Tanja Peternek Aleksic: A completely (ir)regular journalist from the Red Cross
For over two decades, she has been introducing TV personalities to our homes through the TV screens, showing us that they are just like any normal person. A plethora of celebrities have passed through her show and her episodes have earned their place in the archives of Yugoslavia’s “Kinoteka”. Tanja Peternik Aleksic reveals for her 011info interview what her 100-year old house has been through, who has spent a quarter of a century ‘staring’ into the life of her family and explains how skipping class actually launched her TV career.
What were your earliest memories of Belgrade?
I have to start off by telling you how incredibly happy I am that we are talking about this city. Even though I’ve traveled so much and seen so much beauty all over the world, I don’t think I could live anywhere other than Belgrade. Every time I’m returning from the airport and entering the older part of the city across Branko’s bridge, it’s the essence of pure joy for me, because of my love for Belgrade.
When it comes to my memories of Belgrade, one of my earliest ones is tied to an interesting anecdote. Namely, I live in a dead-end street which is only 3m wide from one side to the other. There is barely enough room for two vehicles to pass one another, which is the main reason I’m better at driving in reverse than ahead. (laughter).
Anyway, one year the family of our actor Milan Caci Mihailovic moved to the newly constructed building. When Easter rolled around, the kids from the block gathered in front of number 7, as was tradition, and started going door to door while the grownups came outside with chocolate and eggs. That tradition delighted Caci so much that he started telling everyone that our neighborhood was actually a part of pre-war Belgrade. By the way, we still stick to those traditions and that’s why I dye over 100 eggs every year. Last year, 75 children knocked on my door. (laughter)
So my memories of Belgrade are tied to my neighborhood and the people who lived there. Like for example my neighbor Olga, who was my grandmother’s friend. She would always cry at the same part when reading The Count of Monte Cristo - right when he was captured. Olga would send us a plate of wheat every year on her family Saint’s day, with half walnuts on top.
What else do you remember from your childhood?
I remember the first time my parents sent me to Zivka’s shop on my own. I’ll never forget it because I had to cross a big street by myself for the first time - Gospodara Vucica street.
Although I went alone, I wasn’t unsupervized. My grandmother’s friend, a Dalmatian lady by the name of Filomena, kept an eye on me. From her balcony with a wrought iron fence, she observed whether I used the crossing and as soon as she saw me she’d grab her green telephone and let my grandmother know “Mrs. Zlata, she looked to the right and left, everything is well.”
What part of the city did you grow up in?
I think I am the rare Belgrader who can say that she still lives in the same home where she arrived from the ICU. It is the house which my grandmother bought in 1930. It’s located between the Red Cross and Lion, in the last Belgrade oasis that’s resisting the new construction trends. But we still stick to our essential city culture such as calling our neighbors by name and surname and congratulating them on their birthdays and family Saint’s days. For example, my neighbor Verka still lets me know if anyone came knocking on my door while I was away.
By the way, my street used to be cobblestone, like Skadarlija once was too. It bothered me a lot because the lumpy surface made it difficult to go sledding there. But that wasn’t the case with the neighboring Krizaniceva street which was designed for sledding. During winter, that street would be closed down and a wire fence would be set up in the bottom to allow us to sled safely. But the best part was when I started school which was at the end of that street. In the winter me and the other kids would just sit on our backpack and slide all the way down to school.
Speaking of wintertime adventures, there’s also a story featuring my daughter Tamara. When she was born, I planted a tree on New Year’s day. Ever since, on every New Year’s day, I would decorate that tree with candies. One time, a little boy from the neighborhood approached me and asked me where I found a tree that grew candies. When I told him they sold it to me that way at the nursery, he suggested I should’ve gotten a tree that grew chocolate instead. That boy is now a grown man who tells that anecdote to his friends often.
Your street sounds like a time-capsule.
We do our best. Even the new arrivals like the actors Ivana Dudic and Petar Mihajlovic, Caci’s son, have joined the program. Mostly because of our neighbor Voja. He is Olga’s son, the neighbor I mentioned earlier, who made the garage into his workshop. Everyone who passes by visits him for a cup of coffee. Every day, he takes his scooter to Cvetko’s market and always asks every neighbor he sees if they need him to get them something. My husband Goran promised to make him a plaque that would declare him the mayor of our street.
