About Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
Latest Posts by Robert Schrader
I was huffing in and puffing out the humid air, in spite of what the woman had told me the night before. Climbing in the morning, she’d insisted, would be easy.
I occasionally caught glimpses above the fortress walls on either side of me, my head bobbing erratically with each heavy thud on every second step. But I mainly just saw sky and stone and the blue-violet flowers that grew out it horizontally. And the occasional old man selling bottles of water I didn’t stop to buy because I wanted to save face.
Get to the top, the voice inside me scolded. You can enjoy the view on the way down.
Every 50 steps or so, usually around the time I’d turn a landing and head in a different direction, logical, linear thoughts like these would fill my head. The rest of the time, however, my consciousness was as tangled as the brush that covered the mountainside I was scaling.
Her apartment—the “morning climbs are easy” woman—was named for her grandmother Pela, whose ghost apparently still lives there, based on the old-lady decor. Isn’t it funny how taking two steps out my door in Croatia made me feel like I was having a heart attack, yet here I just feel embarrassed by heavy breathing?What if Danilo was here right now? The battle that occurred in Kotor in 1814 was a big loss for France, but not the biggest: At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender.
Just then, an older couple began approaching me as if I was the first person they’d seen in weeks.
“Would you mind taking our picture?” The woman asked in a British accent, her point-and-shoot hanging off her wrist like a piece of bait.
How could I ever refuse? I smiled and began snapping away.
My smile faded, however, when I noticed another couple approaching me, and then another after that. I could’ve taken this as flattery—the couples all assumed, because I carry a camera that looks much more expensive than it is, that I’m much more skilled than I am—but instead it just annoyed me.
It happens everywhere I go, and has since practically the day I started traveling. Usually I refuse to help out more than one or two couples, lest I lose the opportunity take my own damn pictures, but my exhaustion this day made me over-kind.
Now, I sighed and began descending, clouds having grayed the previously blue skies above Kotor Bay as I feared they would, it seems my only chance is giving up the fight.
For those of you who don’t know Kotor Bay, it’s also known as Boka and is a winding bay of the Adriatic Sea in southwestern Montenegro. The bay has been inhabited since antiquity. Yes, really.
The good news is that when I headed upward the next morning, much earlier than I had the one before, it was very sunny. The better news is that I only saw other solo travelers at this time of day—the couples were obviously still in bed cuddling, or sleeping facing opposite directions and dreaming about partners superior to their own.
The bad news was that every time I started my self-timer and headed down toward the Church of Our Lady of Remedy such that my selfie would be perfectly composed, one of said solo travelers walked into the frame, always at a point in the frame that would make them Photoshopping them out impossible (or at least awkward).
The way they moved called to mind the previous day, trapped inside the city walls with obese Americans and Canadians who were on recess from the behemoth cruise ship docked just outside the Sea Gate. They squished their way through Kotor’s narrow streets like a blood clot, dragging against the artery walls but not clogging them, although they made me secretly wish the old city would explode like a heart starved of oxygen.
I considered for a moment, looking down on the city, that it might be an ideal day to rent a car and head south to Budva or Ulcijn, as I’d always planned to do one of my three days in Montenegro, a thought the rental car lot I spotted from my perch corroborated.
But noticing that the steps were finally devoid of other morning climbers, I catalogued that thought, activated my self-timer and got into position.
Literally seconds after I made peace with spending my third of three nights in Montenegro inside Pela’s apartment, fluorescent streaks the color of Kotor’s roof tiles began appearing on the clouds that had, up to that point, convinced me I wasn’t going to get a view of the bay with any color but gray or blue above it.
As I began racing up the walls, trying desperately to go faster than the last light of day was receding, I recalled how, when I came down from them the previous morning, the asshole behind the desk had told me, a wide smile on his face, that they didn’t have automatic cars.
Resigned to my reality, I’d stepped inside the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, where a group of American tourists not much older than I am were standing in front of some Jesus paraphernalia, speaking about the man as if they’d just had pizza with him outside.
I watched the pathetic scene mockingly, remembering how I’d been only 4 or 5 when I came to the realization that religion was a total sham. And that Jesus was probably not white.
