Monthly Archives: May 2012
For happiness one needs security, but joy can spring like a flower even from the cliffs of despair.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
At 8:30 a.m., we leave the cruise ship wondering what we will hear in this tragic city, still struggling to rebuild itself from the siege by Serbian troops in 1991 that reduced it to rubble and marked the collapse of Yugoslavia. From the ship we have already seen the towering white cross on the riverbank, which commemorates the lives lost during the conflict.
When we reach the busses, we see our tour guides – none of them out of their twenties. Is it too difficult for those who lived through the conflict to talk about it, I wonder? Or has it been deemed unwise for us to hear what they might say?
“Bosnian President Milosevioc wanted control of Vukovar because it is the largest river port in Croatia.”
How similar this sounds to yesterday’s guide explaining why Serbia was so often attacked. I wonder if she would see the irony.
“Many Serbs lived here then, and Milosevioc promised them the houses of wealthy Croatians if they assisted him,” our young guide continues. “He thought it would take three days to conquer Vukovar. Croatia, after all, didn’t have its own militia; we were all part of Yugoslavia, and the army was centralized in Belgrade, where the government of Yugoslavia was situated.
“But Vukovar held out for three months. This made Milosevioc so angry he ordered the city destroyed and hundreds of civilians massacred. We call them our heroes, because they gave the rest of Croatia time to organize a militia and defend themselves—they saved Croatia from being occupied.”
She speaks well, but it sounds like a history lesson she learned in school. She’s too young to share personal reminiscences of the time, as the Serbian guide did.
“From 1991 to 1998 this city lay in rubbles, deserted. Then people came back, to rebuild. Some had lived here before, but many who lived here never came back; they had built a new life elsewhere. We call those who came back to rebuild heroes, too, because it is not easy.”
She doesn’t have to explain why—the shells of bombed-out buildings are all around. Gaping window openings stare back at us from walls riddled with bullet holes. Half of the city buildings look habitable, another quarter in the midst of reconstruction, but at least a quarter of the buildings are still just gaping shells or the broken rubble of what once stood there.
We leave the bus to walk through the city behind her. Croatian citizens pass us, going about their business as though it is normal to live in a war-torn city. They don’t look happy, but neither do they look devastated, as I imagine this setting would make me feel. I am reminded of our Serbian guide’s comments on the Island of War. Can you get used to looking into the face of war?
“Thirty-seven thousand Croatians live here now, and seven thousand Serbians,” our guide tells us. I ask how they get along.
“The Serbians keep to themselves,” she says. “There are coffee shops for Serbians, and other coffee shops for Croatians. At the market there are stalls the Serbians buy from, and others the Croatians buy from.”
We have reached the open market now, and I look around for a Section separated from the other vendors. “The barriers aren’t real,” she explains, “they’re self-imposed. They just know who to approach, who to avoid. The Serbians want it that way. They lobbied for separate classrooms for their children, so they won’t mingle with Croatian children. The rest of Croatia doesn’t feel that way, only here in Vukovar.”
I nod. I can see the people around me, getting on with their lives, but I am not surprised that there’s another story underneath. This desecrated city won’t let them forget until it is entirely rebuilt. Perhaps not even then.
“I myself am from a nearby town,” our young guide tells us. “We don’t make any distinction there. I have only seen it here. We are very similar after all, Serbians and Croatians. We understand each other very well. Our languages are very similar, and there are lots of friendships and relations on both sides. I am the child of a mixed marriage. I was brought up to believe that no race is entirely bad, and no race is entirely good.”
I wonder at the reference to absolutes: entirely bad, entirely good. Have her Serbian-Croatian parents had to contradict other influences? ‘Not entirely,’ I hear them telling her.
“History has proved that we cannot work together, so it is better that we are separated,” says this girl who is too young to remember Tito, or the union that was Yugoslavia. And who am I to say she’s wrong, that it was just one man, a sick egomaniac of a president, according to our guide in Belgrade. That some people remember it did work. How do I know whose perception was correct?
“Things are getting better,’ our Croatian guide says, as we walk past buildings stalled I reconstruction by insufficient funds. “Last year the president of Serbia came here and apologised to us.” She pauses. “Some Serbians try to deny what happened. But the fact is that we were attacked. That’s a fact. There,” she points to the remains of a building. “There was a hospital. Near the end of the siege, many Croatians hid there, in the basement. When the Serbians broke through our defenses, they took everyone from that hospital. The youngest was a six-month-old baby and the oldest a sixty-four year-old woman. They took them all out to a farm nearby, and massacred them.”
