Opinion / 19 March 2020

The Stars Up Close

Or on how did I finally get integrated

Week of The Festival: Goran's Spring, Zagreb and Split, Croatia

Accession chapter one

By the end of 1990’s, the traces of armored vehicles left by the Fourth Brigade bringing home — good and bad — storm troopers had begun to fade, and the sounds of the washing machines, refrigerators, TVs and hi-fis of the wrong ethnicity, following after them for months on overloaded trucks and tractors, were hardly audible; but I didn't give a fuck about all that. I was fifteen, and integration was not my priority. My neighbourhood and high school friends were hot for three things: the Hajduk football club, Croatia, and Oasis. The mechanism is very simple. From times immemorial, Hajduk was hot in my hometown, and, a long time ago, it was understandable. Before turning into a third-rate provincial team, and before its supporters became a gang of skinhead fascists, Hajduk ruled the roost in European football: in 1944, Hajduk was a National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia team, and it beat the untouchable British lineup. I, however, was very clumsy and didn't want to be a goalie, and I didn't like football stadiums or anything related to football.

Croatia was also very hot at the time, virtually beyond control, more, much more than it is now. Living was bad, that is a fact, and it was a lousy chauvinistic autocracy, but, oh boy, we had our state! Then, as now, I couldn’t understand the value of the state in itself, so I didn't give a fuck about that either. It is maybe because I’m the unchristened child of a Slovenian officer of the Yugoslav Army who ran back to his republic at the beginning of the war and of the local postal clerk who stayed behind in Croatia, but we all know that enemies stay behind; moreover, they are the butchers of Our Cause. If I think about it for a moment, I realise that it could be much worse for me.

All that was understandable to an extent; based on economics and politics, the consequences of very bad ideas and greedy people, but Oasis? Fuck it, I'll never figure that out. The chronology is obvious: we’d received the MTV feed a few years before (satellite dishes brought down the USSR, they said, and there is maybe a pinch of truth to it) and the hyperinflationary spectacle we inhabited on a daily basis finally had a pop-cultural form. So, in that context, or it would be better to say, at the centre of a big narrative generated in a similar way — and in those years, a narrative of reintegration and homogenisation of “Croatian national identity and Croatian being” was absolutely dominant, a very opaque branch of “the selfhood we had longed for centuries” — my first crucial experience of integration took place.

I remember it as if it were today. A Cripple Bastards badge on the pocket of my camouflage army trousers, and the words “Mirjana loves only real mess and punk” on my T-shirt. Our Commander-in-Chief kicked the bucket. Walls were covered with slogans and retouched faces of politicians in love with themselves, waiting for elections. It was dangerous to walk through certain neigbourhoods, because sooner or later you would stumble upon skinhead gangs and football fans eager to tan your skin with the national colours, so we were walking in a herd, and in the end there were two of us. And the two of us, that fantastic duo, spotted a Croatian coat of arms on a wall, and as we were (day in and day out) pissed at symbols, we attacked it with full force, trying to pull it from the wall. It took time to take it down, unsuccessfully, because it was heavy and it stood firm… and suddenly, it all went dark.

I saw stars in the blue sky, mostly yellow stars, but in a strange arrangement, and in an instant I was integrated with the floor. The hulk — who grabbed us by the neck and pummeled us on the asphalt — opened my first accession chapter: the coat of arms, it ended up, was stationed above the entrance of the Petrinjska Street police station, in Zagreb, and during the night, behind closed doors, I learned all I needed to know about my previously hidden selfhood. And everybody knows that national integration is sine qua non: the first step towards Europe.

Accession chapter two

If my first chapter, proto-European integration took place in the rotten heart of the centuries-long bulwark of Christianity, then my second integration, while by intention much more European, took place in its alleged opposite, on the excluded geographic and political edge of Europe: in Istanbul, on the Bosporus. I arrived there as a freshman to celebrate New Year’s Eve with my girlfriend and my friends, after a thirty-five-hour long bus drive. Istanbul in winter is enchanting; Istanbul in the morning, Istanbul by night, stinks of sherbet, fish and smoke, it weaves a dense patchwork of lights, and in the night, like a huge delta, it flows into the learned darkness of Asia; a city of bodies that sublimate grammes of soul into the air every moment, and tons of shit into the sea. That is Istanbul, a naked and wild fantasy, Taksim Square in New Year's Eve.

