Pretty Village, Pretty Flame

I remember the siege of Dubrovnik, have I ever mentioned that? I was 11 at the time, safe in the knowledge that food was being cooked, the school would be there the next morning and my sister would fall asleep before me so that I could read my book under the duvet. The city burning was like something out of one of my books. I could understand it in terms of what I knew or what I was being taught at school, like the 1453 siege of Constantinople perhaps.

My wonderful job brought me to the incredible city of Dubrovnik a few months ago. The tiles on the roofs have been replaced, the buildings have risen from the ashes and on the walls I got terribly sunburned, walking around along with hundreds of other tourists.


We took the cable car to the top of the hill and in that little building I found this poster and I remembered. I remembered when I was 11, watching the war like something out of a movie, like something out of my history books.

We drove around the country for while, our trip took us to Konavle with its refurbished homes and young vines. The country felt like home, the small forest smelled like my mum’s village.

I asked a young man I met – very much alive and old enough to remember – how they rebuilt the country after the war.

“It was either rebuild or die”

he said. They chose not to die.

In this story of this war and this wonderful city and its surrounding country, I was lucky enough to see a bit of the present and marry it up with my mediated memories of the war. And yet, I wonder. How was it just before? Oh I don’t mean the historical analysis, the research and the lines of reasoning, or even the convoluted explanations of how such a thing could have happened while the rest of the world danced to “Everything I do (I do it for you)”.

I mean the simple truth of how it all felt before people’s reality and mundane everyday concerns (food being cooked, school being there, sister asleep and a book waiting under the duvet) came crushing down. Was there a sign? Was there some sort of feeling or knowledge? Were there whispered discussions by the adults that the children of those years remember?

I don’t know anybody in Croatia whom I could ask.

I think about that a lot these days. It is a tenuous connection that I’ve built in my mind, after all, we all understand the world based on our memories, our senses, our history.

A while back, during a nice dinner, I made a joke about a far right candidate in Greece. It was a good joke until an older and wiser family friend told me that even though it was funny, people across the ages probably laughed at a variety of candidates who basically got elected and then became dictators, traitors, warmongers, pure monsters and the like. I remember that conversation more and more lately.

In this life of mine I worry about my next trip, my to do list, my loved ones. I watch things happen knowing that I will cook the food, I will go to work, I will make my next flight. I will choose which passport to use. When people ask me I say I’m Greek – it explains a lot. When England play at Euro 2016 I cheer them on – this country is my home. When I get to a new country I show my passport and go around a new city feeling safe, taking photos, meeting people.

I met taxi drivers in Israel who played their favourite Greek songs for me.

I have a German friend and we both loved making gentle fun of a baseball game we were kindly invited to by American colleagues.

I learned that Parisian women have their own… creative solution to childlessness – like Greek women used to have potions and special prayers.

I know that in some of Istanbul’s restaurants I can find Black Sea dishes that my Pontian grandmother made for me.

I know that Bollywood films have similar storylines to old Greek and Turkish films and people tend to break into song at the weirdest moments.

I know that in Wynwood in Miami the street art is just as rock n roll as the stuff I find in the walls of Athens or London.

These identities – Greek, British, European – these privileges – living, working, travelling – all seem to be under threat. When did the world become a place where our debates are polarised so? When did it become a good thing to fear otherness instead of asking simple questions and finding common threads?

The terrorism, the bloodshed, the Presidential nominations, the British referendum and this constant “us and them”, this vile reduction of humanity to little camps and shortsighted desire for protecting our own little patch of reality.

I am genuinely scared. And now, when I think of the question “why did people not do anything” I suspect that the powerlessness I feel is part of the answer.

I oversimplify, I know. And yet, don’t we all, as we think about things and try to make life and the world seem a bit more like it’s under our control?


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