Pure morning

Monday 12 September 2022:

Tonight we played our tenth week of indoor football in Atlantis.  Our game has grown quite significantly during that time.  In the beginning, we were eight men with a severe lack of fitness and no footballing ability who knew each other primarily from the pub; now we are fifteen men who met mainly through the pub, are a little fitter than we were but still have no footballing ability.

In those ten weeks, we have played with a Frenchman, a Belgian, a Polish schoolboy, and adopted a Turkish barber originally from Iraq who is so much better than the rest of us that he has taken to finishing games playing in his socks.  Our squad currently consists of, I think, four scientists, two accountants and six spectacle wearers.  It is the most placid collection of individuals you could care to meet in a leisure centre, yet people have suffered strained quadriceps, bruised ligaments, damage to their fingers, and on one occasion, a dislocated shoulder.  We aren’t a competitive bunch, but I guess if you throw a ball into a hall for a dozen or so men to chase after, these things are bound to happen.

Despite the rash of injuries, people seem to be enjoying the weekly game, so much so that there has been some discussion of potentially playing twice a week.  Apart from anything else, it seems that before long, hiring the hall for an hour is going to be cheaper than paying for heating at home.  Tonight I scored for the second time in ten weeks, which although a paltry tally when compared to most of the other players in our group, is a much more prolific return than in other areas of my life.

Tuesday 13 September 2022:

Other than the indoor game in Atlantis, there hasn’t been a great deal happening over the last few days. It has been an unusual time. There has been nothing on the television, sporting events across the UK have been postponed, the cinema was closed on Friday night, and even the Oban Pride Festival was cancelled over the weekend. To fill the void, I have found myself spending a lot of time listening to the 1986 album released by The Smiths. The title track is a classic, and surely one of the best-ever opening songs on an album.

Wednesday 14 September 2022:

After a fairly successful streak sometime around July, The Unlikely Bawbags are on a barren run at the Lorne pub quiz.  If we don’t win we are usually close, though there was one week where we fell down the rankings as far as fourth or fifth.  Tonight we were second, a point off the eventual winners.  It’s frustrating when that happens, and we’ll spend some time afterwards dwelling over it, trying to count the points we could have won if only we’d made different decisions and gone with the right answers; but this time there really wasn’t any more we could have done.

Despite telling anyone who would listen that I was going to have a refrained night on account of my plans to travel the following day, I once again ended up in Aulay’s after the quiz.  The winning team, Quiznae Me, were there celebrating their success.  It was all I could do to sit at the end of the bar and furiously contemplate what might have been.  Over the froth of a Tennent’s Lager, I watched as an elegantly dressed woman approached and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio.  She remarked to her friend that she had recently made the switch from red wine to white, and the reason why became the question I most wanted answering for the night.  There’s little more fascinating to me than the thinking behind the seemingly mundane decisions people make, usually because it leads to an exchange of other similarly beige nuggets of information.  For example, the wine-quaffing quiz winner told me that she had been finding that red wine was going straight to her head, but that the green grape isn’t nearly as potent.  I noted that the glass of white wine she was clutching in her hand complimented the colour of her nails, which she told me had been manicured for the very first time the previous week.  I learned that the process behind picking a colour for your nails is broadly similar to when you enter a hardware store and you’re seeking the perfect tin of paint for your new kitchen.  The buyer goes in and thumbs through a colour chart which gives them the opportunity of seeing how a certain shade looks against their finger before having the material applied for real.  On this occasion, the woman had gone for a colour which resembled sand on a beach before it becomes wet, since she considered it a safe option for her maiden manicure.  

“Would it impress you if a guy could tell you that your nails are shellac?”  I enquired, immediately dispensing my only piece of nail knowledge, kindly offered to me years ago by a young woman who was standing in almost exactly the same spot when she insisted that a female would enjoy it if I could point out that “they’re shellac, bitch.” 

“I don’t think it would.  I don’t even know what shellac is, and I’d probably be busy wondering why the guy knows.”  My demeanour darkened, though in truth, I don’t especially know how to identify a shellac nail either.

The wine drinker has a pleasing, peaceful aura, and she smiles as often as the traffic light on Argyll Square turns red.  She told me that she has recently embarked on a new initiative to do one thing each week as a treat to herself.  Last week she had her nails done, while this week she visited a hairdresser for the first time since the pandemic began.  She picked up her drink and made to return to her group.  “Thank you for the great conversation,” she said in parting.  I didn’t know how to respond.  Nobody had ever thanked me for talking to them before.  I took it as a treat for myself.

