The Long Way Home

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.


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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