Travel ferociously. Get out there. Engage people. Witness events. Explore the world. Bust a move. See all you can see. But when you’re at home and calm, sanguine and reflective, back in the part of the house where people don’t come unless you invite them, in that one little spot where only you rule, that’s where you can see most clearly.
Back there in that room, I saw our trip to Sarajevo as a conceit. We decided we’d go and see the aftermath of war and then we would think about it. And we saw the burned out houses on the airport road. We saw children at play beneath a hand-painted sign warning of “snijper” fire over there, in that direction.
We stood on a hill above town with an old woman and her little granddaughter and a vast field of Muslim graves behind them. We took pictures of SFOR soldiers (NATO’s ‘Stabilization Force’) taking pictures. And in the end, we didn’t really understand it any better. Or at least, we didn’t Glean Wisdom.
I read and read, before and after Sarajevo, and we went to see it, and we had a view of the bombed out parliament building from the Holiday Inn hotel, where we paid in advance, in cash, in Deutschmarks, right up front, for our entire stay.
The parliament building from the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo.
The elevator opened to carpet ripped by gunfire.
The main reconstruction work in Sarajevo was in busting down curbs and rebuilding them with wheelchair ramps.
We walked up and down the open air Markale market where a random, direct shelling killed 68, wounded two hundred on a rainy Saturday in February, 1994 – the bloodiest attack in the then twenty-two month long conflict. We saw bricks and mortar blasted from the side of the hotel next door. People bustled about the market that day, selling flowers, buying fruit, and we took it all in, but still we didn’t Glean Wisdom.
We shared an afternoon in the Stari Bazar with old Muslim men in tea houses and veiled old women at the tram stop and children feeding the pigeons. And then we came home to Atlanta and we didn’t have deep new thoughts and in the end I couldn’t even decide what I’d learned.
We traveled to Belgrade that spring, of 1997, during the long, slow suspended-animation fall of the Milosevic regime. We sat with students at an outdoor cafe alongside good-humored demonstrations, the plaza filled with protesters and speakers and jazz.
An ancient redoubt surveyed the confluence of the Rivers Danube and Sava from high on a hill at the tip of the old town. It’s a lovely location, but at the time, the good people of Belgrade scarcely had the luxury to enjoy it.
Such was their quietly desperate circumstance that they approached life, and visitors, sardonically, cynically and suspiciously. And that was the urbane camp, those not permeated with the peculiar parochialism goaded by Milosevic’s campaign of victimization, that he advanced most historically on the field of blackbirds, several kilometers outside Pristina, near the location of the iconic battle of Kosovo, 598 years before, which serves today as the founding myth of the Serbian nation.
On that day in 1987 Milosevic, then a party functionary, told Serbs gathered there that "No one has the right to beat you … No one will beat you ever again." He was President two years later.
Ironically the Serbs lost the battle of Kosovo, and today Kosovo, like all of the rest of the non-Serb parts of the former Land of the South Slavs, effectively lies outside Serbian control.
I had a camera lens stolen in Belgrade, and I felt threatened (our President had just led NATO in bombing their town), by a burly, drunken group of Serbian men in a bar with grimy walls and tablecloths, where next to us young men drank Pepsis and orange juice.
Across town a resigned young couple gladly gave us a 500,000,000,000 dinar note as a souvenir, then took us deep into an underground nightclub at midnight and came back to our extravagantly expensive Intercontinental Hotel and sat and drank with us until we told them to go home.
And I still didn’t have any new revelatory insights.
But still, for some of the same reasons, we went to the Caucasus, and it was one of our more memorable trips. “Restive.” “Turbulent.” “Wild.” “Violent, War-Torn,” even. We just had to go see, and I guess we'll keep going. Just to go see.
This whole reflection started because I read an article this morning recommending five books to read about Georgia. Should you ever consider a trip to the region, here's an interview with Swedish politician Per Gahrton recommending five books to read about Georgia.
In addition to Gharton's list, I suggest Nikolai Gogol’s short book Taras Bulba as a terrific entrée to the region that can be read in a day. I heartily concur with his suggestion of Ali & Nino, by Kurban Said. It transforms the Trans-Caucasian warrior spirit into something uplifting and immediate. And note that in addition to Thomas Goltz's Georgia Diary, he has also written Azerbaijan Diary and Chechnya Diary. And here are a few more suggestions for books about Chechnya.
Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, is ready but for the final proofing, and over the coming weeks we'll publish a chapter a week here. Among them is our contribution to the literature – a chapter on that trip to the Southern Caucasus.
This is the 14th century Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba) near Mt. Kazbek, Caucasus mountains, Republic of Georgia, from the Georgia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com. See also the Armenia, Azerbaijan and Former Yugoslavia Galleries.