My roommate Lela is involved with an anti-Fascist organization in town, and they organized a workers’ solidarity march a week ago. The atmosphere was one of camaraderie and cheerfulness, with people walking their bikes and dogs or holding flags. I spotted many red armbands. The march ended at the building where the organization meets, and– in true socialist fashion– included free beans, bread, and warm cider.

It’s so different being here, where socialism was people’s childhoods, away from America, where the prospect of universal healthcare results in a government shutdown. Lela’s memories of socialism are mostly positive– she grew up in a very industrial area, near a huge steel mill, and her mother was a social worker there, insisting on living where the workers lived. No one was homeless. Everyone was fed. There were cultural opportunities for young people. The people sacrificed certain freedoms– speaking in favor of Capitalism would land you in prison– but they had healthy, generally fulfilling lives.

The American system of government is one based on freedom from oppression, and I instinctively reject the idea of willingly sacrificing free speech for anything. Being in the Balkans gives one a distinctive perspective, and a vastly different one than either Western Europe or ex-Soviet context would offer. Rearticulating my ideas across our kitchen table here has made me realize how essentially American my thought patterns are. I’ve learned that you can always break it down more, trace it further backwards, keep searching for the most basic things.

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hazy shade

surprisingly accurate with regards to my zagreb life right now, minus the snow patches

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17/11/2013 · 15:51

time lapses

I’m back in Zagreb, and the weather turned while I was in Israel– it’s winter now. After being surrounded by Hebrew, I was comforted by the Croatian, but it was mostly sad to come back, like waking up from a dream. The sky is always overcast now. I am wearing a scarf inside my apartment. Perhaps I haven’t been writing much here because I’ve been writing more poems since Tel Aviv– the two ways of writing are so separate in my mind that sometimes I feel as if I only have energy for one.

Margot was in Zagreb for a couple days before moving on to see a friend in Tuzla, and it was surreal and energizing to be with someone from that distant other life that was Boston. We shared some ridiculous stories and (of course) drank a lot of kava and pivo. I felt absurdly proud when she was impressed by my broken Croatian (I am a pro at ordering lattes). I can even eavesdrop on basic conversations if I watch people’s faces. This makes the language even more enticing, and I’m trying to force myself to study so I master more basics before I go home in three short weeks.

I’ve been searching for jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, with no leads so far. There’s something liberating about not knowing where I’ll be in two months, but practically speaking it’s stressful. Now that the end of this journey is in sight, I hate the idea of leaving, although of course there are things that appeal to me about going home. I like the holidays, and it will be great to see my family and friends again, but it seems unreal. If Tel Aviv was a dream, America was too– longer, maybe, but also more faded with age.

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17/11/2013 · 15:44

tel aviv

My friend Dan invited me to visit him at home in Israel, so I’m staying just outside Tel Aviv in Ramat Gan for a week. So far I’ve seen one of the sites of the Scouts (where Dan works as the director) and been to the old port at Jaffa at night. The difference in architecture is striking and abrupt when you move into the Arabic section of town. In ways it reminded me of Rovinj– lots of winding stairs and cobblestones leading down through a labyrinth of streets down to the water. We stood and watched the fishermen working by flashlight with little help from the cloudy sky. The sea is much rougher hitting the newer port– there, the familiar roaring and crashing was so loud we realized we were yelling to be heard. It makes me homesick more than anything else I remember recently– I’ve always lived with water nearby and living landlocked seems uncomfortable to me. The weather here’s been lovely– warm during the day, cooling down a little at night, and today there was a sprinkling of rain. I meant to head to an art museum after lunch but instead I wrote a poem. Now the rain has stopped but I think I’ll just curl up and read for a couple hours. I have a week here, and I’m sure there will be enough adventures to excuse a lazy afternoon– I’m hoping to visit Jerusalem and the Dead Sea this week, and do some hiking close to Tel Aviv.  For now, writing and reading as always.

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Authentic Pleasure (TM)

Friday I went to the beginning-of-lectures party at the fakultet (Toni is my social coordinator extraordinaire– if this was a movie he’d get a line in the credits). It was borderline hilarious to see this scene that would never happen in the states: a party sponsored by the university, on university grounds, with faculty and students alike drinking, smoking, dancing, and generally debauching. The students showed up hauling copious quantities of boxed wine and 2-liter screw-top bottles of Ojusko (beer).

The bar inside the university building is decorated partly in a communist theme (Stalin, Lenin, Marx wallpapered in silhouette behind the bar itself). There’s also an enormous mural of Jesus, and some extremely unrealistic headless busts of breasts « dressed » in different themed outfits (yes, there was an American Girl). When we walked in they were blasting Spice Girls at an unholy decibel level. Eventually, the night decrescendoed and I walked home in the brisk air because the tram runs only at occasional intervals after midnight.

Yesterday I felt lazy for staying in all day struggling with my Croatian homework and watching TV online, so I took a walk before dinner. I figured I knew my way around enough to just wander, which was basically true– but at the end I ended up taking a wrong turn and losing my way back to the Trg Zrtava Facisma, so I got more exercise than I bargained for. It had seemed like scarf weather when I left, but by the time I got back I was so warm from the walk I carried it in my hand.

