That Old Birth Lottery Thing Again.

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Remembrance Day was this week. For most of us, Remembrance Day is a day of sombre reflection. When I was still teaching it was an emotional day, preceded by two weeks of feverish activity, as my students and I helped prepare our school’s Remembrance Day Ceremonies. Then on November 11, I’d sit in the darkened gym and try not to get too emotional. The kids being so respectful and so very serious always choked me up. And by the time they’d read “In Flanders Fields” and played “Abide With Me,” I’d usually lose it altogether. “How lucky I was to be doing this job,” I always thought. And how lucky to be living in Canada. To be born when I was, and where I was. That old birth lottery thing again.

That’s kind of how Hubby and I felt on our recent trip to the Balkans. That we were lucky to be born in Canada when we were, and not in a country that was subsequently torn apart by war.

Of course everyone our age grew up knowing about Yugoslavia, the names of its major cities, maybe other places, as well. Many of us know something about the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the events in Sarajevo which started World War I. And, of course, parts of the Balkan region are known to most Canadians (at least those old enough to be able to listen to the radio and read news reports in the nineties) as the place where Canadian troops were stationed as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force during the wars of independence in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Towns and cities all over the Balkan region were known to us, mostly by their names, the reports of fighting, and the statistics of those wounded or killed. We had no idea what these beautiful places were really like.

But Hubby and I had long wanted to find out.

I haven’t talked on the blog about the war in the Balkans. I don’t feel at all qualified to proffer an opinion on such a complex situation. Except to say that I am glad for the sake of everyone who lives there that it’s over. Hopefully for good. And happy that beautiful old cities and towns like Dubrovnik, so devastated by shelling, have been rebuilt. Bosnia-Herzegovina is of special interest to many Canadians because our troops spent a lot of time there on peacekeeping missions, the last of which was wrapped up only in 2010. And I’ve been interested in seeing the country for myself ever since I read Edna O’Brien’s heart-wrenching book The Little Red Chairs.

roads in Republika Srpska, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Rugged hills in this part of Herzegovina are reminiscent of Montenegro

So after leaving the Dubrovnik area last month, we headed inland for Mostar and three days in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We followed Rick Steves’ advice and decided to drive the back country through Serb Herzegovina, instead of the more commonly travelled coastal road. The countryside is rugged, like Montenegro and parts of Croatia, and the bare limestone hills looked familiar to us. We intended to stop for a mid-morning coffee in Trebinje, in a part of Herzegovina called the Republika Srpska. As we read in our guide book, “You can’t get a complete picture of the former Yugoslavia without sampling at least a sliver of Serb culture.”

But as we entered Trebinje, and approached a round-about heading to the town centre, two police cars entered the roundabout, and slewed to a stop, lights flashing, sirens blaring. The policemen alighted and began to wave cars out of the roundabout. They were gesticulating so furiously that we didn’t dare stop to ask directions, but turned off and proceeded to follow the car in front of us.

There were no redirection signs, and no police directing us to an alternate route. So after several cross streets we tried to get back on the main artery into town. No luck. More police cars with flashing lights, although no sirens this time. Everything was blocked off. What the heck was going on? Some sort of emergency, obviously, but what? A big fire, a major gas leak, some sort of multiple vehicle traffic accident… what? We tried to follow cars that turned away, but that only got us lost down one-way lanes, and even an apartment parking lot.

At one intersection, Hubby pulled the car over and I walked down to the main street where a policeman was yelling back at a woman who’d been yelling at him. When she stomped off, I approached smiling, and asked if he spoke English. No. So, I held up my i-phone with the name of the next town on our route. A route which took us down that blocked off main street. I raised my hands in a gesture that I hoped conveyed confusion. I was still smiling ruefully when he waved me away impatiently, and then even turned his back on me. And I’m pretty sure he said, “Not my problem.” “Uh, that’s very helpful,” I muttered to his back. Okay, I know that was dumb to talk back to a cop in a foreign country… but jeeze there was no need to be rude.

Eventually we made our way as far as we could in more or less the direction we wanted to go, before we were caught in a snarl of traffic. Hubby pointed across the blocked street and said we needed to be “over there,” but we most definitely could not get over there. As we sat stopped, three cars back from the intersection, we saw a flash as a colourful peleton of cyclists swished past. It was just a glimpse, but it was enough to enlighten us. A bicycle race? So not a fire, or a gas leak, or a major accident.

