"Before the 1990s, we were like drunk Americans!" a friend proclaimed in a Sombor cafe to me as he expounded on the history of the area. "We had good schools, free apartments, cars, we could travel anywhere we wanted ... even the cleaning women had $10,000 a month!"
It's a theme I've heard before many times from my husband's lips, although for him the time was the 1970s that were truly golden in Yugoslavia (before he grew up and had to try to find a job in the 1980s that interested him remotely.) He can speak for hours quite poetically about the free apartments, free healthcare, traveling anywhere, etc. My former-Yugoslav friends of that era overall seem to have had far more blissful childhoods than anyone I ever met in the US.
Growing up in the US in the 1970s and 1980s pretty much sucked. Our family life and the economy started getting significantly better just about at the same time Yugoslavia fell apart and your lives went into the toilet for awhile. So my experience of life has been that things generally start out badly and then get better. If you work hard and are patient, life can be blissful. I suspect some of my former Yugoslav peers feel the opposite -- life can be blissful but then the idiots in authority (or forces of history) will inevitably screw things up for you, so it's not much bother trying to build something.
I also suspect that this feeling, coupled with Slavic poetic darkness and emotion, is what causes so many Serbs to complain endlessly about their country instead of getting the energy and hope together to take matters into their own hands and improve things now.
Note: I'm not saying things are not improving - I see very real improvements all the time in Serbia, but I rarely if ever hear Serbs talking about them. Instead I hear ceaselessly about how great things were, how bad they are now (generally a theme of "not enough money"), and how everything is hopeless for the future due to circumstances beyond one's control. But when I point out that in many countries such as Mexico and India things are MUCH worse, and the people far more cheerful about their current lot and about their chances for progress, Serbs say, "well that's all very well and fine. They didn't grow up in the Golden Age. They have no comparison."
I am, in fact, writing this blog from a CyberCafe in Pokhara Nepal, having arrived from Delhi India a few days ago. In both places life is for the general mass of people somewhat harder than it is in Serbia. For example, pollution is so bad ordinary people and police directing traffic in the city wear face masks; there are homeless people sleeping in the streets; and, the tap water is not safe for drinking unless you boil it. Yet, in both areas the people seem to be far more cheerful about their future and current lives than Serbs do.
My husband cites the Yugo Golden Age as the culprit for this. But you know, I've read Slavenka Drakulic's books and collected essays on life in Yugoslavia before and after. Things were not all that golden. Maybe more golden than other Communist countries, but still, not that great. At least for many women and certainly for journalists.
So my question - at the end of this slightly rambling post - is: how golden was Yugoslavia really? Is an entire generation of Serbs wearing rose-colored glasses, mesmerized by a semi-imagined past of Yugo-glory so they can't imagine anything worth viewing in the future? Is it possible there may be an even better future to that you could build in reality - if only you could look up from the past to imagine it?