Rachel S. Heslin
Thoughts, insights, and mindless blather

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wistful, wishing for a better world

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This is another one of those "stuff I came across that I wrote before" entries. I wrote the following in May of 1995, when Rade (my first husband) and I went back to Yugoslavia to visit his family (and, incidentally, tell them that we were getting divorced. They responded to the news by giving me more hand-embroidered tablecloths. I don't get it -- it's a cultural thing.)

The photo is of my former father-in-law (no, the guy with him isn't Rade but a friend.)

Anyway, here goes:

This past May, my husband and I went back to what is left of Yugoslavia to visit his family. I'd only been to Serbia once before, when we were married in the fall of '93. I know that part of him will always belong there. It's hard to explain just how different is their whole concept of being. Everything is earthy and strong and passionate. The language isn't soft and sensual like Russian, but it fills the mouth with rolling rrrs and sharp palatizations, a language meant for arguing over cigarettes and rakija.

Serbs do not speak with their hands, but with their entire bodies, from the broadly outswept arm to the pointed insolence of lowered lids and a barely jerked chin. Rade, my husband, can not be contained in his chair when he is telling a story, shifting around, hooking a knee over the arm, leaning forward intently, pushing himself back in disgust, moving other furniture around if necessary to dramatize his story. His father is the same way. He is one of those people whom you do not realize is short until you are standing next to him, for his energy extends far beyond his physical body. He slaps himself sharply on his chest, tilts his head like a huge, mustachioed bird, plucks at his shirt and leans forward, hanging suspended, until his hand claps on your arm, felled by the rich, full laughter that collapses his body in release before knocking his head back in illustration of Newton's third law of dynamics.

The food is rich, full of salt and oil and peppers that sting your nose. We had homemade wine that, when I first took a sip, went down like water, but when I held a few drops in my mouth burned my throat. Even the beer is 11% alcohol. The way they eat is well suited to the food: forks held tines curved down, spearing (tomatoes, sliced peppers, pieces of raw, smoked meat) often straight from the serving dish. Bread is torn with the teeth, not the hands. The cheeses are strong and full of flavor, and even unripe fruits and vegetables beat the stuffing our of anything found here in California's supermarkets. Sweets are practically unbearable: sugared crushed nut paste with chocolate; real, thick whipped cream and nutes between sugar wafers; fruits jellied to the point of being candy eaten straight, forcing your mouth to beg for water. As if to make up for it, they drink Turkish coffee which is dark and bitter and leaves a ghastly sludge at the bottom of your cup.

Everything is based on relationships. Who is your family? Who are your friends? Your mother was a Bogdanović? I knew a Bogdanović from Čačak -- are they related? Cousins? Come in, have some coffee, would you like some brandy? How are things with your mother?

The working day is from seven to three, which leaves plenty of time for eating and drinking and socializing and all of the important things in civilization.

I don't know enough about Greeks or Italians to compare them to Serbs. Serbs' passionate participation in Life has its foundation in a deep fatalism at least partially brought on by hundreds of years of occupation and oppression. Their most powerful cultural symbol is Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, where 600 years ago Czar Lazar was defeated by the Turks. Legend has it that Lazar was visited by the Prophet Elijah who offered him a choice between a kingdom on earth or a kingdom in heaven. Lazar chose heaven, and his entire army was wiped out. My husband asked if I knew of any other culture that celebrated losing a battle.

This fatalism often shows itself as a complete abdication of responsibility. Plan ahead? Why bother? It is never my fault; someone or something made me do it -- and blame is far more important than solution. I find it interesting that Serbocroation (and yes, Serbian and Croatian are merely two dialects of the same language, politics notwithstanding) uses the same word for "happiness" and "luck" and can not differentiate between the two.

Three days after we arrived, NATA jets bombed the rebel Bosnian Serb headquarters of Pale. The government-influenced newspaper in Serbia ran an article on the taking of UN hostages, devoting two-thirds of the "story" to whining that "everybody else did it," citing among other incidents Muslim rebels who last year had detained members of the Red Cross and Médecins sans frontiéres, and why is the world always picking on the Serbs?

Sadly, there is a point to that question -- but not necessarily the point being touted by the various governments of both east and west with their pointing fingers and meaningless rhetoric. The real point is that the war in the Balkans is not among Serbs and Croats and Muslims, but between nationalist thugs of any persuasion and normal, regular people who want to live normal, civilized lives. Vukovar, a Croatian city bordering Serbia that was one of the first casualties of the war, was more or less evenly inhabited by both Serbs and Croats. They his in the cellars together during the shelling and helped each other survive.

Unfortunately, the war has drawn on so long that the ethnic divisions to trumpeted in the media are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more deaths provide fuel for greater retaliation and the rising conviction that one must choose a side. If you want to start assigning blame, then yes, the majority of murders and rapes and vicious atrocities have been committed by ethnic Serbs -- but that is very different from saying that the majority of Serbs have committed atrocities.

I wish I had seen the country before the war. Rade tells me stories of hitchhiking from Belgrade to Trieste, and of summers spent at the seacoast at Split and Dubrovnik. One night, we were looking through his photos from college. We came to a page which didn't look any different from those that had preceded it: college kids laughing, goofing off, hanging out. He said, "This is Sarajevo, one year before they started shelling. Raša," he pointed at our friend, "and I had been invited to play guitar for three nights at some sort of national student gathering." He pointed to a photo in the bottom left hand corner. "These two guys are Muslim, these two are Croat, and this blond girl is a Serb." He paused. "It really didn't seem to matter at the time."

He looked at the pictures a while longer, then turned the page.


The illusion that we are separate from one another is an optical delusion of our consciousness.
— Albert Einstein

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