THE LONGEST DAY

It’s Thursday, June 20, the longest day of 2024. And it feels like it.

I hit the Tivat Airport at 7 am for my first flight leg to Belgrade. My sister and brother saw me off; they weren’t returning to Jerusalem till mid-afternoon. From Belgrade, a noon flight to Zurich, and from there, at 5:30 pm, a flight to Newark Airport, arriving at 8 pm. I will have been on the road for longer than 20 hours, and that’s assuming everything goes as planned.

Nothing goes as planned, especially from my end. My reading glasses are in my checked-in valise, where they can’t do much good, rather than in my handbag. The same happened to my return train ticket from Bern to Zurich. I realize that I must factor into my preparations the fact that I am not as attentive or meticulous in my packing as I once was. There are cracks, and there’s no reason to assume they’ll get fewer or even disappear.

But I have no intention of staying put. I still need to see the world, listen to new consonants (I love the zh sound you hear so much here), notice a very short, elderly woman wearing a pink hijab that half covers a scarred face laughing hard at something on her mobile phone, watch the Euro matches with a group of men wearing red T-shirts and downing beer after beer.

From the time I was small I was fascinated by the simplest life stories. When I talk to my sister on Friday night her time, after she returns from the Sabbath dinner, I ask: What did you cook? What did your daughter cook? Did Dennis bake? What did he make? What did you talk about? Often, she’ll say: You know, the usual, nothing new. I don’t buy nothing new; I don’t buy the usual. It’s the small, ostensibly trivial things that give one the real picture, the color and furnishings of everyday life—the lamp in the corner, the flowers on the coffee table, Phoebe my canine niece barking nonstop.

In Montenegro we had some exotic adventures: Swam in the Blue Caves, rocky caverns you can only get to via boat and whose water is not aquamarine, not green-blue or gray-blue or dark blue, but essence-of-blue. The same boat took us to the tunnels Tito used during World War II to hide his own boats and even small subs.

History and geography are all around us. Bosnia isn’t far, Dubrovnik and Mostar in Croatia are 1-1/2 hours and 3 hours away, respectively. And when we reached the Adriatic, I asked the boat skipper how long a boat ride to Italy on the other shore of the sea, and he said 6 hours. How close geographically these countries are to each other, and how different the languages, cultures, histories and religions. No wonder it’s so hard for them to come and stay together in the EU.

I could have stayed on board our boat just to talk with the passengers: three men, two of whom were Saudi and the other Egyptian, an English couple, and the three siblings, one from the US and two from Jerusalem in Israel. Everyone smiled courteously to each other when we introduced ourselves, but as soon as we got off the boat for a 15-minute layover at a tiny island shrine called Our Lady of the Rocks, we ended up talking with the Saudi cancer geneticist who was with us. My brother wished him a good Eid (the holiday going on all week), and then we proceeded to compare feelings and thoughts about the war.

Did we go deep? No, there wasn’t much time to develop the necessary trust. But did we avoid courteous, thin-lipped smiles? By all means.

Staying in Montenegro, close to Tivat and Kotor, reminded me of the French Riviera which I visited twice many years ago. It lacks the ostentatious wealth and snobbery, but Montenegro has the only fjord in the Balkans, the cleanest, clearest water in which to swim, and craggy mountains. It was the perfect backdrop to celebrating my sister’s 70th.

Last night, our last night there, we finally discussed the war, and differences and passions arose. But the container held. We’d worked hard at stretching it and stretching it, so that regardless of our height or weight, religious or political persuasions, it held. We were considerate, but nobody had to be quiet.

At least these three Semites continue to love each other, greet each other in the morning with the same question: “Do you want coffee?”

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