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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Digital time capsules (8) The faceless lady of Croatia


The lady from Croatia, 1992

Boarding school follies

I can't say I gave birth to, but I was mother to, nearly 20 boys under the age of 18, for one year. They were part of a boarding school which was in its death throes, but I didn't know that when I agreed to mother the young lads. It was a hellish year. We had poor students, good students, rich boys and poor boys. Sons of Arab sheikhs uncomprehendingly rubbed shoulders with the offspring of a Danish diplomat and a mysterious late arrival from Croatia.

The boy from Croatia blew in from the East, buried himself in work, and turned into one of the most brilliant English literature students the well-known school had ever seen. English was not his first or even his second language. He was oblivious to politics, cultural issues and international tensions, although in the rare moments when he looked up from books he could tell us the tale of his country's recent declaration of independence from old Yugoslavia.

The maid complained about him: his room was three feet deep in - and here she used an Austrian term that we could only guess at.

The other boys complained about him: his room smelled and he would spend hours at a stretch in one of the two toilets. He said he was reading sonnets, and judging by his world-class examination results, he was.

He was an intellectual, but a puzzlingly distant individual.

The lady from Croatia

One day he returned from a brief vacation with his grandfather on the Adriatic Sea, singing its praises, a shade browner than his usual grayish white. With a broad smile he offered me a woman from his country.

"But she has no face!" I said, shocked.

"Yes! Yes!" he said enthusiastically. "That is something from my country!"

I stared at her.

"Why? Why no face?"

He beamed at me. This, he announced, was tradition.

He went back to his studies, I became preoccupied by problems such as a thieving assistant and an unhappy boy who jumped through a window. The faceless lady of Croatia stayed by my side, silent, a witness to much, but an emotionless witness. I've tried to ask her how you can be a genius of literature in another language and yet fail to explain why your own culture produces statues, statues of women, who have no face.

She is stoic in her silence. She is a good listener. She has yet to comment, and the only thing I can safely say I have learned from her is that we should not leap to conclusions or in any event to voicing them.

Meanwhile, the young man, never looking back at his room, perhaps wise, went off to one of those head in the clouds top British universities, there to become a star student.

She still says nothing.

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