A couple hours’ bus ride west of Sarajevo, the city of Mostar is a point of pride for the country. When we asked people in Sarajevo where else we should visit, the answer was also “Mostar, because it’s beautiful.”
Situated on the aquamarine Neretva River, Mostar’s most famous landmark and namesake is the Stari Most (Old Bridge), a 16th century Ottoman Bridge made of silken white stone. Destroyed in the Bosnian War, Stari Most was reconstructed with the help of the U.N. Protections Force and funding from several countries, in part using stones from the original bridge that were fished out of the Neretva. Local tradition of jumping off the bridge as a right of passage for men has morphed into a tourism attraction, and on a lucky day you’ll see a tourist or two taking the plunge. The bridge is also now a stop on Red Bull’s Cliff Diving World Series.
The downtown area is a tourist hotspot, with market stalls packed full of souvenirs, artisan shops, and restaurants. Most of touristic good sold are likely made elsewhere, but if you find a craftsman at work then you’re likely getting the real deal. Hand-hammered copper reliefs and Turkish coffee sets* make ideal take-home gifts, so as you walk through the marketplace listen for the clink of chisels on metal.
Outside the downtown area, the city bustles on, a network of roads full of cars and lined with densely built shops and houses. There are fewer physical signs of the war here; fewer bullet holes or mortar shell scars. The neighborhoods get a bit rougher looking at the city’s edge on the west side, but we had no problems walking through at dusk. If you’re not behaving strangely or wearing anything ostentatious, you’ll probably be left alone.
Oh, and when you’re there be sure to stop by Tima Irma to eat the best kebapci money can buy, served with fresh veggies, cheese, and pita bread. You can even wash it down with a local beer.
*A slight word of warning: traditionally, the jizveta are formed by pouring lead into the mold, and then removing it afterward. It’s been done this way for centuries, but if you do get one you might want to test it for lead before using it to make coffee.
**A second slight word of warning: the countryside around here may look dreamy, but don’t wander off into the hills without a guide. Mostar sat at one of the fronts during the Bosnian War and much of the area is still mined.
October hosts Sarajevo’s annual theater festival, MESS. We learned this through another person on our bus, a Swiss diver here in Sarajevo to meet watch her boyfriend perform as part of the theater group, Vox Populi. He meets us at the bus station and introduces himself as Syrian, though he now lives in Bulgaria. The two of them invite us to come see their play the following night. “It’s about the experiences of refugees,” they tell us, “it’s titled Mir Vama (Peace Be Upon You).”
It’s already packed when we arrive at the Sarajevo War Theater on the evening of the play, and we get tickets only from the kindness of someone who had two extra. The theater stage is set with little more than a line of tape up front and three vertical silk screens in the middle. As the lights dim two people walk onto the stage: Mila Bancheva and Ricardo Ibrahim, the man we met the day before. In what is part play and part documentary, the pair use videos of interviews with refugees projected onto the silk screens, symbolic scenes acted out in their minimalist set, and their own monologues to bring the stories of refugees to life.
Their interviewees are Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish, people’s children and parents and brothers and sisters. They speak about leaving their countries, what made them leave, what they left behind. They talk about a reluctance to go, and a story about people who left their homes thinking it was temporary and now decades later, they still wait to return. One man speaks of narrowly escaping death when a group of men fired several shots into his taxi. This wasn’t enough to force him to leave. Instead, it was the death of his infant daughter in an accidental raid on his house that prompted him to go. One of the actors speaks about the sensation of bombs being dropped on her city, first of fear, then of normalcy. Someone from the rafters drops a heavy box onto a stage, and it reverberates in the silence. The actors speak of hunger and starvation, as one of them desperately tears apart a pomegranate to eat, red-purple juice covering them. They speak of dodging mines, of the logistics of getting through porous borders, and then less porous borders. As refugees, they adjust to life as it is and as it must be.
