The Texture of War

Imagine to yourself a gloomy city, all burning with brimstone and noisome pitch, full of citizens who are unable to leave it.

St. Francis de Sales, in Meditation VII: Of Hell

Leah and I watch a short movie about the 1991 siege on Dubrovnik. In it, we saw people clustered in doorways and pressed against walls as they watched the attack on their city. Buildings burned in the background. When I read St. Francis’ description of hell, I thought of Dubrovnik.

When I traveled to the former Yugoslavia, reminders of war were all around me.

I saw shells of buildings, or were they shelled buildings, or both?

I’m the kind of person who averts her eyes in war movies, but I couldn’t avert my eyes there.

I drank it up, storing far more images in my mind than I did on my camera.

War leaves a texture all its own. Even 25 years later.

From Dubrovnik:


From Mostar:


From Sarajevo:


From Gradačac:

View from an armored train outside Gradačac

We stayed in a castle in Gradačac. Here’s a picture of the castle in 1992.


And here’s what it looked when we were there:

Gradačac castle

Rebuilding brings hope.

More Croatian

Helen looked at my Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian textbook sitting on the table.

“Do you really think you’ll use this?” she asked when I told her it was mine. “When I went to France, even though I was taking French at the time, I was too afraid to try to say anything.”

I understood what she was saying. “I think there are some useful phrases,” I replied. “In my last set of words, I learned ‘I understand’ and ‘I don’t understand’ — it’s like, hmmm…” I tried to remember. “Rooma-zooma….?”

“Ramen noodles?” she asked.

“No, it’s roomy-something. I have time to practice though. I just learned it.” I replied.

I practiced it later on my walk. Razumijem — pronounced ra-zoo-me-yem. I guess it’s sort of like Ramen noodles.

Ne razumijem — means I don’t understand. That one will come in handy, I’m sure.

Also, Gdje je kupaonica? — Where’s the bathroom? — very important. Except that one is pretty hard for me to pronounce.

Try it, English-speaking friends, say “guh-duh-yay yeh coo-pa-on-itz-ah” really fast. It rhymes with pizza, in case I’m not writing it phonetically correctly.

Last night as I walked, I practiced my Croatian, ruminating on the rhyming words. I came up with a poem.

Cesta, ulica
Gdje je kuaponica
Sviđa me se.
Dječak, djevojčica

Road, street
Where is the bathroom?
Thank you.
Excuse me.
I like it.
Boy, girl

The more I practice, the braver I’ll be when I get there.

Hopefully I won’t say something stupid.

Learning Croatian

I walk around the house these days repeating Croatian phrases, preparing for few days in Croatia this summer.

Dobar dan —  Hello (literally, good day)
and variations on that theme:
dobro jutro — good morning
dobra večer — good evening

The linguist in me — or the linguist wannabe — wants to take apart the words to understand the how. Clearly dobar means good.

So, if dobrodošli means “welcome”, does it literally mean “good welcome”?

Je li to u redu? —  Is it okay?

Oprostite —  Excuse me.

Rolling my r’s doesn’t come naturally or easily.

Plus I get frustrated not knowing the real names of the diacritical letters. I make up names for them in my head — s with a smile, c with a smile, d with a crossbar, etc. It’s dumb because the name of the letter doesn’t really matter — it’s knowing how to say it.

But I can’t say the lj digraph, no matter how hard I try. My tongue won’t cooperate.

And I often forget that the j isn’t pronounced as it is in English, French, or Spanish, but more like our y as in year.

Learning a few words in the language of the country I’m visiting feels like the respectful thing to do. I don’t want to rely on them to know English. It seems so… so… American.

Still, I have a feeling I’m going to need help.

pomoć — Help

Lots of it. A translator would be nice.

If I can learn to pronounce this correctly — gdje je kupaonica — where is the bathroom — I should be all set.