The kindness of strangers

SARA 4 BLOG

I VISITED YUGOSLAVIA frequently during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Often, I travelled between towns on public transport, often using the efficient networks, each of them operated independent bus companies, of inter-city buses. I travelled routes all over the country from Subotica in the north to Ohrid and Skopje in the south, and from Zadar in the west to Zaječar in the east. It was on these vehicles that my love of the varied forms of Balkan folk music was born. Every bus was fitted with loudspeakers and a radio. For hours on end the bus passengers were treated to an endless, and in my view delightful, stream of folk songs and folk music. On one of these bus trips, my first to Sarajevo, I met someone who was to become a good friend.

Dubrovnik was the point of departure for my first visit to Sarajevo. I bought a ticket at the bus station just outside the walls of the old city, entered the bus, and headed for the seat, whose number was printed on my ticket. In those days, and maybe this is still the case today, passengers were assigned specific numbered seats on long-distance buses. Whenever I knew that I would be travelling a day or two ahead, I used to buy my ticket in advance in order to get one of the seats numbered 1 or 2, which were at the front of the bus, and therefore with the best view, and, incidentally, also with the highest risk of injury in a head-on collision.

On this particular occasion in the bus station at Dubrovnik, I found a young French tourist was sitting next to his girlfriend in my seat. I started explaining, in my poor French, that he was occupying my reserved seat. As I was doing so, a middle-aged woman, sitting near the rear of the bus, explained the situation in fluent French. The French couple vacated the incorrect seats and settled into their assigned places. These happened to be close to the woman and her friend. I could hear them conversing in French as we wound our way up along the valley of the Neretva River and away from the Adriatic coast. I felt a little miffed that they had found someone to converse with, but I had not.

After a few hours we stopped in a village perched high on a hillside. The young French couple said goodbye to their new friends, and left the coach. Our bus, which should have arrived in Sarajevo well before nightfall, remained parked on a steep slope in the small mountain village for hours. The few passengers who were continuing on to Sarajevo sat on a bench under a tree in the sultry afternoon sun. Eventually, I asked the lady, who could speak French, what was happening. She explained that one of the tires of our bus had been punctured, and that it was taking a long while to repair it. She revealed that she was an inhabitant of Sarajevo and that her travelling companion, an old friend of hers, was a schoolteacher from France.

Finally, our bus was ready to depart. As it was now almost empty, I sat near to the two women and chatted to them. The sun was setting, and we were still only halfway to our destination. Soon after we began moving, the heavens opened. The mountainous region through which we were slowly making our way was filled with crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning. Torrents of rain made driving slow and difficult. I began despairing of ever reaching the city where the Hapsburg Archduke was shot in 1914. And, I was becoming concerned. I was heading for a city, which I did not know and where I had no accommodation arranged, and it was beginning to look as if would be almost midnight by the time we reached it.

I asked Marija, the French-speaking lady from Sarajevo, whether she could recommend a hotel for me. She shrugged her shoulders and said that as she lived there, she did not know about hotels. At this point, her companion said to her in French:

“Whenever I meet foreign students in my hometown in France, I invite them to stay in my home.”

Marija said nothing. It was my impression that she had not needed to hear this bit of information.

It was late at night when we eventually arrived in Sarajevo’s bus station. It was located far from the town centre on the main road that led to the spa at Ilidža. Miodrag was waiting for Marija, his mother-in law, and her French friend. I was told to get into his tiny car with them and all of our baggage, and we drove along ill-lit rain soaked streets through the darkness of the night until we reached the end of a short, steeply inclined cul-de-sac in central Sarajevo. We entered Marija’s second floor flat, and Liljana, Marija’s daughter, served us a huge, tasty supper. At the end of the meal, I still had no idea where I would be spending the night. Before I could ask where I would be staying, Liljana showed me her mother’s spare bedroom, and told me (in good English) that I should sleep there.

After breakfast the next morning, I set off to find a hotel in which I could stay for the rest of my visit. It did not take long to find one and to reserve a room. Next, I bought a bunch of flowers – they were stems of gladioli – for my kind hostess and returned to her flat. I entered, gave my bouquet to Marija, thanked her for looking after me, and told her that I had found accommodation. She told me not to be ridiculous; I was to cancel the hotel and to stay with her and her family.

Marija and her family lived in two flats in the small houses that lined a short street that led off one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Marshal Tito Street. It was within a few metres of the Baščaršija, the old bazaar area of the city. From my centrally located base, I was able to explore Sarajevo with ease. Set on both sides of the River Miljacka, the city stretches along a long narrow valley and spreads steeply up the hillsides flanking it.

The Baščaršija district looked just like a typical Turkish bazaar. When I showed pictures of it to Mehmet and Saadet, some Turkish friends in London, they said that it looked just like Bursa, their hometown in Turkish Anatolia. Like most oriental bazaars the one in Sarajevo was divided up into areas specialising in different trades. For example, there was a cluster of copper-beaters, another of silversmiths, and yet another of leatherworkers. I fell in love with the city.

I visited Sarajevo several times, always staying with my new friends. On several occasions, they visited me in London and once they stayed in our then family home in north London.

In the late 1980s, Miodrag and Liljana expressed their concerns about political changes that were happening in Bosnia. This was before the city became entangled in a fearful struggle for life during the complex and bloody civil war that occurred during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. They decided that they needed to leave Yugoslavia and start a new life elsewhere, which they did. Miodrag and Liljana and their daughter migrated to an island in the Indian Ocean, where life was calmer and prospects better than in Bosnia. Although we met them on one of their visits to London from their new home in the Indian Ocean, I have lost touch with them unfortunately. As for Marija, who remained in Sarajevo, I hope that she did not suffer during the attacks on her city.

For more of my experiences in the former Yugoslavia, please read my “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, available on Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and lulu.com.