And yet here I was two-and-a-half decades later, trying to use outside factors—my inability to rent a car, the unseasonably wet weather, a beautiful sunset—to justify the poor decision making—I gave up after visiting one agency, I had an umbrella and sunsets are a matter of chemistry, not karma—that had caused me to squander three days in Montenegro entirely inside the old city of Kotor.
It was disappointing, but not surprising—it was the same sort of Stockholm Syndrome that had inspired me to stay in my relationship well past its expiration date. I feel like I win when I lose.
Every time I had a legitimate reason to leave him or even question why I was still with him, I’d appeal to an external circumstance:The serendipity of my having been seated next to the Consul General of the U.S. Embassy in San Jose a day before Danilo was going to submit his in-vain visa application; A prescient fortune I’d received after dining with him at our local Pan-Asian restaurant; or some sunset that would color the sky right at the climax of a fight I thought would end it all for good.
I tried to hold you back, I watched the scenes playing in my head much more intently than the Church of Our Lady of Remedy in front of me or the mostly colorless sky above it. But you were stronger.
I briefly considered retreating to my old-lady apartment in defeat, but instead decided that now—the short time I had before the blue hour gave way to the black night—would be a good time to see what the walls that had trapped me looked like from a distance.
I walked first westward and then northward around the mouth of the bay until I was precisely across from the old city. To my naked eye, the answer wasn’t immediately clear, even if the vertical distance I’d climbed three times did look more impressive from over the water than it had from immediately below it.
It wasn’t until the long-exposure selfie appeared on my camera’s LCD screen, showing the reflections of the fort in the water, that I made my startling discovery.
I was defeated, I shook my head in astonishment, noticing that a nearly-perfect heart shape encased Kotor—and, by proxy, me. You won the war.
Montenegro was one of the countries I was most looking forward to visiting on my recent two-week swing through the Balkans. This was due mostly to the Bay—and the old town of—Kotor, but also, as I deepened my research in the days preceding my trip, the rest of the treasures I was sure to discover in the country.
The bad news is that, for a number of reasons, I barely ventured outside of Kotor during the three days I was in Montenegro. The worse news? I spent my time in the country, both inside and outside the Kotor City Walls, feeling decidedly uninspired. Here’s why.
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
Montenegro is a beautiful country of dramatic mountain scenery, expansive bodies of water and a rich history that belies its small size. Kotor in particular is impressive, both because of its walled old town, as well as the fortifications that rise above it, which afford a jaw-dropping panorama of its namesake bay. For these reasons alone, Montenegro is indeed worth a visit, to answer the question posed in the title of this post. Unfortunately, the logistics of travel within Montenegro mean you might not be able to easily explore outside of Kotor
How to Rent a Car in Montenegro
I decided even before leaving Sarajevo and making my second foray into Croatia that I would spend three full days in Montenegro, and that although I would base myself in Kotor, I would explore, at minimum, the coastal towns of Budva and Ulcijn, near the Albanian border. I’d initially thought I would do this by bus and taxi, but after my positive experience of renting a car in Bosnia, I decided I’d be down for doing that again. So, I spent a full day exploring Kotor then, on the morning of day two, tried my luck at renting a car.
Renting a car in Montenegro, however, was much harder than it had been in Bosnia. In addition to the fact that online car rental companies didn’t seem to offer pick-up options within Kotor proper (only at the airport in Tivat, far outside of town), the agencies I walked into were unfriendly and unaccommodating—one man actually seemed relieved when I told him I couldn’t drive manual, which was the only type of car he had!
His laziness notwithstanding, the blame was not his alone. I mean, I could’ve prepared better for renting a car in Montenegro. On the other hand, I figured I had a Plan B and tried not to stress about it.
Montenegro Buses and Taxis
My hope of renting a car in Montenegro thwarted, I pivoted to what had been my original strategy: Exploring Montenegro by a combination of buses and taxis. Unfortunately, while bus schedules—and times—proved inhospitable for this (by the time I realized I wouldn’t be able to rent a car, it would’ve been impossible even to get to nearby Budva and back by nightfall), taxis were expensive. The lowest price I could haggle down to was €30 one way, for a journey of about 20 kilometers!
