Tea in a Bomb Shelter

So, I was having tea in my friend’s bomb shelter.

In 1998, in Croatia. We had been writing to each other, Matilda and I, since our early teens and I had finally had the chance on a year abroad in an Italian college to take a ferry across the Adriatic to meet Matilda and her family. Our letters were teenaged about our would-be-loves, poetry, exams, dodgy song lyrics; you know the kind. On my three-week trip (there was no getting rid of me), I spent the first couple of days trying to diplomatically ask what had happened and quickly learned to avoid asking any questions about the war. I was twenty-one.

I spent a lot of time in college dorms writing out U2 lyrics, chatting about exam pressures, our aspirations, the latest arthouse film we’d seen, trying to learn beautiful Croatian phrases ‘Hvala.’( Did you know the Croatian word for elephant is the same as the Irish word for Goodbye? Well, almost. Slon, Slan. Trivial but necessary.) We were college students of the same age but we were decades apart in life experience. My new Croatian friends often hurried me past traumatized veterans walking the marbled streets of their city streets, glossed over the bullets in their college walls. They loved their city, their country and I couldn’t blame them for wanting to show me their best, for wanting to leave their worst behind.

However, on the third week, Matilda brought me to see where the family had stayed when the bombing became too hard to bear in their city. Their bomb shelter as it were. It wasn’t dark or underground, it was lovely as I remember it. It was a small square room, painted yellow. It had a view out to the sea. It had a piano, a large table, a bookshelf and a couch. It was all very ordinary. It was from there she had written her letters to me.

So even as a nosy and pretentious Arts student, I learned that war was very ordinary. There was no drama, just huge disturbance to a person’s life. Even now, words like massacre and bombings hold no real value in my thinking but disturbance does. For what is war to a young person but a diversion from their course? Absolute loss of reality, family members, dignity and normality. That’s what war is when you are on the ground.

And there it is on our TV screens again. And to us it means a share or a like on social media. A retweet. But it’s not real for us and we search for it’s meaning to feel we are doing something. But there really is no real meaning to us. No reason. Out there, however, tonight, there is a bunch of ordinary college students who are displaced, who are being pulled from their future and diverted into survival by a war that has nothing to do with them really. Remember them.

For Matilda.

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