Voices: An American Girl's High-School Highs in the Balkans

Being in with the in crowd is one light up away.

We later remarked that the location was bizarre.

It was an unfinished building sinking into a dirt lot, ostensibly under construction but deteriorating faster than it was improving. It had been there for years, an anonymous skeleton jutting across my daily footpath to school. Structurally unsound though it was, it offered the necessary coverage for a gaggle of youths looking to break some laws.

I had no idea what I was doing or really even why I was doing it. I did know that I was sick of being the outsider in this obscure country, teetering daily on the fine line between innocent cluelessness and pathetic alienation. The summer night evaporated my self-awareness until I felt alive and slightly rogue. The car crash of consonants that is the Slavic language family was buzzing in my ears. For once in my life, I wanted to feel the syllables on my lips like they belonged there.

At a glance, my companions and I were all the same nondescript brand of adolescence, sporting T-shirts and sneakers, crappy Nokias, uncurated aesthetics, and a strong effort at irony.

Image via George Chelebiev/Flickr

But we were not the same, not really. I had no notions of exceptionalism; as far as I was concerned, I had dodged a bullet by moving from the U.S. to the Balkans smack dab in the middle of high school, soon enough to capitalize on my pathological fear of exclusion (not wholly misplaced), but not too late to wash the taste of suburbia and Good Charlotte out of my mouth.

I was the daughter of a public figure, and I was expected by some circles to conduct myself as such. However, I had no intention of becoming a de facto accessory to bilateral statecraft at the expense of self-discovery. At the expense of otherness.

These kids were poets, Beatnik imitators who got as high as they could just to write prose.

And these people, let’s call them peers, enchanted me. I wanted to understand them, perhaps even become them. It comes as no great plot twist that I fell head-over-heels in love with one of them and surrendered my ideologies to the quiet anarchy that he represented in the mind of an inquisitive interloper.

In this new setting, I adopted the dual guise of chameleon and mole—a peculiar tourist-spy hoping both my passport and my inability to roll my Rs would go unnoticed. I’m quite sure I didn’t manage to sneak under the radar; they accepted me nonetheless.

They were the offspring of suppressed nationalist movements, whose grandparents were communists and whose parents still remembered the golden era of Yugoslav prosperity. Raised in a hotbed of ethnic tension, they were utterly disinterested in appearances and mainstream narratives.

These kids were poets, Beatnik imitators who got as high as they could just to write prose, the ones who taught me to read Dostoevsky and drink Turkish coffee and hang out in first generation chat-rooms debating the lasting influence of the New Romantics. They ran around the city unrestrained, setting sail in their taxis like urban explorers and returning home on foot after blowing their cash on rakija and billiards.

Image via lesharodin

No, we were not the same. I had a curfew; their parents bought them cigarettes. I went to church; they hypothesized that the deity was a Flubber-like blob of infinite substance suspended in a remote dimension, from which we all emerged and to which we all returned. In retrospect, they may have been stoned when that discussion went down.

We talked about imperialism and Joseph Conrad and suicide and Tito and how weird the accent from Strumica sounded (I didn’t really hear the difference but agreed anyway). They provoked my curiosity, shaped my sensibilities, and inadvertently allowed me to test-drive their coming of age.

That night in the wreckage of the suggestion of a building, they were lighting up. It was my turn. I inhaled until I was convinced my ears were bleeding. They weren’t. We drove to a Bloodhound Gang concert and cracked ourselves up over half-finished sentences.

I wasn’t in yet. I didn’t realize then that “in” is nothing more than a universally elusive construct. But it was a start.