Heasds, US and Serbian currency
WHAT WE DO: AIR FRANCE, TRANSCONTINENTAL FLIGHT
I am sure that the flight followed its regular flight pattern from New York to Paris that night, and fate followed mine. Air France fitted most of us snug against the next, but on my three seater there was the middle spot free. Luck in placement has typically been on my side. I was born tall and stayed that way. As a child I always got to sit in the back rows of my classes and quietly and privately pursue my interests in drawing, writing, building vast colonies or erasure people and making miniature glue sculptures. Height had nothing to do with the seating arrangement on Air France, but again, I could write and draw and eat undisturbed.
In the French language the stewardess asked what we would like to drink. The man dozing in the window seat looked confused, so I translated for him. He had a mineral water, and I took a tomato juice. I like having tomato juice on Air France because they serve it with lemon and celery salt and Tabasco sauce. What confused me, however, was when the man answered that he would have a mineral water, I detected some accent. I thought maybe he was one of those French people that was so cool he refused to speak French. But that wouldnt explain refusing to understand it. I was curious, but more than curious, I was super tired. I indulged my tiredness lopping about in 17F until boredom overroad tiredness, and I started gazing around. By now our meals had been served, and the stewardess was making the rounds with coffee and tea. Now I must say that the French for coffee or tea sounds remarkably like the English for these same terms. Yet when asked, the man to my right looked completely puzzled, so I translated, café ou thé to coffee or tea for my row mate. We both took coffee.
I wanted to sleep through the remainder of the flight and had acted accordingly by not having slept the previous two nights in New York. Also, the novelty of talking to strangers on planes had worn off about 80,000 frequent flyer miles and one Born Again Christian ago. However, I had the feeling that I was sitting beside an interesting conversation, so reluctantly offered, You are not French and you are not American . . . and was met with, No. I am Yugoslav.
Bingo! You are Serbian. And, of course, he was. I say, of course, because I have for two years running, attracted Serbians in the same way some woman attract taxi drivers or men named Doug. One Serbian in particular and the whole lot in general. In an airport in Detroit, a farm in Finland, crossing the street in Portland, Maine . . . so if there was one Serbian on the plane, of course, he would be sitting next to me.
Because I had had some experience with Serbians in my life, and knew about, and was interested in the political state of his country, he incorrectly identified me as someone who understood the language. So, periodically, he would jump into Serbian, and I would follow with my eyes and let my ears fill in the blanks. Aleksander was returning from a four month stay in the US. His Visa had been sponsored by the McDonalds Corporation and had landed him a job at said restaurant in North Carolina. Not only had this been his first visit to the United States, but also his first trip outside of Yugoslavia.
In North Carolina he lived in a house with 26 other Eastern Europeans who also worked at local fast food restaurants through the summer. Aleksander began his McDonalds workday at 2:00 PM. At 10:00 PM his shift ended and he changed uniforms, and by choice walked across the parking lot to begin his work as a LNC (late night cook) at Dennys until that shift ended at 6:00 AM. For the record, prior to leaving Yugoslavia, Aleksander had had no experience in the food service industry. Instead he was finishing a masters degree in Forestry and Land Conservation at the University in Belgrade, which had itself been interrupted by a tour as a soldier during the NATO bombings.
Originally, he had tried to hide to avoid the army. But in Belgrade the war was all around him, and worried about implicating others in his attempts to avoid service, gave into the calling. His troop was sent to a remote mountainous location for three months. I asked if it was dangerous there, and he said that the most dangerous part of the day was fishing out the bottles of wine tied to long ropes out of a deep well of which one could fall into. Slipping into the well. Those wells sometimes being the stories we tell, eyes we have looked into, wars that are fought.
One time while working the McDonalds drive-through, a man pulled around in his pick-up truck asking where Aleksander had come from. Then the man replied, So, we missed you! The man in the pick-up truck had been stationed with the US troops and thought it was cool that this guy had survived the war in Yugoslavia to be working the drive-through at his local McDonalds. Remember we are in America. America, America, the land of football, tobacco, and military bases . . . this is North Carolina, not New York.
Aleksander is tall too. We figure from the metric that he is six feet three inches. Wearing sports gear with all the important logos swooshing about, I learn that he had played basketball for his National team. He tells me he is 26 years old. He looks well over 30. I use all three of the words I know in Serbian, and after laughing, he looks at me with eyes that are almost home. Together we fill out the little yellow slips for the immigration officials. After occupation I write Artist, and he writes LNC. When I explain to him what I do for a living, as an artist, for a life, he smiles so bright and asks if I know how lucky I am. He uses the word freedom in a way Americans no longer need to.
Digging around in his backpack, he turns out a giant Kit Kat bar and his school records, diligently tended in pencil by each professor over the past 6 years. We eat the candy, drink the beverages provided by Air France, and never watch the movie. He is insistant that I visit Yugoslavia someday, and that it wouldnt be a problem, me being a US citizen and all. He tells me Im not like other Americans. And I think back on the other Serbians who have told me that before.
On the plastic tray there are scraps of paper with our drawings describing the words we did not have in common. There are also the two yellow slips, and Aleksandar picks them all up, studying them, and says, A man is what he does. Not always.
Talls, US and Serbian currency