The high price of taxis in Montenegro—and the low availability of buses there—also underscores why I ended up removing Kosovo from my Balkans itinerary, in spite of how geographically close it is to Montenegro. Had I gone, it actually would’ve been faster to fly to Zagreb and back down again instead of traveling by land!
Take a Day Trip to Montenegro from Dubrovnik, Croatia
One way to visit Montenegro without wasting the time and money I did is to take a day trip from Dubrovnik, Croatia. Doing so has two main benefits.
First of all, when you visit Montenegro by boat from Dubrovnik, your first impression of Kotor is the one you see entering the Bay of Kotor, with the fortifications rising high above the old town on a mountain. The way Kotor’s architecture and scenery interact is one of the best things about Montenegro, so this is a wonderful first impression indeed.
Secondly, this also prevents you from having to sleep in Kotor. Although I enjoyed my apartment within Kotor’s town walls, I can’t lie: Constantly having to navigate around thousands of tourists, many of them from the large cruise ship parked just outside, negates most of the charm of such an impeccable location.
Have you been to Kotor or to Montenegro? I’d love to hear your thoughts below, if you have.
Truth be told, my best friend is Swiss, so I’ve traveled to Switzerland nearly a dozen times over the past decade. During this last trip, I’ve visited Zurich on ten separate occasions (Bianca lives in the canton of Aargau, which is only 15 minutes by train from Zurich Hauptbanhhof), but it was only very recently that I began to appreciate the city, which is frequently ranked as having the best quality of life in the world.
To a first- (or even second- or third-) time visitor, Zurich can come off as cold, boring and even ugly. It also happens to be one of the most expensive locations on the planet! If you play your cards right—and read my recommendations below—I imagine you’ll fall in love with Switzerland’s largest city a lot faster than I did.
Day 1: Stories from the City, Stories from the See [sic]
Actually, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone can see Zurich as being ugly. Whether you feed swans on the banks of Lake Zurich (Zurichsee), drink wine along the River Limmat or marvel at architectural wonders like Fraumünster or Grossmünster, Zurich is indisputably beautiful, particularly on clear days when you can see the Swiss Alps in the distance.
Zurich is extremely expensive, however, which is why I prefer buying a bottle of booze at a Coop supermarket, strolling around the city and watching rich people get lit at 15 francs per drink, rather than heading even to “cheap” bars on seedy Langstrasse myself. Bread is also pretty cheap in Zurich—and those swans are always hungry.
Day 2: Get Out of Town!
Switzerland participates in the Eurail program. Whether you buy a Swiss rail pass, a Eurail global pass or a multi-country pass that includes Switzerland, there is no other country in Europe where a rail pass pays for itself faster than in Switzerland.
Why do I mention this now? Well, because of Switzerland’s size, Zurich is an ideal base for day trips—and there are literally dozens to take, whether you head north to the spectacular Rheinfall waterfall, southwest to the Swiss capital of Bern (which, as its German name suggests, is actually home to real-life bears), or charming lakeside cities like Luzern or Zug or northwest, where you’ll find medieval Baden and Bruno Weber Park, a Gaudi-like wonderland just outside of industrial Dietikon.
Day 3: Go Tell It On The Mountain
Another great use of a Swiss rail pass is traveling to the Swiss Alps, although I should state up front: The pass does not include use of the “Top of Europe” train, but rather a discount—and a modest one at that.
Bianca’s family loves spending time in Engelberg and Melchseefrutt, which are located near the city of Luzern, but incredible Alpine destinations are literally a dime a dozen in Switzerland. Another popular mountain getaway within easy day-trip distance of Zurich is Interlaken, while Zermatt (a town popular for its views of the Matterhorn) is better seen if you have a night to spend there.
When the owners of my guest house in Mostar, Bosnia picked me up, they seemed genuinely endeared by my interest in their country—and adamant that theirs wouldn’t be the only Bosnian city I visited. “You must go to Sarajevo,” they insisted. “It’s incredible, but in a very different way than Mostar.” At the time, I smiled and nodded, not wanting to explain to them that my two weeks in the Balkans were packed as it was. The more research I did on Sarajevo, however, the more visiting the city seemed like a good idea.
