Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Ghost above the Marble Arch


It was about 8:00 pm dark and freezing in Mostar when we got off the bus. I walked into a café at the station and asked about a bathroom. “1 Yurro,” the guy at the bar said in that Slavic way that sounds like his tongue had weights tied to it. He glared at me. I didn’t say anything but turned around and walked away. We walked down into an alley and I peed into a weed-choked ditch. In the dark, some guy walked past me. I could barely see him, but I heard his footsteps. The river wasn’t far away. I could hear it lapping against something from the other side of the building I was facing.

We didn’t have any place to stay. The plan to come to Mostar in the first place was horribly half-cocked.  From Dubrovnik, I suddenly decided that I had to see the bridge. I’m not really sure why. I usually don’t care about going to see iconic things, but I’ve seen so many beautiful images of the angled Ottoman-era bridge lit up by floodlights and reflecting back into the river, I couldn’t bring myself to pass so close to it and not go see the reflection of all that white marble shimmering in the water looking down from a parapet that should be old but, since the original bridge was blown up in 1993, is now new, masquerading under the title Stari Most (Old Bridge). Yet, there’s something beautiful about something new that’s so important it still retains the title of old, long after it’s been made new.

But, because all I wanted to do was to stand on the bridge, to walk around a little on the cobblestones listen to the waters, a night seemed enough. Our bus back to Dubrovnik and Montenegro was leaving at 7:00 am the next morning. The limited amount of time turned us into frantic tourists. From the dark parking lot by the river, I wondered where the bridge was and I wondered where we were going to stay. I did not think beyond the two points. My pool table-sized bag was already starting to pull my shoulders down to meet in a knot in the small of my back. The wind, heavy with river water and burnished by the marble of the Old City, had crept into the knuckles of my fingers and behind my teeth, at the base of my skull.

We began walking, without really knowing which direction we were walking in or why. Perhaps the lights on the horizon were brighter out that way. We came to a sign and an intercom in an alleyway. I buzzed and we waited on the carpet of yellow light spread out in front of the door. A voice answered in Serbo-Croatian.

“Uh, do you have a room?” I blurted out in English.

“No. Full.” The voice answered.  The cold night after Christmas and the place was full? How many rooms were in there? One? I was, however, undeterred and we continued down the alley. The concrete was breaking up into cobblestones. The walls were worn-looking as if polished by loose scarfs and jackets for centuries. The alleys were more like gaps between buildings strewn about with no particular order.

After about half a block, there was another sign, “Hostel David.” A little white plastic sign like any other in a tourist town, someone’s grandma’s house turned into a hostel offering day trips in the summer to the countryside. Hoping to keep you there more than the day or two you’d need to see the bridge. There’d be a little common area and a ‘breakfast’ of incredibly white bread and packets of cherry jam with instant coffee. The chairs would be plastic and everything would smell like a mildewed shower.

In many ways my assumption was correct. The place was a hostel much as I’ve described them, but it was much more than that. It was clearly a place someone inhabited and, consequently, cared about.

We stepped into the doorway to scope the place out. An enigmatic Jesus-esque figure sitting at the ubiquitous plastic table addressed us immediately. “You’ve found it. Take off your bags. Relax,” he said. “Is it a nice place then?” I asked rather stupidly. “The best; it’s home,” the bearded and long-haired guy responded without hesitation. I’d seen this behavior in a hostel a few times before. Guests who’ve been travelling way too long end up crashing there and losing the nerve to continue onward. To justify this inertia to themselves they call the hostel wonderful, paradise even, despite the fact that it’s no different than any other hostel.

We talked a little more, but, oddly, the guy seemed reluctant to talk. “Go in there,” he said gesturing to a door, “wait for Stefan; he’ll take care of you. You might even get a cup of coffee or something. Stranger things have happened.” So, into the room we went. It was sparsely furnished. A little table, a few demitasse cups with fine coffee grounds muddying the bottoms and a laptop playing the same Black Eye’d Peas video over and over. We took off our bags and began criticizing the video and the horrible song we were being subjected to. No one came in the room.

