Bosnia and Italy, February – March 1993
Less than a month into our relationship, we were having a rare evening telephone call. Lines between Sarajevo and Kiseljak were usually down, communication another casualty of war. Huddled by the fireplace with the receiver balanced between my shoulder and ear, I poked a glowing log until it flared in an attempt to get some heat into my frigid flat.
“So when are we going to get married?” he asked nonchalantly.
I responded to Neil with a nervous giggle. I hadn’t thought about getting married. The idea of it almost embarrassed me. I’d never harbored fantasies of wedding.
The dysfunctional family I grew up in provided me with no blueprints for love. My parents always seemed vaguely annoyed with each other although it was mostly my father with my mother who also was perpetually irritated by us kids. It should not have surprised me the day my father announced he was moving out. Between alarming sobs he explained he wanted to live alone for the first time in his life at 40 something, to pursue his dream of writing a book. A lie – of course it was another woman. My three siblings were at college. My mother had left town instructing my father to deliver the news to me and then move out. Sitting cross-legged on the scratchy love seat next to the wingback chair where he held his head in his hands, I awkwardly offered my father comfort, reassuring him that I understood and it was okay. I was seventeen.
Wiping his face he thanked me, patted my leg and began packing, first removing the knock-off Van Gogh prints from the walls and packing up books I’d never identified as ‘his’. After loading up the Chevy Vega, he drove away forever. My remaining months of high school in the stripped-down split-level were excruciating. Glass of booze-soaked tinkling ice always in her hand, my mother wept bitterly and confessed her fear of growing old alone. To my teenage narcissistic self this seemed an awful reason to stay in what I perceived as a loveless marriage. I vowed I would never to be like her – fearing solitude.
But now in my third decade, I didn’t want to be alone either.
I reached for another log, the receiver wedged between my neck and ear as I placed it in the fire.
“I’m serious. I want to get married and have a baby and so do you, so when are we going to do this?” Neil asked.
“Aren’t proposals supposed to be done in person? Shouldn’t you be on your knee?” I teased.
“I will, I promise. Darling, get ready for a lifetime of romance! You’ve never met such a romantic guy as me!”
Neil’s promise of commitment was a first for me with my history of flakey boyfriends. His open determination to be with me both flattered and terrified me. I deflected his casual proposals with jokes, never giving him a straight response, acting as if he were only playing a game. But he was serious. He wanted a wedding. Could I see myself marrying him? Did I want to commit to a lifetime with this man? Was he the father I imagined for my children? Our lives in Bosnia were surreal and sometimes I felt like we were playing roles in a movie – Neil’s movie.
I had doubts. Although affectionate and warm, he avoided intimate communication. The focus of our connection was fun. We never gazed into each other’s eyes. We never had heart-to-heart talks about our deepest dreams, hopes and never – our fears. What I knew of his past was a collection of mostly amusing anecdotes. Nor did he ask enquiring questions of me. How much did we know each other? Was my perception of our relationship being skewed by this dangerous place so full of sadness? He brightened my days and made me feel safe.
In his lumpy bed at the Holiday Inn, flak jackets on the floor beside us just in case of a nighttime mortar attack, Neil pulled me close, muffling the gunfire blasts with his kisses and holding me in what he called ‘spoony-style’ as we watched fuzzy episodes of Star Trek. Sounds of battles and my doubts became muffled behind heavy blackout curtains, as we got lost in each other’s arms.
Neil was always surprising me. When long days in the office and the relentless misery of war and winter felt overwhelming, he appeared bearing gifts. I was as if he knew I needed cheering up. Snow lay thick on the ground the day he showed up with a bouquet of flowers he’d found god-knows-where in shattered Sarajevo. Love letters full of longing and sweetness were delivered by Danish transport soldiers who drove the armored personnel carriers between Kiseljak and Sarajevo. Our lines of communication were limited so he enlisted the help of a cast of characters to pass along his messages of affection including The New York Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner for that year, John Burns who said as he passed me in the hallway, “Neil sends his love!” He religiously tried the telephones and when they worked, we talked for hours. He was right: I had never known such a romantic guy so determined to convince me I was loved.
