Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Letters from Sarajevo - Changing first impressions

My «reluctant to leave and let me grow up» inner child has always loved a bit of snow. Even as a grown up, it fills me with such glee, awaking in the small hours hoping that the extra-bright orange glow I can see through the curtains is street lights reflecting off a fresh blanket of snow. I would peek out the window and usually be disappointed. What I should have done was spend some time inland in the Balkans in winter. It would have cured me. For life.

Six days in and I have to say, the almost continual snowfall and resulting piles of filthly slush is beginning to lose its romantic appeal. Plus I don't have to go to work so there's nothing I can skive out of due to extreme weather. After 5 days of trudging into the city centre, having my face sandblasted with frozen water and a deep chill despite wearing full-on ski gear, the novelty value is starting to wear off.

View from our window
So, we are here in Sarajevo. We arrived! And we are here for a whole month. We came via Mostar, overnighting there in a pleasant enough hotel next to Old Bridge. I was quite bowled over by Mostar actually - the old town bit - it is such a cute, pretty place albeit small, the rest still being a bombed out, communist towerblock style shithole. We didn´t have much time but the bridge was an amazing structure, unlike anything I’d seen before. Remarkably for a wet, dingy Wednesday night in January, the (full of great books that I stupidly didn’t buy) the visitor’s centre was open and we watched a short film about the infamous bombardment of the bridge (by the Croats) and its reconstruction. It made me cry. We then feasted in a great restaurant with possibly the best veggie meal we´ve had in the Balkans and definitely the best beer, Mostarska Pivo, which we haven’t come across before or since. All very nice.

I didnt sleep well though as I was in a bit of a stress about the drive over the mountains in snow to Sarajevo plus I was woken up by another nightmare, this time I had shot someone and was being hunted by the cops (my brain’s reaction to the numerous bullet and grenade holes we’d been looking at during the dog’s bedtime walk). As it turned out, the journey wasn¨t too bad, we picked a good day, it was bad visibility on the mountains but the roads were clear of snow due to the massive juganauts tearing along the single carriageway, seemingly right at me. But their huge tyres cleared the roads of snow, at least.

We arrived 3 hours early to meet the woman whom we were renting the flat from so we waited in the car park outside what we thought was our apartment block. The car park was surrounded by 4 hulking towerblocks which had been shot up, shelled and mortared to shit. There was hardly a foot long stretch of cement that hadnt got a pockmark or grenade hole in it, and in some places there were craters with huge scars extending out in every direction where a mortar had exploded. It was absolutely mind-blowing. Almost every surface within the arm-stretch of a teenager was covered in graffiti and the ground was covered in black slush and piled up grey snow. It was possibly the grimmest urban setting we had ever seen, let alone were going to live in (which is saying quite a lot having spent 35 years in Birmingham and Nottingham). In fact, we’d never seen anything like it and sat in the car in a weird kind of trance, wondering (in my case) what the hell we had done.

Anyhow, after going through the "I don¨t think I can stay here but I never like places to begin with so have to give it a try" mental processing for 3 hours, we met up with Ana and Berina who, thank god, walked us 5 mins down the road to another apartment building in a slightly better looking square (we discovered the reason why the folllowing day - the area where our block is had been held by the Serb army so it had been spared mass bombardment and we are literally living on what had been the front line). The scars are still all too apparent (or this is what I thought 6 days ago. Now we know the place better, we can see how much has been done to rebuild the city, and how unbelievably damaged it must have been).

It has taken a few days adjusting to life in a grotty urban environment, with almost perpetual wet snow falling, temperatures rarely above freeying, in a weird place - but I am starting to like it, in a masochistic kind of way. I made the mistake of looking at the weather forecast for Tivat today (sun almost every bloody day for 2 weeks) and wished I hadn’t.

Luckily the apartment is only 30 mins stride along the river into the city centre, it is quiet, not facing the road, has a patch of grass outside for the dogs, is double glazed and has the most incredible heater Ive ever come across which blasts out enough heat to keep the whole place at around 22 degrees. And it is dry as a bone which makes a change from the boat which, to be honest, was beginning to get a tad grim in terms of damp and mould.

As for Sarajevo, the first few days, I just couldn’t move beyond the war and its obvious scars, especially living in this part of the city. Had we just visited the Old Town and poshed up downtown area, it would be easy to avoid it. But living in a flat here, trying to imagine how people survived the horror – it really gets to you.

We took a walking tour around the place 2 days ago with an inspiring young man. Not the usual thing we would do but this guy came highly recommended and it was really interesting talking to him about the politics both past and present. A very cold (we walked around for 2.5 hours in falling snow) but once in a lifetime experience. Then last night we went out in the Old Town for my birthday, the first time we’ve been into town at night and went to a few very cool, quirky places and actually managed to eat a decent veggie meal. Some great bars and a fair few people in them reminds me of why cities do have their advantages and we need to make the most of that before we return to the serenity of Montenegro.

The urbanite in me is grudgingly acclimatising to busy roads and not being able to see the sky. It doesn’t take long for it all to feel so normal again. School starts tomorrow – and that is what we are really here for; I’d almost forgotten!

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