The Croatian Communion of Cookies and Coffee

They smuggled cookies everywhere, like children sneaking JuJuBees into a movie theater within the lining of their jackets.

During my last visit, her parents brought a package of cookies to a mountain top cafe where we opened them quietly while the Fraulein was in the kitchen watching for our Café au laits and macchiatos. The restaurant provided cookies. They were individually wrapped, laying leisurely on the saucer, and shaped like spoons to better scoop our cappuccino foam, but it was so impersonal. So individual. Those German wafers were held singularly in captivity, annexed from the true communal nature of their existence. And so they stayed that way throughout our respite.

MountainMaybe it was a survival strategy, or perhaps it was culture, but those cookies that the cafe provided always found their way into her and her mother’s stylish Croatian purses. They were rescued refugees, just like their now owners, and deserved a good home with friends and family to support their struggle for freedom.

Later on, I would recognize those mountain top wafers looking comfortable, yet a bit apprehensive, on the porcelain plate that came out of the fridge during our coffee conversations. Now, finally out of their plastic coffins, they were free to live with their fellow cookie, joyously preoccupied with idle conversation and gossip, exempt of the existential knowledge of their basic function: to be eaten.

I never quite grasped eating cookies and coffee after climbing a mountain. I thirsted for water, Powerade, Gatorade, something that would aid me in my climb, something that Michael Jordan endorsed. Something that promised the replenishment of my electrolytes. So I sat at the cafe sweltering in the tight mountain air, that much closer to the sun, sipping coffee and lightly snacking on the orange chocolate wafers that supposedly bridged the language gap between all of us.

Because of all this, now I crave sugary confections with my coffee. I search through the empty spaces of cupboards. I peer in pantries. I open the fridge, hoping that a cookie has miraculously appeared during my absence.

Cupboard, pantry, fridge. Cupboard, pantry fridge.

Sometimes I vary the routine, but it still yields the same result. The very definition of insanity. It didn’t used to be this way. I took my coffee with cream. No sugar. Half & Half. Breve. But I stayed far away from sugary morsels that usually accompanied coffee to the tables of bourgeois homes.

At her parent’s home—after the soup, salad, and meat course, each course with its own set of dishes and silverware—we had coffee.

Small, white porcelain cups with gold etching encircling the rim would escape the small dishwasher along with their matching saucer, but for only a moment to be used and immediately shoved back in once the discussion dried up. They were the unfortunate ones that barely saw the light of day.

As for the lucky ones, first there was the shiny, metal cream dispenser that sat in the fridge perpetually full, as though magic had replenished it. The only sign of use a slight drip languidly trailing down its spout, or the surfacing and eventual receding of condensation as it was lifted from its natural home within the chilled refrigerator and out into the open Swabian June air.

The other fortunate son was the cookie plate. It was white with blue, sometimes maroon, etching that showed a distant farmhouse of what may have been a Croatian or Bosnian countryside. It looked breakable. As though one more cookie heaved on its lightness would bring it down with a smash on the table. But it never did.

Bday CakeThe chilled plate contained at the very least three variations of sweets, which, like the cream, were replenished through either magic or a craft of secrecy that no guest would, could or should ever puncture for the very lack of decency that knowing might betray. These cookies never failed to appear whenever or wherever coffee was served.

And we endlessly drank coffee. The coffee-stained, glass pot in their kitchen was kept warm throughout the morning, but one never drank coffee alone. It had other functions than fuel for individual achievements. It prodded discussions. It cajoled tears and remembrances. It told our futures.

Like the day before I flew home from Stuttgart airport to Minneapolis, I was the last one to empty the coffee pot at 9pm at night. Her mother smiled at me a smile that squished her eyes and tightened her lips, and then she said in a broken English mixture of Croatian, Bosnian and German accents that now it will be my turn to host.

