My country has already infiltrated this one. I see it everywhere. In the McDonalds across the street, in the language that everyone knows how to speak, and in the California burrito place that has the same rugs we bought at Kmart a few years back. I feel guilty. This place obviously knows me and yet my country doesn’t talk about Croatia at all. I doubt half of our citizens could even place it on a map let alone recite a fact about it. I wonder if i will ever be able to visit a place that is untouched by my home.
It is so much more interesting to travel in cities that do not have free tours or hoards of tourists taking selfies at the main famous sites. It is like a challenge, all the knowledge you want to gain you have to work for. There is no preplanned itinerary, you have to actively seek knowledge, through conversation, books, films, and thank god for Google.
I started with the basic destinations the internet seemed to think I would want to see. I walked around the city and went to an amazing viewpoint, a museum of broken relationships (which was emotional to say the least), Ban Jelacic Square, and the Art Pavilion. Even though all these places were beautiful, I was only seeing them superficially, I couldn’t help but feel like I was not getting the whole picture. I do not want to just see this country. I want to experience it.
I decided to recite the things I do know and work from there. I know that Zagreb has more bookstores than souvenir shops. I know that all the people here have been extremely nice to me and I know that very few of my friends traveled here. This is obviously a place that does not receive heavy traffic. I know that their cappuccinos are bitter and the sunsets are beautiful. I know that I was allowed to travel to Eastern Europe on an expired Western European visa. Somehow the East is different. They have a different currency. These two parts of Europe have been ideologically separated. I know that Eastern Europe is not as wealthy as the west and I know that the majority of prostitutes from the West come from the East. But to be honest the only other thing I really knew is that this country was at war about 20-25 years ago. It used to be Yugoslavia and was cut into pieces by a brutal civil war.
Working from this point I headed to the book store and bought Slavenka Drakulic’s The Balkan Express, I guess the only good news about English domination is that I have been able to buy English books.
Now I see the war everywhere. The book is not about war in the sense that it gives facts and political analysis of the events which happened here. The story is about the psychological changes that a person must endure in order to survive tragedy. She talks about the nonviolent mother who for a split second considers buying a gun. She talks about the insidiousness of war, about the children who habitually walk in zig zags even after the war ends so they can avoid bullets. She talks about the things you get used to, the way air raids form a natural part of existence, she talks about the leaving and the way it hurts even more to hear church bells ring without the sound of pistols in the background. Because how could one place be at peace while another slowly dies? It was not the death of the body that horrified Slavenka Drakulic, it was the death of the mind.
I have never known war. I am a white woman from California and before that Utah. My people have never known that type of pain, my people were always the aggressors. We exported our violence; letting it fester in the homes of those whose lives apparently mattered less than our own. It it only when we feel a threat to our own safety that we are disturbed by death and brutality. Because when brutality comes from our own lips it echos away from our lands — so far away (mentally at least) that we are able to ignore the sound of screams on the lips of innocence. We are able to dismiss them as part of the endless causalities of war, because death is to be expected isn’t it? What is a war without the loss of innocence?
Now when I walk the streets and look at the people on public transport or in a coffee shop, I know that the majority of them have seen war. Even those who were not yet born i’m sure have felt the ripple of past violence infiltrate their own lives. I’m not pretending to know what it is like for them, I don’t think I will ever know what it is like to see and experience war. But I wonder what it is like to grow up thinking that the bullet holes in the side of your building are normal?
For those who left: I wonder what it is like to have to leave home without choosing to? I’m sure it is missing all the major things, but also everything you did not even realize was your life. It’s the smell, the color of the sunset, the roof panels on your neighbors house, the cobblestone that lines your way to work. I wonder what it is like to come back to a place after a war? To come back and realize that nothing will ever be the same; neither your former life nor your former self will be able come back unaltered. The bullet holes in your walls only serve as a reminder, the new wall paper you used to cover the break in concrete does not erase the violence that happened here. You will live with the pain for the rest of your life because even though every other land you had to live in felt foreign, now home is not even home anymore. Because this new home isn’t what you want; it’s the past you crave. Before the violence made you–
Do those children still walk the streets in zig zags? Do they still remember the sound of an air raid? I hope for their sake they have forgotten but I’m afraid those types of memories do not just evaporate.
Zagreb is more than the war that happened here, however I do feel that I have a better understanding of this city knowing what happened only a few years before my birth. Hopefully next time I will have discovered something else perhaps unwar related.
I still have a few more days in Zagreb and then I think I’m going to head to Pula, Croatia.