1. Sarajevo is kind of a hot mess—the best kind
An amalgam of buildings old and new, huge and tiny, gorgeous and hideous, Sarajevo kind of doesn’t make sense, from a visual perspective, a fact that mirrors its cultural schizophrenia. It’s the sort of over-the-top eclecticism that Berlin markets itself as having, but has almost completely lost 25 years after the wall fell. Sarajevo, to be sure, bears few scars of war—a sense of triumph rises from the city like its dozens of minarets.
2. It’s a living museum
In fact, it’s just a few minutes’ walk from the minaret of the magnificent King Fayd Mosque that you find the Latin Bridge, which Archduke Franz Ferdinand has just crossed when he took the bullet that started World War I. About 15 minutes by foot north and west of this and you’re at the Eternal Flame of Bosnia, which burns to signify the perseverance of the Bosnian people. Sarajevo’s got actual museums, too, the most relevant among them the Srebrenica-centered Galerija 11/07/95, but the entire city is a museum if you get right down to it.
3. It’s easy
I stayed in a four-star hotel in Sarajevo’s old city and yet only paid 120 KM (about $70) per night, at a walk-up rate. Sarajevo’s Old Town is easily explored by foot, whether you traipse along the banks of the Miljacka River, scale the Yellow Fortress for a sunset panorama or even walk to the city’s bus or train station.
4. You can’t go hungry here
The only thing Sarajevo old town has more of than heritage buildings is food stalls, whether they’re serving up Bosnian Cevapi, Turkish döners, pizza on par with what you’ll find in Italy (or, at least, Croatia) and even Sarajevo-style cuisine such as the eclectic Sarajevski Sahan sampler on offer at Pod Lipom, whose food I’m sad to say is much better than its service.
5. It’s only two hours from Mostar
In spite of how slow buses in Bosnia travel, it will take you no longer than two hours to reach Sarajevo from Mostar, so what do you have to lose? Even if you hate it—and you won’t, trust me—you’ll be out nothing more than a few Bosnian marks and a little of your time.
Prior to planning my trip to Croatia back in August, I was adamant that I should visit both of the country’s large coastal destinations, Dubrovnik and Split. After working out the logistics of fitting both these cites into my larger Balkans itinerary, my next task what to structure my time in each to answer a question that had come up many times during my research: Is Dubrovnik or Split a better place to visit?
If you’re traveling to Croatia and are trying to determine whether to visit Dubrovnik or Split, this article will help you.
Split vs. Dubrovnik: My Theory
Most of what I read before arriving in Croatia suggested that Split was the better choice. Split was a “real city,” according to articles I read, whereas Dubrovnik was little more than a tourist trap. It seemed that Dubrovnik’s famous walled old city had been mostly rebuilt after a 1991 siege, while most of Split’s Old City (i.e. Diocletian’s Palace) was original.
As I said, I made plans to visit both Split and Dubrovnik during my two weeks in the Balkans, but since Split seemed like the better choice, I booked my arrival flight into Split’s airport, saving Dubrovnik until after I finished my five days in Bosnia.
Split vs. Dubrovnik: The Reality
I quickly realized—i.e. in the taxi from the airport—that Split was a real city. Unfortunately, because the country now known as Croatia was part of the Eastern Bloc, Split’s “realness” is of a grey, industrial sort, excepting the aforementioned Diocletian’s Palace, as well as the Riva Waterfront and Marjan viewpoint. These areas are gorgeous, but are small enough that I shaved down the three days I’d initially planned to spend in Split to just two.
Dubrovnik, on the other hand, is indeed touristy—I think I shooed away at least a dozen “Game of Thrones” tour offer during the short walk from the old city entrance to my apartment inside it. With this being said—and ignoring, for the purposes of this argument, Dubrovnik’s purported “fakeness”—I found Dubrovnik to be more beautiful and yes, enjoyable, than Split by almost every measure. And to be honest, the prices actually seemed cheaper, in spite of the superior experience.
