Balkans 2014 Diary, #2: The Time I Went To The Sarajevo Street Chess Society (Sarajevo)

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11th September, 13:46
Barhana, Sarajevo

Sarajevo, we have a problem.
The raison d’êtré of this blog is to be a realistic, honest counterpart to the gushing hippy positivefests that so many travel blogs are. No gushing! No wordgasms about etherial sunsets! And definitely no whimsical, misty eyed ramblings about how a place is my SOULMATE.

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Unfortunately, Sarajevo has compromised me, because I’m in love. It’s beautiful, fascinating, lively, positive, tragic… et cetera. Not beautiful in the same way as Venice or Vienna, but in a way that is difficult to pinpoint. Several parts backdrop of dramatic mountains, one part gorgeous cathedrals, quite a few parts fusion of European and Middle Eastern culture and architecture, a few drops of endearing shabbiness, a sprinkling of edginess and resilience from the bullet holes in the walls and grenade-shaped dents in the pavements, and a picturesque little river in the centre. *swoons*

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What I particularly like about this city is that there’s something awesome to discover around every corner – be it a mosque, ancient ruins, an indoor market, or an entirely unexplainable giant Swatch mounted high on the outside wall of a building. There’s quite a bit of poverty – some 10 year olds had unsuccessfully tried to rob Bryson, while we’d been accosted during our rakijafest by a small girl asking for money – and the bullet holes are always unnerving,  but that’s just a welcome reminder that Sarajevo is still in recovery from the siege (1992-1995). What its regeneration-in-progress has achieved, however, is making it far more tourist-friendly than Belgrade, and probably a great source of future profit.

Post-fraught minibus journey, I spent a few hours settling into the hostel before a strange and welcome sound hit my ears: English accents! With the exception of Conor’s I’m-from-Luton-but-somehow-sound-like-I-went-to-Eton accent, I hadn’t heard a single one in Belgrade. This dorm room, however, was inhabited by 5 fellow Brits; 3 Northern boys with an agonising grasp of the English language, saying things like “Let’s go bag some scram” with not a hint of irony while I cringed more than anyone has ever cringed in the history of mankind, and two southern chemistry students at Durham called Faye and Andy. They invited me to go for a coffee with them before going for drinks with other hostellees, so off I went.

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We trailed through the Old Town, practically a bazaar with Turkish jugs, ornate lightshades and handcrafted rugs still on sale at night. After some wandering we found a coffee shop, so I – being a coffee virgin (unless you count coffee cake as coffee, which is like counting foreplay as sex) – followed their lead and ordered a cappuccino. I’m not sure I’ll ever be a fan, as it’s too bitter for me even with two sugars in, but at least I’ve tried it now.

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There was more to be tried first at an ice cream parlour where I tried a Red Bull ice cream (strangely nice), then at the rakija bar Barhana (where I am now), where we were joined by Fabian [Austrian, totally bonkers], Bryson [Canadian], Greg [German] and Jim [Australian], all of whom were solo travellers. Rakija is the Balkan spirit of choice, usually made from plum or grapes, and served like a massive shot – except it’s considered hugely rude to down it, so we sipped our plum ones to be polite, wincing with each pure ethanol gulp (it’s about 40% proof), before washing it down with beer/cider.
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The conversation jolted from US gun control, Austrian asylum laws and the Scottish referendum to lighter subjects such as The Apprentice and celebrity nude photos. During this time it was discovered that blueberry rakija was actually really nice, so I sampled several of these before our motley crew headed off to the dubiously named Pussy Galore, a nearby club.

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Fabian disappeared immediately after entering and was later found playing some bongos, surrounded by local youths and looking absolutely delighted. One of said youths, wearing a baseball cap and dancing hilariously badly, saw me laughing and tried to coax me to the dancefloor, but while doing an absolutely terrifying grin with crazy eyes whilst doing so, so I resisted his attempts and stuck fast by the others until we returned to the hostel thoroughly inebriated at 2am.

Burek! (Sarajevo)

I spent the next day (yesterday) wandering around aimlessly and taking photos, trying local cuisine, and visiting the museum by the Latin Bridge where Gavrilo Princep assassinated Franz Ferdinand and missus in 1914. The museum was tiny, but the cuisine was awesome; burek, a pastry filled with sausage meat, was pretty good and an absolute bargain (2KM, which is equivalent to about 90p), while the cheese klepe I had at a restaurant in the Old Town called Nanina Kuhinja was extraordinary. Klepe itself is pasta with a filling (in this case, cheese), but it was the sauce and pitta that really knocked my socks off, especially served with a delicious herb tea I was recommended by the waiter. Mmm.

Klepe

My klepe food baby eventually subsided so I could go to a hipster bar with Fabian and Greg, where Fabian unsuccessfully tried to teach me to whistle and I successfully explained the concept of Countdown to them. Fabian said that the only UK gameshow he knew was “the quiz with the angry woman”, which I immediately identified as The Weakest Link.

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It was a shorter night out, since we were exhausted from the night before – and an early night meant I was up earlier the next morning to see an interesting but haunting exhibition on the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995. I felt guilty for spending years raving about how amazing the 90s were when atrocities like this were occurring. 8000+ Muslim men and boys murdered in just a few weeks! In Europe! In 1995! It’s almost as unfathomable as the UN’s catastrophic misreading of the situation.

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In a bit of a funk I went next door to the Sacred Heart cathedral, and admired its pretty, colourful interior. Much as I wanted to take photos, I respected the sign requesting no photos be taken, unlike the German tourist slinging his fuck-off massive camera around to brazenly take photos. Twat. And then I ended up here again, trying the mincemeat stuffed peppers. More meat, more amazing sauce, more bread. Mmm.

