Friday, September 21, 2012

How to Survive in a Walled City

1. Survey your premises. Know where all the gates are.
2. Know the gate nearest to you at all times.
3. In addition to the gates, there must be hidden passages, underground tunnels, ways of scaling the walls. Rats find a way in.
4. Get out of town at the earliest opportunity.
5. A walled city is much better looking from the top of the nearby hill. The last time this city was bombed only twenty years ago.
6. Many people find a walled city a curious tourist destination. They might form a crowd and obstruct your way out by day. Get out into the wilderness in the early morning and don't come back until the cruise ships have moved on.
7. If you're starting to feel aggressive toward your neighbors, escape to the nearest hill to get some fresh air. Buy a cactus. Anything green will help soothe your nerves.
8. If you're feeling claustrophobic in the middle of the night, it's Ok to take a walk to the nearest gate to make sure it's still open. It's Ok to smuggle ice cream from the outside. Nobody will demand that you pay tax to cross the draw bridge.
9. Practice diving and swimming. The sea is close enough. Know your terrain. Can you jump from the wall and survive?
10. Leave at your earliest convenience. Move on. Anywhere with less walls will do.

Monday, September 17, 2012


--Post inspired by Diocletian, the only Roman emperor who, as the legend goes, retired of his own volition, returned to his native province here in Split, and spent the last years of his life tending a vegetable garden.

Remember grade school? For me, every quarter used to start with copying down a schedule of classes for each day, and in addition to that I also created "regimes" for my extracurricular activities. Wake up at 7 am, read for an hour, then go to school, then after school come home and play guitar for an hour, draw or play with my brother, do homework, then read for an hour before sleep. These regimes were invariably proven bogus on the very first day I tried to execute them. No matter what I'd set out to do, and for how long, once I actually got into an activity, it was impossible to stop by the clock, and if I'd happened on a good book, I could read all night without stopping at all.

These regimes were never, ever effective. They aggravated me immensely. Even if reading was the next thing on the list--and I lived to read--I couldn't pick up a book knowing that it would be but a short hour before I would have to put it down. The discreet time unit, and the knowledge that the end would come sooner rather than later, made reading impossible. I couldn't get fully immersed into the world of the book if I had to keep looking at the clock all the time. Without the clock, I lost all track of time. "Do you know how late it is?" I can still remember my grandmother's disturbed expression when she got up in the middle of the night and found me still awake. If I tried to curb my reading after an hour, it was all pointless. I could reread one page ten times without getting much out of it, my mind preoccupied with the unfairness of it all. Why couldn't people just be left alone, and sit on couches and read all day long?

Oddly enough, the habit of making these regimes stuck. I'm still at it. Every half a year or a year or so, I start outlining the schedule of my new life. Long trips usually serve as inspiration -- sometimes I draft a new routine on the flight back. You'd think that over the years my regimes should've gotten better or more realistic, but no such thing. On paper, I can get up at 7 am, go to bed at midnight, and fit in between everything from work and writing to studying German and French, going to the gym, going out with friends, and taking a casual dinner with Dave -- all in one day. Energized after two weeks away, I imagine that I could do all of it with a smile on my face and never get tired.

We're traveling across south-east Europe this week. We've visited four countries in as many days, and today alone crossed two borders. Dave pre-planned most of the trip, and all we need to do now is to stick as closely to the plan as possible. Check into hotels, check out, eat breakfast, lunch, dinner (or dinner at 2 pm and supper at 8 pm to accommodate my parents' mealtimes), pick up and drop off car, get on a bus tomorrow within a certain window of hours, and then continue on with the plan in the next town. There's a huge comfort in having this time-table to follow -- no matter how intense it is, and no matter that if we can't get everything in we end up cutting into sleep time to accomplish more. Part of the comfort for me is that Dave did all the prep work here. It's the difference between being given a schedule of classes to copy and having to design a regime for myself. But even then it's only a comfort for a couple of days or so. Then the schedule begins to oppress. I want to skip the bus, forget about seeing all the amazing and fascinating sights that we're seeing, and spend an entire day at a hotel and read. To forget about all the schedules in the world. This is clearly the beginning of a vacation, the first third. By the end of the two weeks, no doubt, I'll be drafting another regime, dreaming up another lifetime of pursuits and accomplishments.

Friday, September 14, 2012

It's London time, baby!

We leave home, as always, in a rush. Dave has checked off everything on his list; I obsess about little things that don't matter. The new odd smell in our hallway: where did that come from? It smells as if our next-door neighbors who used to smoke pot now switched to smoking rat tails.

