Sunday, November 23, 2008

Travel Reflections: Sarajevo

My innkeeper, Faraz, rubs an afternoon nap from his eyes as I apologize a second time for bothering him. He is of the best tradition in such things, not really an innkeeper at all—at least not a modestly paid desk clerk who can’t be trusted to know of which he speaks—but rather the eldest son of a man fortunate enough to own a home with a long row of bedrooms down a chilly hallway with a toilet and a basin at its end. He owns his advice to me as he owns his city: implicitly, unthinkingly, dispensing his thoughts across a threshold leading rearward to a strange-scented and chaotic living quarters, having opened the door just enough to lean through it in his sock feet. The pause he enters into when I ask him where I should have dinner is oblique, pointed away from me and at the floor—at once earnest with intent and casually offered, as though no one else had asked this question of him before.

Ten minutes later through a chilly nightfall across streets of gently sifting snow, I am at the eastern end of the central city, the Bascarsija, where Ottomans and Europeans once haggled over the staples of greed and power, and where today the scars of a fresher and bloodier form of haggling have been plastered over like stubborn memories: bullet holes and mortar craters primed and painted and left to show, as if what happened here could be displaced from one’s mind as easily as a passing windstorm in the American Midwest. That’s where we found Betty Johnson’s mailbox the next morning; this over here is where the Nesic family was blown to pieces in their beds by a rocket-propelled grenade.

At the time of the Bosnian independence declaration in 1991, more than a million people lived here—the Bosniaks—nestled together in a long, oval-shaped valley surrounded by the cupped hillsides of the Bosnian Serbs. Within weeks of the declaration the Serbs had effectively seceded from the secession; for three nightmarish years they hurled mortars and grenades down onto the streets of this once grand and prideful city from a range too near to miss. Tonight the few straggling shoppers with whom I share the pedestrian street seem not to notice the scarred facades—but this, I realize all at once, serves only to heighten the pathos. They don’t notice the bomb craters and the bullet holes because they’re used to it all, and just how could that be possible?

I am at the “wrong” end of the city, perhaps an hour’s walk from the Opera hall with scarcely twice that time at my disposal. At last I have found the restaurant: narrow, half lit, a soot-blackened front casting its shadows across my expectations. No, wait, the door is open, the air thick and comforting and warm. A young man beckons me through the entryway, and again I find myself presuming the company of a proprietor’s son—but how could I know? Is it simply his manner, there before me in his spattered apron: part over-eager sideshow huckster, part mafia-quiet surety of his circumstance? Do I disgrace him with the impudence of such ideas, or venerate him for their inherent tinge of envy? If either is apparent he betrays no sign as he leads me up the fractious pinewood stairs, past the scarred whitewash and muted steel of the kitchen and through a notch in the ceiling no bigger than an attic-hole, to the shoebox diorama that is his upstairs dining space: six tables long, one table wide, low-ceilinged, low-lit, empty.

It would take more than idle speculation to pique the young man’s temper, of this I have no doubt as I take my seat and requisition my beer. He has earned his mafia-quiet surety (if not his sideshow hucksterism) by the simple fact of his survival. I pour the beer slowly when it arrives; there is little room for fractious impatience in a place that has seen such stoicism, little room for inflexibility, little room for pettiness, here. And at last it is this, the true drama that I am so fortunate to have been spared in my so often comically melodramatic life, that brings me short: It could’ve been this way on so many other occasions, but wasn’t—absent the ghastly history of a place where people had, and continue to have, genuine problems. It could’ve been this way a thousand times; it could’ve been this way with parents; it could’ve been this way with bosses and professors; it could’ve been this way with friends.

It could’ve been this way with Rachel.

It could have been, she could have authored, a chapter in my life when nothing much mattered that was past or future: acceptance without pity, affection without context, a companionship without label, purpose or agenda. I could’ve ridden carelessly in the fickle currents of her interest, could’ve spent the rest of my entire life savoring our first, my first, the gray-green light of the bedroom, the curiously specific way that her expression had opened to me, just before her body—how it had seemed to me the way it might have seemed to lie down before God, blinking and mesmerized, beholden and terrified. I could’ve been grateful for that alone, instead of insisting that it mean anything, after.

The darkness outside the window is surprisingly opaque. Wood smoke trails up the stairs after me, suffusing the alcove. There are today about 700,000 people in Sarajevo, though the ramshackle trams and dreary hillscapes afford as much proof as the pock-marked facades downtown that this will never be a place of international communion again, never again a crossroads—never again host an Olympics. Sarajevo is a city whose back has been broken. Still its people carry on. They run restaurants. They answer the doors at guesthouses. They cope.

In a way it’s fitting that I should find myself cloistered this evening in a bistro such as this, its unselfconscious mishmash of checked tablecloths and Ottoman artwork and sad little Hapsburg-era flourishes in the architecture, pondering the destinies of my ambitious young applicants. It is fitting since, despite a coddled bourgeois existence in a country always so far from war (even war of its own doing), it is my own destiny that has seemed so often to elude my shrewdest efforts at direction. There are so many self-contained vignettes from a brusque and testy past, that should in recollection look just like this one—when I should have sensed the gift of spontaneity, the joy of missing some event across town. How much more rewarding, how much more textured could the archive of my past now be?

It could have been this way with Gerry.

There could have been joy in every cranky phone call, a treasured poignancy in every exasperating argument. In Ames, when he picked fights over matters neither of us could possibly have cared about for longer than the classroom lecture that had incited them, I could’ve nodded in his direction and chucked him on the shoulder and savored the very fact of his continued presence in my life. Later, when he began calling me socially, it could’ve struck me as the most natural thing in the world, instead of taking me repeated explanations to accept. In Las Vegas, when he first suggested that things might happen between us—things I could never have imagined until the very moment that he was speaking them—I could’ve responded with warmth and gratitude in the presence of such fearless friendship, so unconditional. So trusting. I could’ve needed less convincing.

It could have been this way with Gerry? Surely it must have been this way with Gerry—the stubborn, impulsive, short-tempered friend for whom the plan had always been to leave us all too young, drowning in a hospital bed in the unsympathetic clutches of cystic fibrosis. How could I have missed so many organic moments in the company of someone with so few of them to spare?

The sea bass arrives, now—conveyed to me up that same, almost comically narrow and fidgety flight of stairs. There is no music, no comment from the waiter, no bon appetit. This, I understand as I pass the first morsel of fish between my lips, tangy with the salty crust and lemony flesh beneath—this is Sarajevo. Not all of Sarajevo; not any Sarajevo. Not tomorrow’s Sarajevo or, more to the point, yesterday’s Sarajevo, either. But mine: A sheltered moment to understand the wisdom of adaptability, the folly of control—the envy one can feel for those who’ve improvised a path to happiness when all around them was destruction and despair. My Sarajevo: A battered little restaurant at the far end of the Bascarsija, a place hard to find and harder to choose. A missed ballet. A cold night, a falling snow, wood smoke—solitude. A plate of fish.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

well, gosh, I was hoping for an explanation of the financial crisis, since you are one of the only economists whose opinion I value. Do you think you could come back from "out of town" and enlighten me?