The clothes that I wore on September 1st 1989, I had carefully chosen the night before. A yellow t-shirt, light blue jeans, a belt to keep them from falling from my skinny waist, a pair of white Adidas sneakers, and a turquoise-green backpack that was so big compared to my twiggy body that I could have easily fit inside if only I had tried.
As I was putting on my clothes, my father was busy videotaping me. He was interviewing me about what day it was, how old I was, and where I was going, while his shoulders supported the heavy video camera the size of a small suitcase.
The journey I made through the tiny and cramped corridor of our Prishtina apartment was documented mainly through poorly lit depictions of walls, edges of furniture and the patterns of the carpet. Once the main door was open, camera recording went white for a second. By the time the picture regained lost focus, I already finished putting on my sneakers. In a week or two I would learn how to tie my own laces, but the day of the video my white sneakers were held in place by velcro straps.
Every stair of our apartment building in Prishtina had (and still has) a particular sound that it produces with every step one takes. In a sense, the whole apartment building is one giant organ — as you go up or down the stairs, you hear the “ding”, “dang”, “ping”, “lung” of the stairs amplified by the echo bouncing from the bare walls whose white had turned into beige, which had started to fall off.
As my steps produced the ding-ping-lang-pong-bang’s, I heard a splash of water, a couple of drops that hit the bottoms of my light blue jeans. I turned around, and there was my mother throwing water after me. This was an old tradition, passed down from who knows when, and was performed every time one embarked on some kind of a journey.
That day I was beginning a new and a very important phase in my life. It was my first day of school. And it was appropriate that this occasion be consecrated by splashing water after my steps, as custom required. This ritual would recur many times over the course of my life, marking occasions like the start of a new school year, or a new job, or travels and trips.
Maybe hidden in the sound of those splashes and sprinkles lies a prayer:
May the journey that you are about to undertake go without difficulties and as easily and effortlessly as this water finds its way into the ground through the path of least resistance.
May these steps you now take lead you to knowledge as powerful as the wisdom contained within this water that sprinkled you.
May what you conquer be as magical as this water.
May the revelations that come to you during this trip be as bountiful as the ones within this water.
On this trip, may you find more water, just like this water that has been sprinkled upon you.
May great magical forests of opportunity grow from you, just as they do from water.
May you always safely find your way home, just as water always finds its way to the bottom of the earth.
The last time I remember my mother splashing water after me was in late August of 2002, the day that I embarked upon my journey to study in the United States. We were already running late for the airport, and I was struggling to carry a heavy suitcase down the same set of stairs, which were responding with the same ding-pang-lung-ping melody. The August heat had already rendered my morning shower useless, and it seemed that I had sacrificed my sleep to futility, since I was drenched in sweat.
I was trying hard to not forget my backpack and my passport, the plane ticket, and the travel cash. I almost forgot my jacket, and I would have frozen in the air-conditioned environment of all the planes and airports had my sister not reminded me. Once I was sure I had everything for my trip, I started my final descent down the musical stairs. And then, unexpectedly, I felt splashes and sprinkles falling.
“Oh, Mom. Come on. Seriously? Enough with the old superstitions.” My anxiety about running late to the airport was transformed into a fury at this tradition. Moreover, I was embarking to study science, and the splashes, originating from who knows what ancient superstition, were like a slap in the face. It was as if my journey in search of truth was being contaminated by the fermentations of history.
Maybe I started the whole trip on the wrong foot, and maybe I shouldn’t have blasphemed in such a way, and maybe I shouldn’t have offended whatever forgotten water deity is in charge of travellers, heroes, adventurers, and scholars. But at the time things were not going very well for Kosovo, and perhaps I had decided to find a scapegoat for our shortcomings as a young country in the making, placing the blame for all our failings on backward traditions.
It took me some years to come to terms with old traditions and superstitions and to maybe consider them not as something that holds us back, but as something full of ancient wisdom, to be studied and to be benefited from. There must be some universal truths and values hidden deep within the core of every superstition. Everything starts with myths, legends and stories handed down from our ancestors. Maybe great myths and legends devolve into mere superstitions as our collective memory starts to degrade, when we can no longer remember things as well as we used to. In the end, as time erodes our collective memory, superstitions become nothing but watered down versions of legends and myths, eventually meaningless.
On the afternoon of the last monday of August 2013, I was putting my clothes on. This time I had not prepared them the night before. My sneakers had laces that I almost knew how to tie, and my backpack was of a size I couldn’t fit myself into. As I was rushing through the narrow corridor of my Queens apartment, I encountered my roommate, who is also from Kosovo.
“Where to cimo?”
“I thought you still had couple of weeks to enjoy the summer?”
“Today is the first day.”
“Should we splash some water on your way out?” he said, more like a joke.
Suddenly my pupils dilated and I felt my face become a smirk. He rushed to the kitchen and hurriedly filled a glass of water.
As I started walking down the stairs, I couldn’t hear the music of my steps, but I did hear the sound of water splashing behind me, and felt the small droplets wetting the bottom of my jeans.
This article was originally written for and published at Kosovo 2.0