Fighting For Optimism

The last few of weeks have been some of the most difficult (and rewarding) of the trip thus far. I have seen the impacts of war and been confronted by the deplorable things people are capable of doing to others. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed the hope and optimism for the future and the unfailing strength of the human spirit. It puts into perspective advantages that I have never even considered and those that I routinely take for granted.

After our week in Istanbul, we took a short flight to Bucharest, Romania and landed at a small airport to freezing temperatures and a fierce wind (yay polar vortex!). Luckily our AirBnB was a cute and homey one bedroom apartment, located in the middle of the downtown pedestrian core and surrounded by restaurants and shops. The snow continued over the next two days while we spent time exploring the immediate area on foot while popping into different restaurants to warm up with a cup (or two) of vin fierte, hot mulled wine.


Welcome to Romania

I had thought we were prepared for the weather, but the dry, cold wind made for miserable walking and I often found myself longing to curl up on the couch to read a book. You know, what I would be doing during a winter storm at home.

The problem was that we only had three full days in Bucharest, and cold or not, there were things that we wanted to see. One of the main sites on Dean’s list was the Palace of the Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world behind the Pentagon. It is an imposing structure; 276 feet tall, with a footprint of 3,930,000 square feet, and 1,100 individual rooms.


The Romanian Parliament From a Mile Away

Seeing the building perched on the hill was rather anticlimactic after the hour long, freezing walk but on our way back to the old town, we happened to stumble into one of the oldest restaurants and beer halls in the city, named Caru’ cu bere. The huge interior was warm and inviting, with dark wood and frescoed walls. We originally stopped in for a hot drink and quick respite from the cold, then decided to make a reservation for lunch the next day, as traditional Romanian food is heavy on the soups, vegetables, and meat. The perfect cold weather cuisine!

Our lunch was so delicious that we decided to reserve again the next day, to coincide with their daily string quartet for a pleasant 3 course meal – soup, main and dessert (freshmade donuts with blueberry compote and sour cream).


Caru’ Cu Bere Beerhall

The snow storm finally broke on our last day and we enjoyed checking out 19th century buildings, monuments, and a huge park complete with an ice skating rink just outside of the old town. The temperature was still frigid however the weak winter sun was out in all it’s glory and I wandered where it shone.


The Sun Returns in Bucharest

The following morning, we took the metro to the train station for the next leg of the trip. Our time in the Balkans was limited to three day stints (not including one day of travel) in Bucharest (Romania), Sofia (Bulgaria), and Belgrade (Serbia), with a longer stay planned in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Dubrovnik, Split, and Zagreb (Croatia).

Train travel in this part of Europe is limited to small, regional trains with a number of stops to accommodate the local population of commuters. Each train has a number of brief stops (we’re talking 30 seconds) at tiny stations (sometimes smaller than a house), with slow travel speeds in between. On top of that, the border crossings outside of Europe’s open-border Schengen zone can take up to an hour as immigration and customs officers walk through the train cars collecting a passport from each rider, then disappearing into the station. After an indeterminate amount of time (often depending upon the number of passengers), the agents return to hand back the stamped passports.


So Much Better Than Flying

Knowing that we were going to spend the majority of the day traveling, we purchased a grocery bag of snacks as well as several foot-long subs from the train station prior to the 7 hour plus journey.

In Sofia, our hotel sat two blocks outside of the main square and pedestrian street (Vitosha Boulevard). I was pretty excited about this hotel as it appeared to be new and its ratings were quite high. Our accommodation experience in Europe had so far been cute but quirky AirBnBs/hotels. I was hankering for a standard hotel room, with a clean bathroom where the shower had good water pressure (and a door).

The next morning we dug into the hotel’s huge breakfast spread and then began our day of touring with a quick take away coffee prior to joining the free Sophia walking tour. The winter storm we experienced in Bucharest (which had enveloped most of Europe) had blown through and the snow was just beginning to melt.

Throughout the morning we dodged droplets of water and snow coming off the buildings while we walked the sidewalks of the city center listening to our tour guide (a young university student) talk about the history of the city. It turned out to be Liberation Day, Bulgaria’s national holiday similar to our Independence Day, celebrating the end of Ottoman rule and the creation of a free state. People were out on the streets, waving flags and wearing the Bulgarian colors of white, green, and red.


