Travel Stories

A Cup of 60$ Tea

Marinko arrives to listen to Djordje's new high end speakers that have been gifted him by a friend.  Although not a musician by trade, music is Marinko's passion, along with bird songs, the rock band he belonged to at age fifteen that has been reconstituted fifty years later, his son the rock guitarist, and his daughter the classic cellist who lives with a classic musician.  Marinko is an administrator for the Red Cross.  Or was.  He retires next week.  He says things that are way beyond my comprehension about music, instrument pitch, tone, and timbre, and how these qualities in each instrument interact and are impacted by speakers.  He knows Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, and Leonard Cohen songs by heart.  He loves Mahler.  Loves Mahler.  Also his wife he loves.  Also tea.  And, as you may recall, Djordje is tea master.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzczy5-2kGs&t=677s

So after listening to Djordje's speakers, and having a classic Saturday morning breakfast/brunch of fresh cucumber, carrots, cheese, bread, and yogurt purchased at the local farmer's market early that AM we repair to the meditation room for tea.  Not just any tea, of course, but 52 year old (52 year old!) Oolong tea from the east facing side of the eastern coastal mountains of Taiwan, tea that costs 20$/gram … or about 60$/cup ... and ought be made only with "soft" water, such as that we collected yesterday from a mountain spring. Even Thich Nhat Hanh has had tea prepared by Djordje.  Indeed, Djordje drinks from the very cup he says Thich Nhat Hanh drank from, says he did not accept that he was indeed a tea master until the day he served Thich Nhat Hanh tea.  These are not just any cups of tea.

Moreover, it is the perfect setting, this drinking tea, to have conversations about mind, monkey mind, unknown mind, ego, superego, the unconscious, reality which doesn't exist, unreality (which apparently does exist), emptiness, form, and other illusions. 

And while not appropriate to a tea drinking ceremony if you've had enough of the "there is no reality" thread you can always turn your attention over a beer or coffee to politics, something generally viewed by Djordje and his cohort as both repulsive and an inevitable element of the human condition that leads inevitably, and inescapable, to some all-encompassing disaster, an upcoming fall off the cliff driven by crazy men not afraid to kill and the inescapable capitalist mind that contaminates us all as we sit in our capitalist created narrow mental prisons.  I'd like to leave you laughing here, dear reader, but unfortunately I cannot.  All of the land, and even the water, is being purchased by domestic and foreign capitalists, control over land and water is being consolidated in the hands of the few, there are no jobs, families are scattered and shattered and, as everywhere, the US supports all sides so that it inevitably wins, and schools and TV train us to be happy slaves.  

Thus even though life in Croatia seems good on the surface, underneath the surface there is much grief and despair, the same problems facing the majority of people in the US regarding income inequality, the 1%, and how the deck is stacked all virtually identical here. And while in the US it is conceivable (at least to some) that a grassroots coalition of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, immigrants, women, labor, the poor, the white left, the environmental activist community, etc. might unite to form a majority block that can confront the ruling class, in all lily white all Catholic Croatia where fears of reprisals are real, and memories of the horrible "Homeland" War strong and inhibiting, such an opportunity appears to be nil, and it is common to hear it said that there is no hope.  And even though the bread is spectacular, water bountiful, agricultural lands vast and fertile, the sense of community real, and some of their dogs the very most mindful and obedient dogs I've ever encountered, the sense of being trapped without options or the possibility of escape is part of the atmosphere.

So let us move away from this big pile of capitalist shit and instead visit what has to be the world's biggest junk and resale shop right across the border in Bosnia.  That's two border crossings, passport date stamping going in, and two border crossings, passport please, date stamping going out.  This shop, covering two whole floors of a huge abandoned factory, makes most Salvation Army thrift shops look like the corner grocer's.  We're talking football fields lined up end to end where between the 10 to 20 yard line is just wires and old computer parts, and the 20 to 30 skis and bicycles, then furniture, knickknacks, carpets, tchotchkes, tools, tires, machine parts, old records and CDs, umbrellas, thermoses, kitchenware, clothing, shoes and boots edging across the goal line into the end zone.  Naturally we find and buy junk we like - statues, calligraphy, rocks!!  Our total bill is under 10$s. 

As we are leaving I notice a rolled up machine made oriental carpet runner that looks vaguely interesting and that I hadn't previously noticed.  We unwrap and unroll the runner to see if perhaps we might give it as a gift to someone.  And while the runner is nothing unusual, wrapped tightly inside the runner is a small absolutely gorgeous, truly old, tattered and worn hand-made Persian carpet.  I mean this rug is stunning even if it was thrown away as unsaleable.  And it is clear that the woman who wove the carpet was at the top of her craft.  The patterns are complex.  The colors are subtle.  The knotting just perfect.  Maybe 80 - 100 years old.  And what did we pay what for both rugs?  If you guessed more than 9$s you are wrong.  

A few quick other glimpses into life in Slovonian Croatia and then it is time to go.  One, the Jews, not any of whom remain except the bones of those interned in the deserted overgrown old Jewish cemetery, outside town, in the very beautiful, very separate little village that Jews were allowed to live in.  And the stores in town, still referred to by older residents of Nova Gradiska by the names of their former owners – Cohen's, Baum's, and Wechler's.

Or of the few remaining Serbian churches that were not bombed and burned to the ground, pockmarked with bullet holes and shattered roofs, with tall trees now growing inside reaching from inside the walls left standing for the sun.

Of the struggling organic farmers.  The bees they raise which are dying.  The horses they save from death.  The dogs and cats.  Sage.  Tea!  Not far from the signs warning of the land mines still in the ground.