Thursday 15 September 2022:

France’s largest air traffic control union, the SNCTA, has called a strike for tomorrow. Ordinarily, these things wouldn’t bother me and I would find myself on the side of the underpaid worker, but I was due to travel for a weekend break in Sarajevo, and the elaborate route I had sourced was to take me from Glasgow to Dublin, onwards to Paris and finally to Sarajevo. The final flight has been cancelled due to the strike action. I wasn’t looking forward to the journey itself, since it was going to require a seven-hour overnight stop in Dublin Airport followed by a further six-hour wait in Paris Beauvais, but I was excited for my brief return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than anything, I was keen to see some of the friends I had made there during the summer: Aid, Kenan, Medina, and the bar staff at Gastro Pub Vucko. To have the trip cancelled so close to departure was disappointing, but I suppose it was better than learning about it upon arrival at the airport. The task now is to find a way to enjoy the weekend that will keep me from mourning that I am not in Sarajevo.

Friday 16 September 2022:

On days like this, Oban scarcely looks real; more like a series of postcards have been pinned to the horizon in some dramatic exhibition.  McCaig’s Tower pierces the sky, leaving barely a scratch in the pinball blue.  From up there you can see for miles, islands in the distance are exposing themselves to the sun.  The sun itself dances provocatively on the surface of the still sea.  Beer gardens and al fresco dining areas are doing a roaring trade, pavements packed with the sudden jolt of tourists who spy a photo opportunity, while on the Esplanade, a couple with an A3 pad sprawled across their knees are sketching the scene on the bay.  I guess that’s easier than writing a thousand words.

In the evening, I joined a few friends in attending the Pictish Trail gig in The View.  I had listened to only a small amount of the Island of Eigg native’s material before the night, but there was enough of it to span two sets:  the first a solo acoustic warm-up for the full-band, lo-fi psychedelic folk experience that followed.  It was pretty great; energetic, interactive, and a lot more fun than I could ever have expected the performance to be.

Saturday 17 September 2022:

I like to buy whichever vegetable Lidl has on offer and then Google what I can do with it.  This week they are selling courgettes for £1.29 per kilo, which weighed out at 37p for the courgette I picked out.  The extent of my typical recipe search is usually to ask the internet for suggestions of pasta dishes I can cook using that week’s vegetable.  Easily the most awkward part of my shopping experience today was when I was approaching the sale items in the fresh produce aisle and the song Je t’aime moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin began playing in my earphones.  The track is the audio equivalent of reading the articles in Playboy Magazine.  To my memory, it is the first time that I have been checking a courgette for firmness while hearing the sound of a female breathing heavily in my ear. 

I added the song to my monthly Spotify playlist due to an incident that occurred in Aulay’s last Friday. Amongst our group, we had become aware of three French women who were seated at a table in the corner of the bar. Given that most of us have no idea how to approach a table of French women, we were feeling pretty hopeless. Eventually, it came to me that the best way of communicating them might be through the true language of love – music – and so I dropped a pound in the jukebox and played the LaBelle classic Lady Marmalade. The song appeared to delight the damsels since they were seen dancing at their table, though they presumably never acknowledged our existence on account of there being no way of knowing who has requested which song. Besides, I had become distracted by our usual game of themed playlists and followed Lady Marmalade with Sugar, Sugar by The Archies and some track by The Jam. It was during his round of picks that the Plant Doctor played Je t’aime, but the ladies had long since departed by the time it came on. We were left only with speculating as to how they would have reacted to hearing it.

Sunday 18 September 2022:

Many people throughout the UK have the day off work tomorrow, and since there doesn’t appear to be anything better to do with the time, I decided that I would embark on the nearly mythical ‘Sunday sesh’ – an entire Sunday spent in the pub.  To start the day, Gary and I went to the Tartan Tavern to watch Celtic lose 2-0 to St. Mirren, which was the first time either of us had reason to grieve in well over ten days.  A pint of beer in there retails at £4.50, surely putting it around the mid-point of the prince range in Oban these days.  Gary arrived later than I did, joining my table with a pint of Guinness and a packet of KP salted peanuts.

“Help yourself to some nuts if you like,” he said.  “I only bought them to get the total up to five pounds.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a five pound minimum charge for card payments, so she asked me to get something else to make the bill up.”