Liberation Day in Bulgaria

Sofia is a very old city, built on layers and layers of preserved ruins dating back to the Roman and Byzantine Empires. After World War II, it was a part of the Soviet Union and was a one-party socialist state until finally becoming a democracy and a market-based economy in 1989. Our 26 year old tour guide spoke of the country’s history of Communism, but having not yet been born, was unable to provide any firsthand anecdotes about that time period.

We spent the next two days exploring. Unlike most European cities, Sofia lacks a large central square that the remainder of the city organizes around. Instead, it has a gilded statue that sits on the median of several main thoroughfare streets with public buildings, parks, and churches surrounding on either side.

The Sofia History Museum, housed in the old public baths, provides the history of the city from the early 1800’s to modern day. The Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevski is an iconic Bulgarian Orthodox Church with New-Byzantine architecture, sitting in a cobbled plaza. The adjacent Temple Sveta Sofia (from which the city takes its name) is a 6th century Byzantine church with an underground museum that preserves and displays the excavated foundations of previous churches and crypts. We spent hours randomly walking through the urban neighborhoods and local parks, happening upon some hidden gem restaurants including a converted house with an amazing salad, a fast/casual soup place, and a local burger and craft beer joint.


Vitosha Boulevard in Sofia

On the day of our departure, I walked the two blocks to grab three footlong sandwiches for our long day of travel to Belgrade. The shop was supposed to open at 7:30am, but like most things in Bulgaria, they were late. So I decided to grab a couple of Americanos at the shop next door and returned to the hotel 30 minutes later with our lunch, dinner, and to Dean’s surprise – coffee!

It was another long day of travel – 8 plus hours of sitting on the train, listening to music and watching the countryside scenery. We switched trains twice that day and upon entering the train station to check the time table for our second train, we walked through a group of 7 young and bedraggled children, holding their hands out and begging. Several of the group followed us into the station itself and continued their pleas while I kindly repeated, “No. I’m sorry.”

It broke my heart to see their dirty little faces but I don’t think that giving money is the answer. Not only does it reinforce the behavior of begging but oftentimes I doubt where the money goes. In India, we were told stories of adults who ran child beggar rings, commandeering the day’s take and leaving the children ill cared for until they were too old to appeal to the sympathies of tourists and turned out without a sustainable means of survival.

This group of boys however were very persistant and after realizing that I wouldn’t give them money, decided to focus on the ball cap hooked to the outside of my bag. One of the boys played at grabbing the hat, as it was fastened on the bag with the sizing hooks and could have easily been torn away. He was so persistent as to follow us out onto the platform and I had to very firmly yell “no,” while Dean unhooked the cap and zipped it up in my bag, sending a clear message. We finally boarded our train and watched as several other tourists were harassed until we pulled away from the station.

We arrived in Belgrade around 10:00pm and were shocked to exit the train station to desolation. No cars, cabs, or buses were waiting outside the train station. Nothing.

Dean had gone back inside to ask the information desk to call us a cab and we waited, unsure and frustrated, for 10 minutes until a car with a light on top finally came down the road. We provided our hotel address and were surprised when the car stopped on a busy road, pointing vaguely up a pedestrian street. We trustingly followed his directions of “up street, go left,” to find the sign for our hotel, which was tucked on the 4th floor of an old building right in the heart of Belgrade.

The next morning, we searched the pedestrian streets for coffee and breakfast for some time before finally deciding to enter a restaurant on the main square, a stone’s throw from where we needed to meet our free walking tour. The restaurant was a large, touristy place with both indoor and outdoor seating under heat lamps. Under normal circumstances we would have avoided such a tourist trap, but desperation was setting in – me for food and Dean for coffee.

Considering it was still early in the morning, we opted for indoor seating and were surprised when ushered to the “non-smoking” section. On our walking tour an hour later, we learned that every restaurant in Belgrade allows smoking indoors and the majority of our three days spent there was trying to find places that didn’t smell like a 20 year old ash tray.


