„Aleksandrinke“ (Alexandrines, women from Alexandria) is an expression used for Slovenian women (mostly from the coastal region and around Trieste, Gorizia, the Karst ... ), who, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, left for Egypt to work there as wet nurses, governesses, house-maids, cooks, etc., in order to maintain themselves and their families at home. After the First World War and especially under the fascist rule, poverty in Primorska was so severe that many families went bankrupt, men had no work, taxes were devastating - but the women who went to Egypt, especially Alexandria, rich and blooming at that time, easily got work. »Les Goriciennes, les Slaves, les Slovènes«, as they called them, were known as the best labour force."
The pay was more than excellent, up to four times better than in Vienna or Trieste. So women could leave for Egypt, leaving behind their parents, husbands and children. Leaving the children was, of course, the most painful part of this phenomenon. Many young mothers repeatedly left for Egypt: after every baby they gave birth to at home, they went to nurse and breast-feed someone else's child, while they still had milk. Most of them returned home, but quite a lot of them stayed there forever: they got maried, served until they died or simply vanished without a trace. And at home, husbands missed their wives, parents daughters, and most of all, children missed their mothers.
Travelling across the sea was passed from generation to generation, like an inescapable disease. In 1898 the Franciscan Asylum was founded in Alexandria to offer young girls any kind of assistance, to protect them from people trafficking and "themselves". Despite that, the intolerance toward leaving was growing stronger at home, especially from the side of church. The priests warned that the girls who were leaving for Egypt were the ones with a tendency to be independent and live easy life, that many of them were corrupted and had too much of dangerous freedom and some of them even married foreigners of the Mohammedan faith, they rejected the good Christian life and their mother tongue. And so they marked them with a seal of "sinfulness" they then had to carry all of their lives. When they returned home, envy and speculations awaited them. Their social status improved, but their children didn't recognize them and their husbands didn't trust them. Besides that, they returned from the cosmopolitan Alexandria to an undeveloped rural environment. In Egypt they were respected, they spoke foreign languages, they dressed and behaved like "ladies", but back home they had to get used to hard farm work and roughness again. A worse faith still awaited those who stayed in Egypt: when they got old, most of them had neither savings nor pension. "Live, work and save up for the family and be silent and patient!" was their life motive. But when the Egyptian money stopped coming the family forgot them too. Most of them ended in the asylum, alone and abandoned. Of course not all stories were so unhappy. Some of them truly improved their lives and the lives of their children, not only because of material wealth but also because of the open-mindedness they achieved with this experience.
For almost as long as I have been aware of myself, I have been aware of Egypt, too. And of a box of letters my grandmother wrote while she was serving as a governess in Alexandria. At first she wrote to her fiancé and after a few years to her husband and child. She travelled twice across the sea: the first time to buy some land and get married and the second time to make sure her daughter would never go hungry. She took care of foreign children and cried after her own, and when she returned home, she cried after Fredy and Marika, her Egyptian babies. Even after many years, my sister and I listened to stories about colourful Alexandria, date palms, Fredy's soft blond curls and the wide sea she crossed ...
The sea is a passage and letters are the only link between people: between the known and the unknown, the desires and reality, the hearth and the world. And the eternal question: »What is on the other side?« A magic circle of questions with no answer. Because there is only longing on both sides of the sea, longing for what has been, longing for what could have been. And it is like this on all the shores of the word. Always has been. Always will be…
The motives: a mother leaving her child behind, cranes - the migrating birds, mother's milk - stranger's milk ... have become this nation's symbols for longing, sacrifice, love and strength. What forces a person into this knot of courage, fear and pain? Where does the strength for such decisions come from and what does the fulfillment of dreams bring? And also: how does society react to the fact that the power (financial, spiritual, creative) is transferred from men to women? Is this the beginning of equality between the sexes, the demise of male power and supremacy? Are not these the questions we are still - or especially - asking today? In what is a modern woman different from the one in the past?
The focal point of the performance is woman's inner life, her strength; where it stems from, what it brings, what it once meant and what it means now. It aims to find what is different and what is shared - those things that in female psychology always remain the same, regardless of time and place.
This performance is dedicated to all Alexandrines, especially to my grandmother Felicita Peric - I am grateful for her courage, her wisdom and the genes I carry.
Neda R. Bric
Project by Neda R. Bric
Text: Draga Potočnjak
Letters: Felicita Peric
Cast: Neda R. Bric, Daša Doberšek, Jadranka Tomažič, Urška Bradaškja, Vesna Zornik
Dramaturgy: Barbara Skubic
Music: Mitja Vrhovnik Smrekar
Set design: Rene Rusjan, Boštjan Potokar
Video: Jasna Hribernik
Choreography: Ivan Peternelj
Digital applications: Istok Jan Simončič
Costume design: Nataša Recer, Elena Fajt
Light design: TEAM
Song: Boštjan Narat
Language consultant: Mateja Dermelj
Poster and programme designed by: Rene Rusjan