Thursday 25 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 7 - Lighting Candles
At Victoria station, alongside platform announcements for services to Chatham and Orpington, there used to be the international routes.
From 1965 until the early 1970s, I’d board the train for Dover, ferry to Belgium and then couchette train to Cologne, Munich, Salzburg, Ljubljana and Zagreb. I savoured the long journey – a feeling I’ve never lost, even in these EasyJet days. But more importantly, there was the anticipation of seeing Renata again.
At Ostend, I would find my six-berth third-class compartment. I always hoped to be the only passenger – not because I wanted to be alone – but because it meant that the train would fill up in Cologne, Bonn and Frankfurt with Turkish immigrant workers, gastarbeiters, on their way home for their annual holidays.
They would always have two suitcases, one for clothes and the other filled with food and drink which they generously shared with strangers. There were kebabis, spinach and cheese borek, hummus, pitta bread, dates and honeyed cakes. We would drink raki through the night.
My own suitcase was packed with gifts. The latest Beatles album for Renata, Nescafé, teas and biros for her mother, fishing hooks and nylon lines for her father.
After a short sleep, I would wake up as the train travelled through the Karawanken Alps into Yugoslavia. A five- kilometre tunnel under the Wurzen Pass marked the border. The Austrian customs officers in their smart, blue uniforms were replaced by the Yugoslavs in their drab brown when they came on board at Jesenice. The only other colour to alleviate their uniforms were the red stars on their caps. After Ljubljana, the train arrived in Zagreb in the early evening, 30 hours after leaving Victoria station.
All cities have their unique characteristics; defined by their architecture, climate and inhabitants. What is rarely referred to are their smells. Zagreb’s was the coal burned in the steam engines: lignite from Breza in Bosnia, a soft brown fuel somewhere between coal and peat. This smell characterised the Croatian capital until steam engines were replaced with electric and diesel, five years after I met the girl in the yellow bikini.
When I arrived in Zagreb for my first visit there, I took the No. 4 tram to Renata’s home. The blue cars clanked and screeched their way over the bumpy rails, the driver hunched over a lever which was both accelerator and brake. Pedestrians ran when they heard the tram’s bell, a double dang-dang. It was like being on the set of The Third Man.
The Kasuns lived close to the Sava River. Renata’s father Ivan – Ivo – was a café musician and her mother, Nada, a dental nurse. Their street, Cvjetno Naselje or Settlement of Flowers, was a row of detached two-storey houses with pretty gardens. All except theirs. They lived in the ground floor flat of a house which, even on sunny days, was dark. The garden was overgrown with thorn and blackberry bushes and the apartment above had a balcony which jutted out, blocking the light.
The toilet was to the side of an unlit hall. It was full of Ivo’s fishing rods and, in place of toilet paper, carefully-torn pieces of Ve ernji List, the Zagreb daily. You clutched a large key as you stumbled through the darkness and risked bumping into the Dostoyevskian mad woman with wild grey hair who lived in the flat above.
On my arrival at the Settlement of Flowers, I was shocked. I came from a middle-class suburb in London and this was a poor family living in a tiny flat in Zagreb. Its inhabitants were different to anything I had experienced in my London life. I think that was part of Renata’s exoticism. She was so utterly unlike the girls I had dated. In contrast to my English girlfriends, she was unashamed to accentuate her figure and I was eager to help.
Yugoslavia was opening up to the West and what little money young women had was spent on the latest fashion. Every girl knew the name Carnaby Street. I remember buying a miniskirt for Renata from Biba’s in Kensington, with tennis- ball-sized red, white and blue dots. She looked wonderful, but her parents were shocked. Her mother wanted to lower the hem and her father wanted her to wash off the Chanel No. 22 (‘Perfume of Romance’) I had bought for her with the dress.
Renata was studying dentistry. She didn’t have her own room and the only surface to write on was the kitchen sideboard. There was little space and no peace as Ivo would spend the day practising his café repertoire on his accordion.
Renata spent as much time as she could at the university. When I visited Zagreb during her term time, I would accompany her there and take walks in the Old Town while she went to her lectures.
We would spend evenings visiting her friends or hanging out in city centre coffee bars. In good weather we’d sit on a bench on the Strossmayer walkway which overlooked the city centre, talking and cuddling. Her Slav pronunciation and sentence structure of English words and phrases was an additional sexual thrill. ‘You are loving me, yes?’ ‘Do you like when I paint red my finger toes?’