Belgrade’s Fort at the Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers

Our tour guide, Sonja, was a grad student, born and raised in Belgrade, and throughout the tour, she not only shared her beautiful city but also an interesting perspective on life. Serbia is suffering from “brain drain,” with most of their young talent leaving the country to pursue opportunities abroad. When I asked if she had considered leaving as well, she replied that she is very much tied to Belgrade, as she highly values her relationships with friends and family. She had learned this during a year spent in Spain and upon deciding if to return, she chose to pursue a life of working to live versus the alternative that she sees played out in western society.

She spoke with the confidence and optimism of a young person who is just starting out in life with endless possibilities. She has an apartment downtown, recently moving out of her parent’s house, and enjoys spending time with her friends, always making time to meet for a coffee. In fact, we saw no lack of young people gathered at the cafes in the pedestrian streets on the sunny days, whiling away the hours over a cappuccino.

Belgrade is a beautiful city, pocketed where the Danube and the Sava rivers meet, and we enjoyed exploring the pedestrian area, wandering the Bohemian and Jewish quarters, as well as exploring the parks and ancient castle walls. However, when thinking about our time, my major impression will always be that it was “smoky” and because of this, I probably wouldn’t return.

To get from Belgrade to Sarajevo, we hired a minibus (also known as a large van) as there currently isn’t a train route from Belgrade to Sarajevo. The journey was an easy 5 hours. We shared the van with 3 young Serbian guys and a few older women who were all traveling to Sarajevo to ski. At one of our two pit-stops, I asked the one of the other passengers, an older woman in her 60s, where she had bought her Lululemon yoga pants. I was surprised when she responded in heavily accented English that she lives in Calgary, but is originally from Bosnia. She left with her family 24 years ago and had moved to Canada as a refugee, fleeing the war (when Serbia, the seat of Yugoslavia attacked Bosnia).

Immediately after crossing the border into Bosnia Herzegovina, I had started noticing the abandoned houses that were scattered across the countryside. Many had shrapnel holes, while others were empty shells without roofs or windows. Dean and I disagree about the numbers, but I believe that about 1 in 10 houses showed some kind of damage. I asked the Bosnian-Canadian about the houses and she sadly replied that many who fled their homeland never returned. Even worse, many had died in the fighting or were murdered in the work camps. This is the first time that I was confronted with the magnitude of the conflict that occurred upon the break up of Yugoslavia, resulting in the countries we know today – Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Kosovo (still a disputed state).


Many Buildings in Bosnia and Sarajevo Still Have Scars from the War

Sonja had provided a little background on the history of the socialist state of Yugoslavia and it’s break up upon the fall of Communism but hadn’t touched on the Serbian aggression that resulted in years of brutal war.

We began our education into the war that day looking out the van window – more would come over the next week.

Our first full day in Sarajevo, we decided to join the free walking tour provided by one of the city’s highest rated companies on Trip Advisor. This has been our new routine – we join the free tour on our first day to get an overview of the sites and then go back to study places in more depth with the remainder of our time in the city. Our tour guide, Enes, was a high energy young man, in his early thirties who was born in Sarajevo and demonstrated a great depth of knowledge and love for his city. He kept the information on the tour high level, providing information around the history of the city and touching briefly on the seige.

Like the other cities in this area, it was part of both the Roman and Ottoman Empire, and much of the architecture and culture has been shaped through those two great civilizations. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and is the place where WWI was started with the assignation of Franz Ferdinand.

It was largely untouched by WWII, as it was then part of Yugoslavia, a socialist coalition run by the benevolent dictator, Tito. From Enes’s description, Tito is still very well thought of in Bosnia, as unemployment was 0, people had food, and the widespread corruption that often is highlighted in USSR Communism wasn’t discussed. However, a decade after Tito died, his empire fell apart and regions of the state started to succede.

