Meaning in Mostar

May 2014 (iPhone 5s)

When the beautiful is so beautiful it becomes documentation
When the beautiful does all the work for you, it becomes documentation

Mostar was special to someone I wanted to be special to. I had a day to create meaning, to find the words to express what I felt, to capture somehow the essence of the city in a photograph and discover what made Mostar so special to that person.  However after a bus ride from Sarajevo, little food and the logistics of arriving at our hotel, by the time we made it to the iconic Old Bridge, I was distracted and tired. I took horrible selfies on the bridge with my equally exhausted friend, bought a bath rug and another tourist souvenir that made no sense, birds pecking on a wooden paddle. Yet like every tourist, I wanted to see more. The tour company in Sarajevo had instilled in me a desire to see the Blagaj Tekke or the Dervish monastery. I saw one photo from their homemade folder and I thought to myself I have to see that. My friend wanted to do the History of Former Yugoslavia and Death tour and I wanted to see all the pretty waterfalls and things surrounding the city. We made an annoying compromise for the tour operator. We decided on one important sight from both tours, the Partisan Memorial Cemetery and the Dervish house, plus an Orthodox church on the way.

On top of Partisan Memorial, once dangerous bike ramp for our tour guide
On top of Partisan Memorial, once dangerous bike ramp for our tour guide

Our tour guide spent the most time telling us about the Partisan Memorial. How the Serbian architect Bogdan Bogdanović had designed it to be a place where families came for picnics and children played, our tour guide being one of them. Designed as a luscious garden filled with lavender, now there were broken beer bottles and unused tampons and sanitary pads scattered around, embarrassing our guide. He thought it was planted by the government still trying to oppress them, which I didn’t quite understand and maybe I had mentally checked out to take a photograph and then accidentally melded two separate ideas together, tampons and governmental conspiracy. In between the weeds, he pointed out the names of some of the buried on crumbled tombstones, how before the war, no one thought about ethnicity but after, it became the first thing he thought of when he saw a Serb, Muslim or Croat name. From the memorial we had an almost a panoramic view of the city, and he pointed out a church that was reconstructed after the war, how it was much smaller and more beautiful originally. In the mountains, he pointed where there were still land mines. On top of one of the hills, he told us how the top a steel tower was bent over and hanging, just about to fall down until finally it did, ten years later. Bogdanović was the only Serb to be buried in a Jewish cemetery as he refused to be buried next to possible war criminals. I thought, Bogdan was really cool. The Partisan Memorial was starting to seem special.

We drove to the Blagaj Tekke. Our tour guide had one thing to say. It was founded by mystical Turkish monks who believed in the power of beauty and so they tried to pick the most beautiful spots they could for their monasteries. And that was all folks.


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It was one of the few places I visited where the real thing was exactly like the photograph. Well, other than being about to drink the water, go inside the house and see the area around the monastery, etc. But I think the tour guide thought the beauty could speak for itself but it couldn’t.

View from the other side
View from the other side
Cafe in front of Blagaj Tekke (Dervish House)
Cafe in front of Blagaj Tekke (Dervish House)
Inside the monastery
Inside the monastery

Back near the Old Bridge in Mostar, we had dinner next to a smaller stream which had even smaller bridges in the same design as the Old Bridge creating an even quainter layer inside the original. I studied the architecture around me and the most descriptive feeling I could come up with was Islamic fairy tale. But I knew this was somehow wrong, fairy tale being German Romantic. Plus I didn’t know any Islamic love stories, plus we were in the Balkans, it just looked Islamic. My friend’s suggestion of  Arabian Nights seemed wrong and Aladdin seemed really wrong. Ultimately, I didn’t have the knowledge, energy, or the time to create meaning or form a connection. The only reason it would be special to me was because it was special to someone else. I only had surface words to convey, beautiful and fairy tale, the poetic remained untold.

Garden courtyard of the Biscevica House or Turkish House
Garden courtyard of the Biscevica House or Turkish House

 

Sarajevo

Before I left for Sarajevo, I had just watched The Grand Budapest Hotel and was reeling from enthusiasm for the film. Little did I expect to find a Bosnian reincarnation of M. Gustave in a little Villa found through Booking.com. He even had Gustave’s sprightly dancing feet, always approaching us with a smile, a bearer of good news. My friend and I had our own personal concierge. A retired restaurant owner, he was proud of his collection of star-studded photographs of his more famous guests such as Bill Clinton and Michael Douglas during the 90s which lined the walls of his reception area. He picked us up from the airport, drove us to our restaurant and the bus station, made dinner reservations, made breakfast, carried our luggage, called the bank, and did all this speaking to us only in German. He was not phased when I spoke German back. Vila Una was located in the residential areas up in the hills between our New York Times recommended (these recommendations can be hit or miss but mention nytimes and I will usually go along) restaurant Kibe and the main Bazaar and city center Baščaršija. We either had to walk down or walk up to reach the two.

View from Villa Una
View from Villa Una

We walked down the hill and the first shop we went into was the bazaar’s most famous.

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We were greeted with another photograph of Bill Clinton. We saw him everywhere in Sarajevo. It was the only shop in which the salesman was wearing a suit. He was damn good, a true professional. After my friend had decided on two of the smaller purchases, he brought out the biggest possible purchase (I thought, oh man you’re pushing it and my friend was already protesting) she could have made and offered her a discount if she also took the huge coffee maker (right under his tie in the photo above). And she bought it, as a gift for herself !

We spent the day doing a private car tour of the Tunnel Museum, the remains of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic sights and a viewpoint known for snipers. I didn’t feel the majesty of a great civilization like I did on top of the Acropolis, but I felt the bravery of a resilient and tolerant people although I couldn’t help thinking, why did you build your city in a valley surrounded by mountains… A gentle and kind people aware they got seriously fucked but are not out to fuck others.

I asked the driver to stop the car for these photos. Sadly my iPhone camera was not enough for these shots. This is when I felt sad over its limitations. Rolling mountains, alternating between all shades of green and blue depending on the foliage was a theme driving through Bosnia.

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Near the Olympic sights

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A sniper’s view. Amazing, killing people while looking at this view.

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Our last dinner in Sarajevo was at this beautiful and modern restaurant Kibe, further up the hill from Villa Una.

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The starry lights of the city from Kibe
The starry lights of the city from Kibe

After a delicious dinner, feeling light-hearted and happy we started our walk down having been driven to the restaurant by our “concierge.” During our two days, I had yet to see any cemeteries (other than the old Jewish cemetery) having expected them everywhere. Then suddenly they appeared, the makeshift cemeteries from the war. They were further up in the hills, behind backyards, where people lived. They crept up like slender white ghosts surprising us in the night. Reminding us of their presence, when I had almost forgotten.

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