My Best Friend Olgica

My best friend was Olga Novak who came to our class at the age of thirteen and from the first until the last school-day we were together. First I helped her to get adjusted to the new environment in our school, but gradually we became inseparable friends during the six years in gymnasium, meeting every aftemoon for homework; we had the same handwriting, the same drawings, the same homework, the same marks, we developed similar tastes. If the French proverb 'les contrastes se touchent' is not always applicable, to us it certainly was: we came from two different worlds. Olgica was a tall, good looking girl of dark complexion; her dark-brown hair matched her deep, intelligent eyes of the same colour. She came from a pious Catholic family who for centuries lived on the southern coast of Dalmatia, on the island of Hvar opposite Split. Olgica was an only child but she was never alone with her parents. When her father, Dr. Ivo Novak was transferred to Zagreb, as banski lje nik' (a kind of county physician), the whole family moved with him - his mother Olga, Olgica's grandmother, his three sisters, Olga, Milka, Pia, Milka's husband and their little boy. Milka's husband, Mate Dul i , was an excellent mathematician and physicist; in the higher grades he used to explain things to us and solve difficult questions, preparing us for examinations.9 The whole clan lived together in a small apartment and I was never able to understand how they managed. Although Olgica was almost always with us, treated as a member of our family, very dear to my parents and sister, I too liked her family who, as it seemed to me, came from another planet. Their house was always crowded and noisy, rooms and kitchen were in disorder, neglected, dirty, everything smelled of fish, yet their hospitality, their warm, cordial affectionate reception, their cheeriness, easiness of manners, their frankness had a singular charm. One summer I spent a month with Olgica on the island Hvar where I became acquainted with a world known to me before only from books written by native writers. Olgica's family never abandoned their house on Hvar and through the year someone always lived there. It was a three story house, very narrow, cool, with no running water. We stayed there with Nona who during one month cooked only fish for lunch -various sorts of sea-fish, fish soup, boiled fish, fried fish, baked fish; nevertheless I enjoyed it. I shall never forget this small, provincial town - one of the many in Dalmatia - where Italian influence is strongly felt, today as well as then. Stony land, bare earth, poor population, mostly fishermen, very pious, for tourists very attractive, with a mild climate, patches of pine trees, the immense surface of the Adriatic bathing the isle's shores. Some scenes are unforgettable; young people at twilight taking to sea in their boats, tuning their musical voices to the beautiful melodies of Dalmatian songs; the silent fishermen at night leaving with their boats with only one torch burning to attract fish, anxious to catch enough to earn their living; the Sunday processions with religious songs and prayers, celebrating their Saint (each place had its own, Hvar's was St Anthony), the entire population participating, walking and singing through the streets. The relationship in Olga's home was patriarchal, it seemed to me the dark Middle Ages. Her father, small, thin, very lively and noisy, gesticulating when he spoke, was the main authority; her mother, tall, robust, quiet, was always in the kitchen, for ever serving the 'clan'; the aunts worked in offices, grandmother, the 'nona' was respected by everybody but the privileged was Olgica whom her father adored and admired. She indeed deserved it, she was an outstandingly bright pupil, with little effort she attained the best results, gifted in languages, talented in music, excelling in math as well as in composition. We had so much in common; a whistle at the comer before school, down I rushed to join her; in school we shared the same bench for all those years, during recreations together, after school, on our way home talking endlessly, never tiring of being together. Olgica's break with her family's traditional way of thinking was even deeper than mine. She was sixteen when in her dancing class, in the YMCA, she met a student who some years later became her husband. Janez Lavra , an economist, fell in love with Olga and succeeded in convincing her that the image she had of the world was wrong, and gradually the devoted Catholic became an atheist. From the day Janez entered Olgica's life our friendship was less intense. Their love was mutual and the time spent earlier with me was now, quite naturally, given to Janez, but we still were good friends. Olgica registered at the University of Zagreb, for English and French; she graduated during the war and became a high-school teacher. During the war she married Janez; they had two sons and one daughter. Janez was a lecturer at the University, first in Belgrade, later in Ljubljana. Through all these years we had little contact, from time to time sending New Year cards. I never met her again and shall never forgive myself for not having attended our forty years' matriculation meeting, in 1978. When I visited Yugoslavia a few years later and called in at Ljubljana to make an appointment with Olgica, Janez