I can appreciate that this little chick might be somewhat dumbfounded. Nestled within its egg for 21 days (which in chicken lifespan terms is, I’m sure, a very long time) and then, bam! Hello world! Now what…?
It’s not like I didn’t know this was coming, rationally. It’s been more than a year since I submitted the grant request to the Lilly Foundation. And it’s been nine months since the grant was approved. And since that time not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about, planned for, dreamed of and generally marinated in the prospect that I will be going back to the countries of the former Yugoslavia for the first time in over forty years.
Well, I did go back to the Adriatic coast with two friends while I was living in Germany and, while I can’t say that didn’t “count” because it certainly did, it wasn’t the same as all the previous visits which involved family — grandmother, great-aunts and uncles, friends of my mother who might as well have been family. So this summer, I am going back to that — or what is left of it.
Most of my family, of course, have passed on. I will visit with one aunt. Actually a first-cousin-once-removed, but in Serbian families where even third cousins are a big deal, this is a super big deal. I also look forward to meeting a cousin I didn’t know existed until we met on facebook several months ago, and I am thrilled that I my husband and two grown children will be able to share this experience with me.
But when I say “I’m going back to that — or what is left of it,” there is of course another meaning altogether. The last time I was there it was “Yugoslavia.” My relatives hated the communists, but hey — the country at least hung together. I couldn’t understand why, when I came back to Belgrade after a week in Dubrovnik with one of my “tetas” (this one an honorary aunt) and told my grandmother all about this wonderful boy I had met there she practically spat out the word “Hrvat!” (Croat). “No, Manja, he is a Yugoslav!” I just didn’t understand. I knew there had been all sorts of trouble in the past — dating back to at least the 14th century on the battlefield of Kosovo Polje — but these were different times now, weren’t they? It was all one country now, right? — the federation of the South Slavs, or “Yugo (south)-slavia (Slav-land).
And then Tito died. Who knows, maybe he thought he would beat the overwhelmingly stacked odds against immortality. But, for whatever reason, he made no sustainable plans for succession. And the whole country fell apart.
And the wars came. Horrible, genocidal wars. A new phrase was added to the human vocabulary: “Ethnic Cleansing.” All of the seething ethnic/religious/territorial centuries-old animosities came roiling to the forefront. All of the barely repressed memories of who-did-what-to-whom and this land is our God-given heritage (no, ours!), and we’ll pay you back for what you did in the last war and the one before it and…
And there, stuck in the middle of it all, was Bosnia. Just waiting to be carved up by the two forces on either side of her. Because even while their soldiers were busy throttling each other, Slobodan Milosevic (Serbian president) and Franjo Tudjman (Croatian president) were meeting in secret to discuss how they would divide Bosnia-Herzegonia between themselves.
And when the atrocities started in earnest in Bosnia I started hearing incredible things from people I loved: “They’re doing it to themselves to gain international sympathy.” “The reports are exaggerated.” “What about all the Serbs who have been killed throughout the centuries?”
So I shut down. Like a little kid sticking fingers in her ears and singing “lalalalala…” I distanced myself from that part of my heritage for a very long time. After all, I had two small kids to raise, a parish to run as a freshly minted rector. And besides, “ja sam Amerikanka!”
And now I’m going back. In less than two months my daughter and I will fly to Belgrade and the odyssey will begin. People have asked me “what do you hope to find/do/accomplish?” and I’m at a loss for words. Yes, my plan is to connect with groups involved in the work of reconciliation. But beyond that?
Beyond that, well, that’s why this is an odyssey, which Merriam Webster defines as: “a long journey full of adventures; a series of experiences that give knowledge or understanding to someone; an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest.”
But for the next few weeks I’m enjoying some down time, as captured in this photo. I know all my clergy friends can relate — the simple pleasure of a cup of tea and the Sunday New York Times on an actual Sunday morning. A leisurely stroll through the new IKEA (okay, so there’s no such thing as a “leisurely stroll” through IKEA…!), looking forward to spending some time with my daughter when she returns from her post-graduation trip, a trip to DC, two trips in connection with our church’s General Convention. And then before I know it, July 7 will have arrived and off we go.