Where are you Burton Maxwell?

Publishing my book has led to many readings and wide ranging discussions. Recently, refugees and immigration have sparked much of that debate. People are curious about the impact of that experience on my life. One evening recently, the conversation moved to my upbringing.

We talked about my father’s fear for his children. His fear that growing up in America was not guaranteed. His fear that we would become refugees again. His fear of the seeming inevitability of continuous uprooting, of repeated exile.

I was asked at that reading, if that fear impacted me. Did I grow up fearful?

I acknowledged that rather than fearful, I grew up angry. Somehow I worked my way around to proclaiming myself a ‘badass.’

“And where did that stem from, your being a badass?” A friend asked. 

“The schoolyard.” The answer popped out, as surprising to me as to the others.

“The schoolyard?”

“Yes. I went to an inner-city school in San Francisco where I was one of the few white kids.”

“In San Francisco? Where?”

“On Hayes Street.”

I could feel I was losing them. Hayes Street is evolving into the height of chic. One restaurant after another is opening. The old freeway entrance has been converted into a lovely little park. The price of housing is skyrocketing. It’s hard to imagine my talking about an inner-city school in this context.

Yet, in 1960 we moved away from there into the foggy outerlands of the Richmond District to avoid an evolution of the city — sometimes referred to as ‘white flight‘ — which helped make me into someone tough enough to deal with the world, but made my father extremely uncomfortable. 

I am grateful for those years. I am grateful for whatever it is that turned me into a badass. In later life being a badass helped me deal with challenges that had more to do with being female in a man’s world than being a little white girl surrounded by tall black boys, but it was my black schoolyard mates who taught me to stand up for myself. 

I have almost moved out of that badass phase of my life, but it’s only because I rarely feel threatened. Age and success have rounded those sharp edges. But point your daggers at me, and you could still be sorry.

Growing up in San Francisco, I was happy in my tough schoolyard and my neighborhood. I admired my badass friends. More than that, I wanted to be like them.

Who wanted to be the smart white girl in that environment? The teacher’s pet. The goody two shoes? Not me.

 Tania pictured back row, third from the left. 

Tania pictured back row, third from the left. 

And who, you might wonder, was Burton Maxwell?

Burton Maxwell was a cut up. A young lad from a tough family background who still came to school most days. He was tough in the schoolyard but laid low in the classroom, out of fear of being called on.

One day the teacher lived up to his expectations and called out Burton for raising hell in the back of the classroom.

Except it was both of us who were raising hell.

In a moment I can never forget, Burton looked at me. He stared just long enough for me to read his message. He may as well have put his hand on my forearm to keep me from speaking up. To keep me from taking responsibility.

I let Burton take the fall. 

Sixty years later I still sometimes troll the Internet looking for Burton Maxwell. I am looking for a 69-year-old man to apologize to. I am looking to see what happened to my friend, to the young boy who took a fall for a smart white girl who just didn’t quite fit in with her tough friends. Who, when push came to shove, chickened out and let a young black lad take the blame.

My sense of inferiority lasted far longer than you might expect. I was a scholarship student studying Mathematics at U.C., Berkeley and working in the deli in my old neighborhood when Sherry Rowland walked up to the counter. I had been with my boyfriend Greg for several years by then, but was still—barely—a virgin.

Sherry’s round belly, on the other hand, announced the imminent arrival of her second child. The first raced around while she and I tried to figure out what she could pay for with her food stamps—then a new concept—and I snuck a roast chicken into her cart. 

You might think I felt smug and superior. That was far from the case. Still the foreign white girl, I was in awe of her maturity and experience. She was a woman and a mother and I a young and naïve schoolgirl. I knew I could never match Sherry in toughness.

I sit and stare at old classroom photographs, at an evolution. A class that started with two black kids in kindergarten ended with a black majority by the fifth grade, and lost almost all of us palefaces, including me, in the last year of grammar school. 

 Tania, third row, fourth from left. Sherry Rowland, second row, fifth from left. Burton Maxwell, front row, fourth from left. 

Tania, third row, fourth from left. Sherry Rowland, second row, fifth from left. Burton Maxwell, front row, fourth from left. 