It’s true that above the bar there is a sign clearly stating that the minimum card payment the place will accept is for £5, yet I was able to pay for my £4.50 Budweiser without having to buy a bag of nuts.  We found the discrepancy curious, and I was alert to it when I was next at the bar.  I studied the scene closely as the transaction unfolded.  Drink ordered.  Pint poured.  Bill rung up.  £4.50 paid by card.  As far as the things that happen in a hospitality setting go, this seemed fairly unremarkable, but we were perplexed.  Some time passed before Gary needed to have his Guinness refreshed.  This was the moment of truth.  The barmaid repeated the same process she had gone through with me, right up until the final step, where she invited Gary to buy something else to bring the bill up to the £5 minimum charge.

“Why are you having to pay the nut tax and I’m not?”  I wondered.  It was a question neither of us could answer, and as much as we were curious to know, I wasn’t going to be the idiot who asks a barmaid why he isn’t paying more for his drink.

We left for Aulay’s with Gary a pound lighter in the wallet and 100 grams heavier in peanuts.  There we were joined by a rolling cast of characters through the afternoon as we discussed our favourite cheesy eighties movies and quizzed the barmaid on her habit of adding items to her online shopping basket without ever checking out.  In a way, I guess it’s the modern equivalent of window shopping.  She had more than £400 worth of goods in her basket just from that day’s shift behind the bar.  In her view, she isn’t the type who cares for branded clothing or spends a lot of money on herself, she just likes imagining that she could own them with one click.  I tried telling her how I like to do the same on the World of Books website, with the difference being that I had recently gone through with spending more than £30 on second-hand titles, but she didn’t have much interest in that.

The most fascinating thing about spending an entire afternoon in the pub is observing the different people who come and go.  One minute it is quiet and the next there is a cacophony of flamboyantly drunk young women singing along to 4 Non Blondes in celebration of a 30th birthday.  From where we were standing, it seemed impossible that they could last the day, but by the end of it all, we would discover to our cost that we were underestimating the group.  

Unperturbed by the earlier nut tax, Gary found himself in conversation with an older Irish woman.  She was dressed as though she had been attending a funeral, though we knew that couldn’t have been the case since we had heard of nobody else who had died recently.  The woman integrated herself into our company, and we learned that she had in fact spent the afternoon at the classic car rally that was held at the station square.  Some of the antique automobiles on display were so beautiful that “they would take the knickers off a nun,” or so we were told.  People had always tried telling me that my life would be simpler if I had learned how to drive, and I might have been more willing to listen if they could have put car ownership in such convincing terms.

The Plant Doctor and Gary had spent much of the afternoon in competition over ‘the Guinness challenge’, which requires the drinker to take a continuous mouthful of the black stuff with the aim of leaving the base of the creamy head resting in the tiny space between the bottom of the harp and the top of the branded lettering.  On observing this, I have calculated that a successful Guinness challenge should have six gulps; a skill that The Plant Doctor seemed to have mastered on approximately 50% of his attempts.  Our Irish guest had never heard of this highly-accomplished art and was eager to try it for herself, so she ordered a pint.  We stood back in expectation of witnessing a masterclass from someone to whom Guinness comes as natural as oxygen, water, or whiskey.  None of us had ever seen a Guinness challenge like it:  the mouthful went far beyond the white letters, all the way to the middle of the glass.  It was difficult to know whether to be impressed or disappointed.

I believe it was sometime after the nationwide minute’s silence at eight o’clock was observed by turning on the subtitles during Frozen Planet 2 that we left the pub to get something to eat before heading for Markies to take part in Oban’s second-best quiz.  We believed that the team we had assembled was capable of achieving great things, even after a long and emotional day.  Things were going well for a time, though we found ourselves trailing by several points going into the final music round.  A strong score of 16 out of 20 salvaged a tiebreak situation for us, but our miserable knowledge of the number of windows on The Shard skyscraper scuppered the whole thing.  It turned out that the young women from the 30th birthday party know their pub trivia as well as their alcohol better than we could ever have considered.

Monday’s bank holiday was already beginning to look bleak when we decided to partake in some consolation shots of tequila laced with Tobasco sauce.  Nothing was happening on Monday that I was aware of, so as far as I was concerned, I might as well confront it with the mother of all hangovers.  All that was left was to play that 1986 album by The Smiths one more time.  

