The Long Way Home

Osijek Winter
January 21, 2013, 11:42 AM
Filed under: Croatia | Tags: , , , ,
drava river

drava river

Before I married or became an artist, I quit my job of seven years, cashed out my 401K and took off to Croatia to do volunteer work at the Center for Peace. People thought I was brave, stupid or crazy and looking back, I’d have to agree with everyone. Most people turning 30 were planning weddings and buying baby strollers and there I was, giving up everything. I had spent time visiting my pen pal in Slovenia years before, and taught English to Bosnian refugees in Pittsburgh, so I had developed an interest in former-Yugoslavia and its politics. I wanted to give up everything because I felt burdened with the usual 9 to 5 routine. I was also having difficulty with my mother, whose mental state was becoming so painful to deal with, I felt I had to move thousands of miles away from home to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. My plan was no plan: I’d go, find teaching work, see what it’s like to live day-to-day instead of with routine, a challenge for someone like me who plans everything.  I mostly experienced solitude, peppered with surreal interactions and relationships  – it’s been hard for me to write about. Indeed, it took me years to even look through the photos I had taken with my Canon. I spent a lot of time documenting my everyday world there, and in some of these shots, I see my eye just beginning to show signs of a photographer emerging through the lens. These photos were taken during a snowstorm in January 2005; I’m sure I was on my way to one of the kinos (for some reason Osijek had two movie theaters flanking each end of one block, playing the same movie for weeks), my lunch of kulen and grain-bread wrapped in a napkin in my bag, the finger tips cut off my gloves so my hands were free to shoot or write. These prints are the only copies since I lost the negatives somewhere  along my journey.



waiting for the train to pecs, hungary. it never arrived because of the storm.

waiting for the train to pecs, hungary. it never arrived because of the storm.

the number 2 train

the number 2 train heading west

i walked everywhere in this city with a giant skeleton key to my apartment tucked away in my bag.

i walked around in this city carrying a giant skeleton key to my apartment in my bag.

outside the national theater

outside the national theater

snow-ladened grapevines

snow-ladened grapevines


Hurka and Other Food Discoveries

I read fancy cookbooks with complicated recipes while I eat simple foods such as ramen noodles (doused in Sriracha sauce), or buttered egg noodles with pepper. My friend Roya calls it ‘food pornography’ because it is fantasizing  about and longing for the dish on the page while eating something comforting and familiar. It is the best of both worlds. And when I can’t have either, I think about the foods that have shaped my eclectic palate.

1. hurka (pronounced ‘who’r-kuh’)

This is a Hungarian water-cooked sausage filled with various pork offal, rice, and onions. It was a staple in my grandmother’s kitchen, although I don’t remember the taste of it or even what it looks like too much. My mother said I loved it though, and would split open the casing and dig out all the rice and piggy products, drowning them in ketchup. Years later in my 20s, I met another Lisa of Hungarian descent who not only remembered eating hurka, but also dowsing it with ketchup. Ketchup may be the only way to make hurka palatable to a kid.

2. pickles and cheese sandwiches (worst sandwich)

When the food cupboard was bare, my mother would whip up this little number for a lunchbox treat: sliced dill pickles, Kraft American cheese slices, and white bread. I tried trading these with other kids in the lunchroom, but nobody wanted to eat them.

3. Prekmurje ham sandwich (best sandwich)

In 2003, Bill Fulmer and I did a cross-country trip to the Prekmurje region of Slovenia with our friend Tamara. We stayed at the Flisar family farm. Our rooms overlooked vineyards dotted with thatch-roofed sheds. The mailman only stopped once a week on his bicycle to pick up mail. We didn’t have time to eat breakfast the next morning because we were headed to Lake Balaton in Hungary, so the owner packed us a lunch: fresh baked bread, ham made straight from the pigs on her own farm, and a poppyseed gibanica, a seven-layer strudel popular in that region. We didn’t find all these goodies until later, when the three of us sat by the shallow water of Lake Balaton eating what she had given us: bread, ham, butter, and tomato. A really simple meal that I still crave.

4. lima beans and milk

Not necessarily together (although that would be my nightmare). I don’t like lima beans because of their texture – squooshy, like I imagine beetles would be if they were crushed between my teeth. I will pick them out of my meal if I spot them in there, which I know is childish, but they really gross me out. I will cook with milk, and drink chocolate milk, but regular white milk is disgusting. I declared my war on this foul juice when I was five years old, and it continues to this day.