The lack of any kind of reception desk and the stoned Jesus-looking guy out front made this place look like the type of hostel where people yell and crash around in the middle of the night and turn all the lights on. Since all I wanted to do is go out for a few hours and then sleep here, I had no desire to stay at a party hostel. I was about to leave when Stefan came in.

Stefan did not initially do much to allay my fears; he seemed intoxicated himself, but I couldn’t deny that he was incredibly nice, even to the point of fawning. The bearded Jesus guy came in and poured us a shot of raki and Stefan made coffee. After a little of each, I hardly cared that the place might be a little dirty or loud. The people were nice. They weren’t trying to hustle us. Stefan showed us our room. It was clean. No one’s wet towels were draped over my bed with their characteristic mildew backpack smell. Stefan called me ‘President’ and Gina became ‘Queen,’ which he pronounced like K’veen. We left about an hour later happy to have found such a nice and cheap place.

The streets of Mostar were frozen. The light was frozen in the dark window panes; the minarets were frozen in the starry sky. The people walking through Old Town were all tourists speaking in the subdued tones of their respective languages, bringing the market town ambiance back to the town, but the stalls were all shuttered, the mosque courtyards, all dark.

We stood on the bridge for a moment. The stones were smooth, like the age had been built back into the new bridge by using old stones. A childish impulse caused me to consider throwing a coin over the edge, like throwing a coin would give my journey more purpose, more inspiration. The waters below folded the paper disk of the moon into origami and straightened it out again.

We walked into the Croatian side of town and the minarets turned into steeples, the crescents became crosses, like moons becoming scintillating stars. There were more people out. Young people walking around. It was Friday night on this side of the river. On the other side of the bridge it was night-the medieval night that farmers and merchants sleep through, night before electric light.

There was a bar, down by the river. Coffee and beer were freely mixed on the wooden tables. A band was playing in the backroom. The layers of smoke distorted the sound coming from the speakers. The horn player blasted brassy paths through the haze and the guitar players scratched it away in layers. When we went back outside, the cold wind coming off the river blew the smoke out of the fibers of our clothes. Crossing to the other bank of the river, the thick smoke poured out of my pockets and jacket folds feeling like a dry baptism. Back down the river, the lights from Stari Most drifted out over the water, through the wind and made a ghostly sound.

The next morning, Stefan was there to make another cup of coffee and stood in the alley seeing us off like a grandmother. Waving and calling ‘ciao’ long after we’d turned the corner and walked out of his line of sight.


It’s hard not to get nauseous on the bus ride into the Bay of Kotor. The coastal road trips out onto every premonitory and slinks back in to every cove. The bus driver didn’t compensate for these drastic turns and did about 45 mph while whipping the wheel back and forth to avoid the lapis lazuli waters about 300 feet beneath us. Monasteries floated solemnly and white fishing boats drifted lazily across the bay, but it was hard to keep watching because the entire scene had a tendency to pitch itself outside my field of vision as soon as I made contact with it through the driver’s reckless efforts.

We arrived in Kotor and tried to get our bearings while the usual chauffer group assaulted us with indirect cries of ‘taxi.’ At first these drivers didn’t look at anyone. They just yelled the word ‘taxi’, hoping someone would approach them, when the crowd had cleared and gone off to the cars waiting for them, and we remained with our monstrous bags, they moved in like hyenas after a lame zebra. “Taxi?” they asked, as if we didn’t just hear them, standing not 10 feet away, repeating the word like some kind of incantation. “No, thanks,” I said, but soon after, another moved into the place of the rejected driver. “Taxi?” Ad nauseum, until we walked away.

I guess Kotor’s taxi drivers were bored, because they were practically following us around town, slowing down and watching us trundle our ridiculous bags like to drunken and inept Sherpas. The drivers were so bold as to leer at us as and, as they slowed, I felt their hot gaze as perhaps a woman on a lonely street at night feels the eyes of a slowly passing man. I wanted to shout and wave them away, but it was useless. We didn’t know where we were going and after hours of walking up and down the same street, I gave in and waved one of them over.