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Sarajevo: Correct or connect (part 5 of 5)

It was tempting to walk around Sarajevo feeling sorry for myself on my final full day in the city.  That day before you are due to fly home from an incredible time exploring a new place is always a bittersweet one, after all.  Like last orders at your favourite bar:  you know it will all soon be over, but you still have one more drink to enjoy with your friends before it is.  My flight back to London was scheduled for six o’clock on Saturday morning, and by Wednesday evening I had composed a list of the things I needed to do before leaving Sarajevo.  The page in my pocket notebook had so many items on it that it didn’t look as though I was going to have time to be depressed about departing Bosnia and Herzegovina.  There were the usual things, such as picking up a souvenir copper coffee pot and some fridge magnets for friends, but other considerations on my list would require a bit more effort.

Instead of going to the pekara for my usual game of roulette with the bread, I wanted my last morning in Bosnia to be different, so I visited the restaurant inside Hotel Hecco, as Armin recommended earlier the week. While ordinarily I like my coffee ground, this cafe is found on the tenth floor of the hotel and its terrace offers a panoramic view of Sarajevo. The terrace itself is narrow and populated with white plastic tables and chairs which resemble garden furniture, while the coffee tasted no better than something you might be served from a machine in a supermarket. Nobody goes to Caffe Hecco for the quality of the hot drinks, though. It’s all about the view. From up in the hills, the city can appear so far away, a blur of buildings stood beyond those chalk white gravestones, but on the terrace, you are suddenly sitting amongst the steeples and minarets of Sarajevo. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to begin my farewell to the city, and it was another benefit of talking to the locals through Meet Bosnia, since I would never have otherwise thought to venture inside the unassuming hotel entrance.

My primary objective after coffee was to find a way that would best express my gratitude to the young women in the tour agency who had helped make my trip so memorable, and what better way than with fresh produce from the local market?  I had noticed an abundant marketplace across the road from the pekara I visited regularly and came to realise that it is the infamous Markale Market, where 111 people were killed and more than 200 injured in two separate mortar bombardments in February 1994 and August 1995 – the latter of which is widely regarded as being the incident that finally provoked the NATO airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces, eventually leading to the Dayton Peace Accords and the end of the war.  The road and pavement outside the open-air market are scarred with bloody roses, and somehow it seemed appropriate that I should give the gift of roses as a mark of my appreciation for the hospitality I was shown.

The market wasn’t as busy as I expected for a Friday morning.  There were maybe a dozen people browsing the displays of apples, peaches, potatoes, courgettes, cauliflowers, cabbages, aubergines, spring onions, and the largest peppers I have ever seen.  Close to the entrance were the flower stalls I was seeking.  The first one I approached was owned by a small elderly woman who appeared to have nothing but her two front teeth, though that didn’t stop her from putting on an extremely cheerful face.  I told her that I was looking for two bunches of flowers, and she wanted to know if I was buying them for home, as a gift or for somebody special.  I explained that they were for two young ladies who had been very helpful during my time in Sarajevo, which prompted the flower seller to promise that she would pick out the very best roses and lilies she had.  Through English that was almost as fractured as her dentures, the woman assured me that she has been working with flowers for more than 47 years and so knows how to put together a beautiful bouquet.  Despite this wealth of experience, on the recent occasion of the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary, the florist’s husband went to a rival flower vendor to purchase forty-five red roses as a gift for her.  This was the best story I had heard during my ten days in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and although we both laughed about it, I could tell that the woman still felt aggrieved by it.

“He was probably wanting to surprise you,” I said, having no idea how a married couple of 45 years can possibly still surprise one another. “Of course,” the florist responded with a shrug of her shoulders. “But come on. It’s like cheating.”

If there is a moment from my Bosnian voyage that I could freeze in time, it would be the look on Medina’s face when I walked into the Meet Bosnia agency with the two expertly-picked bunches of flowers in my grasp.  For a moment, I thought that she might cry when I handed them over to her, which would have been something new for me when it’s usually my floral language that brings a tear to the eye.  When she stepped out from behind the desk to thank me, it looked as though she was going to throw her arms around me, but in the end, it was possibly a relief that she didn’t.  It’s not that I wouldn’t have welcomed a hug from Medina, but it was only midday and my shirt was already saturated with sweat.  Nothing could spoil a friendly gesture more than the awkward sensation of perspiration.  Medina asked if I was feeling sad about leaving Sarajevo, which was a difficult question.  It’s true that I wasn’t looking forward to going home. Still, I told her that rather than feeling any sadness, I was more appreciative of how fortunate I was to have experienced such a beautiful, fragile, friendly, and fantastic place.  Her face lit up when I said that my eleven days in Bosnia and Herzegovina had changed my life for the better and that it would take some time for me to fully appreciate it.  I have never felt a connection with a place like the bond I developed with Sarajevo, and I vowed to anyone who would listen that I was already planning to return next year.

