One of my challenges with this book, in addition to getting a sense of all the physics, is that I have not yet visited the countries important to the principal persons in the text. Generating scene tends to be very dependent on setting in my mind, and while I can look at travel guides and the internet to see pictures, a trip to Switzerland and Serbia is on the schedule for 2011–assuming the economy improves. I was already quite familiar with England when I wrote the Darwin book, so this backward approach is different and, I find, slows me down while I do extensive research that hasn’t been internalized. Yet.
That said, one of the treats of doing this kind of research is a rich addition to my knowledge base. Prior to this project, my sense of Serbia had no visual geography. I could point to it on a map and knew about Kosovo and Slobodan Milosevic from news reports of carnage in the late ’90’s. I understood that there was a religious divide–Christians vs Muslims–and that the borders of the country changed with the formation, then disruption of Yugoslavia. I remembered Winter Olympics in Sarajevo–mostly seeing the Olympic village covered in snow.
But what the place really looks like? What the climate is like? What grows there? Who the people are? What they eat? In addition to books on Serbia found in the juvenile non-fiction section of Wright Memorial Library–books full of gorgeous photographs that show me a country the size of Maine with farmland like the American midwest in the north and mountains like Vermont in the south–I also found a wonderful book of essays called With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia by a Norwegian journalist named Asne Seierstad. Between 1999 and 2004 she made three trips to Serbia, finding people willing to be interviewed, willing to open their homes so that she might see such things as Deda Bora’s bedroom where DaVinci’s Last Supper was hanging on the wall though the man, like Milosovic, was an atheist. When she inquired, she learned that this was not Christ at all, but Tsar Lazar, a Serbian hero who died on the Kosovo battlefield in 1389. There he sits, eating a last meal with his soldiers. Judas, to Deda Bora is really the traitor, Vuk Brankovic, who caused Tsar Lazar to lose the battle. This revisionist view is held by a man who is a jack-of-all-trades, who goes to his neighbor’s home to mend his harrow, then, since he is there and the neighbor is old and hunchbacked, harrows his entire field for him. He was married to a woman who, after losing four babies within one month of delivery, put her fifth infant, bundled up, out on the road on a bitter cold December day, waiting for a neighbor to take the baby home, believing that the curse of her children’s deaths would be broken if the child was taken into another home. She then retrieved the child and he grew to manhood. All the while Deda Bora is telling his story, he is serving Turkish coffee with homemade plum brandy and cheese he has made himself. He gives her his recipe, suggests that Asne might make some cheese herself when she gets home.
This is the land that birthed Mileva Maric, though she grew up in Vojvodina in the north, in the late 19th century, a Serbian Orthodox Christian, in an upper middle class family. Deda Bora is from a dying village in the southern mountains of Kosovo.
While Mileva has little in common on the surface, I see similarities in her dogged determination not to give up what she perceives is right without a fight, her willingness to exhaust herself for others in acts of self-sacrifice, and her taste for strong coffee.
Asne Seierstad, Norwegian Journalist