Mir Vama reveals the refugees as painfully human, and our inability or unwillingness to help them palpable. Nowhere is that more evident than during a scene in the play where actress Mila cradles a mandolin she has been playing. She carries it to the front of the stage, and introduces it as her baby. And then she offers it to us, arms outstretched, but still lovingly cradling the object. “Will someone take my baby?” She pauses as seconds crawl by and we watch her. She offers it again, to the other side of the audience, “Please, will you take my baby?” Her face is solemn, imploring. I feel the urge to rise and take the mandolin from her, but I can’t tell if this is just part of the play. I can’t tell if this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what is right to do. Mila asks us, again, “Will anyone take my baby?” The seconds crawl by as we all stare at her, actionless.
We’ve continued our travels on to Skopje in FYROM, or Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia. Over the ire of the Greeks, though, everyone here just calls the country Macedonia. With wide boulevards, gleaming new buildings, and plethora of monuments in the city’s center, you get the feeling that this is a government looking to definite itself as modernized and powerful.
Leave the city center to find yourself surrounded by densely-built neighborhoods, with neatly-constructed houses beside ramshackle dwellings and the occasionally-forgotten Soviet structure.
Head to the “old town” to see the influence of Ottoman rule on this Balkan state. Narrow pedestrian paths weave between wooden stalls selling souvenirs and shops brimming with beaten copper, filigree jewelry, and ‘handmade’ goods that may or may not be made in Macedonia. Have a seat at a café and order a Turkish tea or coffee and desserts like baklava or sekerpare, then sit back and watch the people pass: tourists, locals, and the café workers who rush between, carrying tea and coffee on platters to shopkeepers so they need not leave and neglect their wares.
For a good conversation in the old town find Vladimir, who runs one of the antique shops, and ask his opinions on global politics and the future of Macedonia. Sit with him as the tea drains from the glass and the cigarettes turn to ash. Ask him why he thinks the Greeks take such an issue with Macedonia and he traces it back to the Greek Civil War, a conflict that occurred 1946-1949. “We lived in Macedonia of Northern Greece before then, happily, but they drove us out during the war, taking our land and everything we owned. We are Macedonians, but Greece would never admit it because it opens the door to potential reparations.” If that is true, the Macedonians have a right to their name.
Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.
On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.
We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.
We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.
It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!
In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete. We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.
We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.
We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.
Nikolaevo is a 2,800 person town to the north of Stara Zagora at the foot of the Sredna Gora Mountains. While not a standard tourist destination, it is home to Stoytcho’s aunt and grandfather. Stoytcho’s grandfather, also Stoytcho, was the school’s math teacher and principal during the communist regime and his aunt, Lela Stanka, teaches Bulgarian there today. Together, they also still farm the plot of land that belongs to the Stoytchev family.
We stay with Lela Stanka in two-bedroom apartment at the northern edge of town. The school is still on summer holiday, so we take long walks with her in the remaining days of the countryside summer. She points out landmarks and updates Stoytcho on life here. Nikolaevo was once a larger town, with most inhabitants employed by a factory that made ceramic parts for electrical wires. “A competing Turkish company bought the factory and shut it down,” she tells us, “and most people left.”
Now, the people living in Nikolaevo are predominately Roma, but each year brings something new. British expats started coming a few years back, not just pensioners but also families with children, lured by the cheap cost of living. Bulgarian families have also moved in, lured by cheap fertile land on in the surrounding area that is ripe for planting vineyards. Winemaking is a growing industry in Nikolaevo, evident from the rows of grapevines stretching from the north edge of town and up the nearby hill, where Stanka says ancient Roman ruins lay buried in underbrush.
Nikolaevo is a small town like so many others in Bulgaria; things move slowly, things change slowly, and for now at least, things continue.
Day trip! We’re driving south of Plovdiv to see the Chudnite Mostove (Wondrous Bridges/Marvelous Bridges), Bachkovo Monastery, and Assen’s Fortress, all nestled in the mountains south of Asenovgrad. Here in Bulgaria summer still lingers and sunlight spills over the landscape, sneaking through the trees and dappling the trails. The hot midday air smells like pine sap and cut grass. And the afternoon stretches the shadows long between the steep mountain peaks, bathing us in shade and cool winds. Though it’s the cheapest (and poorest) member in the E.U., Bulgaria has natural beauty to rival any other country.