I see the three of us. Burton Maxwell—a sweet, smiling kid who doesn’t match the tough guy in my memory. Sherry—a defenseless little girl, not a world weary teenage mother of two. Me—a tentative little kid in a frilly dress her foreign mother made for her. 

And once again, I wonder. Where are you Burton Maxwell?

Read my latest book, Mother Tongue, to learn about Croatia, the Balkans, and my family history — following three generations of strong women. 

Are we related?

Truth is stranger than fiction. Once again.

It started off innocuously, with an email from The Economist.

THE ECONOMIST: 6/2/2018
Dear Armet Amochaev,

Welcome to The Economist. You can now look forward to independent thinking and a distinctive world view, every week. Your first print issue is on its way

Except I hadn’t ordered a subscription to The Economist and my name is not Armet.

I decided to ignore it, but the next email included Armet's address and a requested confirmation for the credit card charge. 

Having just spent days researching my father’s background in Russia, I was intrigued by this rare reference to our last name and forwarded the note to my brother Alex:

ME: 6/2
Thought you might enjoy this. Do you think I should tell them they have the wrong email address?

ALEX: 6/2
Sure. But maybe he’s related us. Can we get his email?

ME: 6/3
I doubt it — but we could find his house! It’s near Moscow. And I have figured out that there’s a train stop at the village father was born in, on the line from Volgograd to Moscow. Want to go next summer?

ALEX: 6/4
Maybe. Let’s see what develops. 

I then told The Economist about the error and in return got a robot who didn’t want to discuss the subject with me.

THE ECONOMIST: 6/5
This is an automated response ...

That inspired me to check on Facebook, where I found an Armet Amochaev from the correct town and sent him a message asking if he had subscribed to The Economist.

He had, and had misspelled his last name in the email address. I did not find this surprising as transliteration from the Cyrillic is not an exact science. So we had an email exchange.

ME: 6/9
By the way, my family were Don Cossacks from near Urupinsk. I don’t suppose we’re related?

 My uncle's hand-drawn map from 1977.

My uncle's hand-drawn map from 1977.

ARMET: 6/9
Dear Tania, thank your a lot for the letter! It was my mistake, I wrote my email in a wrong way :) 

You know, I think that we're related. My grandfather was born in a khutor (a small village farm) near Urupinsk in 1935 and my ancestors also were  Don Cossacks. 

Tania, I've visited your website and will definitely read all your literary works and I'm going to start with the story of your first trip to your father's homeland. It must be very exciting! 

A few words about myself. I'm 28-years-old. I live in a suburb of Moscow and work in a road-construction business. I am very pleased to meet you!

ME: 6/9
Lovely to hear from you. My brother suggested I write you on the theory that we might be related. Our family are the only Amochaevs in America. 

I actually want to write a book about my father. I don’t suppose your grandfather is still alive or that you know what village they came from?

And I am impressed that a 28-year-old in Russia wants to read The Economist. I used to read it in my career as a business executive. 

ARMET: 6/12
Dear Tania,

I read your story in one breath. It made me excited and sad simultaneously. I'm excited because you mentioned some familiar places in the story. My grandfather was born in the collective farm "Serp i Molot" right near khutor Kulikov and stanitsa Jarizhenskaya (Ярыженская). I attached a piece of the map. Cossaks weren't allowed to live in their family khutors and villages because of the collectivization. 

But your story also reminds me about very dark times in our history. A civil war is the most disgusting thing that can be. My grandfather lived after those events, but there were rough times too: The great famine in the region in the '30s and WWII later. None of his siblings survived  and he didn't know much about his father. My grandfather was a very stubborn person. He managed to leave that place, worked and studied hard and become a major in the engineering troops. He served in many places in the Soviet Union and retired in Kharkov, Ukraine where he died eight years ago. I wish I could ask him more about the family story. Tania, I think we're related, but just from different branches. 

By the way, last September I was traveling to Urupinsk for a business purpose. I work in a company that supplies high-end equipment and technologies for construction. This region is getting more attractive for the agriculture business and the local road network is being renovated. Now there were none of my relatives there, but I visited khutor Amochaev. Now it's just two farms with no Amochaevs there. I also attached some photos from my trip. 