A flood of images and lingering questions corrupted me: how will I get these people to Minnesota? Where will they stay? How will our families communicate? My mother is infamous for her passive aggressive nervousness and judgmental facial expressions, and her mother’s overbearing nature crams the air with an anxious eagerness that bemoans the fortunes and struggles of two piqued immigrant refugee daughters who no longer need her; and not one son, nor the promise of a grandson, to delightfully and thanklessly devour her food or drink her drink.

WineThat favor, and slight responsibility, fell upon me. And drink I did:

One shot of home-made plum Slavonian vodka before eating.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One glass seltzer water during dinner.

One more shot of home-made plum vodka before the main course.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One cup of coffee. Cream. No sugar. With cookies and cakes for dessert.

One German bier with her father after the table is cleared, with salted snacks emerging from cupboards.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One more German bier, if her father was feeling talkative.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

I have been spoiled by the attentiveness of a mother whose only heterosexual daughter has brought home a boyfriend from across the Atlantic Ocean. The first boyfriend they have had the pleasure of hosting and being introduced to in over a decade. The pressure was grand. It was bulky. Fat, yet dexterous.

It tied our tongues. It spoke up in between the silences or the lost moments of translation. It coughed when I nodded in agreement to a word or phrase I did not understand. And it eventually wore her and her parents out.

They would have liked my coffee. I make it four cups at a time in a metal, double-lined coffee press. I ground it one pound at a time and kept it in an airtight container. I would have had snacks ready. Confections of the American breed. Oreos, perhaps. Sugar cubes for her and her father.

I could imagine hearing the dismissal of apologies for mismatched coffee mugs while I poured. A lingering disapproval as I offered cream from the Land O’ Lakes container. The subtle noise the plastic flap the Oreo cookie wrapping made each time we wanted one would be like a siren warning us that something isn’t quite right. Something is mismatched. One of these things is not like the other.

But that moment never arrived.

So, now I’ll continue my search for cookies, and pour myself another cup of coffee while I write about a distant land and a distant way of life. A life without the constant hum of American television, or the hopelessly forlorn pride of single parents, or an inharmonious collection of dishes that betray an utter unpreparedness for guests, or the clenched beauty of traditions that are to be cherished and passed on with force against reluctance.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and consider what I’ve gained and what I have lost.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and ruminate on how my past informs my future.

But first, just to make sure there are no cookies, I’ll check the pantry again.

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Book Review: The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Break-up of Yugoslavia, by Dubravka Žarkov

The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Break-up of YugoslaviaThe Body of War: Media, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Break-up of Yugoslavia by Dubravka Žarkov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, let’s look at this Ž. Is it not beautiful? To pronounce it, I would write it thus: Jha, with a soft ‘J’ and a quick ‘A,’ so that the Ža in Žarkov becomes a ‘Jhaarkohv’. We only have one lonely Z in English, one singular L, and one individual C. By way of contrast, Serbo-Croatian has a triumvirate of loyal C’s, two brotherly L’s, and two intimidating, yet friendly, Z’s, bestowing their alphabet with 31 various letters! (C, Č, Ć, & L, Lj, & Z, Ž).

Now, the only reason I mention this is because Goodreads, bless their hearts, cannot get Žarkov’s name visualized correctly… Goodreads.com lists it as such: “by Dubravka & #381 ;arkov,” which, I can only assume, is HTML code for the Latin, Ž (update: it is HTML code, because every time I type it without spaces it writes ‘Ž’ in this post). So, I would like to give Goodreads.com a ‘Ž’ for effort, and continue with my review.

I am not new to Duke University Press’ Next Wave: New Directions in Women’s Studies texts. I have read quite a few texts by Jasbir Puar, Inderpal Grewal, and others, and I always return whenever an interesting and complex topic is published under this specific press. Žarkov’s text, in particular, interests me because a close friend of mine is a Croatian from central Bosnia, and I wanted to know a bit more, let’s say, intriguing or controversial, insight into the history of the war that tore apart Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. I found this text to be highly challenging, yet quite engaging. This text, and the other in Duke’s Next Wave Press, are texts that are better ingested in small doses—say, a chapter per week, as opposed to a few chapters over one sitting—due to the density of the material, the numerous citations of competing and compelling authors, and the highly esoteric terminology.

