'Serbs and the City: This is a Mistake', by Sofija Stefanovic

Public domain image via Pixabay.

This is the first instalment of ‘Serbs and the City’, Sofija Stefanovic’s column about her experiences as a Serbian-Australian living ambivalently in New York.

When my boyfriend Michael suggested we quit Melbourne and move to New York to work on our projects and enjoy the city for a while, I kicked and screamed for a year. The voice in my head (let’s call it ‘Killjoy Sofija’) told me, ‘This is a huge mistake’. For the benefit of my relationship, I finally capitulated, casting Killjoy Sofija and her irrational-gloominess-about-moving-to-arguably-the-best-city-on-earth-especially-for-a-writer aside.

On the plane, I remembered the last time I’d uprooted my whole life: it was when I came to Australia with my family, just as the civil war in Yugoslavia was getting underway. I remembered leaving my crying grandmother behind; not fitting in at my new Aussie school. (No joke: for a very long time my only pals at school were a sheep and a goat called Mimi and Josephine. I would pretend to be absorbed in feeding them through a fence, when actually, I was using them to appear as if I had friends.)

Eventually, though, I had learnt the language and the customs and made friends, and Melbourne became my beloved home. Now I was leaving it to go to New York, a place Michael saw as full of promise, adventure, culture, and food. I chose to ignore him and instead remember New York as I’d seen it for the first time: in the cartoon An American Tail, where a freshly arrived Russian-Jewish mouse called Fievel is sold to a sweatshop by a rat. ‘This is a huge mistake’ the voice in my head croaked.

Before New York, we had a stopover in LA for a few days. My childhood friend Bojana was out of town, and we were going to stay at her place, sharing the house with another couple, film director friends of hers, Matt and Kelly. Michael likes meeting new people, so when we arrived he talked to them, while I went upstairs to be alone in the dark.

I passed a pin-board, with a happy photo from Bojana’s fourth birthday: the two of us back in Belgrade, wearing patent leather shoes. Another photo showed us as drunk, laughing teens. In New York, I will get my own pin-board of photos, and it will feel like home, I thought to myself, pushing Killjoy Sofija aside once more.

Before going to bed, I decided to be kind to myself. I performed an elaborate facial treatment, using Bojana’s upmarket products. I put my contact lenses in their case and squirted them with fluid from the cupboard. I put on a t-shirt from Bojana’s wardrobe, and decided to keep my suitcase—full of junk that reminded me of home—shut until New York.

This too, was just a part of assimilation, I assured myself: in the US, peroxide looks like contact lenses fluid.

In the morning I gave myself another generous facial and put in my right contact lens, which started burning through my eyeball. Screaming, I ran to the bedroom and Michael watched me fall to the floor clutching my sizzling eye. I tore the lens out: the solution I’d kept my lenses in overnight was peroxide. Was this a sign that this was a huge mistake?

I remembered when we arrived in Australia, my mother picked up a huntsman spider with her hand, thinking it was plastic: she thought it impossible spiders this big could really exist. This too, was just a part of assimilation, I assured myself: in the US, peroxide looks like contact lenses fluid.

Partly recovered, I opened Bojana’s wardrobe and considered my outfit. I glimpsed a hummingbird outside and stepped naked onto the balcony, gently singing ‘Oh when the saints go marching in’. In the periphery of my injured eye, I noticed Michael. I turned to him with my good eye. But the person before whom I stood naked was not Michael. It was the male director: Matt. Apparently, both bedrooms opened onto this balcony. Wordlessly, I withdrew and considered crawling under the bed never to emerge. ‘You can escape,’ Killjoy Sofija said. ‘Just go downstairs, break up with Michael, book a ticket home and you’ll be in Melbourne by morning!’

But I did not do this. I was going to be mature about it. Rather than mention the incident, I decided to be extra-friendly to Matt and Kelly. Maybe we’d laugh about this years down the track when they’d become our close friends. I dressed in an outfit from the wardrobe and went downstairs, wilfully joyful. The directors were telling Michael about a party. ‘Hey, we’ll come along!’ I said, trying out my new attitude. Everyone looked taken aback, possibly because of my forwardness, or the bright red jumpsuit I was wearing, or, in Michael’s case, because he knew I hated parties. But, that evening, as I prepared for our night out, he gave me (in a hot new outfit from the wardrobe) and my new attitude the thumbs up. I was fitting in. I was proud of myself.

At the party, middle-aged former models danced barefoot by candlelight and I smiled at them without cynicism. On our first night, Kelly had asked us for an Aussie perspective for her documentary about elections, and as I swayed in the fairylights, I now told her I would be happy to be interviewed.

The next day, I chose a smart blouse and slacks from the wardrobe and glided downstairs to talk about the Australian voting system.

The clothes burned my skin. I wanted to rip them off, but this would have rendered me inappropriately naked (again).

‘The shirt looks nice on you,’ Kelly said, as Matt set the camera up.

‘Oh this? It’s not even mine!’ I laughed, tugging at the silk of Bojana’s blouse.

‘I know,’ she said, as the camera rolled. ‘It’s mine.’

The clothes I had been accessing from the wardrobe were not Bojana’s. The revelation hit me like peroxide in the eye. With horror, I saw myself through Kelly’s eyes: after exposing myself to her boyfriend, I had proceeded to wear her clothes for three days in a row, without asking for permission, or ever mentioning it. I just sat there.

‘It’s fine, really, I don’t mind,’ she said, and Matt rolled the camera. I had, after all, insisted on being filmed. For all they knew I was a maniac, and it was probably best to do what I demanded. The clothes burned my skin. I wanted to rip them off, but this would have rendered me inappropriately naked (again). As I choked out some words about preferential voting, I felt faint. And it was at that moment that I saw the twist in the story: Killjoy Sofija was actually the voice of reason, and I had, indeed, made a huge mistake. There were no Mimi or Josephine to feed through a fence now, just a camera rolling and a nice Californian couple, documenting an idiot in a stranger’s clothes: they are filming the disguise slipping, to reveal a Serbian-Australian misfit who should have stayed home.

Read 'Rats’, the second instalment in 'Serbs and the City’.

Sofija Stefanovic now lives in New York. She writes investigative pieces, teaches, and is a faculty member of The School of Life Australia. She tweets at @sstefanovic.