We drove alone the bay to our host’s place, back up to the premonitory above the turquoise waters. I tried to talk to the driver, but my limited Russian held no water with his Montenegrin. Eventually, I reverted to the obvious, which pained me, and clutching my sides and making a shivering motion I said kholodna. He agreed with this obvious statement (it was the end of December) and did me the favor of not rolling his eyes in too obvious a manner.

I don’t know why I should be the recipient of such incredible kindnesses. After Stefan, his raki and byurek, I didn’t figure I was due anything fortuitous for a long time, but when we finally trail-blazed our way down to the water (there didn’t seem to be any roads, only back alleys crossing through backyards) and found our host’s place, I realized we were in for another undeserved gift. Our host Ivan’s place was like an apartment building and we were shown to our own apartment. My heart sank when I noticed a card that said something like ‘guest rules’ on the table. ‘Damn,’ I thought. ‘This guy confused Couchsurfing with Air B n’ B, I only hope he doesn’t want too much for the room.’ But, as if reading my mind, Ivan told me that, while he rents the room out in the summer, during the low season he lets Couchsurfers use it free of charge.

The next morning, we decided to go out and see the fortress that runs along the mountain that looms over Kotor and trails off the old city, making it look like a brick and mortar comet that has only recently crashed into the earth. The old Venitian cities along the Adriatic are all beautiful, but Kotor is the only one that seems to have spiraled out of control, as after the town was built and walled off and the fort at the top of the mountain completed, something had to be built to connect them, something traveling all the way down the mountain, something that should be ornamented with churches and turrets and shines all along the way.

Despite the regal aspect of the stairs and walls that were almost draped over the mountain above Kotor, in the rain, fog and deepening twilight descending them was scary as hell.

We had walked up a trail that the shepherds used and crossed over behind the fortifications at the top of the mountain. A small crumbling church stood guard at the makeshift entrance in the fortress walls made by the crumbling masonry. Above the church there stood a lone shaggy cypress tree that was populated by a few crows; it was like a Currier and Ives hallowe’en print. Almost as soon as we reached the church, it began to rain.

We waited out the rain in a series of different shelters, as it would abate and then redouble its energy and spray water all over the grey stones and bright lichens as if trying to blast them from the mountain. First, we waited in the church and when the rain slackened, we ran to the opening in the fortress wall. Squatting in this broken rampart, we could see over the city and out into the bay again. Below, the lights barely broke through the fog to reflect their feeble lights off the dark waters of the bay. Only the movement of the cars on the main road below betrayed any life in the city. Looking down from atop the crumbling walls of erstwhile empires, the modern city below took on a doomed aspect. The further we moved along the fortress, the more the gloom colored my thoughts. When we attained the main fortress with its rooms and anterooms, many of which still had their roofs intact, and I smelled the damp stone and listened to the monotonous plink of the water upon the worn cobblestones, I began to feel like a monster in a Lovecraft story, like something skulking out of the bowels of this rotting castle for the first time in centuries. I scuttled quickly into a dark corner and waited for Gina to come around the corner, planning to jump out and scream like a banshee when she got close enough.

I waited for a while, but I am not cruel enough to scare anyone. When I heard the beginnings of fear in her voice as she moved around the wet stones and called out in the darkness, I couldn’t hide any longer and came out from my hiding place casually, like I had only been back there looking at something. Coming back out into the grey, faltering light above the city, I found the gothic aspect replaced by something more peaceful. The view would have been better described with a comparison to an old, oil portrait one in which the background is entirely black and the only light to be discerned being that which emanates from the figure, particularly the light in his or her eyes. Such gleaming light was now to be found in profusion below and slowly, carefully, we began our descent.

Shkoder, Albania

The bus station at Ulcinj in southern Montenegro, didn’t invite much speculation as to the amenities of the town. It seemed pretty obvious there would be very little, though we were still on the Adriatic coast. We had planned on passing through if a bus was available, but after seeing the town and feeling the cold wind blowing down from the mountains I was convinced that Shkoder, Albania had to be better than where we were. So we bought our tickets and boarded another dim and little bus, stepping onto it was like stepping into a puddle; the cold seemed to have entirely settled on the floor. 
Between my shins and my feet the difference was at least 5 degrees.

