Ode to Waters

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Once upon a time, some 400 years ago, there lived the Vasiljević clan, not far from the Adriatic sea, somewhere between the fields of Trebinje and Nikšić. The clan kept moving northward to have some of its descendants settle in Vojvodina, where I too was born. I like to believe that those ancestors of mine used to go to the seaside and settle there and that I have, through some strange ways of DNA, brought that love for the sea to this world with me.

The same innate love, which still draws me to the sea like we are bound by fate. Because it does seem odd, that one should be born with some nostalgia for the place they had never visited. Even my first encounter with the sea seemed like a return to something, rather than the discovery of something completely new. The other explanation would also take the biological view, but in the light of evolution – life came to be in the water, and we all strive to return to it, or we would be if there were such a thing like circular evolution. There is also the third idea, and that would be that we’re drawn to water because it reminds us of the ante-natal period.

Ode to Waters

Andrić wrote in favour of all this: “Take a man away from these Balkanese mountains and to the sea, and you will have opened one enchanting holiday full of blissful dawns and anxious dusks. The yearning for the sea seems to have been growing stronger from one generation to another, and its realisation in our personality is as fierce as an explosion. Once a tribe reaches the sea, its history begins, and it enters the empire of bigger and better prospects. That defining moment in the history of species replays itself whenever an individual first comes in touch with the sea, only on a smaller scale and in a different shape.”

Ode to Waters

This brings us back to biology: “Ontogeny is the recapitulation of phylogeny.” And then I, wrapped in my own DNA, traverse with my ancestors across the Balkan mountains, around Trebinje and Nikšić and down towards the Adriatic sea, while a song sung by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers reaches me somewhere from California: “Built to last and known to roam, touch me on my chromosome“.

Ode to Waters

I first saw the sea when I was 6. That initial break of the magnificent velvety blue surface of the water through the humongous, wild and sharp edges of Montenegrin greenish-grey mountains came as a shock full of excitement and awe. That first impression ingrained itself so deeply into the essence of my being that it could never be ousted again. It laid foundations upon all other impressions were built, always remaining a deep tectonic plate of my musings and ideas.

Ode to Waters

Whenever I returned to that very sea, I would curiously and impatiently peek through the bus windows, waiting for the mysterious blue tones to emerge from behind the mountains. I was always filled with the same trepidation I would have if I had been meeting some divinity. When we’d finally reach the maritime towns behind those mountains, the first thing we would do was run and dive headlong into the sea, stripping and tossing our clothes all over the beach. I still feel that velvety touch of the water on my skin, as if it was made only for me.

Ode to Waters

This state became a completely new dimension for me, a dimension requiring the new openness of all my senses to truly experience it. My skin would gleefully open its pores to take in all the sea minerals and save them as a reserve from which to draw energy in the dull winter days. The touch of the water, so gentle and subtle caressed my skin and its whirly hydro-massage seemed to cleanse my aura from all the tar of my previous life above the ground.

The water would take me into its arm, sway me and tuck me into its embrace as I felt the weightless lack of gravity. I felt as if I was flying. Flying in the air would have been a less privileged position than flying, or rather, swimming through the waves, because we still feel the air on our skin when flying. The air and the skin have indeed merged into one, used to one another. As opposed to the air, the skin has a more intensive reaction when touched by the water, and moving through it becomes softer, yet more fervent.

Ode to Waters

Floating along these fluid surfaces, I kept imagining the interior of the water, the same way I used to imagine the content of any substance. As if I was dismantling any piece of a wardrobe, wall or table until I reached its atomic essence, I chased after the water atoms, seeking to catch them on its surface. I was, naturally, left empty-handed with mere droplets running down my hands and into the sea without as much as a sound. I was fascinated by the fact that this sea was actually a composition of millions of these droplets and yet we cannot sea the creases where they meet nor that nature-made glue holding them together. That seemingly silent sound of drops hitting the sea surface created superb symphonies somewhere in the universe of Pythagoreans and Tesla who could hear it as opposed to us. The planet breathed through its seas, while its rivers broke through the earth’s crust carrying those breaths like a specific pulse that kept the whole universe alive.

Ode to Waters

I tried to understand how these dancing droplets could be the same water which had stood so still ahead of me mere moments before like some puffy purple pudding on the earth’s surface. How could that same water open its foamy mouth, inhale some air from the shore and disappear again into itself? Džoni Štulić explained it to me later: “Where the waves break, the vacancy remains”. Indeed it does, but what does it remain vacant for? The riddles piled up as I kept pondering on this.