So please, be present my friends.  Be unified.  We are all guests here and each guest is also the host.  There is no difference. Reality is in the mind of the believer who doesn't exist.  Yet we are here, blessed, and gifted, and grateful, to Timmy the dog, who has his bags packed and is ready to get on the bus with me, and to Djordje – a promise fulfilled – who packs me lunch for the road and gives me a bottle of his favorite spring water.  The poet Bob Hicok writes, "If you think of humans as rare as snowflakes, your world is constantly melting.  If you think of humans as essential to keeping dogs happy, someone will always want to buy you a beer." Sretna put. 

 Djordje looking out over Nova Gradiska

Djordje looking out over Nova Gradiska

 Djordje happily looking at his iphone (a gift of course) after we've walked around Banja Luka for an hour looking for a cup of real Turkish coffee).

Djordje happily looking at his iphone (a gift of course) after we've walked around Banja Luka for an hour looking for a cup of real Turkish coffee).

 The farmer's market in N. Gradiska

The farmer's market in N. Gradiska

 Buying dairy and eggs

Buying dairy and eggs

 Just another fabulous bakery

Just another fabulous bakery

 A Serbian Church left mostly intact in Pakrac

A Serbian Church left mostly intact in Pakrac

 Typical rural village/town view

Typical rural village/town view

 The garden at Tanja's

The garden at Tanja's

 Land mines

Land mines

 Zlatko, the bee keeper

Zlatko, the bee keeper

 Graffitti

Graffitti

 Timmy - pronounced Teee Mee.

Timmy - pronounced Teee Mee.

Nova Gradiska - a photo essay

 The Main Square in earlier Austro-Hungarian times.

The Main Square in earlier Austro-Hungarian times.

 Marija Teresija Church - late 1800s?

Marija Teresija Church - late 1800s?

 Old church current day view

Old church current day view

 Same church 1906

Same church 1906

 The Serbian Church - well where the Serbian Church was before 1992.  Yes, the planted memorial garden in front of the Communist era housing.  The steps to the church entrance remain. 

The Serbian Church - well where the Serbian Church was before 1992.  Yes, the planted memorial garden in front of the Communist era housing.  The steps to the church entrance remain. 

 The old Jewish Cemetary.  Last internment 1942

The old Jewish Cemetary.  Last internment 1942

 Old Jewish Cemetary - another view.  The Jews owned almost all the stores in town before WWII, although they could not live in town.  Some people still refer to the Albanian owned cafe as Wechlers.

Old Jewish Cemetary - another view.  The Jews owned almost all the stores in town before WWII, although they could not live in town.  Some people still refer to the Albanian owned cafe as Wechlers.

 Another view of N.Gradiska church from in town

Another view of N.Gradiska church from in town

The Clay Pot

This clay pot is either a lovely reproduction or a valuable antique.  It belongs to an indigent Buddhist meditation and tea master in Novi Gradiska, Croatia who has entrusted me with its sale. As you can see the lip is chipped.  It is about 6" x 6".  He got it from someone who got it from someone in Switzerland.  It is gorgeous - unique - sophisticated in pottery craftsmanship, "primitive" in design.  Perhaps African, or African influenced.  Mesopotamian valley?   

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Meeting Djuka

There is a dreamy quality to my rendezvous with Djordje, the almost Buddhist monk, tea ceremony and meditation master, at his home in Nova Gradiska, Croatia, something almost too real (if there can be such a thing), something so real as to be extraordinary, as if real is magical, which reality surely is.  Words are clearly insufficient in a setting where something called "I" is honestly wondering if he even exists. Where as if in a dream I am sitting in a field drinking tea made of individually rolled tea leaves.  Listening to the music of stones.  Wondering if I created the music or if the music created me?  Form is emptiness.  Emptiness is form.  There is no end to ignorance. 

Djordje speaks loudly and authoritatively to me.  He listens to me.  He argues with me.  He tells me how ignorant I am.  He commands that I listen only and not think of my answer.  We discuss consciousness, ego, mind, knowing, not knowing, wisdom.  We discuss politics, the real word, meditation, women, and bread.  Like every stupid man, I am perfect.  Djordje tells me this. He tells me this often.

Djordje announces we are going to visit his friend Djuka.  Naturally we take thermoses of hot water, tea leaves, a tea pot, and cups.  Djordje tells me he was 25 when he met Djuka who was then 40.  Djuka had been a priest, but saw through the hypocrisy and falseness of the teachings and took off the robes.  He lived as a hermit among some hill villagers near where we were now.  Over time Djuka somehow gathered a following, initially young people who he educated.  Over time the community provided for Djuka.  Djuka wrote an important letter, like an epistle, to his followers in 1985.  Djordje has a copy of the letter.  We arrive at our destination.  Djordje takes the letter and the bag with the tea from the car.  We walk into a cemetery, sit on a bench next to a grave with nothing but a simple wooden cross, and drink tea with Djuka who has been laying here for some time, even pour Djuka some tea, read aloud his letter, reflect on Djuka who had a long torturous imprisonment at one time, talk about my beloved friend Alan Berkman who had a long torturous imprisonment at one time.  Woodcutters on the hillside down tall trees which crash noisily to the earth.  I ring the cemetery shrine bell, which, of course, I am not supposed to do.  Djordje expected nothing less.  Like every stupid man, I am perfect.

