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.  

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.

Sarajevo, Travnik, Jajce & Srebrenica (part four)

I had only been away from Sarajevo for 48 hours – a day less than the entire time I had actually spent in the city – yet returning there from my weekend in Mostar brought with it a feeling that was similar to the one I experience when I have been away from Oban for a while and the bus reaches the top of the Balloch-an-Righ, the main difference being that here I was met with blue skies and a bright sun sitting over the hill.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my time in Herzegovina; more that I really, really liked Sarajevo.  The best thing of comparing it with would be finding that you have developed a crush on the person who you pass on the street every other day, who even seeing for a brief moment somehow makes your day better.  Life doesn’t suddenly become terrible when a few days go by without seeing your street crush, but it just isn’t the same.  That’s how it felt being in Mostar.

Sarajevo was familiar to me.  I knew my way around the city, or at least the parts of it I had been in.  I had my favourite pekara for playing Russian Roulette with the bread, and I knew how to say hello to people in Sarajevo.  Amongst the things I was most looking forward to was getting back to my room in Hostel Franz Ferdinand.  Although the proprietors weren’t the type to pour a rakija for you before check-in and the room was as basic as can be, the people were friendly and I had a private bathroom, meaning that I could once again take a shower in the morning without the concern of becoming overly intimate with the stranger on the other side of the partition.  I picked up a four-pack of Sarajevsko lager from the supermarket on my way to the old town from the railway station with the intention of having a quiet Sunday night in the communal lounge while I caught up with some writing.  There was a part of me that hoped to find another traveller with who I could share my experiences, the way I did the night before I left for Mostar.  But there was only one guy around, and he used the kitchen to make the most pungent meal he could before going to his room.  Instead, I spent the night in my own company, listening to music and drinking beer.  It was just like being home.

My first six days in Bosnia and Herzegovina were spent undertaking vigorous sightseeing, indulging in challenging cevapi consumption, fending off the heat with liquid refreshments, and putting my pigeon knowledge of the language to the test. I deserved a rest; so it was on the seventh day that I didn’t leave the hostel until after 11am. There wasn’t enough time to make my daily trip to the pekara for breakfast, but that didn’t seem so important when I was going to be spending the afternoon taking a food & craft tour around Sarajevo’s old town with Meet Bosnia. The activity was one that I expected would have a lot of interest seeing as it promised a great deal of culture and eating, but I was the only person who had arranged to do it. My guide was Armin, a personable middle-aged woman whose hair was the colour of uncut butternut squash. We spent several hours walking the narrow streets around Baščaršija, where I couldn’t help but wonder what people thought at seeing the pair of us together: Armin the well-prepared, lightly dressed and air-conditioned local alongside me, the Scottish tourist whose face was as pink as the polo shirt that was sticking to his back.

Armin was amiable and well-versed in flattery.  Throughout our walk, she did her best to emphasise how much the Bosnian people appreciate respectful visitors to their country, frequently commenting on how polite, friendly and thoughtful she found me.  Initially, the flurry of compliments left me feeling bashful and had my features turning from pink to red, but over time I began to wonder what it would take to encourage people at home to talk to me like this.  Everyone I met on my tour around the city with Armin was like this; warm and genuine and massaging my tiny ego without even knowing it.  That’s what made the food & craft one of the most valuable things I did during my time in Bosnia:  If I had been visiting these traditional dressmakers, coppersmiths, or rugmakers on my own accord, I would never have been able to communicate with them.  However, with Armin acting as a translator in addition to being a guide, I learned more about what makes this place so unique than I otherwise ever could have.

For instance, I was taken into the back of one of Sarajevo’s last remaining hatmakers, where an elderly man was sitting at a gloomy-looking desk next to a portrait of Tito that could be seen through what was probably a permanent haze of cigarette smoke, carefully stitching a purple ribbon to a piece of felt.  Armin introduced me and presumably told him that I am Scottish, and as he shook my hand he asked when Scotland will become an independent country.  After almost a week of interrogating various locals about the complex political structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it surprised me that this little old man in a hat shop in Sarajevo could care about the issue of independence in Scotland, yet he smiled when I told him that I was hoping it would be soon.  Through my guide/translator, I was told that, since the beginning of the war in 1992, the hatmaker has only been able to work seasonally due to the falling demand and the drain on the country’s resources.

It was a similar story in all of the small family-run workshops I visited.  Everyone I spoke to is intensely proud of their craft, their history and their country, but they are not very busy and it is becoming more and more difficult for them to survive.  Young women no longer want to weave rugs, so many of them are now imported from Pakistan.  The female coppersmith I met sells so few of the traditional ibriks [coffee pots] these days that she has been forced to adapt the family business and turn the coffee pots into modern candleholders, though even then she is finding it tough to attract custom.  There is now only one brushmaker in the city; a once thriving trade.  The countryside is full of sheep, just like in Scotland, but few people are willing to farm them.  Many young people do not want to work in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there is a belief that the government is corrupt and doesn’t do enough to support the struggling traditional sectors.  In 2021 alone, more than 100,000 Bosnians applied for a Visa to work in Germany.  At the same time, the older generation is fearful of another war breaking out soon, fuelled by the recent invasion of Ukraine and Serbia’s close relationship with Russia.  Armin mentioned that her mother, whom she lives with, has already begun stockpiling tinned food and clearing space in the basement of their home in case they need to shelter.   Sometimes your own worries, such as none of your neighbours being willing to take the bins out to the pavement for emptying, or whether Amazon Prime is worth a £79 annual subscription seem trivial when you hear about what other people are going through.

My tour began at a bakery close to the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, where they still give out free bread to the hungry every morning. From there, over the course of around three hours, I ate more food than I could ever imagine. There was a shortbread-like biscuit that was designed for being preserved for months at a time for people who were spending their time working in the hills. I tried cheese burek, some locally-produced acacia honey, a pistachio cream sweet, a large chunk of salty goats cheese that was as big as my fist along with some sliced ham from the market, japrak (grape leaves stuffed with mince and rice), dolma (green pepper stuffed with mince and rice), the traditional and heavenly Bosnian dessert baklava, as well as yet more cevapi at Cevabdzinica Nune. This place is run by the brother of Edin, who operates Meet Bosnia, and has been in their family since 1966. I believe that I had met the entire family by the time I left Sarajevo, which is probably inevitable considering I ate at the restaurant almost every night for the remainder of my trip. They easily serve the best cevapi I tasted in Bosnia & Herzegovina. My opinion was perhaps slightly biased by the fact that I enjoyed one of my few language triumphs in the establishment. As I arrived one evening, an American male who was probably not much younger than I am was placing his order in a manner that seemed to be a pretty good attempt at parroting the archetypal obnoxious American abroad. The young female server walked over to my table next, where the most rudimentary translation of my order would be: “Good evening. May I have cevapi? Ten [the dish is typically served with 10 or 15 pieces of sausage]. Please. Thank you.” There could have been a multitude of reasons for my plate being served before the American’s was, it could have been sheer coincidence, but the fact that it was was enough to have me forking raw onion into my mouth in celebration.

Amidst all of the food I was enjoying on my first day back in Sarajevo, my mind was chewing over a troubling request I had received in the Meet Bosnia office before my food & craft tour began.  Originally I had planned to keep the following day free and to take a trip to the towns of Travnik and Jajce on Wednesday, but when I arrived at the agency on Monday, Medina informed me that there had been an enquiry from another person who was interested in taking the same tour, but that she was only in Sarajevo on Tuesday.  It didn’t make any difference to me which day I went on the tour, and the fact that another person would be there meant that the cost would be halved since it would no longer be just me and the driver, but I was instantly filled with dread.  What if this other mystery solo traveller was Karen from the drive to Mostar?  I wasn’t sure that I could survive a full-day excursion with just the two of us.  Yet there was no way I could refuse.  I’m not sure that anyone could ever say no to Medina, after all.  I was just going to have to cope with the prospect the only way I know how:  by going to the pub.

Six days after my first visit to Gastro Pub Vučko, where my failure to read the Bosnian language menu led to me ordering a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, I returned hopeful that I could impress the barmaid with everything I had learned in the meantime.  I drank in several other bars during my time in Sarajevo, but none of them captured me the way Vučko did, not even The Celtic Pub, which occupies the space next to Cevabdzinica Nune.  The bar had been recommended to me by Mirza on account of its name, though the place struck me as being more of a Scottish-cum-Irish sports bar rather than it claiming any affiliation with my favourite football club.  At least that’s how it seemed to me when I asked the kilted barman if he followed Celtic and he responded that, no, he supported Partizan Belgrade, the Serbian (though at the time Yugoslavian) club who eliminated Celtic from the 1989 European Cup Winners Cup competition on the away goals rule despite famously losing 5-4 in Glasgow.  I mean, come on.  Walking into The Celtic Pub and finding a barman who revels in one of your most gutwrenching calamities was, well, no different to most other bartenders I have encountered over the years.

As fate would have it, the barmaid from my first smoke-filled visit to Gastro Pub Vučko was not on duty when I went in after the food & craft tour.  It was tempting to feel disappointment, even resentment, over the scheduling, but it turned out that the guy who was working behind the bar pouring drinks for the orders being taken by the floor staff was amongst the friendliest of all the friendly people I met in the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He spoke fluent English, which he learned through listening to rock music by bands such as Queen and U2, as well as helping to translate for soldiers during the war when he was just a teenager.  Things like that are never not jarring when someone says it.  Although many young people have left the country, he stayed and became a qualified physiotherapist, while he still works in the pub to “pay for being a student.”

I visited Vučko on multiple occasions during my second week in Bosnia and Herzegovina, each time hoping to walk in and find the barmaid from that first night, and each time feeling strangely happy to discover that the friendly barman was there instead.  By the end of the week, even the bar staff who couldn’t converse with me in English greeted me as “the Scottish man” when I walked in, which seemed better than the pub titles I am usually bestowed with.  Drinking in here felt just like drinking in Aulay’s, or in the bar of a Ted Danson sitcom, right down to the music that played over the speakers; eighties synths soothing through the place in rhythm with the hops.  Sometimes one of the younger bar crew took control of the system and the typical tracks were replaced with some Yugoslavian rock.  

The young man pointed feverishly to the tiny buttons on my polo shirt as he asked, “do you like?”  I said that I did, but I had no idea what kind of coded message he was trying to communicate through my shirt.

“This is White Button,” [Bijelo Dugme] the English-speaking barman finally interjected having witnessed the sketch play out in front of him. “The biggest band ever to come out of Yugoslavia.” Their song Sve će to, mila moja, prekriti ruzmarin must have played at least once every night I was in that week. I had never heard anything like it before. It is a fantastic song. I didn’t understand a word of it, yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. One night I asked the barman what the song was about, but I didn’t understand a word of his explanation either. Maybe it was for the best that the mythology I had built up in my mind surrounding the song wasn’t tarnished by learning that the verses were an operatic ode to a man who is sitting on a barstool contemplating a crushing 10-hour car journey with the human form of the Karen meme.

My food and craft tour taught me a lot about Bosnian culture, but there are some things that can only be learned from the other side of a bar.  What I wanted to know most about Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than anything else, was the rakija.  I told the barman about my experience in Mostar the previous weekend, where I arrived at my hostel and was offered a shot of homemade rakija before I had even checked into my room.  “They must have been Serbian,” he correctly identified.  I hadn’t especially cared for their grape distillation, though of course, I could hardly walk into the home of a Serb and tell him that, and wanted something a little mellower.  The barman suggested that I should try plum or honey, but warned that a person should have no more than three or four shots and that these should be taken slowly along with a glass of water.  “With rakija, you will either correct others or connect with them.”  It was a beautiful turn of phrase, and I knew exactly what he meant.  It’s the same when you consume enough of any alcoholic drink, I suppose, but the way the barman spoke it seemed particularly poignant.

All the rakija in the Balkans couldn’t have prepared me for the prospect of spending an entire day travelling through central Bosnia to the historic towns of Travnik and Jajce in a car with Karen.  I felt certain that she was going to be the second tourist in my party of two, and I could already tell that it was going to be the worst day.  The thing about an early morning cup of bitter Bosanska Kafa is that while it is seemingly great at combatting a rakija hangover, there isn’t much it can do to quell anxiety.  I could feel my heartbeat rattling around my ribcage like Sarajevo’s old trams reverberate across its streets as I paced the Meet Bosnia office at eight o’clock waiting for my travel companion to arrive.  Eventually, she made herself known to Aid, our guide for the tour, and I couldn’t have been more relieved to discover that it wasn’t Karen at all, but was actually a young woman who was visiting from Singapore.

Almost immediately, getting into a car with Aid and Liyana felt more like embarking on an adventurous road trip with friends than it did an organised tour.  There was a relaxed vibe among the three of us which made the long journey a breeze.  The atmosphere was so chilled that, in a sense, we could have been three components of a refrigerator assembled in a factory and working together for the first time.  Over a breakfast of uštipci (salty doughnuts served with cream cheese and ham), an hour or so into our drive, we dived into a deep conversation about marriage, and specifically why people such as myself and Liyana are better off out of it.  Aid was curious to know Liyana’s age.  He speculated that she must be around 29, which I immediately recognised as the typical male ruse of purposefully underestimating a female’s age in a thinly-veiled attempt at flattery.  Liyana made a counterproposal, which was to bet that she was the oldest person at the table.  I scoffed, finding that suggestion even more risible than Aid’s:  she clearly was the most fresh-faced of all of us.  In the end, almost predictably, Aid and I were both left looking foolish when Liyana revealed that she is 39 years old, several months older than I am and a few years beyond Aid.  Though I couldn’t help from feeling that the uštipci was probably going to take several years from all of us.

