Mountains Beyond Mountains (Hrvatska 2013)

In Zadar, furniture-maker Vjeko is thrilled to have joined the EU. He loves Americans. He and his friend Florian, from Toulouse, invited me to join their table at a bus station bar. Vjeko bought me a beer before I knew what had happened. He waved away my half-hearted kuna: “You’re in my country.”

Vjeko grew up in Vinkovci, which, as today’s borders go, lies less than 20 km from Serbia, and 60 from Hungary. He left a long time ago; “there are no jobs – if you want a future, you must leave,” he said, again and again. His family still owns the home they’ve lived in for generations, but it seems like only the old live there now. Vjeko’s Facebook tells me he’s three years and six days older than I. But his face has these deep, deep lines, and his skin is so brown and worked-over that it’s hard to tell if his face shows age, sun, work, stress, cigarettes, or something else. His gray-blue eyes concentrate on me, reaching out of a complexion that, for all I know, never sheds skin cells.

Now that I think about it – he doesn’t look unlike the only two pictures I’ve seen of my dad as a teenager (which are lost) – light eyes, thin thin thin from responsible, ennui-happy subsistence, looking for something, daring to look for something in a lens – or in an American.

Vjeko and Florian met a few months ago, working in construction. Florian, from Toulouse, lives in his camper; for a few months now, he’s lived in his camper, on Vjeko’s land in Zadar. Florian was taking a bus to Zagreb to fly to France for a week. “My wife and I want to have you stay with us,” reiterated Vjeko. “You can stay in Florian’s camper, if you want. She doesn’t work outside the house, and her English is much better than mine.”

Vjeko is thrilled he’s in the EU. “I can sell my furniture anywhere now!” “Croatia is a very poor country – there are no jobs – we all move to the coast because there are no jobs – 80 percent is tourism – we need real jobs.” Joining the EU will change his luck. Joining the EU will change the whole nation’s luck. Finally, they’ll all be better off.

Ante is a 27-year-old university student in Trogir who works at my hostel. Tuesday, I was tired, so I brought wine, figs, ementaler (hrv.), and Dalmatian prosciutto from the grocery store to the patio, sifting through my SD card while munching on the goods that would produce such a satisfying shit in 10 hours.

Ante is gruff and generous. He and Marin joined me at my table; seven of Ante’s bros drifted in and out throughout the evening; Marin put a helmet on himself and another on his four-year-old daughter and they all loaded onto his scooter and drove home.

No girls allowed, except for The Beautiful American. One woman came and sat at the table next to ours, outside the circumference, leaning in with her cigarettes, listening and puffing, and leaving twice to fetch us beer and pizza. On her first beer run for us, Stipe, AKA Papi, turned to me. “That’s how our culture treats women!” he grinned. “Get us beer and pizza! Do what we say!”

“So . . . that’s why you have an ex-wife,” I noted. His friends sure gave him shit for that one.

Ante studies history and hates that Croatia has joined the EU. It’s stupid. They’ll go the way of Greece and Portugal and Spain; they’re fucked. Germany comes in, bossing them around, and they take it and take it and take it, for what? After the fall of Communism, Croatia privatized like Russia – the country’s industries and even its retailers are controlled by a handful. The domestic politicians are corrupt. The lawyers are crooks. And now, those same few will keep getting richer, but as the North’s bitches – Germany and France and the Nordic countries will buy up the few worthwhile enterprises Croatia has, will control them wholesale, and still leave Croatians with nothing.

The Other Ante (T.O. Ante, for brevity’s sake) perked up. “San Francisco – I’m a sailor – I’m watching the America’s Cup!” He was excited. “Those boats – 20 knots!”

“I fought in the war,” T.O. Ante told me. (It always does come back to the war.) He mimed Rambo – held an air machine gun aloft, sprayed our round picnic table. “It was fun. I was 20! It was fun. I was 20, it was fun.” He put his machine gun away.

Stipe has four football tattoos that cover approximately 30% of his epidermis. The team is Hajduk Split; the fans are Torcida. “Hajduk” is the Balkan equivalent of outlaw, cowboy – it also is the nickname of Ante Gotovina, a Croatian general whom the ICTY convicted of war crimes, and whose convictions the ICTY Appellate Court wholly overturned.

