By Ayun Halliday
Twenty years of global travel have made me pretty choosy about souvenirs, but Milo, at six, is too green to resist the siren song of the colorful wares festooning the tourist trails. Not that his acquisition lust is confined to the kitsch cranked out for foreign visitors. It started in a Budapest subway station, when he caught sight of some Yu-Gi-Oh-ish trading cards in a kiosk window. “How would you have played with them?” I reasoned, as I frog-marched him, howling, toward the turnstile. “They’re in Hungarian.” !”Yeah, and money doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” Milo’s older sister, Inky chimed in, helpfully repeating a shopworn mantra she must have picked up from me. I worry about her, remembering how reticent I once was about expressing anything resembling material desire. If one day she decides to haul off and really want something, loudly, unequivocally, the way her brother does, I don’t think I’ll mind.
Meanwhile, her brother’s magpie tendencies were dragging us down in areas of touristic interest throughout the former Yugoslavia. Things came to a head in Sarajevo’s Turkish bazaar, a charming warren of tea shops, coppersmiths and souvenir stalls. I’d call it a minefield, but that seems a tad insensitive, given what the citizens of this city went through in the early ’90s. Any Sarajevan school kid who endured the siege understands the true meaning of deprivation. For the record, deprivation doesn’t mean your mom refusing to buy you a giant pencil fifteen minutes after buying you an expensive handicraft octopus carved from a palm nut.
I like to think I’m not the only mother who cares whether her child is perceived as a brat. It’s not so much a problem with the girl, but the boy is a trickier prospect, particularly in any setting where money is exchanged for goods. Both children had already been promised a souvenir from the Turkish bazaar, and as far as Milo was concerned, there was nothing to be gained from delayed gratification. I decided that the best way to avoid a scene would be to purchase the first thing he claimed he wanted, with the understanding that there would be no do-overs, no begging for the nextinviting item that caught his eye. There was one other stipulation: I wasn’t going to shell out for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or any flimsy plastic doodad easily procured in Chinatown. This ruled out everything in the toy store’s window display save a just-for-pretend Glock that looked way too much like the real thing to take on a plane. Fortunately, the toy store wasn’t open when we passed. The handicrafts spilling out of the bazaar’s shops weren’t exactly handcrafted in the traditional sense, but this didn’t discourage me from extolling the virtue in choosing something reflective of the local culture, like a brightly painted flute, or some curly-toed slippers, or a poorly-made plaque featuring a shoddy reproduction of the circular brass knockers one sees on the old city’s heavy wooden doors. This last seemed to hold some appeal for my frantic son, who set to banging the first one he could reach as if his life depended on it. Greg was dubious.
“Thirty-seven konvertible marks for that? You think it’s worth it?”
“To avoid a scene? Yes! Look at him. He’s totally stressed out.”
I put my hand out for the money. “Ayun” “Greg, he’s on the verge of total meltdown!”
I know how this sounds, but bear in mind that we were in a very small space, presided over by an older woman whose parenting philosophy was composed of sterner stuff than mine. “Let’s think this through.” Steering me by my elbow, Greg herded the entire family to a bench several storefronts away. Milo was one monofilament away from losing it, but Greg implemented some horse-whisperer techniques and laid out a counter-proposal. The way he saw it, each child should be given a set amount, a sort of seed grant to spend as he or she saw fit. I immediately conceded the superiority of his plan, which was not only brilliant, but also educational! It would let me pretend we were doing things to reinforce the homework the kids were allegedly doing in order to keep up with their classmates back home. It sounded good to the designated recipients, too, even Milo, who pocketed his ten-mark bill with something like relief.
After fifteen minutes trolling the bazaar, peacefully examining the merch,we decided that we’d be more effective, i.e. we’d get to the museum Greg and I wanted to visit sooner, if we split up, each parent taking a child. I got Milo.
“Is it okay if I know what I want now?” he asked.
“Sure, it’s your money. Do you remember where you saw it?”
