A New Book

Having settled into the new year, I have discovered that I’m apparently writing a new book. The realization came to me rather suddenly, but as soon as it did, I understood that I’ve been preparing to write this book for many years. I believe it is called Sea of Intimacy. I believe this is its first line:

The Atlantic and Pacific are seas of distance, the Mediterranean a sea of propinquity, the Adriatic a sea of intimacy.

Predrag Matvejević, Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape

The book from which the quote comes was translated into English from its original Serbo-Croatian version (which was called Mediteranski brevijar) by Michael Henry Heim and published in the title above by the University of California Press in 1999. I gave a talk at the annual Mediterranean Studies Association meeting in 2018 that explored the idea of Adriatic intimacy, and perhaps that was what started making me see it. Now I can’t get it out of my mind. Here are some paragraphs from the start.

On first glance, the claim made by Predrag Matvejević that has given me this book’s title and first epigraph might seem surprising given the many human conflicts that have historically ranged across the Adriatic’s waters, some of them for centuries at a time. Given this apparent disparity, my first inclination is to interrogate the varied crossings of culture, language, ethnicity, and faith that might be used to support such a claim. Here one might consider the solidarity of slaves constructing Diocletian’s Palace in the early fourth century, or the ties of blood among extended Sephardic Jewish and diasporic Greek families that served as sometime intermediaries among the powers of Ottoman Turkey, Venice, Ragusa, Austria, and Ancona, or the mixed marriages and mixed idioms of the sundry peoples who have made their lives here. Mixture has turned out to provide an especially fruitful path of inquiry in researching this book, while its relationship to intimacy has furnished one of my central themes. Mixture and intimacy go hand in glove in the Adriatic.

In his fine treatment of cultures and lands in propinquity to one another, Black Sea, Neil Ascherson notes that “peoples who live in communion with other peoples, for a hundred or a thousand years, do not always like them—may, in fact, have always disliked them. As individuals, the ‘others’ are not strangers but neighbors, often friends.” He was writing of course about another sea, on the other side of the Balkan Peninsula from the Adriatic, at a different historical moment, but it is relatively plausible to substitute “Adriatic” in many instances where he has the word “Black,” somewhat like this:

“My sense of [Adriatic] Sea life, a sad one, is that the latent mistrust between different cultures is immortal. Necessity, and sometimes fear, binds such communities together. But within that binding-strap they remain a bundle of disparate groups—not a helpful model for the ‘multi-ethnic society’ of our hopes and dreams. It is true that communal savagery—pogroms, ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the name of some fantasy of national unity, genocide—has usually reached the [Adriatic] Sea communities from elsewhere, an import from the interior. But when it arrives the apparent solidarity of centuries can dissolve within days or hours. The poison, upwelling from the depths, is absorbed by a single breath” (Ascherson 1995: 9).

Ascherson’s claim of “a bundle of disparate groups” as a characterization of the Black Sea seems to ring true for the Adriatic across its history on some level, and yet it contrasts profoundly with Matvejević’s evocation, and the echoes of that evocation before and after, most recently in a 2017 exhibit held in Trieste’s Salone degli Incanti devoted to underwater archeology in the Adriatic and entitled, “Nel mare dell’intimità” (In the Sea of Intimacy) in reference to the very same key passage from Matvejević’s Mediterranean.

The urge to speak of the Adriatic as one thing and the peoples of the Adriatic as one people is palpable, even explicit at times, in the exhibit’s contextualizing materials, as in this characterization: “At the centre of it all—commerce and military expeditions, big enterprises and evil trades, ship wrecks and recoveries—always them: the inhabitants of the Adriatic shores, one great people sharing many different languages and cultures, extending well beyond the sea.” Taken as a whole, moreover, the exhibit appears to provide evidence of such a claim of unity and commonality, through its ten organizing categories: the Adriatic space, ports and landing places, ships, goods, peoples, activities, wars, sacred places, migrations—all delivered through the prism of the last category, underwater research. It is wonderfully coherent and convincing, yet I am left unconvinced of this central claim. I suspect what I might be sensing here is attributable to differences of perspective and emphasis and to the categories one uses as the basis for judgment about the relative unity or lack of unity of the phenomena in question. The categories themselves seem to me essential.

Before I go any farther, and lest anyone think that I am criticizing the work of scholars in other fields, some of which I know little about, let me emphasize that I too am attracted by the urge to speak of the Adriatic as one thing and the peoples of the Adriatic as one people, especially in a sort of historic symbiosis of nationalities, religions, and languages, something that Ascherson rightly points out has often appealed to visitors eager for viable proof that, despite today’s narrow nationalisms, different peoples can in fact get along and have done so over millennia. “But,” he cautions, “nostalgia makes bad history. The symbiosis has often been more apparent than real” (Ascherson 1995: 245). I am not sure I agree with this last statement, not yet. This is the beginning of a book after all.

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Forgetting First Ladies’ Names

The bus ride was long from Zagreb.

The route took us through Istria and seemed to include a stop at every little picturesque village, only there’s something about bus stops in picturesque Istrian villages—they become the ugliest parts of town when they put the bus station there. Even in Rovinj, which doesn’t have any ugly spots as a rule, has the bus station, which is, relatively speaking, the ugliest part.

Then there was Porec, and Novi Grad, and Umag, and then the border—when you have to get out for passport control (and here I was thinking Croatia was already in Europe), then Koper, and finally Trieste. There was a middle aged woman throwing up into a bag across the aisle, with her husband trying to console her. The two Russians in front on me were speaking surprisingly quietly among themselves, but the Austrian boys speaking German, apparently on an excursion, were louder. No one was annoying, but it was crowded and loud and long.

When we got to Trieste, I was happy the rain had let up a little and only sprinkled me with a few drops during the two-block walk to the hotel. The reception desk clerk was friendly and, obviously pleased that I could speak to him in Italian, struck up a conversation as he handed me back my passport.

“So what’s the word from Trump?”

“Nothing good.”

“His wife’s from nearby here. What’s the name?”

“Of the town? Ljubljana” (I’m very good at pop-geography quizzes).

“No, his wife. What’s her name?”

This was my first moment of embarrassment. Couldn’t remember Trump’s wife’s first name. This did not bother me too much. I don’t really need to remember her name for anything, and there are other things I would much prefer to remember, like the dates of the Battle of Vienna or when Peter the Great died. “It starts with an ‘m,’ I think.”

He laughed. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Melania!”

“Right! Melania! She’s pretty. How’s her English? Does she speak well?”

“You know, I’ve never really heard her speak except at that convention, and that speech she took from the other one.”

He had started laughing in the middle of this because he could see what I was going to say, but then: “Right, the other one, the black one. She was very pretty, too. What was her name?”

And now I was really embarrassed. Could we go back to the geography? He laughed a lot at my discomfort. I really couldn’t remember. Did I mention it was a long bus ride? “Her husband’s name was Barack.” I pronounced “Barack” carefully as if his wife’s name would follow easily from his…. Nope.

He looked on his computer screen, then said her name, laughing again, and added. “Maybe you should give me the passport.”

And maybe I should.