Enes walked our group of 20 around the old town, showing the oldest Mosque in the city, the Ottoman marketplace, the synagogue, the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The tour highlighted some of the infamous history of the city by showing us the Latin Bridge and nearby the exact spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

Often we walked past the Sarajevo Roses, a red painted demarcation on the pavement of the city indicating where people were killed from the Serbian mortars during the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990’s. Some 11,000 people died during the 44 month siege, and as you can imagine, there are a large number of the red splatters throughout the city.


One of the Many Sarajevo Roses

Enes encouraged us to ask questions and most of mine were focused around the siege. I remember hearing about the conflict in Bosnia when I was a child. Enes was a young child when the siege started in the early 1990’s. His family household is on the opposite side of the river valley, or hill, where the Serbs set up their lines and mortars. He made mention of his mother not allowing him to wear the color red as a child so as not to make an easy target for the indiscriminate Serbian snipers.

At the end of the free walking tour, Dean and I arranged with Enes to meet the next day for his Siege of Sarajevo tour, where he would speak specifically about the war, visiting The Tunnel of Hope, the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics, and the Jewish cemetery that would become a battle ground throughout the siege.

To broaden our knowledge of the siege prior to the next days tour we visited the Museum of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Slovenia and Montenegro left Yugoslavia without much bloodshed, Bosnia and Herzegovina upon trying to declare independence from Yugoslavia was not as fortunate. There are three ethnic/religious groups that call this area home – the Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox), the Croats (Catholics) and Bosniacs (Muslim). The Bosnian Serbs wanted to remain under Serbian rule and with the help of the Serbian Army (still the army of Yugoslavia), tried to take the country by force. They set up work camps to imprison the opposition (primarily the Bosniac and Croat peoples) and surrounded the city of Sarajevo. The UN placed an embargo on Bosnia, but since the Serbs had already stockpiled arms and were being supplied by the Yugoslav army, this essentially meant that the Croats and Bosniacs were drastically limited in their ability to fight back.

The museum was dedicated to showcasing the heinous crimes committed by the Bosnian Serbs against their neighbors. Stories of torture, rape, and genocide were displayed – the likes of which hasn’t been seen since WWII and the crimes perpetrated against the Jews – except this time, the persecution was against a different ethnic group – the Muslim Bosniacs and Catholic Croats.

Walking through that museum, looking at the pictures and reading the stories was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Tears took up residence, occasionally spilling down my cheek, particularly when I read a remembrance from a woman or child. The pictures were gruesome and I spent most of my time questioning how someone could do such things to another human. And how we, as a civilized world, could allow it to happen. The museum discussed in depth, the ambivalence of the UN and how their indecisive actions exacerbated the abhorrent behavior, as their inaction was seen as encouragement by the Serbs.

The next day, we spent a few hours at an outdoor coffee shop on the square, Dean reading while I wrote a blog post. We then visited the Jewish Culture Museum, housed in a historic synagogue, a beautiful stone building with large windows and wooden balconies used for displaying the local Jewish relics.

On our way to get lunch, we ran into Enes, also on his way to get food before the tour and we asked him if he’d like to join us. He took us to a delicious doner place where our three sandwiches were $10 total. Over lunch, I suggested that we grab a few beers to drink somewhere on our tour. Enes was extremely accommodating and took us to the grocery store to purchase a six pack of the locally brewed lager.

We started the tour by driving through the city, Enes pointing out a barrage of sites left and right as we made our way across the city to the tunnel of hope museum on the far side of the airport. During the drive, Enes had talked about different aspects of the seige, but it really hit home when we sat down to watch a 16 minute video at the tunnel of hope museum that was comprised of footage from the war – first-hand images of shelling, buildings blowing up, people running under fire and helping their fallen comrades were gruesomely portrayed in black and white. After the images and stories from the day prior, I was still shocked by the cruelty and sheer ambivalence for human life that was being played out on the screen.


Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope

When reading about WWI and WWII in history class, it’s easy to gloss over the brutality in your imagination. But when these images confront you in the very place in which they happened, the gravity is much greater. Hearing Enes’s stories about the bleakness of the siege and his first hand experiences were humbling. His willingness to share his honest and unfiltered opinions were refreshing as many times I feel like our tour guides have diplomatically tempered their dialog in the name of professionalism.

