My parents, sister and I moved to Germany in 1971, when I was twelve years old. We lived there for two years while waiting for asylum to move to the US.
The town we lived in was near the Dutch border so we spent almost every holiday visiting our aunt and uncle in Holland.
By this time, Dragoljub and Ans were happily settled in a lovely brownstone and had a baby girl named Bettinka. Joep (as he is called in Holland) had learned Dutch and although he spoke haltingly and with an accent, he was able to communicate well.
My sister Branka and I learned German quickly, and now, for the first time, could speak with our aunt without gestures, and without Joep there to interpret. We enjoyed our time with her, and she indulged us and helped us deal with the challenges of living in a society that was profoundly foreign to us. Far from our extended family, we felt lonely and unmoored. Ans became our anchor and our guide.
I remember one evening with particular clarity. Ans, Branka and I were watching the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” on television. The movie was in English, with Dutch subtitles.
Branka and I did not speak English at the time, nor did we speak Dutch. Ans spoke rudimentary English, but not well enough to understand a complicated story line. So, this is how we handled the problem: Ans read the Dutch subtitles, then translated to us in German.
All went well until I mentioned how cute the little boy, Scout, was. No, Ans said, Scout is a girl. “Ein Mädchen!” “Wirklich?” Really? At that moment in the film Scout came into the kitchen wearing a dress, ready for her first day of school. The three of us started to laugh. How many other things had been lost in translation?
Years passed, but almost every summer we all met at my grandfather’s house in Serbia.
Ans never ceased to be exasperated by the scarcity of modern conveniences in our grandfather’s ancient house or the lack of privacy in village life. People were as likely to drop in at 6 am as they were at 9 am, sitting on the veranda and catching up on the news while drinking coffee and plum brandy. Ans liked to stay up late and sleep late. She was on a different schedule.
My grandparents and older relatives never got used to Ans’s independence and her modern ways. Sometimes, she wore nothing but her bikini around the house. She expected my uncle to help with the children and with the housework, and he did. Unlike my mother and aunt, she never stayed home to cook and clean for us while we young people spent the day swimming in the Danube.
Somehow, despite the signals getting crossed on occasion, we all remember those summers in Serbia as a time of careless joy and delight, an oasis from the hardships of life’s demands. We were always together: swimming and sunbathing by the river; playing croquet or volleyball in the back yard; picking plums in the orchards, or grapes in the vineyards; sitting around the old table and eating, laughing and taking.
Branka and I continued to be close to our aunt, but our roles became reversed. In that traditional, intricate Serbian culture the two of us were expert interpreters and willing guides.
The only thing different was our language of choice. Now, we communicated in English.