Travnik and Jajce was the tour that I had booked purely to fill a day in my itinerary; mostly because I liked the people at Meet Bosnia and wanted to give them my business. I didn’t know much of anything about the towns we were visiting, but it turns out that they are two of the most culturally significant places in the entire country. Once upon a time, Travnik was the capital of the Bosnian province of the Ottoman Empire. It is also the birthplace of the Yugoslav author Ivo Andric, who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature. There are several well-preserved buildings from the era, most impressive amongst them being the 15th-century medieval fortress which rests high above the town. From up there, we were afforded spectacular views of Travnik’s many mosques and its pair of 18th-century clock towers. Liyana and I later discovered that we had, unbeknownst to the other, captured each other in photographs we had taken from either end of the fortress. It’s the sort of thing that, if we were a couple, would make for a stomach-churning post on Instagram, but on this occasion was an amusing coincidence. I told Liyana that I wouldn’t make for a successful criminal getaway guy due to my yellow chinos making me stand out from a great distance, but she responded simply that the trousers suit me. As if I hadn’t already figured it out, it was at this point that I knew I liked Liyana better than Karen from the Mostar trip.

In Jajce, Aid took us to the enormous waterfall dominating the town’s centre.  TLC famously warned against it in their 1994 hit, but I found that in Bosnia and Herzegovina it is impossible not to go chasing waterfalls.  I could swear they are everywhere.  We walked down to the point where the river Pilva collides with the Vrbas river in the most tremendous racket, where many locals were soaking up the June sun in the water.  Liyana had come prepared, her solitary goal for the day being to take a swim in the water.  

Jajce is spectacular. The town has a castle, old fortified city walls, enormous mountains, and deep river valleys. Down the Pilva Lakes, Aid took us to the old watermills where during the Austro-Hungarian period the local farmers ground wheat into flour. The little collection of wooden, windowless huts stand over the gushing water, giving the impression that you are walking through a tiny village in a children’s storybook. Before I came to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I hadn’t given places like this a single thought; all of my excitement was for visiting the two largest cities, Sarajevo and Mostar. That almost made the trip to Travnik and Jajce like discovering some hidden gems, and now I can’t imagine visiting Bosnia and not seeing these places. Of course, it was all the better for having made some new friends along the way.

Aid, Liyana and I exchanged phone numbers when we arrived back in Sarajevo and vowed to keep in touch.  It turned out to be sooner than expected when I next heard from Liyana, but I guess not knowing anybody else in the country will do that.  She had been planning on travelling to Mostar on Wednesday morning but decided that she liked Sarajevo so much that she would stay an extra day, so she messaged later that evening and asked if I would like to do something the next day.  It is so rare for a woman to ever ask me to spend any amount of time in her company that I sat at the bar in Gastro Pub Vučko and messaged just about everyone in my phonebook to ask if I was going on a date.

We agreed that we could convene outside the Meet Bosnia agency where we first met at ten o’clock the following morning and walk out to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It was nice walking around a foreign city with a complete stranger, because nobody else knew that we weren’t together.  They were as oblivious as I usually am.  For all anybody could tell, we were an actual couple, Instagram and all, on our way to a hot date at the museum like any other pairing.  The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a vast complex situated on the infamous ‘Sniper Alley’ and across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn, which was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics and went on to become the headquarters for international reporters during the conflict in the nineties.  Probably the greatest draw of the museum is that it is home to the 600-year-old Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish manuscript that was smuggled out of Spain as thousands of Jews fled the Inquisition.  The book is so delicate that it can only be displayed to the public for an hour every Tuesday and fourth Saturday, making it nearly as difficult to see as me in the company of a woman.

We spent several hours strolling around the many exhibits in the museum, though we still didn’t cover nearly all of them.  Despite all of the artefacts of interest in the building, perhaps the most interesting sight of all was the American couple who were working their way around the place taking numerous photographs in spite of the many signs stating that photography is forbidden.  The woman was dressed in a long, elegant black gown which had a neckline that plunged deeper than a Bosnian waterfall.  Her outfit was so glamorous that it was as though she had been misinformed about how they were going to be spending their day.  Most of the photographs were of her striking poses next to the ancient second-century Roman gravestones and Iron Age tools.  It’s entirely possible that she was a model on assignment, cast to capture the stories of the encased butterflies, but it was difficult to see how an attractive blonde could make those any more enchanting.

After a long walk back to the old town, where we were on a mission to find a place that would print Liyana’s bus ticket to Dubrovnik for the next morning, we stopped for a doner kebab for lunch.  Liyana had arranged an afternoon coffee with a girl she had met on a walking tour, the sort of backup plan that it is sensible to make when you know you’re going to be spending time in my company.  We parted ways under the belief that we would never see each other again, but I returned from Srebrenica the following evening to a message from Liyana telling me that her bus had never turned up and she was in Sarajevo for another night.  I don’t know if going for dinner with me was much compensation for missing out on a trip to Croatia, but I think we both enjoyed having a dinner companion for a change.  If nothing else, the stray cat who wandered from table to table in the outdoor restaurant welcomed our offerings of veal.

Not for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel that religion was conspiring against my pursuit of romantic relations.  My natural inclination would ordinarily be to try and steer things towards a bar, where alcohol might dull a person’s senses enough to make me appear funny or maybe even attractive.  Liyana, however, was a practising Muslim, and so I was forced to rely on my God-given talents for conversation.  It put me at a real disadvantage.  Not that it really mattered, since Liyana was getting up early to make another attempt to get to Dubrovnik.  With the luck she seems to carry travelling, I said to her as we were leaving that I would probably see her again tomorrow.  She laughed for about as long as I have ever heard anyone laugh at something I have said.  Her laugh was my favourite thing about Liyana.  It sounded like a musical box, where you wind it up and it goes on and on and on.

I was still processing my tour to Srebrenica with Meet Bosnia when I met Liyana for dinner. The town wasn’t a name that meant anything to me before I started researching my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but as soon as I learned what happened there through books and documentaries I knew that it was important to go. All the books and films in the world can’t prepare a person for a site of mass genocidal killings, though. It’s impossible to comprehend the scale of what happened here on 11 July 1995, even when you can see 8,372 graves sprawling out across the land before your eyes.

At the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, which sits alongside the abandoned UN Base, I couldn’t pinpoint precisely what I was feeling.  The only way I can describe it is as being similar to the sense you have when you leave home and know that you have forgotten to do something, but you can’t think what it is.  Seeing things like the graffiti left on the walls by the UN’s Dutch soldiers who were tasked with protecting the Bosniaks in the so-called “safe area” was haunting.  The entire day left me experiencing a raw mix of sorrow and anger over the lack of action by the UN, who had promised air strikes against the Bosnian Serb aggressors on the morning of the 11th but never sent the planes.  It makes it all the more humbling that people in this country, who have suffered all of that pain and betrayal, are so friendly and welcoming.

Coming soon: Correct or connect (the final part)

Read more about Meet Bosnia’s excursion to Travnik and Jajce here:

Mostar and Medjugorje (part three)

Around 16 miles southwest of Mostar lies the town of Medjugorje, which until 24 June 1981 was considered little more than an insignificant village.  Even today, according to the most recent census, the town has a population of only 2,265.  Yet in the last forty years, thousands of hotel rooms have been constructed to help meet the demands of up to a million visitors annually.  Medjugorje is said to have the most overnight stays in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  All of this because on that day in 1981, six youths aged between ten and sixteen years old were walking in the hills, talking, herding sheep, collecting apples, and smoking when a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared before them.  Our Lady of Medjugorje, as the apparition came to be known, told some of the youngsters ten secrets that have yet to be revealed, while several of the seers claim to still receive apparitions to this day, often daily.  Subsequently, the town was officially recognised as a pilgrimage site by the Catholic Church in 2019.

I was recovering from my first experience drinking rakija when I woke up on Saturday morning to take my own trip to Medjugorje. Truthfully, I had never heard about the events of 1981 before my friends at Meet Bosnia suggested that I could spend a day at a vineyard in the region and I began reading about it. I was enraptured and stunned – who knew that Bosnia and Herzegovina produces wine? My room in the family home-cum-hostel was at the top of the stairs, while the private bathroom was situated in the hallway downstairs. The family lives in a separate building, so when I ventured down to wash in the morning, it felt as though I had the run of the place. Three doors were lined up one next to the other, with my key being for bathroom number two. Inside, there was everything a person could need in a bathroom: a shower, toilet, and wash hand basin; all in a space that is smaller than my bathroom at home, which until then is the smallest I have ever used.

I started brushing my teeth at the sink when I became aware of the sound of running water coming from the next private bathroom, not unlike the steady stream of the Kravice waterfall the day before.  It turns out that the rooms are separated by a thin layer of plasterboard, with a gap of around a foot between the top of the partition and the ceiling.  I froze, paralysed by the realisation that there was a person taking a shower on the other side of the wall from me.  My toothbrush was clenched between my jaws, blue paste foaming over my bottom lip.  From the next bathroom, I could hear excruciatingly loud gasps broken by the water, as though a man was being subjected to a round of water torture.  For some reason, he sounded Swedish to me, though I had nothing to go on but the sound of him gasping for air.  I don’t know why I felt compelled to stand motionless by the sink, toothbrush in mouth, until this other man had left his private bathroom, but for a while, it is the closest I have come to taking a shower with another person.

When I eventually felt comfortable enough to shower by myself, I was refreshed and reinvigorated, ready to make my pilgrimage to Medjugorje.  The driver from Meet Bosnia was due to collect me at nine o’clock, so I had time to go to a nearby pekara and play Russian Roulette with the baked goods.  I believe it was on this occasion that I got the chocolate filling.  Back at the hostel, I had been looking forward to enjoying my pastry with a cup of instant coffee, but I couldn’t figure out how to work the kettle.  It didn’t matter what I tried, the thing wouldn’t boil.  After all the complexities of trying to figure out the correct etiquette when drinking Bosnian coffee, this should have been a doddle.  Instead, the only steam was figurative and coming from my ears.  Still, I suppose it wasn’t the worst thing to have happened that morning. 

Mirza arrived exactly on schedule, though I was only aware of his presence when I heard him and the elderly woman from the family who runs the hostel engaged in an animated discussion in the garden.  Amidst their fluent Bosnian, the driver mentioned “42 Combie Street”, and it occurred that it would have been a heck of a coincidence if the street I lived on in Oban was also an address in Mostar.  I introduced myself to Mirza, and we began our journey to the holy pilgrimage town of Medjugorje.  He is an older man who has decided to spend his final working years before retirement as a tour guide.  We enjoyed a good conversation along the way, bonding mostly over subjects such as the best bars to visit in Sarajevo and football, which very nearly led to me offering an apology for the fact that my team, Celtic, had beaten his favourite club, FK Sarajevo, three times in the last two years.  What I felt most sorry about, however, was the fact that Mirza had left Sarajevo at 6.30am to come and pick me up.  He insisted that he didn’t mind the journey, but all I could think was that soon he would be watching me drink four glasses of wine at a vineyard and then having to deal with that for the rest of the afternoon.

I found Mirza to be a lovely and fascinating gentleman, even when I was forced to stop myself from laughing when he asked if I was aware that Sarajevo had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. He had a very particular policy whereby his car is the one place he refuses to smoke, which struck me as being unusual for a Bosnian since they smoke everywhere else. According to Mirza, most Bosnian people aren’t especially troubled by the cost of everyday essentials like bread, milk, or gas, whereas if anyone thought of increasing the price of cigarettes – which are widely available for 5BKM [£2.11] for a packet of 20 – “there would be riots.” I learned a lot about the importance of cigarettes in the Bosnian culture. Mirza said that they saved his life in the war; that he just couldn’t have gone through that without being able to smoke. Instead of being paid a monetary wage during the siege of Sarajevo, most people were given cigarettes for their work, which could then be traded for other goods. The first thing Mirza did whenever we left the car was to light a cigarette, and I could understand why.

When we arrived in Medjugorje just before ten o’clock, the sun was beating down on the little town. If God truly was looking over this place and sending the mother of Jesus to pass messages to its children, then he clearly wasn’t giving a fuck about my skin. Mirza invited me to take a wander on my own for a while, so I walked down what appeared to be the town’s main street. On either side of the road were tiny shops selling religious souvenirs. Next to “The Rosary Shop” was a store selling candy, and on the other side stood a place selling replica football strips bearing the names of players such as Lionel Messi or Karim Benzema. It goes to show that, for different people, salvation can be found in many places. Some seek spirituality in a church, others in a sweet jar, while some find it in their favourite football team. Though I’m sure that isn’t the point that was being made.

At the end of the road was the Church of Saint James the Greater, an impressive twin-towered Cathedral that, for some reason, had a clock on each tower.  The grounds were busy with worshippers who either funnelled inside for the service that was about to begin or posed for a selfie at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary in the garden.  My main purpose was neither, instead attracted by the fountain which was offering fresh water.  As I topped up my bottle under the tap, a voice whispered out from the loudspeakers on the side of the church building.  It was soft and American, maybe what you’d expect of a voice from above in a Hollywood movie, but not in real life in Bosnia.  The voice suggested that it is time for people to stop seeing Medjugorje as a pilgrimage, which seemed like an odd statement for a priest to be making to what I assumed was a full congregation inside the church, no different to a chef coming out and announcing to his restaurant that folk should no longer see dinner as a big meal.  The voice continued, “and somewhere to top up your tan.”  I peeled the polo shirt from my back, took a long gulp of cold water, and considered what it would feel like to have a tan that could be topped up, as opposed to spending my entire time in Bosnia a hot mess.