So this time capsule we are speaking of doesn’t really depend on the time we live in, but the relationships you foster with the people near you. I know! Now you’d like to move into my street too. I am sorry, there’s no room left. (laughter)
It seems that your neighbors are really, as they say ‘your found family’ and these neighborly relations are passed down from generation to generation.
Oh yes. Let me tell you a story about my mother. She was born in an apartment at 1 Kicevska street, where her first neighbor was Zoran Hirstic, our famous composer. Do you know why she was born in the apartment? Because there was no time to go to the hospital. That was the year 1938. When my grandmother went into labor, the entire neighborhood gathered to help with the delivery. My mother came into the world weighing only 5 and a half kilograms and her fist clenched like a little freedom fighter.
A decade or so later, when Zoran Hirstic was my guest at the “TV lica…kao sav normalan svet” show, he took out and showed me a picture of him and my mother on their potties together. He was blond and curly and she was dark-haired and curly. The word ‘Gagana’ was written under the photo, since they called each other that. (laughter)
Another interesting fact is that all your stories about Belgrade are influenced by an unusual thing your grandfather did.
My grandfather was a pre-war Communist who didn’t profit from it whatsoever. On the contrary, it all cost him his health, he was imprisoned in the same basement with David Pajic Daka, a national hero who today is sadly only known for an elevator brand.
One day, my grandfather Jova came home and told my grandmother Zlata that he gifted one half of the house they bought fair and square to some honorable poor people. To this, my grandmother told him ‘That’s alright, Jovo, it’s good to help the poor’. Today, it’s hard to even imagine something like that.
However, there was an unexpected development the very next day. Because those people re-sold their part of the house to another family that had 12 colorful members. One was a criminal in Italy, another an alcoholic, and others…let’s just say they were a colorful cast of characters. Those people lived in our house for 25 years, never paying any of the bills. Although their sewage kept overflowing, they still had electricity because they were listed as social cases.
The house resembled a classic Vojvodina domicile, at least on one end. On the side where we lived, there was a beautifully painted house with clean windows and red flowers hanging from the sills. On the other side was a ruin. People who didn’t care about it lived inside the ruin and had holes all over their ceiling.
And what happened with that family in the end?
When I started 8th grade, they got an apartment from the Solidarity Fund. So when all 12 of them were supposed to move out, they called upon the so-called ‘Law on family separation’ so that some of them stayed in the house and some moved into the apartment. But after a drawn out court fight, we won and they were forced to move out once and for all.
As soon as they left and our house was returned to us, my mother called over her friend’s sons - big, burly guys, who came over and knocked down that part of the house on the same day, to the foundations. But that wasn’t the end. Namely, that same evening her friend, the director Aleksandar Djordjevic, called her and said, I quote: “Nale, we’re filming a show called “Vruc vetar” and we need a hovel that the main character will live in. Can we use that part of your house where the tenants lived?”. But sadly, that part of the house was already torn down, even though we could’ve used the money from the shoot for renovations. (laughter)
The core of the story is that we had 12 strangers live in our house for a quarter of a century. During my drama studies I turned it into a story called “Sta buljis u moj zivot” (Why are you staring into my life), under the guidance of my professor and mentor Dusko Kovacevic. At first, he was confused by the vocabulary I used - read, the colorful and juicy profanity, and then by my vivid imagination because he thought I made it all up. (laughter)
It sounds like you had a very exciting childhood.
I really did. One time, a police officer was on the lookout under my grandmother’s window. It was ‘Pera the Cop’ who apologized to my grandmother profusely for disturbing her. Namely, one of the people who lived in the other part of our house met their demise through some suspicious activities in Italy and they organized a funeral for them here. On the day of the funeral, a real parade set off from our house, like in the movie ‘Maratonci’. But before they got to the cemetery, they were ‘ambushed’ by the police. After all of that, Pera the Cop told my grandmother ‘Comrade Zlata, an entire police database was filled from your house”.
Now that I think about it, I'm very proud that my grandfather was such a generous person. And, on the other hand, who knows what our lives would look like without all those trials that my family went through.
Have you considered turning all that drama into a theater play?
