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.

July 4th Rant

At the risk of being branded un-patriotic (fine with me but that’s another topic), I am declaring the 4th of July my least favorite holiday. It’s not political – but the bloody fireworks freak my poor dog out so much that even a full valium (the vet recommended a quarter to a half pill) had absolutely no effect on him. For three days, as the sun set and the bangs began, Tetley was a miserable, panting, pacing, barking mess.

I’ve tried everything including a ‘Thundershirt‘ purchased hopefully just a month or so ago. He likes it, probably because he knows how handsome he looks in it — but it isn’t as effective as the company’s website video suggests (surprise!) — he is barely calmer – but I’ll take it.

Also, the noises bother me too, reminding me quite convincingly of the real thing: mortar shells whistling before the thud of landing, gun battles in the hills and the streets of Bosnia and Croatia. Not nice, not fun — not at all.

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.

The Power of Herbs

Yesterday we finally enjoyed a Spring Saturday of sunny warmth. I gardened all day, transplanting, mulching, raking. My body now buzzes with the delicious, all-over, day-after ache of a good workout. I think that’s from wrestling with Mint. For years now, every spring I must rip out the thickly woven roots of this magnificently fragrant, insidious plant that threatens to take over my vegetable garden. And every year I think I have completed the job yet, between tomatoes, basil and beans, stalks of Mint emerge.

Standing, I loosen the roots with a pitchfork, a ripping sound my cue that I can pull them out without injury to my back. Then, sitting down in the dirt, I grab the roots with gloved hands and yank. As I do this, strings of tentacles pop out beneath the soil, leading me to another tangle of growth.  I planted this mint as a fledgling gardener, not knowing I would forever battle this harmless looking plant – so delicious for tea and in salads. Now I cautiously plant perennial herbs only in pots or where I want wild, fragrant coverage. Never in the vegetable garden.

Yesterday, I also pulled out a Purple Sage that for over a decade, has grown beside the vegetable garden’s gate. In spite of ruthlessly cutting it back every spring, by July I must squeeze between the fence and furry leaves on woody limbs, to get to the rest of the garden. With my pitchfork, I easily lifted out the Purple Sage and moved it to a flower garden where I am attempting to orchestrate a constant show of color of perennials and shrubs. Hopefully, it will thrive between the Irises and Azaleas.

Every time I bruised by the Purple Sage, or plucked some leaves for roasting a chicken or to be sauteed in butter for a simple pasta sauce, I think of the friend who brought it to me during my first spring in this house. She was visiting from NYC and arrived with a flat of herbs.  This plant survived those 15 years although our friendship did not. I have never known why she no longer wanted me in her life. She disappeared into silence during the height of addiction drama in my marriage, when she had just launched into her own, happier marriage. I imagine, we were too much for her — and don’t blame her: I would have felt the same aversion to us, her messed up friends. But she had been there at our beginning: she and I were off for a weekend break and were passengers on the same military transport plane out of Sarajevo when N and I connected for the first time. She predicted our future then – with a happier ending. Over those years in the madness that was former Yugoslavia at war, she was my dearest friend – family to N and I. Then, we all ended up here — her in the city, us in Connecticut. We saw each other less, especially as N descended into his hell of addiction and I scrambled to keep the pieces of our lives together. I left her a message or two and sent an email wondering what I had done, but I never heard from her. I still wonder what happened and miss her brilliance and hilarity. I moved this shrubby herb to gain more space to plant vegetables, but also, unconsciously, perhaps to end these flashes of mourning evoked by the scent of Sage.

Veteran’s Day

It should be no secret that soldiers are as vulnerable to mental damage as they are physical. This is obvious from the mental illness and drug addiction so rife in returning soldiers. My late-husband was a veteran.  Always a voluble guy, he told compelling tales of his past, of growing up in England, his travels, the movie and music business of which he was also a veteran, yet he rarely spoke about his time as a 17-20 year old British soldier in the 70s.  Like most over the past decades, the battles his government sent him into were dubious ones – even secret – and he lived with the resulting nightmares of terrible violence and shame with uncharacteristic silence.  And ultimately, he paid the price as we, his family did.

This excerpt is from the memoir I am working on:

I used to wonder why veterans are reticent to talk about their war experience. They flinch at the thoughtless question, “Did you ever kill anyone?” yet put them in a room with other soldiers, even former enemies, and in hushed tones their stories flow. Soldiers believe their experiences are too terrible to repeat to civilians. Ian did.

Can anyone who inflicted and suffered terrible violence ever really experience peace again? Maybe only those who see at least a glimmer of possibility through the demons of their past, manage to survive.  Perhaps the veterans of war keep their terrible memories locked away in the hope they will eventually disappear. And maybe I need to tell mine so they won’t.

This nod of a named-day or a float in a parade, a bumper sticker — none of these are enough. Soldiers, are claimed as points of righteous patriotism and used as political batting rams.  They return home from ostensibly protecting their country, their people — and are left with little support of the kind that can make a difference. Instead, after being feted with parties or a parade, they are expected to return to their roles of parents, children, brother, sister and friend. To carry on. Instead, an increasing number are so damaged and without support, they kill themselves and sometimes, awfully, their own families.  Something is wrong.  Silence is a killer and must be broken to save these lives tasked by governments with the notion of protecting ours.