According to our family’s lore, I was born on a coldest day of the winter, 1976. On that second to the last day of January a snow and ice storm raged all over the Sarajevo valley, turning the quaint city of the valley into a battlefield. Howling winds carried even more snow from the surrounding mountains dumping it haphazardly all over the streets, draping it across tree branches, and burying houses and buildings. It was as if the nature’s dam broke, and all its power and energy were recklessly unleashed on the city, already drowning in heavy snow from earlier storms.
That storm, like all others past, was nothing that Sarajevans were not equipped to deal with. Centuries of living in the valley meant taking in stride the unpredictability and cruelty of mountain weather. Mama was not an exception. Feeling her water break, she put on her warmest coat and fur-lined ski boots. The boots had soles that offered just enough traction to prevent her from falling over in knee-deep snow. Making a path from their apartment building to the somewhat passable main boulevard in Cengic Villa, mama and tata took a tram to my grandmother’s apartment, a few miles down the road.
Just barely passed her twenty-second birthday, mama was already showing stubborn pragmatism, the kind of trait found in all ragged places where one had to plan and prepare year around in order to survive unpredictable and tough winters, isolated from most of the world. While a necessity for most Bosnians, pragmatism in Sarajevo was elevated to an art form, a performance of calmness and collectedness that seemed to slow down time and give the appearance of command over the events that were beyond one’s control.
“Polako, nigdje ne gori,” was the saying that guided Sarajevans’ behavior for generations. “Slow down, nothing is on fire,” mama said to tata at grandmother’s house, as she unsuccessfully tried to pry off her boots, not being able to see her feet from her distended belly.
In no hurry, with slow and deliberate movements mama took a warm shower, blow-dried her hair, changed her clothes and sat down to rest a bit, all the while assuring tata and her mom that first deliveries last long and that she would have a plenty of time to sit in a hospital bed and rest. Only after long nagging did mama relinquish control and agree for tata to find a neighbor with a car and take her to old hospital on Betanija, a building in which several generations of Sarajevans , including mama and tata, were born since the World War II.
In a true Sarajevo “polako” spirit she was in labor for three days, finally delivering a purple, non-breathing daughter, who, when revived by doctors, began to wail loudly. As tata would eloquently state many times through the years, that child “has not shut up ever since.”
From that moment on, all of my personal traits somehow became tied into the story of this majestic birth. My sensitivity and extraordinary imagination, according to mama, were an outcome of that “near –death “experience, and my insatiable apetite, a borderline obsession with anything edible, was a result of me being bottle fed while in an incubator. No matter what happened in my life, mama connected it inexorably to the circumstances of my birth.
One year and eleven months later, during a calm, early December evening, uneventfully and quickly my sister Olja was born. This time there were no stories to tell of extraordinary events or traumatic bodily injuries. What we had in common was mama’s tendency to attribute personality traits to the type of birth we experienced, so Olja’s propensity for impulsive, quick and impatient actions had its roots in a care-free delivery, lasting forty five minutes and not one minute more.
According to tata, she was born with a head too large for her body, and for several months she was unable to hold her head upright, cocking it to one side instead. Tata, an avid amateur historian, nicknamed her Klaudije, for the Roman emperor Claudius, whose physical disability caused a constant head shaking. Mama put an end to this fairly quickly, but somehow the story of Olja’s birth was always told along with the story of Claudius, and tata’s pesky habit of creating numerous, unusual nicknames.