Seeking Sarajevo

To live as if “there is no tomorrow” is Sarajeavo’s bittersweet lesson from the war

On The Town | Margaret Childs | February 2007

Photo: H. Pellikka / Creative Commons

Not everyone in Vienna would think of Sarajevo for a weekend getaway. After all, it’s a post-war zone, unsafe for tourists.

We arrived at two o’clock in the morning, having driven all afternoon and night. In darkness, the block-like apartment complexes on the edge of town cast a shadow on my introduction to the city: The bullet holes and shattered sidewalks stood out in black and white, my first reminder of what happened here only a little over a decade ago.

We were greeted by our tired hosts, who, to my amazement, did not collapse back into bed but retrieved a bottle of vodka from the freezer and some peanuts and dried fruit. And up on the 19th floor of building 5, in a row of pink edifices, we sat for hours, sharing news, and solving the world’s problems, gazing out over the city by night.

In the morning, head aching and with faint memories of "Oh, you just have to see … before you leave," we dragged ourselves out of bed. As we sipped our coffee and munched our toast, our hosts declared that first of all, we needed to go downtown.

"Most of the architecture is centuries old, some even from the middle ages," they told us. The words of the night before were becoming clear again; we needed to get moving if we were to make it to our hosts’ hunting lodge by the early afternoon. We piled into the car and headed through the "suburbs" to downtown Sarajevo.

Rounding a corner a huge new construction appeared in front of us; the reconstruction of a mosque that had been destroyed during the war.  On the opposite corner stood a church, with a giant cross below the steeple. The light turned green and we continued, one block later on the right, a blue and silver synagogue, crowned with the Star of David.

Amazing, I thought, a church, a synagogue and a mosque, right next to each other.

"You’ll see a lot of that here," our hosts explained. "Everyone is from a different tradition. It’s always been that way."

Continuing along the three-lane road to downtown, familiar structures whizzed by. Every other building looked like as if it could have come straight from home – ornamental Baroque and Biedermeier facades, casements, lintels, onion domes, all so familiar.

"Sarajevo has a lot in common with Vienna," my host reminded me. "We have much of the same cultural inheritance, the architecture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire."

Driving into the city, it became clear that Sarajevo is currently undergoing major transformation. Schools and arts facilities are being reconstructed, new trees planted, new street lights are being installed, new tram stops (there are two tram lines and series of busses). The Turkish old town, also known as Bascarsija, has been largely rebuilt, except for the National Library whose massive war damage will take much longer to restore.

The new town is also being transformed with many rebuilt high-rises, and new restaurants. Like Vienna, the city is a mixture, but with stronger contrasts. The "old city" is interrupted by shopping and business streets in familiar 19th century palaces, and a block later, Turkish tea sets greet you from crescent-shaped windows.

Parking the car, we set off through graffiti-plastered streets, passing the Katedrala and proceeding to the Bascarsija, a sweet oasis of tradition between the bustling squares of offices and boutiques. This open cobblestone pedestrian square, reminiscent of Italy, is bounded with row upon row of little cottage-like shops of dark brown wood, with Mediterranean red clay roofs, joined side to side, selling crafts such as metalwork, pottery, fabrics. There are some more modern stores as well, however be careful when purchasing brand name items, because many are knock offs, although others are just soiled from having somehow "fallen off the truck."

Every vendor took care to make sure we understood the love that goes into each hand woven scarf and pair of earrings. After having purchased a few gifts and been told to "Come back soon!" we were on our way to the hunting lodge in Breza, just outside of town.

We arrived at a quaint little cottage across from a roofed-over circular grill, where various kinds of cevapcici, sausage and sarma (ground meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves) were being roasted. We were given a glass of wine and a plate, while one of the guests began playing the piano and singing, what I assumed was a folk song, as everyone else knew the words.  We ate grilled rabbit and venison stew and a quiche-like pie called razljevak.

"Ah, you are from Vienna! God bless Wiener Schnitzel," one man exclaimed, forcing a shot of home-brewed sljivovica into my hand.  When I explained I was American and my companion was German, the man (whom I later found out was a doctor and on his eighth sljivovica) started yelling "God bless America, God bless Germany, God bless Bosnia!"  The  pianist slid into a rendition of "Guantanamera," and everyone danced, ate, sang and drank.

We left the lodge with a few too many sljivovica for four o’clock in the afternoon and went home to freshen up for what my hosts said would be a night to remember. A shower and coffee later we were assembling outfit and make-up etc. for some of the "hippest" clubs in Sarajevo.

First on the list was "Central Café." Coffee house by day and club by night the place was packed. As we entered, the DJ was spinning "New Love Generation" and within minutes, the vodka red bulls were draining fast. I had thought my host had overdone it with my make–up ("Trust me," she had said.) but when I saw the way the women looked at the club, I was blown away. So well dressed, with impeccable make-up and hair. I would have felt very out of place in my usual night-out garb.

Second, we attempted to go to "Jazz," a renovated medieval castle transformed to a très posh club. But it was much too full so, after a call to friends, we set off to a birthday party on the other side of town.

This was the other side of Sarajevo. Off a huge parking lot, surrounded by closed shops, light emanated from what I was to discover was a bar.  As we went in, all that really changed was the furniture, people were still well dressed – well, perhaps the men had sneakers instead of shoes.

Here, where we could actually hear each other, I started to talk to some locals.

One man, a movie director who travels a lot, couldn’t understand why I would want to visit Sarajevo. "I mean I love it but, this forced happiness is not for everybody." He searched for the right words. "You’re not allowed to be dissatisfied here."

Another man bombarded me with places I needed to visit before I had to leave, which was now unfortunately only a precious few hours away. Everyone’s good spirits became contagious, and though it might have partially been the alcohol, but found I felt choked up. As one of the women I met that night had said, "We have had so little to be sure of, for so long, that we have trained each new generation to be thankful and happy for every moment. It’s a constant attitude of, ‘There is no tomorrow.’"

In the taxi back to the apartment, I couldn’t stop grinning. I have heard many people say that Americans are the friendliest people in the world. But I have never been adopted into a culture as quickly as in my two short days in Sarajevo.

Surely and more quickly than you’d think, Sarajevo is winning back the image grace and good living it had had for so long, before all the destruction began.

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