I think that writing a book about your father is a great idea! 

Now I'm  getting my executive master degree at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. I already have the engineering one and I do believe it will be useful for my further career. That's why I'm reading the Economist. Besides, I try to get information from different sources. 

ME: 6/13
I’m afraid your note brought tears to my eyes. I would definitely like to meet you someday, and it would be fun to find out how closely related we are. If you’re interested, I could get you a DNA test on ‘23 and me’. My brother and cousin and I have all done it, and we could see how closely linked we might be.

I was happy that he responded to say that he would be happy to see if the DNA test showed a family link. 

You never know what you might find in the junk email in your inbox! 

Read my latest book, Mother Tongue, to learn about Croatia, the Balkans, and my family history — following three generations of strong women. 

What's in a name?

"And her sister Tatiana is visiting from …" my stepdaughter Beth's voice flowed at me over the phone, but I lost track as I reacted to what I had just heard.

"Her sister's name is Tatiana?" I interrupted.

"Yes, isn't it a beautiful name?" Beth continued, oblivious to my reaction.

"Yes, of course it's a beautiful name. It was my mother's favorite Russian name."

"Oh really?"

"Yes. That's why she gave it to me."

There was a long silence. "That's your name?"

This was not a stranger I was talking to. My stepdaughter had been in my life for more than 30 years. We are very close. This was not about Beth's lack of attention or caring. It was about my total abandonment of the name Tatiana.

In San Francisco, in what we called 'American' school, Andrew Jackson — the inner city public school that I went to  — my kindergarten teacher had stared at the late enrollment form for Tatiana Anatolievna Amochaev.

"Oh dear," she said, kindly. "That name will never fly in this schoolyard. What do they call you at home?"

"Tania."

"Then that is what we will call you." And she wrote Tania in my school records, erased the middle name, and that's who I became. It's now on my passport, effectively formalized by my marriage certificate. Any of my Russian friends would know the derivation of the name Tania, but there was no reason for Beth to make that leap. 

"So who is this Russian friend of yours?" I eventually asked Beth.

"Oh, you remember, she lives in Aspen. Her grandparents were Romanovs. I think they might be princesses."

It was my turn to pause. Needless to say, Beth had never mentioned any connection between her friend and the royal house of Russia. I doubt she gave it much thought. 

Another light went off in my head. "Is her name short for Alexandra?" I asked. 

"Yes ..."

This was getting funnier. My brother Sasha's name is Alexander. 

"My grandmother was a Romanov too." I said, quietly.

"Oh. So you're a princess too?" It wasn't disdain I heard in Beth's voice; she was quite confident I was pulling her leg. She knew I was more tomboy than princess, and it was yet another name I had never mentioned. But it was true. 

"I'm afraid she was as far from being a princess as you could get. Her family were migrant workers, I think they passed through the village where my grandfather raised wheat ..."

"But her last name really was Romanov?"

It was that brief conversation that helped trigger my decision to use the nom de plume Tania Romanov for my writing. Now I am trying to research my grandmother’s family background, trying to learn why a family of freed serfs might carry the most regal name in the land. I'm afraid I am not making much progress.

 Daria Pavlovna Romanova Amochaeva with her family. My father Anatoly is the taller boy between his mother and father. Early 1920s in Serbia.

Daria Pavlovna Romanova Amochaeva with her family. My father Anatoly is the taller boy between his mother and father. Early 1920s in Serbia.

If anyone has any ideas on how to learn more about Pavel Romanov, probably from Tambov, who had a daughter named Daria in 1895, please let me know.

The weight of water

At the neighborhood water spigot by my homestay in the countryside of Zulu Land in South Africa, I found an unlikely spot to make friends.

I was talking to young Thandeka—who lived nearby and was carrying six large buckets to her house—when she turned to speak with an elderly gentleman I had already met a little way up the trail. We had shaken hands and chatted, as much as possible with no common language, for he spoke only Zulu.

“Who is that?" I asked after he left. 

“Oh that was Mistapha.”