After a few minutes of reflection on the steps in front of the cathedral, I left to find Mirza, who was enjoying a cigarette in the shade of a coffee shop.  Even by eleven o’clock, the temperature was crawling into the mid-thirties, and I think even Mirza was struggling with it.  He asked if I was wanting to climb Apparition Hill to the site of the visitations from the Virgin Mary, which he reckoned would take around an hour to get up and back down again.  I could hardly even feign enthusiasm for the idea.  Given the option, I would probably have chosen to go back to the private bathroom in the hostel rather than climb a hill in thirty-degree heat.  “Are you sure?”  Mirza asked, probably wondering why someone would come all the way to a pilgrimage town without going on the actual pilgrimage.  “Can’t we just sit here and drink coffee?”  I whined.

Besides, we had an appointment at the vineyard, and while I have heard of water being turned into wine, I don’t believe there’s anything they can do with body sweat. I was surprised to see how vast the fields filled with grapes were in Herzegovina. To me, it felt as though we were driving through them for miles to reach Vinogradi Nuić, which was fairly remote from civilisation. The family endeavour began planting vines in 2004, and they have ambitious plans to expand their site with a full visitor centre and restaurant. The brothers took me around the facility, describing in tremendous detail the process of producing wine, from grape to glass, all within their philosophy of following nature and her laws without exploiting the soil. What struck me most was the pride they have in their work, although it was the same everywhere I went in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have never met people who have more pride in their country than the Bosnians have.

Finally, we were led back outside to the front of the building, where there was a table that was going to serve as our tasting station.  Mirza reached for his cigarettes, while I reached for my notebook, something that was effectively going to be my crutch as I looked to put on a front by making everybody else believe that I know what I’m doing when it comes to drinking wine.  The brothers brought out four of their favourite wines for me to enjoy a glass of with them, along with a plate of locally-produced sheep’s cheese.  With our table looking out across vines as far as the eyes could see, on the horizon was a group of mammoth hills, the other side of which was Croatia.  It is the most serene and exquisite setting I have ever gotten drunk before midday in, and I was keen to write about it all.

Žilavka:  White; he says that the wine has “floral notes” but I’m not sure that’s right since I don’t feel my hayfever complaining; easy drinking fruity flavour.

Pošip:  White; stronger taste; the kind of wine you would drink back home when you’re trying to convince yourself that it’s summer; Allegedly Melon [also my name for a ska band]

Blatina:  Red; just a big glass of elegant, juicy forest berries; 11.45 and I’m drunk.

Trnjak:  Red; the king of all wines; can’t tell if it’s from Mirza’s ashtray or if this stuff tastes like smoke; it’s a BBQ in my mouth; now I understand how those children could see the Virgin Mary.

I was too drunk to tell where Mirza took me after we left the vineyard, but as with so many places I saw in this country, there was a mesmerising waterfall along the way.  We ate at a nice wee restaurant by the lake, where Mirza recommended that we try the pljeskavica [Bosnian burger].  What we were served surprised even him.  The piece of meat was enormous; as big as the plate it was presented on.  Considering that we had just gorged ourselves on cheese at the vineyard, it was a real test of our endurance to make it through the burger.  I have rarely experienced a triumph like it.  The victorious lunch took its toll on us, however, and both Mirza and I were struggling to keep our eyes open during the journey back to Mostar; which was more troublesome for Mirza than it was for me since he was the one driving the car.

When I returned to the hostel in Mostar, the pljeskavica acting as a sponge for the wine in my stomach, a young Canadian traveller was going through the same check-in process I had the night before, though without the rakija.  She was talking to the wife of the family about how she and her friends were keen to go swimming in a waterfall, and my sun-kissed ears pricked up.  Finally, I was the Irishman from Sarajevo, able to pass on knowledge amassed through travelling.  I butted into the conversation to tell the Canadian about the Kravice waterfalls I had visited the day before.  She told me that she had heard about the spot but was concerned that it would be too busy for her on a weekend.  I assured her that when I was there on Friday afternoon it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy, and pulled the iPhone from my pocket to prove it to her.  She huddled over the screen as I scrolled through the photographs I had taken of the waterfall.  There was hardly a person to be seen in the pictures I captured.  The Canadian marvelled.  “Wow, there really aren’t many people there.”  I was forced to confess that while I didn’t consider the Kravice waterfalls to be so busy that the Canadian shouldn’t visit, my photographs didn’t paint an accurate picture since I was trying to avoid snapping semi-naked strangers.  Then I swiped a little too far into my reel, to the portrait Kenan had kindly offered to take of me standing by the impressive waterfall.  I quickly withdrew my phone and we both pretended that we had never seen the image of me posing awkwardly in my orange chinos.  As far as I know, the young woman never visited Kravice.

My plan for my final evening in Mostar was to take the free walking tour at six o’clock that was recommended by the hostel and then have some food and drinks around the old town, but there is a famous line by Rabbie Burns about the schemes of mice and men that often rears its head in my life. After a walk around the UNESCO World Heritage site, I was inevitably lured into a street cafe offering cheap Mostarsko on tap. I found it quite relaxing sitting by the side of a busy cobbled street in the old town and watching the world go by. Then a pasty guy in a straw hat sat at the table next to mine, and things changed. He asked the waitress if she had any alcoholic drinks suitable for a celiac. I believe they settled on a gin and tonic. A few minutes later, the waitress came back by our tables and stopped to ask me where I am from. She had obviously marked my accent out in her mind when she served me earlier, because when I told her that I am from Scotland, she turned to the gentleman at the next table and pointed out that he is from Ireland, and left us to it. It was like being a contestant on a terrible television dating show where prospective drinking buddies are paired up in accordance with how easily their accents can be understood. I guess it was kind of sweet of her to recognise that we were two guys sitting alone in a foreign country who are from the same part of the world, but still, I would have rathered that she had used her matchmaking talents to find me a Bosnian woman to talk to.

Nevertheless, I ended up missing the walking tour on account of drinking beer with my Irish date.  John Patrick had started the day in Dubrovnik, but decided to take a bus to Mostar because he was tired of how overcrowded Croatia was with tourists.  He had managed to find a hotel room for the night and was going to travel back in the morning, but in the meantime, he wanted to see as much of Mostar as he could.  In between discussions over the failed UK government, Brexit, Scottish independence, and Irish unification, John Patrick told me about his hobby of participating in Roman battle reenactments.  Apparently, the shows are especially popular in the Netherlands.  I asked him if he always plays the same character, but he told me that he likes to be flexible and perform roles from both sides of the dispute.  He purchased a new costume in 2020, just before the pandemic began, and hasn’t had the opportunity to wear it in public yet, but he was optimistic that the thirst for Roman battle reenactments would soon be reignited now that the world is gradually returning to normality.

I was told by John Patrick that the primary reason for him taking a holiday to Croatia was the news he had recently received which diagnosed him with an under-active thyroid and what he called “a fatty liver”, which he was at pains to point out isn’t caused by consuming too much alcohol.  He wanted to get away for a couple of weeks to take his mind off things.  It’s especially difficult to resent having your peaceful drink interrupted when you learn that the person you are talking to isn’t well.  The Irishman spoke of the difficulties he had been suffering in Croatia due to the heat.  His feet were swelling after walking for a while, he couldn’t sleep at night, and he was having to lather his skin in suncream.  “You’d know all about that,” he said.  What kind of line is that to use on your date?  His ambition for the next trip he takes is to invest in a pair of linen trousers he had seen on Amazon for £80.  Seemingly the linen shirts he was wearing on this holiday were doing a great job of cooling the upper half of his body, and next time the lower parts were going to be worthy of the same treatment.  

At one point, John Patrick opened up his backpack and showed me the traditional Bosnian Fez hat he had just bought from a stall near the Stari Most.  He told me that he was becoming concerned that he was bringing home so many souvenirs from his trip that he would have to go to the airport wearing some of his new t-shirts as well as the Fez hat.  To illustrate, he placed the cylindrical red felt headdress on top of his straw hat.  In the end, it was difficult to tell where the part of me that found the Irishman charming ended, and where the part that was drunk on Trnjak wine began.

I spent more than an hour in John Patrick’s company, which meant that I missed the six o’clock walking tour by a matter of minutes.  Instead, I took a stroll around some of the streets of Mostar and happened upon the Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995.  As far as Saturday nights go, this was one of the more harrowing ways I have spent mine.  However, it can never not be a valuable experience to learn about the ways other human beings have suffered.  Afterwards I stopped for some dinner, where I ordered dolma [stuffed peppers].  Having been in Bosnia for five nights by this point, I believe that I was yet to see a vegetable, and eating dolma seemed to be ample opportunity to rectify that.  Though in true Bosnian fashion, the peppers are of course stuffed with beef and rice.

By the Kriva ćuprija [crooked bridge], which was built in 1558 as a trial before the construction of the larger Stari Most, I found the Old Crew Gastro Pub, which had live music being performed outside on both nights I drank there.  Before visiting Mostar, I had never considered the tranquillity of drinking beer by 16th-century bridges, but there is a lot to be said for it.  Being from Scotland and feeling most comfortable at a bar, I evaded the system of table service by going inside and directly to the source.  There, the bar staff spoke entirely in Bosnian, except for the young woman whose job it seemingly was to wait for hapless tourists like me who she could translate for.  In my case, my grasp of the language could get me as far as to make it known that I wanted a beer, but then the barman would pose a question and the whole thing would break down.  “He’s asking if you would like a large beer,” the young woman translated after a few moments of awkward silence.

This same situation came up every time I went into the bar, like a really bad comedy sketch, so on Saturday night, I asked the barmaid if she could teach me the Bosnian word for large.  She didn’t understand what I was saying and initially pointed to the 0.5L marking on the side of the glass.  Honestly, it was like talking to my six-year-old niece, though I can only imagine how much more arduous it was for the poor woman.  I shook my head, apologised, and said with my slowest, most drunken slur:  “If I say large, you say…?”  That was enough to bring us onto the same page, though I fear that by the end of the night, I had forgotten what she taught me.  Part of the reason for that was the revelation when I returned for another large draft beer that I had been greeting people the wrong way since I arrived in Bosnia.  I had led with “dobar dan” before looking to impress the barmaid with my veliko [large] vocabulary, but she stopped me dead in my tracks.  “Veče,” she asserted.  I assumed that I had misinterpreted her previous lesson and corrected myself.  “Sorry, veče pivo.”

“No,” the barmaid came back. “Dobar dan is ‘good afternoon’, you should say dobro veče in the evening.” I felt certain that I was using an informal hello or hey, but that seemingly wasn’t the case. I tried to defuse my embarrassment with a joke. “Can I at least have the evening beer?” The young translator went about pouring my final large beer of the night when I asked her if all of this meant that I had been looking like an idiot walking around Sarajevo since Tuesday, wishing people a good afternoon at all hours of the day. If her smile could have said a thousand words, well, I suppose I couldn’t be sure what any of them meant.

There were no such difficulties with language when I passed the time before my late afternoon train back to Sarajevo at Craft Beer Garden imaimože.  The pub sells a vast range of local craft beers, many of them brewed in-house, while the food is all organically grown in the chef’s garden.  This was one place where you could be sure that there would be no mince stuffed inside your vegetables.  Their pale ale was the most refreshing beer I drank on my trip, and it needed to be on another hot day in Herzegovina.  The barman must have recognised my thirst, because he brought a schooner to my table on the pavement and invited me to taste the new beer he had been working on.  “It’s the same as the one you are drinking,” he said as I brought the glass to my mouth, “only I have added a vegetable to the brewing process.”  It is perhaps the first time I have hesitated from taking a mouthful of beer.  If all I could taste from a glass of wine was the allegation of melon, what chance did I have identifying the flavour of a vegetable from a gulp of beer?  As far as guessing games go, this was one of the most underwhelming I have taken part in.  I wasn’t getting anything from it after the initial flavour disappeared.  Eventually, the barman put me out of my misery – if drinking cucumber beer can ever be described as being put out of your misery.  I didn’t buy a full pint of it.

The train journey between Mostar and Sarajevo is regularly listed among the most beautiful in the world, not that I saw much of it.  A weekend of sun, wine tasting, and beer had taken it out of me, and I slept through much of the two-hour ride.  By the time I arrived back in Sarajevo, it was early in the evening, and at least now I could say it.  Although I missed the scenery from my seat, the few hours of sleep did me some good.  I still had much to experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Coming soon:  Sarajevo, Travnik, Jajce, and Srebrenica (part four)

Mostar (part two)

My time in Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t entirely spent eating cevapi, drinking the local beer and inhaling a lifetime’s supply of second-hand smoke, even if at times it seemed that way.  Sarajevo has many museums and sights of cultural significance to explore when one is riding the buzz from a pot of Bosnian coffee or seeking shade from the rising temperatures on an afternoon.  For the extreme thrillseekers, perhaps those who are visiting the area during the winter months for the thriving ski opportunities on the Olympic mountains, a walk up the city’s many steep hills can provide as much adrenaline as any Jason Statham movie.  While Sarajevo’s heart beats in Baščaršija, its life is in the hills, where ironically thousands of its people are buried.  The slopes are steep, narrow, and winding; built primarily for horses back in the days when popular modes of transport had four legs rather than four wheels.  It seems miraculous that there aren’t more accidents the way cars whizz up and down the single-track inclines.  Somehow the drivers of both vehicles are able to slam on the breaks right before the moment of impact, as though there is a sixth sense to driving in Sarajevo.  Often just watching the vehicles is as nerve-rattling as being in one.

While there are museums catering for all manner of interests, such as the Olympic Museum which recounts the 1984 Winter Olympics and was recently reopened after being destroyed by the Bosnian Serb aggressors; Muzej Sarajeva, dedicated to the events surrounding the outbreak of the First World War and found on the street corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated; the Sevdah Art House for an insight into sevdalinka [traditional urban love songs] and their famous singers, I spent much of my time in the museums which dealt with the impact of the 1992-1995 war.  These places are crucial to visit if you wish a better understanding of the country Bosnia is today.  If buildings could talk, many of them in Sarajevo would also weep from the horrors they have suffered, but places such as the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide can at least tell their stories for them.

I visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide on my second morning in Sarajevo. There weren’t many people inside when I arrived, and initially, I wondered if the name was holding it back. You could see why tourists might prefer to eat gelato and listen to the performers on the street nearby. The exhibits and stories within the space are stomach-churning. What the museum does effectively is not to overwhelm the visitor with numbers and figures, but rather it presents written stories from victims of the war alongside personal belongings that have either been donated by survivors of the genocide or recovered from mass graves. Many of the accounts are devastating, the sort of thing most minds couldn’t possibly imagine, and from the next room where a film was being screened, I could hear a woman sob. I spent between two and three hours in the museum, but even that doesn’t begin to answer how people can inflict some of these acts on another human. It is simultaneously the best museum I have ever visited and also the most terrible.

Sarajevo Brewery

If there is one thing that could lift my spirits after reading about the horrors of ethnic cleansing, I felt certain that it would be a visit to the Sarajevo Brewery.  It was never my intention to go to the brewery, but after Edin told our group on the free walking tour the previous day about how it was the only source of water for many Sarajevans during the siege, and since I wasn’t really in the mood for anything else following my visit to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, I decided to go across the bridge and walk towards the brewery’s distinctive red brick chimney.  I was hoping that there might have been a big tour around the historic facility showing groups of visitors how Sarajevsko lager is produced, but it turns out that they don’t offer such a thing, and the bar and restaurant that used to operate next door has been closed since the pandemic.  As it goes, the museum was no bigger than my living room – where people can at least watch beer being consumed – and it cost 10BKM [approximately £5] to get in.  It must have taken me ten minutes to look around the exhibits, which were comprised mostly of newspaper cuttings and empty bottles, but I stayed for around twenty-five since I had paid for it and was feeling awkward about leaving when I was the only person there.  During the entire duration of my visit, I could hear the young woman at the ticket desk eating potato chips and watching what sounded like a Bosnian sitcom on her phone.  At times, I couldn’t focus on the exhibits for wondering what flavour the crisps were.  It was surreal, but I suppose at least one of us was getting something from our afternoon there.

My intention was to enjoy a relatively relaxed evening on Thursday since I was due to take a trip to Mostar at eight o’clock the following morning with Meet Bosnia, but a sorrowful morning spent at the war crimes museum and an underwhelming afternoon in the Sarajevsko Brewery left me craving more.  In an effort to fill the void, I tried Bosnia’s other national dish, burek, for the first time.  It is simply thin filo pastry filled with meat.  In other Balkan countries, as well as in Turkey, burek refers generally to the pie and you would ask for it with whichever filling you desire, but a burek in Bosnia is specifically a meat pie, while other varieties such as cheese, potato, spinach, or pumpkin have their own names.  The taste reminded me of a Scottish bridie but without the onions.  I liked it well enough, though it has nothing on the cevapi.  As it is prone to do, beer follows beef, and soon enough I found myself drinking at the appropriately named Dilema Pub. This establishment presumably thought very carefully about whether or not to keep the additional letter ‘m’ from the English translation.  

As the name above the door implied, I was tempted by the bar’s cheap offerings, but at the same time mindful of the long journey ahead of me, and I returned to my accommodation at Hostel Franz Ferdinand before 11 pm. There, I found an Irishman and German-Bosnian woman drinking cans of beer in the communal area, and I remembered how life is often an ongoing dilemma. I continued on to my room, where I ditched my backpack and dried the river of sweat from my forehead, before returning to the lounge and asking if anyone had a Sarajevsko they could spare. The three of us sat until the small hours putting the world to rights. The Irishman was older than us, probably in his late forties or early fifties and travelling the region by bicycle, while the German-Bosnian was younger and was hoping to find the best way of confronting her strict Bosnian-Serb parents with the details of genocide she had learned while in Sarajevo; information they have previously denied. More than anything, I marvelled listening to two strangers who had only met in the hostel the day before yet seemed like good friends talk about their experiences travelling. In particular, the Irishman, whose head was as smooth as the taste of a Sarajevsko lager, was a seasoned traveller. It always seemed ridiculous to me the way that people can seemingly afford to spend their life going from country to country, often waking up one morning in Bosnia and deciding that they will take a bus to Montenegro on the spur of the moment, but if you are able to do it, I can’t think of a good reason why anyone wouldn’t travel. I felt quite sheepish when the Irishman segued from one of his anecdotes to ask where I had been before arriving in Sarajevo and the best I could come up with was that I had once been to a gig in Milton Keynes, had most recently taken a bus tour of Belfast, and visited New York City a couple of times. I confessed that I didn’t know if I could ever do the professional traveller thing like he does, but I already knew after three days in Sarajevo that my life had changed, I just wasn’t yet sure how.

Despite the late night, I woke up fresh for my journey to Mostar, where I had arranged to spend the weekend.  Our tour group for the day was an eclectic mix comprised of an older Norwegian couple, some fresh-faced Austrians who came along with an elderly Bosnian woman they seemed to know, a Spanish woman who now lives in the United States, along with our fearless and stylish driver and guide Kenan, who was surely the rock star tour guide of Meet Bosnia.  As the drive into Herzegovina unfolded, it was becoming obvious that the Spaniard is the first person I have met who has perfectly personified the “Karen” social media meme made popular during the Covid lockdown.  You could tell she was going to be trouble from the moment the tour left the agency and Kenan had to drive all the way up into the steep hills to find her rented accommodation, which must have been on the narrowest street in Eastern Europe.  It’s not that she didn’t think to come down to meet the eight-seater car at a more convenient spot, but rather that when she got inside the large vehicle she spent ten minutes complaining about how awkward it is staying in an apartment up there since the buses and even some taxis don’t come that far into the hills.  I could only think that it was similar to a remarkably successful psychic who has a powerful premonition about ending up with a horribly disfigured arm but goes ahead with the “advanced chainsaw operation for novices” class nonetheless.

Karen had a contrary statement about everything. When we stopped in Jablanica for some brunch, where they are famed for making roasted lamb sandwiches, she insisted that she didn’t feel like eating because she’d enjoyed a large breakfast, but was unhappy that we wouldn’t have another opportunity for food until the early evening. Kenan suggested that she could order a sandwich to have wrapped for later in the day, but she didn’t like that option either. The guide went to great lengths to explain how we were driving around the outskirts of Mostar on our way to visit some other small towns and would return to the city as our final stop. After all of this, Karen piped up and asked, “why do people visit Mostar? It looks boring.” It was the equivalent of joining a book club and turning up to the meeting to discuss Moby Dick and all you have to say is, “why do people read this book? The cover looks boring.”

Kravice waterfall

It was the same everywhere we went.  In Kravice, where they have one of the largest waterfalls in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and surely the most impressive, Karen refused to pay the entrance to see the natural wonder up close because she had already been to the Niagara Falls.  When we arrived in Mostar, we had the incredible fortune of getting onto the shore just as one of the professional jumpers was preparing to dive from the rebuilt 16th Century Ottoman Stari Most [Old Bridge] into the Nerveta river 20 metres below.  The leap requires a great deal of training from a young age, and before each one, a couple of fellow divers walk between the crowds gathering on the bridge and below seeking donations to make the risk worthwhile.  They won’t make the jump until they have earned enough money.  Most people put their hands in their pockets seeking spare change, but not Karen.  She had already seen people make a much more dangerous dive from a bridge in Mexico.  Honestly, I don’t know how Kenan put up with it.  His patience was admirable when it would surely have been easier to crash down on her like a cascading waterfall.  The best of it is that, since we were the only two solo travellers in the group, Karen spent a lot of her time talking to me.  I mean, Karen clearly wasn’t a bad person and she was probably just misunderstood, but there were times during the day when I would have rathered be stood next to the woman from the departure gate at Luton Airport.

Aside from Karen, our drive to Mostar was spectacular. While I had been struggling with the temperatures which were in the mid-to-high twenties in Sarajevo, you could immediately feel a change when we moved into Herzegovina. The mercury climbed at least another six degrees. It is said that in some parts of the region there are as few as 40 days of rain in the year. Even in a comfortable, air-conditioned car, I was beginning to worry that factor 50 wasn’t going to be enough to soothe my vulnerable Scottish skin. Some of the water in the rivers we saw along the way were so blue that it appeared green. I’ve never seen a colour like it, not even on the faces of passengers travelling in a car through Sarajevo’s hills.

Old Stone Bridge, Konjic

It often seems that every town in this country has its own beautiful bridge, and one of my favourites was in Konjic.  It isn’t as immediately striking or famous as the old bridge in Mostar, but it rests beneath a postcard backdrop – or I suppose, for the internet generation, an Instagrammable setting.  Like so many old structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has recently been rebuilt after standing for centuries until being destroyed by the war, though in the case of Konjic’s Old Stone Bridge, it was brought down by retreating Nazi occupiers at the end of the Second World War.  In Počitelj, we were taken to an imposing Ottoman-era fortress village, while in Blagaj at the spring of the river Buna, Kenan showed us the historical Tekke [Dervish monastery] built around 1520 at the foot of a mighty cliff.  It’s the kind of thing that can really make a person’s jaw detach from the rest of their face, and all I could think was how much I wanted to tell the Irishman from the hostel about how I had finally seen something in the world, but I knew that he would be halfway to Montenegro or Albania by then.

After a pleasant dinner with the rest of the group in Mostar, we parted ways as they drove back to Sarajevo while I went in search of the Downtown Hostel, where I would be staying for a couple of nights.  It wasn’t very far at all from the city’s old town, although when I arrived, I wasn’t immediately confident that I’d gone to the right place.  Upon opening the outer door, I walked into what appeared to be the garden of a family home.  Sitting at the table by the porch was a couple not much older than I am, alongside another man, an elderly woman and a young toddler who was rampaging around the place.  They were all smoking cigarettes and drinking Sarajevsko lager and grape rakija.  I stopped in my tracks, convinced that I must have made a mistake.  My pigeon Bosnian could barely flap out of my mouth to say hello, but the wife recognised from my enormous backpack that I had arrived to check in.  As was so often the case during my time in Bosnia, my “dober dan” elicited a string of incomprehensible words in return.  I imagine that my face took on the same kind of blank expression that Karen’s had earlier in the day when she was staring at the Kravice waterfall and thinking of the Niagara Falls.

I held up my hands and confessed that I had only really learned four essential words of Bosnian ahead of my trip – those for hello, please, thank you, and beer.  It was my favourite joke to use once I was confident that people could grasp my Scottish brogue.  The woman laughed and called back outside to her husband.  “This guy says he only knows four Bosnian words,” she said as she marched me back to the table.  She encouraged me to repeat what I had told her, and the entire table was soon in uproar.  Her husband, who was sitting with his cousin, pulled a can of Sarajevsko lager from the plastic ring and asked me if I would like to have a drink.  I told him that I wouldn’t say no, “mostly because I don’t know what your word for no is.”

Before I had even been shown to my room in the hostel, which essentially seemed to be a family home that had been partially converted into accommodation for travellers, I was sitting at the table by the porch with the entire family, drinking a can of beer and being poured a measure of grape rakija, which was apparently homemade.  The two cousins were fantastically welcoming, and it didn’t take long for me to feel as though I was drinking amongst friends at home.  They bantered back and forth about a story that was obviously a favourite of theirs, where the husband of the household had bought a wood-burning stove from his cousin and installed it in the smallest room of his home.  The trouble is that the stove was so large that having it on for even just a few minutes made the room unbearably hot.  After a while, the husband just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to sell the stove, much to his cousin’s amusement.  “He’s the only person in Bosnia who has ever complained about having too much heat,” he laughed.

They bickered over the details of the story, and the husband felt that he was being hard done to by his cousin’s recollection of events. His cousin argued that the way he tells it makes it funnier and more memorable. I could see both sides of the dispute. I had sympathy with the husband since he was clearly me in Aulay’s on a Friday night; but at the same time, every funny anecdote needs a sucker who does something stupid, whether it’s buying a wood-burning stove that is much too big for your home, or spending 10BKM to look at a collection of empty beer bottles.

Stari Most

I just loved watching the family dynamic and being invited to be a part of it.  I no longer felt like I was on holiday; this was everything the folks in the hostel in Sarajevo were talking about.  The husband equalled the point-scoring when he reminded his cousin that he had been born in Serbia, while the cousin was only Bosnian-Serb.  I was curious to know how people in Mostar feel about their compatriots in Sarajevo, explaining the way that there is a rivalry between those living in Scotland’s two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I was told, simply, that “in a thousand years’ time, people in Sarajevo will still be telling everybody else about the 1984 Winter Olympics.”

With a bellyful of rakija, I finally checked into my modest room and headed back out into the old town of Mostar.  Down by the Stari Most where I had earlier watched a man plummet straight into the river, a small stand was selling Mostarsko Pivo [beer] on draft.  It seemed the ideal spot for me to unpack the first few hours of my Herzegovina experience.  A local radio station pumped hit songs from the eighties into the darkening June sky:  Is This Love; Total Eclipse of the Heart; Moonlight Shadow.  Couples sat on the rocks next to the unflinching Nerveta River drinking bottles of wine.  Groups of teenage girls laughed from striped deck chairs.  Usually, my Friday nights are spent standing by the ice box in Aulay’s, getting banter from Amanda, trying to catch Sammy’s eye, and putting up with the Plant Doctor’s terrible jokes.  But on this occasion, I was drinking beer while looking at a UNESCO World Heritage site.  If Sarajevo was life in the fast lane, then this was very much living in the slow lane.  

Coming soon: Mostar and Medjugorje (part three)

Click the above link to learn more about Meet Bosnia’s tour to Mostar.