There is a psychological barrier. It's just too personal. And I can't claim that I could watch it, no matter how well it is played. I believe it's because it was all part of my life where I was a silent observer.
In the end you had to renovate your home on your own dime?
Yes, we took out a loan. When the renovations began, we struggled with the workers. The luck in the misfortune is that at that time Radivoje Lola Djukic, director of Television Belgrade, who was a friend and colleague of my mother, was a frequent guest.
Once, Mr. Lola came with his wife Vesna to see how far the works had progressed. As soon as they saw him, the workers recognized him and began to haggle with him. For the horns placed on the roof, they required a roasted lamb or pig.
Lola agreed, and then added: "But, if you don't finish these good people's house and roof immediately, there will be no roast, no horns, and no you." (laughs) Generally, the Djukic family were wonderful friends.
I assume the construction was finished immediately?
Oh, no. The renovations took a long time, like Skadar on Bojana. Literally not one inch of the house was finished. Once, after returning from V Belgrade high-school, which I attended, I found Lola and his wife washing the dark tiles in our bathroom. When I brought this to my mother's attention, Lola intervened, saying that at least one part of the house must be livable, because otherwise we will all go crazy. It was Lola who brought us the towel holders in the bathroom that day, installed them and finally washed the tiles. So how can I not love that house and the Djukic family?
Therefore, if there’s something I want for this New Year, it is for people to become good, to listen and respect each other. It is not necessary for them to give away half the house, but at least they should offer to wash the windows. (laughs) In essence, it takes very little to make someone's life better.
Your house still withstands the test of time.
That's right. As some builders recently told me, it is because it was built with the old brick method. In translation, each brick is stacked crosswise. It also endured the bombing in 1999, although I personally did not believe that it would happen. What's more, the basement was the main hiding place. Literally everyone from the street who had nowhere to go rushed to our place.
It was a terrible time, but I remember only good things. Such is the human being. For example, one woman, whom we only knew in passing, used to bake some cakes in our kitchen in those days. The moment she finished one, she would take it down to the children in the basement. When she ran to her house to get something, I was amazed at how well she does in our kitchen. To that, my mother told me: "Everyone "heals" in their own way. You, for example, are vacuuming the same carpet for the fourth time." (laughter)
That basement was truly everyone's refuge. We lived in our house with both nice and ugly moments, but it remained a gathering place for all our friends.
Your garden was also famous for its parties.
True, I'm known for loving to throw parties in our little garden, which is really tiny. However, that did not prevent me from hosting sixty people there. On one occasion, Goran Paskaljevic asked me if he could take a friend with him. He brought Mustafa Nadarevic who, entering the courtyard, said: "This courtyard is so beautiful!" (laughter)
The second time, Dejan Dukovski came by, whom I consider to be one of our best playwrights. He was a real hit at the party, especially when the daughter and her classmates came, who were just preparing the "Powder Barrel" for the exam.
I like to bring people together to socialize and help each other. Our house has always been such a meeting place, where people can come to share painful and happy times.
Do you think your heirs will continue your legacy?
I believe they will. I have two daughters, Tamara and Anja. Tamara is 30 years old and an actress, while Anja is 21 years old and studies costume design. When they realized that they have a home where everyone is welcome, they began to gravitate towards it, but also towards this city. Namely, they also had the opportunity to travel around the world, but, like me, their hearts start to beat fast only when, upon returning, they cross the bridge and return home.
So, the love for Belgrade is somehow inherited. I love people who come to Belgrade, but only if they love it. Simply, if the city accepts you and embraces you, you have to embrace it too.
You grew up in a unique environment. Was your TV career a natural outcome of that?
God forbid. I didn't want to be in this business at all. I imagined myself as a person sitting at a table in the garden and writing a play on an old typewriter and yellow paper, and in the breaks planting tulips and watching them grow.
I got into journalism by force of opportunity - by skipping class. To be honest, I was really bored in class. I preferred to spend my time watching the current theater play or movie.
My homeroom teacher used to say that attending classes is our contribution to socialist self-management. As soon as my mom heard that, she immediately gave me a free pass to skip them. (laughter)
However, I missed so much that it was touch and go. I missed school the day they were going to lower my grade in behavior. My best friend, who was my bridesmaid, came to the rescue, and she signed me up for the Palilula Cultural Olympiad in the leadership department. If I hadn't shown up for that, my grade would definitely have been lowered. Honestly, I didn't even know what was waiting for me there. I just went to somehow justify the classes I skipped.
