Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Fowl Story

One of the rituals at holiday family gatherings invariably involves the “do you remember the time that…?” It was in this context that my father-in-law raised a European trip we took in the early 80’s. We met up in Rome and traveled to Yugoslavia. Even as we argued about the city: was it Split? Srebenica? Zadar? I knew where he was heading.

“Yes,” I replied. It was Split, I think. We arrived in the city, and there was literally no room at the inn. A visit to the local tourist bureau procured us lodgings in private homes. My father-in-law drew the 50’s vintage ranch house on the outskirts of the city. My husband, sister-in-law, and I found ourselves in front of the massive wooden door to a townhouse in the starigrad, or old city, read that medieval walled city. I swear that door swung, whisper silent, of its own accord. Standing there awaiting us, beckoning us in with a red manicured digit was a tall, spare, austere-looking, middle-aged woman who spoke English hesitantly and with an accent like that of a female Boris Karloff. Her jet black hair was drawn back in a bun; her thin lips, outlined in bright red. There was something terribly witchlike about her.

Despite our initial misgivings, she turned out to be a very nice, if unnerving, woman. We were renting a room in her apartment which consisted of the top floor of the building and a rooftop/garret/pigeon coop. At some point during our brief stay, she told me, “This was all ours once. It was one house. It belonged to my father. But they took it away and left me with this,” indicating the flat crammed with family heirlooms. This I understood. Suddenly, I had visions of that scene in Doctor Zhivago when Omar Sharif returns to find the rabble inhabiting the old homestead and his family barricaded in a few rooms.

“She got that back, now, you know.” My father-in-law interrupted. “They all got that back.” Apparently, the property that had been appropriated by the government was returned when Yugoslavia broke up and the resulting Republic opted for democracy. How wonderful, I thought. The balance of that woman’s universe had been restored. It made me sad, too, because I couldn’t foresee such an ending for Cuba. It’s not about property, as much as it’s about the acknowledgement that a wrong had been committed, a patrimony stolen. As Anita Snow revels in her opinion that Obama is free to collaborate with the Havana Dons, I wonder whether it's an acknowledgment we’ll ever get or whether we are expected to collude in the denial of our own reality.

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