Almost as though willing myself to wallow in some form of misery on my last day in the country, I visited the War Childhood Museum.  Sarajevo has many museums, but this is perhaps its most traumatic, and yet at the same time also its most charming and hopeful.  The project was born from a book of the same name, when, in 2010, author Jasminko Halilovic appealed for people to send him responses to the question:  “What was the war childhood for you?”  Over two and half years he received more than a thousand testimonies, memories drawings, photographs, and artefacts which told the story of a generation that grew up during the war.  Rather than risk having these personal items permanently lost to history, the idea was conceived to preserve them in a museum – the world’s only one that focuses exclusively on children who have been affected by war.  Such is the nature of war, and history’s horrible habit of repeating itself, there is currently an entire exhibition dedicated to the children of Ukraine.

At the ticket desk, a beautiful young lady looked at me with a curious eye when I paid for my entrance. I believe that what I said to her roughly translates as: “Good afternoon. May I have [raises an index finger] adult? Please. Thank you.” Presumably it was my accent that tipped her off to something being awry, since her response was to ask in fluent English where I am from. “And you are learning Bosnian?” She swooned – or, at least, I translated it as a swoon. One of my favourite things about being in Bosnia and Herzegovina was how much the people appreciated me speaking even a few words of the language. Most of the time, in ordinary circumstances, people roll their eyes, shake their heads or sigh whenever I attempt to communicate with them, but not here. In Bosnia, they accept that I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s saying. So enamoured was I with the woman behind the ticket desk that I purchased a copy of the War Childhood book after I had walked around the museum. Today it sits on my bookcase, still wrapped in its thin layer of cellophane. It is important to preserve memories.

Of all the points I had written on my list of things to experience before the end of my trip, one of the most important was to hear the Muslim call to prayer one more time.  While as I have grown older I have discovered that most elements of religion leave me cold, the call to prayer is exquisite.  I don’t know what it is I like so much about it, but I was determined to return to the bar from where I first heard it to find out.  Not only was it the first place I had heard the beautiful chant, but it was also my initiation into Sarajevsko Pivo.  As the embers burned on my final afternoon in Sarajevo, I took a seat outside and indulged in the local ale in anticipation of the speakers from the nearby Gazi Husrev-beg mosque bursting into song.  Honestly, it gets more striking each time you hear it.  

Whilst revelling in the afterglow of the call to prayer, I found that I was attracting the attention of an elderly gentleman at the table facing mine.  The group he was sitting amongst had left, and since I had finished reading the Malcolm Gladwell book Talking to Strangers, which I bought at Luton Airport, there was no buffer to prevent people from speaking to me.  This guy had the appearance of a spy in a 1950s war movie, and I was the informant with whom he had come to exchange information.  There were surely more clandestine meeting spots in Sarajevo than around the corner from its largest mosque, although it was difficult to tell what value his coded secrets could be to anyone.  I learned a lot about Drago in the brief time we spent over the beer he bought for me.  He is recently retired from his job in Silicon Valley and splits his time between San Francisco and Sarajevo, the home city he left in the nineties and returns only to visit his grandchildren.  His recommended holiday destinations are Hawaii and Mexico, where the all-inclusive cocktails are especially good.  Drago confided that he had lost his wife to a sudden bout of leukaemia four years ago.  It’s difficult to know what the best thing is to say when a person tells you something like that, especially when you have only just met them.  Nobody has written a book about that, as far as I know.  Even worse than knowing how to respond verbally, I had to find a way of telling him that I wanted to leave to go and have my last drink at Gastro Pub Vučko.