At one point, I had a small breakdown, asking aloud how anyone could live with themselves after having done some of these horrendous things. He shared a story about a sniper who had killed himself after not being able to get over murdering an 8 year old girl who was walking down the street with her mother. The man had singled out and killed a number of his fellow Bosnians throughout the siege but apparently this one act haunted him.

I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like for him. Or worse yet, for the mother to have everything change in an instant due to someone on the other end of a scope. Can you imagine being a mother and everyday worrying if your children will come home?

The tunnel was extremely interesting as it served as the only means of travel into the seige city of Sarajevo for the Bosniacs and Croats during the almost four year seige (1,425 days). It was built in four months and four days by volunteers from each side, running under the UN controlled safe zone – a strip of land, housing the airport. The Bosnian Serbs had encircled ¾ of the city and planted mines across the hillsides of the Bosnian army zone to the southwest. Sneaking across the open land of the UN controlled airport strip was risky and if caught, the UN would return you to whichever side you originated. Enes told stories about the UN soldiers spotlighting people crossing at night, making easy targets for the Serb snipers on the cliffs above. I’ve always had the perception that the UN serves as the world’s peacemakers, but hearing Enes’s stories about their ambivalence and inaction during the seige, made me reevaluate.

After visiting the tunnel, we drove up the mountain to explore the abandoned bobsled track. Above the track, we stopped on a hillside, overlooking the entire river valley. The point gave us a birds eye view of the large city, sprawling across the hills, and a great place to enjoy our beers. We could see the Olympic stadium, all three parts of the city (Ottoman old city, Austro-Hungarian, and new city), as well as a number of cemeteries littering the landscape.


1984 Olympic Bobsled Track

We quickly finished our beers on the mountainside and continued on to the bobsled track. It’s one of the most magically haunting places I’ve ever visited. It sits on the side of a steep mountain, the trees and bushes encroaching on the cement chute. Every available inch is covered with layers of spray painted graffiti. Some murals stretch along the walls while others are shortly worded tags. Upon asking about our feelings towards the current POTUS, he gleefully showed us a small tag saying, “Fuck Trump.”

We decided to continue walking down the track instead of stopping halfway. This area was heavily disputed during the war and towards to bottom, Enes pointed out several places where small holes were chiseled in the cement, places that acted as foxholes for Bosnian Serbs, allowing them to shoot their enemies from the high ground while being protected by thick, insulated cement. Another reminder of the cunning of man in killing their brethren.


Holes in Bobsled Track from the Siege of Sarajevo

During the walk on the track, Dean fell behind to take pictures and I got a chance to talk to Enes about his life. His fatalism about the war and current political situation was tempered with a cockeyed optimism about the future and his own place within it. He had gotten married 12 days prior and was enjoying the afterglow of such a happy occasion.

We compared notes on our weddings as well as our futures. He was surprised to learn that we had quit our jobs to go on this trip. Technically, Dean and I are both on a leave of absense but don’t have guaranteed positions when we return.

In Bosnia, employment is extremely difficult to find and most people would never willingly leave a good job. His new wife is a radiology technician but has been struggling to find a job in Sarajevo due to a limited number of openings and the fact that she is not well connected politically and does not have enough bribe money to secure a position. That alone shocked me but then Enes said something that I will never forget – America is the land of opportunity, children grow up believing that they can be whatever they want. But in Bosnia, children grow up knowing that they can’t.

Pause and think about that for a second.

I’ve never questioned that there isn’t anything that I can’t do if I just put my mind to it and work hard enough. My previous career success was built through sheer grit, determination, and an unfailing confidence in my abilities. But there are so many people in the world that don’t have the same advantages. Oftentimes I think about limitations of opportunities and education in context of poverty. However Enes has a masters degree in tourism. His limitations stem from living in a corrupt political climate, where the system is stacked against people progressing on merit alone. No matter how hard he works, he will not achieve great success. However he optimistically speaks about his future, working hard to build up the tour business and living a simple but happy life with his new wife.

It forces me realize the endless possibilities that are open to me and how much I take them for granted. If Enes isn’t deterred and continues to have big dreams, what’s stopping me?