told me that she passed away that spring, after an operation of the liver. Even to the best of pupils school is a burden, to the ambitious, as I have been, the more so, and those who deny this lie. As much as I enjoyed going to school, I was always happy when vacations came to get rid of all those duties. The eight years in high school were homogeneous, from the first to the eighth grade of high school I had the same classmates and teachers with very few changes. The regular school system was four classes of elementary school, eight classes of high school; ours was a school only for girls. We had French in Ist grade, German from the 3rd, Latin from the 5th. We were a unique class with some very intelligent girls and although we were of three religions/nationalities, Catholic - Croats, Orthodox - Serbs, and the Jews we formed a harmonious unit. I shall, of course omit all those greater and smaller incidents, excitements, joys, fears that every pupil must experience - each of us has bags full of memories. One is worth the effort of being retold. After ending high school the eighth grade usually went on an outing, a kind of farewell. To raise the money for the purpose a class would give a public party, hiring a jazz orchestra and a hall where young people danced; usually those took place on Sunday afternoons; food and drinks were also served. We decided to be different. In our class we had a very gifted girl, Nada Bluhweiss, who wrote a musical called 'Mi' ('We') which portrayed many comic scenes from our school life. Our class acted the roles, imitating teachers, and some girls were characterized as they really were' with exaggerated traits, of course. I played the 'Sentimentaka! (the sentimental girl), who admired everything, an outspoken optimist, naive, sincere, enthusiastic without critical judgement. We engaged a young stage manager Marko Fotez who later became a famous theatre producer in Zagreb, and he helped us insert suitable music and dances - the performance took place in the same hall where others gave dancing parties. It was a great success and we earned enough money to pay the expenses for a trip for all those who could not have afforded it. Our aim was ltaly, by train through Venice and Milan to Genoa, from there to Naples with a big Italian cruiser, a trip to Vesuvius and Pompeii and on by train to Rome, Florence, Padua and Venice. In Venice we had an unpleasant experience which I shall remember all my life: on 15 July, Venice's national holiday, all Venice floats on boats and gondolas, small and bigger ships, orchestras on shell-formed stages in the lagunas, with music, songs, shouting everywhere - our class was part of the scene, having hired a boat for ourselves. At midnight a frightening storm with lightning, thunder, hail, heavy rains and winds started to chase this immense undisciplined mass of people on to shore, our class among them. I shall never forget the tumult, the frightful feeling of getting lost in those narrow, dirty, dark streets of Venice whose population had not in the least the best of reputations. Minutes seemed like hours, but all ended well; everybody found the way to our lodgings. I was soaked, my dress became a bathing costume; I still remember the dress I wore. Although we had modest accommodation in the austere atmosphere of cool monasteries and students of the Fascist Organization were our guides, and although I had travelled earlier under much better conditions, with my parents, while this trip was extremely exhausting and tiresome, I shall remember this journey as long as I live; the gay company of my classmates, singing and dancing and enjoying every minute. During our four day stay in Rome we had continuous sightseeing and walks in and outside Rome: Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's residence outside the Vatican, Villa d'ESTE and various museums. The evenings were spent in Terme di Caracalla, the huge open opera house of Rome; the splendid performance of Aida with hundreds of real horses and elephants I shall never forget, but the next evening, at Boito's Mefistofeles I could not keep my eyes open. Once again I was luckier than others. While my class returned home I was to meet my mother, sister and cousin Zdravko at the Lido, the fashionable resort near Venice; later my father joined us and we continued our vacation in Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Dolomites. Here I was not so lucky; I got jaundice and was very ill. I shall never forget the loving care of my mother. Mama was like an angel, quiet, calm, soft, always present, following every movement, every glance; she was at my bed day and night, not leaving the room. Nobody in the world can replace a mother's love and care. I matriculated in the summer of 1938. Pupils were expected to write three papers in class: composition in Croatian, math and a paper in French or German. Those with an average of 'very good' or more were exempted from oral examinations. I was among the exempted, my average being 'excellent'. I chose French not because I knew it better, it made no difference to me, but because, at that time, we hated everything related to Germany. At that time the European scene was darkened by heavy clouds. Hitler grew in power, his spies and propagators intruded every country, first clandestinely, later openly. Table of Contents Europe's Skies Darken