Puzzle of Hundertwasser's Irinaland over the Balkans

A shiny disco-rattlesnake spills into side streets, loudspeakers at full blast, and the five of us standing together. Suddenly, the girls start to scream, a crowd overwhelms us, carrying us away so that we can’t see where the screams are coming from; the spot where the girls peer over is suddenly occupied by a tight-knit group of men, growing larger and larger. We went back, towards the voices, pushing through the crowd — one girl was on the ground, fifteen men on the top of the other. We pushed them back, pulling and kicking, until we finally dragged them to the side street. The men had touched them all over, they were very angry and in shock, but the night went on, humming and spilling over into morning, expanding with drunken stations and carrying with it a good erasure of memory — and the shadow of the past year went away.

The next evening, we were back in the hotel, and, in it, a movie was being filmed. Five or six OB-vans and a cluster of spotlights and equipment in front of the hotel. But it was a reality show, and we were the European stars. TV cameras shooting an incident we had almost forgotten — journalists had found us, and were waiting in ambush at the reception desk. We gave interviews to the central news, to several mosaic shows, to the apicultural and hunting TV show, and to all the leading newspapers. The following day, in a city with fifteen million inhabitants, every hundred metres somebody stopped us to make an apology in the name of the whole Turkish nation, to blame it on the Kurds and to give us hot pretzels. By chance, my face — in close-up, it looked like a serious fight — was on the cover of the largest circulating newspapers.

But what really happened? I asked an old and experienced reporter, wearing an intrepid fishing vest. Who profits from our unwilling participation in the fabrication of an event? Who uses it for their own purposes, and why? A country with many nasty problems, and most of them internal, should pay attention to other pressing issues…

The fisherman looks at me from head to toe, then lights a cigarette and says calmly, as if carps from heaven were biting all day: Integration. European integration. In Turkey, at the peak of a big pro-European campaign, they took an opportunity to send a message that students from Europe should feel safe in Istanbul, and, if an incident occurred, it would be condemned unanimously. If you were not from the European Union, nobody would give a damn, continued the fisherman, puffing on his cigarette. And I simply didn't have the heart to disappoint him, to ruin his story, and to tell him: ju nou, vir from d Balkans

It was the second time that I was, unwillingly, dragged by my neck to the stars.

Third chapter

I continue to lay out my important moments of Euro integration deeper into the continent, upon fresh water.

Be more specific: where was that exactly? In Poland, deep in the north west, near Bydgoszcz. What you were looking for? I attended a poetry festival; I was not looking for anything. How did you come there? I travelled by car. From Berlin with a friend, a Pole who speaks the language and is familiar with the country roads. On our way, we went through a place called Baghdad. What kind of a car? I don't know. What's with that poetry? Those were some kinds of codes? Yes and no. There were all kinds of poetry, as is typical at poetry festivals. Bad was really bad. Was there an escalation? No, we are too cultivated for that. We are still wrapped in a warm vest of petty bourgeoisie. It is our lifejacket. Were there other escalations? Is this a trick question? Okay, are Polish people devoted Catholics? Polish people are very devoted Catholics. In every decent Polish town there is a church, a firehouse and a pub, and what else? The home of the Holy Father John Paul II. What about your country? It is similar, a part of the afore-said home. In my country, the pope has an honorary place between the national coat of arms and the logo of the sponsor's brewery. Besides, hardly a thing in that country belongs to me. What annoys Poles from small towns? They don't like it when you address the Pope by his first name. They don't like to hear Wojtyla. What do you think? I think he was a dangerous criminal, like all his predecessors, and that goes for his enterprise as well. What else annoys Poles from small towns? They don't like to talk with Serbs and Muslims. We are Croats, so we are okay, we are brothers, but those Muslims, those Orthodox, Russians, we were in war — how could you sit at the same table? What else annoys them? Slovenians who are fluent in the Polish language. Translators. Explain. Željko spoke fluent Polish. In the bar, at the end of the poetry festival. The Festival of suspicious poetry? That one, but every festival is the same. What happened? We had more than a few dark beers, and they didn't believe him — that he was not a Pole. They told him to stop the provocations. To show them his papers. And then? He refused to show his documents, but he didn't have them with him, anyway. And? They wanted to escort him to his hotel to check out his papers. He needed to prove he was not a Pole. Otherwise he should stop the provocations. Stop and apologise. And then? He didn't apologise. He stood up and refused to speak to them. What did they do? They attacked him, slapped him and grabbed him by the collar. And you? I took him under the arm, to stop him and to avoid big shit. What did they do? I held him, and one of them kicked him in the head, with a high-kick. What happened after that? Big shit happened. A mass fight at the end of a poetry festival, and that leads to my integration with who knows whom, because of the weak light bulbs. In darkness, and in collision, all entities look alike. The outcome? After a general and very successful integration, I caught a train for Berlin in Bydgoszcz and instantly fell asleep.