Ha. We’re still laughing about that. And the remembered sight of those two cop cars slewing into the roundabout, with sirens blaring. Sirens? Really? Wouldn’t some detour signs and a few saw horses with redirection arrows have worked better? We’d now wasted the morning being lost, and even panicking a little at not being able to find anyone to tell us what was happening. And we had places to be, so once the road opened, and we were able to do so, we made tracks for Mostar. I should say that we were only able to finally do that with the help of a young police officer who was patient enough to direct us.

Anyway. We did NOT get our coffee or our stroll around Trebinje that morning. Or, sadly, our “sliver of Serb culture.”

coffee shop in Republika Srpska, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Is anybody home?

But happily we didn’t have to go uncaffeinated for long. An hour or so up the road we spied this place. The coffee was excellent. We chatted happily with the owner, and then went on our way.

coffee shop in Republika Srpska, Bosnia-Herzegovina
This avowed tea drinker might be persuaded to convert to coffee.

The countryside in Bosnia-Herzegovina is magnificent. Rugged, as I said before, and beautiful. And we had a perfect day for our journey. We had no idea that we’d been climbing slowly, and inexorably since we left the coast… until we started our descent. We drove down and down and down. My ears even popped at one point.

driving in Bosnia-Herzegovina
We had no idea we were up so high until we began to descend.

I took a video to give you a feel for the road as we rumbled along, down, down, down. It’s a bit blurry but you get the idea.

A very long way down.

Soon we’d entered a whole different area of the country. The town of Stolac with its minarets and mosques, where we stopped for a stroll. And eventually Capljina, our destination, on the river Neretva, which also flows through Mostar.

approaching a tunnel near Capljina, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Is that a … tunnel? Yes, yes it is.

Finding our accommodation outside of Capljina was interesting. We drove along increasingly narrow roads, with the river on one side and stony cliffs on the other. And through a tunnel … or three.

tunnel near Capljina, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Tunnel number one.

We stopped to ask directions once, not trusting our GPS which had steered us wrong more than once on this trip. But the kind man who sent us down this road, must surely be wrong. Mustn’t he?

tunnel near Capljina, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Tunnel number two.

We almost turned around when it looked as if the road lead into a cave. But the cave had a kink in the middle and turned out to be a tunnel. Ha.

tunnel near Capljina, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Turn right at the stone wall.
tunnel near Capljina, Bosnia-Herzegovina
And tunnel number three.

One more tunnel to go and we were at our destination. Almost. We made a final stop at a church bazaar to ask directions, and a nice lady selling her wares instructed her young daughter to guide us to Vacation Home Katarina. We were surprised when the girl, who looked about eight, hopped in the back seat of our car with a grin, and said, “I show you.” And she did.

Vacation Home Katarina was our home away from home for two nights. It was immaculate, and so fully equipped that we decided to eat in that night. We’d enjoy a glass of wine in the garden, and then cook our own supper. We just had to navigate our way through those three tunnels, and ten kilometres or so back along the river, to Capljina to buy groceries. And you know, just like our host Julijana assured us, it was a lot easier the second time round.

The next day we were up early and off to explore Mostar. How to express the impact that Mostar had on me has been plaguing me for weeks. I don’t know where to start. It’s such a beautiful place. And so different from what we’ve seen on our travels before.

east side of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Mostar east of the River Neretva.

We spent a long time just wandering. I chatted with vendors. I almost bought some beautiful porcelain plates, came close to choosing a leather purse, demurred on the pashminas and scarves, considered the embroidered linen tableclothes, and ended up buying nothing at all.

street of shops in  Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Strolling past the small shops
bazaar in  Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Like a Turkish bazaar.
me in Rag and Bone pants and Vince tee in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
That’s the Hamman Museum behind me, originally a Turkish bathhouse.
alleys and cobblestones in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
We wended our way along alleys and lanes. This riverside terrace is where I hoped we’d eat lunch later.

We visited the Koski Mehmet-Paša Mosque, climbed the 89 steps up the narrow spiral staircase of its minaret, and chatted to the young ticket seller before we entered the mosque itself. We are so limited in our understanding of Islam. We didn’t want to offend or do the wrong thing, even though we’d read up on the protocol. He was so friendly and kind that we left feeling much better. If you don’t know, as Hubby always says, don’t be ashamed to just ask.

view of Stari Grad, Mostar from the top of the Koski Mahmet-Paša Mosque
View of rebuilt Mostar Bridge from the top of the minaret at Koski Mehmet-Paša Mosque
selfie at the top of the Koski Mahmet-Paša Mosque
Selfie at the top of the Koski Mehmet-Paša Mosque minaret.