The fickleness of water made me still more intrigued as it seduced me with its mirage. One thing was clear though, and it was this fluid state gave our planet some romantic, magical and poetic tone, which humankind could never fully understand.

I was, of course, too young then to develop my own theories, but these thoughts started shaping even then, setting the basis for the contemplations, which followed me throughout my whole life.

Learning to swim was a challenge. I had some mental inhibition, because I couldn’t explain the concept of floating to myself – it was strange that the water was softer and lighter than me. I still didn’t know then that proper breathing could solve all the problems in the world. So could the removal of all the blockades we create for ourselves.

Ode to Waters

My dad brought me that cherished green swimsuit with little flounces and frills on the hips, which looked like fish fins. I was supposed to wear it when I was learning to swim. It only had the bottom part and I was confused at the lack of the rest of it, but they told me I was still small and that I didn’t need it anyway. And so I, shy and embarrassed, with scabby knees, stepped right into the wave, which pushed me backwards into the rocks before disappearing leaving only foam behind it. I would quickly run out of the water and back as soon as the wave disappeared. Then dad put me into the horizontal position and held me around the waist as I flapped my arms and legs all over the place while he went on about how swimming was very useful for my already bent spine. My spine started curving forward because I used to write and draw too much, bending so close to my notebook, as if I was trying to dive right into it and disappear into its images and stories. I still do, as a matter of fact.

Ode to Waters

When i finally learned to swim, a whole new world of freedom opened itself to me. I kept looking into the distance where the sea met with the skies, imagining myself swimming there one day. My dad soon let me into the water alone, warning me not to go too deep in case I got surprised by cramps. I imagined cramps to be some animals crawling at the bottom of the sea, which would stretch out their tentacles, grab my legs and drag me into the depths. For some reason i always pictured them as huge orange plunger. The fear of cramps persisted throughout my whole life until i realized that it was fear itself that was cramping the most. Cramps are usually related to our minds and do not really resemble bathroom utilities. However, my father couldn’t have predicted this and he kept scaring me with stories about cramps. After these pieces of advice, he would usually slump into the shade under some evergreen tree, read and never failed to meet us with a fresh bag of fruit in his hands.

Only in Šušanj in Bar could you find so much  conifer–scented shade. That was the first beach I’d ever been to. I found faults with it for being so rocky that my feet hurt whenever i trod upon it and my knees bruised and scratched whenever waves got the best of me and flung me towards it. I wanted to discover other beaches too. That’s how i ran into the smaller pebbles adorning beaches in Budva and Bečići, so started looking forward to rolling over those beaches, lounging and observing my skin get tattooed in shapes of those tiny rocks and sand, using them as some sea pealing routine. I would press pebbles all over my body and carefully observe the way in which thei formed mosaics there. And then I was introduced to the stony beaches in the Boka Bay, charming cliffs in Herceg Novi, town walls in Kotor and the architecture of Perast. These towns had no comfy beaches, but they were charming and interesting for walks and exploring. Each maritime town had its own atmosphere, its own story and spirit. Sea-coloured scenery changed with each of them, with sandy surfaces in one and enormous sharp-tipped cliffs in the other, all of them constantly splashed by the waves. The reflection in the water also changed with each new day, and I kept looking at that same sea turning from golden into greenish blue tones before settling into grey notes until completely consumed by the darkness, merely hinted by moonlight and sprayed with gold coming from the moon and the city lights.

Something had changed within me then. I started to comprehend the emptiness of my life before that. I could not go back to the way it had been. I had to cut cords with my hometown and this break-up took ages. I finally buried my past and married the sea, just like in that song Otherside: “Centuries are what is meant to me, a cemetery where I married the sea”.

I decided to seduce the sea back, to win it over and completely conquer it. I wanted to crack its codes and understand its existence in order to sink into it and stay there. In a way, I wanted to become one with the sea and the sea itself.

When we did get married a typical disappointment with the married life the elders had warned me about ensued. It was the same as with other things you desire for a long time: the waiting period is proportional to the amount of disappointment you feel once you get your wish. It is the platonic love that carries certain dose of mystery, which sets your imagination ablaze and warms those romantic feelings. As soon as you get to know the object of your fascination a bit better you start to notice its less divine traits.