He described a newsstand we had passed earlier that that displayed a few games, toys and puzzles behind glass. I remembered it because of the heartbreak I’d inflicted by refusing to buy any of the items at which Milo had pointed on an earlier pass. All former bets were off, though, now that he had his own money to blow. I navigated us past the carpet shops and coffee stalls of the ancient maze as Milo skipped alongside, singing and occasionally fretting that I wouldn’t be able to find the newsstand, or that we’d get there only to discover that someone else had beaten him to the punch. What a tragedy that would have been, had some lucky local boy walked off with the item Milo desired with such passion, a made-in-China, plastic play set, containing, among other things, two muscle-bound enforcer types and a toy grenade.
You heard me.
Greg’s plan had utterly failed to address my long-standing no-guns policy. It used to be a no-weapons policy, but ownership of fourteen toy swords changed that. Still, though, I have my standards, and only a monster would invoke them now.
“Do I have enough?” Milo asked hopefully.
“You tell me. It’s 8.75 KM.”
He held his breath and counted, the 10 KM bill clutched tight in his eggsized fist.
“I do!” he screamed joyfully.
“That’s right, you do. Now, are you sure this is what you really, really want?”
He flung his arms around my thighs. “Oh, thank you, mama! Thank you! Thank you!” A grandfatherly gentleman strolling nearby honored us with a smile of approving benevolence. If only he knew what occasioned such outand-out gratitude. “Well, it’s your money,” I conceded. Or rather, your money and my reputation though, technically, the Special Forces Combat Forces gift pack is a gun-free plaything. Not that the flimsy walkie-talkie’s conveniently barrel-shaped antenna can’t convert to a weapon with a simple flick of the wrist. The commandos were wired to a lurid cardboard backdrop featuring a fiery, photo-realistic explosion. Some handcuffs, the grenade and an anemic nightstick fleshed out the possibilities for wholesome playtime fun. It’d be bad enough in Brooklyn, but Sarajevo? The newsstand operator betrayed no particular emotion as she retrieved the little American boy’s selection, and handed it through the window. One hurdle down. Apparently, no plastic bag was forthcoming, which is why I never travel without a nylon shopping bag. The one I had on me was just big enough to contain Milo’s blister-packed apocalypse. I let him carry it himself. He was so happy, he was capering around like a little goat. I told him I was psyched for him, and also that he’d do well to be discreet about the nature of his purchase.
“See, some really bad things happened to the people who live here. There was a war, with real explosions and real guns and a lot of people got killed.”
He nodded, ready to agree to anything now that the wonderful prize was his.
“You and I know it’s just a toy, but it might be the kind of toy that could make the people who live here feel bad. And I know you wouldn’t want to make anybody feel bad.”
Dumbing things down in this way makes me cringe, but Milo, bless his heart, seemed to get the message. When Greg volunteered to schlep the stuff we wouldn’t be needing at the Siege of Sarajevo Museum back to the guest house, while the kids and I stayed in the bazaar for a snack, Milo gave explicit instructions that the contents of the orange nylon shopping bag should be kept under wraps. He didn’t want to risk hurting our hostess, who had introduced him to her pet Dalmation and invited him into the kitchen to help her make pancakes.
As to the museum, it was excellent, though perhaps not so much for children. There are plenty of photos of children on display there, of course, but also photos of people lying in their own blood, a few feet from their toppled bicycles. Milo, who initially was quite taken with the exhibit of munitions used by the Bosnian Resistance, seemed again to get the message.
“I don’t like this museum,” he announced in a quavering voice, and retreated to the stairwell with one of his sister’s Betty and Veronica comics.
Later, in the privacy of the guesthouse, I lay on the bed reading a tongue in cheek guide to surviving the Siege of Sarajevo, while Milo spent the better part of two hours maneuvering his plastic commandos around the bedsheet frontlines, the perilous nature of their missions implied by a non-stop barrage of whispered sound effects. Even though I’ve never been able to make such noises myself, I appreciated this lazy afternoon for the peaceful situation it was.