Friday, September 16, 2005

Sarajevo 1

I arrived here in Sarajevo, Bosnia, after a long flight through Munich. Down the precarious steps out of the small plane, into the recently refurbished airport that already smelled like my Nana's apartment - stale cigarettes and dust. The airport gleamed in its newness, and even though it is small, it is pretty nice. The driver, who speaks nary a word of English, dropped me off at the cute little Hotel Gaj (pronounced "guy") tucked behind a cute pair of restaurants (Vinonteka and Pizzeria Gaj). The hotel reception is managed by these two young girls who are really nice behind their unbelievable makeup. I wonder how they can get their eyelids open with that much mascara.

The office is in many ways an allegory for the city as a whole. It is off a side street of a side street, in a huge building that at one time seems to have been covered with pink stucco, but now is stripped to bare brick. It looks like it is about to crumble, and you can see all over it the pock marks left by bullets and shrapnel. Inside, however, it is overwhelmingly modern. Brand new everything, metal and marble and gleaming clean glass. High speed internet, business people in suits, a coke machine. The difference is surreal, and does not go unnoticed by the staff here.

All over the city, you see buildings wrecked by the war. Beautiful old Austro-Hungarian period buildings with their wedding-cake flourishes and horrid Soviet-chic towers of concrete alike were bombed, bulleted, and burnt. Right beside them, however, are brand-new towers of glass and steel, or newly rehabilitated historic buildings. Art galleries and restaurants and offices function like nothing ever happened, but the scars are not even close to being healed. The whole place seems stretched between an Eastern history that is painful and frightening and a possible European future that holds promise and challenges. It can't be easy.

The city is situated in a valley, surrounded by many rolling green hills, dotted with square two- or three-story houses with sloped tile roofs. It is really beautiful, especially last night. As we walked to dinner at the cozy and good Italian restaurant Fellini, the sun set from behind us, casting a peachy glow down the main street of the city center and out onto the hill in the distance, emphasizing its greenness and the romance of the little houses.

It seems to me that few streets run straight here, and even fewer flat. It is a maze of twisting old lanes, barely one car wide, sometimes not even that. How people find their way around is beyond me. It seems almost as though the city is trying to keep its secrets hidden, a labyrinth challenging you to look a little deeper for the real thing.

They have electric busses that must be older than I am, running on their overhead wires. I love that. There are public gardens and parks that are cared for -- this, I tell you, is one of the key indicators of development. People stop at the traffic lights, and stay stopped until they turn green.

I could stay here for weeks and never tire of exploring and learning about this fascinating city and the amazing people in our office.

1 comment:

eninnej said...

*sigh* I'm so very jealous. Would you do me a favor and keep an eye out for a group of older men playing chess with knee-high game pieces in the big plaza where the Orthodox and Catholic churches are? I spent many entertaining moments watching them on my one (all too brief) trip to Sarajevo, and I'd love to know whether they're still at it.