The whoosh of the automatic doors closing after me was the ersterbend in the musical score to my exhaustingly Homeric airport saga. This final note had barely evaporated into the ether when I spotted my grandma, front and centre in an Acheron of eager loved ones and bored sign-wielders, beaming widely and waving frantically at me. I laughed as I ran over, thoroughly amused at the thought of her, a petite and otherwise harmless-looking lady, aggressively pushing past the tall and bulky giant of a man who now stood behind her, to take her rightful place at the very front of the crowd. Now might be the right time to share that a determining factor in my grandmother’s constitution is that she does what she wants without a care for social propriety. So if Zoki wanted an uninterrupted peripheral view of her admittedly rough-looking granddaughter leaving the baggage claim exit, Zoki made sure she damn well got one. It was all very aspirational.
After our heart-warming reunion, I was introduced to Mičo, the gentleman who would be driving us from Belgrade to my grandma’s town. He kindly took my bag from me – no doubt seeing right through my meek attempt to play it macho while the hefty monstrosity shattered my feeble excuse for an arm – and led the way to the parking lot. Nana and I walked arm-in-arm a few paces behind while I filled her in on the details of my little mid-air odyssey.
I was convinced I was in the DeLorean. The interior of Mičo’s taxi was decked out in door-to-door navy blue shag carpeting, complete with a screen that played a constant flow of 80’s music videos and a slip of Velcro that attached his phone to the steering wheel for easy access while driving. No: you did not read that incorrectly. The distinct sound of splitting Velcro would echo into the backseat whenever he took a call, and I would wince every time at the ghostly mental image of my driving instructor tearing my perfect G1 safety test paper into shreds.
Periodically, I’d glance at my grandma sitting next to me to gauge her reaction to his casually reckless driving practices, only to see her calmly take in the passing landscapes of stunning foliage and ancient monasteries with the ghost of a smile on her face. I shrugged it off and concluded that I was simply still too foreign.
However, things changed when we almost died.
Two hours into an endless route of radiant wildflowers and terracotta rooftops, we started up a particularly narrow and winding two-way road. Naturally, Mičo chose that exact moment to take a phone call and thus steer the vehicle – and ultimately our fate – with his knees. And then (because the prospect of hurtling off a mountain after less than an hour of being on Serbian soil wasn’t exciting enough) another car appeared out of nowhere and started accelerating towards us from the opposite “lane” at a speed that I wasn’t even aware an Oldsmobile Firenza was capable of existing at without the risk of combustion.
I had rather hoped for a more epic end to my life, but this was it. I closed my eyes (again opting for an ostrich-type manoeuvre) and proceeded to silently recite all the verses of the Quran I knew, wondering if there was a way I could repent for all the Lucky Charms I’d consumed in this life. There was no way we were going to make it out of this one, so I allowed myself to throw one final pity party as an ode to my wasted youth. The cringe-worthy woe-is-me whines were as follows: I wished I hadn’t spent my last two years on the planet aging prematurely at Rotman; I wished that I had learned to cook or paint or dance; I wished that I had spent more time adventuring alone; I wished that I had done something that had made a difference…
Being forlorn was exhausting, so I paused and wondered what was taking so long. Was I already dead? Did God really like Tom Jones enough to make Delilah his elevator music of choice as we crossed into the afterlife?
I opened my eyes. No, the Tom Jones song was just the next track on the Mičo Turn-Up Tablet™. In the time that I had my eyes sealed shut like an archetypal wimp, the other car must have either grinded to a halt or veered off the road into some shrubbery, so Mičo had a grace period to finally put his phone away and direct his groovy vehicle and our lives to safety. We were home free until our next encounter with a Velcro warning.
I sighed with relief, but my pathetic internal demonstration of self-pity still nagged at me in the back of my mind. So I made a mental pact with myself to correct every regret on that list before I left Serbia, no matter how cheesy or gruelling a task that may turn out to be.
Through rigorous prayer and a force of will that only the constant replay of Eye of the Tiger could supply, we managed to make it through the last half hour of the trip unscathed. Soon enough, I started to recognize familiar soccer fields and corner stores as we turned right onto the street that was the symbol of all the ridiculous childhood antics my brother and I had partaken in. We finally pulled up to the trademark peach fence of my great grandmother’s house, and I finally came to terms with the fact that I was really there.
Actually, scratch that.
I didn’t fully realize where I was until I was sitting on the little white house’s terrace with my grandmother, in the same way that we had with my mom and my great grandmother years before, practically inhaling the feast she had set before me with the resolve of a professional sumo wrestler.
I was home, and for the first time in a while, I had a plan.
TO BE CONTINUED