Thursday, November 5, 2009

Balkan Talk

This is Belgrade. This is a bomb crater. This is the leftovers of a war that I grew up hearing about but never remembered. I knew enough to burst out laughing when somebody pronounced Sarajevo something like "Sarah-Jehovah," but not much more. Thanks to a couple good friends, including one who's starting a masters degree on the subject in Vienna, I know some more about the story. I'm not here to write about that though. I'm just going to tell you about a few conversations I had.

The first was on an overnight bus from Croatia to Bosnia. The sleepy-looking woman next to me was a couple years older than I, and she had a Croatian passport. She said she was going home to see her parents. I asked why the Croatian Passport if she and her family were from the Bosnian countryside. She just explained that they were "Bosnian-Croatian."

She translated a few things for me, including a couple of the epithets an old man hurled at the driver for turning on a Bosnian TV show at full volume around midnight. I don't remember how I steered the conversation to the war, I just remember being very careful about it, ending by saying I'd only been a kid and didn't remember much.

"Well, it was from when I was eight until when I was ten." She said. "I mean, if I hadn't been here, I wouldn't have paid attention or remembered it either."
"Did you know anyone who died?"

She snorted derisively. Not the smartest question on my part.

"Yes. Of course."
"Anyone in your family?"
"Well, not my parents or my sisters. But there were some cousins who were killed." She looked out the window. "And for nothing. Just stupid politics."

I didn't ask any for any more details. There was silence for a while. She translated a loud comment from the old man about how he had no leg room. I said something about the TV show. She said something about how I could learn a bit about the Bosnian way of thinking from the show. The conversation veered off again.

"Do you think there will ever be a united Yugoslavia again?" I asked.
"No. Never." She said. "If anything I think Bosnia might split up too, maybe three ways. It'll be political again."
"You think it will just break apart?"
"I don't know. I don't care. I just don't want any more war."

A day later, I was outside Sarajevo with some Bosnian college kids hiking towards a waterfall. They told me they do that every weekend or so, but usually they'd just stop at a cabin partway up because it had good homemade food, and fresh rakia (plum brandy). I told them about the Bosnian show I'd seen on the bus from Croatia, and they all groaned loudly.

"Yeah that show is terrible. So awful." Said one..
"Only the old people like it."Added another.
"I don't know," I said, "Is it that bad? I didn't understand what they were saying, but I had someone next to me translating bits. Even without that, I think I got what was going on at least."
"Yeah. Well, nobody watches it here anymore," the first said. "Only the Slovenians and Croatians like it." she gave me a look that said very clearly 'and what does that tell you.'

One of them peeled off ahead of the others with me to tell me about her time working with youth programs in Germany. Interesting stuff.

"But I like it here better," she said afterward.
"How come?"
"Well, people there are so... hard. Like I was three minutes late and they yelled at me! In the Balkans, that's just how things work! People here are just more relaxed. Life here is nice."

The night, back in Sarajevo, inside a restaurant called Aeroplan. I was part of a group of about fifty couchsurfers who had come to a town for a big Balkans meetup. It was getting very hot, so I stepped outside for some fresh air. A Serbian girl from my table came with. I asked her about something she said earlier. She'd told me that she didn't identify herself as Serbian, she identified herself as Yugoslav. As soon as I said something about the history, she started talking about how so many Serbians talked about how it was so terrible what the Americans did to them, etc. but they "deserved it."

"But what people need to understand that what our president did isn't what the people wanted to do."
"Yeah, well," I said with a wry smile, "I think I know what you're talking about. I know what it's like to feel like you're supposed to defend a president who does things you don't agree with. We had one of those." She laughed at that.

I swapped story for story, telling her about my dad's visit when it was still Yugoslavia, and talking about how surprised he and so many others were when war broke out between the people.

"Well, Tito was good at holding us all together. 'Peaceful coexistence' he called it. After that, everything fell apart."
"So life was pretty good under him."
"It was good for the time. Nobody thought about the future. He didn't do anything for advancing anything. It was just a big party while it happened. I mean, he didn't even build a subway or anything in Belgrade. I mean, it's a major city and it still has no subway! Can you think of anything like it?"

To be honest, I could think of half a dozen cities like it that way, but decided against bringing that up.

At that point, a French-Canadian came out with a cigarette. We said hi. He figured out that the war and politics were on tap for discussion, and immediately interrupted with why communism sounded so great to him.

"It sounds like such a great way to do things. It's appealing."
"Well, it was great at the time," The girl started, "but under Tito--"
"I really like the idea," he interrupted. "But it doesn't work. Unfortunately, competition is necessary."

I tried steering the conversation back the Yugoslav girl's experience, and he interrupted a few more times, repeating that capitalism is the least worst system there is. Finally he asked,

"What was it like here during the war?"
"I don't know." She said flatly. "I'm from Belgrade."
"Hmm. I can't imagine it," he said, staring moodily into space. "I need to know what it was like. How it felt."

I considered telling him he wasn't going to find out until he stopped interrupting and started listening for a change, but decided against it. So the conversation went for ten minutes before we the Yugoslav girl and I "got too cold to stay outside."

Two days later I was sitting in a hostel kitchen in Belgrade with a couple backpacking kiwis who were raving about how cheap everything was.

"Even the food is like three bucks! And if you pay more you get something massive as!"
"We went and asked for this burger thing they do-- actually no first we went and nearly asked for a doner kebab, you know because everywhere else in Europe those are so cheap. Then we figured out, that's the wrong thing to ask for here."
Doner kebab. Turkish. Muslim. In Belgrade, Serbia.
"Yeah." I said. "'Bout that." They laughed, slightly uncomfortable.

On my way out of that hostel, I happened upon a BBC article online, talking about how Serbian Radovan Karadzic, accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and more against was being defiant at his hearing in the Hague. I clicked on a video link for a related story, and saw the typical wartime footage, this time archived from the conflict. Explosions, people scattering for cover. A lot of grey and dust colors everywhere. A dirty undecorated street. I stopped the video and looked more closely. I knew that street. I'd walked down that street four days before in Sarajevo to catch a bus. Same buildings, same bridge over the river, probably the same streetcar tracks. I replayed the clip, and it looked very different from the first time.

I left and looked around at how unaffected the whole place seemed. in the whole city, I saw just two buildings like the one I pictured above, with the craters still in them, "to show what the Americans did to us." No hostility, just a simple display.

In Brasov, a town in Transylvania, I brought that up. I was talking to a group that included two veteran travelers, a 31-year old American who left the states in 2005, and a man in his sixties who told us a Dutch girlfriend he'd had seven years ago once counted up how many countries he'd been to and come up with the number 140.

"Hell," he said, "I was there when the bombing was happening."
Everyone else's jaws dropped all around the table.
"Really. I mean, they were very upset, of course. They wanted to know why we were doing this, and they all had several reasons why Clinton should die." But they hadn't been hostile to him personally, even as our country dropped bombs on them.

Nobody had anything to follow that up with. Even now, deep into Romania, I don't know what I've learned, but I don't know if I need to. Some things with history like this seem to overpower the present for anyone visiting. Maybe the experience of seeing it touch everyday life was enough.

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