|Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo credit: Alicia Bernlohr|
While looking at my American passport in the immigration line at Dulles Airport in Washington DC last night, I realized that this is the opportune moment to introduce you to special kind of expat - someone who has spent the majority of her life abroad because her parents work for the US Department of State. I've had the pleasure of knowing Alicia, a thoughtful and talented young woman, ever since she moved to Indonesia when she was about eight years old. "Sense Memory" describes her first day as an English teacher in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country still recovering from the devastating three year war that left it's economy and infrastructure in tatters. It was recently published in the literary magazine Descant.
I was very surprised when the language company that hired me said I would be teaching at a Bosnian unemployment agency. I had thought I would be doing one-on-one Business English at some international corporation in Sarajevo, like most of the other foreign teachers I knew who signed short-term contracts. But on my first Monday in the office the owner of the company told me to start preparing three separate ninety-minute introduction lessons for three large groups in the afternoon. Yes, that afternoon. One of the classes had thirty-six students.
“Please don’t worry!” the man said, looking at my aghast face. “At least half of them don’t show up!”
The classes were getting IT and language training for a four-month stint. Their English course had already been in session for a month, so I had to pick up where the other teacher had left off: the passive form. For the first group it was a section about important events called “Where Were You When … ?”
While flicking through “Where Were You When … ?” my heart sank a little. The American book had a woman describing exactly where and when she first heard that JFK was shot. She even remembered what she was eating: a ham sandwich. The book went on to explain the idea of sense memory for such emotional moments: “Humans have exceptionally good recall for when important things happen. Discuss a similar moment for you.”
They are all going to talk about the war, I thought. What a great way to start a class. I decided to tell a cute story about an early childhood memory. I was three years old at the time and we lived in San Francisco. I loved kicking the back of my mother’s car seat. Driving one unusually warm fall, she yelled, “Cut It Out!” again and again. But I had stopped. The car was shaking because of a massive earthquake, 6.9 on the Richter scale.
This story had the double benefit of being both true and not about an assassination or a hijacking. I hoped the class would respond in kind. An hour later, standing in front of fifteen students, both young and middle-aged, I stressed this hope: “You can talk about any kind of memory you like. It can be happy.… Like when your child was born. When you got married. When you met your wife.”
The first person I called on was a lovely, serious-looking blonde named Mersida.
“I was eight years old,” Mersida began. “I remember the Market Massacre like it was yesterday. Some things are too much for an eight-year-old to know.” Then she stopped.
Someone else raised their hand saying they too remembered the Market Massacre. Mersida was tearing up and most of the older people looked a little emotional: it was February 8, so the seventeenth anniversary of the tragedy had been three days ago. A mortar bomb had exploded in the Sarajevo main market around lunchtime in 1994, killing almost seventy people and wounding 200. It was unclear if the eight-year-old Mersida had actually been present at the market that day, or simply watched the spectacle on television, but did it really matter?
While the students moved on to the passive form practice questions in pairs, I was already actively dreading the class’s next, potentially controversial conversation topic.
“What do you like about your city?”
“What don’t you like about your city?”
Probably, if this had been a class of teenagers, I wouldn’t have been nervous. The sunny youths whom I tutor on weekends like to complain about things like dating or about how Bosnian movies are too depressing. They just want to see a Bosnian romantic comedy, for once. But these were mostly older people and their criticisms of contemporary Sarajevo could not be trivial. An unemployment rate hovering around forty percent, economic stagnancy, a culture of nepotism. Unlike the teenagers they could all actually remember the city before the war and draw unfavorable comparisons. And from my experience, people frequently did.
“You should always remember,” my friend Anne said to me one day when I was impatient with someone’s pre-war nostalgia, “that this was the great disappointment of their lives.”
Since Anne’s gentle rebuke I had tried to keep this in mind and didn’t want to unnecessarily remind people of their disappointment on the first day of English class. Maybe that was why I asked Boro, an affable middle-aged man who mentioned that he was a basketball coach before the unemployment, to answer first. He had the calm and encouraging manner of a coach as well as excellent English.
“Well, you can’t imagine how it was before the war,” Boro said slowly. “Sarajevo was so … so different then. People had culture; it was a city of intellectuals. My generation studied and graduated — just in time to fight. We fought in the war, or were in Sweden, or
somewhere, and we come back home after a few years and there were no jobs. We all want to leave.”
“So why don’t you leave?” a younger man with wild, curly hair suddenly asked. The tone was not friendly. “You should leave.”
“It’s hard to get a visa now,” Boro said, unruffled. “I would.”
“You really should leave,” the young man named Safet repeated loudly. He looked directly at me.
“People talk all the time about Sarajevo before the war. But we live here now…. It’s really, really boring to hear this every day. Sarajevo is the only city I know and I am really tired of people being unhappy about it. It will never again be like it was in Yugoslavia.”
Someone sitting on the right clapped twice. Everyone else was quiet. I hesitated, distrusting my Californian impulse to respond with something upbeat and New Age. My instinct was to protect Boro, but the man was fine: shrugging, actually. Like many Bosnians Boro was a cool customer. Still, I felt something important had just taken place in my classroom.
When I got home that night I couldn’t stop thinking about my students. I googled the Market Massacre and pored over the articles. I had read about it before, but I never saw the recorded images. Now I could picture what Mersida looked like at eight: a shock of white-blond hair, a well-behaved little girl. I thought of Mersida there and this made the massacre sharply real and infinitely more horrific. This wasn’t a proper battlefield: people were buying bread and eggs and vegetables … Was nothing sacred? What kind of a person would be threatened by small Mersida?
Later that week, after teaching, I got into a cab whose fair-skinned driver was from northern Bosnia, a small town near the border. He’d moved to Sarajevo after the war and lived here ever since. I asked him if he visited home often. The man said hardly ever, that most of his family had died in the war. He told me: “Say you go back to your town. The river is there, the mountain is there, the school is there. None of the people are there. Would you want to live there? Would you?” The driver asked me this question as we pulled up to my place on the hill.
It was snowing. I crunched through the powder to my house wondering who had lived in my home before, if its mere physical presence was comforting and nostalgic for any of its former inhabitants. Maybe it was the opposite. Maybe the familiar structure upset them, reminded them that the physical spaces we occupy can survive long after we and the people we love leave this earth. During peacetime this knowledge is difficult, but in wartime, when lives are cut far too short, this knowledge becomes inhuman.
I am aware that I think about nostalgia a lot in Bosnia, more than I ever have. Nostalgia for the country of Yugoslavia, nostalgia for Tito, nostalgia for all the people who used to live here but are now in St. Louis or Munich or Toronto, or gone before their time — it’s part of the everyday language here. Sometimes it can get exhausting. But I am myself from a background so sentimental that my mother buys old photographs of total strangers at the flea market. Someone’s solemn, fat baby in 1910, a well-dressed wedding party in 1939 — she says that they shouldn’t be forgotten. If my baby pictures are for sale in a market a 100 years from now I hope someone like my mother buys them.
Imagine the emotions stirred up by your long-gone childhood and imagine that this childhood took place in a country that no longer exists; the people you grew up with are prematurely dead or scattered randomly about the Western Hemisphere. It was a little foolish of me to worry about the older students being reminded of the war, because you can’t be reminded of something you never forget. Young people like Safet want to talk about the future, fix the new country, but I understand why the others can’t move on so quickly. I always want to listen. I think it helps. Where would our past be without the collectors in the markets?