Sarajevo (part one)

I was only meant to stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina for two or three nights. Late in 2019, I began toying with the notion of travelling through the Balkans by train; I would spend a couple of nights in Ljubljana, move on to Zagreb and Split in Croatia before heading for Sarajevo, and ultimately to Belgrade, Serbia – which for a while was the place I most wanted to visit. The entire trip was mapped out in my head, and just as I was readying myself to book it at the beginning of 2020, a large number of people in China developed a cough for undetermined reasons, and the world stood still for the better part of two years. Since the bars and pretty much everything else was closed, I had nothing better to do with my time than to watch YouTube travel vlogs and consume every article conceivable on the adventure I was forced to postpone. The more I watched and read, the clearer it was becoming that Bosnia would demand more of my attention.

For the last few months, I have been met with quizzical expressions whenever I have told someone about my intention to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina for eleven days, as if either to ask why I would want to go there or where the country even is.  It is a part of the world that was torn apart by war between the years of 1992 and 1995, after all, and until recently all I knew about Sarajevo was from hearing the besieged city referenced in television news reports from my childhood.  I have a vague recollection that we may also have put together food parcels or mentioned the Bosnian people in our prayers at St. Columba’s primary school.  If I was being truthful, I would admit to people that I felt a little anxious about making the trip, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Depending on where you look, things in Bosnia are fairly fragile, and it was only recently that a new law was passed that banned the practice of denying the acts of genocide perpetrated by the Serbian army during the war, a move that ruffled the feathers of the secessionist Bosnian Serbs in Republic Srpska.  Even on the day I left Oban for an overnight stay in London before my flight, I was checking online to ensure that nothing had changed.  But, deep down, after almost two years of isolation and restrictions, I’m not sure that anything would have stopped me from getting on that plane.  Life can’t always be black and white, and if you don’t live in the grey, you will never know what colours are out there. 

Whilst sitting in Luton airport at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning,  I was asking myself why anybody would want to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  I had been there since at least 5.45 and was feeling the most tired I had ever been.  The line in the security hall was like a game of snake that lasts for infinity; the same as when you pick up your phone and decide to play one game before bed and you’re still there an hour later trying to beat your score – it kept going and going.  In a welcome change, I passed through the scanner without a hitch.  Of course, that had to happen when I didn’t have my brother and sister there capturing it all on camera.

The airport, as anybody knows, is where time goes to die. I was left with almost two hours to wait until boarding for my flight to Sarajevo commenced; it would have been as well being two days. In that time, I browsed the books in three different WH Smith outlets – they were all the same, and none of them stocked the new release I was hoping to find – shopped for aftershave, and ate the worst English breakfast a person has ever encountered. I believe it had the biggest mushroom they could find, planted right in the middle of the plate, while the orange juice was almost the same temperature as the coffee, which wasn’t a compliment for either of them. When the gate number for the flight was finally revealed on the departure board in the manner of the answer to a piece of trivia in a television game show, there turned out to be a reasonably lengthy delay before we were allowed to board. Naturally, I was next in line to the person who was taking this worse than anybody. She couldn’t understand why the airport would announce the departure gate in a way which makes passengers believe they have to drop everything and get there immediately, only to keep us all waiting in a stuffy narrow corridor for what felt like at least as long as a game of snake. It was difficult not to agree with the woman’s point, but she complained about it so much that I couldn’t have any sympathy for her. In fact, I was secretly hoping that we would be delayed a little while longer just to spite her. Eventually, the doors opened and we were led towards the aircraft, and I felt a strange mix of excitement and disappointment.

Much of my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was organised with the help of the Meet Bosnia tour agency, which I had found during one of my many research rabbit holes.  They arranged for one of their drivers to meet me at the airport since public transport is still quite sparse in the country.  It was a nice feeling being picked up by an older gentleman holding an A4 piece of paper with my name typed in bold letters across it, just like in the movies.  I greeted him with one of the four Bosnian phrases I had been able to learn before arriving – “dobar dan” for hello – and he responded with a string of incoherent words.  I looked at him with the same expression I expect I used on the mushroom a few hours earlier, and the driver spoke once more:  “I was asking if you speak Bosnian.”

It is difficult to put into words my first impressions of Sarajevo. On the car ride in from the airport, there is immediately a stirring juxtaposition of brand new buildings standing alongside those which are still scarred with bullet holes, if they are standing at all. A sign welcomes you to Sarajevo: “a city under siege for 1425 days.” Then you catch sight of the city itself, emerging like a jewel which is cradled in the bosom of the four Olympic mountains that snuggle Bosnia’s capital. There are red-tiled rooftops as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the innumerable chalk-white gravestones that line the hills. Thick plumes of cigarette smoke cling to every corner. In the Baščaršija [Market Square], the city’s heart beats. There are majestic sights in every direction the head swivels: mosques, synagogues, orthodox churches, and cathedrals live within 200 metres of one another – peacefully until 1992. There are street merchants, people playing music, and a sign advertising draft Sarajevsko beer for the equivalent of £1.34. All of a sudden, the sound of modern techno music which is bouncing across the cobblestones from a nearby coffee shop is drowned out by the beautiful Muslim call to prayer. In the garden of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the city’s largest, it is an oasis of calm away from the thriving streets outside, where the only sound is birdsong and the constant running of fresh water from the spring. Stray cats are often seen sunbathing here on the wall. Pigeons dominate the square around the Baščaršija’s centrepiece, showing no fear – and why would they when tourists line up to buy boxes of seeds to scatter across the ground? One woman pours the food into her palms and holds out her arms. Soon she is cloaked in pigeons, resembling the heroic old lady found in Central Park in Home Alone 2.

Along the Miljacka River is the impressive City Hall, which was originally constructed in 1894 when Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In time the hall was handed over to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, until Serbian shelling in 1992 caused the destruction of the library and the burning of more than a million books.  The building was restored to its original design in 2014 and is now a national monument, and it’s easy to see why.  It is a beautiful sight.  A walk further beyond the City Hall took me to the Latin Bridge, which is infamously the location where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on 28 June 1914.  Exactly one month later, the First World War began, sparked by the killing.  Almost 90 years after that, the indie Scottish band Franz Ferdinand released their hit song Take Me Out, which was the cause of countless spillages of Jack Daniel’s on the dancefloor in O’Donnell’s Bar when the chorus kicked in.  It was quite the thing to be standing on that very same bridge 18 years on from those nights.

After a few hours of drinking in the sights of the Old Town and fending off the heat with my first pint of £1.34 (3 BKM) Sarejevsko, which is the locally brewed pilsner lager, I ventured to Gastro Pub Vučko – Vučko being the cartoon wolf who served as the mascot when Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.  The bar specialises in craft beer, and their house offering, Vučko Red, tasted similar to one of my favourite Brewdog beers, 5AM Saint, which was one of my favourite cultural discoveries of the day.  Sitting at the bar was a surreal experience, and not only because I was the only person who wasn’t taking advantage of the table service.  It was like being back in a pub in Scotland on 25 March 2006; the day before the national ban on smoking indoors came into effect.  Everyone in Bosnia smokes like it’s punctuation.  As soon as a sentence finishes another cigarette is lit.  This all still happens indoors, which meant that by the time I arrived back at my hostel five hours later, my clothes were reeking of tobacco.  If I could never wear that shirt again from the sweat I had soaked into it earlier in the day, I definitely couldn’t now.

The smoking didn’t bother me, though. Really, it was just the opposite of being at home where anyone who wants to smoke has to go outside; whereas in Bosnia if I am craving a fix of fresh air it is me who needs to step outside. It is around eight years since I last had a cigarette, but it was nice to feel as if I had inhaled an entire packet without having to do any of the hard work. My real problem was with language. The smoking barmaid was friendly and had a very decent grasp of English – much better than her colleagues, certainly. She smiled when, as I ordered my third or fourth Vučko Red, I attempted to add the word “molim” (please) to my infant vocabulary, even after I had to ask her if I was using it correctly. Indeed, so happy was she with my introduction of molim to our rudimentary interaction that a few minutes later a second beer appeared next to the one I had just bought. Of course, it was probably her way of reeling a fish in from the end of the line, knowing that I couldn’t possibly not buy another drink after receiving one for free, but it felt nice all the same. All I could imagine was the scene in Aulay’s if the bar staff could smoke behind the bar whenever they liked, poured themselves a shot on a whim and handed out free beer to any stranger simply for saying please.

My episode with the Bosnian language came before I received a free pint of Vučko.  Although the Smoking Barmaid was very pleasant and understanding, I felt reluctant to test her patience when it came to ordering food.  The menu in front of me was printed entirely in Bosnian, which is to be expected when a person is in Bosnia.  I had already achieved my goal of trying Ćevapi earlier in the day, so I wasn’t too concerned about eating anything ‘local’, I just wanted some pub food to eat with my beer.  I scanned the pages of the menu looking for familiar words, though other than the subheadings such as burger, chicken, pasta, and pizza, it was difficult to make head or tail of it.  Faced with such a daunting dilemma, the most simple option to my mind seemed to be to go with the pepperoni pizza.  You know what you’re getting with a pepperoni pizza.  There can be no surprises.  I felt pretty good about my decision, and when I saw the enormous wooden board arrive sometime later with a pizza the size of a pillow, my mouth was beginning to water the way every other part of my body had been in the afternoon sun.  Then I saw them, scattered all over the dish in the most indiscriminate fashion possible.  Mushrooms.  Tiny little pieces of the things; everywhere.  I didn’t know what I could do.  I baulked just looking at the atrocity.  It was right up there with the biggest blunders I have ever made, but I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault.  There was a “fungi” pizza listed on the menu, after all.  Surely that’s where all the mushrooms would go?  Ultimately I had no choice but to eat the pepperoni with mushroom pizza, lest I look like an idiot in front of the Smoking Barmaid.  She already knew that I didn’t have a clue how to speak Bosnian, of course, but I had gone to such great lengths perusing the menu that I couldn’t possibly back out.

The mushroom incident was still fresh in my conscience when I went to the Meet Bosnia agency the next day for the first of the tours I had booked through them.  During the period of planning my trip, and the anxiety which followed the Russian assault on Ukraine, the people from Meet Bosnia were extremely helpful and reassuring.  It would be impossible for me to go overboard with my praise of Sejla, who helped prepare my itinerary in the months leading to my journey, and Medina, who looked after me in the weeks before I arrived and kept in touch with me while I was in the country.  They made what could have been – and at times was – a daunting trip remarkably comfortable.  I spent the morning learning the phrase “drago mi je” (nice to meet you), reciting it in my head as I walked to the mosque to top up my bottle with fresh water.  It seemed the least I could do after all the help they had offered me.  Somehow, implausibly, everyone at Meet Bosnia was even more beautiful in person, and I melted (though unfortunately, Sejla had left her job before I arrived in the country.)  Medina asked me whether I would like to sit and wait in the office for 15 minutes until the driver who was taking us on our tour out to the Tunnel of Hope arrived or if I would prefer to go for a walk.  I told her that since I am Scottish and already struggling with the sunshine I would take advantage of the cool space while I could, however, she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.  But then, why would a young Bosnian woman know about the stereotype surrounding Scottish people with our milky sun-averse skin?  How could she possibly have known that by two o’clock I had already topped up my Factor 50?

I am learning new things each time I walk around Sarajevo.  For example, the Clock Tower in Baščaršija is the only public clock in the world that shows lunar time in line with the Muslim Maghrib prayer, which is said at sunset and marks the beginning of a new day.  It needs to be reset manually.  The city had Europe’s first tram system, on account of the Austro-Hungarian rulers using Sarajevo as a trial site for the new transport network before introducing it to cities such as Vienna and Budapest.  All around the streets, it is difficult not to notice the blood-red craters which mark the pavements.  These are Sarajevo Roses, seen on the spots where a mortar shell has exploded and killed at least three people.  There was an average of 330 mortar strikes launched on Sarajevo every day of the siege, and the way the bombs fell on the ground is said to resemble a rose.  After the war ended, the concrete scars were filled with red resin to leave a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives at that particular place.  There are approximately 200 roses around the city.  As well as all of that, legend has it that whoever drinks water from the Sebilj [historical fountain] in Baščaršija will be destined to return to Sarajevo.  It’s one of those folk stories that sounds really silly when you hear it as an outsider, but you can’t help yourself from wishing it to be true.

One of the routines I very quickly established after arriving in Sarajevo was to make an early morning trip to the Pekara (bakery) to purchase a couple of pieces of bread to take and eat with a Bosnian coffee at a cafe in Baščaršija. I never thought that coffee was something I would need to be taught how to drink, but on one of my tours with Meet Bosnia I was forced to ask the guide to demonstrate the proper technique for drinking the stuff. When you order Bosanska Kafa, you are brought a copper tray that has the thick, dark coffee in the ibrik (a little pot), alongside a tiny mug and another pot which contains a handful of sugar cubes and sometimes a Turkish delight. It isn’t immediately obvious how one is supposed to consume the beverage. I had spent many minutes researching the various techniques before I left for Bosnia and learned that people have different ways of drinking their coffee. Some folk put a piece of sugar in the mug and pour the coffee over it; others dunk a cube into the coffee and bite it; some hold a small bit of sugar underneath their tongue as they take a mouthful of kafa. It’s all to take away from the bitterness of the beverage. I think I tried them all before deciding that I didn’t enjoy consuming whole cubes of sugar with my breakfast.

My pigeon Bosnian was making the trip to the Pekara a real game of Russian Roulette.  I don’t have the ability to read the small ingredient cards in front of each item, and whereas in most bars or restaurants you can usually find at least one person who has really good English, it seems to be a condition of employment in the bakery that the staff only speak the local language.  Honestly, I reckon the women behind the counter in these places could get anyone to confess to a crime they haven’t committed with just a glance.  Each morning I go in there, I just decide what looks good in the moment and point at it, hoping for the best.   As a result, I have eaten some salty pretzel-like bread; pastry filled with chocolate, apple, and even tuna.  Everything I have eaten from a Pekara has been tasty, but you are always left with the feeling that one of these days the gamble could go horribly wrong, like ending up with mushrooms on a pepperoni pizza.