A few repetitions later, I realized she was saying Mister Hlophe, and that he was her grandfather.

“But what do you call him in your language? Do you say grandfather?”

“Oh, I call him Mkhulu. That is grandfather in Zulu,” she explained. “Do you speak Zulu?“

I concentrated, wanting to get the one word I knew correct. 

“Crick!” I said. Her eyes opened wide, and I repeated: “Crick.”

She confirmed that I had said ‘piss off’ with a hand motion, then roared with laughter. 

“Do you know any more?”  

“Anything more polite, you mean?” I asked. “No.”

We almost rolled over laughing, which was serious, as she was carrying 25 liters of water—which weighs two pounds a liter—in a yellow bucket on her head. 

The next morning at six I went to bring her a gift, one of the little flashlights I carry with me on trips. I found her at home, already washing clothes, but happy to take a break and take a selfie with me—only after she wrapped her hair in a pink cloth, of course.  

 A selfie with Thandeka

A selfie with Thandeka

We were surrounded by dirt hills that jagged down to the creeks which wove their way throughout the territory. Rugged dirt tracks wound around where possible. Driving to nearby Sangoma Zulu’s house later that day, we wandered for 20 minutes by car so I could find the turquoise rondavels two minutes walking from the spigot, just beyond the drivable track where it dropped to a small stream that I could cross. Homes were scattered about and mostly in some stage of repair—or disrepair. Thatch roofs were transformed to metal, round structures replaced rectangular ones, and goats and chickens ran around. 

On my way home, passing the water spigot, I met Daphne, a 54-year-old, just as effortlessly flipping about 50 pounds of water onto her head as young Thandeka had. I couldn’t resist another conversation, and then wanted to give her a light as well. I had to follow her home to do that as she was quickly on her way.

She said she didn’t mind if I walked home with her, but warned me it was “not very nice.”

The quality of her home was hardly the issue, as she walked far past Thandeka’s house, then veered off on a narrow trail to the right. It sloped gently at first, then grew rough, watermarked, and steep. The issue was whether I could follow her or would slip and break my leg. She kept laughing and talking, then stopping and turning around, heavy bucket swaying, to make sure I was surviving. I was determined to persist and finally made it to the bottom.

She again veered to the left, but paused to point out a concrete structure off to the right. 

“Soon that will be my new home.”

“Really?“

“Yes,” she said proudly. “The government is building it for me.”

We didn’t get to pursue the subject, as she crossed a swampy spot with a few boards and quickly reached her current home. It was a small and crowded old whitewashed rectangle with a metal roof. I met her husband, who sat on their narrow bed eating an ear of dried corn and some maize, and the grandchild who sat on a cot across from him. Neither rose to help with her load. She was terribly excited and tried to get her three daughters to join us, but they were in bed behind a small door and couldn’t be bothered to get up, in spite of her repeated attempts.

Her son, a handsome young man we had met outside, came inside to chat. He was wearing a US Polo Association T-shirt whose incongruity with the scene made me visualize a lady in the South shoving unused clothing into her church’s contribution basket, shaking her head at the waste of this nearly new item sitting in her son’s drawer. I doubt she could envision its final resting place, but it was certainly appreciated here. 

Daphne joined her husband on the bed so I could take a picture of them, but it felt very stiff. Looking for a laugh, I tried my Zulu on him. 

“Crick,” I said.  They both roared with laughter.

 Daphne and her husband cracking up when I said “piss off“ in Zulu

Daphne and her husband cracking up when I said “piss off“ in Zulu

I couldn’t quite believe that this worked every time, but it sure did the trick. We talked a bit more, then I needed to get back to my breakfast. 

When I was ready to leave, Daphne came with me, telling me she had one more water container to bring from above.

 Daphne carries water back to her home.

Daphne carries water back to her home.

We talked about her life, and I learned that she brings all the water that the family needs. She cooks all the food. She shops for it. She cleans the house. She washes the clothes. She feeds the chickens. 

“What does everyone else do?” I asked.

“Sometimes they help.”

“I bet it’s not very often,” I said, jokingly, but I was not really joking. She sheepishly confirmed they didn’t help very often. But she never stopped smiling and laughing as we continued up the steep hill, having this discussion. There was no time for self pity with Daphne; just time to care for her world. 