What was the outcome of the competition?
I won! (laughter) The jury included the Serbian poet and journalist, Radoman Kanjevac, today the editor of Radio Belgrade 2, and then the editor of the very free-thinking student radio - Indeks 202. He then approached me and said: "Listen kid, the guy who worked on "5 minuta za usmerenjake" is leaving us soon, do you want to come and work in his place? You will get a fee." Hearing that, I made a counter-offer. It read: "Anything is possible if you give me an excuse to skip school." And that's how I unexpectedly got a job in radio.
I have literally never planned anything in my life. Life has always carried me. If it puts me on something I don't like, I just opt out of that flow.
So you started working all the way back in high-school?
Yes, I started working in the 3rd grade of high school, hosting the show "5 minuta za usmerenjake". I earned money and went to school when I had time off work. After they offered me to work the whole Wednesday, I realized that I speak the "Belgrade" language, i.e. very openly. Therefore, I looked for the best proofreader on the radio. I learned to speak "radio" from Draga Jonas. And I continued the 3rd and 4th grade of high school by working and attending school at the same time.
You continued working on the radio after high-school?
That's right. Index's radio theater was in full swing, together with Jugoslav Cosic, Radoman Kanjevec, Pero Lazic, Voj Zanetic, who is my high school friend. When I started to say goodbye to them, telling them that I was going to enroll in the Academy, they started to talk me out of it. Although they only accepted six people, I was convinced to enter.
Of course, my mother demanded that I enroll in a college, so just in case, I enrolled in sociology at the Faculty of Philosophy. In the meantime, I applied to the Academy, where I was accepted. After that, I went straight to Index Radio to inform them that I am no longer a journalist.
But you returned to journalism in the end?
In the first year of studies, before the start of FEST, Bojan Selimovic, the father of the actress Hana Selimovic, appeared, looking for someone to write a newsletter for the festival, offering a fee and free tickets. And my whole class volunteered. However, it turned out that there was also television work around Festovision. It was private television, which later grew into the Third Channel. However, half of the class didn't like it, so they gave up.
The following year, they offered us to do the same job, but out of all my colleagues from the faculty, I was the only one who agreed. Then came our most wonderful film critic, Nebojsa Djukelic, who brought his team from RTS's cultural program. He offered me to stay, which I eagerly accepted. Then Vojislav Voki Kostic joined us, as artistic director of FEST.
Since I did well in the live program, they put me in the studio. While the first two channels of RTS had a teleprompter, I had to memorize the program for three whole hours.
And what was that like?
It was all over the place. Once, Djukelic just announced a guest to me and that was all. I was left to my own devices, and the guest was none other than my favorite director, the famous Milos Forman. When he entered, he sat down and said with a smile, "Hi!" I kept calm and knew exactly what to ask him because I was familiar with all his work.
That was also the moment when I thought that journalism might not be such a bad profession. But, in the end, growing up surrounded by Mia, Ckalja, uncle Lola and all the other wonderful people had no influence on what I would do.
When I was invited to give a lecture to the students at the 5th Belgrade High School as an accomplished person, where the teachers were also gathered, they were dumbfounded by my conclusion. I said that running away from school wasn't so bad. Particularly shocked was the principal, known for his strictness, who almost threw me out of the classroom. (laughter)
You also did a lot of writing during your studies. What’s the situation on that front now?
Non-existant. I don’t have time for anything because of work. The premiere episode must be broadcast on Saturday at 2 p.m. I don't have the luxury of not going to work. If I don't appear in the edit, there is nothing to air in that time slot. From the point of view of theater people, it's like having one premiere a week. On the surface, it seems "unbearably easy", but the reality is quite different.
Passers-by are surprised when they see me on the street, because, for example, in yesterday's episode I was in Paris. Yes, I was in Paris, but six days ago, and then I spent four days in editing. And, of course, I didn't see any of Paris because the focus was on the show, to make it as good as possible.
I believe that I will return to writing when I put an end to my television career, but I am nowhere near that decision. What today's youth would say, it still "stokes" me, and I still look forward to every recording. Once I dread the thought of having to shoot, that will be the end of me.