We planned weekend get-away to Italy for the end of March. From Kiseljak we would drive through the mountain roads to Split and catch the ferry across the Adriatic. On the morning of our departure, we woke to a blizzard. The mountain passes of central Bosnia were treacherous at the best of times, but Neil was undeterred. We loaded our bags into a UN Land Cruiser and headed into a wall of white for what should have been a few hours drive.
The car slipped at every turn. Sometimes the road completely disappeared in drifts as we climbed up and down mountains. Entire convoys of trucks were stalled on the icy roads and Neil barreled past them, protectively reaching his long arm across my chest as he ploughed through drifts. Wildly shifting gears, he made the car leap over flooded roads. He was fearless – or maybe reckless – but I was in the flush of new love and thought it fantastic. We were escaping! As darkness closed in on the mountains, we stopped at a village where the ICRC had an office and an extra bed. Squeezing onto a narrow mattress, we held each other tightly, quietly making love before collapsing into sleep. The next day was clear and sunny and the roads more manageable. We arrived to the snow-free, coastal town of Split in time to board the ferry.
In Italy, we packed our flak jackets and helmets into the trunk of a tiny Fiat rental. In the 1980s, Neil toured through Italy with the English group Spandau Ballet and he remembered these roads. Stopping at highway rest stops, we savored cappuccinos with pastries and in contrast to the deprived world we’d left little more than an hour ago, marveled at the treat-packed shelves – an infinite choice of coffee, cigarettes, beautiful breads and candies. In Rome, Neil sped through the narrow streets to a hotel near the Spanish steps.
“You’re going to love this place. We used to stay here with Spandau and they treated us like royalty. Bring your flak jacket and helmet – they’ll help to get us a great room.”
Our bags flung over his shoulder, he scooted ahead. I followed, clutching my purse, flak jacket and helmet. Never would I have ventured into such a posh hotel on my own. Covered from the dust of our travels, I followed Neil past the doorman and ritzy entrance pretending not to be intimidated by the fanciness of the place. He strode up to the front desk.
“Buon giorno,” he greeted the scowling man. “I wonder if you could help us? We work in Sarajevo and have been living without water or electricity for months and we’d like to book a room for a few days to recover. What have you got for us?”
“How many nights do you wish to stay sir?”
“At least two. And can you give us something special? You know, I used to come to your beautiful hotel years ago when I worked with the bands. Maybe you remember? Spandau Ballet?”
The man listened politely but registered no reaction, peering up at Neil over his tortoise shell glasses.
“There was a fantastic room with a balcony that had incredible views of your beautiful Roma. Any chance you could let us have that room, mate? At a reasonable price, por favore, signore?”
Simultaneously embarrassed and impressed, I stood back and watched Neil do his thing. I’d never been any good at bargaining and certainly not in a place like this. By myself, I would have sought out a tiny room in a crumbling pensione on the outskirts of the city. Neil was undaunted by this expensive hotel or snobby man. He believed we belonged here and his charm and confidence worked. Finally, the man seemed amused by their exchange and handed Neil a ring with a large, old-fashioned key on it.
“Thanks mate, or rather: Grazie signore! Come on darling, I’m taking you to the most beautiful room you’ve ever seen,” He bellowed so anyone in the hushed lobby might hear.
We followed the bellhop to a tiny elevator that took us to the penthouse suite. The room was elegantly furnished, the bed bursting with pillows and stunning views even from the bathroom window. We stepped out onto the terrace.
“There! The Colosseum is over there – isn’t this beautiful?” Neil grabbed me by the waist and pulling me against his chest he rested his chin on the top of my head as we looked out across the Roman skyline together.
“Wow. It’s hard to believe that a few hours ago we were in Bosnia and now we’re here,” I whispered.
“Isn’t it amazing. I knew you’d love this.” Neil squeezed me. “Get ready for a fantastic weekend! There’s a restaurant I know near the Trevi fountain where I’ll take you to dinner and after, we can make our three wishes.”
Cuddled on Neil’s lap, we paused kissing only to sip wine. I could not imagine what else to wish for. In Rome with this handsome, confidant, affectionate adventurous man who loved me and wanted babies completed my fantasy.
Even the weather was perfect, the air fresh and balmy enough for us to lounge in bathrobes. After a long hot bubble bath together, we took turns posing for goofy pictures in the hotel’s plush robes worn beneath our flak jackets and helmets against the panoramic landscape. As the sun went down over the city, I relaxed into the luxury. Only an hour’s flight away, people were suffering but we were in love and we were in Rome! Why shouldn’t we treat ourselves? I pushed guilty thoughts of suffering in Bosnia out of my head and the weekend flew.
