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The Sava embankment

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Until a few years ago, before I went back West, I lived for a few years in Croatia, in Zagreb.  Occasionally when I went jogging along the Sava embankment and zoned out to the sights around me I would fell a mix of timelessness and unease.  On these evenings there weren’t many people out there, and those that were were after some innocuous task – walking a dog, chatting with a companion, looking for a place to make out in the dark.  The air was damp and smelled of mud and grass, the path dimly lit by streetlights and buildings.  Except for a few details, I felt the scene would have been the same ten, fifteen years before, before and during the breakup of former Yugoslavia.

This jog then and now, I thought, would have been similar – the landscape quiet, peaceful, buildings and people a backdrop to the sounds and scents of the Sava and her floodway.  It would resemble the periphery of any large Yugoslav city before the war.  In the 1980s, the changes, the swell of rock bands in the housing projects, the political upheavals in the capitals along the river, would have been barely noticeable.  The collapse that followed, likewise, would have been apparent only during the mandatory blackouts early on.  The refugee swells, the front lines and the ethnic cleansing camps could have been in a different world, rather than in the same city or a few hours’ drive away.  During the war many came to Zagreb to seek a semblance of calm, and one could do worse than to look for it near the river.

In the calm and comfort of going about the everyday, seen from the embankment, Zagreb in 2004 felt a lot like Zagreb or Skopje or Belgrade or Ljubljana or Sarajevo had felt in 1989, as I remembered or imagined.  Yet in hindsight the scene felt eerie, knowing that chaos was then just behind the horizon.  Practically overnight, forces beyond the control of most of us were about to make it important – down-in-the-gut-life-and-death kind of important – which of these cities we were born, lived or worked in.  I was not there during much of the war, but most of my family was in Croatia, and I had come to know this feeling quite well.

Finally, I sensed pity – I felt sorry that, in most of these places, one would have been ill advised to give in to the comfort of the everyday – to the innocence of sticking by “What I don’t know can’t hurt me” – to the ease or necessity of minding one’s problems and hoping the world can take care of itself.  I felt regret that, while by all rights one should be able to do this, whoever did so then was living on borrowed time. Chilling out in front of the fan while the shit was flying straight at it.

In a few years, if all goes well, I hope to become a father.  I should be happy at the prospect, and most of the time I am.  I am trudging along to a likely future career in science, and I could do worse in terms of means and flexibility I’d like to have as a parent.  Yet perhaps because I have too much time to think, I have very mixed feelings about bringing new people to this world.

Most of us are struggling hard to make things better, each in one’s own way.  But when I think about the actual challenges we face if we want this world to be a place we can with a clear conscience leave to our children and grandchildren, and about what we can and probably should collectively do about them, I feel that we who have means to do so are largely just busy scratching the surface, hoping that talk and small actions will convince the challenges to go away.  It’s like we’re borrowing time and hoping the lease never expires.  I’m pretty certain it will.

Written by miranche

8 March 2009 at 13:15

Posted in Contentious, Personal