5. egg noodles with butter and black pepper

Simply the best comfort food ever. My mother would make this often when were kids, when she was too tired to cook after working all day. It also tastes good sprinkled with poppy seeds, making it Hungarian comfort food.

6. McCountries and mini hamburgers

I know McDonalds is widely disputed and considered evil, but I really grew fond of this Eastern European pork patty version of the Quarter Pounder. When I desperately needed something “American,” I’d get this “Menu’ item (Croatia’s equivalent to “Value”). Pecs, Hungary has a bakery near the old pharmacy that sells mini-hamburgers, which are tiny versions of the McCountry: pork patty, lettuce and mustard on a freshly baked lilliputian bun, 2 for $1 USD. Perfect for wrapping in a napkin and eating on the go.

7. my sister’s chocolate chip cookies

She could win a bake-off with these babies. She has been baking them since she was 10 years old, so she has a lot of practice. The secret to her cookie is just the right balance of salt and sweet, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The perfect cookie.

8. muttar paneer

My favorite North Indian meal of  peas and cubes of tofu-like cheese. I used to eat this dish for many a dinner when I was a sophomore in college (sometimes 3 or 4 days in a row) since I worked at Delhi Grill. I love the sweetness and slight bite to the peas with the chewy paneer following right after. I could eat a whole shit-load of this stuff right now.

9. mussels

These made me a more adventurous eater. When I was first introduced to them, I swallowed them whole because I was afraid to bite into the little suckers. But now I can’t imagine them without plain garlic butter on a warm summer night (sorry, Jeff, I know this is killing you to read this part, ever since you ate a bad one and spent the one night wondering whether you should puke or sit on the pot all night. One bad mussel is dangerous indeed).

10. Jeff’s fried chicken

He has made the recipe his own: something with panko crumbs, cornmeal, buttermilk and fried in canola oil. I don’t know the exact recipe and if I did I wouldn’t tell anyone, but then he puts a few shakes of buffalo sauce on top and it’s amazing. It reminds me of why I married him in the first place.

Letter from Osijek to Morioka


I haven’t written for so long because every day that I travel, there is something different that happens and I don’t know where to begin. I loved your last letter about being in Japan, it was surreal like a Bunuel film — what it feels like when you are thousands of miles from home.

domesticity in Osijek

domesticity in Osijek

It’s really lonely here in Osijek. I knew I would be isolated, but not in the ways that I imagined. It’s difficult to make friends because people here keep to themselves since the war; they are suspicious of outsiders. Everything here is talked about in terms of before, during and after the war, and if you are lucky, you may be one of the privileged few to hear about people’s experiences. You’ll be exchanging the usual personal stats, name, where are you from, and then the war comes up and they start to talk: The teacher at the Jagoda school, whose retarded son developed deeper behavioral problems after spending 3 weeks in a crowded basement during the shelling and bombing of the city; the teenager I met whose father was shot by the Croatian army for going AWOL in Slovenia, whose mother leaves for months at a time to Germany or Switzerland and comes back with loads of cash; the woman I met whose village was occupied by Serbs and she and her family couldn’t leave for a year. 

view from Jagoda school

view from Jagoda school.

I spent an emotionally draining week before  New Year’s  helping a local church group put on a puppet show in Roma villages. In one village, I saw  an old woman with her face as wrinkled as a walnut, smoking a pipe and pumping water from a well. Children ran around in hole-filled bedroom slippers. The villages have houses that are low to the ground, like little wooden sheds, trash piled high at the ends of roads. Slavonia sky at dusk is not polluted with light sources from strip malls, so it was the first time I’ve ever seen its true color – a dark, deep blue, clouds rolling over our heads so close that it felt as if  I could hold my arms over my head and touch them.

another view from Jagoda school

another view from Jagoda school

On New Year’s Eve, I went to my friend Andrija’s for a Croatian celebration. The party was in the house that he lived in before it was bombed during the war. The place is now being renovated for his brother and future wife, but the rooms are still under construction. I drank Blackie, a currant-flavored vodka, and got dance lessons from Andrija’s ballroom dancing teacher. He was amazing! He is the only person I’ve ever met who could talk you through the steps, then talk to you about your life and before you knew it, you were dancing. He was my midnight New Year’s kiss. Later I fell asleep in a cinderblock room with a dirt floor with only a space heater to warm it, Andrija’s old room as a boy. Most of the other guests had passed out in this room as well, trying to keep warm under thin cotten sheets I remember lying awake, my brain racing from too much Blackie, staring at the imprint on the ceiling of where a poster had once been, the German dance teacher quietly snoring somewhere in the room.