“Does your husband work?” I asked.

“No, there are no jobs.” At this, she did look sad.

“Do your daughters or your son work?” They were all adults in their 20s and 30s. 

“No, there are no jobs.”

I wondered briefly why young Thandeka could carry six pails of water and wash clothes while Daphne’s daughters lounged about, but I had to let it go. 

As we passed her new house, I learned that the government builds houses for people who cannot afford to buy them. She had signed up six years earlier for the program, that it would have two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It would be finished in a few months, and she was very excited about the move. We would see a fair number of these standard homes in our travels, and I got familiar with their layout. 

I was her first American and she asked about my husband and children and grandchildren. She hoped I liked her country. Unlike me, she was too circumspect to poke questions at my lifestyle, and I was too embarrassed at the differences in our circumstances to elaborate. But I plunged recklessly ahead with my own questions. 

“Will you have water in the new house?” I almost hated to hear the answer.

“No,” she said. 

“I’m sorry ...”

“But,” she quickly interrupted. “I am saving money and will run a pipe from the spigot to the house.”

“Do you have a job?” As no one else worked, I had assumed she didn’t either. 

“Yes, I take care of the old people.” She had a government job at the home for the elderly, walking and taking one of the pervasive mini cab taxis for almost an hour each way to work.  

“So you do everything in your house, you take care of everyone, and you have a job. The only job.”

“Yes ma’am,” she beamed.

All too soon for me, we were back at the spigot.

“This gift is tiny,” I said, handing her the small strong light. 

She fingered the light, pointed at a dark corner, and said, “It’s tiny, but it’s not a small gift.”

I decided I had to help get that water to a spigot in her house. 

The second time I approached the narrow trail down that steep slope to her house, I couldn’t make it even part way. My fear of falling increased with every step. Finally, I stopped just below the top of the hill and shouted her name several times. She appeared from the house and sped towards me. I asked if she would walk up the hill. A huge smile accompanied her “of course!”

She sped up to the top of the hill and we hugged. I slipped money into her hand. She saw only one of the denominations and burst into tears. So did I. We hugged again. And again. 

I made her promise me two things. One, that she would tell no one of my gift, and two, that she would make her children work.

She promised she would.

I made her repeat the second promise.

In my mind’s eye I see Daphne, still making breakfast and doing laundry while her family complains about the lack of opportunity. Not much has changed, except water runs from the tap inside the house, saving her an hour daily of risky climbing and backbreaking labor as she grows older.

I regret only that I didn’t give her something more. 

 A goodbye hug with Daphne. 

A goodbye hug with Daphne. 

Blinded by the light

It was early morning, a Sunday in mid-April on the coast of South Africa, in what was once known as Zulu Land. As the sun started to crest over the edge of the ocean, groups of believers gathered in welcome. Their religions combined Christianity with older, more primitive faiths. 

As that glowing ball was rising to eye level, a young woman separated herself and headed into the ocean alone. She clasped something in her arms and walked in a straight line toward the waves. Staring straight at that blinding light, she paused momentarily, then swung her arms high and released her sacrifice to the skies. Something small and ragged, perhaps a chicken, flew straight at the sun and then landed in the waves.

light3_tania.jpg

She rejoined a group that then formed a linked circle. They bowed their heads in prayer, then, as the sun moved higher, raised their joined hands joyously as if to invite God into their midst. 

light2_tania.jpg

Nearby, bodies dressed in white, braved an ocean dotted with surfers catching big waves. These were the Shembe believers, whose churches were under leafy trees with no walls or ceilings between them and God. They were both joyous and raw in their expressions of belief, and they danced with fervor.

There, in a vast ocean, they came to baptize not by gently tapping water on a forehead, but by dragging the incumbent through the ocean until his body writhed through the pain and suffering that seemed required to see God.  

I moved about these believers, sharing their experience, until my vision was blinded by the light of the risen Son. Or, more likely, for me, it was the light of the Sun that was blinding.

