I owe Bosnia 13 Euros

Imagine Switzerland but without the snow capped peaks, just neat little houses around meadows with haystacks and cornfields, cut by babbling brooks and yellow ribbons with red and white signs with skull and crossbones and the notice in many languages: DANGER MINEFIELD. And on the walls, the pretty designs that aren’t quite swastikas, of the many flavors of mutually exclusive Nazis. Imagine sturdy blond youth singing “Tomorrow belongs to me,” in dialects so similar that they can only be distinguished by knife attacks.

A life lesson: don’t rely on trains being on time. Allow 50%. The train getting into Belgrade was so late that my nearly two hour layover was more like 8 minutes, time for one taxi rejection and a ticket lady who told me to buy on the train. No money changing opportunities. Not that Serbian money would do me good in Sarajevo. But at least, to cash my Euros. And the train out of Belgrade was 40 minutes late by the time it had been an hour out. The last run, to the town of Strizivojna where you change trains to go to Bosnia, it went 150 kph to make the connection, but I felt nervousness all round.

Another life lesson: If you’re going to take cash, take useful cash. It’s true big bills get better rates but it’s also true that they are useless with humans. I took cash this trip because Wachovia charges something like 8 dollars for every foreign currency transaction and the last 5 dollars don’t even post to your account until the end of the month, in a lump sum. The whole bank is a ripoff. I did not realize this until recently, but balloon mortgages were invented by World Savings, which collapsed into Wachovia last year.

I bought a ticket on the train leaving Beograd. There wasn’t time to get one at the ticket counter. I used my one remaining US $20.

The ticket I bought on the train did not cover all the way to Sarajevo. The lady at the train station in Strizivojna could not tell me this. She couldn’t read the handwriting of the conductor.

So I got on the train to Sarajevo without a ticket. I intended to buy one on the train if necessary. Three sets of Bosnian conductors decided I needed to buy a ticket, which cost slightly more than the 5 Euro note I got in change from the $20 bill, but none of them could change a 200 Euro note, nor a US $100, nor a Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Korean, Japanese, nor Mongolian anything. They each of them threw up their hands and did not trouble me the rest of their shift. They saw me walking off the train. I asked tourist information at Sarajevo if there was a money changer in the station and he said “no” but his friend would change but I feared a very bad rate and used the 5 Euro note for a taxi to the hostel. It is only double the metered price, but it was also night time by then.

What is it my life long teachings say, don’t cross borders on a weekend? I crossed three of them on Saturday, and each was a problem.

Sarajevo is another town partially in ruins, and coming on the tail of so many other ruins, the dramatic impact of it depended on your knowing the story. I bet I would not have noticed the shell holes on the street or the bullet holes in the walls if I hadn’t been looking for them. Concrete crumbles so badly anyway. I spent Sunday walking around Old Town, which is the European word for Mall, and was tremendously disappointed that nobody would sell me the poster for the bee products market that was on. Buying bee products when you’re on the way to America is not wise. The agriculture department doesn’t want you to. But I peered in churches and mosques and graveyards and shops. There is a great deal of tourist knickknackery built out of shell casings. Talk about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. The souvenirs are rather heavy so I passed.

The post card situation was better. Not all the shops had the same post cards. I don’t know what it is about my Babbitt taste, but tell me if you have noticed this: you see something, you think it’s cute, and then you see that every store in the entire neighborhood has exactly that thing and suddenly it doesn’t seem so interesting any more. Is this a valid aesthetic? If a thing is pretty, shouldn’t it be pretty though there be a thousand of them per mile covering the whole earth? I never have this reaction to the fields of Farewell-To-Spring that carpet the hills near Tehachapi, but handsome little scratched metal plates that seem so refined the first time you spot them look tawdry the one hundredth. And when they say “Made in China” on the back, that affects perception, too. Let’s go to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and slap a Made in China sticker on it and see if the crowds leave.

There’s a monument to the children killed during the siege of Sarajevo. It is made out of stacked up glass. I don’t get the artistic connection between the glass and the children but I don’t suppose you want anything very representational in that public space, either. One of the children who was not killed ended up working at Draeger’s, in about the year 2000. His name is Mirza and he is missing his right foot and his sister lost an arm when a grenade landed in their backyard. I know that it’s bad social policy to name laws after children who have suffered, but you would have to be near dead at heart not to feel the impetus.