Attention Must Be Paid

20 years ago, my world was the war zone of Bosnia and Croatia. At first, arriving with the UN as a peacekeeper, I felt sure the world was paying attention and action would be taken to end the bombardment of Sarajevo. I was wrong. The siege went on for years.

Do your eyes glaze over when reading about wars? Sometimes, mine do too. Food and gardening blogs are certainly more enjoyable. Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Sudan — the stories dispatched from these places are overwhelming and disturbing. Beyond sending money to organizations that provide assistance, (MFS is my choice) what can we do? I don’t know. The resulting feeling of impotence sucks. So I may switch my screen or turn a page to order seeds for my garden or catch up on trashy celebrity gossip or the latest buffoonery in the primary.

But this disturbs me: I spoke with people this week who knew nothing of the recent deaths of the war correspondents in Syria. Three brave and excellent journalists were killed because they believed they needed to tell the world about the terrible situation there. To be only vaguely aware, not so interested — feels shameful, and deaths of Marie Colvin, Anthony Shadid and photographer Remi Ochlik — who  lost their lives in getting the story out — even more heartbreaking.

I do not have what it takes to bear witness as, NYTs photographer Tyler Hicks writes so  movingly about his friend and colleague here. I salute the brilliance and insight we lost with these deaths — and vow to pay attention.

A Homecoming (Of Sorts)

This was the plan: I would have my baby in beautiful Cambridge, England. Not too far from N’s family in England, but most importantly, home to Chloe, a friend I’d made on the job at UNICEF-Croatia. A breast-feeding specialist as well as a mid-wife, I couldn’t imagine anyone else I’d rather have deliver my baby. There was no way I wanted to give birth in Zagreb where I was still living, especially after my obstetrician there prescribed tranquilizers for me, 6 months into my pregnancy. As a program officer for UNICEF I’d been in plenty of hospitals in Croatia and would prefer not to cross a maternity ward threshold as a mother-to-be.  Then, my husband landed a plum (and turned out, very temporary) job in Brindisi, Italy.  The baby’s due date was August 1. There was time.

In early June, I left Zagreb and joined N in the small town of Ostuni where he’d splurged on an incredible villa. I picked cherries and limes from the garden, filled vases with just-cut roses. I read and napped on the balcony, gazed at the fields of sunflowers and the shimmer of the Adriatic Sea in the distance. Seduced by the beauty and bliss of the place, I quizzed Chloe about what she thought about staying in Italy for the birth. She suggested a comparable choice might also be Sarajevo — still very much under siege. Southern Italian hospitals were poor and birthing attitudes very behind in terms of best practices for the mother.

So we stuck to our plans. I would depart for England in early July. There, I’d finally read the final chapter – about the 9th month – and face up to what I was in for. I’d bond with other pregnant women and learn to breathe and pant correctly. I’d eat fish and chips to my hearts content and revel in finally completely understanding everything said around me for the first time in almost 4 years.

Molly had other ideas: she was born almost 2 months early on June 13 in a tiny hospital in Ostuni. Whisked away from me to Brindisi Hospital, I barely glimpsed her, did not touch her. Chloe was right about the momma-care (it sucked) but not the neonatology department of Brindisi Hospital. Fancy facilities aren’t everything and the doctors and nurses who took care of (including singing to) my too-early Molly, were superb.

As I write, my daughter is back in Italy for 10 days with her high school’s Italian class. I mentally track her there – imagining what she is seeing, hearing, smelling, eating. I know she must be falling deeply in love with Italy. I can’t help but think she chose to be born there. The Puglia region is not on the school itinerary but Florence is – where I purchased a pregnancy kit that read “Si”. In Rome now, she probably sat on the Spanish steps, threw coins with her wishes, into the Trevi fountain. If the weather cooperates, she will visit Capri. We lost our camera on the boat back to Naples where her birth certificate and first passport were issued. Molly will cross the country by bus all the way back up to Venice, and every mile passed will pull her more deeply in love with this place of such rich beauty and spirit, this place where she first glimpsed the world. And in so many ways, this is a wish come true.


Object of Loss

I lost my pen today. This pen was a present from my late husband and was probably ridiculously expensive. It was a very nice pen and while I am a bit saddened, I’m more philosophical. It was bound to happen since it no longer quite fit into the little leather loop on my wallet. I often had to dig for for it between the mint tin, checkbook, tissues and coupon mess in my handbag.  Just like I did today at the grocery store before I returned to the coffee counter where I’d last pulled out my wallet. No luck.

My husband’s presents were always over-the-top. He’d buy amazing gifts but ignore the stack of bills. His tastes in everything were extravagant; he liked the best clothes, cars — you name it. There was a time when he worked in the movie business in England when he made great money and could really afford to indulge his expensive tastes, or at least so he told  me. This was before my time. When we were together, he never quite got the making-versus-spending money thing. Now I know this is typical of an addict, especially a cocaine addict.  But even when he (we) could no longer afford things like Mont Blanc pens, he couldn’t resist. That’s what I lost today – a Mont Blanc pen.  I’d been carrying this slick black, too-expensive pen around in my wallet like a Bic for… I do the math from N’s death year 8 years ago, and figure I had this pen for about 10 years. A long time for a pen in my wallet.

