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.”
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.
I tell him 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.
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.
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.
We 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.
He is standing waste-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.
Doug is a fish biologist. He studies the impact on fish of aquatic habitat disruption. He loves to go fishing with his buddies. So when I bring a large Arctic char for the meal at Dee’s place I assume that Doug will know the secret to cooking it, and that he will also enjoy eating it. It turns out Doug actually doesn’t like to eat fish and never cooks it. He enjoys the sport of fishing but doesn’t care to eat what he catches. So I struggle through the process of roasting the char and then watch Doug poke at his dinner with distaste.
This is the first time I have invited Joyce to have dinner at my place. I have made a Scotch broth and she seems to be enjoying it until she pauses and asks what the meat is. I tell her it is lamb. She looks like she is going to retch and says “I don’t eat lamb.”
We plan to meet Nat for dinner at a little seafood restaurant next to Dolac Market. I get a text from Nat saying “Alas, I’ve done my usual Saturday exercise of getting drunk before the sun goes down.”
The cab driver is taking me to Pearson airport. When he hears I am going to Croatia he looks back over his shoulder and barks at me. “Are you crazy? People are desperate to get out of there. They can’t leave! And you’re going there? What are you thinking?”
I am repulsed by the images of torture, mutilation, death, every form of horror. I return the book to its place on the shelf feeling tremors of guilty attraction, hoping I will not be drawn back to that terrible mistress but knowing I probably will.
Bounthan looks pleadingly into my eyes and asks me to help his people. I assume he is asking for a donation and I start reaching for my wallet before realizing that he is asking for much more than money.
Bounthan is back in Laos, imprisoned for “disseminating propaganda against the government with the intention of undermining the state.”