She’s too young for this to be a memory, yet she says it with emotion: a history lesson drilled into her. ‘Not entirely bad,’ I hear her parents’ moderating voices. Which was the Serbian, mother or father? I pity him or her.
“The sick people in the hospital also?” someone asks.
She nods. “But we are very good neighbours, now,” she adds. “Of course we have to be if we want to join the European Union.”
We arrive at the market and she gives us ten minutes to look around it, before walking back to the ship. A group of teenagers passes us. They are blowing whistles and laughing; some have painted their faces. The girls are in fancy dresses, the boys swagger and joke and blow loudly on their whistles. Their faces are bright and eager and joyous.
“Today was their last day of school,” our guide says, smiling. “They are graduating from high school. Today they celebrate.”
Back at the pier as we board our ship more teenagers pass us, laughing and calling excitedly to one another. They converge at a small amusement park beside the river, where I can see a Ferris wheel, a carousel and several other rides. Music blares forth, loud and lively, as joyous as their laughter. It follows us as we sail away up the Danube, joy springing up like flowers in the midst of despair.
If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have a paradise in a few years.
“May you live in interesting times,” our Serbian guide begins, quoting the old Chinese curse.
“Belgrade is an interesting city,” she continues. “It has been destroyed and rebuilt 40 times, and has never known more that 50 consecutive years of peace in all it’s history, unless you consider occupation by a foreign power peace?”
She leads us up to the huge fortress of the original city. We pass through the “modern” walls, surrounded by the cannon and tanks of two world wars, heavy wood-and-steal doors dented by cannon balls and pierced by bullets, and then through the thick, white interior walls, which are the original medieval walls of the city-fortress. “Belgrade means ‘white city,’ or ‘white fortress’,” she says, “because from the river these white walls are visible.” The fortress-city was built in the 8th century by Slavic settlers on the ruined site of an old Roman border fortress.
From the top of the high walls on the towering hill we look down at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers. They split to encircle a large wooded island facing the white city. The ‘Island of War,’ she calls it, because it has regularly been occupied by those who wish to conquer Belgrade and control Serbia. She lists the consecutive conquerors: Bulgarian, Byzantine, Hungarian, Ottoman, Austrian.
“We built our home in a crossroads,” she says. “And not just a little, two-lane crossroads; we built our home in the intersection of major highways.”
Serbia sits like a little slice of cake between the hungry Hungarian Empire and the equally hungry Ottoman Empire, between East and West, between Islam and Christianity. We look down from the white walls at the watery highway and can almost see advancing armies between the trees on the Island of War. There has never been a generation of Serbians who has not actually seen this sight, or worse, lived with occupying soldiers on their streets.
She leads us down from the ancient walls into the city of Belgrade, where we pass a monument to Tito, who began as a bloody dictator, killing opponents mercilessly, and then became a benevolent dictator. “It was a time of peace and prosperity,” she remembers of the years under Tito, when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia. “We could travel freely throughout Europe. Yugoslavia included Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians; Catholics, Orthodox and Moslems; we all lived together, worked together, inter-married. And it worked. Tito’s only mistake was that he did not leave a successor.” She describes his funeral, the extent of their mourning, the end of prosperity and peace.
And moves on to President Slobodan Milosevioc. “I wish we had done to him what was done to the communist president of Romania,” she says bitterly, and a little enigmatically. Years of couching her political opinions in code, I wonder, as she continues: “Because he wasted 15 years of my life, of the lives of all Serbians, and made us the most hated country in the world.”
She points out the bombed shell of a few buildings, shows how accurate the American bombs were, that no neighbouring buildings were touched, describes being told in advance so the targets could be evacuated and no civilians killed. Still it was frightening, she adds, and I try to imagine how understated that comment is. One bombed site is close by a maternity hospital. “You cannot tell babies it is bad timing to be born today,” she says.
She talks of the difficulty of explaining what was happening, and why, to her children. “Why is the land of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck bombing us, Mommy?” her six-year-old asked her.
“Because we have a president whom we don’t want,” She told her daughter.
“Why doesn’t he go be president somewhere else?” the child asked.
“Because nobody wants him.”
“I know what, Mommy,” the little girl said after a few minutes’ thought. “He could go to the South Pole and be the president of the penguins.”
“We voted him out of the presidency, but he rigged the vote – he was caught with his own marked ballots. Still, he refused to leave. So we all gathered here,” she waves her arm around the large square we have just arrived at, “to protest. They called it the ‘peaceful revolution’. And finally, he announced he was resigning. He wanted to spend more time with his family, and blah, blah, blah. He was forced out, by us, because we hated him and what he did.”