On Duende: From Spain to Russia

During my recent trip to Granada, Spain for a writing workshop, I spent time — along with a group of fellow writers and authors — exploring the Spanish artistic concept of Duende, which can be translated as a physical and emotional response to art, or an elevated state of authentic emotions, that is often associated with Flamenco. We learned that music and poetry which evokes Duende shares common roots of love, and suffering, and death.

Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director, Federico García Lorca, first developed the aesthetics of Duende in 1933.

Behind  the art of Duende,  lurks  a  terrible  question  that  has no  answer.  I  read  about Duende  — and  a pain  so  strong that  it  supersedes  death  almost  —  and  thought  about myself,  and  my  inability  to  dawdle  in  pain,  my  need  to  move  beyond  it,  through  it, into inspiration.  Russian  stories  about my father came to mind: Stories, rituals, and music.  

While reading Lorca,  and  about  deep  song — songs  heard  in  the  distance — I  came  back to my  childhood and to Russian songs. To  gypsy  music. To songs of love and yearning and an ache for a country that is gone. It is all wrapped into music.  

Although I  rejected  religion, I love the music of my church. Church singing always makes me cry. I found myself in San Gregorio church in Granada, where nuns were chanting, and the experience helped me remember how the music from my father's side can transport me.

 Nuns chanting in San Gregorio church, Granada, Spain

Nuns chanting in San Gregorio church, Granada, Spain

I know  very  little  of  the  culture  of my mother’s  land,  even  though  I  was  born  there.  Yes, I  am  steeped  in  the  music  and culture  of my  father’s  land,  even  though  he  left  it 30  years  before  I  was  born.

I  only  need  to hear  a  tune,  or  a  poem,  or  a  line  of  a  song  and  I  am transported.  I only  need  to  smell  the  wafting  of  incense  from  the  priests   and  I  am  transported.  I  only  need  to  imagine  the  raucous  laughter  of  a  vodka-sated  crowd  and  I  am  transported.  

Could this, too, be Duende

Stories and exploration in Trieste

Whenever I visit Trieste, I cannot help but think about my roots and the time my family spent living in Campo San Sabba. 

The Risiera di San Sabba, an old rice factory, is next to an area that slowly curves upward, toward the Karst hills to the south. 

During the Second World War, it was converted by the Fascists and Nazis into a concentration camp for Serbs, Croats, and Jews. After the war, that camp became Campo San Sabba — a refugee camp for people displaced by Communist regimes. It was there that my family waited four years for our visas to move to America.

Sixty years later in 2014, my brother Sasha — now Alex — and I, headed back to Trieste to revisit our roots in the Balkans. 

Trieste was part of ancient Illyria, part of the Roman empire, and then part of the Austrian empire for 500 years, until World War I ended that era. In 1921 that northern coast of the Adriatic was granted to Italy, an action that turned my infant mother, born some 50 miles to the south in Croatia, into a refugee in Serbia.

As the Cold War replaced the World War, my mother’s marriage to my Russian father — himself an exile of the Russian revolution — forced her new family to flee once again. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were at odds, and we were declared stateless. By then, my mother’s hometown had been returned to Croatia, but now Trieste, like our family, was a stateless orphan, a United Nations protectorate.

Alex and I traveled to San Sabba the way we remembered doing so as children with my mother after trips to the vegetable market — By tram. 

In 1913 James Joyce wrote a melancholy little poem about his brother rowing in the waters of San Sabba. It was now an industrialized part of town that did not bring rowboats to mind.

Joyce wrote many of his works here, but he also wrote his only play. It was called Exiles

One of my favorite authors, Jan Morris, wrote a book called Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. She spent many years in Trieste after the war. In the book, she distinguishes the melancholy from the merely sad. 

I don’t see Trieste in that way. 

The city experienced a major financial collapse when the Berlin wall fell and the people of Eastern Europe could suddenly shop anywhere in Europe. The harbor, in particular, showed the effects of the crisis, but it seemed a new wave of refugees had found their way there. 

I wandered through the abandoned port of Trieste, through hauntingly beautiful remnants of a long gallery built from giant stones. Toward the back of these buildings — which stretched at least 500 yards toward the old, abandoned train station — I found many makeshift homeless shelters built into the colonnades. 