There was no stamp at the Albanian border, just a stop by the glowing customs gates and, after that, a stop at the oddly named Kastrati gas station. Shkoder, appropriately, had no bus station and when we reached the central plaza, the bus pulled over and we all got off. No one called ‘taxi?’ and no one offered rooms. The few people we were on the bus with quickly disappeared into the night; Gina and I were left standing, dumbstruck, in front of an ice cream-white mosque whose loudspeakers suddenly broke into life with the pious and haunting call to prayer. Only a few blocks away, other equally white mosques echoed the song in varying tones. Although the streets quieted for the song, no one moved toward the mosque and its sahn, which was visible from the street, remained empty. It was cold here, too. Possibly colder than it had been in Ulcinj and the eyes peering over their demitasse coffee cups from behind the café windows, looked too warm and contended to bother with praying.

We met up with Ezra, the Peace Corps volunteer who had agreed to put us up for the night and, over the next few days, I began to feel as though I had returned to my own Peace Corps experience, as in myriad ways, Albania and Armenia are similar countries. But with Ezra’s site being more cosmopolitan than mine had been, we had a few more options for entertainment, although the experience was still dominated by the three ubiquitous Ottoman entertainments, namely:

1. Raki;

2. A central market;

3. An arched bridge.

The raki tasted like the same raki I’ve had everywhere. Grape, I think it was, but I was never very good at telling. As long as it’s clear, I don’t mind. It was only that apple that was a whiskey-colored amber that I really preferred to keep away from. Ugh.

The market of Shkoder seemed to be holding a holiday special on live fowl. From guinea hens to 60-pound tom turkeys, the market was festooned in upside down and dazed fowl. It almost seemed incredible to see so many subdued near-wild animals. They only hung there and blinked. If they were set on the ground, their response was not even to walk, but to sit down. They looked straight ahead and looked resigned to their imminent deaths.

Until the end of Enver Hoxha’s rule, very few Albanians had cars. Since the despot’s death in 1985, cars began showing up from all over Europe. Now Albania is like anywhere else, with noisy, clogged streets and places to service tires and engines all over the outskirts of town. Shkoder remains something of an exception with many middle-aged, even elderly citizens still using bikes as their main means of transportation. The older demographic of bicyclists creates a different flow on the streets.

On the Rruga 28 Nëntori, it is a perpetual Sunday. Loafers and slightly over-sized slacks rise and fall above the pedals and contended faces reign over the handlebars. No one hurries and the mood is that of an evening passeggiata that has been placed atop a Schwinn.

We rented bikes from the local hostel so that we could ride alone with everyone else. The slow place took a while to get used to, but was not too great of a problem given the clunkier aspects of my bike and the abrasive temperature. After we had toured the town and the nearby Lake Shkoder, our host offered to take us to see the last and usually most interesting of the requisite Ottoman entertainments: the bridge.

We assented and pedaled off together in some vague bucolic direction. We passed the old communist-era Hero Monument (in each country the ‘Hero’ is different, but is usually portrayed in the same great-coated, futurist fashion) and continued down a seemingly endless street and wound through Albanian hamlets, long yellow grass and skeletal mosques and churches before reaching Ura e Mesit or Bridge in the Middle, an impressive Ottoman-era bridge. Given its wider span, it has more arches than I’ve known any similar bridge to have and was, therefore, something interesting to see, or would’ve been if I were not being slowly consumed by frostbite as I stomped around trying to look at the thing. After Gina and I posed for a picture, I took off to find something to eat and drink in hopes that it would warm us up.

While we stood in front of the bridge, stomping our feet and guzzling beers in hopes of warmimg ourselves, but to little avail. Our arduous journey hadn’t been a waste, but it was clear that the goal of the journey had perhaps not been worth the frozen knuckles and toes, but the faster I drank my beer, the less it seemed to matter and I looked at the mountains in the distance, grateful that I was no where near their hoary slopes and rock-clotted arteries. No matter how cold it was where we were, those mountains looked much colder.     

