Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reflections on a Balkan Vacation

Some of you know that I just spent two weeks in Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro with my husband John and some of our closest friends here in Chicago. I've been fascinated with the region since teaching in Prague and Budapest with the Soros Foundation back in the mid to late 90s.

I failed to keep any kind of travel journal this trip. I left that documenting to John, who does it far better and makes of it a kind of ritual for us: He writes as I drift off to sleep, then he reads to me over morning coffee as we put our heads together to catalogue small moments he may have missed, but still hopes to capture for posterity.

With my own ailing memory, though, I try to write down at least a few details -- just some random memories I don't want to lose -- on the back of travel itineraries and boarding passes, stuffed into my bag for archiving later. I haven't tackled that assortment of pages yet, but I'm guessing they'll trigger things that have already faded as I immerse myself back into the tedium of work.

So, how to capture any of that here? I could retell some of my fondest moments -- the perfect cevapcici taken in the heart of Sarajevo's Old Town one morning before John had even woken up; watching a diver finally take a plunge from Mostar's Old Bridge, reconstructed after total destruction during the Balkan war; an impromptu evening with our Mostar innkeepers, who opened a bottle of housemade brandy to share with us while telling stories of Bosnian life during wartime; buying homemade wine from a front porch, packaged for us in a reused two-liter Coke bottle, in a tiny unnamed village in Croatia; hanging out with our friends in our flat in Split, musing over how we would have been different had we been born in this part of the world; climbing fortifications and bell towers for panoramic views of tile roofs and turquoise water; witnessing evening prayer services -- men on one side, women on the other -- at a Sarajevo mosque; wading shoulder deep into the Adriatic Sea as John dove from rocks and swam as far as the barricades would let him.

I'm not sure any of this really gets at what was so powerful about the visit, though. I said to John I've never visited a place with a more profound sense of its own living history. This was probably truer, at least in our perception and experience, in Bosnia than either of the two other countries. But even in Croatia and Montenegro, you can't help but feel you're in a place that has struggled, suffered, and lost -- then rebounded with a resiliency I'm not sure we Americans would harness as readily.

So we walked, we drove, we swam, we ate, we eavesdropped, we photographed, we toured, we climbed, we overheated, we imbibed, we paid admissions, we got lost, we bargained, and we lamented the deficiencies of our own historical knowledge, all with a humbling sense of our good fortune to be in a place that essentially came back from the dead, then reopened its doors to the world.


tracy said...

I'm so glad to be reading this. I feel like I've been waiting on the edge of my seat for your encapsulated description of this trip--a place I realize now has not been on my radar of travel destinations any more, as it was before the war(s).

As I mentioned to you earlier, I'm reading a devastating novel about the war, so your gorgeous description of this region's comeback nearly brought me to tears by the end. That this place of such atrocity among neighbors could bounce back and offer stability to its own and hospitality to outsiders--even as the war crimes tribunals are still happening--gives me real hope.

Thank you for sharing this and letting the rest of us experience it vicariously.

Christy said...

Thanks, Tracy. This really meant a lot to me! I'd be interested in the title of the book you're reading so I can put it on my list.

leslie said...

That final paragraph is exactly why I am happy you travel and blog about it. Beautiful.

tracy said...

It's called
S., a Novel of the Balkans
by Slavenka Drakulic

It's about the rape camps, a fictional first-person account based on interviews the author did, published only a couple years after it happened. Gripping and horrible.

Christy said...

Thanks, Tracy! Didn't Slavenka Drakulic come and speak while we were at KU? I know I've seen her do a reading before.

Nicole said...

Hi Christy,

I stumbled upon your blog searching for "Balkan Vacation"... I am planning a trip next summer and am trying to decide whether to plan for London and the UK, or Croatia and Bosnia and beyond... I'd appreciate it very much if you would like to contact me via email. My address is I know NOTHING about travelling in eastern Europe and would like to know how you got around. Thanks! -Nicole