In my mind, I had built up all manner of expectations for my final visit to Vučko.  There was going to be rock music playing loud, Bijelo Dugme, locals calling out after ‘the Scottish man’, flirtatious banter through broken Bosnian with the barmaid, chat with the physiotherapist, and rakija.  Lots of rakija.  When I emerged from the smoky haze at the bar, it couldn’t have been any more different.  I didn’t recognise any of the staff, the music was at a tolerable volume, and the red Vučko draft tap was off.  I don’t know that I have ever felt disappointment like it.  With my 4 am ride to the airport in mind, I finished my last beer in Bosnia and Herzegovina and left the bar around ten o’clock.  On my way back to the hostel, I walked past Vječna vatra (the Eternal Flame) once more, and for the first time, I felt sadness about leaving Sarajevo.

Four in the morning is not a pleasant time to be going anywhere, let alone an international airport.  My body resented me, and after 11 days of feeling nothing but peace, love, and tolerance, I was hating everything.  The bright lights of the check-in hall contrasted bitterly with the darkness of the morning outside, but even that didn’t stop it from being unusual when I couldn’t see the desk for WizzAir passengers.  I paced up and down the tiny hall, unable to find anything.  Eventually, it struck me that the sensible thing to do would be to look at the flight information screens overhead.  That was when I first learned that the 6.15 plane to Luton had been cancelled.  My heart sank.  Nothing could have felt worse at that moment.  Rail strikes across the UK already meant that I was being forced to pay an inflated £300 to fly from London to Glasgow that day, but now I wouldn’t even be able to make that.  Although I am a 38-year-old man, I have never experienced anything like this.  What are you supposed to do?  I’ve been on trains that have been delayed or even cancelled, but you can always catch the next bus from Oban to Glasgow, or in the worst-case scenario, pay for a taxi – like I did for me and three strangers in 2014, when I was desperate to get to the city to see Limp Bizkit in concert and insisted on sitting in the back seat because I found one of the women attractive, only to have to stop less than an hour into the drive so that I could be sick by the side of a country road.  Although the remainder of the journey was painful in its awkwardness, I still saw fit to ask the young lady out on a date when I next saw her in a bar several months later.  It wasn’t any surprise when she declined the invitation.

After the initial shock wore off, instincts started to kick in. Standing in line at the ticket counter, I could almost feel the monkey within me beating its chest. All I could think about was how I could reach London the fastest possible way. That’s where I was supposed to be flying to, after all, so that’s where I was going to go. One man walked by and asked me, “is this the victims of WizzAir queue?” Behind me was the guy from Leicester who had taken the tour to Srebrenica with me a couple of days earlier. He had already figured out that he was going to try and get home via Zagreb; I envied his confidence. I reached the lady at the desk and asked her how I could get to London that day. She ran through various options, such as travelling via Frankfurt, Istanbul, or Basle, but they all involved 9 or 10-hour stopovers and a lot of money. What else could I do? I accepted her suggestion of flying through Switzerland and arriving in London at 9.50 pm, almost 16 hours after my original arrival time, though I had no idea how I was going to make it home from there. She was entering my passport details into the system when the monkey finally relented and I could get some relatively intelligent thought in. Why was I looking for a way back to London when it was Scotland that I ultimately wanted to reach?

With more urgency than I have ever mustered, even at last orders in Aulay’s, I stopped the ticket vendor mid-booking and went and sat in Sarajevo airport’s little coffee shop with an underwhelming cappuccino and an hour’s free WiFi and began searching for flights to either of Scotland’s two main airports myself.  The options weren’t much better than the woman had offered me, some of them not arriving until 2 am or 8 am on Sunday – more than 24 hours later.  I checked my messages, and as well as seeing that WizzAir had sent an email at 2 am advising me of their decision to cancel the flight from Sarajevo to London (although not the reason), I realised that they were giving me the option of rebooking my flight for free on the next available date, which according to their two flights a week schedule was Tuesday.  That would at least allow me to use the train ticket that had originally been scuppered by the rail strike, and upon checking with Hostel Franz Ferdinand that they had accommodation available for another three nights, it emerged that the sensible option was to stay in Sarajevo.  None of it was ideal, and it felt surreal to go from being sad over leaving the place to being disappointed about having to spend another few days in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but by the time I had taken a few calming breaths and the bus back into the city, I was feeling better about things.  Any chance I got I was promising people that I would come back to Bosnia, though I never anticipated that it would be this soon.  In the end, I only had myself to blame for drinking so much water from that damn fountain.