Accessing Croatia’s Islands
Since both Dubrovnik and Split are on the coast, it’s theoretically easy to access famous Croatian islands like Korčula, Šipan and Hvar from either city. What I found, however, is that options are much greater in number and also cheaper from Dubrovnik than they are from Split, which is shocking considering that Split seems to be closer to the majority of Croatia’s islands.
If, for some reason, you don’t feel compelled to visit Croatia’s islands—what’s wrong with you?!—then you should consider which Croatian coastal city has better beaches. Again, to my shock and delight, this was Dubrovnik. I’d heard prior to arriving in Split that Bacvice Beach (just to the east of the city center) was nice, but it seemed…well, Soviet, for lack of a better word. Dubrovnik’s beaches are crowded, but they’re not ugly.
Other Considerations to Keep in Mind
I’ve spent most of this article as a Dubrovnik cheerleader, for good reason. But while Dubrovnik is a more wholly satisfying destination than Split, Split does have its benefits as well. Namely, because it’s further north, it’s a bit more convenient if you want to go to, say, Krka Waterfall or Plitvice Lakes, but aren’t stopping in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, where trips to these places usually start.
On the other hand, Dubrovnik makes for easy excursions (even day trips!) to Bosnia and Montenegro, which is just a couple hours away by boat or bus. In fact, because I wasn’t a huge fan of Montenegro, I’d almost recommend staying an extra day or two in Dubrovnik, and simply visiting Kotor and/or Budva on a day trip.
The best choice, of course, is to be spent time in both Dubrovnik and Split if you can. Now, for those of you who’ve been to Croatia, it’s your turn: Do you prefer Dubrovnik or Split?
When we loved one another, the inscription read, we loved without holding back. When we fought, we fought ’til it hurt.
A child’s pedal car sat beside the two blocks of text, one in Croatian and one in English, which described the genesis and destruction of one of the many doomed partnerships immortalized in Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships. The gallery has received many accolades since it opened in 2010, although my reasons for wanting to visit it at the end of my two weeks in the Balkans go far beyond that.
Maybe I should donate this to the museum? I tugged at the piece of red ribbon Danilo had tied around my left wrist back in January, when we watched the sunset in Manzanillo, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.
I moved my fingers down to the “Pura Vida” plaque, which his sister had made me before he came to Austin in May, whose original twine strings were now replaced by an intricate band of hemp and wooden beads Danilo made for me himself. Or this one?
The objects collected in the museum—a random photograph, a smashed USB stick, an evening gown, a suicide note—was as eclectic as the range of relationships whose ends they represented, not only romantic ones, but those between parents and children, between friends and even between individuals and themselves. Diverse, too, were the ways in which the people who donated the objects described what they’d been through and how it had affected them.
What would I even say? I wondered, as I read a Mary Oliver poem that was excerpted on the wall.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
My trip through the Balkans has been instrumental in helping me let go of this relationship—and, more importantly, in remembering who I was before it. Indeed, the Balkan countries themselves are a museum of broken relationships: Between the people of this region and the empires that have ruled over them; between minorities and the majorities who sought their elimination; between the conflict and strife that has defined most of history here and a present—and, hopefully, future—that bears few scars of it.
Entering the farthest reaches of the museum, I noticed a large guestbook splayed open in front of me, with a pen laid directly over the only blank space on the page.
Surely, I wasn’t ready to write anything substantive about how my relationship with Danilo broke, my heart full from the dozens of personal accounts I’d read over the past hour, my head spinning with imagined images and fabricated stories of what my trip might’ve been like, had the man I briefly identified as the love of my life come with me as planned.
I picked up the pen and began moving it, as uncertain about what I would write as I was about whether I would leave either of the bracelets on my wrist behind. The only purpose cutting them off would serve, anyway, would be to make materially official what had been emotionally so since long before I ever said it out loud.
Our love was everything, I sloppily printed, but not enough.
“The seat belt broke,” Nikola said, without elaborating further. Although we were surrounded by chatty couples, with not a single bench in Tašmajdan Park left unoccupied, the air was as silent as the sky was dark.
By “we,” I don’t mean “me, myself and I,”—I wasn’t sitting alone in a Belgrade park in the middle of the night, having an imaginary conversation with a Nikola Tesla statue. Nikola wasn’t an apartment owner or taxi driver or tourism office employee I’d befriended while going about my business, either.
