My great grandmother was a maid in an aristocratic house in Zagreb at the beginning of the 20th century. She painstakingly managed to put away some savings and dreamt of one day buying a small house of her own. The bank in which she kept her savings went bankrupt before the second world war due to mismanagement. Their clients lost all their savings. At the age of forty and with a world war looming, there was no way my great grandmother was ever going to be able to save that amount again. The dream of a home was forever gone.
Many years later, when Yugoslavia was socialist, everyone was assigned a flat by the employing company. Although that concept sounds incongruously wonderful in today’s world, these flats were often small and far from the desirable town centre. And people were often hoarders. In a pre-consumerist era all our possessions were considered too valuable to dump.
Some of my earliest memories are sitting in the back of my aunt’s red Mitshubishi whilst she and my mum drove to the their seamstress’s studio on the outskirts of Zagreb, where they had their clothes custom made. With Abba and Stevie Wonder in the cassette player, I’d sit in the back of the car and listen to the two great women in my life cover everything from politics to weight loss and make the most of our major family decisions.
Moving to a bigger flat was our long-term urban dream. Everything, including weight loss would be more easily achieved in a bigger flat. But since tenancy agreements were for life and private property all but didn’t exist, moving into a bigger flat involved lengthy transactions, quite often with cagey old ladies.
A desolate living proof of the fact that women live longer, these women spent their old age alone, unable to keep a large flat on a meagre pension. In a strange cycle of their lives, many of them were born into these spacious houses at the beginning of the century when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the centre of Zagreb was built by the aristocracy. Once married they either inherited the family property or moved into a similar one belonging to the husband. After the second world war when private property was nationalized, these big flats and houses were partitioned and several families assigned rooms. The original owner, if still around, was now allocated a small part of his or hers original property. Over the next couple of decades, the other families looked to find more spacious lodgings of their own and slowly moved away. So by the nineteen eighties these ladies, often widowed by then, found themselves alone in the large properties, physically and financially unequipped to keep them.
This is where the trend of swapping properties started to emerge. Or the other version of it – finding a spot in a respectable retirement home for the designated lady and paying her a bonus in cash. In return she would sign over her tenancy rights and big families would finally accomplish the dream. This stratagem was sometimes thwarted by the sudden appearance of the old lady’s long lost family members who came out of the woodwork just as the tenancy papers were about to be signed.
The bank manager who long ago crushed my great grandmother’s hope of a house of her own, naturally went unharmed. He died a few years later, leaving his widow to share their large central Zagreb flat with other tenants. When my family started on the course of the flat swapping path, they happened upon her. A recluse in the heart of Zagreb she spent her days watching the paint peel off moldy walls of this once grand flat.
In a strange cycle of our own lives, my family managed to find her a place in a good home and, with a significant cash supplement, the swap was made. A dining table the widow had in the flat since the 1920s stands in the same place, even today.
Now, in the new capitalist era of Croatia private property was a quickly adopted new notion. But, like everywhere available to some and less available to others. Elderly tenants living in desirable properties are again a target, only this time the takeover is often handled in a capitalist manner with considerably less care for their well-being.
This routine which I remember from mine and many other family histories pointed me in the direction of constructing a play around a house, which saw such dramatic social changes and housed a family living through them and coping with the equally dramatically different value systems. But what was most intriguing was that however I looked at this story, though it was a story of class, history and politics, female figures presented themselves as protagonists. Focusing on them was in the end a combination of choice and instinct. It is partly to do with interrupting the imposed super-narrative, to borrow the wonderful phrase from my Greek colleagues in the Blitz Theatre Group. There are many of those we are constantly exposed to. One of them sees the human experience told through a male protagonist, with women mere companions on his path.
It is also what the story simply needed in order to do justice to the evidence, which emerged through researching my own and many other family histories. In the end it’s about balancing out the ratio. That ratio, which, if it were the other way around, no-one would even notice.
3 Winters is at the National Theatre, London, from 26th November 2014 – 3rd February 2015