(Ed. Note: Photos by Bruce Sterling.)
by Jasmina Tesanovic
DUBROVNIK -- August, 2006
The bus from Belgrade to Dubrovnik costs 4700 dinars for a return ticket, and takes 13 hours one way. It goes through Bosnia, Republika Srpska, and stops in several former-Yu war sites, such as Mostar, where the famous bridge was destroyed and recently rebuilt. Mostar's old face was blown away and it has a new face. Except for shrapnel and craters, it has a happy look.
The border crossings are easy, a busywork of transfers and passport-stampings, inflicted on all passengers just alike and done without a word of explanation. The foreigners look scared, but everyone else just does it. The bus stops too often, and people get on and off without schedule. Strange black packages are unloaded from the bus and delivered into private cars in the middle of nowhere. Some Americans in the bus seem troubled by this, but all the locals sleep peacefully.
On our arrival in Dubrovnik, local grannies are waiting with signs about private rooms to rent. I pick the one with mustache, no teeth and a fake smile. She speaks English and tells me she does not like renting rooms to Italians. I reveal that I am a Serb and my friend is American. Now that's nice, says Granny with her fake smile: Serbs and Americans!
We come across a Croatian monument talking about Serbs as aggressors here. I speak with my heavy Belgrade accent, but no hostility is in the air. My American pal is suspicious about Granny: is she really going to shelter us without any American-style paperwork? I say, that how we do it around here: if she is not a serial killer, it should be all right.
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Her chatty husband drives us to the port the next day: how is life in Belgrade? I heard you folks have great night life! You always knew how to live, you Serb guys... not like here in Dubrovnik, where people are always grim and always want more.
On the way to Mljet island, I see that the ferry still has the same captain from three years ago. The captain looks Italian and speak Dalmatian Croatian. He's a handsome blond guy, aging now, and besides his big boat he also runs a local restaurant in the town of Polace, which used to be called Palazzo. All full, says the tourist agency. Polace has no place to sleep.
The granny renting the bicycles at the shore catches my sleeve. ROOM, she says, in bad English. Yesyesyes, I answer in good Serbian. The ever-skeptical American and I get a beautiful upstairs room crammed with tools and construction rubbish. Its balcony overlooks the beautiful bay for a decent price of 100 kunas per person. We even have a bathroom.
The woman who cleans the place is from Sarajevo. Jasna, she says, offering me a cigarette. Jasna tells me: I used to come here for holidays many years ago. Now I have to clean rooms to stay around here. Here I am anyway. Jasna seems to take a lot of leisurely breaks for smoking and bathing. I can tell that Jasna used to be a beautiful woman before the wars. She is still beautiful, but no longer knows it. Jasna and Jasmina: Jasna is my Bosnian replica.
My bicycle landlady says: All foreigners! I used to have tourists from all over the country, the best people, but now OUR people cannot afford it. As if it ever mattered who is Muslim who Orthodox who Catholic.
In the Mljet restaurant at evening are four young couples from Belgrade, yuppies, who all arrived on the same boat with their hired captain. A thin girl in her early thirties tells the captain: I live in Vracar. That's a fancy place in the city, it has no ciganija. She is lying, because Belgrade has plenty of gypsies, but she is trying to shoo away the prejudices of nationalistic Croatians, who often call Serbs gypsies. She has to insult gypsies in an effort to deflect the captain's scorn, not that this yacht captain cares: he's in the tourist business and simply talks of money constantly.
I am searingly offended by this: why do Belgrade Serbs have to lie about gypsies? My American friend asks: why would Croatians even want call Serbs "gypsies"? He has seen gypsies all over the world, and gypsies don't resemble Serbs.
I don't know. I really don't know what to tell him.
I feel so clean after one day on this island. No night life, just the life of a body in the sun under the starry sky. We just swim, we hike, we hire bicycles: a whole day for ten euros. We plan to circle the island, which seems simple enough on a map, but the maps lie and the road signage is mysterious. After miles of bicycling we are lost on a road leading us somewhere we clearly don't want to go... We ask a French couple on bicycles, and they show us their own map, which is even weirder than ours. All they can do is wish us good luck.
We-take a shortcut through the footpaths, walking our bikes. It is noon, the road gets and more more narrow and steep... Soon we are literally carrying the bikes on our backs. At a certain point we realize we are approaching the top of a mountain. We have a epiphany: we drop our bikes right there and walk to the top. At the peak is an abandoned Yugoslav military base, where empty buildings tells their story: ZIVEO Drug Tito is written on the wall in stencilled letters.
The lonely buildings command an awesome view of the Adriatic, but the foreign invaders are all here buying lunch in restaurants. The military buildings have many grafitti inscriptions with dates from 1974 to today. I have a sudden flashback: in 1977 the island was a national park and a military reserve. Foreigners were simply not allowed to visit it. My old friend, the man who first brought me to Mljet, was a Belgrade guy. As a drop-out type, he was punished by being forced to serve the army in this remote place. The soldiers were all in the middle of nowhere, young men from Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, stationed in the Croatian sea facing Italy, that potential enemy from the other coast of the Adriatic. That enemy never came, but the defenders fought the war among one another.
My friend enjoyed enormously his punishment on Mljet: he spent his hard years in a blue and green paradise, smoking marijuana and dropping acid. As soon as he got out of uniform he brought his hippie friends, me among them. After 29 years, I am here again, counting the bullet-holes in the walls, the mermaids in the sea, the stars in the sky, the dead among my own people. And I am not even sad. That's life.
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Previous essays by Jasmina Tesanovic on BoingBoing:
- A Burial in Srebenica
- Report from a concert by a Serbian war criminal
- To Hague, to Hague
- Preachers and Fascists, Out of My Panties
- Floods and Bombs
- Scorpions Trial, April 13
- The Muslim Women
- Belgrade: New Normality
- Serbia: An Underworld Journey
- Scorpions Trial, Day Three: March 15, 2006
- Scorpions Trial, Day Two: March 14, 2006
- Scorpions Trial, Day One: March 13, 2006
- The Long Goodbye
- Milosevic Arrives in Belgrade
- Slobodan Milosevic Died
- Milosevic Funeral
Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.