Our host had wandered back up to the road to speak with someone. A car pulled up and he was joined by another party. It wasn’t clear what was going on, but someone was holding a shotgun, not pointing it, just wearing it casually draped over this shoulder. I didn’t pay much attention since in any kind of mountainous country it is not unusual to see people with guns. I went back to my beer and vigorous hand-rubbing. I was trying to light a cigarette when I noticed the party moving down to the bridge. I introduced myself to everyone and was told that we would be shooting the gun. Did I want to shoot it? Of course I wanted to shoot it. It was about 10 below zero, the sun was setting, we were about 2 hours away from any kind of shelter (as far as I could tell) and I was almost out of beer. What else was there to do but blast a shotgun at the cold and distant mountains?

They handed me the gun. I made sure there was nothing in front of me but cold and rocky earth, then I turned the safety off, squeezed the trigger and felt that little clap in my eardrum that meant the gun had gone off. I handed it back to the man and thanked him and in a few minutes we were on our way back to Shkoder and the old men gently pushing their bikes down the rrugas and bulevardis.

The Patriotic Highway

The road between Tirana and Pristina was built between 2007 and 2013. Someone said the project was started years before to extradite the movement of ethnic Albanian refugees, but when I mentioned this to the Albanians they didn’t seem to agree. “I think it’s just because we have a lot of trade between here and Kosovo.” They told me. I wanted to tell them that there’s a lot of trade between Paraguay and Brazil but that doesn’t mean someone’s going to put up the money for an American Super Highway.

As we turned onto the Albania-Kosovo highway, north of Tirana, there was a banner proclaiming its noble American-Turkish origin. As the afternoon light diminished, we climbed further up into the mountains. Instead of just being blasted out of the rock as so many mountain highways are, the rock cut into tiers attested to the complexity of the design. I started expecting the bus to actually move faster, like the road was going to have some kind of aerodynamic quality to it that displaced headwinds and moved them behind the vehicle.

The rocky cliff faces got darker and, in contrast, snow started to appear in glowing patches. Lone service stations blazed in the distance and steadily grew on the horizon until they were like cold, white bonfires shining through the windows of the bus. Everything gleamed, even the lonely man standing at the pumps in a nylon jacket watching us speed by.

The border crossing was at the top of a pass. The official vehicles were crusted with salt and exhaust-dark ice behind the tires. The men in huge orange jackets stood in small booths and seemed loathe to give up their warm place. We were practically waved through.

In Kosovo, the highway leveled out and began to take on a more familiar aspect. The saurian way the exit ramps curved and raised, the thick, grey concrete pylons that were still new enough to have that little fissure of cement around them, the bright, excessive signs all indicated that it was an American highway. The road hadn’t just been built with American money, it’d been lifted right out of Indiana or Des Moines.

I couldn’t see anything beyond the limits of the concrete and the ice-craggy shoulder of the road, but it was possible to believe that anything could be out there. The familiar design led one to populate the dark lands beyond with haggard strip malls, Taco Bells, drive-up coffee places and those gargantuan red buildings that sell nothing but tires. American grew along the germane highway. It seemed impossible that the soil beyond the breakdown lane could produce anything else.

The highway was an old movie set with everything 2-dimentional and pushed together; beyond it there was a real Kosovo, but it was a Kosovo I never saw. Pristina was every bit as deceiving. We got off the bus in the dark. There were only distant buildings. It looked like a long walk. Two Japanese guys from the bus seemed to be hashing something out with a taxi driver. “10 euro,” they said when I asked them, “to the town center.” “Good,” I said. “We’ll all go together. It’ll be cheaper that way.”
The streets looked like they belonged to a much older city. They curved around the buildings and the snow made them look grey and exhausted. Most of the windows were dark. It was impossible to tell where we were and no one was outside. But, as it was on the highway, occasionally a building rose furiously from the dark with green and blue lights soaring to proclaim its newness. These buildings displayed their names in English and there, at their very feet, in a sanctimonious glow, was Bill Clinton covered in gold and raising one arm in an undiscernible gesture. Bill Klinton boulevard marked the end of our trip into this surreal America-scape. We got out of the taxi and looked for a place to stay. It was 9 pm on New Year’s Eve.