 

Meeting Djordje – Pine Hills, NY

Early in 2008 I have the irrefutably brilliant idea that I will go on a silent meditation retreat, something I have never done before (or since), and being the cautious conservative fellow I am I sign up at a Chan Zen center in upstate NY for a ten day session.  The meditation sessions master is a ruggedly handsome 50ish looking man who speaks very firmly with a heavy accent that I instantly recognize as Serbo-Croatian.  It is possible to speak with the master or the abbot only at specified brief times on alternate days.  When my opportunity arises to speak with the meditation session master I trot out the three or four Serbo-Croatian phrases I still remember, tell the man that I lived in Bosnia in 1964 and that I was an anthropologist and he takes an instant interest in me. This is Djordje. 

Over the course of the next few days Djordje sees that I am having an immensely difficult time sitting, which has become quite obvious to him because of my relentless fidgeting, sleeping, falling over, and snoring.  Have I done a silent retreat before Djordje wants to know.  And given my answer, why ten days to start rather than one or two.  I'd like to tell him it's because I'm trying to get over a broken heart but it is beyond our linguistic capacities, so I just shrug.  "Listen," Djordje advises, "you don't have to sit for each whole session, but each session you must begin, try, and be present at the end.  If you are restless just walk slowly in nature and meditate. And you must maintain silence!"  Did I say I instantly loved Djordje?

The ashram is located in a spectacularly beautiful setting in Pine Bush, NY.  Very remote, mountainous, watery.  The snow is melting and there are deer herds everywhere.  My days are blissful.  The crows my companions.  One day, instead of just walking in nature meditatively as Djordje has recommended I even dare get in my car and drive off the grounds – something clearly not permitted – just to get away and get a better sense of where I am.  I pause for a while on a fairly deserted muddy dirt road in the woods some miles from the ashram within sight of a farmhouse, get out of the driver's side of the car, get back in the passenger side, take out my laptop, do some writing without interference from the steering wheel, write maybe twenty minutes or so, realize I have to get back to the ashram and back into the meditation session before it ends, get back out of the car, back in the driver's side, drive to the ashram, and have been sitting for a while in what I imagine is the remainder of the morning session when I notice Djordje has been called out of the session by the ashram director, something I have not seen happen before.

Before long Djordje is back in the meditation hall and I see he is signaling for me to come outside, which I'm only too happy to do, until I get there and see the abbot, the director, Djordje, and two of New York State's finest highway patrol officers, who have been called by someone presumably in the farmhouse about a suspicious, unfamiliar car parked outside her house, the license plate number of which has been reported to the police who have deduced the vehicle belongs to someone at the ashram, have found the vehicle in the ashram parking lot, have the name and a description of a possible suspect of something, are there to investigate, and will not be thwarted or delayed.  I learn later in fact that they demanded to come into the meditation hall to drag me out and that the ashram authorities explained why that would be impossible, an incredible violation of the entire sacred meditation space, and a gross tarnishing of the ashram's reputation, to which the police responded that they were going in anyway, only until Djordje prevailed upon them not to do so and that he would bring me out.

"And how do you know who we want, there are 60 people in that room," the police ask Djordje and Djordje says he said, "Why do you think they keep me here?  I know things."

Anyhow, the long and the short of this part of the story is that the police believe I am who I say I am, that I was doing more or less what I told them I was doing, for the innocent reasons I said I was doing it, that there were no outstanding warrants for my arrest, and they drive away.  Easy for me, but not for the abbot and the ashram director who are aghast, there have never been police on their premises ever, I am clearly not ashram appropriate material, and that Djordje is to instruct me that I must leave immediately, that my fees will be refunded, and that I am no longer welcome.  Which Djordje actually refuses to do.  Tells them it would be wrong to ask me to leave, that they may deny me admission any time in the future they so wish, but that he will not ask me to leave in the midst of a session.  "Fine," the director says.  "But be assured we will never permit him to return."

On the last day of the session everyone gathers in the morning to formally break our silence and share some words reflecting on our experience.  The abbot and the director are present.  When it is my turn to speak I say I have written a poem about my experience that I would like to read.  (It can be found here - http://brucetaub.net/poetry-blog/one-drop-of-rain).  After hearing the poem the director tells Djordje that if I wish to return I will be welcomed.  Would that all my poetry served me that well. 

I say goodbye to the director with apologies for any unwanted attention I may have brought upon the ashram.  The director says to me, "Do you think there is any rule of ours you haven't broken?" 

I say goodbye to Djordje and tell him I hope to return one day to visit "my" village of Lijesnica in Bosnia and Djordje says that if I do I come I should visit him in Croatia as well.  And here I am.  With now far more to tell.

Lijesnica

In 1964, when I spent three months in Lijesnica it had a population of about 1500, very few if any houses with electricity, and none with running water or indoor plumbing.  The socio-cultural categorization of the residents at the time was that of a rural peasantry.  It had been so since the middle ages.  The Lijesnican peasants' livelihood was subsistence level agriculture … a small garden, a cow, some sheep, a few chickens.  No one was an employee or a wage earner.  There were no tractors in the village.  Yet it was clear, even in 1964, that this way of life was nearing an inevitable end.  That the extended family (zadruga) lands which passed by equal division to each son, who then divided the land further ad infinitum among their sons, was no longer capable of sustainable subdivision, that the demands and desires for more modern, comfortable, expanded lives, for electricity, television, plumbing, perhaps a small old car, could not be realized by subsistence level agricultural peasants and that "modernity" in some form would inevitably overtake them.