Here in Europe, the memory of World War II is living, breathing, complicated beast. It was less than 100 years ago, and people remember it through stories, monuments, and plaques scattered throughout the cities of the continent. And it’s not remembered in the episodic way we in the U.S. remember the war, which for most of us distills down to we got attacked at Pearl Harbor, we beat Hitler and the Nazis (the Russians would like to have a word with you)*, and we nuked Japan. No, here in Europe it’s remembered by which of your relatives died, how much of your city was leveled, what survived, and how you remember who and what didn’t.
While it’s hard for me to estimate the exact number of World War II monuments, we’ve seen one in almost every place we’ve visited since we hit Russia. That includes Siberia, where there’s a Soviet monument in Ulan-Ude to the Buryats who fought in the war; to Latvia, where you can find plaques commemorating where the bombs fell and where Jewish refugees were sheltered scattered throughout the city streets; to Hungary, where towering monuments occupy city parks and the bank of the Danube River. There are places where we didn’t see World War II monuments, but in these cases we could have missed them or they could have been removed – the Soviets would have raised them in former Eastern Bloc states, and they might have fallen with the Communist governments.
The language of the monuments and plaques also varies by location; it either memorializes the loss of lives of buildings in the war generally, or it memorializes specifically the war against the Nazis. In Estonia where an estimated 1 in 4 peopled died, pamphlets tell how Estonians first fought the Soviet Union, then the Nazis to retain their independence. In Latvia and Warsaw, many of the placards say “here refugees were sheltered,” or “here bombs fell.” And then there are the scattered memorials in Bialowieza, which read (in Russian and Polish), “Here the Nazis committed terrible atrocities.”
But behind the monuments and the public face of remembrance, there’s a more complicated cultural and personal remembrance that doesn’t conform to the public memorialization. In Austria, this manifests as darkly self-critical humor scattered through the sightseeing pamphlets at hostels: “This location memorializes the terrible acts we committed. Oops, we meant the Nazis, we Austrians were just victims who were invaded.” With the fall of communism in Poland, there are whispers now that some of the murders in the forests of Bialowieza were committed by Soviet soldiers and blamed on the Nazis as a cover-up.
But this conflict of public and private remembrance is most evident in Budapest, where that recently-built “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” has sparked protests that the Hungarian government is ‘washing over history’ for political expedience*. An independent, home-made monument has sprouted up in front of the official memorial with personal memorabilia from victims killed by the Arrow Cross: photos, letters, ID cards, and books. It’s a reminder visitors that like the Austrians, many in Hungary welcomed the Nazis, and many murders and atrocities were committed by Hungarian hands.
Only a mile away from Budapest’s new monument, another World War II memorial sits on the bank of the Danube. Dozens of pairs of shoes, cast in bronze, are rooted into the concrete to memorialize those who were shot at the riverbank in 1944 and 1945. With the war drawing to a close and resources scarce, victims were told to remove their shoes before they were shot and their bodies tumbled into the river below. There are rumpled boots and loafers. There are fine, high-heeled pumps. There are children’s shoes.
Plaques embedded in the ground at each end state: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944-45.”
**The Hungarian government of the last decade has been controlled most by Fidesz, a nationalist right-leaning party that disagrees with Germany’s policy of allowing increased immigration. The memorial cleverly furthers both of its goals by (1) de-associating guilt from itself by failing to mention the atrocities linked to the also nationalist, right-wing party of the Arrow Cross and (2) associating the crimes committed with Germany, not specifically the Nazis, which stirs up subconscious anti-German sentiment.
We’re sitting in a conference room at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a 5-star luxury hotel beside the Moskva River. Bottles of sparkling water, notepads, and pencils are all neatly laid out on the table in front of us. To our left is a woman in a sharp, perfectly-cut black pantsuit, vice president of a subsidiary of Gazprom. To our right is a man in a navy jacket with a scarlet silk tie, owner of half the skyscraper properties in downtown Moscow. Stoytcho and I glance at each other. Earlier today, we ate at the cheapest Stolabaya we could find and it cost USD $6.00. Each person’s suit in this room has about the same price as a month in almost any country we’ve visited. How did we get here?