“Oh, just go downtown, everyone does,” our host told us when we asked about New Year’s in Pristina. Despite all the glamour we had seen coming in, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be out with the throngs for New Year’s. In any former communist country, New Year’s remains very important. Despite the rebirth of religion and the rise of nationalism, the people from Albania to Siberia still favor the secular feel of one year becoming another. The great thing about New Year’s in formerly communist countries is that it usually lasts for more than a few days. It’s a time when many people open their doors and offer food and drink to their neighbors and possibly backpacking strangers. I was excited to see what particular permutation New Year’s would take on in Pristina, but I also remembered Robert Kaplan’s unflattering description of the town in his book Balkan Ghosts.

I don’t have a copy with me, but I remember the descriptions of unshaven men, seething with booze fumes, looking over the top of their pornographic magazine to leer at the author. He wrote something about how he had never been so scared in any Muslim country, where decorum and hospitality are the norm. Despite the glitzy façade of Pristina, I still expected this drunken, war-ravaged face to be among the celebrants. Maybe, between the fireworks, there would be the empty report of guns.
When we got outside and began to walk around, I began to wonder how any seedy element ever could’ve survived in this environment. Everything was new. The people were young and no one looked remotely poor. Over 50% of Pristina’s population is under 25 and they’re all chic. Gina and I were easily the shabbiest people on the streets with our boots and second-hand jackets. If anyone leered at us, it was because they were confused by this sudden apparition of poverty in the otherwise, 21st century town.

There was a concert. Despite the freezing weather, the stage was open air and in the middle of Mother Teresa Square. A girl with long pink hair and a massive white fur coat over a skimpy cocktail dress jogged in place to a techno rhythm. She skipped around the stage and sang in Albanian while running her hands through her wavy sea foam-pink hair. Everywhere, children danced in their hectic circular motions. Teenagers in large groups jumped up and down together, smiling. It was the most friendly-looking New Year’s I had ever seen.

We stepped over to a little hut to get a cup of the steaming alcoholic concoction that was being sold and consumed around flaming barrels in an effort to dull the sharp effects of the cold. It must’ve been well below zero. I grasped my cup and was savoring the feeling of the blood returning to my frozen fingers when I heard a chant begin: tre, dy, nje. The fireworks, which we had been seeing sporadically all night, began in earnest, blowing colors across the dark sky and throwing fiery shadows across the square. Balloons erupted like an exhalation underwater and confetti was raining into people’s hair, the tops of the vendor’s huts and directly into the flaming barrels. The display lasted for a full ten minutes; I can’t imagine Time’s Square gives the spectator much more.

I went out looking for a pack of cigarettes and finally found a little basement-level kiosk that looked to be open. As I walked down the stairs, I noticed the small shop was crowded with stubbled faces and black leather. I imagined the rotten fruit and nail polish smell of bad raki and the dry, heavy air of a room where burning cigarettes have consumed most of the oxygen and left nothing but foul, blue smoke in its place. I opened the door and the place went quiet. Every face turned to me. “Um,” I stammered. “Sigaretti?” I said, pointing to the cigarettes, hoping I was somewhere close to the right word. “Vere are you from?” The guy asked me and the room, seemed to get quieter. “I’m from the US,” I told him. “Ah,” He said, suddenly beaming. “Thank you for supporting Kosovo!” “No problem,” I said, as if it was something I had done personally.

 In 1999, the worst time of the conflict, I wasn’t even old enough to vote and I’ve always wondered why we were so keen to bomb Serbia and recognize and independent Kosovo while doing nothing a few years earlier when the Hutus were hacking apart the Tutsis in Rwanda. I’ve always preferred to think of myself as being non-complicit in the decisions of my government abroad. The military bases, the air spaces, USAID, I never voted on these things, they just happened. Sometimes they are good and sometimes bad, but I’ve never taken credit for any of them. Until, this stubbly guy thanked me personally for supporting Kosovo. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never been thanked for anything the US has ever done. Returning to the street with my cigarettes and sporadic fireworks still exploding in the sky, I felt like an American in Paris just after WWII and I wondered which Pristina Kaplan had been writing about, because it wasn’t this one.  

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