We stayed until the last possible hour before boarding a sleeper train that hurtled us through darkness back to Croatia. The plan was for Neil to pick up an armored car from the Zagreb ICRC office so we could drive to Sarajevo together. Driving seemed a better idea than counting on the unreliable United Nations ‘Maybe Airlines’. Heavy fighting around Sarajevo meant the airport might stay closed for days.
The next morning, groggy from a night of travel, I sat and read in the ICRC Zagreb office while Neil prepared what he needed. Charging from room to room, he left a wake of laughter. But when he discovered things were not in order he became uncharacteristically serious.
“The Land Rover they sent from England doesn’t have any bloody spare tires. There’s no way we’d find them in Sarajevo and I refuse to make the drive without a spare. Let’s go get something to eat while they work on this. I’m starving!”
“Okay, but I’m kind of anxious – I know Victor is expecting me. Maybe I should go ahead and try and fly to Split on my own. I could probably get a ride back from there.”
I had already taken a longer weekend than usual and felt like the need to get back to work. I know Victor counted on me. Neil’s face fell.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t drive without the spare. If anything happened we’d be buggered. And these wankers don’t have a clue about what their doing. I keep hounding them to call different garages to find the right tires but they take so bloody long, it’s really winding me up.”
“That’s okay,” I answered weakly. “Can I use the phone here to see if I can catch a flight?”
Neil sprang out of his chair.
“Let’s go. I’m going to go find the bloody thing myself. Vesna darling, give me some Deutsche Marks. Those guys in procurement are useless.”
Vesna, manning the desk in the front office, peeled off some bills and had Neil sign multiple documents of receipt.
“Bloody hell! You’d think I was signing out the Queen’s jewels here,” he said and Vesna tittered.
“Come on sweetheart. Let’s go show them how this is done.” Taking my hand, he led me to where the fancy new armored Land Rover was parked. With racks atop the roof and the steering wheel on the opposite side it felt like we should be heading off to safari, not driving through the streets of Zagreb. Neil pulled into every petrol station and auto repair shop and with a mix of Croatian, German, English words and hand signs, asked for the tires to no avail. After about an hour, we headed back to the ICRC office when Neil stepped on the gas to speed through a changing light, maneuvering the heavy Rover past beat-up Yugo’s and Zastavas to another Land Rover ahead of us in the farthest of four lanes of traffic.
“Hold on tight!” he yelled, as always, putting his arm in front of my body protectively. “Hey, molim!” The windows on the armored car could not be rolled down so Neil had opened the door as he pulled up alongside the other truck from his English, left-sided driver seat. The driver looked at him wide-eyed.
“Hey mate! I’ll give you Deutsche Marks for your spares! Dobro?” Neil had struck gold: tires were piled on the roof. He motioned to a side street and within minutes, Neil made a quick transaction through a cloud of shared cigarette smoke and his usual creative cobbling together of languages. Watching him from the warmth of the car, something shifted inside of me as if my future had clicked into place. I would do this! Life with this man would never be dull. I felt giddy with my new clarity, a decision: I want to be with Neil. I do want to share his life, be in on his capers. As we’d done over these past few days, I wanted to live bravely, travel the dangerous roads ending up in either fancy hotels or share a narrow cot in the middle of nowhere – it wouldn’t matter. Together, we’d find joy in any situation and out of this joy, make our family. Neil’s indefatigable quest for tires inspired me. Like him, I never wanted to be defeated by my circumstances.
“What do you think of that? That’s how you get things done now, eh?” he said grinning.
I laughed, “You’re incredible! I can’t believe you spotted this guy and bought those tires right off of his car.”
“He probably would have jacked up his car and taken off the wheels for the amount of Deutsche Marks I gave him. I don’t know how happy the ICRC will be, but he’s pleased as punch and we get to hit the road back to Sarajevo.”
“Well, I’m impressed. So we can go now?” I wanted to start the long trip back to Bosnia. Victor would be wondering where I was.
“I need to stop back to the office for a few minutes and we’ll be off,” he said and leaned over to kiss me and whispered, “I love you.”
“I love you!” I practically shouted.