Poetry & Words

I Came to America After the Tanks Rolled in: Remembering the Former Yugoslavia

I came to America after the tanks rolled in, just barely before they took Sarajevo. After the helicopter shadows moved across of the fields of buttercups and horseradish and daisies and wisteria, but before the mortars fell. I came to this country when the shelves started to empty of bread, of meat, of corn flakes. I came to this country after the money had already begun to crash, after sunken stacks of rubbery, hollow-eyed gas masks stared back at me at the check-out, but before pensioners had to stand in line to trade bag after bag of devalued coins for stale bread. I came here when the skies had already begun to darken, when the fear had started to slink down the quiet gravel streets.

Continue reading “I Came to America After the Tanks Rolled in: Remembering the Former Yugoslavia”

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Poetry & Words

When I was a little girl, I didn’t live on the prairie

when-i-was-little-didn't-live-in-america

When I was a little girl, I didn’t live on the prairie or in the suburbs or in wide-eyed city lit by neon signs. I didn’t know apple pie was supposed to be American. I never saw a baseball game. I didn’t have a picket fence, or a dog, or any of those things that are you supposed to make you American. But I didn’t live in America, either.

When I was a little girl, I lived in the middle of a brown and white house right smack on the edge of a street called Taborska right smack on the edge of a city called Ljubljana. Our front door didn’t have a doorknob. It had a door handle instead, which was long and narrow. It kind of looked like someone had taken a capital L, turned it sideways, and jammed the short side into the door. Our landlady lived downstairs, so we called her Grandma Downstairs. Petra and Alenka, her two granddaughters, lived up the stairs. We called them Petra and Alenka. Much later when I grew up into a lady and lived maybe a million or seven miles from there, I had a daughter too and I named her A. Alenka. It sounds like music. But that didn’t happen yet, because I was still a little girl.

I had one brown-haired mustached dad and one strawberry blonde mom, and a brother who got himself locked in the spare room once. The L-shaped door handles were very good at getting locked and very bad at opening up again, so while I cooked horseradish and dandelion soup in my cardboard kitchen, I prayed for a replacement brother. The original brother was unlocked before I’d finished praying, but God sent me a second brother a few years later anyway.

I didn’t have a dog. Once I had some tadpoles, which sounds nice, but really they looked more like their other name, pollywogs. Sometimes we had a goldfish. He was a very possibly magic goldfish. Sometimes he swam right out of the bowl and was missing for a long time before he popped back into the bowl. My dad was not a goldfish but he had blue eyes on the front of his head and an extra pair of eyes on the back of his head. The extra eyes were just as good at seeing as the forward-facing ones. He had a stack of heavy books next to his bed. Since it was dark when he woke up, I’m not sure which eyes he used to read.

I don’t think my mom and dad could see very far from the middle part of the house where we lived, but as I was still a child and hadn’t yet grown eyes in the back of my head, so I could see for miles. The red clay rooftops sparkled like tiny crests, like little ocean waves in a red sea. Of course, the Red Sea isn’t actually red. I know this because I am very nearly six years old, and I know almost everything there is to know, particularly important truths such as how one person cannot see one’s own face, no matter how tangled up one gets trying to turn one’s eyeballs toward it.  I tasted the sea in Greece once, although I probably shouldn’t have because there was quite a lot of rubbish floating in it. It was a rather green sea. All the books I’d ever read said seawater was supposed to be blue, but I guess they hadn’t been to Greece.

Things don’t always end up the color they set out to be, anyway. There’s a man who sometimes who comes to visit the cats and chickens and sour cherry trees downstairs, and I think his hair started out brown but it’s beginning to have grey bits around the edges. I think to myself that it’s the same kind of grey as the sardines heaped up on the tables near the bridge in the city. The sardines started out with a silvery flash of green, I think, but mostly they end up grey, too. There are big cement columns stuck into the ground at each end of the bridge down by the sardine tables. They are grey, too, like most of the things in our city, but the dragons on the top are a kind of sad, flaky green that looks like it used to be happy. Mom says the dragons are made of copper but I don’t thinks she’s right about that.  I saw a picture of a copper penny once, in an American book, but it wasn’t green at all. Our friend tried to each me about pennies. I didn’t listen. I just looked at her when she talked, and watched my head head bob up in down in the reflection of glasses she wore to cover up her glass eye.

I didn’t need to know about American pennies, anyway. I didn’t live in America. Maybe someday I would, and there would be plenty of time to learn about pennies then.

Poetry & Words, Travel/Moving

A Little Girl with One Foot in Europe and One Foot in America

Walking with my mom and brother in Eastern Europe in the 1980s
(Image taken by my dad of my mom, brother, and me in Europe in the ’80s)

Lately, the stories woven into the pages of The Late Homecomer and China Homecoming have been pulling at my heart. Pulling, reminding me what it was like to be a little girl with one foot in Europe and one foot in America. I think about that girl, sometimes. I think about how the familiar European landscape was the home she knew with her heart, and how the American home was only constructed in her mind, pieced together through the handwritten notes from aunts and grandmas.

