When a baby is born within the Dubrovnik – Neretva County, history stops, even if just for a moment: the moment of a massive celebration. A party is organized immediately, usually by the father of the baby, or, by the grandfather (a.k.a. the owner of the new mother’s in-laws, which, in many cases, is also the home of the newborn’s parents).
My husband is an accordionist, so he is often called to play at parties following childbirth. Being an emancipated Czech, I protested at first: Dah! So the father and his gang sing and drink for two days, while the mother is struggling in hospital with all there is to struggle with after childbirth, I mean – how fair is that?! – My husband, being a faithful Dalmatian, i.e. a person convinced that any party tradition shall not be questioned, replied: “The party must take place before the mother and the baby come home from the maternity ward!”
“So the father can help take care of the baby after bringing her home, and the mother can rest!” he exclaimed.
Clever, - I thought, but improbable, keeping in mind the habits of Dalmatian men and, well, the habits of men in general as regards newborn babies. (I have never ever met a single new mother who could rest more than four minutes in a row during her first weeks after childbirth.)
“Plus,” husband continued, “you don’t want crowds of coughing people to come party at your place once the baby is there.”
That made more sense. But at the same time, it was in an alarming clash with another tradition, which has become an institution throughout Dalmatia and beyond, and which reads babine (pronounce: bah-bee-neh).
Now, what it means: when a baby is born in at least a vaguely definable geographic or familial proximity within you, you have to go to the childbirth-related visit, a.k.a. babine.
The thing you need to do is this:
1) prepare a gift bag with stuff for the baby (a pack of Pampers, a pink-or-blue bodysuit + an envelope with an appropriate sum of money, most usually the same value you received on the occasion of your first-born baby years ago, increased correspondingly to the inflation rate),
2) second bag containing the so called čast (pronounce: chaast), that is one package of Jubilarna ground coffee, one package of Domačica cookies, one bottle of wine or brandy, and one kilogram of white sugar (don’t ask why, just do it).
3) set off to the house where newborn baby lives, arrive completely unannounced (this is very important), park yourself in the new parents’ or (better) grandparents’ kitchen and sit there for a nice couple of hours, being served coffee and cakes, while new mother frolicks around in panic about breastfeeding, toxic wet wipes or the best possible instrument for cutting tiny fingernails.
4) go see the (sleeping) baby, spit at the cot and applying the sweetest voice possible, exclaim “tffuuuj, ništatinevaljaš!” (That will probably wake the baby and her mother will hate you for the rest of her life, or, at least until the end of her childbed, but it is a crucial step to accomplish your mission.) By the way: it means “Ugh, you are worthless!”
Several years ago, being a new mother myself, I heard tffuuj, ništa ti ne valjaš about two hundred and fifty times, and I would have effortlessly killed all those people, hadn’t I asked my husband, what’s the damn point of this right off the start. He explained: “It is a phrase that’s to protect the baby from evil spells. Of course they all mean she is beautiful, but one must not speak too soon. A tradition.”
Howgh. (Love it when in a place where tradition shall outlive the village.)
Resigned, I kept making coffees for all the spitting people who kept walking in together with bags of bodysuits, sugar and unshakeable tradition. There were grand-aunts, spitting their life story above the cot, cousins so distant one doubted whether they perhaps weren’t complete strangers, and an army of other people who were all coughing, wiping their noses or they dared to lightly smell of smoke, so I glared at them like a Sphinx, lips sealed, imagining revenge.
Later, for forty minutes in a row, I would usually yell at my husband, blaming him of traditions, smokers and infectious diseases.
At night, I would stare lovingly at my baby, and storm out of room every time she sniffed in her sleep, and yell at husband some more. (The mere fact that he had survived my initial confrontation with some of Dalmatian traditions, should earn him a medal.)
In any event, just like with most other shocking habits, I turned out to finally like them. Love them, even. (Easy to do when I am no longer a first-time mother.) Because the one thing I adore in Dalmatia is the habit of seriously and spontaneously getting together for celebrations. Showing up.Dropping by.
Sharing the happiness with an actual glass of red at an actual table. Not on Facebook.
Blanka Pavlovic a.k.a. the Adriatic Bride is a Czech writer. She studied law (Prague) and creative writing (Oxford). As a lawyer, she specialized in international human rights law, first working for the European Court of Human Rights, then for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. She wrote five books, among them Total Balkans, The Handbook of the Adriatic Bride or The Return of the Adriatic Bride. She now lives with her family between Dubrovnik and Donji Brgat. More information and English translations of her work are available through www.blankacechova.com.