OK let me just get this out of the way…
I AM IN BOSNIA I AM IN BOSNIA I AM IN BOSNIA I AM IN BOSNIA I AM IN BOSNIA I AM IN BOSNIA I AM IN BOSNIA I AM IN BOSNIA!!!
I AM IN SARAJEVO I AM IN SARAJEVO I AM IN SARAJEVO I AM IN SARAJEVO I AM IN SARAJEVO I AM IN SARAJEVO I AM IN SARAJEVO I AM IN SARAJEVO!!!
I need to keep repeating that to myself because I still can’t quite believe it.I wondered in my last post if I would cry when I got here. I didn’t though, for two reasons.Firstly, arriving here was so surreal, and nothing was like I thought it would be, so I have spent the entire day slightly confused and in awe. I’m not as hyper and excited as I thought I would be. I’m not as emotional and embarassingly blubby as I thought I would be.
The other places that we’ve been really surprised me with their beauty and culture but then I didn’t really have any expectations of Novi Sad and Belgrade. Sarajevo I have read about and studied so much so you would think I’d find everything very familiar. But I totally didn’t.
This city was the biggest surprise of all.
Sarajevo is surrounded by the most beautiful, stunning mountains, and in the middle of this is a tiny but massively multicultural little city, quite long in shape but all pretty walkable. The view from the mountains as the bus wound its way down was astounding, but so is the view from the city looking up. Everything was, in principle, as I expected but in reality nothing was. I have spent the whole day in a bit of a daze, trying to reconcile the place I had imagined and dreamt about for 10 years with the place I was standing in today.
After the bus we went on a guided tour by a young local man and ate some amazing cavapi (sausagemeat wrapped in pastry). After the tour our leader Helen took us to see a few extra places, including the Sarajevo Roses. Our local guide didn’t want to show us these as he didn’t feel that they should be a tourist attraction, which of course you have to respect, but for me, the Sarajevo Rose represents all that I love about this wondrous city and its people.
Sarajevo Rose is the name of this website, and for those of you who don’t know, a Sarajevo Rose starts as an impact crater formed by a mortar shell, which the city of Sarajevo received thousands of between April 1992 and September 1995 – the longest seige in modern history. When fatalities occurred because of a mortar shell landing in the street, the locals filled it with red resin/wax, turning the impact crater and surrounding cascading scars on the street into something which looked like a rose. This transformation of something tragic into something beautiful, and the defiance and spirit behind it, is one of the reasons I love Bosnia and Sarajevo – and first and foremost its people – so much. Sarajevans continued, beyond reason, to lead a normal life even when the mountains around their city rained shells on them, killing innocent men, women and children, daily. I can’t even imagine the strength and courage this took.
We also saw the Latin Bridge, known for a while as Princip’s Bridge. This is where Gavrilo Pricip, a Serb, shot the Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife in 1914, the incident which single-handedly sparked World War I.
The second reason for my subdued awe today was because I used up all my awe on the bus here – I’m not talking about the simply spectacular views of Bosnia from the bus as it wound around the mountainous roads, but of my encounter with a little girl who also – in her own cute way – sums up everything I love about this part of the world.
We were about a third of the way through our trip from Belgrade to Sarajevo when this beautiful woman boarded the bus with her young daughter. I’ll admit I was a little fixated on this woman for a while – extraordinary big brown eyes, perfect tanned skin and projecting a sort of shyness and humility that I just find incredibly attractive. She was young, probably early twenties.
After a little while I was taking photos and her young daughter came over and leaned over the seat behind me – she seemed fascinated by me and my camera. I took a photo of her and showed her it on the camera screen and she seemed amazed. She was so innocent and beautiful and wide-eyed.
Everyone who knows me knows I hate kids, but she was just too much – so adorable. We had a break at a bus stop and outside I asked if I could take a photo of the girl and her mother together, they were both so cute.
When we got back on the bus, the little girl was again fascinated by everything I was doing. I tried to communicate with her but neither her or her mother spoke any English, so I got out my Bosnian phrasebook and pointed to “what is your name” but she didn’t seem to understand. She was maybe too young to read. I am going to call her Little Borjana, after the amazing old Serb woman who was our guide in Belgrade.
I fished out everything in my bag to amuse Borjana, and eventually we started playing hide and seek. She would hide behind chairs on the bus, and peek out and I would peek over my sunglasses which she found hilarious. Then I got out my sun hat and she started placing it around my head in silly positions and then pointing to the camera, we took photos and she laughed and laughed and thought of new things to do. Her mother was asleep like an angel on a seat a few behind us.
Every so often she would say something in Bosnian and was amazed that I couldn’t understand. It was like she had never encountered this before. We played for hours with all the things I had in my bag, hats, glasses, maps, book, paper and pens.
Eventually she was holding the camera herself and taking pictures of me doing wacky things, all at her direction. Every time we took a photo, she immediately thought of something else to do and after a while I was like her dress-up doll – she was placing accessories around my face and taking photos and videos to giggle at afterwards.
As her stop approached near Sarajevo, she took all my things and carefully placed each back in my bag, trying out different places and pockets until she found one just right. She was taking so much care over everything, so much attention paid to tidying up after her fun. She went to the back of the bus and spoke to her mother and came back asking me, in Italian, if I spoke Italian. The way she said it it was clear her mother spoke Italian and had told her to say this one phrase to me. Little Borjana said it in a very unfamiliar way to me so I don’t think she knew any Italian herself.
As they were about to leave I was going to give her some pocket money as a thank you for the fun (a 7 hour bus trip which seemed like nothing) but before I could she came up to me and tried to give me a coin. I couldn’t take it but the sweetness with which it was offered nearly brought a tear to my eye. This poor little girl was giving me a present to say thank you, even though I have so much more than her. It was one of the most humbling moments of my entire life. Borjana left the bus with a polite handshake, an enormous smile and a wave, and her mother a ‘ciao’. And as the bus pulled away she was waving constantly trying to catch my attention. I waved back, and as we reached our own stop in Sarajevo, my travelling friends all asked me if I’d seen her waving at me.
She had been so excited and full of life, such a big smile, such enthusiasm and friendliness, and such kindness, it brought a tear to my eye and still does as I write this.It’s appropriate to call this mysterious and amazing little girl Borjana, because just as the older Borjana was of a generation that saw Yugoslavia through war and pain and resilience and reconstruction, Little Borjana is the future.
She is the future of Bosnia, and the future of the Balkans, and the future of all of us. A perfect little thing unspoilt by the turmoil and hatred of the past. With a beautiful smile and a little kind heart that could end all wars in a stroke.I’ve been thinking about Little Borjana all day. As we walked around Sarajevo, we saw another side of Bosnian kids, agressively begging and mischief-making unsupervised on the streets. How they contrast with her. And her mother left a mark on me too. Throughout the trip she looked down-spirited and worried, holding her chest constantly and seeming quite emotionally and physically unwell. Yet how she smiled every time she saw me and Borjana having fun. It was a genuine but pained smile which I can’t get out of my head.For Borjana and her young mother, I got the impression things are hard, but their spirit is tough and brave and determined to find fun everywhere in the world and everywhere in life. This strength and spirit is what makes Sarajevo the greatest city you could ever see, and Bosnia the greatest country. And it’s what made Little Borjana the most amazing little girl I have ever met.
If the future of this part of the world lies in the hands of people like this, then Bosnia will surely and effortlessly return to the peace and beauty and prosperity it deserves, and everyone who comes here and tastes some of that richness of character will leave a better person.
I know that I will.