You’ve either committed a crime or you’re crazy!
That’s what they told me at the embassy when I told them I wanted to volunteer for the Yugoslav People’s Army.
We left Uzdin in 1972. First, we went to Austria, I don’t even know where exactly. I was a child. In 1973 we left that place too – my sister, my father, my mother – the whole family. We flew to the USA: Vienna – New York. I was eight. We received our papers, had our fingerprints and our pictures taken.
When we arrived in New York, we went to the Immigration Office. They gave us a social security number, as they call it, and a week later we got the certificate of residence. There were different times… Now it can take up to five years…
When I graduated 12th grade, my dad said it was time for me to find some work. What work could I do? I was 18, I had no university degree. But there was always work to be found in Manhattan. My dad handed me a newspaper and I got on the subway. In town, I saw a “help wanted” sign in a window. I went in. It was a designer clothing store – Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin…
“We need someone downstairs who can sort the incoming goods”, the manager told me. “Four hours a day.” I said OK, I just need to talk to my dad. I went home and told him: “look, I found a job.” He was so happy!
I would receive the products, take them out of boxes, sort them by size… Six months later, a guy comes to me and says “Giovan, if you want to come upstairs, we will give you one extra dollar per hour. But you will need a tie.”
“What tie? I don’t have a tie, let me check with my dad.”
My father was a mechanic, he worked in a factory, he didn’t have a tie. So he took me to a store, bought me two ties, a shirt, everything I needed. They were polyester, we couldn’t afford any better…
When I showed up at work wearing them, my manager told me: “I will give you two shirts tomorrow.”
I started doing a different kind of work. I wasn’t sorting clothes on shelves anymore, I was interacting with customers. You have to know how to deal with people, I didn’t. The manager taught me: good morning, good evening…
Eight months later, I was transferred to 34th Street, where they needed an assistant manager. I hadn’t turned 20 yet. When they offered me the job, I told them I needed to ask my father first.
“They’re paying me two extra dollars an hour”, I said to him. “Take it! If they are offering, take it!” I did the same when they promoted me to manager in Brooklyn. I only said yes after talking to my father.
Then my father died.
His wish was for me to go back home, do my military service, get married, and start my own family.
I left everything behind – my mother, my sister, my job – and I came back. The year was 1988, I was 23 years old, and I was starting life over.
Alone in a country I knew mostly from my parents’ stories.
At the embassy, they asked me if I had done time or committed any crime. Nobody had volunteered for the Army since 1965.
I didn’t even speak Serbian.
At home, we spoke Romanian, and in school, in the US, we studied English and Spanish. My first days in the army were difficult because of that. I was in Kraljevo and I didn’t understand much of anything – I just watched what the others were doing and copied them. I learned the language in the army.
But English proved useful to me in the end. I had a captain who wanted me to teach his kid, so I ended up working as a cook, then at the post office.
Then I met her.
I had a friend who was attending university in Timișoara. One day he asked me: “Iovan, will you come with me and see Romania?”
What was I supposed to do in Romania? He wanted to find a girl and get married. We, the people in Uzdin, always think ahead.
I met her in Jimbolia. We had stopped to eat on our way back home. We didn’t have enough money, so I went back a few days later to pay off our debt. I went looking for her at her school, but the guard wouldn’t let me in. “No strangers allowed here!”
In the end, I managed to find her. I stayed in Jimbolia overnight and visited again after two weeks. She told me to leave her alone, she was in trouble with the Securitate. She had a neighbour who was an informer.
Then the Revolution happened.
I wanted to see her again, but wasn’t allowed to cross the border into the country. I was told the borders were closed. I only managed to get into the country two months later.
That summer, my godfather Ghiță came back from America and my girlfriend and I got married. I could have found someone else, but I wanted my birth godfather to be our wedding godfather too. It’s a tradition here in Banat and it has run in my family for a hundred years. His great-grandfather, his grandfather, his father were our godfathers.
We got married on the 14th of July 1990. It was meant to be. Otherwise, who would have left a manager job in America to join the Yugoslav Army and meet his wife in Romania?
Then the trouble started in Yugoslavia. In September 1991, I went back to the US with my nephew. It took another three months for my wife to get a visa and join us.
When Dejan was born, we were in New York, but our journey didn’t stop there. In 1993, we moved to Pennsylvania. Six months later, we decided to visit Banat. We stayed there for a year and a half. Until 1997, when our son went to kindergarten in the US, we bounced back and forth between America and Uzdin. We waited for almost 20 years for our son to grow up, stand on his own two feet, to be able to manage by himself.
In 2016, I told my boss I was leaving. She called me into her office and asked me how much money I wanted.
“I don’t need money”, I told her.
She opened the door and told me “Our door is open for you, Giovan, whenever you want to come back. It’s always open.”
My name is Iovan Maran, I am 58 years old, and six years ago I left America for Uzdin.
Many people don’t understand.
I have a German Shepherd and a cat, I spend my time having coffee with neighbours, sometimes I go to church…
I have more peace of mind.
But I miss my boy…
Photo credit: Răzvan Popa