So what did I find upon my return? What I found after fifty-two years of progress was both predictable, unpredictable, and somehow immensely sad, not necessarily for all Lijesnicans, but surely for American romantics.  First, the factory had now been there over half a century.  It had expanded, shrunk, expanded and shrunk, its high workforce numbering about 5000, its low about 1000.  The acres and acres of industrial waste the factory gifted to the land along the river were a stunning testament to the passage of time.  Abandoned trucks and box cars littered the view as far as the eye could see.  Pyramid high piles of sawdust, scrap bark, and slag were lined up one after another like huge bishops on a chess board.  An ever present weeping drooping pillar of smoke competed and merged with the fog hanging in the valley.  Junk car lots like pimples that would make New Jersey proud.  Many deserted and crumbling old houses.  A sprinkling of new houses about as densely (or sparsely) settled as the old. A few small gardens and a few larger obviously consolidated fields.  Almost none of the homeowners were Sehicians or their descendants.  There were notable exceptions.  Most of all I would say things had deteriorated, at least from an American aesthetic and cultural perspective.  For what Lijesnica now looked like to me was a rural slum, an Appalachian factory town not nearly as pretty as the little village it had been, with far more trash and the smell of sulfur and defeat, or at least passive acceptance of something less than victory, something other than dreams realized having replaced hope, again with a few notable exceptions.  And even though some of the roads had been roughly paved, the majority of lanes remained impassably rutted and muddy and my overall impression was of anomie, of isolation, of pathos.  But I wasn't there long enough to really know.  And I'm not a real anthropologist.

So here's the highlight of my afternoon in Lijesnica where I was guided by the kindness of Erwin who worked at the only hotel in Maglaj, Hotel Galeb (eagle), and his lovely bride to be Irma who accompanied me.  A man standing out feeding his lone sheep at the last house in the village - a descendant of Sehicians (given his last name was Sehic) directed me to the biggest farmer/landholder in the village, a man named Mohammed Sehic, who was apparently the last in the line of Sehicians who actually worked the land for survival.  Mohammed's father, who was still alive and lived with Mohammed (see photos) had actually been away in the Yugoslav Army the summer I was in Lijesnica, but one of the few photographs I still had showed his father, Mohammed's paternal grandfather, sitting in a circle of workmen constructing a house in Lijesnica, all a cause of great excitement.  (Well, okay, modest excitement, as these were shy and not very excitable folk.)  The father and Mohammed and I talked about the old days, about how hard they had been, but how rewarding was the sense of community, of belonging, of hope that infused the population experiencing the promise of the new Yugoslavia.  Not that life was bad for Mohammed.  He had acquired a substantial portion of the zadrugal lands over time and had become a dairy farmer, selling milk from his herd of twenty-seven gorgeous, fat, well fed, and very clean bovines.  Really, these cows had been in their stanchions all day … and Mohammed did not know an important guest from America such as I would be visiting … and I've visited 100s upon 100s of dairy farms (another story for another time) … and this was the cleanest occupied barn and cleanest stanchioned herd I have ever seen.

Besides which, Mohammed really liked it when I told him my profession because he needed a good lawyer and we had a good laugh.  But really, Mohammed wanted to know, really, what brought me to Lijesnica, what was my last name, what was my religion or ethnicity?

And here I am reminded of one of the many times I faced this notable "what religion are you" question, in this particular instance in the middle of a long line on my first day in the army approaching a sergeant seated at a table filling out cards with the information necessary to issue each man his dog tags.  When I reach the table the sergeant finds my name and military identification number on my card and asks my religion.  I'm not sure why but I just wasn't able to answer.  I don't think it was because I was afraid of anti-Semitism, or ashamed of being Jewish, quite the opposite, I was always rather proud of being Jewish.  It was more a sophomoric sense that I didn't think religion was anyone's business, or of any great significance, I mean this is the United States Army, is it not, and we were all equals right, brothers in arms.  I mean what did it matter?  It seemed almost unpatriotic to make such separatist declarations.

"What's your religion?" the sergeant asks again in a Southern drawl.

Still I continued to stand there quite mute and struck dumb.

"What's wrong with you," he growled, "what's your religion?"

But I just stared at him, unable to answer, unable to form the words, the sergeant growing more and more exasperated, and clearly thinking I'm a moron or something, and rightly so.

"I said, 'what is your religion?!'"  He said this very slowly, very slowly, through gnashed teeth.

And I just stared at him, unaccountably frozen, holding up the line, delaying victory over the forces of evil.

"Who are your people, boy," he finally yells exasperated and menacing.

Oh.  I was startled.  My "people"?  Not my religion? My people?  “Why Hebrews sir," I say.

"Hebrew," he repeats and writes it down.

"Next," he called.

Two days later, when I was issued my dog tags, they read just that, "Hebrew."  I still have them.  I don’t think there are or were many other Hebrews in the U.S. Army, but they are surely my “people” as I understand it.  And when it comes time to identify my mortal remains left scarred and unrecognizable on some desolate field of battle I will be far more comfortable being declared a Hebrew than I would being called Jewish anyway.  I'd like to be buried with them for some later day archaeologist.  But back to Lijesnica.

"Jewish," I tell Mohammed.  It's so much easier.

Really?  Jewish?  But what really are you doing here, he asks.  And again with the help of Ervin, my translator and earnest guide, I explain why I was here fifty years ago and why I wanted to come back.

I cannot say any of this makes much sense to Mohammed, but his father is smiling ear to ear, motioning for me to sit next to him on the couch, patting my knee in what I've come to recognize as deeply felt warmth and affectionate.  There really isn't much more to say.  The visit to Lijesnica all feels so immensely anti-climactic.  Not disappointing, really, real is real, and many loves from 50 years ago don't look all that good today, nor do I.  But it is so sweet to remember.  And then Lijesnica is in my life's rearview mirror … forever.