Finding the best bread to eat for breakfast was surely not very high up on the list of priorities for the citizens of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, if it ever has been. When Armin hosted our ‘Fall of Yugoslavia’ tour, it quickly became clear how little a piece of bread can mean, even one that has been stuffed full with tuna. Our first stop was at the city’s former maternity hospital, which had been deliberately targetted and destroyed by the Bosnian Serb army during the war, when it was still a functioning facility, in an act that was termed “the battle of the babies.” I don’t know that there’s anything more chilling than seeing an old maternity hospital reduced to an abandoned, bullet hole-ridden wreck. In Oban, ours has become a boutique hotel, but even £295 per night for a sea view in Greystones seems like something you can stomach in comparison.

Following the tour that took us high up into the Trebević Mountain, where the disused bobsleigh track from the 1984 Winter Olympic Games lies decorated with graffiti, as well as out to the Tunnel of Hope – the tunnel dug underneath the airport that was the only means which allowed goods and weapons to be brought into Sarajevo during the almost four-year siege, and where I learned the benefits of wearing a safety helmet – I got talking to the man who happened to be the Aulay of Valter 071 pub, though in this case he was named Vladimir, or Vlad to his friends.  You wouldn’t have known that he was the owner of the bar from the way he was sitting outside drinking beer and chain-smoking with his friend, but I suppose that’s just what happens in Sarajevo.  He was surprised when I told him that I was visiting Sarajevo for 11 days.  “Why?  Nobody comes here for more than two or three days.”

Early in our interaction, Vlad mentioned that he fought in the war, which surprised me a little since he didn’t look any older than I am.  “I picked up a rifle for the first time aged 15,” he told me between drags on his cigarette.  It turns out that his father was fairly high up in the newly-formed Bosnian army when the siege began, and he was wounded three times while fighting.  I asked Vlad where his father was wounded, thinking it was an innocent enough question.  He rhymed off the names of three cities or small villages whose names were too difficult for me to write down, however, I had been wanting to know where on his father’s body he suffered his injuries.

Over another beer, Vlad described how he and his father are reluctant to talk these days about politics and their experiences in the war as they often have disagreements over the direction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I wanted to tell him that I feel the same way when I am sitting in Wetherspoons with my dad and brother and the conversation inevitably turns to politics, but somehow that seems different to what he was talking about. The bar owner was at pains to deny being “Yugo-nostalgic”, although he went on to speak fondly of the way things were pre-1992, which isn’t any different to the way anybody else feels about their childhood. I don’t know if Yugo-nostalgia is such a terrible thing or not, but Vlad is not the only person I have met in Sarajevo who remembers the days of Tito with affection. I liked Vlad, but I found myself questioning whether I should have another beer with him when he complained that “everything here is for the fucking Muslims” – although it turned out that his wife is Muslim, so maybe he was just upset that he wasn’t allowed to watch the Bosnia versus Finland Nations League game the night before.

Vlad’s claim was that until 2016, everybody would practice their religion in their own homes and not in public; presumably a reference to the volume of women you see in Sarajevo wearing the hijab.  I found it hard to believe.  It is counter to everything I have read about the place in my research before coming here, but then Vlad has lived in Sarajevo all his life and fought for the city, so what would I know?  I drank one more beer with him and promised that I would be back at his bar before I leave.  You have to live some of your life in those grey areas to find some of the colour, after all, and after just a couple of days, I already had a sense that there is a lot of colour to be found in Sarajevo.

Coming soon:  Mostar (part two)

Information on the tours offered by Meet Bosnia can be found here (non-affiliated)

The occupier

Life changing events don’t usually occur when I open the letterbox outside the door of my flat on a Monday afternoon. Still, when a small handwritten envelope greeted me, my hopes were raised that something special must have been contained inside.  After all, nobody communicates by writing letters anymore, so someone had to have gone to a great deal of effort to get in touch with me.  It seemed quaint; charming even.  My immediate thought was that it could be a secret admirer who had finally summoned the courage to make their long-suppressed feelings known, even when it didn’t seem the most romantic of gestures to address me as “the occupier.”  People go by all sorts of nicknames, I thought, and I could probably get used to it for the sake of a little loving.

The return address on the back of the envelope was a local one – Ganavan; so my admirer was apparently someone from money.  I bounded through to the kitchen and peeled the envelope open with all the delicacy of a nervous lover.  Inside was a beautifully handwritten note that had letters swirling across the paper like great rivers, along with a thin pamphlet posing the question:  “Can the dead really live again?”  The brochure provided three options as a possible response:  Yes, no, or maybe, and if the ‘dead’ that was being referred to was my hopes of finding love, it seemed that the answer was a resounding no.

Hazel is a Jehovah’s Witness. Her letter was making me aware of the fact that her organisation has produced an interactive bible course on their website. I have often joked that even the Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t pay me a visit at my flat, but now it seemed to be the truth. The really bitter blow came later in the week when I received another envelope in my letterbox. It was penned in the same swooping writing, though this letter was intended for my neighbour across the landing, who was also given the name “the occupier.” Is nothing sacred anymore?

My correspondence from Hazel asked plenty of questions, but it didn’t contain the answers to the riddles that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve grown older, such as why there has been a pair of boots standing on the wall at the end of my road all week, or why two bees suddenly appeared in my flat over the same weekend when I have lived here for more than four years without so much as one finding its way in.  If the people at the Jehovah’s Witnesses could tell me why a bag of mixed leaf salad can often survive in my fridge two or three days beyond its ‘use by’ date, but a pint of milk starts to turn a day before the label suggests it should, I would consider signing up to their religion.

As I have aged, it has become increasingly clear that the answers to the questions I didn’t know that I needed resolving are not to be found in a church pew, but rather the barber’s chair.  At this stage in my life, most of the knowledge I have accumulated has come from the wisdom of my barber.  He has a different story every time you take a seat in there, and they always go in a direction you could never expect.  This time he was telling me about a rival barber from a mid-Argyll town who used to run the shop for him on a Monday.  He twice tried to set up his own business some years ago but struggled to attract customers, despite being the only barber in the town.  The story goes that this guy had an irrational dislike of people who whistled in his presence.  He couldn’t understand why anyone feels the need to whistle and it would drive him crazy if somebody walked into the shop with a jaunty tune emitting from their mouth.  So the story goes that whenever a resident of this mid-Argyll town came to Oban to have their hair cut, the barber would ask them that once they return home they visit his rival’s business and simply walk into the premises whilst whistling before turning back on their feet and leaving.  It was a mischievous scheme which seemed to please the barber greatly.  As clumps of brown and grey hair cascaded all around me, all I could picture was the scene in a ghostly quiet salon in the middle of nowhere as a freshly-groomed man strolls in whistling the theme from The Addams Family.

Where the tale turned was when the barber vowed that after he told me what he was about to say, I would never be able to go anywhere again without noticing it happen. My eyebrows were raised – at least until he trimmed those, too. According to the barber’s observations, people cannot help but whistle when they are walking between two points, such as the bathroom and the bar in a pub, the entrance to a supermarket and the first aisle, or the door and seats in a barbershop. It’s a nervous tick, a sort of placeholder to fill the void until something occupies their mind. I had never noticed this phenomenon before, and since I’m not yet ready to spend my time studying men as they enter and leave the toilets in Aulay’s I just have to trust the barber as the leading authority on the matter.

My entire purpose for going for a haircut in the middle of the week was the result of a chastening experience at the bar a few days earlier.  On the face of it, it was just an ordinary Friday night.  The Plant Doctor and I were talking to a guy who was telling us about how he’s teaching himself to play the guitar with the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side Of The Moon, which struck me as being the equivalent of learning how to paint by sketching the Mona Lisa.  In time we were joined by several other experts in algae, although I believe they learned their craft the conventional way.  At various points over a twenty-minute or so period, I noticed the four scientists as well as my brother and Geordie Dave conspiring over a piece of paper in the corner of the bar by the coat rack.  I had no idea what they were up to until I was finally introduced to the sheet and asked to judge which of the six drawings they had each created was the best likeness of me, and to guess who had drawn which one.  It was the first time I had ever seen myself in pen, while the portraits were a curious cross between touching and excruciating.  I think, ultimately, I would have preferred it if they had spent their time in the corner whistling.

Despite the quality of the sketches, I failed to correctly identify any of the artists. Amanda who was working behind the bar, on the other hand, was able to guess four of the culprits. Some people have an eye for these things, I suppose. What the artwork demonstrated more than anything – more even than that the scientists had made the right career choice – was that I was in dire need of a haircut. A picture speaks a thousand words, after all, and I had six thousand of them telling me that my hair is a mess.

While the display of artistic endeavour was something that we would go on to talk about again and again, it turned out not to be the most remarkable thing we would see in Aulay’s that night.  With the clock ticking towards closing time, the door swung open in the ominous way they do in horror films.  In walked a couple of young guys who were effectively carrying a much older man with them.  It was a slow, arduous walk from the door to the bar as the two men dragged their companion along the ground with them, as though they were moving a heavy piece of furniture.  They shuffled towards the bar and struggled to manoeuvre the elderly man onto a barstool, all under the eye of a bemused barmaid.  It was nothing short of a Weekend at Bernie’s scenario playing out before us.  The barmaid immediately told the gentlemen that she couldn’t serve them on account of Bernie’s practically comatose condition, and they had to turn around and go through the entire charade in reverse.  The scene was surreal to watch play out, and just like the theory of why people whistle as they walk between two points, the question of how these guys thought they were going to be able to buy drinks after carrying a drunk old man into the pub isn’t one that’s ever going to be answered in a pamphlet from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Who needs a shower?”

On a recent walk home along the Esplanade one evening, I was accosted by an elderly woman who had been standing by the seawall which is adjacent to the motorcycle parking bay.  If I was to guess, I would speculate that the lady was in her late seventies, while she was dressed the way I imagine someone who attends a flower show would.  As she stepped into my path the woman thrust her smartphone in my direction – it was an iPhone, though I couldn’t tell which model.  I removed my earbuds in time to hear her ask if I would be willing to take a picture of her by the sea.  Her phone was practically in my hand before I could answer.  In a sense, it felt nice to be trusted, even if I was mildly irritated about being interrupted in the middle of a song I was enjoying.

“It’s so still,” the old lady marvelled as she sat on the end of the stone wall and cast a glance out over the bay behind her.  I tried to frame the shot so that the woman could look back at the end of her holiday and see herself there in her favourite lilac coat, the North Pier and some fishing boats in the background, capturing the way the light was changing on the water.  Channelling my inner Ansel Adams, I suggested to my subject that she “raise your chin a little and maybe look into the camera.”  I thought that I sounded pretty convincing that I knew what I was doing, but the woman clearly wasn’t buying it when she asked me to “take a couple more.  Just in case.”  So much for trust.

With no fewer than three photographs added to her camera roll, I handed the phone back to the elderly tourist as a couple were passing behind. The female from the pair approached and called out to us: “Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you together?” I almost choked. What kind of relationship did this woman think she was witnessing? Whatever it was, it was difficult to say which of us should have been taking the insinuation more harshly. Deep down, there was a part of me that was feeling buoyed by the idea that a complete stranger could look at me and believe that I am capable of being part of a couple, albeit the feeling was short-lived once it was considered that my would-be partner is in her late seventies. On the other hand, this respectable-looking elderly lady was surely thinking that she could do better than a man who needs three attempts to take a simple portrait picture. Just like in most of my other relationships, the atmosphere between us quickly became awkward, and when I left it was with a more purposeful stride than before – not only to get away from my photography subject, but also to overtake the woman who had offered to take our picture, as if to prove to her that I am still young and agile enough to be dating pre-pension age women.

All I could think about for days afterwards was that passing question.  It was haunting me, which I am certain was the cause of an incident at Glasgow Airport at the beginning of the Easter weekend.  I was travelling with my brother and sister for a couple of nights away in Belfast, the first time we had taken such an adventure together.  Our flight was departing at 7.25 on Thursday evening, giving us plenty of time to bruise our bank balances with a round of drinks that were costing us more than £20 a time.  I was feeling confident that I had done everything to be prepared for going through the security process.  All of my liquids and creams were neatly packed in a clear, resealable bag; my electronics were placed in the large grey tray alongside my watch, and I was even unbuckling my belt whilst waiting in line.  I couldn’t have done anything more, yet the scanner still went off as I walked through and my bag was pulled to the side to be searched by hand.  It turned out that my Joop! Aftershave was larger than I had believed and breached the 100ml limit, meaning that it had to be confiscated.  

I would probably have checked the bottle more carefully before leaving home if my thoughts hadn’t been consumed by the elderly lady in the photograph, but there was no way of explaining this to the airport security.  My attempt to carry a forbidden 25ml of cologne to Northern Ireland had tipped the Border Force off to my dubious character, and the man who was swabbing my luggage began interrogating me about an iPad he insisted was in it.  

“Is there an iPad in this bag?”  He asked, having presumably seen something on his screen.  

“No,” I asserted with the same confidence I had when I initially strode up to the security line.  

“Are you sure?”  The border agent probed in a manner similar to when I was looking after my six-year-old niece earlier in the week and had challenged her to find the bunny toy I had hidden in my flat.

After another firm denial of the existence of an iPad in my rucksack, the security bloke once again asked me if I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t another device in my bag.  Despite having never owned an iPad, I began to doubt myself, questioning if there could somehow be a tablet in my carry-on.  Is that something a criminal would plant in an unsuspecting traveller’s luggage to be picked up by an accomplice on the other side?  I’ve heard of U2 putting their album Songs of Innocence on every Apple device on the planet, but never Apple products being foisted upon a person without their consent.