Ok, let’s back up. Before going on this whole round-the-world trip, I was getting my PhD at Yale University where I met Steve Blum, a Yale alumnus who visited Russia and loved it. Steve, who’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Association of Yale Alumni, was excited that we would be visiting Russia and put us in touch with someone he knew in Moscow. “This guy can show you around,” he told me cheerfully. We’ll call him “Guy” because I never know if what I write will get someone into trouble. So we exchange a couple emails with Guy as we’re traveling around the world, and a few days before we hit Moscow we make some final arrangements. He’s hosting a professor as well as us, so we’ll meet Guy and the professor at the State Tetryakov Gallery the day after we arrive. Reluctant to meet a Yale affiliate in stained zip-off hiking pants, we shop for some slightly nicer clothes the day before.
The art gallery
We meet Guy the next day in front of the gallery and he introduces us to John Mearshimer, professor at the University of Chicago. If you’ve ever studied political science, you probably know this name; John’s work is widely taught in international relations and conflict between nation-states. He’s published half a dozen books on the subject. He’s a big deal. Coming from biology, though, I had no idea who he was and took his hand with a blank polite smile.
After introductions, Guy leads us past the line at the museum entrance to a side door. A dour security guard stops us just inside and has an exchange with Guy, whose ID card and explanation placate him. We’re let through. “Do you work here and get to bring guests?” I ask, trying to find out more about our host. Guy responds, “No. I have special status because I paid for the restoration of several works here.” Oh, ok.
Our group wanders through the gallery, trailing Guy who stops frequently to explain the history or meaning of various works. Here is a painting depicting a famous battle, there is a painting showing the great schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church (pictured here), over there is a painting depicting a wedding of serfs. He stops at a painting of two men sitting at a desk with a woman in front of them, “In Russia, we say ‘buying and selling souls’ for the sale of serfs. Nobles would talk about how many souls they owned.”
Somewhere during the tour, we get invited to the Grand Strategy talks that Mearshimer is giving at the Hotel Kempinski every night this week. “Sure,” I reply, “That sounds fun.” Maybe this is where all my fellow academic nerds will be.
The Grand Strategy
Stoytcho and I show up to the Hotel Kempinski and it very quickly becomes clear this isn’t an academic gathering. For one, everyone is in nicer suits than most academics probably own. These are businessmen and businesswomen, Russian oligarchs here to learn Grand Strategy for nation-states that they can apply to their businesses. They jot notes as John speaks about Grand Strategy in World War II, in the Cold War, and in the Middle East today. Between rounds of talks, they chat with each other over hors d’oeuvres and check their phones busily. They all also speak English, and we’re able to find some to conversations.
We come back almost every night that week for Grand Strategy talks. It’s interesting stuff and John’s a good speaker. Neither Stoytcho nor I have a political science background, but what John says about Grand Strategy and a nation-state’s desire for regional hegemony, to have certainty and control over resources, makes a certain amount of sense. The nation-state simply behaves like a living organism, maximizing its own success in the world, sometimes at a benefit to but often at a cost to other nation-states. In the end, I ask and answer a few questions at the seminar, and feel like I’ve got it. When I tell John, he recommends I read some of his books. I haven’t got the heart to tell him that one his books is the same price as an average day’s worth of food for the two of us.
Maybe when I start my career back in the States I’ll have some pocket change again for a book.
Nearly every city or town we visited in Russia had a statue of Lenin. You’d go to the main square, and there was a Lenin. You’d get off the train at a stop along the trans-Siberian, and you’d find a Lenin. You’d be walking around downtown and find a Lenin. Lenin, Lenin, Lenin.