New Year's in Tenja

New Year's in Tenja

Three days later Colin flew from Dublin to visit me. I met him in Budapest, then we took the train together back to Osijek. I didn’t get a chance to buy the international ticket in advance, so I had to take the 3 am train to Beli Manistir, buy a ticket to Pecs, then jump off the train in Pecs and buy a ticket to Budapest. Life in Osijek in a nutshell. The conveniences I know as an American are chucked by the wayside. I was so tired, I could barely see when the train pulled into Deli station. But whenI reached budapest, I felt as if I were home again. The sun was just rising, the Christmas snow floating in chunks on the Danube. Around Thanksgiving, I had fallen hopelessly in love with the city, and I couldn’t wait to share it with Colin, but he wanted to see  Croatia.

view from my skylight window

view from my skylight window

Croatians don’t consider Osijek “Croatia.” They want it to be Dubrovnik and Zagreb. They want to forget the wide, flat land that’s littered with landmines. I didn’t tell Colin any of this. I had become fiercely proud of my new home. I wanted him to see for himself. We had a roller-coaster week. We spent one night just laughing and making up cartoon characters in a rented room near Keleti Station. Later, back in Osijek, he became distant. I felt so close to him, that I wanted him to be near me. I wanted somebody near me, and he was there, a freckled Irishman who was the closest thing I could have to home. I told him that no matter what his feelings were for me, just to let me care about him that week. The last thing we did before he left was watch television. I walked him to the courtyard door (the one that opens with a skeleton key)  to catch his 3 am train back to Budapest. I know I won’t see him again.

Trdva (the fortress)

Trdva (the fortress)

The Jagoda school where I teach is much better than the weekends in Tenja. The children in Tenja barely know Croatian so teaching English is a challenge. I don’t get to teach as much as I’d like, but I like helping with the classes. 

my first view of Osijek

Osijek has wide streets that make you feel as if you’re in a western film. People wander around during the day because they have no jobs. The other day, I was walking down one of the main roads listening to the click of heels on the pavement, a road where the only transport is the tram. It felt as if I were on a movie set. The buildings here are riddled in bullet holes, the streets jigsawed and caked in mud. I always try to find beauty in the abandoned, but I am learning that here, it’s not romantic. War is ugly and painful and leaves people broken. There is a certain life to all of this though. The outside world wants to hear the survivor stories, not the sadness. Here are the real stories:  Segregated schools that still exist in this region, that there are no jobs, that people are still suspicious of their neighbors. I still don’t know what to do with all that I’ve seen and done.

road leading to Trdva

I realize that I need to go home. I’m American, even if I don’t like to think of myself as ‘typically American.’ But being here makes me face my Americanness every day. I feel as if I left in such a hurry. Where was I going? I want to work on being closer with my family. I want to love someone without all my usual fear. I miss saying whatever Iwant to say in my mother tongue. It is tiring to speak in halted sentences, only saying half of what I am thinking and feeling.

Osijek entertainment

I love and miss you and think about you while I’m here. I tell people how you just left New York at the last minute, because you always wanted to go to Japan. Everyone says you are so brave.

What I Failed to Capture on Film

There were moments in my travels where the camera failed me, or I failed the camera. I wasn’t fast enough to load film or grab the camera from my bag, or I was flat-out too shy to risk that moment. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I chose to be a passive observer, knowing that the images – the ‘proof’ –  could be lost. I retreated to memory, or the quiet of my journal to record those snapshots. 

Slovenia, near the Hungarian border, a stork in her nest. You could see the outline of her against the setting sun, her long beak tucked into her chest. I couldn’t get over the size of her, balanced on top of two crossed telephone poles. I couldn’t believe at that moment that I was there.

Eastern Slovenia, on the balcony off a room at Flisar guesthouse. The moon was orange and hung so low in the sky that it looked as if it would drop into the field. 

Croatia, getting off the bus at the wrong stop and walking two miles back to a gypsy village to teach English to elementary kids. I was pissed off and cold. I looked off to the left of me and there were fields, flat as the American Midwest littered with signs that had skulls and crossbones painted on them. They marked landmines. It was the first moment I really felt that there had been a war there only 10 years before and I was walking in the aftermath of it. I passed stucco-looking homes with red tiled roofs, laundry stiffening on lines. I never understood this – why put your wet laundry out in the cold? I missed my American dryer, which softened all of my jeans. I passed a gypsy family hovering over the hood of a red Skoda, screaming at each other. They were trying to make the car run, but the battery had died. There were chickens walking across the road. The bus never came.

