A night spent in a Croatian art museum—a cultural-exchange project I’d repressed agreeing to—yielded clarifying reminders of the ethnic tensions in both the land I was visiting and the one I call home
Here’s an interesting fact about my screwed-up personality that I’ve learned over the years: When it comes to taking on a commitment, there’s a direct, inverse correlation between the proximity of the request in terms of time and my willingness to commit to it. So, for example, I might politely refuse my wife’s modest request to make her a cup of tea today, but I will generously agree to go grocery shopping tomorrow. I have no problem saying that I will volunteer, in a month’s time, to help some distant relative move to a new apartment; and if we’re talking about six months from now, I’d even offer to wrestle a polar bear naked. The only significant problem with this character trait is that time keeps moving forward and in the end, when you find yourself shaking with cold on some frozen Arctic tundra facing a white-furred bear with bared teeth, you can’t help but ask yourself if it might not have been better to just say no half a year earlier.
On my last trip to Zagreb, Croatia, to participate in a writers’ festival, I didn’t find myself wrestling with any polar bears, but I got close enough. On the way to the hotel, while I was going over the schedule of events with Roman, the organizer of the festival, he nonchalantly tossed the following comment my way: “And I hope you didn’t forget that you agreed to take part in a cultural project of ours and spend tonight in a local museum.” In fact, I’d completely forgotten, or more precisely, I’d totally repressed the recollection. But later, at the hotel, I saw that I’d received an email seven months earlier asking if, during the festival, I’d be willing to spend a night in the Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art and then write about the experience. My reply had consisted of two words: Why not?
But as I sat in my pleasant, comfortable hotel room in Zagreb, I pictured myself in a locked, dark museum sprawled on a rusty, bumpy metal sculpture called something like “Yugoslavia, a Country Divided,” covered by a tattered curtain I’ve pulled off the entrance to the coatroom, the opposite question came to mind: Why yes?
After the literary event, I’m sitting with the other participants around a wooden table in a local bar. It’s almost midnight when Carla, Roman’s assistant, says that it’s time to say goodnight to everyone. I need to go to the museum. The writers, some slightly drunk, get up and bid me a rather dramatic farewell. The brawny Basque writer hugs me tightly and says, “Hope to see you tomorrow”; a German translator wipes away a tear after shaking my hand, or maybe she was readjusting a contact lens.
The night guard at the museum doesn’t know a word of English, let alone Hebrew. He leads me through a series of dark halls to a side elevator that takes us up one floor to a beautiful, spacious room with a neatly made bed in the middle. He makes a gesture that I take to mean I should feel free to wander around the museum. I thank him with a nod.
As soon as the guard leaves, I get into bed and try to go to sleep. I still haven’t recovered from the early morning flight, and the beers after the event haven’t done much to keep me alert. My eyes begin to close, but another part of my brain refuses to submit. How many times in my life will I have the opportunity to wander around an empty museum? It would be a waste not to take a short stroll. I get up, put on my shoes, and take the elevator downstairs. The museum isn’t huge, but in the near-darkness, it’s hard to find my way around. I walk past paintings and sculptures and try to remember them so I can use them as landmarks to help me find my way to the elevator that will take me back to my comfortable bed. In a few minutes, the fear and tiredness fade a little, and I’m able to see the exhibited work not only as landmarks but also as pieces of art. I find myself walking circles through the halls. I always return to the same place. I sit down on the floor in front of a huge photograph of a gorgeous girl whose eyes seem to bore right into me. The text scrawled across the photo quotes graffiti sprayed on by an unknown Dutch soldier who was part of the U.N. Protection Force sent to Bosnia in 1994:
Smel Like Shit…?
A Bosnian Girl!
That powerful work reminds me of something I’d heard that afternoon in Zagreb in a side-street café. A waiter there told me that during the war, people who came into the place had a hard time choosing the right word when they wanted to order coffee. The word “coffee,” he’d explained, is different in Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian, and every innocent word choice was fraught with threatening political connotations. “To avoid trouble,” he’d said, “people started ordering espresso, which is a neutral Italian word, and overnight, we stopped serving coffee here and served only espresso.”
As I sit in front of the painting and think about words, about xenophobia and hatred in the place I come from and the place I’m in now, I notice that the sun is beginning to rise. The night is over, and I never got to enjoy the luxury of the soft bed the guard had made up for me.
I get up from where I’ve been sitting in a corner of the room and say goodbye to the beautiful girl in the picture. In daylight, she’s even more beautiful. It’s already 8 a.m.; soon the first visitors will be entering the museum. I start walking toward the exit. Maybe it isn’t always bad that I tend to commit myself in advance without thinking about the things that might happen in the distant future.
Translated by Sondra Silverston.
David Tanis, Chez Panisse chef, cookbook author, and now food columnist for the New York Times, is best known for his seasonal cuisine. But this Midwestern-born chef cites Jewish food as his culinary roots.