We catch our taxi driver on Duboce Street an hour and a half before departure. He senses our stress level right away and takes off with a "yee-haw!" Swerving in and around rush hour traffic, he makes noises of a jockey priming his horse to win by a head. For now, Dave and I are both still plugged in, checking our email, the latest news. Deaths at the US embassy in Lybia, anti-American protests all over the Muslim countries. Have you heard what Romney said? How will this play out for the November election?

Arrive to the airport with minutes to spare. The trunk of the taxi cab won't open. The driver rams into the trunk with enough force to roll the car down the street, but the trunk remains closed. He hands me the key, asking me to keep it turned in the lock, while Dave pushes the trunk, and the driver is inside the cab, tugging at the lever. Then Dave tugs at the lever and the driver pushes the trunk. I'm thinking--what power tools could we use here? Suddenly the trunk pops open.

The routine of travel: a succession of mini-dramas. Tension is built into the time-tables and the temporary ceding of agency. What will be done to us next? How will we react--and will our reactions escalate or diminish the incident, will they affect the rest of the trip? How we cope with the vagaries of travel is determined by our character, and not even our individual characters, but of this joint entity that we represent--a traveling duo. Travel as performance art, and we're students of the genre.

It's a vacation!
We're the very last in line to check in to London. While I worry that we might miss our flight, my parents whom we're meeting in Zagreb, miss theirs. They finally arrive to Zagreb sans mom's luggage, which will now have to travel on and catch up with us (hopefully) in Ljubljana.

Dave and I spend the afternoon in London. A long layover allows us to take Heathrow Express to Paddington, and from there we go to Southwark, roam for an hour through the galleries at the Tate Modern museum, and explore--why not?--the embankment outside with the gorgeous view of the Millennium Footbridge across the Thames, St. Paul's cathedral, London Bridge, and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. We end up at the Borough Market, where we buy sweets and a fish pie to share. Then we return to the airport and, finally, after a short delay, fly to Zagreb.

Transformed Visions: Dave sleeps at the Tate Modern in London

My parents stayed up to wait for us at the hotel. As they tell the story of their missed flight, they're laughing. Why are they laughing? It couldn't have been a pleasant experience. But we're all safe, and together, the experience of being together heightened by our surroundings: a country and a city we've never been to before, and although its history is tied in to the geopolitical events that place me on the other side of the globe from my parents, none of us have any particular reason to be here.

"I was in Zagreb twenty years ago," my dad reminds us.

"Did the place change since then?"

"I can't remember. I remember only the man on the horse--he's still out there, on the square."

Dave and I have already glimpsed the statue from the cab, and perhaps tomorrow we'll get a chance to study it closer. Meantime, it's a comfort to be finally going to bed (it's been a thirty-something-hour day for Dave and me) and to fall asleep knowing that my parents are sleeping in the next room.

For Dave's reflections on our travel experiences, read Dave's blog.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Where Does the Sea Flow

Last year, a young Russian filmmaker, Vitaly Saltykov made a movie based on one of my short stories, and now this movie has made it to the short list of Manhattan Short Film Festival. Here's an interview with the director, where he talks about the filming process and the actors, one of whom is a star of Russian screen, Oksana Akinshina. The movie is making something of a news in Russia because it turned out to be the first Russian film to be selected for this festival. It's also notable as one of the few Russian films made with private, not state, funds.

(I'm credited in the movie and in the interview as Olga Grenetz, because that's how I'm published in Russia)

The movie has to do with a mother-daughter relationship. The girl is a precocious child, and the young mother is having a hard time relating to her. The movie differs from my story in one aspect: according to the movie, the daughter was conceived as a child of rape, while in the short story I had chosen to present two short scenes in medias res, without any background about the characters. It has been a fascinatingif not an entirely comfortableexperience to see how the story evolved in adaptation, but watching the completed film, I admire Vitaly's vision and wisdom that it took to create a fully independent work of art.

Here's the trailer with English subtitles:

Manhattan Short Film Festival will take place from September 28 until October 7, 2012 on three hundred screens around the world. In California, it will play in Fresno, Modesto, Point Arena, and Redding. Look up the venues closest to you here. And here's the webpage for the movie. The story, by the way, is one of the few stories I'd written in Russian, and haven't yet reworked in English. It's a part of my second Russian-language collection published by Limbus Press in 2010, The Keys From the Lost House.