To people from the U.S. or Western Europe, this might be baffling. “Isn’t the Soviet Union dead? Isn’t the Communist experiment over in Russia?” they might ask. But Lenin’s continued popularity doesn’t seem to have as much to do with Communism as with Russia’s image as a great country. Lenin is a great man to Russia not because he brought about Communism, but because he grew the Russian sphere of influence. He made Russia more productive, more powerful. As someone we met on our travels put it “Lenin was a great man, a thinker, an intellectual. He did great things for Russia.*” So in honor of that, here’s where we spotted Lenin in Russia:
This glorification of Lenin is an interesting contrast to his treatment in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, where Lenin statues lie unloved in storage or have been moved to memorial parks, long since removed from their original posts. If you’re looking for more info, there’s a fascinating website on the Communist monuments of Eastern Europe and the Balkans here.
Oh, and the only place we didn’t see a Lenin was in St. Petersburg (although I’m sure he’s around if you search hard enough). Instead, we got this guy greeting us at the train station:
*When we asked the same person about Stalin, their response was, “Stalin…was both good and bad. He did good things. But he was scary. So not many statues of Stalin.”
When you travel through hostels so often, you go through the same conversation with different people over and over. The questions follow an unwritten script, with little variation: Where did you come from? Where are you going? What have you seen? Where are you from? You ask and answer these same questions every day, getting to know the flow of people through your room, trying to understand who they are and how they see the world.
Last night’s companions were a trio of Mongolian women here on holiday and one stayed in last night, where we played through the unwritten script with her, asking and answering. She was here with her small governmental department on vacation; the whole group decided to head up here to Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikal for the Mongolian national holiday of Naadam. She asked about our travels and we told her about the world trip, although she was sad to hear we had passed over Mongolia. I explained it was because of flight prices (it was actually cheaper to fly to Ulan-Ude than Ulan Bator), but that Mongolia is on the list of dream destinations. We spent the next hour talking about Mongolia, the woman telling us about the vast open plains, the vivid nature, the nomadic people, and the delicious food.
At some point the question of my identity came up, and I explained that my father is Chinese and I am half Chinese. The woman was a bit taken aback, but she exclaimed, “Yes, I can see it. You don’t look quite European! You would fit in here with the Buriyati or even in Mongolia.” I laughed and told her, “I know. I look like a local girl almost everywhere.”
In the morning, the Mongolian women rushed to pack and leave the hostel for Baikal. As she was leaving, the woman we talked to last night bade us farewell and excitedly hoped we would come to Mongolia one day. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm open smile. “But please…” she exclaimed, “maybe don’t say anything about being part Chinese! Because in Mongolia, we don’t like the Chinese people. When people insult each other, we say that a person is a son of Chinese.”
Her imminent departure made her speed rushed, but also deeply honest. “I have nothing against you. But I want you to be safe. And you see how the Chinese treated us. They built a giant wall at our border to keep us out. And now where is the wall? Very far in Chinese territory, no? Because they have taken so much from us, we hate them.” She paused, but was still smiling. It seems the contempt for Chinese people did not translate to contempt for Chinese (or half-Chinese) persons like me.
Then she was gone and I was left to parse the feelings of the interaction. My enthusiasm for visiting Mongolia wasn’t dampened, but her words about the Great Wall rattled around in my head for a while. For most people, the Great Wall is an archaeological and architectural marvel, amazing if only for length alone. To find out that it was a symbol of hate for Mongolians was surprising, although in retrospect not all that weird. If your neighbor builds a big, unfriendly wall bristling with weapons pointed at you, you certainly aren’t going to view it dispassionately; you’re going to think they’re a dick and you’re going to hate that neighbor. So the wall, maybe at first borne out of mutual hatred, becomes a symbol of that hatred.
The China-Mongolia-Great Wall story might be a well-timed allegory for us in the United States. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he argues will solve problems for the U.S., such as immigration and violent crime. But let’s set that aside and remember that this point in time is only a moment in Mexico-U.S. relations. If we do build a wall, even if it is successful, what is the cost of that success? Like the cross in Christianity or the American Flag, a wall would become a symbol of our country and a message to our neighbors. It might be a long-lasting, dark stain on our relationships. So no, I can’t tell you that the wall wouldn’t solve some of the immigration problems. But I think that it would be good to remember that the last huge wall built created two thousand years of hate.