Off Balance

One of the things I am learning in Tuzla – I should blog about this – is how dependent we are on the background rhythms and patterns around which our conscious, explicit lives are lived. Communication in our own tongue is only the most obvious example. In addition, there is the simple rhythm of a day; boys in school 7 to 3 (or sometimes 4); classes (or work) 8 to 4 (or 5); dinner sometime between 6 and 9; and an unceasing barrage of information about dates on the calendar to set aside. Here, the boys are in school 7 to 12:30. But on two days a week one or the other boy does not have a first period; and on other days they do not have a last period. And, as we learned the other day, sometimes they shift the periods up, so that Averil sat in an empty classroom wondering where everyone was. Probably this information passes informally from administrators to teachers to parents or students. Or perhaps it was mentioned, in Bosnian, at the beginning of one or another class – not written on the board or sent home in a note or (never, never, never) circulated by email. Or, another example; no one knew until the last moment whether or not classes would be held on Bay-rim. I am not joking. No one knew. The big meal here is lunch. No one eats breakfast. They catch a carbohydrate or a fruit on the way to work or school. But, as far as I can tell, we are the only family that explicitly sits down for a formal breakfast. And no one sits down for a formal dinner. Which means that there is really no moment that I can identify when a family on a daily basis sits down and communes. I still receive at least two and sometimes three emails a day from the boys’ school in Berkeley. They do not use email here to convey information. Maybe they use Facebook. Berkeley Unified School District Calendar is posted online two years in advance so that families can plan around holidays and in-service days. No such calendars exist here.

But there are a host of other unspokens. Who was to know that the status metric at Averil and Yates school – the skill without which no boy can progress – is his soccer playing ability. Of course, everyone plays soccer. No male does not play soccer, from age three to age fifty. But Averil is now completely shunned during PE class, even by the PE teacher, because of his lack of facility at soccer. Yes, he practices piano for an hour every day. But no one practices piano here. No one practices an instrument at all. In fact, studying appears to be optional. Perhaps the attitude is kind of: who cares? There are no jobs anyway. Only our academic friends really push their children in school. And that’s OUR academic friends. The word on the street is that most academic appointments are completely political; rewards for faithfulness of service in the party or campaign contributions. (There are a lot of industrialists who “happen” to find themselves heads of departments at the university.)

Or there is the constant barrage of background information – news – that we take for granted in Berkeley; mostly by radio or newspapers, which, absent language, we miss here. (Perhaps they announce school schedules on radio.) Or there are the familiar foods, which, in Berkeley, means foods from all over the world: want Middle Eastern? want Japanese? want Chinese? want Korean? want French or British or West African or Indian? There it is, right there. Or there is the expectation – now – that if we want something, it is no more than a click away, which is not true in Bosnia because in a country ruled by oligarchs and oligarchies the rule of law is suspended; and where the rule of law is suspended Amazon or eBay or Office Max or Home Depot simply will not take your money or mail your item. Who will they sue if the item does not arrive? In what court of law? Following which laws? And so a simple matter of getting an ink cartridge for our printer evolves into international intrigue across three continents, negotiated in the back room of Facebook with loyal friends.

This is the background we take for granted in the US. Another background, equally predictable for those who grew up here, takes precedence in Tuzla, which well it should. But it means that, until we master the code, actions and events strike us as arbitrary and capricious; but in any case come to us right out of the blue. Sometimes this is a pleasant surprise; like the Guinea Hen dropped off on our doorstep by a friend of a friend; or the four chickens that arrived from Belma’s aunt the other day; or the Rakia (a local brandy) produced by our landlord another day. Or the car rental which, on the spur of the moment, told us we could have the car for two days and a night for the price of one day: 60KM, or roughly $35 dollars. Or when I returned the car, in the rain, and was searching for a car wash because Perfect Rent a Car requires that patrons wash the car before they return it. Every single car wash attendant (I went to three) looked up at the sky and replied “Ne, ne, ne.” shaking their heads. Finally I found a guy to wash the car. But he refused to take any money. Never happens in Berkeley. Won’t happen in Berkeley.

Which means that our rhythms are constantly being thrown off. Forget the seemingly arbitrary meeting or failure to keep appointments. Having an appointment means something like, we’ll check in when the time comes. It kind of puts you off balance.

So we are trying to get and keep our balance here. Sometimes successfully. Often not.