Marka never throws any wool away in case she needs to repair something later.
I consider this, and wonder how many scraps she’s held on to after a lifetime of knitting. Marka Kukučka is 81 years old and belongs to the last generation of Slovaks in Serbia who fully maintain their old world customs. Everyday, she wears traditional Slovak dress and cooks traditional Slovak foods. She speaks only the Slovak language (albeit a specific dialect with Serbian influence). And she knits. Marka is always knitting.
“I like to keep my fingers busy,” she says, as she sits on her bed next to a colorful array of unfinished socks. She tells me that her legs and hips often hurt her, but she can still use her hands.
And so she does. Marka’s fingers work quickly and instinctively. The motion is mesmerizing to me, almost hypnotizing in its repetitiveness. But Marka barely glances down at her knitting.
“She does it by heart,” her grandson, Igor, explains.
Ah, so that’s why she doesn’t look down. And also why her thick glasses remain on the coffee table between us.
Today, Igor has the difficult job of translating for his grandmother, who will go on to speak without pause for the next three hours. In this time, she will tell me many essential truths. Including, but not limited to, the following: That rolls taste better if they’re baked in a wood-fired oven. That tomatoes must always be grown at home, never store-bought. That girls nowadays should stop wearing backless shirts because they’re all going to get sick.
In these hours, Marka will also lament the loss of the culture she loves. Like many Slovaks living in Vojvodina, a region of Northern Serbia, her family left their homeland some 250 years ago. Yet, they’ve managed to keep their heritage alive. At least for the time being.
“When I was a kid it was normal for me to learn both [Serbian and Slovak],” Igor tells me. But these days enrollment in the Slovak-language schools in his hometown of Stara Pazova are much lower than when he was growing up.
“Some Slovak parents are sending their kids to Serb schools because it’s easier for them to learn right away. And I have a couple cousins that don’t speak Slovak and don’t understand,” he adds. However, Igor and his American wife have already agreed to send their daughter to the Slovak school. “My Gabby should know Slovak and Serb,” he says. “And she’s learning English and Spanish too.”
When Marka was young, she wasn’t able to finish school because she had to work. She would sneak away to classes as often as possible, but never made it to high school. Now, at 81, she continues working, but only on the things that she likes. She knits and gardens and bakes. Every morning, she spends 30 minutes tying up her long hair under silk scarves, and is filled with joy when she picks out what she will wear that day. Her colorful style is the first thing I noticed about her, aside from her hauntingly clear blue eyes.
Marka’s pride is palpable as she leads me through her house and to the closet where she keeps her clothes. She pulls out scarfs, skirts, aprons, vests, and knitted shoes, much like the ones she’s currently wearing. Aside from the outfits she reserves for baptisms and funerals, her clothing is extraordinarily vibrant.
“I love it because when I was a kid, a grandma wouldn’t wear this. She would wear darker colors and it would be all gloomy,” she explains with a grin.
Though she used to buy custom-made pieces from designers in Stara Pazova, there aren’t many people left who know how to make them. So now she gets her new clothes from neighbors who don’t wear them anymore, or from friends who have passed away. As for young people in the community? They see these big skirts and bright socks as costumes — something strictly reserved for traditional festivals, dance performances, and television appearances.
“I’m aware that stuff is changing and there’s nothing you can do,” Marka says. The hardest part of these changes are not the way people dress or the schools they choose to attend. Mostly, Marka misses having people around her kitchen table.
Igor explains, “when I was a kid and we had a birthday, it would be 30 or 40 people … Now it’s sad for her because not that many people are coming. She has no one to cook for.”
I should mention that, at this point, she has already fed me sausage and chicken.
“Has the family mostly moved away,” I ask.
“We’ve just drifted away. Literally we’re living in the same town.” He answers. “There are some people that live five minutes from me, but I didn’t see them for two, three months.”
Igor goes on to tell me that he had to make a Facebook account years ago in order to stay connected to his family. “It is financial, actually. The problem is that they have to work a lot.”
Igor and his grandmother reminisce about Name Day celebrations from their youth. They speak of holiday feasts and slaughters that would last all weekend. Of whole days spent singing and cooking with their entire extended family under one roof.
“When I see you are skinny, I’m scared that you’re sickly or something,” Marka remarks to her grandson, whose roundness gestures more towards an enjoyment of pasta than any impending starvation. Igor and I chuckle at this classic Balkan remark. Ultimately, Marka reminds me of most grandmothers I know, except that she has markedly better style.
As I gather my things to leave, she makes sure I take the handmade shawl she gifted to me an hour before. It was from her own closet, so I try to refuse. I, inevitably, fail.
Five minutes later, Igor is handing me a pair of pink woolen socks at the bus station. No use resisting this time. Instead, I say thank you and return to Belgrade with significantly warmer feet.
Christiana Botic is a documentary photographer and filmmaker as well as a 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. She is spending 9 months in Serbia and Croatia exploring the complex relationship between geography and identity in the region through still and moving images. Follow along @christianabotic on Instagram or sign up for her Mapping Identity newsletter.