The sea, however, seemed to want to reassure me. Although it had sent its small waves against me enough to spark my imagination, it started doing it again in greater amounts. I couldn’t fight these waves off with some bruises on my knees – it was my soul that suffered blows. The sea kept sending its currents from the centre of the Earth to me, and they flung me about like a roundabout until I lost my balance completely. Hydrogen atoms, once so romantic and velvety became then too tangible, threatening to knock all the air out of my lungs. These few oxygen atoms I had could do nothing against the army of hydrogen the sea was sending. It nearly drowned me in an attempt to keep me there, and it did not stop there. It sent hordes of seaweed to net me and tie me completely. When I escaped to one very small island, the sea swayed around me, knowing it would cause me to get dizzy and pressured me into a cubicle, waiting for my surrender. It ordered the sun to burn even brighter and hotter, only so that I would have no choice but to jump into the water and then it took me into its depths and kept me there for four days. It shut the gates of the earth and I couldn’t leave. Only after those four days did it let me back onto the shore and I fell on my knees and kissed the ground, realising only then how much I loved it.

“Have you learned your lesson?”, it asked me.

The sailors diagnosed me with seasickness then. Oh, the irony. I married my own illness. And suddenly the voice of Milica from Tivat echoed somewhere: “The sea is not your mum or dad”, in response to the words on the wall in her room: “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness”. And then I heard my dad’s voice again: “Don’t go too far”, and the smell of conifers and the taste of peach juice running down my small cheeks came back to me. I kept going back to discover where I had made a mistake.

I started having strange dreams. My life on the surface made me realise its poverty, which reflected itself in the dreams of life in the belly of a whale, where I could safely sail through the depths. Dreams of diving being the same as flying, where I could just inflate my safety west and soar, like I did once from Lovcen. Dreams of flailing my arms like I’m swimming while actually flying above the rail track and the train from Belgrade to Šid.

“Have you come to your senses yet?”, the sea inquired again.

When I did come to my senses, I realized that I may have spent too much time on the surface to be watery again. I was a reverse mermaid, trading my legs for a tail but without success. They had taken my tail away. What could I do without my legs and my tail?

“Grow up”, suggested the sea. The tail had to go, so that i would be reminded of my hilly roots.

Lesson learned – I could never become the sea.

“You know what, Mr Sea? I don’t even want to be you! All you are is a bunch of illusions! You don’t even meet the skies anywhere, that line on the horizon is fake!”, I said in an attempt to hurt it.

I left the Adriatic Sea, but did not go back to the hills because that would have meant admitting defeat. My revenge included going to the ocean. The sea was dying of jealousy and I put up airs. The ocean would always defend me. After all, I didn’t have the ocean sickness, only seasickness.

Having spent some time exploring the shores here and there I realized that those words I heard from someone long ago were right: Every shore is the wrong one. I stumbled left and right, up and down all over the globe and couldn’t find my perfect beach. I just picked one at random then and stayed there because I had grown weary of travelling. Considering my amputated legs and tail, it was a miracle I got that far.

Sometimes I take a swim and a face springs on me from the water, but I quickly wave it away to blur it. “Clear and unaffected, the face was still there”, Mika Antić whispered to me. He himself had said that he would rather die gloriously on the sea than shamefully on the ground. Well, it was easy enough for him to act like a hero, he never had seasickness. Even so, he died gloriously on the ground anyway.

Mika taught me many other things too. He was also from Vojvodina, and he too was forced to constantly prove to the natives here that he loved the sea more than they did. Miloš Crnjanski had the same problem: “A man can love the sea as much as he loves a woman, and therefore, that thing one Croatian author said about me, that someone from Banat cannot understand the beauty of the Adriatic, is really stupid.”

Ivo Andrić joins in at times and we have a nice chat together. Mika starts entranced: “The sea is the fifth season”, and Andrić adds: “The sea and the shore, I’ve always wondered which one was the picture and which the frame”. And then they both sink into despair because of the complete lack of sense in trying to capture and tame the sea. And Mika then goes on to say:

Ode to Waters

I soon understood it made no sense to run
It wasn’t her tailing me, I was following her.
Whenever I came close to the rivers and currents, she had already waited.
I tried in vain to wipe her face from the surface of the waves.
And yet I failed.
My lips tried then to touch her and in secrecy drink her away.
And yet I failed.
I jumped and dived and swam through her.
I weaved the nets and hooks I threw.
Stoned her I did, yet she stoned me back.
And however much I tried to pull her back
I only caught her crumpled smile,
Slipping, so wet, through these hands of mine.
Clear and unaffected, the face was still there.
Crnjanski then adds too: “Red corals wave from the sea, like cherry trees from my hometown”.