The dirt fields toward the seaside were filled with men playing cricket. I asked if they were from India, knowing that country’s love for the sport. No, they replied, they were all from Afghanistan. Hundreds of them — clearly refugees  — with nothing to do. I wanted to tell them that I, too, was once homeless in this town, but we didn’t have a common language.

 With Afghan refugees in 2014, in an abandoned dockyard at the port of Trieste  

With Afghan refugees in 2014, in an abandoned dockyard at the port of Trieste
 

I continued along a beautiful esplanade laid with half moon patterned bricks that were set by hand and required maintenance. I tried to take a photo of a man re-laying the bricks, but he quickly stepped out of the scene and refused to be photographed. I noticed his accent and asked where he was from. 

"Belgrade," he replied, reluctantly. He told me about his neighborhood, and smiled broadly when he learned that I, too, was born in Belgrade, but now lived in America. 
 

Stretching the imagination: Then and now

After spending time in Spain for a travel writing workshop, I made my way to Italy, to revisit San Sabba — the refugee camp in Trieste where I spent the early years of my childhood. I went to take photos, and to remember. 

My friend Gay and I exchanged photographic assignments. This one is “distorted vision," taken on my way to Campo San Sabba. 

sansabba_2.jpg

Then I went on to San Sabba, to create the image below.

sansabba_1.jpg

Over 60 years separate the two parts of this image. On the left, my father’s image of the camp where we lived in 1952. On the right, I finally found the spot and completed the photo after scaling a wall, crossing live tracks, and stretching my imagination.

Tangled webs of history in San Francisco's North Beach

This is a true story. I promise. My belief in coincidence was stretched by the tale of Lidia Bastianich’s link to my mother’s hometown—Lidia, a world famous chef and restauranteur lived in the same refugee camp that my family did, just a few years after we did— but this coincidence stretches it even further.

I recently met with my friend Carol at Bodega, a favorite wine bar on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. 

Carol is the publisher of The Semaphore, Telegraph Hill's (the site of San Francisco's famous parrots) neighborhood newspaper. I shared my photographs her with for the newspaper's last few issues, and am now an honorary member of that hood. 

I wanted to talk with Carol about publicizing my upcoming book. Knowing I had grown up in San Francisco’s Russian community, she had recommended finding Russian-focused bookstores. 

That’s how much she knew about Mother Tongue, which focuses on the Balkan side of my family.

Before we had time to discuss the newest hot topic — the replacement of Columbus Day by Indigenous Peoples’ Day — she said, “I’m working on a story for the next issue.” I sipped my wine as she continued. “It’s about all of the Italians in North Beach who fled Istria.“

The look on my face was probably worthy of a photograph. My mouth opened and I just kept staring at her. She knew nothing about my mother, or that she too was forced out of Istria — by Italians.

And, like me, she assumed that most people had never heard of Istria. 

I listened in amazement.

It turned out that Carol had been talking to Bruno Viscovi, the owner of Albona Restaurant, an Istrian eatery that I had taken my mother to several times.

She proceeded to tell me the story of Bruno's family’s eviction from Istria. Apparently, there were quite a few others — including the founders of Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café, and, Caffe Trieste.

It’s not that I don’t know these places. Caffe Trieste has been a favorite since I was a teenager being ‘hip.’ I just had neglected to think of them in the context of my own story about Trieste, spending part of my childhood living there at San Sabba refugee camp.

My obliviousness to this possible link was embarrassing, but suddenly it all sank in.

I didn’t have to look for a New York restaurateur to connect my book to the Italian American community. I just had to look around my neighborhood. Thanks to Carol, I am newly re-invigorated in this search!

 In North Beach, with travel writer extraordinaire, Don George. 

In North Beach, with travel writer extraordinaire, Don George. 

Richard Le, the manager of the North Beach Public Library — whose name was misspelled at immigration from Lee — was gracious enough to schedule a reading for me.

Hear about the interwoven history of a common Slavic and Italian homeland on Saturday, June 2, 2018 at 1:30 p.m. at the North Beach Public Library, 800 Columbus Ave., in San Francisco. 