As we approach our waiting bus, she tells us Serbians want very much to join the European Union, but that it will probably be years before they are allowed to. She would like to travel freely again, to live in a peaceful, prosperous Serbia. “One of our writers wrote in his book, Life without travel is no life,” she says. She points out a poster in a travel agents’ window and translates for us: Go and spend your vacations as your parents spent theirs – in Croatia. She explains that Croatia has seaside resorts and beaches, unlike Serbia, and that people are beginning to go there again. “People in Serbia have relatives in other parts of Yugoslavia, our children have made friends there. It is a beginning.”
“Belgrade is an interesting city, but for me, I have had enough interesting times. I want to rest of my life to be very boring.” The bus doors swing open. She thanks us for coming to visit her city.
How do you learn to live with the Island of War outside your front door, I wonder as our bus transports us back to the ship. How do you sleep when your tent is pitched at the intersection of a thoroughfare? What does it do to a people in a tiny, indefensible country, to know that their unhappiness has always been the goal of the empires that surround them?
I expect I will find at least part of the answer tomorrow, when we visit Croatia.
The riverboat we are traveling on is long and narrow. Our cabin is half below water lever, so we look out the porthole in our room and see water about at our neck level and feel very tenuously dry. Each place we go, there is an included tour with a local expert as our guide, and these are really experts. We try to trick them with questions; they know it all. Our job is to listen and learn. Tours begin at 8:30 a.m., sharp. The goal is not a vacation; the goal is enlightenment by Amsterdam.
We start in Romania. Mostly we learn modern history here – since Romania is prey to frequent earthquakes, no building is older than the 19th C. We have this stuff at home, I think; typical westerner, I want OLD stuff. I would have liked to learn more about the gypsies, but the guide doesn’t talk about them except to say, “Don’t take anything with you that you don’t want to lose – leave valuables in the hotel safe/ship safe.” Two cruisers had their passports stolen the day before we start our cruise (they came to Bucharest a few days early) and will be joining the ship as soon as their replacement passports are available. They are, I suppose, enlightened.) Still, I think the gypsy culture is interesting and would like to learn about it, but fear it is a touchy subject. Especially to two of our group…
Our tour guide takes us through Bucharest, pointing out beautiful “old” buildings amidst newer ones built after the last earthquake—or the one before that, or before that. Everything is made of concrete. Bucharest is poor and always has been, apparently. Everything needs repairs, and repairs cost money.
This city, run down and poor and dirty, holds no attraction for me. What do these people, with their foreign language and culture, their poverty and their concerns, so different from mine, have to do with me?
Our last stop on the bus tour is an art museum. I have never been moved by paintings, my medium is words. I trail the group, politely listening to the guide discuss the various painters. I am struck by a painting of a beautiful gypsy girl, wearing her wealth, a necklace of coins, her eyes full of youth and life. The tilt of her head, the twitch of her lips and thrust of her hip dare us to disdain her wild, free life. I laugh back at her silently before moving after my group into another room.
Beneath a huge painting, a young woman sits on a pillow, surrounded by a group of children on similar pillows. I don’t understand the language but the gestures and inflection is universal. She is asking them questions about the painting, responding to their answers with nods of encouragement, further questions, praise, occasionally with laughter. A few mothers are mixed in with the little group, but the children are attentive and involved and don’t need their mothers to keep them quiet. She is a good teacher.
I stop to look at the children. Seven or eight years old, I guess, with a few much younger siblings, probably brought by the mothers volunteering to assist on this class outing. The little girls wear their hair in ponytails or twin tails, tied with bright elastic bands and coloutful plastic barrettes. How often have I volunteered on class trips when my children were this age? Countless times. I sit on a bench and watch them; one of the mothers comes and sits beside me. We don’t speak, language is impossible between us; we sit and watch the children and their animated teacher, who brings the pictures alive for the children, and Bucharest alive for me.
Next day, we cruise up the Danube to Bulgaria, stopping at Svishtov where we take a bus to the small village of Arbanassi, to see a medieval church (Christian, Eastern Orthodox, hidden away from the Ottoman occupiers in a low, ugly building, but beautifully painted and adorned inside) and a home, also from the 15th C, in the Turkish style: no furniture, one huge wooden “bed” per room, covered in glorious Turkish rugs and topped with a Turkish tea set in the centre. The guide explains that the villagers believe storks settling in a village will promote fertility. Young women tie coloured, woven strings to the branches of trees in the winter, and when the storks return in the early spring, if they roost in the trees, the young wives claim back their strings and will bear children. I think of all the books depicting babies arriving via a stork when I was a child, and although I have never tied a string to a tree, and consider the return of the Canadian geese as much a nuisance as a harbinger of good things, it is impossible to deny our common humanity.
