Sofija Stefanovic is a Serbian Australian writer currently residing in Manhattan with her son, boyfriend, and two dogs, Sonia and Natasha—who are also from Australia. In 2018, her memoir about being an immigrant during the Yugoslavian Wars, Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, was published by Atria Books. In addition to writing her second book, Sofija hosts This Alien Nation, a monthly night of storytelling celebrating immigration hosted at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, and tells stories with The Moth, where she is a StorySLAM winner.
Did you have dogs while you were growing up?
We didn’t, actually. My mom grew up with dogs and I loved dogs as a kid, but we didn’t have one because we kept moving around. I was born in what was then called Yugoslavia, and then my family immigrated to Australia, and then we went back to Yugoslavia and then back to Australia. And the idea was that we would get a dog when we finally settled down somewhere. For me, dogs were really associated with home. I had this encyclopedia of dogs that I was obsessed with when I was eight.
I used to read it all the time, so I knew everything about different breeds of dogs. When we were in Serbia when I was nine, my dad and I used to go these protests against the war that was beginning. And at the protest, there was this friend of my dad’s who had an Irish Setter called Leo. I wanted to go to these protests that I didn’t particularly understand just so I could walk this dog and pretend that it was my dog. I thought that the dogs appreciated me more than other people—that they understood that I was one of their people.
We didn’t actually get a dog until I was about 10—when we finally settled down in Melbourne and we weren’t going to go back to Yugoslavia anymore because there was definitely a war was happening. We got this little miniature Dachshund called Dante. When I was born, my mom had a Dachshund called Dante, so we got this one and she kept calling him the same name, so we kept the name.
Tell us about your two ladies right now. Why did you decide to get them and when you did, did you know that you were going to move to America?
I was about 25, and I really wanted a dog. I was in this mall wandering around not sure what I was doing with myself or my life, and there was this pet shop and there were these two weird-looking little dogs in it. And there was a sign saying that they were two for the price of one, I asked about them and the store said that they’re half-poodle, quarter-Maltese, and quarter-Shih Tzu, and the big ones didn’t quite turn out how they wanted. Like, their hair’s a bit weird and their brother was good looking and he got sold, but they’d been there for like 12 weeks and no one wanted them, so they had to get rid of them. I was like, what do you mean get rid of them? And they were like, well you know, just send them like back to where they came from.
So I thought, oh no, I have to save these little two-for-the-price-of-one dogs—and you know I like a good deal. And they were these little clown dogs that were jumping around and being crazy, from the same litter—they’re sisters. It’s proven to be a bit of a problem because they’re quite competitive with each other.
They lived with me in Australia in St. Kilda [Melbourne] by the beach for five years. And then, I got together with my boyfriend who really wanted to move to the U.S.—and one of my deal breakers was the dogs.
So he was like, “They’ll come with us, of course,” and they did and so they moved from this beautiful sunny beach city that is very dog –friendly—like you can have dogs off leash everywhere—to New York, which, even though it purports to be a dog-friendly city, I don’t think it is much because dogs are rarely allowed anywhere there’s grass.
But they love it here because they can eat bagels and things from the street and people’s vomit.
“Dogs are amazing if you’re a writer because you just sit there and don’t move around. Walking is one of the most amazing things for creativity.”
What was it like transporting them from Melbourne to New York City—that’s a very long flight!
I tried to prepare them for it by putting them in the car a lot and driving over bumps and stuff, just getting them used to being in a space where they’re getting transported.
International travel is really difficult with dogs. Luckily, Australia doesn’t have rabies, which means that there was no quarantine when they came [to America]. In Melbourne, they were put in these special carriers and then put under the hold of the plane, so they couldn’t be with me for that part of the journey.
And then we went from Melbourne to LA and then we stayed for a couple of days with my friend so that the dogs could recuperate a little bit. And then we took another flight to New York where they were on the plane with us and that was fine.
I don’t know what it was like for them when they were alone. It was pretty distressing for me because I got a service that helps with dogs, Jetpets. I thought I’d be really anxious before the flight so I wanted someone else to have them the night before, so that they would be more relaxed because I thought that I would project my fears into them.
The flight was 15 hours, but they were put in carriers four hours be-fore that. I put a little sign on their carrier saying, “Please pet me. It’s my first flight.”
They were not allowed a sedative because of the low air pressure within the hold, but this rule did not apply to me, and I was still woozy when I went to pick them up. I found them in a warehouse with other freighted goods. A man in a forklift went to get them. He drove to the end of the warehouse and got the crates down from a high shelf. One crate had a big red sign on it, and I panicked, assuming one of the dogs was dead. As the forklift came towards me, light flashing, I couldn’t hear any sounds coming from the crates.