You won’t miss your TV career?
I never feared for my existence. I'm good at knitting, so I believe that I would start working for Sirogojno as soon as possible. (laughs) By the way, when I started knitting, my grandmother thought it was a prediction. Namely, as a kid, while I was playing and pretending to be a presenter, instead of a microphone, I used knitting needles that resembled a microphone. (laughter)
But, yes, I was never afraid of pursuing another career instead of television. I would do knitting or something else that would fulfill me at that moment.
The important thing is to do what you love, right?
Right on. The most frightening information I have read is that 87% of people in the world do not like their jobs. Imagine! Well, it's a real prison. You actually hate a third of your life, which is horrible. I don't have that problem. Each guest is a story for himself.
You mentioned that you’ve traveled all over the world. Would you highlight any country in particular?
Yes, India. I learned a lot there. I went with a cameraman to film Goran Paskaljevic. By the time we landed at the Mumbai airport, it was dawn. On the side, a spacious white house next to the highway awaited us. It turned out that they were homeless people sleeping on the side of the highway. It was a real shock.
However, when you spend two weeks there, you have a completely different picture. We realized that the view of life is completely different. We in a materialistic society are constantly protesting. If we wake up as tenants, we long for our own studio apartment. If we wake up in a studio apartment, we long for a two-room apartment. If we wake up in a two-room apartment, then we long for a house in Dedinje. And so every morning we wake up wanting something more, while those Indian homeless people wake up cheerful and happy just because they woke up that morning. If we could work to make it darker every morning, where would we end up?
Is there a shoot you especially remember?
Each one is special. Let's say, when we were filming Zeljko Samardzic in Kotor, an unprecedented storm awaited us. A red weather alert was in effect. The flight was so turbulent that one woman started screaming at the top of her lungs.
When we landed, a taxi took us to the Old Town. It was raining, but not heavily. During the next two hours we spent at the hotel, an incredible amount of rain fell. This amount of precipitation had not been seen since 1927. To make matters worse, the sea overflowed.
And then Zeljko calls me and says that he is trapped in the car. The only place we could meet was the "island" near the market, the only place that was not under water, and it was up to us to get there. After leaving the hotel, pontoons connected to the height of a bar table awaited us. That's how, with the assistance of the rescue service, we found the "island".
When we left the Old Town, I barely spotted Zeljko's car. The water was up to their window panes. Still, somehow I swam to him. Then the question arose where we would do the filming. Zeljko suggested that we go to his house, noting that his wife is there, who does not give interviews. Upon arrival at Samardzic's home, she welcomed us as befits, and then she said she was going to change her clothes in order to join the interview.
It all ended well after all.
Yes, and that's why you shouldn't complain about the circumstances, but turn them to your advantage. True, we didn't get Zeljko Samardzic in a striped shirt on a boat sailing into the sunset, but we did get a never-before-told warm family story.
I sent all my friends an edited version of the introduction, where the sensors on Zeljko's car go crazy and beep, and he makes his way through the apocalypse like a Nautilus. Literally everyone said the same thing: "Wow, this weather disaster looks great!"
So everything can turn out right if you put in the effort.
What are your plans moving forward?
There are still many guests for the show and plenty of wonderful stories waiting to be told. Soon there will be an episode with Nenad Radujevic on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Click fashion agency and 50 Fashion Weeks, which is a huge success.
By the way, there was an incredible crowd during the filming, because a fashion show dedicated to Jovanka Broz was taking place. Although we spent the filming day at an exhibition in Silos, walking around Zemun and enjoying the glamor that follows a fashion show, the highlight for me was being welcomed by Nenad's sister and mother. His mother waited for me with the words: "Oh, Tanya, I watch every one of your episodes. I made some drinks, because I see that everyone welcomes you warmly!" (laughter)
What did I want to say with this? That we are still welcome and that the guests themselves create what that one day in their life looks like that we spend filming. I love the feeling of hospitality that greets us every time, and the feeling of trust that we won't abuse what they say.
So, when benevolence and good upbringing return, both in journalism and in interpersonal relations, our lives will be far more beautiful and pleasant. I sincerely hope that next year will be in that tone.