Alright, I've had my climactic moment, what next?  I've got over two weeks before my scheduled return flight from Prague and the only thing on my agenda is to meet Djorgje in Croatia.  So I take a bus to Doboj, BiH, thinking it might be worth a day or two and am promptly dissuaded of that brilliant notion by a little walk around town.  Next?  Did someone say "Zagreb."  Maybe it was Djordje, the Buddhist imp and guide.  Yeah, it was Djordje.  Yeah, Zagreb, bus in four hours.  Next.

 

First Maglaj

The bus ride from Sarajevo to Maglaj is wonderful.  The new road hugs the Bosna River, crossing from side to side over a series of bridges and winding its way through tunnels, small towns, and smaller villages.  The hillsides are lush and green.  The fertile Bosna River valley floor is cultivated in carefully tended gardens, small orchards, and smaller vineyards.  Great care has been and is being given to these plots where rows of green vegetables are emerging, the river itself rushing northward, away from its source and the sea, the water churning and brown, buffeting the river's banks with the urgency of hundreds of mountain tops filled with winter's melting snow. 

And then there is Maglaj, the old town, its mosque and fort and village square much as I remember them.  And the new town, communist realism on the western bank … public housing, a thirty room hotel built in the seventies that I turn out to be only one of two guests at, broad boulevards, "modern" stores from the 1980s, dogs sleeping in packs in parks, men gathered together yelling, gesturing, and smoking, clutches of women, young children, baby carriages, one or two sidewalk cafes, the sounds of church bells, the call of the muezzin from the mosque.  There is not much to do in Maglaj.  The name translates to fog.  Cars beep to pedestrians and wave.  The pedestrians wave back.  It is a small town.  It is spring.

I walk across the bridge into the old town.  Men sitting at a small tavern wave me over, ply me with questions in Serbo-Croatian and German, questions I do not understand the meaning of.  But I laugh.  And they laugh.  And I repeat that I do not speak or understand Serbo-Croatian and they laugh and tell me they are no longer speaking Serbo-Croatian, that they are speaking Bosnian.  Then they take out their cell phones to show me photographs.  And I take out my cell phone and show them photographs.  And I finally remember not to finish my cup of Turkish coffee, which they insist must now be called Bosnian coffee, so that they do not refill it.  And I resist the plum brandy, and the meats, and the sweets.  But when they suggest that they drive me to a good restaurant down the river, the "best" restaurant, at least I think that's what they are saying, I take the opportunity to go, though not before attempting to pay my bill, which is refused, because one of my companions has already taken care of it.

The restaurant, named Riva, is straight out of a Hollywood movie set; an outdoor terrace right on the river, a covered open air terrace above that, and a dark cavernous indoor dining area, complete with bar and music I now know to call Bosnian.  The waiter who speaks a smattering of English recommends I have the specialty of the house, a thin piece of beef wrapped around some cheese and smoked meat served with what are clearly garden fresh broiled potatoes and fantastic grilled mushrooms.  I order a beer.  Halfway through my drink a huge hornet decides to take a bath inside the glass and once soaked and not a little drunk swims desperately in circles unable to extricate herself from her drink or climb up the long steep smooth glass walls of her liquid prison.  So I pour the beer out onto the terrace floor and watch the hornet doing headstands in an apparent effort to dry off or show off.  Then somersaults.  Then chasing her tail.  Followed by more headstands.  Next time I'm cutting her off earlier.  Somersaults?  I believe somewhere in the Talmud we are told that one who saves a life saves the world and I am inordinately happy when after 15 or so minutes of these gymnastics the hornet flies away and even happier still when the waiter introduces his friend who speaks decent English and offers to be my guide, which I gratefully accept. 

His name is Armin, we agree on a price, and we establish that we shall meet at the hotel at 10 A.M. the next day unless his wife is delivering their first born, in which case he will understandably have to go with her to the hospital, which is indeed what happens.  I like it, my eager expectation of revisiting Lijesnica a source of real anticipatory excitement, which then reminds me of a story my Uncle Sol told of his time as the commanding general's driver and aide in World War II.  They were travelled up out of Africa through the boot of Italy toward Rome when in one small Italian village they left a few pairs of new shoes for the children in a one room schoolhouse.  And when they drove back down through the same town about a week later they found the shoes still sitting brand new and unused on the floor inside the schoolhouse.
Why hadn't the children worn the new shoes, the general asked.  Well, because they were still appreciating the feeling of anticipation of wearing new shoes, the general was told, and once worn the pleasure of the anticipation would be over. 
It's how I feel about Lijesnica and the fact I will not see it for another day.  That it will still be there tomorrow.  That I will get to continue to enjoy my anticipation.

So a few words about Lijesnica in 1964 when I spent three months there and it had a population of about 1500, very few houses with electricity and none with running water or indoor plumbing.  The socio-cultural categorization of the residents at the time was that of rural "peasantry."  It had been so since the middle ages.  Their livelihood was subsistence level agriculture … a small garden, a cow, some sheep, a few chickens.  No one was an employee or a wage earner.  Yet it was clear, even in 1964, even to my relatively untrained eye, that this way of life was nearing an inevitable end.  That the extended family (zadruga) lands which passed by equal division to each son, who then divided the land further among their sons, was no longer capable of sustainable subdivision.  That the demands and desires for more modern, comfortable, expanded lives, for electricity, television, plumbing, perhaps a small old car, could not be realized by subsistence agricultural peasants.  That women and children could no longer be kept down on the farm.