We learn that in the 900’s, a Bulgarian invents an alphabet for the Bulgarian language, which is adopted, with a few modifications, by all the Slavic countries, and by Mongolia, and is used for 1000 years. The guide speaks of her poverty-stricken country with pride, and infuses that pride in us.
Later, I see a T-shirt with the ancient alphabet stamped on it. Letters make words and words are the route to enlightenment. I buy five Euros worth of enlightenment. Just to prove I have attained some. There might be a quiz at the end. I wouldn’t be surprised. The tour director is German; we’re all a little intimidated by her.
The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.
A wide range of interests: how do we develop that? Is it possible to deliberately broaden our interests? Many people assume their interests are fixed, their hobbies and pleasures as adults have already been determined. But we don’t assume the same about children, so why should we limit ourselves?. “Try it; you may like it” we tell our child about any number of things—a new food, a new activity, a new skill.
“Try it, you may like it,” I told my husband, encouraging him to travel with me when we finally had the freedom and means to do so.
Travel, we learned, is not only an interest: it ‘s a developed taste. Developed by trial and error, that is. My sister and her husband drive their motor home all over North America. Ian and I quickly discovered that driving is not one of our interests, despite the freedom and independence it affords. We get lost; we can’t find food/ a hotel/ a restroom when we need them; we emerge from our car seats stiff, lethargic from inactivity, and nauseous from the exhaust fumes of the other cars. He drives too slow; he drives too fast; he won’t let me drive at all.
We tried coach tours. Many of our friends swore by them; ‘someone else does all the work, you just have to go along and enjoy’, they told us. Again, it was not for us; packing and unpacking our suitcases every day, rushing frantically from one sight to the next, herded together like sheep watched over by a harried sheepdog, feeling like chastised children if we dared slow down to actually look at something, think about it, take two pictures instead of one. Of course, I did all three anyway—we were not your ideal bus tour travelers.
Ian was inclined to give up. He suggested lawn bowling.
“I need to see the world,” I told him. How could we get someone else to do all the work, without having to live by their rules? Almost by accident, we stumbled upon cruising, and found a method of travel suited to out tastes.
We have widened our interests to include the world—or as much of it as can be reached by water—but according to Russell, that still isn’t enough. We must also have a friendly or positive reaction toward the things and people that interest us. Now, if this were a normal hobby, I assume that would be easy enough; it’s easy to talk to someone who’s clever enough to share our interests. How can we not respond positively to people who like the things we like?
With travel as the interest, however, the people and places we meet up with are not like-minded fellow travellers; they are, themselves the object of the hobby. And they come with attitudes and opinions and cultures very different from ours. Travel becomes not only a taste, but a skill. Suddenly, Russell’s admonition to react in a “friendly rather than hostile’ manner, ‘as far as possible’ makes sense.
And isn’t that one of the tenants of happiness? That we react to life in a positive manner?
If there were any thing more likely to help a person develop this attitude than travel, I can’t imagine what it would be.
And so we find ourselves this month cruising up the Danube, learning, I do hope, to react in a friendly manner to all the foreign attitudes and cultures we are certain to meet with.
The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness.
“Incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder have been documented as far back as ancient Greece. The condition has had different labels throughout history.
“In the American Civil War, it was called soldier’s heart. In the First World War it was called shell shock and in the Second World War it was known as war neurosis. In the Vietnam War, the symptoms were described as combat stress reaction.” (CBC News Posted: Dec 17, 2008)
Eight years ago I was in a car accident. Someone else caused it and I was not to blame. No one died. No one was paralyzed or brain injured. Nothing really bad happened.
I should have felt lucky. I should have been grateful. At the very least, I should have simply got on with my life. Instead I sank, inexplicably and irresponsibly, into Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
What right do I have to PTSD? I’ve lived in a peace-drenched country all my life, grown up warmed and nurtured by a loving family. I’ve never witnessed, let alone suffered, any kind of violence or abuse.
I am not a candidate for PTSD. I snuck in the back door, someone with no right to be there at all, quaking and shaking as though some genuine tragedy had occurred when nothing really bad happened to me.
Was it some hidden character flaw, some secret weakness within me? A lack of faith or gumption or plain common sense that I didn’t know the difference between fortune and misfortune?
I don’t know. All I know is that eight years ago I was in a car accident and I endured years of PTSD and depression. And eventually I learned to admit that even though I’m alive and whole and blameless, something bad did happen to me.
Do you recognize the source of your unhappiness? Did recognizing it help you to overcome it?