Later we visited the Bišcevic Turkish House. Dating from 1635, it is apparently typical of old houses in Mostar. It was wonderful, cool and dim, with beautiful handmade rugs everywhere. And in the second floor “gathering room” lovely, comfortable, padded benches with views out over the Neretva River. We were the only ones there. Luckily we’d just missed a couple of large groups. And so we could imagine reclining, enjoying the view… and Hubby did recline, actually.

And finally, like all tourists who come to Mostar, we ended up at the old bridge. Well, actually the newly rebuilt old bridge, or Stari Most. In fact Mostar was named for the two fortified towers, called mostari, which guard either side of the old bridge. Built over 400 years ago, by Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, the arched bridge rising above the Neretva River is supposed to symbolize the circle of life, the other half of the circle being the reflection of the arch in the river below. Sadly when Mostar was engulfed in war in the nineties this venerable symbol of Mostar’s history was destroyed. If you watch the news footage you can see the red dust from the pink bauxite in the mortar. It turned the river red. Locals said the bridge, long a symbol of their city, was bleeding.

After the war city leaders wanted to rebuild and they did. Funded by international donors and overseen by UNESCO, the project used stones from the same quarry as the original stones, and worked from the original design, employing the same methods of construction as in the 16th century. It’s a magnificent sight.

Mostar old bridge, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
The arch of the bridge, and the reflection of the arch in the river below symbolize the circle of life.
Mostar old bridge, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Where east meets west, Stari Most, the Old Bridge, made new after the war.
Mostar old bridge, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Stari Most

Then it was lunch time and we backtracked to the terraced restaurant I’d spied when we first arrived. How did we know how to find it? We just followed our noses.

lunch on the terrace in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Lunch in a spot I picked earlier in the day.
bombed out building in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Not everything has been rebuilt since the war.
minarets of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
So many minarets. East side of Mostar from the western side.
climbing the stairs to the mosque in Pocitelj, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Beautiful Pocitelj.

On the way back to Capljina that afternoon, we stopped in pretty Pocitelj. It was the end of the day, so thankfully most of the street vendors had packed up for the evening, or were lazily smoking a cigarette, ignoring us. The tour buses were long gone. We climbed the stairs to the mosque, the metal domed roofs of the old hamman, or bathhouse, off to our right. We removed our shoes, and the lady at the door of the mosque gave me a scarf to cover my hair. We didn’t stay long. We were just kind of paying our respects, I guess.

Mosque and its minaret n Pocitelj, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Pocitelj mosque
Mosque in Pocitelj, Bosnia-Herzegovina
The mosque in Pocitelj and one amazing tree.

Back in Capljina we attempted to find the restaurant on the river that Juljiana had recommended when we arrived. After several wrong turns, we finally found Konoba Hercegovac, with the help of a girl in a clothing boutique who drew us a map and then came out on the sidewalk to gesture, wave the map, and apologize for her English. What a cutie.

We parked the car near a complex of apartment buildings that had seen better days. The storefronts in the bottom of the buildings were boarded up. Graffiti featured largely on the walls. Laundry hung from the balconies. A couple of smaller buildings seemed empty altogether. As we made our way down to the pedestrian walkway along the river we noticed a couple of restaurants that looked closed, for good. We were a little leery but trusted that Juljiana would not steer us wrong.

riverside restaurant in Capljina, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Dinner at Konoba Hercegovac, by the river back in C­apljina

And as it turned out we had one of the best meals of the trip. My veal was cooked under a metal baking lid called a peka that has been heaped with red-hot coals, and it was served with roasted potatoes and red peppers, and a generous dollop of the soft cheese of the region called kajmak. Not to mention a wonderful Croatian red wine. Oh, my goodness. I have never tasted anything more luscious. Hubby enjoyed his octopus too.

As we do, we fell into conversation with our waiter. He corrected me when I said how much we were enjoying Bosnia. “But you are not in Bosnia, here,” he said. “You are in Herzegovina.” Oh. “I am Croatian,” he said. “I do not live in Croatia. I have no desire to move to Croatia. I love Herzegovina. I am a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but I live in Herzegovina, and I am Croatian.” He had not said this with any anger at my faux pas. Nor with any outward animosity towards Bosnia. But with a calm certainty of who he was and where he belonged. And with that we began to understand a bit more what an uneasy, tentative union exists in this country.