When we first got together I admit I was impressed by N’s extravagance. After years of watching my pennies and rarely treating myself, indulging in luxury – at least by my standards – seemed possible. After all, I was making more money than I ever had in my life, socking all my wages in the bank for 4 years while living on a UN daily field allowance in Croatia and Bosnia. In the early years we took some crazy trips and stayed in nice hotels and I bought nicer clothes than my usual thrift-shop finds, but mostly, I stayed my frugal self. N on the other hand, showered me with pricey watches, Bally boots, cashmere sweaters – fancy pens.  His generosity and love of nice stuff was seductive. That was before I became aware that he was spending money he didn’t really have. Then it became painful.

I liked the way the pen felt in my hand but rarely used it to write more than a check. Somehow, it never really seemed like mine.

Working II

One of my ‘good-job’ barometers is that I should feel at least a slight rush of excitement upon arriving to work.

In the late 1980s I was a Public Information Assistant at the United Nations in New York. A classy job title: I gave tours in English and pretty atrocious Japanese. The UN felt like

the center of the world. Rounding the corner from 42nd street onto First Avenue I saw and – on a windy day heard – 180+ flags of the world flapping wildly. My heart always skipped a beat.  I loved greeting the security guards with a wave of my badge as I entered the employee-only gate behind suited diplomats, loved eating lunch in the cafeteria overlooking the East river (and the food was good too). Opening days of the General Assembly were particularly exciting; I ran charming photographers around the building for photo-ops with heads-of-state and once shook hands with Vaclav Havel. When Nelson Mandela was freed, I stood with my colleagues applauding madly for at least 5-minutes as he waited patiently at the podium to speak.  The massive hall of the General Assembly shook with emotion and then, as we settled and he spoke, you could have heard a pin drop as tears streamed down our faces.  Amazing times there. I didn’t want to live in NYC anymore though, so signed on to a UN peacekeeping mission and went to Europe. (Another story.)

For the past decade I happily walk into the bookstore 5 days a week. Less momentous than the world stage but still thrilling to me, seeing full shelves, spending my day with books and book-lovers. Much of my work happens in a messy little office in the back so these weeks during the holidays of being ‘out on the floor’ (by the end of my shift – I often feel like I could be knocked out on the floor) are a nice change. I enjoy random encounters with customers, sharing favorite titles with the youngest to oldest reader. We are connecting over books. Well, mostly. There are times these days, I also feel like an electronics salesperson. But still, we talk about reading — pretty good for the soul if you ask me.

We Would Be Haunted

This morning I finished a memoir by an American woman who met and fell in love with her husband in Sarajevo during the war, prematurely gave birth to her longed-for baby in a beautiful European location, and struggled unsuccessfully to sustain a marriage to a tortured soul with an addiction problem. No, not my memoir, The Things We Cannot Change (still agent-shopping) – Janine di Giovanni‘s just published, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption. 

Reading her compelling story was sometimes eerie – as if some Balkan spell had been cast over us who, by choice, lived through those dark days in Bosnia. So much struggle and sadness in our lives, so many unhappy endings where there once seemed such promise – bright love out of the bleakness of war. And yet, of course we would be haunted: what were we thinking?

Janine di Giovanni’s time in Bosnia and mine overlapped although my experience was very different. She is much braver than me and as a journalist, hers was a very clear and admirable mission. As an international civil servant with an administrative job, I lived a comparatively cocooned and frustrated existence. Traveling from New York to be part of a very cloudy ‘Mission’ – I harbored the short-lived illusion, I might be serving the cause of peace.  My war experiences do not compare to her powerful accounts. But as women in love – with love, adventure, romance, our respective babies, our men – it was like reading my own story. And for the battle against addiction, there is no armor.

She writes beautifully – her heart pulsing in each word as she relives her life with Bruno. I vaguely remember him from the Holiday Inn and remember seeing Janine – such a majestic, striking woman. And I remember her friend Ariane, a French journalist who never seemed to leave Sarajevo yet always appeared to be cheerful. I wonder if they would recall the crazy, dashing Englishman, smartly dressed with an ascot tucked into his Barbour, who drove the ICRC around and certainly flirted and flattered them? He never missed an opportunity to leap from the balconies inside the Holiday Inn connected by the climbing lines one of the journalists set up. I think it was Paul who did this – Paul Marchand, the elegant, warm French photographer with a perpetual cigar was one of Neil’s favorite people in Sarajevo. Just this morning, from Janine’s memoir I learned that in 2009, five years after my husband ended his life, Paul also hung himself. So many memories stirred up – and so much sadness. But regret? No. Like Janine, I marvel at my child and cherish the love from those ashes.

