Sunday, April 13, 2008

Red Stars, Black Mountains: Sarajevo on $10 A Day (Part 6).


In 1987, the most recent translation of the Bible – that most valued of possessions otherwise known as the Thomas Cook European Timetable – showed a main line running from Zagreb to Vinkovci, then another line branching off southward Sarajevo, through Mostar, The map showed trains finally reaching the Adriatic at Ploce, although for some reason I remember the terminus as Kardeljevo, where I’d been told a bus could be taken to finish my journey to Dubrovnik, the famous walled city widely known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic”.

Sarajevo and Mostar were projected as stopovers for me after departing Croatia’s biggest city, where’d I’d stayed for only a day owing to the youth hostel’s unavailability. In truth, I was eager to move toward the sea … and time wasn’t at all an issue. It was still May, I had only to be in Budapest, Hungary by the last week of June, and there was still Bulgaria and maybe even Romania to explore before that.

Safely aboard the train, and foraging from the sandwich cart, it soon became evident that mile after mile of the route through Bosnia-Herzegovina would be filled with jagged, unforgiving mountain terrain, evoking stories of the murderous internecine conflict between ideologically disparate partisan forces fighting against the German invaders during the Second World War, and as frequently against each other in the bloody positioning for postwar supremacy.

Marshall Tito’s Communists eventually triumphed, and a non-aligned Yugoslavia became a well-known player on the Cold War stage, but as we all too sadly know, the full bill didn’t come due until the cataclysmic civil war of the 1990’s, which brought with it the disintegration of the nation as well as wanton death and destruction in Sarajevo, Mostar and many other towns and cities too numerous to name.

As a foreign visitor in 1987, there was no indication of the approaching conflagration, and in fact, memories of my time in Sarajevo are fleeting. As noted previously, my primary reason for visiting was to examine the place where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914. It was a bonus that the city, the center of Muslim life in Bosnia, had a historic reputation for tolerance, and housed mosques, various Christian churches and synagogues. Reputedly, budget accommodations were easy to find, along with burek, pleskavitsa (local delicacies), strong espresso-style coffee and pivo (beer).

It will surprise you to learn that I didn’t write a journal back then, although some photos were taken, but unfortunately, the film later was developed into slides, not prints, and these snapshots are no longer easily accessible without resorting to a 30-year-old slide projector that has a tendency to mangle to precious relics. It’s true that whenever I drank a different brand of beer, I’d record it, and the list documenting my drinking record survives intact, helping to explain where the money went.

In a scrapbook there is somewhat of a paper trail, because as a card-carrying packrat, ticket stubs, receipts and the like have always been stashed – even before they became the basis for tax deductions. These receipts show that on the chilly and overcast May afternoon when I stepped off the train in Sarajevo, I took a bus or streetcar to the vicinity of the central tourist office.

As was the case throughout my early travels, the very first objective when arriving in a new city (after the imperative to get there as early in the day as possible) was to master local logistics, and most important among these considerations was finding a place to stay, one in my price range, which at the time was no more than $10 a night. In Yugoslavia, this could be achieved in two ways, both of which were legal (although the same could not be said for all the countries in the Bloc), and involved accepting the offer of what was called a “private room” for tourists.

On way to accept this offer was to book the room formally through the local tourist office, which kept the officially sanctioned list. The other way was to haggle with the housewives who typically met train and bus arrivals for the purpose of housing visitors and making a bit of petty cash on the side. In Sarajevo and Mostar, I chose the official route. Later, in Dubrovnik, the unofficial path was taken. All of them worked out quite well.

Naturally it was important to be oriented and to have a map, and one was acquired at the same office, along with directions to the high-rise building where I’d be staying. It was within easy walking distance, but as was often the case for an unworldly non-urbanite, navigating the perplexingly numbered system of buttons for ringing the occupant took some time. My initial rings were not answered, so I went window shopping nearby for a while, sniffed around the entrance of what appeared to be a tavern, returned to the building, and had better luck the second time around.

And so, after climbing w few flights of stairs, I stepped into the tiny foyer of an equally miniscule apartment occupied by a man nicknamed “Mickey,” whose coffee table boasted copies of tourist phrase books in English, French and German, and whose first words after greeting me and looking at my receipt was to ask whether I’d like slivovitz. Before I could answer, and in a fashion that I would come to regard as routine in the Balkans, the bottle and glasses already were place between us on a tray. With the help of the distilled plum juice, we were briefly acquainted.

I was shown to my closet-sized room, and noticed immediately that nearby there was a washing machine. This was critical for a shoestring traveler who had been rinsing articles of clothing in Woolite and hoping they’d dry before the next morning, a system that usually works with t-shirts, socks and underwear, but fails miserably with jeans and larger items. Mickey was happy to start a load of laundry for me, and he gave me perfect directions to a restaurant down the street where I could grab a meal, it now being early evening and the slivovitz settling queasily on an empty stomach.

At the eatery in question I was introduced to an institution that would be a constant throughout my ensuing Eastern European travels: The thoroughly egalitarian institution of the Socialist state-owned self-service cafeteria, a place where a foreigner was just as welcomed as the natives, and could point with ease to foodstuffs without the bother of an indecipherable menu … and, usually, a place that served cheap draft beer. I recall the lettuce being brown, the meat gray, and the beer sufficiently cold; moreover, the price for a plate of passable grub and a couple of half-liter mugs came to less than $2.

Sated and sleepy, I returned to my lodging to study the map and get a good night’s rest, because on the following morning, there was much Franz Ferdinand lore to indulge.

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