Eventually, we were able to agree on the absence of an iPad and I was allowed to join my brother and sister on the flight to Belfast.  Not for the first time, I was assigned a seat in the emergency exit row.  It has become something of a habit of mine to be approached by an air stewardess before take-off to be asked if I mind that I am seated on an emergency exit, and I am always panic-stricken when it happens, especially when I am three beers deep.  Considering all the vetting that is done of airline passengers, it amazes me that someone like me can be put in a position where they could potentially be the difference between life and death for everybody else on board.  When evidently I can barely pass basic airport security, how can I reasonably be expected to inflate a life vest under the pressure of a flight going down in the Irish Sea?

In Belfast, we had booked the hostel-like accommodation at Titanic Apartments.  Out on Lisburn Road, it was nowhere near the Titanic Quarter of the city, but seemingly having a cartoon poster of the doomed cruise liner on the wall by the television that doesn’t work is enough to enable a place to use the name ‘Titanic’.  The first question we were asked by the porter when we checked in to our two-bedroom apartment was whether we would like any towels.  Naturally, we quite liked the idea of being able to dry ourselves after a shower, so we said that yes, we would like some towels, only to be told that we could go to the reception building across the street at nine o’clock the following morning to request them.  Upon looking around our living space for the next two nights, we discovered that there was also no soap or handwash – or anything, really, aside from the beds.  It didn’t take very long for us to develop a sinking feeling about the Titanic Apartments.

Fortunately, since our time in the city was so limited, we had little intention of spending much time in the hostel anyway. We had barely touched down before we were out again to the Speakeasy bar along the road from us. The pub forms the student union for the nearby Queen’s University, and boy could we tell. Even with it being the Easter break, the place was rammed with young people playing pool, watching football and listening to the woman who was playing guitar. We were the three oldest people in the bar by quite some distance, which only served to remind me why I drink in Aulay’s when I am back home. There isn’t much that can make a person feel so dazed, lost and helpless as being the oldest person in the bar, except maybe being hauled before airport security for an iPad that doesn’t exist.

We were adopting the fly by the seam of your pants method of exploring Belfast since the entire decision to take the trip was reasonably last minute.  It tends to be my favourite way of travelling anyway, and as with most cities, I came armed with a list of bars I had either visited or intended to visit when I was last there in 2017.  As we weren’t able to shower on Friday morning on account of the saga with the towels, we decided that we would leave early for the opening of St. George’s Market – the last surviving Victorian covered market in the country’s capital city.  I was hoping that the residual essence of Joop! that ordinarily clings to the collar of most of my shirts and jackets would see me through the trip since I could no longer top it up, although it was a different scent that was filling the air around the entrance of the market.  The very first stall we encountered was selling trout that was the size of a dachshund, and some of the pieces of fish looked so fresh that I was sure that if I looked at them closely enough they might still be twitching.  

Other than the usual fruit and vegetables, some locals were offering the most remarkable goods.  Things like hand-crafted jewellery, canvas paintings, slate coasters, and scarves.  It was a real feast for the eyes – which we enjoyed – but it was a feast for the belly we had turned up for.  My sister got talking to a pair of very enthusiastic Spanish guys who were running a French crêpe van, while my brother and I went off in search of fried food served on soda bread.  The breakfast was prepared right in front of our very eyes in a display that was almost theatrical with its sizzle.  Combined with a cup of coffee from a nearby vendor, we were all feeling pretty good about our spoils.  It is an especially pleasing thing when a spur of the moment decision works out so well, and our satisfaction was registered with the phrase that was coined in that moment:  “who needs a shower?”  Of course, we returned to the Titanic Apartments later in the day to properly cleanse ourselves before going out for dinner, but for half a day at least, we went about town without giving a fuck about towels, soap, hairbrushes, aftershave or any of that.  You can enjoy yourself in any circumstance, you just need to allow yourself to.

Over our one full day together in Belfast, the three of us walked more than 22,500 steps according to my brother’s smartwatch, which is the equivalent of approximately 11 miles. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that we were testing the limits of what deodorant can achieve. We took one of the hop on hop off sightseeing red bus tours that every city seems to have, and it gave us a pretty good overview of the place. Belfast is a relatively small city, but it has an enormous history – much of it recent. It would be difficult to visit the area and not think about the Troubles – a term which in itself has always struck me as being quite quaint. Spending an extra few minutes going through airport security is troubling, whereas civil war seems much more significant. The most interesting section of the tour was the journey down the Nationalist Falls Road and the Unionist Shankhill Road. These areas of Belfast are covered with flags and the buildings decorated in murals; they are fantastically brightly coloured and in a way beautiful, yet they are shrouded with darkness and a horrific past. Even to this day, there are still gates that close every night at seven o’clock to separate the two communities. It was surreal seeing the whole thing turned into a tourist attraction of sorts – particularly when tensions have been raised off the back of England’s decision to take the rest of the UK out of the European Union and the problems this has created for the island of Ireland. When you think of it, it’s pretty mad that you can pay £17 to sit on top of a double-decker bus and drive through these sites of sectarian violence. Things are still so palpable that it practically feels as though you are watching one of those horrid reality television shows everybody talks about. I had never imagined that a red sightseeing tour could stir up so many different feelings, but I found hearing some of the stories from both sides of the divide quite sorrowful.

From the bus, we stopped off at Crumlin Road Gaol, which closed in 1996 and at times housed some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious political prisoners.  Seventeen criminals were executed in the prison, with the last being hanged in 1961, and towards the end of its use, the jail was so overcrowded that there were as many as three people to a cell.  The self-led tour told stories of hunger strikes, escapes, bombings, and cramped conditions.  Looking at the tiny cells had me thinking of the Titanic Apartments, only the occupants here at least seemed to be given towels.

Part of the reason for our 22,500 steps was the fact that the hop on hop off bus was rolling past the entrance to the visitor centre as we were leaving, at which point we decided to walk back to the city centre rather than wait for the next one.  We rewarded ourselves with a hot beverage from Established Coffee before embarking on a free walking tour from outside City Hall.  Our guide, Barry, was informed and passionate about his city, making the two hours a pleasure.   Through his stories, it was easy to see the charm of Belfast that exists beneath its rough exterior.  We learned about some of the city’s quirky features, such as how it is apparently the case that none of the public clocks in Belfast shows the right time.  I wondered how such a thing could possibly be true, but then I look at my own flat and see that there are three different objects displaying a time and none of them are the same.  Imagine being in charge of hundreds of the things.

As well as being the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, our stay in Belfast also coincided with the first time in history that pubs in Northern Ireland were permitted to operate their regular trading hours over Easter weekend.  Previously they had only been allowed to open for a greatly restricted period, and it was plain to see that people were keen to make up for lost time.  Every bar we went into on Friday night was busy, and each one had musicians performing.  There were around 4,000 people in town for the World Championships of Irish Dancing, though it was hard to say if the scenes we witnessed on some of the barroom floors bore any relation to that.  I think that our favourite pub was The Thirsty Goat, where the music was best and the atmosphere was crackling.  The walls of the pub were decorated with dozens of photographs of goats participating in all sorts of antics, such as chewing on a newspaper or drinking bottles of beer.  It was funny, but in the sort of way that would have you questioning just how drunk you are after a certain point.

In the Dirty Onion, we queued for an eternity to get a drink in the bustling courtyard. It wasn’t until we got talking to Connor that we were introduced to an invaluable hack for getting around the long wait, which was to dive into the nearby Second Fiddle and get served there. The Second Fiddle was cosy and not nearly as busy as the other pubs we had been in. By the bar was an inscription on the wall which read “the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune” and I just had to get a photograph taken beneath it for a future addition to my Tinder profile.

There had been some discussion between us through the night about having a wager on which of the three of us could pull first.  Although I am usually happy with placing losing bets when I put on my football coupon on a Saturday, there is a faint hope that one of those might actually win.  This sounded like the sort of reckless gamble that the professionals warn you against making.  We didn’t go through with it in the end, which was for the best since we were all destined to lose our stake when Connor suggested to us that when the pub closed we could carry on drinking until 3 am in the gay club at the end of the street.  My sister and I were considering it, but the one positive about the Titanic Apartments was that there is a Domino’s nearby and a pizza was the more appealing meat feast on offer.

Little did anyone know it, but for a brief time in Belfast, I was probably closest of all to winning our hypothetical lottery.  Earlier in the day, whilst on the free walking tour, I discovered that I had made a match on Tinder.  Emma was 36 and living in the city, and given that it was Easter weekend there was only one question I could ask her to open our prospective conversation.  

“Hey Emma, are you having a Good Friday?”  

She never got back to me.  When I was eventually unmatched, the prospects of a resurrection were doomed.  It was probably for the best, all things considered.  There would have been no future in the relationship, after all.  I can’t do long distance, not with my difficulty with airport security.  Sure, it would be nice to have someone who is closer to my age to have photographs taken with by the seaside or beneath novelty signs, but the reality is that I would only ever have been using Emma for her towels.  

The social hierarchy of dolphins

Life comes at you pretty fast sometimes.  One night you are reading from your notebook in front of 110 people as the support act for a well-known Scottish comedian, and less than 24 hours later you are being soundly beaten by your six-year-old niece at ten pin bowling.   I tried putting a brave face on the defeat.  After all, it was my niece’s birthday and bowling was the activity she had chosen to help celebrate it.  Besides, it’s not like I was the only one who was losing; she swept four of us aside as though we were hapless pins.  Yet I couldn’t keep myself from feeling hard done by each time my ball was drawn into the right-hand gutter.  I blamed everything, from the perceived slope in the hardwood floor which seemed to only have it in for me, to the fact that we were allowed to play wearing our own shoes and I hadn’t chosen my footwear that morning with bowling in mind.  It maybe goes to show that you should always dress for all occasions.

In the hours before the charity comedy night, I was at my kitchen counter reading about the social hierarchy of dolphins.  It wasn’t how I was expecting to be spending my time in the lead up to the most exciting thing I had ever been asked to do.  I thought that I might be going through a last-minute rehearsal, drinking myself blind on Tennent’s Lager, or throwing up in the bathroom at the venue like I have done most of the other times when I have read in public.  But the previous night I received a set of 11 questions that the high school students who I would be meeting the following Thursday in the Argyll Wellbeing Hub wanted to ask me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about one question in particular.  What is your opinion on dolphins’ social hierarchy?

I had never considered that as being something I should have an opinion on; not like the rising cost of energy, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the continued wearing of face masks, or which type of sauce goes best on a bacon roll. I didn’t know the first thing about the social structure of dolphins, let alone know what I thought about it, but I was going to have to find out quick. People talk about reliving their youth all the time, and here I was just like back in high school, doing everything I could to ensure I wasn’t left looking foolish in front of a group of fifteen-year-olds.

My Google search history was transformed as I read article after article about the way dolphins interact among their species.  Much of what I learned didn’t come as any surprise considering what is commonly known about the mammal, but there were some interesting tidbits I picked up, such as the free spirit nature of dolphins as they swim from pod to pod without ever being permanently bound to one group.  I read about the way that smaller groups of dolphins often have the objective of cooperating to ensure the mating of the others with a specific female, which made me think of a Friday night in Aulay’s – at least for the Plant Doctor and my brother, anyway.  Bottlenose dolphins, meanwhile, are prone to establishing their dominance through aggression towards other species, often biting, striking and ganging up on others.  Studies have shown that dolphins can have a preference for meeting with particular individuals and that they are remembered and recognised even after long periods of separation.  I found it fascinating how similar their habits are to humans.

All of this information was swimming around in my head when I turned up at The View just before doors opened for the comedy night.  People were already lining up to get in, and I walked right past them to the bar with all the poise of a dolphin –  or so I imagined – where I met the headline comedian Gary Little and the organisers from the Argyll Wellbeing Hub.  We were taken through the back to the green room, which was really the bar’s staff room but with a bucket of ice and a bottle of wine.  It was here where I realised that the thing that was making me most anxious about the entire evening was being left alone in a room with professional standup comedians.  I’m terrible when it comes to meeting new people under ordinary circumstances, never mind being put into an unfamiliar place – and, really, this was an environment where I had no business being.  After all, I am not a comedian, and it was difficult to shake the feeling of being a fish out of water.  I tried telling Gary Little about my own routine, which ordinarily consists of me sitting in a chair with a glass of Jameson whilst reading excerpts from my diary.  He seemed distracted as I spoke, before eventually asking, “would you mind if I take a look at your watch?”

Initially, it sounded like the most passive-aggressive way possible of telling someone that their conversation is not the most scintillating, but when I pulled the sleeve of my shirt up over my wrist, it became clear that his interest was genuine.  “I collect vintage watches,” the comedian explained as he examined the face of my timekeeping device.  I nodded and thought about how this was not at all the way I had imagined the green room backstage at a comedy night being.  “Just don’t look if you’re wanting to know what time it is,” I warned.  “The battery has been dead for three months.”  He immediately stepped back with a look on his face as if I had told him that the watch is liable to self-destruct at any moment.  It would be impossible for him to know it, of course, but he was right to be affronted by my lack of care for my watch since I live next door to an electrics shop.  My chances of breaking the ice were shattered.

When the main support act Iain Hume arrived, I had visions of standing back while two comedians effortlessly traded hilarious one-liners back and forth.  Instead, the men were talking about walking their dogs on the beach and where they had parked their campervans.  Iain said that his wife was in a bad mood when he left her in the van to come to the gig because they couldn’t get a signal on the television set.  It was surreal, and not at all in keeping with the glamourous impression of comedy I’ve had from watching Billy Connelly or Jerry Seinfeld.  Eventually, my mind started drifting to where it was that the bar staff in The View were having to go to take their breaks.

