Geneva: Muséum d’histoire naturelle

Geneva My brother and I sneak quietly into the room above the garage. There is a bat hiding on a pipe just below the ceiling. We poke it with a hockey stick and then run shrieking through the house. A neighbour comes in to deal with the bat. We expect him to kill it so we are shocked when he comes walking down the stairs with the bat stretched between his two hands. The bat is released in our backyard.

I love the dead birds. I love them all the more because they are dusty with neglect.

We scour the shore for fossils and sand dollars. We must hug the cliffs that drop sharply into the sea. We realize with some panic that the tide has been coming in and that our journey back will be much more hazardous. He exchanges the sand dollars for a mounted, preserved piranha.

Aida grows up at the mouth of the Amazon where she swims with piranhas and pink dolphins.

Zagreb: Spansko Refugee Camp

Geneva There are nearly 800 people living in the Spansko Refugee Camp. About a quarter of them are children between the ages of three and seven.

My colleague and I walk the stark hallways trying to learn as much as we can by observing the people and their meager belongings while also respecting their privacy and dignity. The single image that impacts me the most is a child’s drawing taped to a wall. It features buildings and a rainbow and the words “Vukovar – heaven on earth.”

Displaying shame and pride in equal measures, one of the refugees offers me a cup of tea and a seat on the only chair in this room they call home.

I ask again and again if anyone can identify the former site of the refugee camp. No one is able to help me. It seems like an exercise in selective forgetting.

“Cinnamon, Brian said, once tasted is never forgotten, is longed for every after. He showed her the tear-shaped island where it grew, and she thought about longing for something so far away.”

Zagreb: Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Geneva After he does not show up at work for a couple of days, Robert is found dead in his apartment. Friends and family assemble for a funeral mass. When the priest is administering the Eucharist Robert’s brother Paul rises and moves toward the priest. Just before the body of Christ is placed on Paul’s lips his brother David intervenes and explains to the priest that Paul is not Catholic. The priest withdraws the wafer. Paul looks awkward and ashamed as he stumbles back to his pew.

As we enter the north transept take note of the bear carved in white marble. Keep this in mind as we move to the high altar where we see the famous golden eagle pulpit. Then in the south transept we find the idyllic stained glass with the red deer drinking by a waterfall. Now, we exit through the nave where the black pews fill the space like buffalo grazing in the prairies.

Zagreb: Sljeme, Medvednica

Geneva I tell the Mennonite man it’s not the hills that I find daunting. Every hill has another side. It’s the wind that drives against you and you know it will continue relentlessly throughout the day.

I feel guilty and self-conscious around francophones especially those who are not Canadian. There is a reasonable expectation that Canadians should be bilingual, equally comfortable with French and English. The Québecois know better. My Croatian hosts are more comfortable with French than English but I freeze whenever they speak French to me. Walking this trail on Medvenica mountain the humidity is making me sweat. I decide to venture a statement in French. Trying to say the air is heavy (“lourd”) I say instead that the air is ugly (“laid”). Jadranka returns a look that suggests she is both affronted and confused.

I have been looking forward to going out for dinner with my colleagues as I haven’t been eating much due to my discomfort with dining alone. They order a wonderful brodet as an appetizer. Although I am enjoying it a great deal I stop filling my bowl as I realize I won’t have an appetite for the main course. After the tureen has been cleared from the table I realize that we will not be having a main course. Because the conversation is in Croatian I miss the discussion about the brodet being substantial enough to constitute the meal. I go home hungry yet again.

Geneva: John Knox Center

Geneva I am lying on a simple bed in a concrete cell listening to Voice of America on my small transistor radio.

I am lying on the lower bunk in a concrete cell behind iron bars. I pretend to be asleep when two men walk in. I listen as one of the men curses me for taking his bunk.

I am lying on a simple bed in the gymnasium. The young man darts in and is frozen in disbelief when he sees me reading Jane Eyre.

Back home in Ontario the sale of beer and alcohol is tightly controled by the provincial government. It seems both futuristic and hedonistic that at the John Knox Centre I can simply walk down the hall and get a can of beer from a vending machine.

At the vending machine I meet a man from Suriname. He asks me if I know where that is. I am ashamed to say I do not.

Zagreb: Tkalciceva

Geneva I walk past an endless series of restaurants and bars with outdoor seating. Music and laughter compete for attention. There is undeniably a feeling of joy and youthful abandon yet a doorway stacked with sandbags is a reminder of the recent past and a warning of the potential threat.

It is here on Tkalciceva that I most regret being alone, feeling too self-conscious to enjoy eating or drinking on my own. I am a voyeur in the early evening hours before heading to the apartment to eat in front of the television.

My school puts on events called Friday Nighters. We get together to play sports. The boys play their sports and the girls play their sports. Then we all get together for a dance. This is the last Friday Nighter of the year and the last one before we move on to highschool. I am determined to finally ask a girl to dance. I have put it off until the very last song of the night and I have my eye on Janice Maxner. Just as the song begins and I take a few steps toward Janice, Robbie Cann steps in and asks her to dance. I stand and watch the two of them slow dance.

Zagreb: Zrinjevac Park

Geneva Tom and I decide to ride our bikes to the lake. Our plan is to sleep on the beach under the stars; however we no sooner stretch out on the beach than we hear thunder rolling in over the lake. We ride our bikes to the closest motel. While they have a room it takes almost all the money we have to stay there. Getting up the next morning we realize we have a long ride ahead of us and no resources to buy a meal. At the first village we stop in a corner store to see what we can afford. Scouring the shelves we call out to each other with affordable options. “Cookies for sixty-nine cents!” “What about a popsicle?” As we pedal laboriously down the country road we pass a cornfield. We park our bicycles on the side of the road and sample the immature corn.

Jane and I feel embraced by the white trunks of the century-old plane trees as we listen to Croatian folk songs in Zrinjevac Park.

My Aunt Mae goes down to the docks and buys lobster fresh off the boats. We all go to a park where she gets a huge pot of water boiling for a family lobster picnic. No one knows how to eat lobster like my Aunt Mae. My grandfather won’t eat lobster at all because when drowning victims are pulled from the sea they are covered with lobsters feeding on their flesh.

The art student is standing waist-deep in the lake. He notices off to his left people have formed a human chain and are walking deeper into the water. He looks to his right and sees a middle-aged man walking purposefully toward the group. He has a large belly, sunburned only on the top. There are tears in his eyes. A small body is pulled from the water.