Vicarious Travel – Croatia

A friend’s daughter is traveling in Europe – now in Italy, next stop – Croatia. I thought about that beautiful place where I lived from 1992-1996 as a UN staff member and with pleasure, imagined myself a 20-something with a back-pack. Here’s what I would do:

Travel via often overlooked city of Trieste  for a last taste of Italy  (James Joyce is just one of the many writers and artists who spent time here.) Or maybe, stop in Slovenia — I hear the main city, Ljubljana is now full of hip, young people hanging at the outdoor cafes. Cross over into Croatia and explore Istria – this sweet bit of coast with Pula at the tip of it, has an abundance of rocky beaches and tourist-ready spots – very Italian influenced as once-upon a time, it was part of Italy. Then, high-tail it to the Dalmatian Coast – in my opinion, one of the most beautiful stretches in the world. Maybe ferry-hop (from Rijeka?) through the islands all the way down to stunning Dubrovnik – an incredible stone city in a fortress – right on the sea.  Perhaps a stop in Split, worth checking out for Diocletian’s Palace and Mestrovic museum. Or pause at any of the charming fishing villages to eat great seafood (Risotta – black with squid ink) swim – dive off rocks for a swim in the clearest water you’ve ever seen.

The Adriatic Sea is the most amazing mix of blues, emerald greens lapping up against the largely-undeveloped, dramatic landscape of Croatia.  The food may not knock your socks off and last I remember, the people were not the jolliest, but the country is gorgeous.

If it’s possible to leave the beautiful coast, travel inland to Plitvice National Park. Pass through bucolic, gorgeous countryside, full of rocks, fields and flashes from another time – scenes of ancient women in black herding goats, horse drawn wagons overflowing with hay. Plitivice is a great place to hike — trails lead through lush forest and open up at regular intervals onto lakes and waterfalls that seem to be a moving weave of rainbows. This park – in fact – much of the country was closed to tourists when I was there so we went (wary of landmines) we would only see the odd soldier or other UN folk. Still, I imagine that even now there are not too many tourists.

From Plitvice, go to Zagreb – a charming and cosmopolitan city with trams, lots of art museums, great Austo-Hungarian architecture and plenty of busy squares with cafes to sit and people watch. Start with a cup of two of the dark, silty coffee then switch over to the good local beer and breathe deeply and savor it all.

That’s what I would do.

Making Nice

My natural talent for being a wise-cracking asshole was tempered by my years working for the United Nations. After serious training, I learned how to avoid offending people from around the world – it was a job requirement.  On any given day, I spoke to 100 + people who came for a tour of the UN.  Leading my flock through halls and meeting rooms, I spouted the latest Security Council resolutions condemning either Israel or South Africa (this was the 80s) and hedging my way through questions posed by irate visitors about why the UN would not intervene in Tibet or Northern Ireland. Uncomfortably, I lectured Japanese tourists in my abysmal Japanese, about the importance of nuclear disarmament while surrounded by melted artifacts from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I learned to deliver the information – passionately, but without personal opinion.  This meant no smirks, frowns, glee or embarrassment – unless officially sanctioned by the international community.

It wasn’t easy. I’m pretty opinionated and used to delight in verbal sparring. Sometimes, still do. But to this day, I value the skills I picked up in those international rooms. One key to maintaining a mask of control and fending off potential conflict is to have a script — a few non-commital words expressing whatever the neutral party line is. This still comes in handy. Just the other day, someone cornered me at work wanting to know what I thought about the competition shutting down in the next town. “It’s always sad when a bookstore closes.” I said. And while this is true in theory, in reality, I think: better them than us — I sure hope that we get a bump in business comparable to the hit we took when they opened.

Often, being diplomatic can just mean keeping your mouth shut, and that really doesn’t come easily to me. I have only gotten fired once in my life – from a waitressing job when I was in college. Too many years have passed for me to recall the exact exchange, but a customer was rude to me and I dished it right back. In retrospect, I admire that gal but today, I need my day job.

Keeping my mouth shut was a skill I really got to practice in the war zones of former Yugoslavia. You don’t want to piss anyone off when Kalashnikovs are around.  A neutral smile, courtesy and a United Nations blue passport were all useful in getting through checkpoints manned by sometimes drunken Serbs, Croats or Bosnians. This discipline of not inflaming dicey situations still helps me today: I avoid road-rage incidents on Route 1 and can defuse the instinct to punch the lights out of unpleasant customers in the bookstore. I think a certain amount of public neutrality is common sense – who wants their window smashed by a right-winger offended by a ‘Planned Parenthood’ or ‘Support Our Soldiers: Bring them Home’ sticker?  The only bumper-sticker I have on my car says “READ”.  I think that’s safe.



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