And into that milieu the Tito government and the social planners therein constructed a pulp and paper mill, right across the River Bosna, a source of employment, wages, electricity, and the steady stench of sulfur. And it was there in Lijesnica, in the neighborhood of Sehici, in the house of the universally disliked Party apparatchik who profited from the modest rent I paid, that I lived and which I intended to revisit.  Just when, however, is another story.  Here's why. 

On the next morning right at our appointed meeting time Armin calls to say his wife is in labor and he must drive her to the hospital in Zenica.  Fair enough.  I can entertain myself in Maglaj for a day, I'm not in any hurry.  I sleep a lot.  I do yoga.  I meditate.  I visit two cafes, literally right next door to one another, two bakeries, literally right next door to one another, two groceries, literally right next door to each other.  I don't get it.  And there must be a reason.  Perhaps related to inheritance.  Call an anthropologist.  But alas no anthropologist of even remote competence is to be found.  I will say this, however, the bakeries are each fantastic, no really, fantastic, and I quickly determine my favorite, as apparently everyone in Maglaj has a favorite, and both appear to be prospering.

As for Armin, he calls the next morning, his wife has still not delivered, he is back on his way to Zenica to be with her.  Yes, wonderful, I say.  I too am waiting for a baby.  Does he know the sex?  Yes, it is a girl, which Armin says is "okay for the first child."  And does she have a name?  Yes, the one his wife picked.  And why did she alone pick the name, I ask? To be sure it was not the name of one of his exes, he says.  We laugh.  Ach, men!

I climb to the old fort. 

I watch an impressively large group of people gather for a funeral at the mosque in the square where the old weekly market was held.

I am reminded of an event that unfolded here in the Maglaj market on a market day in 1964 amidst cows, gypsies, musicians, Catholic peasants in their familiar costumes, and lamb roasting on a spit at what was the big social event of the week.  I noticed a Catholic man from a hill village wearing a very unusual back pack which I asked if I could examine and he took off to show me.  What it was was a complete furry skin/hide of a calf which had been separated in one piece from all of the calf's meat and bones and preserved to a remarkable degree of softness and pliability as a united one-piece entity.  The deboned de-fleshed skin of the rear legs had been sown to the skin of the forelegs to create the shoulder straps.  The hide of the neck and head had been separated from the skull and was the waterproof top covering for the back pack, complete with a bone button and a button hole to secure it to the bag.  The bag itself was a complete entire one-piece sack made of calf hide with beautiful markings.  I had never seen anything like it and never have since.  I asked if I could buy it. The man asked for a ridiculously low amount, maybe seven dollars.  A man from Lijesnica came over to tell the Catholic peasant that he could keep the bag for seven dollars.  A crowd gathered.  The bag owner said, okay six.  The man from Lijesnica said something about how his teeth weren't worth six dollars.  The crowd grew larger, the bargaining fiercer.  The young American anthropologist saying "it's okay, it's okay" just a voice lost in the babble.  The man from Lijesnica proud to be my agent.  The anthropologist from America mortified that he was to own the bag for under six dollars.  (I think the final price was five.)  I took the bag to the village.  I wore it.  I proudly showed off what I had purchased, the skill involved in its creation, the effort, the folksy artistic mastery.  No less than four of the villagers asked me to sell them the bag.  They'd give me more than I'd paid for it.  And why did they want it I asked.  Because they didn't want me to take it back to America and embarrass them, because people in America would think they were backwards and unsophisticated.  Needless to say I took the bag home.  I showed it off.  I wore it proudly.  When my then wife and I had a trial separation in NYC in 1967 where I was teaching at my alma matter I left the bag hanging in a closet.  My then wife took a lover.  The lover took the bag.

I am drinking more coffees at more kafanas, eating more bakery products, telling more and more people I can't understand a word they are saying, feeling a bit more a sense of the flow of life here.  Also no sense of the flow of life here.  There are those who are proud and happy to be Bosnians.  And there are those who long to belong to a larger county.  "Who cares what we call it," I understand one man to say, "I'd be happy to call it Serbia if I could have my father back."  

 

 

Sarajevo to Mostar and the Tunnel of Hope

The days quickly blur into one another.  The snow melts slowly.  It is easy to walk down the mountain into town in about 20 minutes and almost everyone does.  Almost no one walks up the mountain (except school children) making it look like a one-way street.  And while there is no bus service up the mountains taxis from the center of old Sarajevo are ubiquitous and under 2$ gets me dependably up the steep incline to my apartment on Okrugla Street.

There are two places I feel I must go before leaving Sarajevo and my impatience thrills me.  First is to the "Tunnel of Hope," a half mile long tunnel that was dug from the Sarajevo side underneath the Sarajevo airport landing strip to the other side.  Historians estimate that more than 1 million trips were taken through the tunnel, allowing the import of millions of tons of food, guns, crates of ammunition, and humanitarian aid.  Without the tunnel it is hard to imagine how much more severe the cost in human lives and suffering would have been.  My taxi driver tells me he made many trips back and forth through the tunnel and that he was seriously wounded three times during the three year occupation, but that only once was it life threatening, as if the shrapnel and bullet wounds in his back were simply the price one paid for being a fighting aged man at the time in Sarajevo.