But they were alive, and just soggy from a little pee. They didn’t even poop.
They were really happy to see me because they didn’t realize it was my fault—they just thought that I’d saved them. They didn’t realize that I was the one who had arranged this whole horrible journey. I think they forgot about it pretty quickly. In hindsight, it was pretty terrible and worse than I thought, but they weren’t traumatized in the way that I was.
When you gave birth to your son over a year ago, how did that change the family dynamics?
The dogs were babies of the family for a long time, and I was tender to their needs a lot—I felt bad if I didn’t walk them four times a day. I would think about whether they were getting enough experiences, like taking them on vacation. And then the baby came along.
They were confused by the baby at first, because he was really small when he first came home and they were like, what the hell is this? And they just got neglected to an extent—you know, they get walked a bit later than usual sometimes because the baby is asleep. They were already seniors when the baby was born, and I think they weren’t particularly willing to share with him. He likes to pet them—he’s obsessed with dogs. He’s got books about dogs and he looks at pictures of dogs all the time and they’re his heroes.
You were pregnant when you were writing your memoir. Were the dogs good writing companions?
Oh, absolutely. Dogs are amazing if you’re a writer because you just sit there and don’t move around. Walking is one of the most amazing things for creativity. If I’m stuck, I either go to the walk or go to the gym or take a hot shower. And then I get unstuck and have ideas. I think that they’ve been amazing companions and huge help to me in that way. I really value what they do for me.
What does a typical day look like for you and the dogs?
Michael, my boyfriend takes the baby and the dog all for a walk in the morning and then I get ready for the day. The baby and I do whatever weird baby stuff we do, and then we go out with the dogs for another walk and we look at other dogs on the street because the baby is really into that. Usually, I try to do some writing. I leave the baby at the Little Wing, which is a babysitting area at The Wing, the workspace that we both belong to.
And then, we get home so that we can walk the dogs. In the evening, the dogs get another walk, and in between this time, I try to do my work. I’m planning This Alien Nation, which is an event that I host at Joe’s Pub each month.
Do you think they seen you as their mom? Is that why they’re so competitive with the baby?
They definitely see me as the boss because I’ve had to assert myself because they argue with each other a lot. And so they’re sometimes needy but also respectful of me, which is pretty good.
I’ve never called myself their mom. I know a lot of people do but that’s not so much my life. I feel like we cohabit—like we are great friends and they’ve been around longer than my partner who is the dad of my baby and longer than my baby. So we know each other, we’re very, very old friends. We’ve been through a lot together.
Tell us about their two different personalities.
Natasha is the one who’s a little bit smarter and she’s a little bit too emotionally intense. A friend of mine babysat them when we went away, and she was like, I prefer Sonia because you know what you’re going to get with her. If Natasha has an argument with Sonia or did something bad and you tell her off for it, she’ll remember it. A day later, she’ll be sitting in the cupboard, brooding. Sonia is just very happy anywhere.
But I also think Natasha has more of a connection with the baby and is more complex. Sonia will sometimes snap at the baby or if she has poo dangling from her butt and you try and remove it, she’ll freak out and not understand that you’re trying to help her.
I love that you know their personalities so well and intimately. Since your life now is so different from when you first got them, do you feel like the two of you grew up together?
Definitely. We’ve moved from one hemisphere to another together—that’s a pretty big thing to do and our relationship has evolved. It’s kind of like a romantic relationship. Like at the beginning, it’s just us. And now there’s all these other responsibilities and things that we’re thinking about. They are so important to me, and it will be very devastating when something happens to one of them.
What do you feed them?
They love Bambas and they steal the baby’s Bambas—they actually jump up and take it out of his hand and mouth. They really like nuts as treats, though they don’t have many teeth left. They eat Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Dental Dry Dog Food and Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Hepatic Formula Canned Dog Food. It’s prescription.
You’ve moved across so many continents. Does New York City feel like home now, with the baby and dogs and your career here?
I’m done with looking for home. I think I spent such a long time and so much of my childhood and teenagehood and young adulthood trying to work out who I was and where I belonged and where my home was. I was born in Yugoslavia and that place doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no such thing as Yugoslavia. I’ve just come to realize that I’m stretched across continents in some ways. Part of my family, like my mother and sister, are in Australia. My baby and partner and dogs are here. Home is just something that exists in my mind rather than geographically—and that makes me feel a little bit better about everything. My home is a place that I carry inside me.
Photography by Tayler Smith