A little background:

Bruno Viscovi was born in Albona, or Labin, Istria. In the 1950s, both of our families fled their country of birth, but for very different reasons. In 1988 Bruno opened Albona —then the only Istrian restaurant in the Western United States — in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Gianni Giotta, founder of Caffe Trieste and one of North Beach’s great personalities, was born in Rovigno, or Rovinj, on the Istrian peninsula, two years before it was transferred from Croatia to Italy. Like my grandfather Martin Marinovič, Gianni came from a fishing family. He and his wife, Ida, immigrated to San Francisco and, in 1956, opened Caffe Trieste, the first espresso bar in San Francisco.

Mario Crismani opened the now famous Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café on Columbus Street in 1972. He was born in Pola, or Pula, Istria, where he met his wife Lilliana and where my grandfather worked in the shipyards. They lived in Trieste, where I spent my first four years, until coming to San Francisco. He often played bocce at the courts in Aquatic Park, below my home.

In the epilogue to my book, Mother Tongue, I talk about the refugee camp at San Sabba:

“We also learned that the Displaced Persons camp set up in this place after the war had sheltered two primary groups of people. The one we had been part of were those — mostly Russians — who were displaced by the post-war spread of Communism. The others were Italians displaced when Istria was given back to Yugoslavia.

A few years earlier, I had bought my brother an old copy of LIFE magazine from the week of his birthday in September 1947. Incredibly, the cover story was about the return of Istria to Yugoslavia from Italy that very week. It turned out that the land taken from my mother’s family at her birth was returned to her country at the birth of her son.

Just as my family had been persecuted 25 years earlier by Italians, the Italians were then persecuted by the Yugoslavs. Many lost their homes and fled the country. The issue was still so raw at the end of 2013, as I was researching this story, that Wikipedia temporarily froze their articles on the subject because of contention and disagreement.”

Breaking through borders

The first time I drove into the country of my birth it was still a Communist dictatorship under Joseph Broz Tito, the man who had declared my family enemy aliens. The very thought of it made my father fear he would never see me again. But I was a confident young American, determined to be afraid of nothing.

It was 1973 and I was working in France, near Geneva. I had a few days off and drove through beautiful Alps and Italian countryside that would in later life captivate me for years. But I drove nonstop — blind to scenery, culture and food — determined to arrive at my aunt’s house in Zagreb, Croatia. 

I remember little of the trip, and didn’t even bother pausing in Trieste, heading straight for the nearby border. I pulled up behind a long row of cars at the border station. I had anticipated this checkpoint for weeks, but by the time they were clearing the car in front of me, I was tired and bored and anxious to be at my destination. The guards made that occupant get out, and checked every inch of his car’s interior, dismantling everything that was easy to remove.

Finally they finished, the guy got back into that rattletrap, and the border gate opened. It was a long metal white bar with globally understood red symbols that meant ‘STOP.’ He painstakingly got his ancient car into gear, and it backfired as he slowly stumbled into his country — as his license plate indicated.

To my surprise, before this maneuver was complete, the guard energetically waved me forward and through the border into the country of my birth — as my passport indicated. 

My car performed far more efficiently than the previous entrant’s and I sailed through — to sudden shouting, something slapping at the back of my car, people running at me, perhaps a siren. 

I braked hard, turned my head, and realized I had misunderstood his gesture. Adrenaline and fear kicked in hard. What had I done? Were my father’s worst fears about to come true?

I threw the car into reverse and stepped on the gas pedal to correct my error.

Once more, the car performed. It tore backwards and stopped in front of the now red-faced and furious border guard. 

On its way back my car had ripped the border gate off its hinges. 

A crowd of officials gathered, waving and shouting and asking if I was out of my mind. Two of them walked away, carrying the now broken barrier. The line behind me grew longer. Tensions were high. I fought back tears. 

I don’t know what saved me in the end. Whether it was my American nationality, my gender, my youth, my visible terror, my knowledge of their language, my apologies, or the sheer lunacy of what I had done. All I remember is that they handed me my passport, shook their heads, and waved me through the now permanently open border to a once frightening place.

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