Hajduk Split Hajduk Split Hajduk Split. It’s the only good thing we’ve always had, they all impressed upon me – grown men, beefy TDH giants, practically bouncing out of their plastic lawn chairs. 102 years old, and nobody has ever taken them away. They are the pride of Dalmatia. Nobody else can even compare, except Zagreb sometimes. Yesterday, Ante drove from Trogir to Zagreb for the football match.

Someone made a crack. “Oh, come on,” I replied.  “You don’t really hate Serbs, right? Like, actually? Come onnnnn.”

“Of course we do!” they chorused. They were serious, kind of, mostly. I raised an eyebrow, appealed to Ante. “Well, okay. For a long time, for all of Yugoslavia, the Serbs controlled everything,” he said. They ran it all, they controlled everything, and we resented them, and then there was war, and it always does come back to the war.

“They killed eight thousand people,” was the fifth paragraph Vjeko spoke to me. We hadn’t been speaking of the war; I told him I was going to Albania, he told me Albanians LOVE Americans, and then, “they killed eight thousand people. Eight. Thousand. People. At once.”

Marin owns the hostel and speaks excellent English and lived in Sydney. He was not here during the war. His father was an aging footballer, so they went to Australia; then war broke out, and they had no citizenship, and they couldn’t come back.

Dragan is from Bosnia and his family has owned a house in Trogir for five decades. He introduced himself by barking, “give me your book.” ? “Give me your book.” I gave him the book. “You drink. Stella?” Ožujsko. I sat with him. “I’m studying for my criminal law exam,” he said, as if this were sufficient to demand my book, buy my pivo. “Oh, I just did that.”  Doubt he expected to be trumped.

Dragan and I spoke some English and less German and less Bosnian. He lived in Stuttgart for eight years. “I wouldn’t have been a lawyer if we stayed in Germany.” He had gone over and took two years to start speaking German – one year after the German schools split you off into your state-mandated destinies. Bosnia doesn’t do that until year 9.

Ante’s bros all agree: only Ožujsko, now. No more Karlovačko. It used to be good, but now it’s shit. Sarajevo is incredible, and they drooled over the cevapcici I’d soon devour. Sarajevo’s still great, but it’s different now, they nodded solemnly. It was cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic. But then it was all refugees. It’s great, but it’s not the same.

Pfftpfft – this is a noise the 26-28 year-old-men have made when I ask them questions they know they have no logical answer to. D did it a lot – maybe I was lawyering too much, maybe his English just wasn’t that good and he felt impotent, especially when I begged out of dinner. Pfft, went Ante. Pfft, “it’s the Balkans,” as he threw up his hands. “Of course we hate Serbs.”

Everyone has been kind, generous, open; they want to talk to me; sometimes I sit with them, and I am interested, and I ask questions, and I give a shit, and I want to know. They talk and talk and talk and talk in very good English, and I try very hard to be open, to be alert, to fucking pay attention, to remember, to analyze enough at the moment to ask good questions, and to reserve judgment, especially when it’s so clear that on most levels – and certainly on the micro level – these have all been kind men to me, and are all kind men.

I wonder how deep hatreds lie. I don’t buy that they really do hate each other, what with all the pffts; pfft means “I smell bullshit but don’t have a good answer and I know it and I say pfft.” “It’s the Balkans,” said Ante and Dragan – said the university men.

“It’s the Balkans,” that phrase a talisman, get me off their backs, feed the American a line that Western thought has defined as self-contained Q.E.D. But I’ve never bought “it’s the Balkans,” and as much as I think my Serbian friend may be tickled that the Croatians called themselves The Balkans, I don’t buy their shortcut, but I am a guest and won’t press the matter right now. Other than, of course, giving them that look you, my darling, know so well – “‘It’s the Balkans?’ Really, Ante? ‘It’s the Balkans?'” And he shrugs pfft and gives me another reason and opens me another giant Ożujsko.

(On another note, the German tracking system has horrified me since I learned of it in my first week of German class in 2000. If that’s what it takes to run the EU, I’ll take my American naivete and optimism and fair shake and just one more chance any damn day of the week.)

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