Getting on the plane leaving Sarajevo I pulled out my notebook to sort through a week of dealing with 20-year old memories. I had just spent a few days with students and professors in a Gordon College Balkans Semester for the Study of War and Peace in Dubrovnik. That’s because 20 years ago I came to Bosnia right after the Dayton Peace Accord was signed to report on how people survived the war. I wanted to find out why three groups of people, Bosnian Muslim, Catholic Croat and Serbian Orthodox, who had lived together for decades had turned on each other and the end result: tens of thousands of children, women and men had died. Could this happen in the melting pot where I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and reported for KCBS Radio? What hope for a future was left? For two weeks I was part of a team that drove around the former Yugoslavia filing live reports twice a day and I found that hope from a woman sewing bags in Zenica, a soldier who vowed to put away the past outside Tuzla and through a teenage girl and her mother who lived in a fourth floor bombed out apartment in downtown Sarajevo who showed us around the artist community in their city.
I’d landed in Sarajevo the week before, picked up Sanja, and after spending the night with her and her mom in that same apartment I rented a car and we headed to Dubrovnik. There’s a depth to our relationship I can’t quite put my finger on. True, after I left Sarajevo all those years ago, Sanja did come to live with our family in San Francisco and then went to UCLA. But it’s her experience of surviving war, of not wanting to talk of that period of time and of totally moving on with her life that so resonates with me.
So here I am trying to put my emotionally charged thoughts together in a way that makes sense when the two people sitting next to me engage in conversation. We’re all headed to Munich, where I hear the man who sits next to me say he lives. He reveals he’s Turkish and works most weeks running a hotel in Sarajevo and this Friday afternoon flight is perfect since it’s only an hour: he commutes like this every week. The young American woman is discussing her work with efforts to eradicate landmines, and how she’s been traveling for three weeks, including a stint in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’m really not trying to listen, as I continue to jot down all sorts of ideas in my notebook. But as there’s more talk of Sarajevo, Yerevan, the huge amount of landmines that still exist and haven’t been destroyed and how Armenia needs more funding to deal with their landmines I decide to jump right into the conversation.
“I’m Armenian. Half,” I blurt out.
“Really?” the Turkish man asks, “what’s the other half?”
“Danish,” I reply.
“Born in America?”
“I was born in India.”
“You grew up in India?”
“For four years, then we moved to Lebanon where I started school until we had to leave in 1967 when the war broke out.”
“You spoke Arabic?”
“Yes, and Armenian. But as my parents’ common language was English, we didn’t keep it up when we moved to the states.”
A lot of laughter and head nodding…
“My parents were missionaries. My father’s from Cyprus, my mom’s from Denmark and they met and married in India.”
As if that explains everything.
We veer off into a variety of conversational directions, including family, food, work and even genocide. The young woman reveals she was born in Germany, and relates a hilarious story of taking her grandmother to Munich for an Octoberfest and how a very drunk man spilled an entire pitcher of beer on her ‘oma’s’ beautiful pantsuit.
She asks the man where he’s from, “Ismir, Turkey” he replies and they talk about Istanbul.
“My grandparents,” I add, “ were born in Turkey, Adana and Mersin.” And I refer to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide without sharing they both were forced from their homes in the early 1900s.
Not the typical discussion I would crash were it not for the meetings I’d just been a part of in Dubrovnik where reflecting on memories and telling our stories were a big part of how I shared my recollection of the end of the war in Bosnia and how we determine what to hang on to and what to let go as we move forward in life.
Which brings me back to my family again. I find it odd how the brief interaction on this flight is essentially made possible because of my mixed up heritage.
One of my Danish cousins, a novelist, recently encouraged me to consider writing a book about the unlikely pairing of my parents from completely different parts of the world, even more unlikely considering each of their family histories and how their unusual passion for their faith and each other resulted in a blend of cultures that allows me to have such strange conversations. My upbringing as a third culture kid, raised in a culture outside my parents’ cultures, was a clash of epic proportions resulting in various triggers I’m beginning to understand as I unwrap the stories of the people who came before me.
The plane lands in Munich.
“Where’s home?” my seatmates ask.
For a third culture kid that’s a tough question but I do know the answer.
“Home is where I live now,” I respond, “ so that would be Denver.”
After I board the next flight to head home I start an outline for the book.