Faintly green, the glass of rakia in my hand was hitting several spots at once. But so was Sarajevo. I fell for a cosmopolitanism that I didn’t feel in Belgrade or any other Serb burg. Beneath it, though, was a general uneasiness, a patchwork of fissures that probably springs from that same cosmopolitan nature. And history. Always the history.
Hunched over the bar, I was feeling great. My first real day in Sarajevo, let alone Bosnia-Hercegovina (BiH for short) couldn’t have gone better and it wasn’t even dinner time yet. When I stepped out from my moderately-priced guesthouse that morning in the old Turkish quarter of Bascarsija, the sky had opened up. A deep blue, cloudless version draped the city in every corner. The weather played along and was warm enough to rid you of your jacket but not your long pants. Sarajevo coats the mountainous valley that has cradled it for centuries. Right down the middle the Miljacka river splits the valley in half. On either side of the river, the town continues like moss up the steep hills and as I scaled them I found myself lost in quieter neighborhoods. Scratch that, it’s impossible to get lost in Sarajevo. All you need to do is look for the river and you’ll be fine.
Crossing the Miljacka at several points are handsome stone bridges, many of them of historical import. The Latin Bridge may be the most noteworthy as it was there in 1914 that Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, managed to introduce a bullet to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s jugular. His co-conspirators had all missed but Gavrilo, apparently a shitty marksmen himself, got lucky and started WWI.
Minarets, multiple brands of cross and stars of David vie for prominence on Sarajevo’s skyline but as I noticed, not one of them had a monopoly on the view. Likewise, a variety of cafes, restaurants and bars vied for the BiH marks in my pocket. I frequented many of them as I happily explored the “Jerusalem of Europe” on foot but it was a tiny joint, quite literally a hole in the wall, that I glanced at accidentally that made me pause my exploration. That and thirst.
The establishment, no bigger than the kitchen in my Brooklyn apartment, contained about five or six guys with significantly more years than I. They were all standing there doing what people do in bars and appeared to be having a grand time. I pulled up a stool, painted on a big smile, and couldn’t say anything more than “pivo, molim” or “beer, please”. It was a kind of record-skipping moment you see in old Westerns when the new guy walks into the saloon. The weathered bartender put an ice-cold bottle of Sarajevska Pivo (proudly brewed a few blocks away) in front of me and then, along with a few other patrons, watched to see what I would do next. Unsurprisingly, I began drinking it.
Fast forward about half an hour and I was in tipsy conversation with a genial musician who must have been in his 60s and whose breath smelled of quite the head start. He had on a bright red shirt and a black vest. We were each enjoying what amounted to a beaker of a regional rakia made from actual green grass. Delicious, yet strong as hell, it was the perfect conversational lubricant. Being the most fluent resident English speaker, my new friend pontificated on subjects ranging from the war, religion, music, the University of Georgia that his daughter attended and his dislike for the American living-to-work ethos. He introduced me to Admiral, a locally renowned poet with an ambitious name. There was also a thin bald man in a blazer who kept trying to talk to me in several languages in the hope of cracking my origin. He was dead on when he eventually guessed Arabic but if he was looking for conversation he chose the wrong Arab. The musician really vouched for this guy and told me he used to be a commander in some army though he didn’t specify.
The dual tributaries of pivo and rakia eventually converged into a flood of traditional song. A guitar came out of nowhere. The musician and a friend of his, who resembled a Greek Hulk Hogan in chef whites, began to strum and belt out several songs from the old country. For my sake, they threw out, “It’s Now Or Never” by Elvis. It was a throw-down.
As the party was breaking up, I put my arm around the musician and hungrily asked him one of my standard questions.”Before you go, can you please tell me where I can get some good, typical Bosnian food?”
He looked at me and smiled. “We go now to the best place,” he put his fingers to his mouth and kissed them, “that have the best food!” Greek Hulk had left to pull his car round front and I went up to the bar to pay a surprisingly small tab; surprising because I had gotten half of the bar sauced. I bid farewell to the ponytail-ed bartender and walked outside to Greek Hulk’s car. A good representation of the bar had gotten into the vehicle. The musician opened one of the backseat doors for me to climb into and we both saw that the space was taken up by a baby’s car seat. The musician and Greek Hulk looked at each other and then at me and shrugged their shoulders.
“I am sorry, George,” the musician said as if I just lost a loved one. “The seat, it is . . . I’m sorry, George!” Greek Hulk began repeating the same mantra. Being in my mid-thirties, I’m no stranger to being displaced by children and/or their car seats but these guys were almost twice my age. Just how prolific were they?
The car sped away and I was left standing in the middle of the street, chuckling to myself. What was left to do? I turned around and went back inside the bar. I still had a couple hours before dinner time.
WHAT: a bottle of Travarica (tra-vuh-reets-a), a rakia made from grass
WHEN: June 5, 2012
WHERE: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina