Starting to tell the story of Sarajevo – Originally published 28 Aug 2006

It is so hard to start writing about the Western Balkans trip. I want to recount every minute of every day, but I also want to focus on those events that had the biggest impact on me. So I’m going to try and … I don’t know. Let’s see where this goes.

My boyfriend and I arrived in Sarajevo at 6:15am on Saturday 5 August. I was interested to see the train station – remember, for many years, there were zero trains running in or out of Sarajevo. Today the station is new, clean, and friendly, with enough English-speaking people working at a very early hour that we could figure out where to begin.

At least 75% of the people who got of the train were backpackers, and that included us, though we weren’t staying at the hostel. Nope. At 7am, right on the dot, I saw our host – my friend Lada, who I know from Paris – speed into the parking lot on her bike. She wore tight black spandex, leopard print high heels, makeup, earphones, and a hot black shirt. I told her I loved her for wearing heels while biking, especially at seven in the morning, and she replied, “of course, what else should I be wearing?” I had even more respect for her biking everywhere after I realized how incredibly hilly the city is.

Lada walked us to her father’s apartment, where we would be staying for as long as we wanted. One of the first things anyone sees when entering Sarajevo by bus or train is the famous Holiday Inn, where all the journalists were staying during the war. I have read that it was the only operating hotel during the 4-year siege, and it faced Sniper Alley.

My only picture of the Holiday Inn. The yellow and brown building doesn’t look like much, but after reading so much about it, seeing it in real life was something I couldn’t get over.

Lada grew up in Sarajevo. During our trip, she pointed out where she went to school, where she played, etc. The war started when she was still young, and her mother took her to Italy when things started to get very bad. Lada was actually shot at, by a sniper. This was the incident that prompted her mother to decide to leave her home, just days before it would have become impossible for them to get out.

Around the Holiday Inn are very new, modern buildings. They sit next to older, communist-style gray block apartment buildings, much like the one where her father lived for some of the year (he was in London while we were visiting). I appreciated that some of the buildings had been painted with bright colors, though of course, the paint alone couldn’t hide the bullet holes. At first, bullet holes were all I could see, but it’s amazing how quickly it just became quite normal. Our “home” was wonderful. Pictures all over the walls, books everywhere, 2 rooms, a bathroom, and a big kitchen. We had access to the balcony, the washing machine, a comfortable bed, etc. The old town was about 30 minutes away by foot, and the train station was only 15 minutes away. There was a cafe right across the street where we quickly became regulars, and a market just down the road where we bought bread, soda, jam, and bananas. After a few days, everyone pretty much stopped looking at as with that “what are these new people doing in this neighborhood” type of way. We would eat a simple breakfast of fresh bread and jam every morning, and then head over to our spot for coffee.

My boyfriend picked up the coffee habit pretty easily and with the help of some extra sugar packets. He had only drank coffee about 3 or 4 times before this trip, but during our travels I’m fairly certain he drank it every day. And we weren’t drinking shitty filter coffee; it was either strong espresso or Bosnian style. There are two main differences between a cafe in Bosnia and a cafe in Paris. First of all, I can afford to go out for coffee in Bosnia. A good cup of kahva sa mlijeko – espresso with steamed milk – costs about 50 Euros cents. That is about 1/6th the price of what I would pay in Paris. Secondly, there is not an uncomfortable chair in the entire country. Everything is padded with cushions. There’s none of those little wood folding chairs that line the streets of Paris, there are big, sit-back-and-really-relax-for-awhile chairs in every single cafe, whether it was in the middle of the city or off the side of a mountain road in a village of 39 people.

There are several rules about drinking coffee in Bosnia. You must be with people, you must be relaxed, and you mustn’t rush. It was explained to me that to be truly alone, a Bosnian would describe his or her misery and heartache by saying “there is no one with whom I can drink coffee.” Bosnians – and the rest of the former Yugoslavia, it seems – take relaxing very seriously. This is something I can really get behind! If you don’t drink coffee, there is plenty of tea (Čaj, pronounced “chai”), though if you’re looking for a caffeine fix then tea isn’t your best bet. Most tea served in Sarajevo is herbal, made from the beautiful flowers and herbs that grow locally. After I commented on the great smell that was coming from a cup of tea, Lada showed me the purple flowers that grew in the mountains that produced the taste. A few days later,  I picked a bunch of those flowers and made our own herbal tea at home.

People in Sarajevo understand their land and what it provides them. It seems that there are no factory farms for killing animals because it’s not necessary – there’s plenty of land for everyone, and plenty of grass for grazing. As soon as you leave the city you enter the country without going through any type of suburbs, and there are more cows and sheep than people or cars. All of the animals graze in the fields, live a free life, and are not fed any type of hormones, which means that the meat is phenomenal. People may eat vegetables at home (and probably from their own gardens, or their neighbors), but restaurants generally serve meat dishes only. Vegetarian options are pizza, spinach (zeljanica) or cheese (sirnica) filled pastries (very tasty), or any number of sweet honey-filled desserts. But for those who eat meat, your taste buds will rejoice – I have never had better meat in my life, and you might remember that I’m not much of a meat-eater to begin with. Cevapi is the most popular quick meal, which is a type of sausage made from lamb and cow (and maybe something else, who knows). I can not explain in adequate words how divine the taste was – just cevapi and diced onions tucked in thick pita bread.

Sarajevo is a small city by my standards. Only about a half-million people live there. When you talk to locals, you will hear the words “Before the war” and “After the war” throughout the conversation. Before the War sentences often lead to stories of skiing, climbing mountains, or a sense of pride in the fact that for hundreds of years, this part of the world was where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together in relative peace with each other and with respect for their differences. After the War phrases would pop up when discussing the museums, the economy, the facts of day-to-day life. The war is such a complicated thing for an outsider to understand, but when I would stop to say “Wait, I don’t get it – where was that boundary and who was fighting for it and what does it mean now?” often times, whoever I was talking to would reply “No one understands.” Or, “It’s hard for us to explain, this separation isn’t something we grew up with either.” Religion was part of life, of course, but not any more than it was for my family. Synagogues, mosques, and Churches all co-existed without problems. Sometimes I could hear the church bells ringing at the same time as the call to prayer from the mosques, and there were plenty of restaurants that wouldn’t serve alcohol or restaurants that wouldn’t have pork on the menu – often right next to a bar where you could still see some old Tito posters on the wall, and men drinking beer at noon.

This bar looked like someone’s living room. The folks pictured are some Hospitality Club members, and we definitely stood out from the regulars, who were an average age of 65. Notice the decorations on the walls – all Tito.

Speaking of drinking, that was something we did daily. My boyfriend put back shots of homemade alcohol as though he had been drinking his whole life, putting me (with my need to gulp down water after taking shots) to shame. We spent some of our days packed with activities – museums, restaurants, exploring nearby villages, searching for pyramids – and other days were relaxed. There was enough time to just hang out, do the laundry, read, meet new people, and get a decent night of sleep. We both felt so safe and so comfortable that we started to seriously talk about trying to move to Sarajevo for a few months someday. He said that we needed to leave when we did, otherwise we would have just ended up staying indefinitely. It might not be the type of city that I would want to make my lifelong home, but as they say – anyone who drinks the water in Sarajevo will return. I know I will.

I’m not even close to being done writing about this trip. Hopefully I can figure out how to keep going in a way that makes some sort of sense.