Vukovar, the most painful and confusing part of my trip. When you first enter Vukovar, you are greeted by an abandoned tank, as if someone had jumped out of it and would return right away, but got sidetracked. Which is probably the case. Or they ran out of gas or died along the way to help, which is more likely what happened. Vukovar was the most heavily hit city in Croatia, and it shows. The buildings look as if they were cut in half. There is only part of a train station, and the trains don’t run there anymore. Maybe things have changed even in the two years since I’ve been there, but I look it up on the Web, and I don’t read about a change. Vukovar is along the Danube River, and suprisingly, a stop on the myriad of Danube River tours that are advertised all over the EU. And right at the stop where tourists are released from their cruise, there was the brand new Hotel Lav. My friend Ari and I were the first Americans to enter the hotel, so we got the grand tour. It had just opened a few days earlier from the day we arrived, and the woman at the front desk was very proud of it. There were no guests since it was January, an off-season for Croatia, and even more so in a part of the world that nobody wants to remember, or that nobody knows. We were lead by the desk clerk through mirrored hallways dimly lit, but very modern. One Ikea-esque room, furnished in blond wood and metal, looked out over a bombed-out warehouse roof along the Danube. “This is our presidential suite,” the woman said.

Lake Balaton, Hungary, a snake shooting through the water. A mother tossed her naked little girl into the lake, coaching her to doggie paddle. A man walked out to the middle and the water still went up to his waist. A 70s era discoteque building on the boardwalk stood faded and silent in the sun. I wondered what it was like to be here during communism, when the country was shut out from the world. 

Ireland, a back road, somewhere in Dingle. I don’t remember any place names in Ireland, just the roads and the pitch blackness when it finally grew dark at 10pm. I loved that it grew dark so late, how you could see stars, or hear voices somewhere out there, but unlike America, it felt safe, like you could be out there for a long time and nobody could find you. And the smell was damp and clean and nothing like home.

On the Train to Ljlubljana
March 4, 2009, 8:27 PM
Filed under: Croatia, Slovenia | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

leaving osijek

Leaving Osijek feels more unreal to me than when I left the States back in the Fall. I spent this last week teaching and hanging out with Andrija and Ivana, and Rebecca, the girl from Belfast. Rebecca helped me teach by reading to the class. Her accent is so sing-song and beautiful. I asked her to keep reading because it gave me comfort, and because the students weren’t accustomed to Irish-English. These last lessons were held in Tenja. Goran, the local teacher, told me I had a gift for teaching, that I was a natural at it. I realized how much I love my language, trying to break it down for others to understand.

Andrija had Rebecca and I to his house for dinner yesterday. Plates piled high with cabbage slaw, roasted chicken, lamb cuts, creamed corn, mashed potatoes, and krempita for dessert. Andrija showed us his insect collection from his studies at the agricultural college. He told me that he loves talking with me, we never run out of things to say. And I thought this is how it was with C, and why I thought I was falling in love with him. Someday I will get it right.

What do I do now? About my family, finding more money, getting my shit together when it comes to relationships. I still don’t know what I want to do when I return to the States in April. I think it feels strange leaving Osijek because until today, I had a plan about where I was going. Now the months are wide open. Complete freedom. The Croatian fields outside the train window are still covered in snow. Blank sheets of white paper. I’m going to miss the border patrol at Magyarboly, who always remembered me because of my Magyar surname, who waved to Rebecca and me as they checked our passports and the train pulled over the border into Beli Manastir. I’m going to miss Goran and his impeccable English. Ketchup flips, Riki bars, and even the cold walks to the Centre za mir, waiting at Gundilica for the traffic cop to wave pedestrians through blinking street lights. I’m going to miss Ivana, her seven brothers, and especially Andrija, who left me with a copy of his favorite childhood book on the train. When I opened it, dinar from the war fluttered into my lap, now worth nothing but to mark the place in my reading.

We just crossed the border into Slovenia, en route to the capital. My heart swelled at the sight of the Alps, houses built into the mountainside. Clouds hugging the peaks. The Soca River is running quick, snow melting from the mountains and into the river bed. There is hardly any snow in the valley, but the land is dry like hay. I imagine myself on the side of one of these roads that I’m watching from the train window, standing at the base of the mountain, staring up at its enormity, feeling small and alive in the face of it. I’m one step closer to home.

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