Sometimes I think it’s even odder now, to look back at that girl. As far away as she was, sometimes I feel even further away. The girl then knew something of both cultures, at least.  The girl now feels like America is too much, sometimes, taking what had been her voice and drowning it in English. Then, her small voice could speak Slovene. Now, English has swallowed what that girl once knew.

She prattled on in that tongue as she squatted down on the edge of the concrete stoop, her chubby hands scraping words with a twig into the dusty gravel. She walked home down Taborska Cesta in the dusk, feet aching from climbing trails and standing up on busses, fingers of one hand safely in daddy’s hand and fingers of the other hand wrapped tightly around wilted wild chamomile flowers.

And now, the Slovene tongue has faded. All that remains is little snippets. “Kajti tako je Bog ljubil svet.”  Dober dan.”  And the constant call of parents to their children, “Pet sem!” 

But there is nothing more.

I live in America now.

In my heart, I feel what it is to be European, to turn on the radio and hear the perfectly enunciated English of  the BBC. I can taste what it is to have horseradish spread on my thick slices of bread and cold boiled potatoes mixed in with my salad. I know the way fresh-pressed apple juice chills me as it slides down my throat, and if I lick my lips I can still taste the zest of mustard sauce over warm wilted dandelion greens. I close my eyes and I hear the magpies, the calming coo coo coo of the dove.

I know what it is to cough the dust of coal and what it is to see yellow rain. I know the scent of wisteria, and can see the ants marching up the twisted vine. I see the long loaves of bread sticking up out of the grocery bags as people walk home from the market in the early morning dew. I hear the creaking groans of wooden racks, piled high with drying straw. I know what it is to see hoar frost dancing on barren branches. I can no longer sing the lyrics of the language, but I will always hear the accordian’s echo off Šmarna Gora.

And when I close my eyes, I am that little girl. I am there.

And someday, I will be again.

Poetry & Words, Travel/Moving

homecomings and homesickness: “it was almost as if i didn’t have a beginning.”

My mom just sent me a copy of the book China Homecoming by Jean Fritz. This book is a sequel to another book Fritz wrote, called Homesick. I love her writing. I just dove into the first chapter of China Homecoming, and already it is speaking to me.

I can relate to so very much of what she says. I was born in Oaxaca, and then moved to Eastern Europe where I lived until I was almost eight years old. My grandma wrote me letters, too, and told me about picking apples and baking cinnamon rolls. I too, didn’t feel exactly American even though I knew I was. When I was a little girl, I struggled with the culture shock of coming back to this country.

And even now, like Jean Fritz writes in this open chapter, I don’t know what to say when people ask me where I am from. This first chapter is beautiful. It says so much of what my heart feels, and has for years. Sharing an excerpt now is sharing a little part of me — a part I hope to share more of on this blog.
image of the top of the book 'China Homecoming' by Jean Fritz

“When I was a young child, my parents were always talking about ‘home’. They meant America, of course…I could only daydream and wait until the years to go by until we would return. In the meantime, my grandmother wrote me letters. She said she wished I was there to go blackberry picking with her. Or she told me she was baking an apple pie and why wasn’t I around to peel apples? I had never picked a blackberry before. I had never peeled an apple. Somehow, living on the opposite side of the world as I did, I didn’t feel like a real American.

“…It took me a long time to feel like a real American. Even after we came back to America when I was thirteen and I began picking berries and peeling apples and doing all sorts of American things, I didn’t feel as American as I thought I should. Not as American, I imagined, as my cousin Charlotte must feel….Even in her dreams she would have to stay put in Washington, PA, because that’s where she’d always been.

“But not me. As soon as I was asleep, off I’d rush to the Yangtse River…I just looked at it, letting the orange-brown foreverness of it flow past, and it seemed, flow through me. As hard I was trying to grow up American, I could not let China go.

“…It was on a Saturday morning, I wrote it, sitting up in bed, still in my pajamas. I was excited because almost as soon as I started I felt that I was not writing a poem at all; it was writing me. When I finished, I took it downstairs to read to my mother, who was peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink.

“I began my poem and ended it with the same line: ‘It will not be the same when I go back.’ Somewhere between the two lines I began to cry.

“…I was 26 and…married…pinning the clothes to the line, I would look at the Golden Gate, that same Golden gate that had been my first view of America when we returned from China so many years ago. I could still feel the wonder of the hills, the American hills slipping into the bay, but when I looked beyond at the ocean itself, I could not follow it all the way to China…Would I ever be able to find China again?

“…In a way, my childhood seemed like closed book now…

“I knew now I had to go back to China, not only to see, what, if anything, was left…but to get to know the city as it is now. And to find out if at last I could call it my hometown. I never had. When people asked where my hometown was, I always hedged.

“‘Well, I was born in China,’ I’d say. After all, I’d been a foreigner. How could I call a place my hometown if the people who lived there considered me an outsider? An intruder.

“It was almost as if I didn’t have a beginning.” -Jean Fritz