Book Review: Ana Tajder’s Titoland

Austro-Croatian writer Ana Tajder describes her memoir of the final years of communism in the former Yugoslavia

Now grown up, Ana Tajder tells her story of being a child in Tito’s Yugoslavia | Photo: Ana Tajder

Ana Tajder

Now grown up, Ana Tajder tells her story of being a child in Tito’s Yugoslavia | Photo: Ana Tajder

A Childhood In ‘Titoland’

At school, I had to wear a blue uniform. For “Brotherhood and Equality” – that was the motto of Tito’s Yugoslavia. And Tito was watching. Always and everywhere. To make sure we were brotherly enough. And equal enough. A black and white photo of Tito hung in every classroom. Right above the blackboard: Tito.

What a name! Like Cher or Madonna. Like Jesus. Or Che. You just have to believe in a person with such a name. He was in every public space, in newspapers, on TV and in films. We thought he will always be there. Like the sun.

He had a glance of a man who knew everything. But he didn’t know, for instance, that my mother loved sewing. And that she really enjoyed it, especially because in those times, if you wanted something different, you had to make it yourself. Or buy it “abroad”, in the West. So she made my school uniform. It was blue, as it was supposed to be, but it had frills around the shoulders and on the skirt, and a huge bow on the back. I looked different, although I was wearing a uniform. I looked like socialist Sarah Kay. I was the princess of blue uniforms.

The thing about equality in Yugoslavia was very interesting. Yes, we were equal, but there were the equal ones and the more equal ones. My best friends in school were a mix: Tito’s grandson, a son of Yugoslavia’s most famous opera singer, a grandson of the President of Yugoslavia between 1983 and 1984, a daughter of a train conductor, and a daughter of a waitress. I don’t know if this collage was really a product of Tito’s belief in equality or just of our young age. But all in all, we actually were equal. Or, to be more precise, the differences weren’t so large. Everyone had a secure job, a roof over her head, a car. Everyone bought the same things in the same shops. We all attended the same ballet school or hockey training.

My parents were more equal. Dad was an architect and designed schools and nurseries. He often won awards, and we would attend ceremonies during which black-and-white Tito watched us proudly from the wall. Mom was a film actress, one of the most famous in Yugoslavia. Still, the only luxury that came with her fame was that it helped open some doors faster (which was important, as my mom was always late). In spite of her status, she worked as a graphic designer for the country’s only school magazine. In Yugoslavia, stars were also non-stars. No one earned more because of being a star.

While my parents were working, I was at school. Everyone had a job, and it was natural for women to work. Housewife was a non-existent term. School ended at 16:00 and ballet school started right after, with just time to get from one school to the other.

For girls from more equal families, ballet was a must. There was only one ballet school, the school of the national opera. It was free, of course, just as hockey or basketball was free for boys. And because it was free, we had to pass a strict audition. The state wasn’t going to waste money on hopeless little would-be Anna Pavlovas.

Because of equality, all little ballerinas had to wear black leotards and white stockings. And contrary to my school uniform, there was no tricking here. My parents tried it once, but it ended in a fiasco. They were in Vienna and bought me a black leotard with a mini tutu. And pink tights. I wore these not-equal things only once. The teacher immediately called my mom. I was back to the black-and-white uniform. I became equal again. The discipline was serious, according to Russian technique, a daily torture of hundreds pliés, tendus and grands battements, all the while having absolutely no clue what this had to do with the pas de deux with Svebor (the star dancer at Zagreb Opera) I have been dreaming of for years.

The only time I liked being equal was during the acceptance ceremony for Tito’s pioneers. This was in the first grade, at the age of six. We had to learn an oath swearing to brotherhood and equality and all the ideals Tito fought for. We wore white blouses (this time mine had no frills, probably the teacher warned my mom ahead), blue trousers/skirts and white socks. After we recited the oath in one voice, we received blue caps with red stars and red scarves. We were bursting with pride! Soon after the ceremony, my mom and I painted my star with red nail polish. I cannot remember why. Maybe it wasn’t red enough. Or maybe it was just too equal.

The most exciting time during my childhood in Tito’s Yugoslavia was the year in which we had to save electricity. This meant that few times a week, the power was shut down. My dad bought me a black and yellow lamp that fit into my school bag. Coming home from school with my neighbor Ivana through dark streets was an unforgettable adventure. Even more exciting was climbing to the fifth floor up the black stairway lit only by the faint ray of light from my lamp. Finally we had a chance to prove our pioneer spirit.

Tito died in 1980. We heard the news on my father’s big hi-fi system. And then, the siren on the shoe factory in our neighborhood howled hysterically. Eleven years later, the same siren announced the first air raid in Zagreb. It sent us to the basement and only allowed us to leave a couple of horror-filled hours later. Two hours later, I was sitting in a blacked-out train to Vienna. For just a couple of days, “until the situation calms down” my mom and I agreed. This was 20 years ago, and Vienna is now my home.

Titoland – A More Equal Childhood
by Ana Tajder
Czernin (2012), pp. 104  (in German)
Reading 17 Apr., 19:00, Café Phil (see p.7)

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One Response to Book Review: Ana Tajder’s Titoland

  1. Half-man half-biscuit December 11, 2012 at 2:29 am

    Erm, not my intention to serve as the proverbial fly in the ointment, but the nifty motto was in fact “Brotherhood and Unity” [Bratstvo i jedinstvo], rather than Brotherhood and Equality. A Freudian slip, I suppose. Having said this, true enough – equality used to be order of the day in Yugoslavia.
    Oh, how I miss those days…
    Thank you and have fun.
    Half-man, half-biscuit from a wee town of Split in Croatia

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