Homesick for a war zone

It was a hot day in 2003, and it seemed even hotter in my neighbors’ house. Maybe it was the lower ceilings, or the never-updated shag carpeting, or the spanakopita Sandra cooked in the small kitchen. I don’t think it was actually called spanakopita. Sandra and her husband, Dino, were from Bosnia, not Greece. Or maybe I was sensing a claustrophobic tension simmering between Sandra and Dino. I was 14 and it was hard to know.

They had moved in earlier that summer, or maybe the summer before, but that was the first time they invited us over to eat. They hit it off with my parents because all four grown-ups liked to talk and drink. Because Sandra and Dino smoked cigarettes unabashedly, around them, my mom didn’t have to suppress her occasional urge for an after-dinner smoke. Dino liked basketball, so my dad invited him to join the weekend league he played in. They would drive to the gym together Saturday mornings and my dad would marvel at how Dino could play after having just a cigarette for breakfast.

Other than basketball, conversation, drink, and children, my parents didn’t have much in common with our neighbors. My mom and dad had both lived almost their whole lives in Seattle. Their ancestors came from northern Europe several generations back. Sandra was Christian and born in Croatia; Dino was a Bosnian Muslim. Though neither had grown up religious, their  differing backgrounds, exacerbated by the violent conflict in the Balkans, was enough to motivate their escape from Bosnia to Berlin, where their twins, Jan and Irma, were born. They were several years younger than my brother and me. I’m not sure how they all ended up in Seattle.

Jan and Irma had a collie named Lassie and no accents. Dino had friends in the neighborhood and seemed happy with their life. Sandra struggled. She didn’t speak English as well as the rest of her family and had trouble finding a job. She missed home. I tried to connect the kind of homesickness I felt away at camp, for example, to what we’d learned in school about starvation and violence in the Balkans, with its images of old women in their skirts and kerchiefs huddled against backdrops of bombed-out buildings.

Sandra and Dino argued a lot. I can’t remember if it was before or after they divorced when they sold the house and Sandra took the kids back to Croatia. That lasted for a year or two. When they returned to Seattle, Jan and Irma told my brother and me how beautiful the beaches in Croatia are, and that all the kids there think the U.S. is like the movie “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” They were happy to be back.

We hardly see them anymore. They no longer live next door. Our parents’ friendship wasn’t quite strong enough to sustain the divorce and passing time, I suppose. My brother, a senior when Jan started high school, reported that Jan hung out with a popular group of freshmen. I wonder what became of Lassie.

I wonder what became of Sandra. I wonder if she improved her English enough to find a good job or if she wishes they had stayed in Croatia for good. I hope she knows I thought her spanakopita—or whatever it’s called—was delicious, even on such a hot day.

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