Jul/Aug 2009 Travel

Sarajevo, 2007

by Todd Zuniga

Our bus from Dubrovnik arrives in Mostar, tight streets cramped by buildings pocked in wild bullet holes from Serbia's marchthrough. After a bathroom break I snap my eyes in every direction in search of the town's lone landmark—Old Bridge—disappointed I don't see it, can't imagine I'll ever be back.

Well clear of Mostar's city limits, the rugged sightlines are spectacular: tree-sheltered mountains, bursts of lush oak, dollops of white flowers situated amongst piles of green. The road along the Neretva River drawn by a Parkinson's hand, a dazzling run-up to Sarajevo.

We arrive after nightfall, where I expect this city to be the jewel of our Balkan expedition, a cultural standout buzzing with curiosities. But at only 10 p.m. on a Wednesday we're met with vacant streets, closed shops, empty plazas. Our breath visible in mid-September, we locate the main drag, walk down the Bašcaršija, eager for something, a surprise.

Hunger gnawing, we give up on discovery, follow our guidebook to Pod Lipom, a simple, grandmother's-house-designed restaurant. Inside, we feast on unreal Bosnian bread, bowls overflowing with vegetable-filled stew. The check comes with a postcard of Bill Clinton here years before, shaking hands with the owner inches away from our table. We raise our glasses for a toast when Ben's phone rings, a call from Lisa, and he lowers his glass to answer fast, drops a handful of marka on the table, exits distracted.

Outside, nightlife nonexistent, Ben follows fifty feet behind, still on the phone. A week ago, in London, I was told by a Bosniak this was a city of coffee drinkers, do-nothings who clog cafes, but I didn't want to believe it. But now all we can uncover is a tiny, depressing bar. We go inside, suck in second-hand smoke that folds off lit cigarettes shared by a pair of couples. Exhausted, each beer sip a burden, a crash course nearer to bed, Dahn and I are ready to rest when Ben comes in keyed up. The latest of Lisa's arsenal of faux-emergencies overcome—this time she's woken from a dream where he didn't love her, so she called to shout at him, ask him why he'd say such things. The first time Lisa and I met, a Tuesday lunch while Ben worked, she ordered wine with her Pad See Ew, tripped up stairs after, couldn't manage the housekey into the lock. Found out that night she'd started her pre-lunch afternoon with a half liter of vodka.

Ben keeps us up for another pint before we head back amongst battered buildings, ancient architecture mixed against modern, all crowded along uncommonly spaced cobblestone streets that twist and rise. Our hotel is on a hill on a hill, and we can see silhoutted mountains clear in the moonlight distance. Inside it's three beds across a room twenty by eight, and we sleep shirtless, laughing at our proximity. Into the dark, I say, "Just three straight dudes shirtlessly sleeping inches from one another." Ben turns the light back on for a snapshot, the three of us all smiles, our thumbs up. I fall asleep trying to figure a path to Monika sooner—she and Poland both so close, but impossible to get to—can't figure a reasonable way.

The next morning, the old town subdued, we cruise slim downtown streets choked with traffic, a city tucked into a valley no place to expand or park. Walk across Lateiner Bridge, the execution of Franz Ferdinand, amble past a beautiful but burned-out building, boarded windows, discover it's the National Library. A sign posted that tears at my insides:

On this place Serbian Criminals
in the Night of 25th-26th August 1992
Set on Fire
National and University's Library
of Bosnia and Herzogovina
Over 2 Millions of Books, Periodicals
and Documents Vanished in the Flame.

Do Not Forget.
Remember and Warn!

The erasing of an entire civilization overnight, we snap shots, me on the stairs squinting from sun, stagger away quiet.

We end up in an open-air market that should energize—a honey festival whirring with bees—but trip over to see scrunched-faced men surround a life-size chessboard. One with a beard, no older than forty, limps to every oversized plastic piece he moves. I scan spectators to see one man's suit jacket can't hide that his entire chest is cased in a plastic brace, another on crutches with one leg a withered string bean. This park full of play is heavy and somber, weighted with ghosts, the pall of bullet holes narrow and wide in nearly every building. We walk away, more quiet between us, can't shake the hurt that saturates the air.

Our last night we stumble into a packed public club that's posing as private, musicians on a makeshift stage, low-ceilinged. Waiters streak by, serve up vodka shots, and I offer a round to a band of gorgeous women who decline, tell us Ramadan's just begun, so no drinking. Instead we flirt, can't believe their beauty and charm, all Muslims, and I realize I've no idea what their religion means, never faced it before, raised boring and Lutheran, whined my way out of church most Sunday mornings with a fake stomach ache. One shows us a picture of her "boyfriend"—a homeless man from the park with chipped teeth, another writes something in Bosnian on the inside of Dahn's new leather belt in Sharpie. Before the music ends, they exit, kisses on cheeks, and it feels strange that such a great group connection didn't lead to the trade of email addresses, a promise of sightseeing companionship some day in the far-off future. Instead, they've gone quietly (already forgetting to remember us), and tomorrow—like we were never here—we'll go quietly, too.

Outside, at one a.m. invincible-feeling and aching for one last lasting memory, a fitting finale, a way to shake this city's sadness. We find a playground, noisily teeter-totter one another off, flop in gravel, saddle up on metal chickens on tight-coiled springs that fling us away. Drunk and happy and weary, I yodel then chase Ben up a slide the wrong way, lunge into a set of swings, the air hurried from my lungs, we spin and fly, feet seconds off the ground.

Police sirens in the distance mean we acknowledge our commotion, followed by moments of faked sobriety. We shuffle away fast, pretend temperance all the way back to our hotel. Once there we settle down for our two a.m. bedtime, a flight in four hours, a wake-up call coming that rings our room's phone in only two.


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