Love Story Silver Winner: Bosnian Blues

by Landon Spencer

My friends are concerned.

“Why are you going to Yugoslavia ” they want to know.

“There is no Yugoslavia.”  I reply.  Like the pop star, Prince, who for a time changed his name to an unutterable symbol, the word Yugoslavia can now only be invoked when preceded by the phrase formerly known as.

“Why are you going to former Yugoslavia ” They correct themselves and persist in their concern.

Does one need a reason   The travel ads on CNN rave about the “sights and sounds of Serbia” and promise that to go to Croatia is to “discover the Mediterranean as it once was.”  Isn’t that enough

“I’m going because I can no longer stand not going.”

They fear that I will indulge in unnecessary dwelling.  I don’t tell them that my going to former Yugoslavia is actually an act of revenge.

I always called you ‘the Bosnian,’ even after it became clear that ‘the Serbian’ would have been more accurate.  And though you complained, I think you liked it.  There was pride amidst all the confusion.  You were from a war-torn land and I knew nothing about it.

“We’ll go there together,” you said, “We’ll rent a car and head west from Belgrade.  You’ll see what I love to see when Vlasenica appears around a bend in the road.  You’ll see how beautiful my country is.” I vowed silently that I would go.  But I knew even then that you would not be with me.

You had already been to my home, unannounced and uninvited.  I was in Las Vegas, the city where we began.  After a long last night talking about our villages and our dreams and our regrets, you had finally left.  (You were always coming and going, and somehow, most of the time it felt like you were already gone.) A few weeks later you left a message on my phone: “Hey, how are you   I’m in Three Rivers.  It’s beautiful.  The Sequoia trees are beautiful.  I’ve talked to some people who know you.  I’m calling from the payphone by the Village Market…”  The Village Market  My Village Market   Where I’d beg my mom to add to a candy to the cart   I felt invadedthoroughly and lusciously invaded.

In Dubrovnik I sip wine, swim in the ocean, and walk on the walls surrounding the city.  Though under UNESCO protection, Dubrovnik was hit hard in the war.  Over two thirds of the buildings in the old town were shelled by the Serbian and Montenegrin remnants of the Yugoslav People’s Army.

But you’d never know it now.  She has a brand new face built to look old, the result of rigorous plastic surgery using traditional techniques and materials.  Dubrovnik’s white limestone buildings and tiled roofs are beautiful all over again.  A local looks left and right before drawing circles on my map of the citythese are the spots that haven’t been made-over, these are the places to peek at bombed-out buildings.  But surely this is not why I’ve come   To rubberneck at other people’s ruins

In any case, the most lasting scars of war are borne not by buildings but by people.  I see a hint of it each time I ask a question.  They flinch and hesitate, then give staccato answers impeded not by any difficulty speaking English but from an inability to speak of the past at all.  Or else they are so eager to talk that the words rush out in a torrent, colliding and contradicting as they fill the space around me, a foreign girl who has read books but knows nothing about it.

On the island of Korcula I meet Ivo and Dora, a couple of well-educated and outspoken hippy-types from Zagreb sporting half-shaved, half-dreaded hair-dos.  They lament the European Union’s refusal of admission to their club, “Croatia is very Western; the Balkans start at Bosnia.”  They attempt to translate jokes about the Herzegovinians, the hicks of former Yugoslavia, before moving on to the pretentious Slovenians:  “They think they are better than the rest of us, they think they are Austrians.”  When I begin to point out that there are similar implications in the remark that “the Balkans start at Bosnia,” Ivo smiles and blushes:  “It’s true that we are part of the Balkans, I don’t want to deny that.”

They ask me why I’ve come to their country.  “I’ve been reading a lot about former Yugoslavia…” I finally offer, and they read the love-story-gone-wrong on my face.  “So,” Dora asks, “how does this meet your expectations ”  I admit that Dubrovnik and the surrounding area feel a bit like…Italy.  They laugh, “You see  The Balkans start at Bosnia!”

So I go east.

In Amsterdam you stayed for a week in my canal-side basement room and I pretended that you were mine.

“Hey, wake up, you’re dreaming,” you cooed, curling me into your ripe massan amoeba gently enveloping a smaller organism, “were you dreaming of Bosnia “

“You know I’ve never been to Bosnia.”