At night I slept in her bed, a divan in the living room that, by day, her mother kept pristine under a plastic cover. Renata slept on the floor in her parents’ bedroom. Nada left for work at 7am and as soon as she’d gone, Renata would join me. She had recently finished an affair with a rock singer and was a better lover than I was. I hadn’t advanced much from my tumblings and fumblings with poor Jenny.
We weren’t disturbed by Ivo because he never got back from work until dawn and slept until Nada returned to make lunch. We made sure we were up and dressed before she came home.
The living-cum-bed-cum-dining room was sparsely decorated. There was one picture on the wall: a reproduction of a smiling girl clasping a bunch of marigolds. She tilted to the right in her unsteady frame. There was a wooden coffee table which doubled as the dining table. Under its glass top were postcards from relatives in the United States. The ones I remember are Detroit by night and a Chicago skyline.
Ivo said he’d had the chance to go to the US after he arrived in Trieste with the Partisans in 1945, but had stayed behind, he said, ‘to build communism’.
For him, it was a lifetime’s disappointment. The kitchen did double duty as a bathroom and the tub had a green plastic curtain to match the Formica of the small unit set to one side of the oven. Behind the curtain, there was just enough space for a live trussed chicken, waiting to be killed for our dinner. They didn’t have room for a fridge.
When I think of that kitchen now, I think of Nada, forever shopping and cooking. She spent her life feeding her family, and anyone else who came within range. None of us, except Ivo, ever demanded food, but she demanded of us that we eat. Incessantly. That is when she wasn’t foraging for ingredients at the Tresnjevka Market, which she visited daily on her way home from the surgery.
At 1pm Nada arrived from work, dropping her bulging bags into the only free space, the bath. This was accompanied with a sigh of ‘Bože dragî.’ Dear God. At that moment Ivo would wake up and call from his bed, ‘Give me coffee.’
Two hours later, Nada would serve the big meal of the day. It started with soup made from leftovers. Nothing was wasted. Chicken soup consisted of the bird’s feet, head, heart, kidneys and liver. Vegetable soup was made from peelings. This might be followed by Wiener, Milanese or chicken schnitzel, accompanied by a salad dressed with lemon.
Then there were the stews – beef or lamb – or delicious stuffed peppers called punjenje paprika. The fresh vegetables were carrots, cabbage or kale. Everything she made was delicious. If you left the tiniest bit of food, a lecture followed from Ivo with its theme the war, the Nazis, the Partisans, how family and friends had died of starvation and how what we’d left on our plates would have kept them alive. It was the Kasun family’s version of ‘Think about the hungry babies in Africa’.
In winter there were Nada’s pickled vegetables, stored in large jars in a cupboard behind the bath. In the same cupboard she kept a plastic bin with fermenting cabbages, on its top an upturned frying pan weighted with a five-kilo cast-iron doorstop. Inside the bin was the maturing sauerkraut for sarma, cabbage leaves stuffed with beef and pork, a dish we’d eat while watching the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna on the black-and-white television. Watched only, as the TV’s speakers had long since broken and Ivo would try to tune into the concert on their Grundig radiogram.
After Ivo had finished his meal, which he always ate while reading his newspaper, he went to bed to get a few hours sleep before leaving for work in the evening.
Nada was a workhorse. She washed and cleared up, refusing any help. When she had nothing else to do, she would fold paper bags and – in later years – plastic ones, as though they were delicate items of lingerie. She then placed them carefully in the long drawer under the divan.
I cannot remember ever seeing Nada put her feet up, read a book or watch the soundless TV. When she wasn’t running around for her husband or cooking meals, she was visiting family and friends who were alone, ill or needed help with their own shopping.
She was forever lighting candles in memory of someone or something. Whenever I was with her in the city centre, she’d insist we walk up to the Old Town. She would disappear into St Mark’s Church, drop a dinar into the collection box, light a candle, place it on the tiered platform beneath the Virgin Mary and say a prayer. Before she placed her hands together, she’d smile at me. ‘I know you don’t believe, David, but it’s important that I think of—’ and she would name a sick relative she’d been unable to visit that week or someone who’d recently died.
One day I followed her into the church. My Croatian was poor and I couldn’t make out what she was praying for, but I recognised two words: ‘Renata’ and ‘David’.
When we got home, I asked Renata to ask her mother what she’d said. Nada repeated the words to her daughter and, as she did so, Nada started to cry.
Renata translated. ‘Holy Mother, please look after my family and may my daughter Renata and David stay together, get married, have healthy children and a happy life.’