He was an actual Serbian—an actual person!—I’d met under the pretense of hooking up, and he was in the middle of explaining why he’d been in a wheelchair the past two years when you interrupted us.
“How are you feeling, by the way?” He asked, and stole a french fry from me.
“I haven’t really been thinking about it—about him,” I sighed and took a bite of Pljeskavica, a Serbian hamburger thing usually enjoyed by people drunker than I was. “I’m sorry, again, about tonight.”
“You don’t need explain,” he put his hand on my shoulder. “Do you want to take a walk?”
“I do,” I said. “I wish I could stay seated like you, though.”
“Making jokes about me already, huh?” he laughed, rolling himself over to my side. “I like it.”
We began moving toward the edifice in the distance, the crosses atop it gleaming under the half-moon. It wasn’t until we got closer that I noticed how intricately designed the huge church was, in spite of how underwhelming its rustic façade had seemed from far away.
“I missed this one when I was exploring,” I noted, the extra-creepy eyes of Orthodox Jesus looking down at me in judgment. “I just saw shitty, half-done St. Sava.”
“Hey!” He exclaimed. “St. Sava’s not shitty—but it is half-done, you’re right. A national embarrassment.
“This one, however,” Nikola, who works as an architect, continued. “This is the Church of St. Mark. What’s unique about the style is the red color of the stuff between the bricks. What do you call that in English again?”
“Yes,” he raised his finger, “the red mortar.”
Just then, REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You” started blaring from one of the bars we passed. I’d last heard the song the day after I broke up with Danilo and now, as then, I wondered exactly what it meant in the context of my life.
“It’s not so much that he deleted me from Facebook that bothers me,” I changed the subject, seeking distraction from the memories of Penny the picture of Nikola with his elderly dog had stirred up in my head. “It’s that I guess, before it happened, I was conducting myself as if it somehow wasn’t over.”
We turned the corner onto picturesque Terazije Boulevard, the aforementioned Temple of St. Sava at one end and Republic Square at the other. For a split-second, however, the only images I could see were of me and Danilo, a light-speed slideshow of our year together that flickered past like a meteor shower.
“Earth to Robert,” Nikola snapped his finger in front of my face. “Continue what you were saying.”
I nodded in agreement. “I was consciously avoiding meeting people, for sex or for anything, really. Walking on eggshells, writing about him—and about us—cryptically, as if somehow he would see it and, if I’d been too candid, threaten to break up with me like he always did. Waiting for him to fire the next shot, even though I long ago held up—and put down—my white flag.
“I just need to stop talking about it,” I conceded, getting out of my head and back into the moment. Flashes of Danilo’s smile gave way to the sparkling of street lamps on the water below Kalemegdan Fortress, the confluence of the Sava River with the Danube. “I’m sorry to keep dwelling on this.”
“Yeah, it’s bad enough it made you not want to have sex with me,” he smiled. “See? Two can play the insensitive joke game.
“But really,” he went on. “I get it. It sucks.”
“Wait a minute,” I stopped, noticing the steep staircase in front of us. “How are we going to get up there?”
“We aren’t,” he turned his wheelchair sideways. “Or at least I’m not. There’s a ramp, but it’s too steep to go up. Accessibility is not really a priority here in Serbia—I took that for granted before my accident.”
“You really think I would go up without you?” I put my hand on his face.
“I sure as hell hope not,” he squeezed my wrist almost violently, to emphasize how strong his upper body still was. “For your sake.”
“I just don’t get it,” he scoffed as we passed the Nikola Tesla Museum, whose primitiveness is just as much of an insult to the man as the dilapidated airport named after him. “To me, we—Serbians, Bosnians, Croats, the lot us—we’re all the same.”
“That’s a good attitude to have,” I praised him. Much better than the one she had.
(“She” was a sweet, old winery worker I’d met in the town of Sremski Karlovci the day before. We’d been sipping Bermet, a Serbian desert wine notable for having been a guilty pleasure of Austrian empress Maria Theresa, when she suddenly launched into a tirade about how the “diversity” of cities like Belgrade would would be the downfall of society.)