Veal cooked under the peka in Herzegovina.
Finally getting to try peka.

I think the images from our three days in Bosnia-Herzegovina that will stay with me longest, are the contrasting ones. We see one thing, and then we see the antithesis of that. Walking down to that riverfront restaurant in Capljina, beside those empty, graffiti-covered buildings to that surprisingly wonderful restaurant. Or walking past the ruins of bombed out buildings in Mostar after having seen that beautiful rebuilt bridge. Or later the next day back in Croatia, enroute to Plitvice National Park, driving through a town with one wide street almost entirely empty and boarded up. And then turning a corner to find the next street alive with shoppers, and the terraces outside coffee shops filled with chatting coffee drinkers. The juxtaposition of one image with another adds poignancy to both, don’t you think?

I’m sorry that this post is so very long. I didn’t intend that to happen. But writing this has been a struggle. I laboured over how to give voice to my own thoughts about our trip, to share our journey and do justice to our experience without venturing into areas where I’d rather not go, and which I don’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to explore. I read a lot before our trip and more since we’ve come home, watched videos, even. In fact, I watched the footage of the destruction of the old bridge in Mostar just this morning. How shocking. How unimaginable. And yet back then we did imagine it. We saw it, and many of us turned away. Just another war someplace that had little to do with us. But it does have something to do with us. And by visiting there and seeing those places and meeting the people we understand that better.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have wanted to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina for a while now. Ever since I read about the siege of Sarajevo in Edna O’Brien’s book The Little Red Chairs. O’Brien’s book stayed with me long after I finished it, as wonderful books are wont to do. I wrote about it here if you’re interested. While Hubby and I did not get to Sarajevo on this trip, we did see enough of Bosnia-Herzegovina to fall in love with it. And with the people. As one of the characters in O’Brien’s book said:”War is a lottery.” And then he went on to remind the other character to thank their lucky stars that they did not live in a country torn apart by war.

I guess those of us who won the birth lottery, so to speak, who were lucky enough to NOT have to see our country torn apart should be thanking our lucky stars too.

P.S. The book links are affiliate links and will generate commission if you buy something after clicking on the link.

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38 thoughts on “That Old Birth Lottery Thing Again.”

  1. Excellent post Sue . Your best ever for me & please don’t apologies for the length of it . You hit just the right note by travelling today with respect for yesterday . The Mostar bridge we visited was the old one & I was in tears seeing it collapse on the news coverage . I never thought it would be rebuilt – such an accomplishment . Loved those tunnels .

    1. Thanks so much, Wendy. Travel brings all these places so much closer, doesn’t it? They’re part of our internal landscape now.
      P.S. Those tunnels were the best. Been in a few on our travels… but none like that little curved one. 🙂

  2. I have another book for you: “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” by Rebecca West, on the history of Yugoslavia.
    I cried when Stari Most was blown up. The whole conflict was so stupid, about things that hadn’t mattered before and don’t matter since. Like a lot of conflicts.
    I remember a friend calling me to ask me to tell his wife, who was elsewhere in Europe, he was OK (why not call her himself? I couldn’t figure that out. Maybe because he was lying). There was gunfire in the background. Then he stopped talking but the phone was still connected, and I heard people yelling “Run! Run!” as explosions rang out. Then the phone cut out and I was in agony for hours wondering what happened to my friend. (He was in fact OK.)
    Your photographs are beautiful. They are a funny mix of familiar (stone buildings, the countryside, even the tunnels are similar to here) and exotic (the hanging lamps, the mosque). The region has been on my bucket list since it was still Yugoslavia.

  3. Beautiful photos and very thoughtful post. My cousin in the Canadian military was on the front lines of the peacekeeping efforts immediately after the war: it was devastating work that he never got over. I think a lot about the birth lottery. I just read Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee and it’s about the refugee experience (she was an Iranian refugee as a child.) I highly recommend it as it’s a beautiful book with similar themes. One can only feel very grateful to live in a place like Canada.

    1. I wish we could all read about refugees a little more…instead of just reports on the news. So much nasty stuff on the net, on FB in particular. Nastiness usually based on misinformation.