And Andrić then wraps it up:

“And so it happens sometimes, be it in dreams or waking life, that the sea world emerges before you and pulls you furtively and firmly into it. And then you find yourself, being a foreigner in your own hometown, the very place which made you a foreigner there at the seaside. That’s how life deceives, deludes and destroys delusions for us, who are so inconsistent and indecisive. That’s how the shore and the sea toss us from one another, breaking us and wearing us out without any visible goal and meaning in sight.”

I pat their backs with a motherly “there, there” and keep on diving. And then it hits me that the ocean water itches in some strange way. There is not enough salt in it, the taste is different and even the volume is not the same. There are no conifers around to boast their tang and medicinal minerals, just some scrawny palm trees bending in the wind, riddled with iguanas. Palm trees obviously have no intention of making those protective shades, like pines used to do in Šušanj and I can’t help but wonder what exactly had been wrong with those pebbled beaches in Bar. Beaches here are only filled with silence; there is no folk music, which echoes in Budva, so I do feel liberated from kitsch until the silence becomes so dark and dead, that I reminisce these folk songs with nostalgia.

Alcohol is forbidden and cafes and restaurants are so far on the concrete that I sometimes feel like Audrey Hepburn in that movie “Two for the Road”, when she just wants to clap her hands and have coffee delivered to her as she lounges on the beach. I then realise that I myself don’t know what I want and start to brag about this and other good things, loudly enough for the Adriatic sea to hear me. I scream at it across the Atlantic, knowing that the Mediterranean will pass the message. I tell it that it doesn’t even have the eternal summer, but instead it has cold and rainy seasons too. I tell it that summer came to pick me up and take me away from Tivat one day, all the way to Central America where I stayed. I tell it that summer and I are on such good terms that I could even ask it not to visit the Adriatic shores the following year.

Ode to Waters

And then I give up the delusions and wonder what it would be like to swim in some other waters when my skin only remembers the Adriatic shapes, the smell of conifers and the taste of salt on my lips – all the impressions that cannot be found in other waters. Yes, all seas are salty, but none of them are Adriatic. So how could i swim in some other waters now?

I sit under a palm tree then and start writing farewell letters to my sea. It didn’t work out, my darling sea. Yet I still think, with love in my heart, about all the streetlights of those small maritime towns and remember all the architectural details on the platinum walls. I ascend the steps in Herceg Novi, conquering its fortresses. I grab a lunch in Budva, in a restaurant decorated with shells and fishnets, while being served by waiters with good manners. I sail from Tivat to St Marko and then to Kotor and  Perast. I ride my bike through Stoliv and Prčanj. And then I suddenly lift the buoys like some flight attendant on a Dreamline cruiser named “7 Seconds” as the captain lifts the anchor and the sailors refuse to wave to anyone. I am the only one who’s waving. And in seven seconds, I’m already gone, following my own dream line, even though my dreams had already come true. It would be selfish to ask for more.

And Arsen Dedić still sings:

“Unaware that we were on the lost ship, we called for the land, looking at the sea”

 

And that’s how it all disappeared, and I disappeared too, turning into this moment and this night, as palm trees wave, the winds blow from the ocean and the moon sings. I know that this very moon was spilling its gold all over the Adriatic Sea mere moments ago, and that lovebirds are still hugging and kissing on its beaches waiting for the sun to rise. I felt sorry for them, so I asked summer to go and visit them after all. I have too much of it anyway, I can send some of my own reserves.

And so I stay, waiting for the sun to rise here with 6 hours delay. Under the palm tree, surrounded by iguanas, pelicans and white sandy beaches and “unsalty” ocean to which I’ll tell the story “Salt is better than gold”.

Yes, it was selfish to ask for more, but I did ask and now I am suffering the consequences. Truth me told, I never swam to the place where the sea meets the skies, but if we disregard that, my dreams did come true. I have eternal summers and endless oceans. The sea had become too small for me. The sea and its seasons.

Still, I sometimes think I would do anything to experience one more time that touch of the sea, like I did when I first sank my scabby knees in it in Šušanj; that time I dived into the Adriatic sea, wearing my turquoise swimsuit and calling out: “Daddy, look at me! Daddy, look at me, I’m swimming!”

And he, of course, would be sitting in the coniferous shade, smoking and reading the papers, with a bag full of peaches waiting for me to get out of the water and his voice echoing: “Just don’t go too far”.

Author: Mirjana Vasiljevic 

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