Sarajevo: Tunnel Museum

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In Spanish, the word resistencia means resistance, but it also means endurance. More akin to struggle in English. The stories of everyday heroes are very appealing: not passive victims, they fight under great strain and uncertainty.

We booked a tour of the Tunnel Museum in Sarajevo through the city tourist office. Driving through the city, our frank and engaging guide pointed out important sites: the closed museum, the Holiday Inn where journalists stayed during the war, snipper ally, and so on. She described a pre-war city with 50 percent mixed marriages; people’s ethnicities during the war were determined by their last name. Tellingly, the country has not conducted a census in 20 years, fearing what might be learned. She described the constant barrage of noise during the war, and after, “silence was the worst thing.”

Eventually we reached the countryside and the house under which the tunnel rests. People smuggled supplies in from the free zone during the war. Much of the tunnel had since collapsed, but you can walk through a short piece. It is claustrophobic and uneven in places, and intense to imagine making the journey during the siege. A short film and exhibit round out the tour.

The Tunnel Museum is a great testament to the struggle against aggression. A must see.

Sarajevo: Witness to History

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Two exhibits in Sarajevo urge the viewer to bear witness to the Bosnian War: the Memorial Gallery 11/07/95 and the Tunnel Museum. This is a city where buildings still bear the scars of artillery fire, sidewalk holes created by grenades were filled with blood red cement and called “Sarajevo roses,” and the occasional mine continues to be discovered in the surrounding countryside. To bear witness to history is a very different thing from disaster tourism or being intrigued by suffering. It asks the viewer to observe the historical record so that others can’t deny it, so that witnesses won’t allow injustice to happen again, and so that the call for healing and justice is shared more broadly. I was immediately reminded of Shoah, the epic, 9 hour documentary of Holocaust survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators giving testimony.

At Galerija 11/07/95, a permanent exhibit of the Srebrenica massacre begins with a wall of the names of the victims: 8,372 names is a dizzying amount.

Then, large black and white photographs by Tarik Samarah depict haunting images after the genocide, including a doll with it’s throat slit and left as a warning, dead bodies of men and boys, mourning mothers, and a flock of birds dispersing in the silence. We see the cool efficiency of medical examiners, staging remains, trying to identify victims. And chilling, racist graffiti by the boy Dutch soldiers guarding the town before the massacre:

“no teeth…?
a mustache…?
smel [sic] like shit…?
Bosnian girl!”

Later, I met a girl from Amsterdam who is studying transitional justice. She said the Dutch were deeply ashamed that the incident occurred under their watch and explained that they had requested support that didn’t come, were ordered not to return fire, etc. She compared the inexperienced young soldiers to those depicted in Waltz with Bashir, an incredible animated film that depicts Israeli soldiers during the Lebanon War.

The exhibit also includes a short film about the massacre. Women describe the paralysis of fear as their sons and husbands were separated from them and the lack of consolation that persists to this day. General Ratko Mladic describes his vision of Greater Serbia from the battlefield. There are maps indicating locations of mass graves. Another monitor has extended video interviews of survivors.

The exhibit is small but intensely powerful, gut wrenching, and important.

Next post, the Tunnel Museum.

First Impressions of Sarajevo

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Along the bus ride from Split, the lush green mountains and vivid blue water of the Bosnia and Herzegovina countryside were unexpectedly stunning.

Just over 300,000 people live in Sarajevo. It is a city that swells with history and tragedy: Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, and Jews living in peace for centuries, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on the Latin Bridge leading to the First World War, the lesions of the recent Bosnian War.

Exploring the city, from monuments and public water fountains to minarets, to the Vrelo Bosne and Olympic villages, the city feels traditional and modern. In the old city, the winding streets of Baščaršija house tinsmiths and colorful carpets made from natural dyes. Ottoman architecture stuns at the Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque, and the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe overlooks the city.

It is also easy to see how Sarajevo would be vulnerable to a siege, nestled in a valley. Recent wounds from the Bosnian War are apparent on buildings and in bright white tombstones tucked throughout the city. Yet the city sweeps you up in the belief of possibilities, in its richness, and the energy and messiness of survival. It shares valuable and powerful lessons with us.

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Brac, Croatia: Days Two to Four

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Beach vacations are restorative. Time slows down to a crawl and I am more aware of the rhythms of nature. Over three days in Brac, I wandered to different coves from one extreme of Supetar to the other: one was family-oriented with water slides, one had lots of people playing with beach balls in the water, another was quiet and wide for swimming, another had a reef with abundant underwater life for snorkeling, and yet another was isolated and quiet.

Eventually, I found a path that traced along a stone wall by the sea. There was little noise except the cacophony of cicadas in the pine groves.