“Well it’s not my attitude,” he corrected me, as we began circling the Trg Slvija roundabout for the third time. “It’s the truth, as I see it—we are genetically identical. I realize the war ended when I was in diapers, but I just don’t get it why people who lived together peacefully for so long started killing one another.”
I exhaled, looking up at the cacophonous, yet harmonious mish-mash of buildings rising in front of us.
“I don’t think it’s so much that people want war,” I said. “They’re afraid of peace, that life without a struggle will cease to be meaningful. I feel that way a lot.”
He looked up at me puzzledly. “Care to elaborate?”
“No,” I bent down, noticing the day’s first rays of light beaming over the horizon, and kissed him passionately. “I don’t.”
It wasn’t until we pulled away from Bosnia’s border with Croatia that the casual pace at which she redistributed the passports began to wear at me. That, and the fact that her bleached hair and yellowed-white jeans were exactly the same color.
Why is she the one handling this anyway? I thought as our headlights gleamed off the badge of the border guard, who was lighting up a cigarette outside.
Well, I knew why she was the one handling it: She was clearly fucking the bus driver and he, wanting to arrive to our destination on time, decided to let his concubine do the job of government officials. Of course, if he’d focused on driving instead of talking dirty with his mistress, we probably wouldn’t have been as late as we were.
Not that it was any of my business—I was just a scared traveler without his travel documents. That she had no business handling them simply made it easier to heap judgment upon her.
I was deciding when the best time to ask the driver to go back to the border for my lost passport would be when the woman stood in front of me, smiled as sweet as the baklava my seat mate removed from the paper bag he was carrying, handed me my passport, shyly sat down and resumed flirting with her benefactor.
Hillary landed in Bosnia under sniper fire—I rode in thinking I’d gotten scammed by a hooker.
“I live in Texas,” I dropped my bag and sat down next to her. “But I grew up in St. Louis.”
She said something in Bosnian to her husband, then turned back to me. “We know lots of people in St. Louis.”
I wasn’t surprised. The vast majority of Bosnian refugees to the U.S. ended up in St. Louis, to the ire of many St. Louisans, although I didn’t dare mention that part to her.
I also abstained from telling her that one of my first boyfriends had been Bosnian, and how the same small-mindedness that made so many of her countrymen feel unwelcome in St. Louis had also made coming of age as a young, gay man there a war of sorts.
“I had a Bosnian friend growing up,” I took a sip of the Turkish coffee her husband had just brought out to me, reminiscing both on how exotic Eldin had seemed to me when we were both 17, and how much of a refuge we’d been for one another, growing up in equally conservative families. “A very good Bosnian friend.”
She called to her husband, who’d left to chase after their young daughter, then pivoted to another topic. “And how do you like Mostar?”
“It’s astonishing,” I began flipping through my camera to show her some of the photos I’d taken of the bridge and the selfies I’d snapped in front it, explaining my tripod-remote method, much to her fascination.
I continued by extolling the people of Mostar for rebuilding their town into what is probably single most enjoyable tourist destination in Europe, but left out the disappointment—and disgust—I felt upon hearing many of my fellow travelers shit-talk the apparent falseness they saw around them.
But I omitted that from my account of the day, too.
“Perfect,” I beamed to my de-facto Mostar host family upon returning from the short road trip they’d made possible by finding me a cheap car to rent. “An absolutely perfect day.”
Perfect, I reminded myself, except for the fact that you spent three-quarters of the drive dwelling on the road trips you took with your recently estranged boyfriend, and looking back regretfully—and bitterly—on the words and actions that led to him not being here with you.
“You should stay,” she suggested innocuously, calling to mind a refrain Danilo had often used more seriously, pleading with me to stay in Costa Rica prior to his U.S. visa getting approved and him coming to live with me.
She laughed and poured me some local chardonnay. “At least for a glass of wine—I know you have to go Sarajevo tomorrow.”
If only you knew the rest, I cheerfully clinked my glass with hers, feeling embarrassed that I didn’t know how to say “cheers” in Bosnian.