I find my visit to the tunnel deeply moving, actually bringing me to tears, inspired/touched by this example of human cruelty, courage, and fortitude.  The one still accessible tunnel entrance was/is literally inside the home of a very ordinary family who lived near the airport and who began the project without aid or assistance other than inspiration.  I crouch my way through the dampness. When I finish my visit I go outside to await my ride and look for a coffee shop.  The only coffee shop I see is closed and the woman who lives next door to the tunnel entrance, who collects vehicle "parking fees" from non-Bosnia tunnel visitors and sells little trinkets, sees me looking around.  "What are you looking for?" she asks me.  "A good cup of coffee," I reply.  "Hajde vam" (Come on, you) she says wagging her finger and bidding me inside.  "Sjesti!" Sit, she commands and then disappears into the kitchen, leaving two grandchildren staring at me and laughing.  I can smell the Turkish coffee well before she delivers it.  When my ride appears she makes him sit and drink coffee also.  It is very good coffee.  My driver says the woman is recently widowed.  He suggests there is an opportunity for me here.  I refuse politely.  I offer the woman money.  She refuses politely.

My other must visit place is Mostar and its famous bridge.  This is a UNESCO world heritage site and rightly so, and even though the original bridge was bombed to smithereens - as well as over half the town destroyed - what has arisen from the ashes is vibrant and unique.  I will not say more, if you are interested google it.  Remember please, this siege and embattlement were genocidal in intent ... nothing less.

Finally, I spend a day just wandering around Sarajevo seeing what I can see.  I find the University anthropology department inside the Poitical Science building but no one there speaks English - in contrast to my welcome 50 years ago when I was served coffee, šljivovica (plum brandy), and pastries by a distinctly bilingual host department at 9AM.
I get a haircut, well shave.
I get my shoes shined, well sprayed with silicone.
I get lost.  My favorite thing.
I watch a couple of chess games played on a big board in a town square, see an angry man physically attack and knock to the ground and annoying but also obviously crazy person while onlookers do nothing but say tsk tsk, go to my now favorite coffee shop, eat more cevapi, lot's more cevapi, wave goodbye to my favorite cat, and try not to jump out of my skin with excitement that tomorrow I head for Maglaj!

 

 

 

A little history/orientation

 

When I leave Rome it is literally a beautiful spring day, flowers and flesh appearing fresh and blooming everywhere.  I fly on Croatia Airlines, the late day local run stopping in Split, Zagreb, Sarajevo and Dubrovnik.  The turbulence on the short flight legs is dramatic, complete with the occasional sense of being in an elevator or on a roller coaster in free fall, being lifted it seems out of one's seat as the floor drops away.  People are literally whooping in fear or delight, children crying, the stewardesses apologizing for having to suspend their beverage service in Italian, Serbian, and English.  Each take off, joy ride, and landing lasting 30 – 40 minutes.

In Split everyone must get off the plane and go thru Croatian Customs to enter the country before re-boarding the same flight.  In Zagreb, less than an hour later, we again de-board to again go through Croatian Customs to exit the country.  It's like going from the independent country of New York to the independent country of California with a stop over to discharge and pick up passengers in the independent state of Texas, where everyone must exit the plane and go through Texas customs before re-boarding the same flight to go onto California. 

Besides, a sudden serious snow storm has hit Sarajevo, home of the 1984 Winter Olympics, and the plane literally skids to a stop and then waits for the plows which it follows in as it taxis to the terminal.  This evokes a memory of the only other time I landed by plane in Sarajevo, in 1964, where the airbus I flew on from Belgrade was filled to its maximum standing room capacity, a plane packed like a subway car at rush hour in NYC, where people were literally standing shoulder to shoulder, smoking, carrying burlap sacks of vegetables, a chicken or two, and where the landing was also literally one long skid, kind of like a seaplane, in a muddy cow pasture. 

Naturally there are no cabs at the Sarajevo airport at midnight, the buses have stopped running, and in case I failed to mention it, it is snowing. Hard.  But the Hertz counter is opened and the clerk has a friend who he can call who will drive me to my hotel for a special late night snowstorm rate which I gladly pay.  The most memorable part of that ride, other than the amusement park quality of the sliding and skidding, is when I am able to communicate to the driver in my very broken Serbo-Croatian and with his very marginal English that I am returning to Sarajevo for the first time in over fifty years and when the driver understands what I am saying taps my thigh warmly three of four times and says that I have come back "makes his heart happy".  Me too moj prijatelj. Me too.

By next morning I'm happily at rest in the best Airbnb I have ever been in … and not just because it costs only $168 for a week and has been stocked with beer, wine, rolls, salami, butter, apples, oranges, coffee, tea, but in addition has two rooms, four beds, an amazing view out over the old residential part of the city, 2 TVs, a washer and drier, and a nice shower.  This is not the Sarajevo I remember.  And with that I cannot resist a little socio-political history.

When I was here in '64 Bosnia was part of an artificial geo-political construct known as "Yugoslavia," a merger of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes first named "Yugoslavia" after World War I.  Prior to WW I Bosnia had been a feudal landless-peasant society governed and mercilessly exploited for centuries first by the Ottoman Turkish empire starting in the mid1400s and then without so much as a pause to take a free breath by the Austro-Hungarian Empire's ruthless occupiers until the 1920s when the new the new Yugoslavia was formed, feudalism abolished, landowners stripped of their lands, and significant agricultural reforms instituted.

A significant challenge to the success of this new united nation, of course, was that Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Bosnians had intensely different ideas about what their new society should look like, how it should be governed, and to which foreign powers it would look to and align with for economic and political assistance, and, as such, attempts to thwart ethno-nationalism failed to placate the competing interests of the parties, particularly the Croats and the Serbs.  Thus by the late 30s Croatians were seeking independent nation status and allied with the fascists in Italy and Germany while the Serbians were generally identified with and looked to side with their ethnic and religious allies in Russia.  Not good for Muslims, other Bosnians, or the 20,000 Bosnian Jews who had descended from a Jewish community in Sarajevo which had become well established after the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492 and which contributed to Sarajevo frequently being referred to as "the Jerusalem of Europe" because of its tolerance of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and where one square in the city center famously housed a Catholic church, and Eastern Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue.