I’d been there only in books.  For months, when you were gone, I burrowed my way through everything I could find in translationpainfully tangled histories, classic Yugoslavian literature from before the wars of the late 20th century, and contemporary novels written by ex-Yuguslavs with names that ended in C’s…Ugresic, Drakulic, Jergovic, Arsenijevic…

Sometimes, I’m sure you remember, you’d take a book from a pile and ‘read’ to me in your language.

You read to me when I was pulling away, in the moments when I sensed the danger and admitted that you would never love me. Incomprehensible bedtime stories delivered in a language more soft and dark and beautiful than any other rolled me back to your side.

My passport is forever at the ready on the bus ride from Dubrovnik to Mostar.  We wind our way inanely back and forth across national borders that didn’t exist 15 years agoCroatia to Bosnia, back to Croatia, then Bosnia again.

I eat at a restaurant on the western riverbank.  I order everything, four times more than enough for one person.  I want to try it all.  Civapcici with creamy kajmak (“not for diet!” Ivo had written as a footnote in my journal while making culinary recommendations), a spinach pie called zeljanica, filo pastry burek filled with cheese, pickled vegetables, Bosnia’s version of Baklava as well as Hermasice, a dense little cake soaked in syrup and nuts, and thick Bosnian coffee.

I have drinks with Frasier, an American boy spending the weekend away from his new home in Dubrovnik where he sells smoothies and wraps at a backpacker’s bar.  He is in love with a Croatian girl.  Naturally.

“Do you speak any of the language ” he asks.

I have two phrases:  Volim te and Havala.  Sometimes I grab the wrong one and tell the man who brings my pivo, “I love you.”

Frasier tells me about the Northern wind: “They say it is invigorating and healthy.  But the Southern wind, called the Yugo, brings the sand from the desert and…bad things.”  I laugh and lament that my new friend is getting mystical on me.  But he doesn’t let down.

“No really!  If an important governmental meeting is scheduled to take place but the Yugo begins to blow…”

“They postpone “

“They really do.  They postpone.”

“Well then, I think I need a great big Northern wind.”

“It was just here,” he gushes, “two days ago…the big storm…”

“I was in Korcula.”

“That was your Northern wind.”

On my way back to the room I’ve rented I realize that I’m drunk and definitely lost.  I walk down barely lit back alleys, pass once and then a second time the same men drinking beers and boys playing a night-time game of street soccer.  They watch me closely but they do not speak.  I consider pulling out a phrase from my book, eez-goo-bee-la sam se, but what is the point.  They can see that I am lost.

We spent a day walking in Brussels.  You took me to a restaurant you’d seen before and wanted to try.

“Yugoslavian Specialties” it had once said on the door, but we could see that someone had tried to remove the word “Yugoslavian,” presumably around the time that the country ceased to exist.  Now it just said “Specialties.”  I was surprised to hear you speak French to the two men inside sharing a bottle of slivovica at the counter.  Yes, we were in Brussels, but these were your people right 

Later, as we ambled through the streets of the Marolles district, you launched into a fairly bitter tirade on the impossibility of speaking your native language in a Yugoslavian restaurant outside of former Yugoslavia.  “I cannot ask, ‘do you speak Yugoslavian ‘ because there is no such language.  If I ask, ‘do you speak Serbian ‘ I will offend a Croatian or a Muslim.  If I ask, ‘do you speak Croatian ‘ I will offend a Serb or a Muslim.  If I ask, ‘do you speak Serbo-Croatian ‘ I will appear to be too cautious, almost paranoid.”

I might have pointed out that cautious (and indeed, even paranoid) didn’t seem too far off the mark.  I might have mentioned, conversationally, that the officials at the Hague Tribunal trying war criminals from former Yugoslavia use the term BSC (Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian), or that Slavenka Drakulic has written that, “like refugees scattered across the continents, they usually do not specify; they call it ‘our language’ or nothing at all.”  But I said nothing.  We will simply eat specialties that dare not speak their name.

We laid down in the sun on our coats.  You slept, thoroughly but brieflyfour minutes tops.  It was enough.  I cried just a little as you snored.

