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.