The Catholic Croat fascists, thus emboldened and empowered by their alliance with the invading armies of Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Hungry then sought to do to the Bosnian Serbs what had so "successfully" been done to the Jews.  And in this tragic context there arose two resistance movements, one the Cetniks in Serbia, a guerilla force resisting the wide spread ethnic cleansing of Serbs being carried out by the Croatian fascists, the other a communist partisan army led in Bosnia by the Stalin loyalist Josip Broz, aka Tito, who by war's end had consolidated his control over the former Yugoslav territories and instituted under his dictatorship what he saw as visionary egalitarian communism, which, of course, first required the extermination of literally hundreds of thousands of Croats, anti-communists, Muslim intellectuals, and the criminalization of the teaching of Islam and even the wearing of the veil.  

By the 1960s - the only time I was previously in Bosnia – Tito, a dictator in a land long used to the autocratic rule of kings and foreign empires, had actually become a very popular fellow, jobs were plentiful, education and health care were free, roads were being improved, factories were being built, and a pride in multi-ethnic tolerance prevailed.  All of which was deeply felt in the tiny Bosnian village of Lijesnica where I lived and about which I wrote my Master's thesis

I will later, but before returning to Lijesnica, also very briefly and inadequately refer to the absolutely tragic events that unfolded in the early 1990s when nationalist Serbian forces seeking to unite all of the former Yugoslavia under Serbian rule systematically terrorized, assassinated, raped, ethnically cleansed, and otherwise exterminated whole villages of Bosnian Muslims and laid siege to Sarajevo for over 1400 days. But that for later.  For now, I am here, happy, and eager to drink the coffee and eat cevapi. 

    

 

Man trahkt

Mahn trahkt Got lahkt.

I've always loved this expression in Yiddish (Man plans God laughs), the English equivalent of which I believe is Man proposes, God disposes.  And there is no better place to demonstrate the verity of this power the invisible scriptwriters hold and have to mess with you, notwithstanding what you hope will happen to your character in the play you are starring in, than when you have plans for travel in foreign lands.

So, first my dear friend Carmine, who is moving back after 40 years in the US to the little walled Renaissance farming village he was born in in Italy, asks me to join him for a visit there.  And, of course, I jump at the chance to combine such a trip with the return trip I have been promising myself to Bosnia for decades, when I no longer have decades.  Besides, Carmine is a fascinating curious fellow who will be able to show me aspects of Italy not generally seen.  Ah but then he says he can no longer get away.  There is too much on his plate.  His sister has cancer.  His brother has troubles.  Carmine is closing the garage that has been the foundation for his fortune, his pride and province.  And trust me, when I say fortune I mean fortune, because money likes Carmine, is drawn to him, accumulates in his pockets and his apartments in Boston and Italy, in trust fund documents he cannot read.  But lest you get carried away with envy for Carmine's good fortune remember only this.  Six years ago his beloved only son Daniel, to whom the business was intended to go, and for whom life was partly lived, was driving home after a long week working with his father in the garage when his motorcycle met an immovable object and Daniel breathed his last.  The same year Carmine divorced.  The same year his only daughter married.  The same year his first grandson was born … Daniel having made the space for Dino.

I am also drawn to Italy by the fact that through the miracle of Facebook I have found my dearest childhood friend and literal blood brother Alan, who I have not seen in over 60 years.  The pictures of this now 76 year old man with his cane, pot belly, and twinkly eyed smile reveal a face quite familiar to me, evoke a warmth and wonder quite familiar as well.  I write Alan to say I am coming to Italy and that I would love to see him.  But all he sends back is his smile.  So I write more extensively, my life an open book before him – marriages, children, careers, political proclivities, narratives, poems, entreaties, confessions – all revealed on my Facebook pages, my website, and in my words to him - and all I get back is his smile, hanging in the air with anticipation, like that moment after a symphony performance has been completed, before the start of heartfelt applause.

Well fine then, mon bon ami, survivor of the Nazi horror, escapee from occupied France, refugee in Bronx tenement project apartment, if I cannot get word from you on the Internet I will invade the tiny Italian alpine village where you have taken refuge and root you out by dint of my own ferocious curiosity and attention.  But no, that will not be possible, Alan finally writes, he is in Sicily for vacation.  Nothing more, nothing less.  And I am left with only memories of his parent's Bronx apartment, of afternoons we loved one another as boyhood friends do, of the protective aura I believed I offered this small, quiet, shy refugee, and of the kindness he showed me, the warmth and appreciation, nay, perhaps admiration, he felt for his American friend.

Okay then, no Alan, no Carmine, so why spend any more time in Italy when my central purpose is really to return to Lijesnica, the Bosnian village I lived in 52 years ago?  Who needs these wide boulevards lined with blossoming heavily fruited orange trees and cannoli?  Who needs fountains overflowing with tourists and young lovers kissing in doorway?  I'm going back to Bosnia. 

And in a flash that can only be understood as magical it is so.  I am in Sarajevo and these pics are taken the same day after I arrive ... one from the top of the mountain where the 1984 Olympic bobsled run was built, the other from the base of a diff mountain showing the lieteral spring from whichthe Bosna River flows.  altitude also matters.