Accession chapter four, the last so far

This list of crucial integrations is, obviously, random, so it could be different. For now, it follows a charted course — the wet dream of every nonintegrated European: from the periphery to the centre. European stars showered upon me my fourth time near the centre of the cloud, and my integration was vertical. Again, I grasped my integration with both hands (due to the specific circumstances, that was my only way to hold it), and it had a predictable catalyst as well as a direction of action: it came compulsorily, from above, enacted by the forces of law and order.

Again, I was travelling on poetry business, in Copenhagen, specifically — I was on my way from Copenhagen. The whole thing was perfect: I walked around the town without worries; I travelled the length and breath of Nørrebro on bike; I went to parties in special apartments “for fun and relaxation”, and each new building in Vesterbro had one; I read my poems (necro-poetics!) on the graves of H. C. Andersen and Kierkegaard; I spent days doing nothing in Christiania; and so on. The latter is an autonomous zone, located downtown, and that is a different story of integration. From the beginning of the 1970s, this semi-extraterritorial oasis was home to a colourful tapestry of all sorts of non-integrated people — from old hippies, punks and evicted squatters, to Rasta men constantly high on weed, as well as those who were just constantly high, from militant vegans to fruitarians, and all sorts of activists fighting for the rights of anything that casts a shadow. Still, the moment you leave Christiania (a message board informs you in an orderly manner: you have entered the Union), you are again in the heart of Europe — in that wet dream — and you have to find your way home from the dream.

This process is usually called awakening. Transtormer said, Awakening is a parachute jump from dream. So, from my bed, I jumped to the airport. And at the airport, I spent a couple of hours doing the things one usually does at the airport — mainly nothing. And then, refreshed from sleep, I went towards the big bird: I took the metal objects out of my pockets, placed my laptop on the tray and, like a million times before, walked calmly through the metal detector. And then they stopped me and asked me: does that bag really belong to you? I said: it is mine and only mine. And they asked: did someone by chance put something in it? I said: no way. And they asked: do you realise that you are carrying a weapon?, and I was dumbstruck. And it came to me then, and I laughed and reached into the outside pocket of my bag for my Swiss Army knife, which I usually use for opening wine bottles and picking my teeth, and which I had forgotten in my hand luggage, and, at that moment, two huge policemen jumped on me, threw me with full force up against the wall, and as I dug my nails into the wall, darkness fell over me; warm darkness, and, in darkness, jolly yellow stars were twinkling, like a perfect aureole.

When I woke up they asked me: where did you buy a weapon? What did you want to do with the weapon? they asked. Do you know someone on this list?, they asked, do you know that in Denmark...

And for the first time I knew. At last, everything was clear to me, but I was too overexcited to cooperate. With my enigmatic smile, I made my benefactors very nervous. I won't fly away, I thought — this is my destiny! I want to grow old and die in a country in which a bottle opener is a weapon, and I'm willing to fight for it. I was silent as the grave until they tricked me with a cunning question. I told them that I came to Denmark as a writer. What are you writing? they asked. Poetry, I said. A poet — then fuck you, they said and kicked me in the butt, you can go, and still I wore a blissful smile. Literature could not redeem me no more. Nothing could. But the stars I saw this time were one hundred percent European, and I could finally relax. I was integrated, myself, me.