At an Irish pub, I both adored and detested the way you could seamlessly rave passionately about the plight of your people, like a full grown man, and then, when the waitress brought a fresh round of Guinness, lick the foam from your fingers like a very little boy.

You told me about your father’s adamant belief in what most us would deem conspiracy theories.  The Freemasons are ruling the world and sabotaging the Serbian agenda.

“Its so sad.  He needs to believe in something to make sense of it all, the way that people believe in God when nothing else works.”

I asked what answers you personally had come up with for the Yugoslavian question.  You silenced me with the assertion that there is no ‘Yugoslavian question.’

“But you have to speak French in a Yugoslavian restaurant…” I pushed.

You agreed that perhaps there were still some small difficulties with classification.

She tugs on my arm and points above my head.  Grapes.  I had not noticed them.  I’ve been walking along a partially covered street through Kujundziluc, the old town of Mostar, and can see now that fat green grapes are dripping from the rickety rafters.  She displays her palm for payment.  I give her a one Mark coin and instantly another appears at my side.  I show the newcomer how to use my disposable camera.  She takes my picture and I hand her a coin.  A third appears.  I give her a coin, too, and try to walk away but she follows.  “I already gave to you,” I laugh and try to reason.  But she doesn’t want more money, she wants to take my picture.  I leave them then, but hours later in another part of town the three girls find me again and silently follow my steps.

I take a picture of a billboard advertising Prima beer.  A sleek, Slavic Barbie in a red bikini seduces me.  Behind the billboard sits a building gutted and pockmarked by war, and, further still in the background, the baby-blue minaret of a Mosque built hundreds of years ago.

The “new” Orthodox Church was reduced to a pile of rubble in ’93.  Behind the rubble the “old” Orthodox Church still stands.

“Is there a Serbian part of town ” I ask a man selling books.

“No Serbs here,” he responds, looking alarmed.

“But there is an Orthodox Church, there must have been Serbs living here at one time…”

“Not now,” he insists.

I wanted you to explain things to me that I could never understand.

Lying in bed, your arm pressed against my stomach, I babbled about how my sister and I used to heat water on the stove for each other when the bath was running cold in our childhood house, as it often did.  “Yeah, we used to do that during the war…” you replied, and made me feel foolish.

When you were a kid you collected empty cigarette packs.  You and your best friend were in heated competition for the best collection in the neighborhood.  The night before your family left in secret for Canada, you were allowed to say good-bye to this one friend.  You gave him your precious cigarette packs.

“So your friend then had the very best collection in the neighborhood ” I asked.

“Yeah, I guess.  I hadn’t thought about it.  I don’t think about those times a lot.  But yeah, with mine incorporated, he must have had the very best collection…”

Later there were less palatable pillow revelations…

“She’s my rock.”

You would never have finished school without her.  You admired her stability.  You were a freewheeling far-flying gypsy and she carefully chased away the nightmares of solitude and entropy that such a life will naturally inspire.

But is it fair, I wondered, to make a person into an anchor

I snap a picture of Stari Most, the famous bridge, that almost perfectly matches the cover on my copy of Rebecca West’s massive travel memoir Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. A local guidebook from the humble tourist kiosk informs me that Stari Most was painstakingly rebuilt after “evil forces” had blown her up in 1993.

Evil forces  While in Croatia I had asked Ivo about the bridge.  He cut me off before I could complete my cautious question”Yes, yes, we blew up the bridge.  It was a mistake.  But let me tell you what they did to us…”

Years ago the Neretva River had marked an important boundaryCatholics to the West, Muslims on the East.  Now all Bosnians are essentially free to walk where they will.  Tanned young things dive off Stari Most to the applause and tips of tourists.  For most of the evening I watch them plummet to the river below, contribute my spare change (the Euro, the Croatian Kuna and the Bosnian Mark are all welcome), and decline the opportunity to have a drink after.  I’ve had enough of Bosnian men.

But my Bosnian is not really Bosnian, is he

You were difficult from the moment we met.

“Where are you from ” I asked, thinking this was one of those harmless questions one poses in order to initiate conversation in an uncomplicated way.


“Ah, you’re Bosnian,” I sighed.