I had spent so much of my time in the 24 hours before the gig researching the social habits of dolphins that I had barely even thought to feel nervous about it.  All that had changed by the time of the watch remark, however, and when the night finally got underway my legs were trembling like a thermometer in March.  I took a seat at the back of the room as the MC for the evening, David Duncan, warmed up the sold-out audience.  He was funny, and people seemed to be really enjoying his brutal takedown of the Information Oban Facebook group.  Things were off to a good start, right up until he introduced Iain Hume as the first act of the evening and, as he left the stage, leaned forward to say something to the group of guys who were sitting in the front row and had been talking through the entire thing.  All of a sudden things kicked off, and four or five guys followed David out of the room like a gang of bottlenose dolphins.

Necks were craning, struggling to get a look through the window while Iain tried to get some laughs with his material. I could scarcely believe what was happening. If this is what occurred following the opening remarks, I dreaded to think how people were going to react when I tried my joke about debating whether to ask the shop assistant in Waterstones for assistance to find the section carrying self-help books. Fortunately, the situation didn’t amount to anything beyond some verbal threats, with it transpiring that the group was part of a stag party from Newton Mearns. Ordinarily, violence only ever breaks out in that part of Glasgow when the prosecco hasn’t been chilled to the optimum temperature, so in reality, there wasn’t much chance that a punch would be thrown. By the time I stepped up to the stage things had settled down, and my 17-minute set went better than I could ever have dreamt.

I was still on a high when I turned up at my niece’s Harry Potter-themed birthday party the following morning.  When I walked into my sister’s home, the place was a riot of shredded wrapping paper, popcorn, wizards, and delirious six-year-olds.  Looking at the scene was more or less an insight into how I was feeling deep down inside, and in truth, losing at bowling wasn’t the humiliation I liked to make it seem.  I had just experienced the greatest triumph I’ll probably ever have – for once I didn’t need a win at bowling to help soothe my bruised ego, while for my niece, beating her drunk uncles is only the start of what she can go on to achieve.  At least, that’s the way I was starting to see it by the time we had reached the Holytree for some dinner on our way home from Fort William.  In Oban, we stopped off outside Aulay’s for a novelty photograph after a birthday ice cream cone had been demolished as though it was a rack of pins.  My sister took the picture of me, my brother and our niece standing on the steps in front of the pub as we imagined the same night twelve years in the future when our niece would walk in on her 18th birthday to find her two uncles slumped over the bar the way a jumper lies in the laundry basket.  The same old songs would still be playing on the same jukebox, and we would probably be remonstrating about how it wasn’t fair because “she had the bumpers up.”

By the middle of the week, life was beginning to return to its usual mundanity.  After the early spring sunshine and 16°C temperature, there were flurries of snow, while the mercury plunged below zero.  As I was walking along the Esplanade on Wednesday evening, I observed a young boy clambering up the concrete steps from the shore onto the pavement.  He was probably around 10 or 11-years-old, I guess, and on his back, he was carrying a large, presumably heavy, yellow plastic case.  When he emerged, after first stumbling and almost falling back down the steps, I could see that there was a hole in the centre of the back of the case, and from it, a small puppy peered out.  The boy climbed onto a bicycle and rode off into the distance, the dog’s fluffy black ears flapping in the breeze.  

It got me to thinking about when I was this kid’s age and my parents would set me certain tasks around the house to earn my pocket money – things like emptying the dishwasher or hanging the washing on the line.  All very dull and easy jobs, although now I am 38 and I don’t have a dishwasher or really even a washing line and I look back on those days as the high point in my household upkeep.  No matter how simple they look now, they were the worst thing in the world back then, and I would do anything to get out of doing them.  I couldn’t help but think that this young lad was of the same mind.  I imagined that he had been set the chore of walking the family dog in order to be given his weekly pocket money, and the bicycle and carry case was his way of making the task easier.

I told this story the next afternoon to the high school students who attend the Argyll Wellbeing Hub in response to one of their questions, which was what are the things I like to look for on my walks.   It’s difficult to know if commentary on the seemingly unusual behaviour of passing pedestrians is what the youngsters were expecting when I turned up.  For reasons I would learn during the course of my visit, the group of 15-year-olds have a degree of admiration for me, which I was struggling to understand since nobody knew who I was when I was in high school, and yet here I am, seemingly a popular figure amongst at least a handful of school kids.  There was an audible gasp when I walked into the room, although I couldn’t be sure that that wasn’t because I almost tripped over the step at the entrance.

The entire purpose of my going to the Hub was to read the material from my notebook that I had performed at the comedy night the week before, since age restrictions meant that most of the youngsters couldn’t attend – although one of them did perform a five-minute piece which practically stole the show.  However, we got so deeply involved in conversations about our favourite bands, books, and the social hierarchy of dolphins that after more than an hour we hadn’t gotten round to it.  The group was engaging, intelligent and funny, and as giddy as I felt after reading in front of 110 people, this was much more rewarding.  Some of them even thought that U2 are cool.  When it came to answering the dolphin question, it was probably the most relieved I have ever been to discover that the opinion I had only recently formed was the one that the students were hoping to hear.  We all agreed that dolphins can behave like real bastards, just like any human, but their social dynamic is fascinating, and their fluid, free-spirited nature is admirable.   In the end, not only was the afternoon more enjoyable than performing at the comedy gig, but it was even better than winning at bowling.

Audience participation

There were nigh upon 812 days between the last Let’s Make A Scene in November 2019 and the most recent rejuvenation of the event, and a lot had happened in the intervening months and years.  Since I last read from my notebook in front of an audience, I have:  become a man who frequently wears corduroy trousers; been told by an optician that my retinas are in perfect condition; learned that Chinese five spice is the secret ingredient to making a really good fried rice dish; visited Dundee; almost made my niece cry when I ‘won’ all of her favourite books in a family game of poker at Christmas since we didn’t have any chips to play with.  Oh, and we have all lived through a global pandemic and multiple lockdowns of the country.

For a while, back in the early days of the original lockdown in 2020, there were discussions surrounding the possibility of hosting an open mic event over Zoom or a similar platform, since at that point in time practically every aspect of our lives was being conducted through a screen.  An ‘Oban Lockdown Fest’ Facebook group had attracted more than 500 members and featured videos shared by at least a dozen local musicians, demonstrating that there was a keen appetite for the arts in the area.  There was some initial enthusiasm for the idea of an online Let’s Make A Scene, but it faded as restrictions began to ease and we were at least allowed to leave our homes again.  It was reckoned that an open mic night wouldn’t be the same without an audience in attendance anyway.  You can’t truly gauge how well a piece of music or spoken word has been received without the applause of people telling you that they enjoyed it, while it is difficult to tell if a joke is funny when you don’t hear the sound of laughter following it.  Personally, I would have been happy to proceed with an online event since it seemed just like every other performance I have ever given, but officially Let’s Make A Scene was on hiatus.

When Covid restrictions were rolled back almost to a level we hadn’t enjoyed since the last Let’s Make A Scene was held, we could finally get on with planning an open mic night in a new venue.  I delved into the cupboard where I store my bottles of whisky and completed notebooks hoping to find some inspiration and enough material to cobble together a ten minute spoken word set.  It was already decided in my mind that I wanted to read about some of my experiences during lockdown, given that most people in the audience could probably relate to the things I was saying.  The trouble with that, however, was that I was going to have to force myself to read through all of my notebooks from during the pandemic years.  I don’t enjoy reading back my old journal entries at the best of times, but this was especially gruelling.  At more than one point I had to stop and ask myself:  why are you writing 500 words about the contents of your cupboard?  And the answer, of course, is that there was nothing better to be doing in April 2020.

Something I never used to do before my previous open mic performances was practice, which probably goes some way to explaining why on the night my dad came along he was heard to comment, “it was fine, but he went on a bit too long.”  If there’s one thing that I dislike more than reading my own diarised notes it is hearing my voice speak them, and yet that is exactly what I was going to have to do if I wanted to take my set more seriously than before.  Around two weeks before the return of Let’s Make A Scene was scheduled to take place, I was invited to be one of the support acts for the Scottish comedian Gary Little when he comes to Oban in March to headline a comedy night in aid of the Argyll Wellbeing Hub.  I quickly learned that it is impossible to resist the opportunity of performing stand-up comedy alongside a professional comedian, no matter how ill-suited you know that you are for it.  Writing a blog about your experiences as a single occupant and being asked to support a comedian would be like achieving a respectable score on the video game Guitar Hero and being plucked from the crowd to fill in for The Edge at a U2 concert; why would you say no?  Knowing that the organisers of the comedy night were going to be attending Let’s Make A Scene to listen to me read from my notebook meant that I had to take it seriously and make sure that they didn’t realise they had made a terrible mistake.

Once I had settled on some of the excerpts I wanted to read from my journals, I prepared to host a few practice readings in my living room. The mood in the room was already perfect since the two expired lightbulbs in the chandelier meant that the remaining three combined to resemble the ambience of a dimly lit stage. I sat in an armchair facing the mantelpiece, trying not to become fixated on the cobweb which was dangling between two red candlesticks like a hammock, and set a stopwatch as I cleared my throat and took a sip from a cup of Earl Grey tea. Even with no one there I was tripping over my words in every other sentence, and it was difficult to get over the awkward feeling of reading aloud in an empty room. I tried convincing myself that I was at least heading to my houseplants, but in truth, they were yet another dead audience.

Photo courtesy of Stevo Finlayson

The night of Let’s Make A Scene found Oban caught between two winter storms.  When it was reported that Eunice and Franklin were going to bring strong winds, heavy rain and snow to parts of the country, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Scotland was being battered by a copy of the 1921 census.  In a welcome change, I wasn’t feeling the same anxiety I had before all of the past open mic nights.  At five o’clock in previous years, I would have been opening my third can of Tennent’s Lager and playing The Midnight Organ Fight for the second time before going to Aulay’s for a couple of hours and getting half-drunk by the time I was ready to read.  There were occasions where I got myself so worked up with nerves that I was sick in the bathroom, which is the only time I have ever vomited in Aulay’s.  However, at five o’clock last Saturday I was on my yoga mat going through a flow and practising some meditation.  When I arrived at the Corran Halls I was still maintaining my calming breathing whilst reciting the same motivational words over and over again in my head, transforming my thoughts into some Instagrammable mindfulness meme.  Having never felt confident about anything in my life, I can’t tell if it’s what I was experiencing in the moments before reading, but I do know that whatever it was, I liked it better than throwing up in a public toilet.

What was most noticeable about the studio theatre in the Corran Halls was the way that our brilliant organisers had managed to transfer the space into something resembling a side alley Hungarian speakeasy.  There was maybe around six tables – each with a dainty tealight candle dancing in its centre – that were positioned across the room in a way that would have made for a terrible strategy in a game of Tetris, but in an auditorium, it worked.   Meanwhile, the biggest debate before people started to arrive was whether or not we should turn the fairy lights on and at which setting.  There were as many as a dozen different options to choose from, which when you think about it, is a lot of different ways of flashing the same red and green lights.  

As eight o’clock neared, the studio theatre was filling with more people than we had ever seen before.  At final count, there were more than sixty folks in attendance, which was probably around double the number who usually come to a Let’s Make A Scene.  Amongst them were 19 acts who signed up to perform on the night, by far the most diverse range of artists we’ve had.  We heard everything:  an acoustic guitar-backed poetry presentation about the dread of feeling as though you’re falling in love with someone when you’re around the age I am, which had more than a shade of Arab Strap to it; K9 Kev’s standup set that veered into rap and then a story about an ill-begotten jobbie; a piece of poetry which called for the audience to howl like a pack of dogs at the mention of any word with a canine connotation; the witch gave birth to a frog; the ever-beautiful Lush Puppies.  

Usually at an open mic night, you will get one artist who is a little more eccentric than everybody else, sort of like witnessing a juggler catch knives outside the London Palladium, but this time everyone was a star attraction.  It was heartening to see such a wealth of talent pulsing in Oban.  After two years during which we were all afraid to so much as breathe near another person, this was like the moments after blowing the candles out on a birthday cake, when all you’re left with is sweet, rich, delicious cake, and in that instant it is the best thing ever.  By all possible metrics, the revived Let’s Make A Scene was a triumph.  We even managed to collect enough donations to cover the cost of hiring the Corran Halls, as well as a receipt for £6.70 from Aulay’s Bar dated 18 September 2020 which it was suspected came from me.  It said a lot when most people assumed that my wallet would be opened so little as to still contain a receipt from 17 months ago, but I couldn’t contend it.

I had cultivated my own set down to a smooth 9 minutes and 20 seconds, which I anticipated would leave enough time for apologies.  Somehow they weren’t needed, though.  People laughed at exactly the right points as I went about describing the loneliness of trying to recreate the experience of being in Aulay’s on a Friday night during lockdown, and it felt anything but lonely.  My journal reading went as well as I could have imagined, much better in front of an audience of people than houseplants.  Everyone who I spoke to afterwards was very supportive and complimentary, while this time the only complaint I received was that I hadn’t worn a tie like I used to.

Often when I reflect on nights like this it invariably ends with a defeat that brings the universe back to its natural axis, such as me making a ridiculous attempt at talking to a woman, losing my phone by a furniture shop or falling asleep on the couch with an untouched can of Tennent’s Lager at my side whilst trying to watch The Spy Who Shagged Me for the thirteenth time.  But not even a long walk home in the rain from the incoming storm could dampen the spirits of such a joyous night.  812 days had never been so worthwhile.

I will be reading some ‘Diaries of a Single Man’ excerpts in support of actual comedians Gary Little and Wray Thomson on Friday 25 March at The View, Oban. The evening is in support of the Argyll Wellbeing Hub, and ticket information can be found by following this link.