Sunday, May 18, 2014

Bosnia, my heart.

 By Anči

A lot of people don't know this (because they are neither my therapist or the unlucky few people I relentlessly badger with my dreamscape) but I dream about Bosnia all the time.

I fell in love with the country when I visited for the first time in 2008, and then a year later when I went back,  I fell in love with a boy-- and  then I ran away from the boy, because I was afraid he was too young for me. (he was about to turn 18... and since I was approaching 22,  I felt weirdly responsible and guilty for my all-encompassing emotions and um, lust. Plus, I wasn't sure if sleeping with him was strictly legal--and well, I wouldn't be a feminist if age of consent didn't heavily factor into all of my decisions. So long story short,  I cut and run before doing something that might get me arrested, or simply side-eyed from the town elders. Ever been side-eyed by a mole-ridden Balkan ancient? That shit is scary.)

Anyway it's in large part because of that boy, and what I left behind, that Bosnia for me  represents an epic chapter of loss in my life. I also suspect that much of this heartache is further bolstered by the legacy of tragedy and frankly, land mines which permeate the area. Which yes, makes me feel like a total fucking tourist whenever  I conflate this in any way with my own predictable heartbreak. But here I am.. owning that my story remains cheaply embedded in an unfounded marriage of unrelated afflictions...  and ask you to cut me some slack once you realize that its a weight I still carry around with me at night.

For me, Bosnia represents senseless loss-- (on a historical, and personal level.) And maybe if I write it down, this familiar, entitled, regret I've successfully banished into subconsciousness, will abate into something less problematic and more well, honest.

So since we're being honest, I suppose that referring to myself as a tourist, is not entirely accurate-- given that I am also Croatian, and that we're hardly regarded as out-of-towners. It's not just because we all used to be one nation, and that we speak the same language. (although my Dalmatian accent was definitely super hilarious to all my Bosnian buddies.) It's more to do with a common survivalist spirit.. which ultimately transcends whatever the politics of the whole thing are. And because Americans are prone to oversimplifying things, and (worst of all) ascribing inspirational sappy endings to these types of anecdotes, I won't dwell too much on that bit.  I mean, did I experience Croatophobic backlash over there? Only in the city ridiculously known as the "muti-ethnic" haven, Brcko. (you know there's some serious compensating going on, when a city spends all its resources pushing the multi-ethnic angle. Give it a rest, won't ya?)

I do however want to make it absolutely clear that the Muslim city of Gracanica only ever regarded my Croatian self with the most absolute, loving warmth. (not that I ever expected any less.) It was in this city, that I fell head over-heels with an on-the-cusp of 18 waaay-ripped bro-- with like, the arms of a centaur wrestler. (I love me some strong arms..) and it was there, that through some previously-untapped reservoir of will-power, (which continues to elude me around lesser temptations like chocolate,)  I commanded myself to keep away from him. It was also in Gracanica that I met Zina, the strongest, bravest woman I have ever known. (I spent a month or so living with her, after a shit-storm in Brcko virtually forced me out. We won't go there though.)
What can I say about Zina that would do this badass mama of two justice? For starters, Zina survived the war by making and selling caramels to her sweet-starved neighbors, and by growing vegetables in her garden. She spent most of those days in hiding from the vicious shelling that besieged her neighborhood, while her husband fought in the army.  And when in the midst of the aggression,  a Serb mother and her two children appeared at her door begging for refuge, Zina gave it to them.  [though understandably she refused subsequent entry to their father-- who followed a day later,  dressed in the uniform of her oppressors. "Women and children only" she maintained unflinchingly to the armed man standing in her doorway. He didn't hurt her though-- as she was currently sheltering his wife and kids.]
As though that weren't enough, Zina works with mentally ill orphans, and homeless people, at an organization where I got to spend a month volunteering.. And as per usual this grueling adventure came on the heels of my paralyzing decision to keep away from the boy I wanted...making for the most viscerally shattering four weeks of my life...