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So, in conclusion, I’m tempted to not return. But I might get sick of meat and bread. Hmmm.
Seriously need to stop writing so much in one go.

Signing off,
A happy, full and mildly gushing Jen

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12th September,  13:49
Buregdžinica, Old Town, Sarajevo

Resolution to write shorter entries begins now. By doing this I will hopefully forget fewer pressing concerns while writing, namely that I’m being eaten alive by mosquitos. My legs are covered in enormous red lumps as a result. Note to self: don’t ever compound this by furiously scratching them while drunk. Owww.

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Following the completion of yesterday’s entry, I ended up venturing into the courtyard in front of the main mosque in the Old Town,  which is lovely – far calmer than the bustling street, with people praying to Mecca on carpets outside the building. Yet my enjoyment was interrupted when I felt splashes on my leg – and it wasn’t raining. Sherlock Steadman soon unravelled the mystery, discovering that her water bottle had upended and was in the process of soaking her bag, dress and leg.

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Two girls in headscarves approached me and asked me where there was a WC. I pointed out to them a nearby sign saying ‘toilet’, but they laughed and walked off in the other direction. Have a feeling they thought I’d wet myself. Stupid water bottle.

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Embarrassed, I headed back to the hostel but had a sudden urge to explore some more, ending up in a square by one of the cathedrals. Here there was a giant chessboard painted on the ground, with accompanying large chess pieces on it. A crowd of old men was gathered around it,  2 playing and the rest spectating or shouting at the players, some getting highly agitated. A young man watching nearby asked me if I wanted to play, but I said I was just watching.

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He asked me where I was from, as all conversations around here begin, and we ended up hanging out for the next 3 hours. His name was Samir and he was a local, but had lived in New York for the last 18 years, having left at the age of 11. His thick NY accent made him sound like a gangster, but he would occasionally speak to the other spectators in fluent Bosnian.

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He was a regular spectator, and was able to give me some insight into the world of what I’ve dubbed the Sarajevo Street Chess Society. It was dominated by the retired men of the city, some of whom turned up daily, spending hours there. The guy with glasses who was smoking, a former lawyer, was one of the best; the guy playing, a retired teacher, was fairly skilled; the man absolutely losing his shit over his opponent’s moves was “always making a scene”, but made a lot of mistakes himself…

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Eventually we left the chess club to it and went to the Old Town. Having a native to guide me meant I saw passages I hadn’t previously known existed (not a euphemism); he pointed out his favourite spots in the market where he’d played as a child, and a synagogue in one of the back streets, providing exposition where required. It was really interesting to have some local insight, especially from someone who clearly loved the city so much.

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Although getting on really well – apparently he felt like he’d known me all his life after just a few hours together – I became preoccupied with worrying about whether my laundry had been done at the hostel, and we parted ways. There was no letting up on socialisation, however, as I ended up befriending the Australian girls in my dorm – Emer, Kate and Laura – and after a quick chicken curry outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral (the first I’ve known to be served with garlic potatoes and carrots), played many fast and furious games of Spoons with them and some Australian boys,  one of whom was sporting a paedoesque handlebar moustache because he’d lost a bet with the others.

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Being the only non-Ozzie at the table meant I was frequently out of the loop, but the girls were happy to explain Oz culture – which, judging by a fraught debate over the merits of Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, mostly involves shitty 80s power ballads, although we reconciled over the unanimous verdict that Take That’s Back For Good is an excellent song. Feeling more comfortable, I upped the ante with some casual “you’re all convicts” banter, before they headed out at midnight.

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Today has mostly been spent grappling with my blog at an internet cafe (damn you useless hostel computer!), taking pictures, and trying zeljanica – a spinach and ricotta variant of burek, which is nice enough but not enough to sate my mad spinach obsession.
Oh no, a guy’s coming over to ask for money. Better make a run for it so I can pay for the food and not guiltily have to reject his request…

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[Later]

Escaped without giving him any money! Just as well because my resistance to philanthropy was broken later when, taking a well earned rest in McDonalds after visiting a free outdoor exhivition on peace (it was a series of photos, information boxes and quotes lining the pavement by the river and university) and finding out if the bus station is too far to walk tomorrow morning (it is), a boy of no older than 6 put out his hand and said something in Bosnian. I apologised and said I didn’t understand,  to which he sighed and walked off. No sooner had he left than a girl of the same age approached, doing the same thing. I tried to rebuff her but she was persistent, mimicking eating and wailing at me. Feeling massively awkward, I gave her 2KM (90p-ish) and she left.

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It was finally time to try some cevapi. Foolishly I decided the small portion looked a bit too small for me and ordered a large one. It was ok, but was like a massive, never ending kebab, and by the end I thought I’d probably eaten myself into a food coma. I hadn’t, but I think my foray into the world of cevapi was probably a one-off.

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Mostar tomorrow. I doubt I’ll see anyone I’ve met there, as everyone seems to be going in the opposite direction to me, but I’ve heard glowing reviews about it – if not about the pricey tour around Herzegovina, on which the Ozzie boys had a driver who ranted about how much he hated Croatians, and took sadistic pleasure in the pretty one of the three injuring himself when jumping off a rock by a waterfall like he’d told them to. May not do this tour.
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My only regret here is not getting to see the abandoned bobsled track in the mountains, but it’s far away and there are uncleared landmines around there… so probably not too much of a regret.

Signing off,
A still smitten Jen

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One thought on “Balkans 2014 Diary, #2: The Time I Went To The Sarajevo Street Chess Society (Sarajevo)

  1. Fascinating; you make it sound really interesting; I well remember the reports in the various news reports of how the Bosnians (or was it the Herzegovinians, or both) were let down by the lack of guts among the so-called peacekeepers – a tragedy that was unfolding in real-time!

    Like

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