I made a beeline straight for Baščaršija and some proper coffee as I pondered my next move. It was striking the way that the survival instincts of the modern man have evolved from hunting animals to hunting for free WiFi spots. My favourite place for Bosnian coffee, Slatko ćoše, also happened to be one that offered an internet connection. Not very much time had passed before I was starting to enjoy the idea of having another opportunity to explore this city I had fallen for, although I spent most of the rest of that Saturday in bed, unknowingly missing what was the third Sarajevo Pride parade. The parade was all anybody was talking about when I finally ventured from the hostel the next morning, so much so that I was feeling disappointed for having not witnessed it. Instead, I was refreshed as I embarked on yet another trip with Meet Bosnia, this one taking me to Visegrad, Andricgrad and Drvengrad.

While it wasn’t the stamp I was expecting to receive on my passport that weekend, it felt pretty exciting to travel through Republic Srpska to East Bosnia and finally across the border into Western Serbia.  Along the way, our guide Armin took me and a Finnish couple to see the impressive Old Stone Bridge in Visegrad, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007 and was the titular bridge in Ivo Andric’s 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature winning novel, The Bridge on the Drina.  In Andricgrad, we were visiting a town that is the project of the film director Emir Kusturica and is inspired by the works and characters of Ivo Andric.  Drvengrad, in Serbia, literally translates as “wooden town”, and that’s exactly what it is:  it’s an ethno-village which was originally constructed as scenery for Kusturica’s film Life is a Miracle, and eventually blossomed into a village made entirely of timber from conifer trees.  I can’t think that I have seen anything else quite like it.  From there, we took a ride on the scenic Sargan Eight heritage line:  a narrow gauge railway found high up in the Zlatibor mountains that once upon a time served as part of the train route connecting Belgrade and Sarajevo before it was closed in the 1970s.

The short journey on the nostalgia train alone was almost enough to make up for the cancellation of my flight home, while an unexpected second chance at a last day in Sarajevo definitely made it worthwhile.  The opportunity to see my favourite people, visit my favourite sights, eat cevapi at Nune, and drink in Vučko once more.  I was reluctant to build my hopes up too high following the disappointment of my first last night there, though I couldn’t help but look forward to it.  The night could scarcely have been better.  Everyone who I wanted to see was there.  The barmaid mentioned that she remembered me from my first visit to Vučko 13 days earlier, and asked if I remember her.  I wanted to tell her that parents forget their firstborn child more easily than someone like her could slip from my mind, but without the evidence to back such a claim up, I decided instead to tell her that of course I recognise her, since she looks much different to the physiotherapist who had been tending bar in her absence.  The barmaid’s laugh was hysterical.  “I would hope that I do!”

As I ordered yet more beers, the barmaid insisted that I was pronouncing the phrase “mogu li dobiti” (may I have) incorrectly, which came as a surprise to me since it is one of the translations I felt most comfortable with and nobody else in the previous two weeks had told me that I was saying it wrongly.  Either the other Bosnian people believed that I was using the correct wording, or they were too kind to correct me.  As soon as I’d made the suggestion, it struck me that it could easily have sounded like a subtle dig at the barmaid, but it turned out that she found it unusual I would consider Bosnians to be kind at all.  I asked if that is not her experience, to which she said it isn’t.  I found it difficult to believe, and suggested that maybe her people are kind to those they don’t know, like me, which she seemed to think makes sense.  “So it isn’t just you,” I concluded.  As if to prove my point, the barmaid taught me how to ask for one more beer to save me, and her, from going through the same charade over again.  I came to use “još jedan” many more times that night.

Despite all of my language faux pas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it came as no surprise that goodbye was the hardest word to say.  I bought a rakija for all of the staff in Vučko as my parting shot, while the physiotherapist reciprocated by giving me a 330ml bottle of Vučko Red to take away.  It was by far my favourite of all of the generous gifts I had been given by people during my time in Bosnia:  the brush, the wooden spoon, a fridge magnet, a canvas bag.  The physiotherapist was right about rakija when he said that it will either correct or connect a person.  I couldn’t have felt any more connected to Sarajevo and this wonderful country.

When I turned up at Meet Bosnia in the small hours of the next morning to make my second attempt at flying home, it was Edin, the owner of the tour agency, who arrived to drive me to the airport.  The same person who gave President Bill Clinton a guided tour of Sarajevo was driving me to the airport at four o’clock in the morning.    I couldn’t believe it.  Inside, the WizzAir check-in desk was open, dashing the hopes of the small part of me that was wishing for one more cancellation.  I knew that I would be back in Sarajevo one day, it was just going to have to wait a little longer.