I bought 1/2 kilo of the sweetest golden figs for less than two bucks from an old lady selling in front of her place. Other homes had bluish purple plums, grapes, bright persimmons, and plump pomegranates hanging from trees in their yards.

We walked uphill to another sleepy town, Mirca, half an hour away. There are hiking trails from town along olive groves.

The standout meal amongst the tourist fare was tucked away in the old town. Konoba Gusti Mora serves fresh, local fare in an outdoor patio beneath grape vines. We had Brac (pronounced bratch) cheese, a dry, sheep’s milk cheese with a distinctive nutty flavor. I also had soup from island Brac, a rich, flavorful lamb stew.

Then we took the ferry back to Split, and a bus ride in the dramatic countryside to Sarajevo. It took eight hours to travel about 200 miles.

Croatia: Split and the Island Brac

We flew out of Berlin Schonenfeld to Split, took a bus into town and stayed at an AirBnB, then took the ferry the next morning to Brac. Like Split, the old town is built of limestone, the streets are narrow, and outdoor cafes face the cerulean Adriatic Sea.

The water is calm and brisk, with more bathers than swimmers. The beach is made of white rocks, so I might have to relent and buy water shoes. These trifold, one inch thick foam mats, decorated with sea-inspired cartoons of mermaids and dolphins, are popular. Every few dozen people, someone sports a t-shift emblazoned with NYC, where I live, or California, where I used to live. People smoke outdoors, which surprised me since I rarely encounter smokers anymore at home.

I had grilled calamari in a caramelized balsamic for lunch at Fast Food Jure. For dinner, a rich scampi risotto at Konoba Lukin. Later, I had a hazelnut ice cream. The Italian influence from across the sea is apparent on menus, from pastas and gnocchi to espresso and gelato. We tried vibrant local olive oils and a berry liquor at a kiosk in Supetar. There are abundant olive trees, lime trees, and golden figs that burst with sweetness. I learned that the local specialties include lamb and cheese, but have yet to try them.

There’s no Internet access at the AirBnB, and I decided to take a cue from European holidays and disengage from work email entirely, so things are definitely slowing down.

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Passing Through: Zurich Airport

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I had a layover in Zurich, one of the swankiest airports I’ve seen. There is a nice view of the Swiss alps in the distance. And there are shops selling luxury goods ranging from watches and champagne to caviar and Burberry. Which of course made me wonder just who buys these items in an airport, anyway.

Rather than plugs and unsightly cords everywhere, there was a machine where you create a code and your phone is locked away for 20 minutes for a charge. Even the doors to the bathroom were automated. Someone snickered when I refilled a water bottle. And, like that strange difference between budget hotels and luxury ones, the wifi didn’t work, but you could pay an additional charge for it.

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Thankfully, I was on my way before this place could burn a hole in my wallet.

Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY

This summer in New York has been dreary and rainy. Most people I know haven’t been to the beach nearly as much as they’d like, myself included. And I only just made it (in August, for god’s sake!) to Sag Harbor, one of my favorite places on earth.

Forget the Hamptons according to Sex and the City and other equally annoying people. This place is magical. I’ve been coming here since I was in my mom’s belly. For me, it’s a place that swells with memories. I relish the little things I learn each season.

This time, I spent the day relaxing at Foster Memorial Beach, commonly known as Long Beach (and not to be confused with the town of Long Beach). The bay water is calm, so the rocky beach is popular with families and serious swimmers.

I picked up a few movies at the John Jermain Memorial Library (currently under renovation), including the fabulous documentary, How to Draw a Bunny, about the collagist and correspondence artist Ray Johnson. It’s fitting, because Johnson committed suicide by jumping off the LCpl Jordan Haerter Veterans’ Memorial Bridge in Sag Harbor, and I think of it often as we drive into town.

Later, we headed to the Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge. When I was little and slowly walked this path with my now-deceased grandma, she would tell me the names of birds and I would feed black oil sunflower seeds to black-capped chickadees by hand. The path gradually winds to the beach, and a long time ago– before they leveled the path and before the Internet– it was kind of a secret place to go for a dip. This time, wild blackberries were in season and a few beach roses were holding on.

These days, I’m ambivalent about the practice of feeding birds seeds by hand. I know now that this is bad for birds and the habitat, but I’ve seen so many people become truly excited about birds and, hopefully, conservation, for the first time. On this trip, I saw about 20 species with minimal effort, including piping plovers and osprey (which nest nearby). Even non-birders know about piping plovers out here, where sections of beaches are closed during the summer nesting season to protect the endangered/threatened species. Such efforts, though they draw the ire of a few self-indulgent people, have helped the bird population to recover. And for a birder, it’s a great addition to your list.

I generally take the early Monday morning train back to NYC so I can spend the extra night. Watching the sunrise bleed color over the bay is a bonus and the sleepy train ride back is a good way to transition back to city life.