The structure of this text is generally comprised of case studies that use one incident of mass protest, a contentious photo or statement, or a citizen involvement in the Yugoslavian war; for example, a statement made by a high ranking Albanian official, Fadil Hoxha, on October 9, 1987, where “he reportedly stated that the problem of rapes of Serb women by Albanian men in Kosovo would be solved if more non-Albanian women worked as prostitutes in Kosovo’s taverns” (21).  Žarkov then examines various treatments of the incident by mass media news outlets that cater to a specific regional ethnicity (Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian). Each chapter is a breakdown of news clippings accompanied along with a strict rhetorical analysis that even details the minutiae between Serbo-Croatian and Croat-Serbian languages; of which, Žarkov mentions, the populace would be able to identify the ethnicity of their speaker.

What I always enjoy about reading these highly theoretical texts are the various ways in which each text comes to a theoretical conclusion about how people, academics in general, interpret Feminism and how that term is morphing itself to adapt to a changing global environment. Žarkov is, of course, and to my relief, no different in her adept interpretation of the future of Feminism. Feminism, as such, is no longer just about female agency or empowerment. Issues of difference are just that: issues that lead to the promotion and celebration of difference that merely replicate and replace the actions of the oppressor. This cannot be what Feminism desires, I argue. Grewal, along with, much earlier, Gayatri Spivak, adapted Feminism to the needs and voices of the, ever contentious political term, Third World. And Puar moved it into the realm of globalism and a resurgence of Orientalism that Žarkov acknowledges in her study—”Orientalism is still alive and kicking in many feminist texts” (222). But Žarkov takes those decades of studies and theoretical compiling and calls into questions the very motives by which they began.

Žarkov states near the end of her text, “first, agency, emancipation, and empowerment are not intrinsically linked only to liberating and progressive movements; second, agency, emancipation, and empowerment may not be the best framework at all for studying women’s diverse positioning within violent conflict, including women’s participation in fighting” (225 my italics). Agency, in its Feminist usage, has become problematic for Žarkov; and this, for me personally, is the tensing of the realization that agency as the building block of Feminist studies merely asks to replicate and replace the actions of the oppressor by the oppressed. Again, this replication and replacement should not be what Feminism, or any radical theoretical movement confronting power, directly perceives as its goal. It’s theoretic goal should be the reforming of the social construct that created the structure of power, oppressed and oppressor, in the first place. And this includes the reformation of the very attitude with which the radical movement began.

Žarkov finds in her final sentences the “task” of the feminist critic (spoiler alert!).

“While many different forms of violence produce many different aspects of contemporary realities, analyzing this process of production may help a feminist critic to undo some of its machinery and deprive it of some of its components. For this to happen each of us, feminists, must see… not only who and what is privileged in the production of violence, but also who and what is privileged in our own analyses of it” (230).

The final chapter of this text, where Žarkov implements her case studies to theory, is where her analyses shines brightest. Her interrogation of former Feminist strongholds speak to contemporary issues and contemporary solutions. Not only does Žarkov contest our perception of what we see, read, and hear from the mass media productions throughout her study, she contests the very instruments which critics rely on to disassemble these productions.

I cannot contest the esoteric nature of this text. It is, albeit, not for everyone. But it is a rich text of a rewarding nature that delivers historical information that only a full-time passionate researcher could locate and deliver. I have passed up numerous cultural and historical texts that detail the history of the Yugoslavian conflict, and I avoided them for the exact reason Žarkov examines in her text: their overwhelmingly bias sympathy and pathos. Žarkov, even with her obvious roots and relation to the controversy, treats the often violent and harsh incidents within this text without a sympathetic voice that you would find in many history books or autobiographical treatments of the Yugoslavian war. Žarkov examines incidents of this war through the eyes of a Feminist critic with an indelible desire to confront how the war was produced by mass media outlets, and therefore, how our opinions are represented, shaped, interpreted, molded, and defined. This is an important text within the research of the Yugoslavian war.

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