I must have been about seven or eight when I started walking to school by myself. A single intersection stood between the apartment I lived in and the school grounds. It was a busy intersection, but there were many children and adults crossing at all hours of the day. The combination of this and the next thing must have been what made my parents feel confident enough to let me go by myself.
Months before I was permitted to head out on my own, mum and dad came up with a simple suggestion. Instead of them taking me to school, I was going to be taking them. This meant that I was to be the one holding their hand and that I was to be the one to take full responsibility when crossing the intersection, for example. They would observe my actions, ask me to explain my decision every time I made one, tell me if they felt confident and secure under my leadership, and carefully explain what could have been the consequence and why, if ever I made an error.
On the morning I was finally off on my own, I said goodbye to mum and dad, proudly locked the door behind me, took a deep breath, and was on my way. I remember feeling nervous and eager, approaching the intersection. I was going to cross ahead first then take a right. That way I was making sure to avoid the crossing that had cars turning right and left on approach at the same time as the pedestrians were permitted to cross. A mature decision, I remember thinking. The light was green as I approached the crossing, so I took to it. Halfway across, however, the green light turned red. When I realised what had happened, I panicked, spun around and ran back across from where I came from. In my excitement, I run into a person standing by the light in my line of flight. I lifted my gaze to apologise and was shocked to see my dad’s confused expression staring back at me.
“What are you doing, Pavle?” my dad asked.
“Oh,” I said, “the light turned, so I came back.”
“Why did you come back?”
“Because you’re not allowed to be on the crossroads when the light turns red.”
“But why didn’t you run ahead and complete your crossing?”
I started crying. How could I have known that I was permitted to complete my crossing after the light had turned? I remember dad laughing as he hugged me. He wiped my tears, took my hand and together, we waited for the light to turn once again. In due time, we crossed the street and the next and walked to school hand in hand.
By the time I was in my teens, I was walking up from 90 minutes a day between the many activities I busied myself with; the violin lessons and the piano lessons and orchestra and music history and singing lessons and dance lessons and the extra English lessons. (Mum was of the opinion that being born into a language only about 4 million people spoke on this Earth wasn’t the most convenient of predicaments. I started my English lessons early and took up extra as soon as was possible.) To this day when I think of Zagreb I think about walking, I think about the facades, the street corners, the pavement, the brick and the owls and the faces cast in mortar and stone. I think of the gardens and cast iron and the tags, awkwardly placed, often ugly and illegible but defiant and powerful nevertheless. Humbling reminders of the fact that the street is a place for the living, yours by the virtue of being alive. The streets were where I first started feeling like myself, autonomous in the power to take a step. Sometimes I dream of having walked myself into existence.
Walking became how I started expressing my affection for the city I lived in. I would walk whenever I’d get the chance, often letting my curiosity choose my routes for me. Many a night I’d receive a phone call from mum asking me where I was.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I’d say, “I took a detour thinking I’d make it home in time. I ended up all the way up… oh, never mind. I should be home in an hour.”
Out walking, I’d begun paying attention to what the city was made of. Rarely I’d remember to inquire into the origin of the detail that made the city landscape as rich as it did by asking one of my parents or my friend’s parents if they could tell me the story of how or why. More often I’d fantasise about how some of the details that would catch my eye came to be where they are. After the internet became widely available, I’d inquire into the history of city, rarely paying any attention to whether or not what I was reading was a fictionalised account or actually historical in origin.
I was recently reminded of the time I took a local friend, one of my best friends growing up, out for a walk with a friend who then came to visit the city for the first time. I was in my mid twenties then and a visitor myself. I left the city years before, looking for the kind of dance education that didn’t exist in Croatia at the time. The walk took me back, it put me in touch with my younger self, a self I never knew I knew, a self I never realised I lost touch with. Stories came to mind, one after another. Excitedly, I started pointing at things, saying out loud whatever impressionable detail I could remember.
“The person on the horse,” I said pointing to the statue, “came back from the Turkish War and spoke to the person sitting by the spring,” I said pointing to the fountain, “asking them to scoop some water up for them to drink. The person on the horse was thirsty. War makes a person thirsty. The scooping––to scoop in the imperative form ‘zagrabi’––became what Zagreb was named after. The person who scooped the water, whose name was Manduša, is who the spring-now-fountain was named after. Manduševac. Isn’t that an amazing story?”
I looked over at my best friend with a massive grin of satisfaction on my face only to find them staring at me with their mouth agape.
“Pavle, what the fuck are you saying?!?! The person on the horse and the person at the spring lived like… hundreds of years apart?!?! Manduša is said to have been met by a knight, not Ban Josip Jelačić. Ban Josip Jelačić lived in the 1800s!”
A moment of absolute stillness followed. I do not think it possible to describe how much we laughed once we started laughing. It is impossible to describe how funny that moment was because it is impossible to describe how much that moment meant. My two friends coming together represented two aspects of life coming together in a way that, much like those two historical elements in my story, would have never come together were it not for me and my intervention.
In the end, the three of us came up with the concept of fantasy city tours, where the tour guide knows a little bit of history and makes the rest up as they go, intentionally weaving an alternative historical cosmology of the place in question. Part real, part fantasy, part documenting history, part celebrating the specific relationship and the creative potential of the present moment, this was a tour I would have loved giving, a tour I would have loved taking. We decided that, for this concept to work, (1) fantasy city tours would have to be conceived a long-term project that would need to be thoroughly documented; (2) the tour guide would be allowed to continue reading history: to learn new things, but they would not be allowed to do so in order to correct the things they misremembered or had forgotten about; and (3) on occasion, working tour guides would have to walk together, sharing insights. Merging cosmologies. For scientific purposes. And, of course, for fun.
once upon a time i’d be extremely embarrassed if caught “in a lie,” a misremembering, perhaps. today, i think it so interesting to learn what it is that we do remember. because what we do remember is what actually (!) makes our worlds.
the other thing i find so interesting about what we do remember is that what we remember documents what was possible to remember in the first place. what was possible to remember suggests that something wasn’t possible to remember, and why is that? could it be due to a lack of opportunity? of resource? of experience…? all of which children are so vulnerable to as they have little to no say in any matter.