About 15 minutes into my journey to the Bosnian capital, a very large older man walked back to the row where I was sitting and placed his hand on the seat in front of me. His arm was angled such that his elbow was about an inch from my face—and he smelled like sour milk. My anger seethed within me, but I managed to keep my mouth shut until we reached his stop.
My personal space would stay free for another half hour or so, until a different thick-fisted man put his elbow in my face. This one was about half as large—not to mention, only half as old—as the first one, and exuded a much sexier musk, to say nothing of how erotically he gripped the seat. I still didn’t like the elbow, of course, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have liked to snap into that Slim Jim.
In both cases, I’d mindlessly heeded a piece of advice my mother used to give me. Think it, she’d instruct me after each time my big mouth got me into trouble. Don’t say it.
After settling in at my hotel, I headed to a restaurant one of my Instagram followers had recommended for a late lunch. There, I met an Irish tourist named Mandy, who was celebrating her birthday with a trip through the Balkans. She was very friendly (and, I think a little drunk), which made for an interesting conversation that, of course, ended up at my country’s presidential race.
“It’s good that he probably won’t win,” she replied when I explained to her how historically unprecedented it would be for Donald Trump to overcome his polling deficit. “And I don’t agree with anything he says. But I have to admit, I respect him for telling it like it is, or at least how he sees it.”
I quickly changed the subject to avoid spending my lunch in Bosnia talking about an election across an ocean and nearly two months away. But Mandy’s perspective lingered with me throughout the day, as I traipsed through Sarajevo’s Old Town, up to the Yellow Fortress above it and down to the Eternal Flame just outside it.
It lingered hours later, even, when I ended my day at a tucked-away gallery devoted to the Srebrenica Massacre that ultimately led to my country accepting the refugees that ended up in my home city.
I felt somewhat numb during the hour or so I spent inside the small exhibition hall, owing both to the fact that I had immersed myself in Balkan War history just before my trip, as well as the sheer quantity of disaster porn I absorb osmotically on a daily basis.
Indeed, it was a quote I saw on the wall just before exiting the museum that mostly viscerally affected me. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
My last night in Sarajevo, I sat alone on the banks of the Miljacka, a few feet from where Franz Ferdinand was shot. This is where war, as we know it, was born, I realized, as the sky slowly faded from orange to to purple to blue above the eclectic row of buildings—Soviet, Austro-Hungarian, Islamic and then Soviet again—in front of me.
“Where in the U.S. are you from?” a man who was walking past asked me, although I have no idea how he knew I was American.
“St. Louis,” I said, anticipating that he also had family there.
Instead, he said nothing, as if he knew what a crap hand the people who’d been sent there got dealt. “Have a nice night.”
My subtle dig at Hillary Clinton in the intro to this post—and my sanity—notwithstanding, I will absolutely not be voting for Donald Trump in November. I won’t entertain the idea of him as being virtuous at all, not even to the minimal extent that Mandy did.
But one thing I really need to reconcile (more in real life, where as you know I’m totally candid) is the dichotomy between my often judgmental, sometimes disrespectful, occasionally hateful thoughts, and the generally cordial person I outwardly present myself to be.
Perhaps a more open dialogue on racism might’ve prevented the rise of Trump or even Slobodan Milosevic; maybe, if the Austrian ruling class had been more realistic about the powder keg ready to blow in the Balkans, Gavrilo Princip might not have felt compelled to shoot Franz Ferdinand.
Maybe, I sighed. Maybe not.
I stood up and walked toward the Latin Bridge, surprised that the exact spot where the incident occurred wasn’t marked. I turned right and began heading back into the Old Town, then stopped and stood at the edge, listening to the soft trickle of the water as it ran under my feet. And the stream of truth that was running through me.
When all was said and done, after all, the family who had so often been judgmental when I was growing up accepted Danilo with open arms. They’d been on the wrong side in many battles, but were standing by me when the war was over.
It had been in vain, anyway—I’d known, from the day I met him, that our relationship was never going to work. But just like my mother had always advised me, I decided to think it, not say it, until one day, the powder keg we’d been living in blew apart: A single shot destroyed our world.
You can’t end the world’s wars, I stared at the sky as the last blue piece of it turned black. But you can vow to stop fighting your own.