Brow. As someone who was born in a place mired by the legacy of war, but who grew up in the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne, I was always struck by this sense of unreality – of being caught between two places simultaneously; two irreconcilable worlds, two historical truths.
I only just saw this comment, Linh, and I am so sorry for not responding sooner. Thank you, so, so much. This was a very personal piece for me to write, and any comments on it are very, very cherished.