Cetinje: Eggs for the Ladies
Bato Tomasevic, born in 1929, wrote an extraordinary book. It is an autobiography which spans most of the Yugoslav century. Only published in 2008 it is also quite unique (at least in English) in that it takes the story of his Montenegrin family from his birth in 1929 right up to the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic in 2001. Amongst the highlights of this book are his childhood in Mitrovica in Kosovo where his family had settled as colonists after the first world war and his experiences in the second when he joined Tito's Partisans. After the war he became a Yugoslav diplomat and later a journalist and publisher and finally the head of YUTEL, the short-lived, anti-nationalist television station that died with the country it wanted to preserve. Tomasevic now lives in England with his English wife. What is special about this Yugoslav saga is Tomasevic's ability to tell it like it was. That is to say for example that the years of the Second World War are full of revealing and funny vignettes of real life and not just tales of fighting and bloodshed. That is why we have chosen this extract, in which the young boy Tomasevic explains what happens when he goes to find four strangely dressed Italian women who have come to live in Italian-occupied, wartime Cetinje, the historic capital of Montenegro. They have asked him to find eggs for them. The next day, with the eggs, he goes in search of their house:
I was amazed to see a line of soldiers, a hundred metres long, waiting to go in. Had I got the address wrong? Were the men waiting for their pay or special rations, or were they going to be deloused? I remembered seeing soldiers lined up in front of the new high school, and several women in white overalls with something like a bicycle pump spraying them with the white powder that was said to kill lice like nothing. I went up to the guard and explained that I was bringing eggs for the ladies. He burst out laughing:
"What do they want eggs for?" They've got more than they need!"
"How come?" I asked. "Only yesterday they were looking all over Cetinje for them."
"Do you see all those standing in line? Everyone is bringing them two as a present."
Still completely in the dark, I climbed the steps to the door at which the soldiers were waiting. When I knocked on it, they started shouting:
"Hey boy, you can't jump the queue. Wait your turn with the rest of us!"
The door was opened by a woman dressed in white, just like those with the pump. When I explained my mission, she led me inside. In the entrance hall the first thing I saw was four soldiers hurriedly unbuttoning their flies and putting on condoms. Utterly confused and embarrassed, I stopped, not knowing where to look, and whether to run away or wait. Just then the door of the main room opened and there were the four women from the market, sitting on or getting up from four divans arranged around the large room, while four soldiers came out taking off condoms, which they dropped in the bin. Like the day before, the women were heavily made up and carefully coiffed. But, while their upper garments were neatly pressed and buttoned up, below they wore nothing at all. At that moment they started putting on something like pantaloons.
"Stop them coming in for a while," said the one I'd talked to the previous day.
"But what about the four ready with condoms on?" asked the woman in white.
"Let them wait. They're young and can get it up any time."
I glanced at the four soldiers and they glared back at me for causing this delay. The woman in white said they would have to be patient a minute as the boy had brought eggs for the ladies, so they could make face masks from the yolks.
"Come in, boy!" the ladies called out, pleased to see me. "Are the eggs really fresh? No rotten ones there?"
I assured them our hens had laid the eggs that very day and apologised for the fact that there were only four. I offered, however, to bring them four every second day, and this suggestion met with their approval.
Life and Death in the Balkans: A Family Saga in a Century of Conflict. Bato Tomasevic. 2008.
[pp. 254-255 / Hurst]