“I am from an area of former Yugoslavia that, since the break up of that nation, is now part of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

“OK.  Got it.  Bosnian.”

“Well…actually, I’m not Muslim.  I’m Orthodox Christian.”

“So you’re religious.  You believe in God, go to church and all that “

“No.  I’m not religious.  But my family is Orthodox Christian.  My background is Orthodox Christian.”

“So your family is religious…”

“What I’m trying to say is that I guess I’m Serbian.”

You guess

You don’t like the way you imagine the world perceives the word “Serbian.”

On my last night in Mostar, my hosts invite me to dinner in their candle-lit yard off the alley.  The gathering looks warm and the food smells great, but I decline.  I spend the night alone in my room with my notebook, surrounded by cans of cheap Bosnian beer and a half-empty bottle of slivovica.  Yes, half-empty and not half-full.  I spend the night alone in my room aching and scrawling.

Djordje, Djordje of the gypsy jungle.

Djordje, my 6’5″ hulk of a Balkan boy.

Djordje of the painfully perfect white teeth and nappy hair.

Djordje of the giant man-paws that didn’t the least bit look capable of all that they were indeed capable of doing to the female body.  Djordje of the nails perpetually encrusted with dirt from the work that he enjoyed and his father hated.

(His father wanted him to work at a bank or something similarly respectable and lucrative, something that fulfilled the family’s ‘Canadian dream,’ and that made the most of the fact that they were no longer in some part of former Yugoslavia that is now part of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.)

I’m having trouble seeing the present.  I’m finally here in the Bosnia that has always been for me a setting in books, and, like a zombie, I’m missing most of it. Everything takes me back to the past, our past.

But perhaps it’s not so inappropriate.  These tiny new countries have labored feverishly to rebuild and to rewrite their stories.  Yugoslavia was an artificial construct; finally we are free to be as were always meant to be, separate and independent; what we did in the war was not as bad as what they did to us; what happened before is finished… But no one has really forgotten.  Everyone here walks with one foot tied to the past.

Cross-legged on the bed in my little rented room in Mostar, I realize that my trip is finished.  There is no need to travel further, to Sarajevo or Belgrade.  I will not go to Vlasenica.  I will not make a call from a payphone outside the market where Djordje used to beg his mom to add a candy to the cart.  There will be no revenge.  I see now that I have come to let go.

You wooed me in Spanish and French and the language that dare not speak its name, a language more soft and dark and beautiful than any other.  (How did you know that I was Wanda, grinding against the banister while John Cleese’s character danced below, spouting Russian, with underwear on his face )  Yet you never said, in any language, the words I most wanted to hear…Te amo, Je t’aime, Volim te.  These words were reserved for the one with whom you felt more easy, the girlfriend back in Montreal you had always referred to as your ex.

I had merely denied the obvious and wrapped myself in the belief that if I could understand what happened in former Yugoslavia, then I could understand my Bosnian… if I could touch that part of you then I would have all of you.  It was ludicrousa deluded hope dragged, kicking and screaming, halfway around the world.  Even had the premise been sound, it would not have worked.  All my effort to understand what happened in former Yugoslavia only ever led to a state resembling something along the lines of ‘enlightened confusion.’

I did not understand, but neither did you.  You found it impossible to be Serbian; you found it impossible to be with me.  You couldn’t see the forest, for the trees were totally blown to bits by a war that had nothing and everything to do with you.

What does one do with nostalgia for a country that no longer exists   The same thing, perhaps, one does with love left over when the relationship is finishedconsign it all to the warehouse of ache.


Somewhere along the line, the sound of the language that dare not speak its name became my Pavlov’s bell.  It is a conditioned response that even now, years later, I haven’t completely eradicated.

I watched a movie with a friend recentlya crime thriller, not really my kind of film.  Then the bad guys conversed above subtitles that spelled out for the American viewer the details of their criminal plots.

“What are they speaking   Russian ” my friend had asked between handfuls of popcorn.

“Serbian…” I whispered and discreetly wiped my mouth.


After receiving a Master’s degree in English, Landon ran away from academia to join the circus.  She’s been touring the western world with an acrobatic and equestrian show for the past four years.  When she’s not riding she’s writing.

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