See kids, the thing about working with orphans, is that it has very little of the Angelina Jolie glamor many people have come to expect of the "genre." It doesn't make you a "better" person.  Like, I didn't become better when a 13 year old parent-less child named Dzevad, broke down and called me "kurvo!" (whore!) because he was frustrated and embarrassed at not being able to read. "I know you know this letter," I remember insisting to the yellow hair boy who had now thrown himself into  my lap.
"It's a D!" he shrieked wildly.
"It's not a D!"
"It's a B then!"
"Dzevad, it's the first letter of your name!"
"I don't know!"
"I don't know that one!"
"You knew it yesterday?"
"Stop it! Or i'll stab myself with this pencil! I swear I will!"

The funny thing was, that a news crew came later that day to film our lessons for some European TV station--  (which was apparently important enough to compel one of the higher-ups from the center to come down and threaten all the children into behaving.) And by the time the cameras arrived, I was full-on irritated with the fakery.  I guess I just felt like the work we were doing was deserving of attention, without all the sanitizing fanfare.  I also felt a little bit like a Kardashian, practicing my teacher-voice in between takes-- which let me tell you, is a particularly unforgiveable brand of humiliation to visit on this self-respecting young woman. (not cool guys!)
I mean, all I know is I spent the entire segment alternating between demonstrations of overly-directed gesturing (aimed towards the cameras, and obediently received by my mercifully cooperative kids)  and offering up giddy praise at the squiggly lines the children had written down for me to "grade" in the full view of this news team... all for the benefit of some phantom European audience, who literally didn't give two shits about Dzevad or anyone else.

What the cameras didn't catch was Sladjan the 13 year old Serb boy jealously demanding attention from me every time I dealt with one of Dzevad's tantrums. (And vice versa) They never caught the few genuinely touching moments when our entire classroom (even restless Dzevad) listened in wide-eyed appreciation, as Sladjan performed Serbian folk songs for us-- in a cracked falsetto, which would eventually dissolve into hysterical sobbing.
"I miss my mother," he'd weep. The first time this happened the other teacher I worked with took me aside and said "He's lying. He's never met his mother."

I wanted to tell this woman that it didn't mean that he was lying. But I shrugged instead and mumbled "yes, kids exaggerate."
 From across the room I felt Sladjan shoot me a look, but when I guiltily rushed to return it, he had moved on to something else.
"I'll be more patient with them from now on," I decided.

I came back to town that day, and started thinking about my crush-- who i'd temporarily forgotten in the midst of all the volunteering drama. And as I made my way through the town center, I became increasingly aware of how much I wanted to call him, and say "fuck it," lets spend the rest of the month together...I mean shit, why not?
What if we got like, a room or something? What if I apologized to him, and explained i'd been keeping my distance out of confusion and fear... and what if we spent my last four weeks here wrapped up in each other? I mean, people have flings rooted in a hell of a lot less chemistry right?
By the time I decided to call him, I had made it back to Zina's home and I suddenly felt ashamed of myself, as I caught her friendly silhouette in the doorway.
"How was your day?" she asked, as I barged into the hallway.
"Well, nobody peed themselves this time," I muttered in response. She laughed and said "You need to eat something."
"Later," I promised.

I went upstairs, and opened the window in my room-- the beginnings of September had gently begun to envelop the view before me. I inhaled the evening air, resenting the light fog which had settled into the surrounding greenery.  Where did the summer go?  Instinctively I reached for my journal, opening it up to June 18th--  "I saw him for the first time today!"
I skipped ahead a couple pages, landing in early July, where i'd eagerly scribbled "He kissed me." Then I flipped through several months worth of musings "what does it mean if you haven't had any sex, but you haven't gotten your period in two months? ASK DOCTOR." (spoiler alert: I never asked a doctor)  past all the blank pages where I had childishly written his name down, past my illegible recounts of police intimidation (oh yes, I spent plenty of time shuttled in between police stations-- did I mention my reasons for leaving Brcko included a metaphoric shit storm?) and past the corner where i'd weakly penned "Food poisoning in Tuzla. Threw up five times. I want mama."

