Sunday, July 31, 2011

More Fun From the Portrait Studio

I walked past my favorite shop window this morning and noticed that the proprietor, a portrait photographer, had changed his display. I can only imagine what he must have said to this poor couple -- lovely people who care for each other, no doubt -- to capture this particular moment in time, then tack it up proudly to attract new business.

"Saying 'cheese' is such a cliche. Say something more clever, like 'obituary' or 'bubonic plague' . . .

"Now, think of your last argument. That's good. Perfect. Imagine your partner has just eaten onions. Many many onions. Yes, just like that."

One of these days John and I are going to drag Inez over there and order up a family portrait package. I'm just telling you now, so you can leave space on your refrigerator for our holiday card.

Friday, July 22, 2011

This Is What My Midlife Crisis Looks Like

I have a tidy, modest 1-bedroom apartment in Belfast, Maine that takes under an hour to clean. I wait tables in a nearby restaurant where I never have to carry more than two plates at a time. No one chides me about not having texting on my phone.

I foster broken dogs. There are fewer broken dogs.

Only my alarm clock or the sun wakes me up. Screeching tires don't wake me up. Boom boxes don't wake me up. Wailing car horns don't wake me up.

No one is afraid of tree roots messing with their foundations. Shade lines the streets.

I have a newly discovered talent such as calligraphy, perfumery, or needlework. I put this talent to use.

I have a better memory for world events, but I rarely talk about them.

Numb becomes sad. Sad becomes serene. Serene becomes a good night's sleep.

It's June, and you come to visit.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sarajevo post script

I hadn't written a poem in probably twenty years, and I was never much of a poet anyway, but I was sobered by our trip to Sarajevo and somehow found myself compelled. Especially when we ended up with two hours hours to kill at the bare-bones train station (the only real visual perk being this guy to the right), our train to Mostar delayed without explanation. As one of our innkeepers had noted, "This isn't Japan."

I guess I offer this as one last memory of our trip to the Balkans, and an important contrast to photos that may have made the region seem of sunny climate and disposition round the clock. It's very much that way, but there's weight there as well.

The Loneliness of the Sarajevo Natural History Museum

No one comes to the museum anymore.
Maybe a family on holiday from Frankfurt
A lone traveler from Kyoto
A handful of American tourists on their way to Prague,
who complain of the heat on the second floor
as they tire of the exhibits of woodpeckers, thrushes,
and so many swifts.
Ideally they’ve carried their own toilet tissue.

Paid staff outnumber customers by three lab coats to one
A woman behind a locked glass door prepares a sparrow for taxidermy,
emptying its insides,
placing it in a room full of predatory beetles
who will finish the job, tissue and all.
Then she’ll steady her needle and thread.

A man with a nametag follows visitors from room to room
as closing time approaches. He speaks quietly in Bosnian:
“Do not touch the cases,” perhaps.
His face has a mild disfigurement,
maybe from birth, maybe later.

And the handsome woman who tears tickets at the door,
who wears her hair tightly back in a bun,
explaining which rooms are open
and which are off limits,
offers in a baritone,
“Enjoy your visit.”

But she says this only three, possibly four times a day
As cases full of mice, pumice, jackrabbits, scarabs, walking sticks, bears, travertine, moths, and mollusks
turn to paper, dust, and skeleton.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reflections on a Balkan Vacation

Some of you know that I just spent two weeks in Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro with my husband John and some of our closest friends here in Chicago. I've been fascinated with the region since teaching in Prague and Budapest with the Soros Foundation back in the mid to late 90s.

I failed to keep any kind of travel journal this trip. I left that documenting to John, who does it far better and makes of it a kind of ritual for us: He writes as I drift off to sleep, then he reads to me over morning coffee as we put our heads together to catalogue small moments he may have missed, but still hopes to capture for posterity.

With my own ailing memory, though, I try to write down at least a few details -- just some random memories I don't want to lose -- on the back of travel itineraries and boarding passes, stuffed into my bag for archiving later. I haven't tackled that assortment of pages yet, but I'm guessing they'll trigger things that have already faded as I immerse myself back into the tedium of work.

So, how to capture any of that here? I could retell some of my fondest moments -- the perfect cevapcici taken in the heart of Sarajevo's Old Town one morning before John had even woken up; watching a diver finally take a plunge from Mostar's Old Bridge, reconstructed after total destruction during the Balkan war; an impromptu evening with our Mostar innkeepers, who opened a bottle of housemade brandy to share with us while telling stories of Bosnian life during wartime; buying homemade wine from a front porch, packaged for us in a reused two-liter Coke bottle, in a tiny unnamed village in Croatia; hanging out with our friends in our flat in Split, musing over how we would have been different had we been born in this part of the world; climbing fortifications and bell towers for panoramic views of tile roofs and turquoise water; witnessing evening prayer services -- men on one side, women on the other -- at a Sarajevo mosque; wading shoulder deep into the Adriatic Sea as John dove from rocks and swam as far as the barricades would let him.

I'm not sure any of this really gets at what was so powerful about the visit, though. I said to John I've never visited a place with a more profound sense of its own living history. This was probably truer, at least in our perception and experience, in Bosnia than either of the two other countries. But even in Croatia and Montenegro, you can't help but feel you're in a place that has struggled, suffered, and lost -- then rebounded with a resiliency I'm not sure we Americans would harness as readily.

So we walked, we drove, we swam, we ate, we eavesdropped, we photographed, we toured, we climbed, we overheated, we imbibed, we paid admissions, we got lost, we bargained, and we lamented the deficiencies of our own historical knowledge, all with a humbling sense of our good fortune to be in a place that essentially came back from the dead, then reopened its doors to the world.