  4. I’ve been reading more about Croatia since we’ve been back and the history of that region is fascinating and difficult — and then I’m also reading in preparation for a visit to Sicily next year and there are many echoes. Waves of intruding settlers, competing religions, ethnicities . . . in beautiful but also often stark and challenging landscapes. . . .
    We were struck, as you were, by the contrasts that nestled so closely to each other, that effect of turning a corner.
    O’Brien’s book is so rich and yes, beautiful, but gutting, absolutely gutting. . . .
    And I agree with Wendy — no need to apologize for the length of this splendid, thoughtful, observant post.

  5. Very moving post. And I agree, one of your best. It brought me to tears while thinking about those people and how they suffered. And how do you go on with your lives after that?

  6. We spent a very happy day in Mostar, enjoying beautiful weather, a fantastic lunch and plenty of time to admire the bridge and the divers. But we were also sobered by the apartment blocks still marked by bullets and the effects of shells. And the ruins of the synagogue which was going to be rebuilt at some point. Slogging up a steep road, I looked up and saw a large sign saying: SARAJEVO and pointing the way to go. It felt frankly peculiar after all the footage from the war.

  7. I enjoy reading longer posts especially if they are about places I have never visited. I know that one day I would love to visit Mostar and Dubrovnik and probably some other places too. Eastern Europe has always been a bit of an enigma to me. I don’t know much about its history and, back in the 90s, was too busy being a (selfish) university student to give much thought to what was going on in the Balkans. Strangely enough, on a study trip to Zurich, I had met 2 young men – refugees from the Balkan crisis. They claimed to be Croatian and Serbian. I had asked them about the war but they would not talk about it. They seemed happy enough working in a pizza shop in that beautiful Swiss city. I think of them sometimes and wonder whether they ever went back home. If you would like to read another very poignant book about this conflict, I would recommend ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ (if you haven’t already read it). I enjoy reading your blog, even though I usually don’t comment 🙂

  8. I appreciate your sensitive writing here. You haven’t blundered in with assumptions and judgements as I find so many people do when talking about war,for example in Northern Ireland.
    I lived through those 30 years and I have my own feelings and beliefs about what happened. It was horrendous on all sides. I love Ireland from my soul though and could never live anywhere else.
    Like I said,I appreciate how you were respectful to all.

    1. Thanks, Mary. I tried not to pretend that I understood the situation… it’s just too complex. By the way, we visited Northern Ireland in 2011. Oh my… I loved it there. Loved all of Ireland, in fact.

  9. I found this post incredibly moving,my daughter-in-law is from this part of the world, and whenever we’ve talked about the war I’ve tried not to tread on any toes. It was a complicated time, and lets hope will never be repeated. They are very proud people.
    I have read ” The Little Red Chairs ” a harrowing story and not typical Edna O’Brien !
    Your photographs are beautiful !

    1. Thanks, Maisie. We certainly heard lots of differing opinions in Slovenia, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in parts of Croatia. But no one really slagged off anybody else, which I thought was good.

  10. This post contained beautiful images and thoughtful commentary from your travels…we are indeed winners of the birth lottery to have been born and live in Canada. I am grateful indeed for the opportunities we’ve had to travel but always am so content to return to our home in this wonderful and blessed country.

  11. This was a lovely reflective post containing some beautiful pictures of the places you visited. Yes, we are fortunate to live in countries, UK and now Canada, who have not seen war on their soil in their lifetimes.

  12. As always, I am sad when I read the last sentence of your blog. Thank you for taking the time to share the historical aspects of your travel and for bringing us along to experience the wonder and beauty and excitement of this trip. I’m already anxious for your next trip!

  13. Your post brought back so many memories of my trip to then-Yugoslavia. I visited Mostar too and walked on the old bridge. When I saw the pictures of its devastation in Time magazine, I
    cried at its destruction and was glad that I had taken a photo of this historic site. It was
    gratifying to see your picture of it, rebuilt. Unlike you, I succumbed to the markets and came home with 3 rugs, which I still love to this day! And also had one of the best meals of the whole trip there.

  14. Thank you for sharing your journey and your perspective on all that you saw and experienced! In addition to being a delightful travelogue, it was also a poignant reminder of how much we who won the “birth lottery” have to be thankful for.

  15. Sue, you did good. I love how you travel and then share your way of traveling with all of us. This post was one of your best.

    You’ve made it so vivid for us, thanks to the smart contrasts you saw and drew and your good photographs. Thank you so much.

    Ann in Missouri

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