I found a violin! It’s arriving tomorrow and I’m assured all I have to do is buzz the guy up and sign for it, and I will be in possession of my very own super cheap and crappy violin + bow + plastic case. I can’t wait. I’m already in demand as a jazz violinist (no joke), something for which I have zero experience but lots of enthusiasm. I also found a baroque music concert tonight I’m going to try to find a ticket for– such a great coincidence that the violin concert is while I’m here! Though it’s a British soloist, I’m excited to hear the Croatian Baroque Orchestra. Their tagline? « Authentic Pleasure »

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I finally started learning Croatian. My teacher’s name is Ines, and is calm and helpful. She often finds it difficult to translate terms like « case » and « neuter » into English, but I know enough of what’s going on to figure it out. I feel as if my language background both helps and hurts me. « Je » means « am » in Croatian, but « I » in French. Spanish from middle school left a framework in my head for stem changes. Italian from operas makes me mispronounce « ce » every damn time. Some almost-forgotten Latin from a very young age (thanks Dad) somehow parallels one verb ending pattern.

I genuinely find Croatian beautiful, though. A Croatian friend laughed when I said this, and told me I was the first person she’d ever known to like it aesthetically. The consonants trip a native English speaker, but I love that the language is really formed around vocalization. Ines and I were trying to figure out a rule for some tricky masculine/feminine endings, and in the end the best thing we came up with was « choose whatever sounds right when you say it. »

There are also some interesting sociological twists to be found– there’s no female version of « fireman »/ « firefighter » because « there aren’t really any female firefighters ». There are separate words for your uncle who is your mother’s brother and your uncle who is your father’s brother, but only one word for your aunt-by-blood, regardless of whose sister she is. (There are separate words altogether for aunts and uncles by marriage.)

Near the end of today’s lesson I got to translate a paragraph about a family tree. It was maybe 30 words long, and took me ten minutes and lots of vocabulary consultation. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and I keep moving pieces around in my head to test if they fit. Or it’s like relearning algebra years later, with some of the rules changed.

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a permanent address

I’ve been in Zagreb for almost two weeks, but it seems like much longer. I’ve moved in with Lela, who is works for the Ministry of Culture. We’ve talked about everything from politics to cooking (neither of us are very good at it) and Lela is convinced it’s better to be in Europe for artistic people (« the government supports art here »). I feel at home in Zagreb, and it feels good to have an address.

Getting off the bus from Pula every couple hours to stretch my legs, I noticed the air getting colder and colder. Once I arrived in Zagreb, I was afraid the city would skip my favorite season and head straight into winter. The temperature hovered around 12 degrees Celsius. I made plans to buy wool socks and caught a cold almost immediately. After a few days in bed making myself powdered soup and convincing myself whiskey was helping my sore throat, I recovered, as did the weather. Croatian Independence Day was Tuesday, and it was gorgeous. I spent it wandering around with my camera taking surreptitious shots of Croats (this is my film camera, so I’ll only see the pictures when I get back to the states). There were baton twirlers at the Jelačic statue in the Trg (this improbable word means « square »). Lela was excited to be off work for the holiday, and organized a major cleaning operation.

Margot wrote about her time in Zagreb as a lot of coffee and conversation; I laughed when I read her post because that’s exactly how I feel. Coffee is cheap and delicious here, and as much of an afternoon institution as tea is in England. I have borrowed Margot’s friend Toni, and we meet most days for coffee and a few hours of conversation. I’ve learned how to make espresso at home with the tall, little kettle but usually go out instead. I’m at Booksa now, a coffeeshop/ literary venue near the apartment. It has public books on shelves all around the room, which reminds me of a tea shop in my hometown. There’s a small English-language section of mostly thrillers, although I also see a shiny box set of the Twilight books. My first day at Booksa I read an entire Agatha Christie novel (The Big Four) because I had so missed the experience of actually reading a book. I brought only five, three poetry books, one essay collection, and one novel. It seems silly, but I’ve realized I’m rationing them.

I wear the same thing every day, but somehow don’t mind. I think I’m dressed far more French than Croatian– lots of grey and black, but at least everything matches everything else. I’ve started wearing makeup again. As Catherine put it, the Sarah in Croatia reapplies lipstick. People in Zagreb are definitely more fashion-conscious than on the coast; I missed the « it » crowd of the high season, and saw mostly comfortably-dressed locals and practically-dressed travelers my first two weeks. Here it’s different. I’ve window-shopped near the main square, and am struck by how many Croatians I see doing the same thing. People here spend money to look smart. Women wear heels and leather jackets. Waiting for the tram near Toni’s university yesterday, I saw a girl looking aloofly elegant in a cloak.

I’ve got a couple leads on a violin, and have found a Croatian tutor! We’re going to start this week, so hopefully I will soon be able to say more than my hodgepodge of words: coffee, beer, thank you, good afternoon, bus station, excuse me, lizard, and cicada. Lizard I know because a cannon was named « the lizard » in Dubrovnik; cicada I know because there’s a famous Croatian poem titled « Cvrčak » that is peskily untranslatable because of the obvious onomatopoeia.  I say « cvrčak » every chance I get, flipping my tongue like you never get to do in English or French, muttering it under my breath as I walk home from the Pekarna with today’s bread.

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