The Kindness of Strangers…
With the clock nearing in on 10pm, the rough Bosnian train begins to near the city lights of Sarajevo. I’d taken this train 7 years ago and was able to count on one hand the number of people on the entire train! This year, however, boarding at Mostar we found ourselves packed into a compartment with three others, and all the baggage associated.
Sitting across from me was a man similar in age to me who hadn’t spoken the entire journey. Moments from stopping at Sarajevo station he introduced himself as Alen, a Graphic designer travelling from Mostar to Sarajevo. As we disembarked and I went to give him my contact information so we might stay in touch, or perhaps meet up in the city, he realized we were also looking to take a Taxi to town, so he asked if we wanted to share. Fifteen minutes and an 18 KM fare later, we arrived at our stop. I pulled out my wallet to pay, yet our new found friend insisted, it was on him – we could “repay” him with drinks another night. With that… we were off to climb the 5 flights of stairs to our temporary home at our hostel.
With that I pause for a moment. Replay this same scenario in your head in your home city…. New York, Chicago, Montreal… wherever home might be. How far do you get in this story before you pull out a phone or something to break the conversation? Speaking only for myself perhaps, I certainly would not end up getting into a cab with a random stranger who just happens to be heading towards the same direction as I without questioning the situation heavily. After years of travelling in the Balkans however, I’ve learned this is more of the norm than the exception. Whether it is a car picking you up (basically as a hitch-hiker) when you miss a bus, new found friends leading you around a “pub crawl” of their city, or your apartment landlord for a month cooking you an beautiful meal of fresh fish & risotto for a thank you lunch – these things almost become the new normal.
If nothing else, it certainly makes you ask yourself why it can’t be the same at home. Looking at it from a 30,000 foot view, it doesn’t make any sense. History hasn’t been kind to the Balkans…. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that nearly any person you meet who is exhibiting the kindness I’m speaking of has lived a life 10X more challenging than our own in the States. We aren’t only talking about poverty, or lack of jobs. Nearly every person in this region has a story to tell about their life during the war, whether it is running from an army who is trying to force them to fight their neighbors, or being literally enslaved in a concentration camp. One might think that these things would crush the humanity and make everyone fear their neighbor, and retreat inward. Remarkably however, somehow, it has done the reverse.
Sarajevo has always held a special place in my heart, for a reason I perhaps can’t even understand myself. I yearned to visit the city back on my first trip to Prague in 1999, but couldn’t quite work it out as there was nearly 0 tourist infrastructure at that point. I had heard, however as early as then, reports of NGO workers living there who spoke of the remarkable life and vitality of the city, and the youthful spirit that carried the city through the siege. I visited first in 2002 staying at the Guesthouse Halvat on the recommendation of a friend who lived in the city as an NGO worker after the siege. Each subsequent return visit, I never questioned staying with Valida at the Halvat once again – the location a stones through from the Basarcija and the homemade breakfasts and conversation something no hotel or hostel could match. This visit, perhaps very telling as to the increased popularity for tourism, the Halvat was full – yet we were invited for Coffee, famous Halvat pancakes & good conversation nonetheless.
I believe I’ve visited the city now 4 or 5 times, and have seen it go from having a single hostel, to nearly 2 on every block. From watching NATO SFOR troops wander the old streets eating ice cream looking with curiosity at tourists to navigating the odd tour group led by an umbrella toting leader. From walking down Marshala Tita avenue and seeing the burnt out shells of the parliament building and the two old skyscrapers destroyed in the war, to seeing them all clad in brand new glass and full of vitality – with the Azaz Twist skyscraper in the background – a new addition to the scene.
Much has changed in the city for the better. The beauty never left Sarajevo even in her dark hours. The “scrappy energy” that allowed the bars to operate on ½ generator power even as late as the early 2000’s has now turned into a city filled with absolute energy. You can sense the excitement and opportunity here. It’s not a place without problems – I am not that naïve. The political system is still a nightmare – a tri-patriate presidency created at the Dayton accords still governs the country, and does not allow for the same diversity that once was a characteristic of this place. Unemployment still remains high unfortunately as well, however this is improving as multi-national companies slowly return, and local incubators gain success. Strange challenges still abound…. One cannot mail even personal belongings from the post office (trust me, we tried) to America as the US blocks all Bosnian mail, presumably for some bizarre terror concern.
One comes to Sarajevo and leaves her with another friend after each visit. Not only a friend in the city, but in her people who welcome you in and enrich your experience. We all have something to learn from her story…..