Years later I am suddenly aware of a number of things: First of all, that I was fucking brave. I traveled across this unknown country all by myself-- on rickety-ass buses (which occasionally got pulled over during routine inspections for  land mines,) I was harassed by police-- all of whom I calmly confronted in fluent Bosnian-- and I worked with special needs orphans in the shoddiest of conditions with very little training and preparation. Frankly, this makes me kinda badass..ya know, barring the pathetic nature of my infatuation with a teenager. (which, did I mention was thoroughly mutual?)  but I'm even starting to re-evaluate that embarrassment thanks to some previously-unknown generosity.. towards myself.
Because here was the kicker-- it wasn't only this boy's age that stood in my way. (although it made for a damn self-righteous excuse, at the time) It was that for the first time, somebody I was head over heels for, was also head over heels for me. See in the past all of my intense crushes had been strictly one-sided, and while I had always hoped this dynamic would shift, I freaked out when it finally did for me. Because based on my experiences-- as the weird foreign girl with a stutter, growing up in suburban Ohio-- life wasn't supposed to play out like this! I NEVER got the golden guy, the popular guy-- and suddenly (whether because of my newcomer status, or the four years I had on him) I was wanted-- badly. And I didn't know how to reconcile that with two decades worth of unchallenged notions about my romantic value. (which for most of life had remained at a cruel, but comfortable ZERO.)

So maybe if I write it down I will forgive myself for coldly ditching someone I not only felt incredible warmth and love toward, but who was a good, solid, guy, with yummy shoulder muscles.)
It's been haunting me for years, and now I'm ready to look back at myself... and say "Shit girl, you fell for someone, and couldn't handle it. It happens!"

Yeah but I wish I would have happened with somebody else-- I wish I had let myself enjoy what could have been a beautiful few months... (in between barfing on buses, and stubbornly defending my heritage to semi-sadistic police officers named Semir.)
Instead I boarded a bus to Sarajevo, and left without saying goodbye.. even after waiting an entire year between visits to see this guy, and even after the many tender moments we'd shared together in the park... which I think i'll keep locked in my journal.
I just couldn't bring myself to address any of it-- how could I? How could I tell him "I am super super into you, but I am also super hung up with insecurities... but like can we talk about that after we make out? Cause your arms are doing it for me." (the funny thing is, that if that sexy mess had happened right now--like, starring me, at this age? That would totally have been what I would have said to him. If only I had discovered the  disarming effect that my awkward admissions have on (some) people..  I would have had a much easier time relating, ya know?
(moral of the story kids: stop pretending to be what you aren't, and freaking embrace who you are-- cause that shit is hot on its own!)
 Now several months shy of 27, floods have swallowed the entire region-- in an near cinematic call back to the devastation of the 90s. And right now most of Bosnia is underwater, (including Brcko the "multi-ethnic haven" which currently remains submerged  in the failings of its own shoddy infrastructure.. oh and water. Lots of water. ) Mercifully, my Gracanica has avoided such a dramatic fate... with the water levels finally receding to a semi-manageable level. And with the electricity flickering back, it seems like life there is ready to go on.
But for me, Gracanica remains a kind of purgatory-- that I'm cursed to wander in the night time in search of my lost friend.. In search of a moment in time, when I was both exceptionally brave, and exceptionally lacking in courage.

 But now, the waters have both drowned out and revealed the fragmented fragility of  history-- along with the many houses and villages, and lifetimes it perilously sustained. And with the ensuing upheaval, the floods have perhaps endowed a collective humanity, and forgiveness to the struggling region. And yeah, it makes me want to say something super American and lame like,  "In the tragedy, and in the devastation, perhaps there is a renewal to be found--  a renewal to engulf the pettiness, and the bitterness, and the poverty." But maybe that's not the case. Maybe it's pure shit all around, with nary an upside to parse out. Maybe what Bosnia represents for me is really fucking inconsequential in the light of this emergency, even as it continues to weigh heavily on me-- as a big fucking deal, and maybe I need to simply acknowledge it, before letting it go. (Also fuck Frozen for ruining that phrase!)

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