back in the ussr (Day 1)

Thursday, June 26, 2008.

I arrive in Vienna at 8:10 am local time. Turning on my iPod, I notice it says 2:09 am, meaning I should be sound asleep.

Seen from the air, Austria is gorgeous. Farm fields as far as can been seen, and flat with just a few tiny hills here and there. Every so often a small village crops up, complete with red shingled roofs and at least one church spire. We flew over the northern edge of the Alps on the way in. The snow is still thick enough to give the appearance of the mountains being part of the low hanging fluffy clouds.

Immediately, I remember what it is I love about Europe. The smell of smoke is already thick just stepping off the plane, even though there are now “smokers corners” and smoking at the gates is restricted. Customs takes less than five minutes and involves nothing more than a man who looks displeased about having to deal with tourists at 8:30 in the morning stamping my passport.

I find a cafe in my terminal and order the most expensive cappuccino of my life: a tiny but wonderfully delicious cup at €3.20…or $6.40, which makes this shop more expensive even than Starbucks. (I’m using the term cafe here lightly, as it happens to be a full service bar that offers coffee and espresso.) It’s only 9:00 am and several people around are sucking down Heinekens. Katrina would be pleased: they have a bottle of Jack hanging like a tap, ready to be poured. I think about getting one, but my plan to arrive in Sarajevo stunning and impossibly fresh-looking has already been deteriorated and I fear alcohol will only wilt me further. I settle for my cappuccino instead, the warm bitter tang a pleasant wake up call after an eight-hour flight.

The flight itself was uneventful, except for the several screaming infants in close proximity. I ordered red wine with dinner, a mistake, as I was not sufficiently hydrated and found myself with a screeching migraine an hour later. Several attempts to fall asleep were interrupted by an uncooperative pillow, a stuffy cabin, and a headache so painful, at one point I really believed I would throw up. I took 3 mg of melatonin after dinner and it definitely made me incredibly sleepy (I could barely keep my eyes open), but try as I might I only caught a few hours of sleep here and there.

We landed just a little early, and were greeted by Austrian Air employees wearing FIFA scarves. German sounds good to hear. I think it suits my ears much better than the nasally overtones of French – even if German is marked by an excessive use of hard consonants. I’m familiar enough to pick up words here and there and confident enough to thank people with danke. (I should really start learning more of it if Dad and I are really going to Munich next fall.)

I’m terribly exhausted and I know I have a long day ahead of me. My flight to Sarajevo boards in three and a half hours from now and I arrive at 2:40 pm local time (8:40 am eastern time for those of you keeping track). Hopefully I’ll have time to get cleaned up before dinner and orientation. For now though, I’m going to see if I can find a WC (toilet) and get a little freshened up. I only have a few Euro coins on me though, so I hope I don’t have to pay too much.

The flight from Vienna to Sarajevo was no more than a hop and a skip. Flying over the Balkan Peninsula was something of a shock to me: I was aware that the Balkan Mountains existed, I just didn’t realize they were all over the peninsula. Even Sarajevo is nestled between two large peaks.

The Sarajevo International Airport has its single landing strip nearly in the backyards of several farms. It consists of only four gates, one baggage claim, and two uniformed customs agents. Obviously the hardest hit area of the city during the war, it has been completely rebuilt and it actually took me some time to realize that the building I was standing in was nearly a ruin 10 years ago.

Miki picked the four of us who came in from Vienna up in his tiny car and gave us a small driving tour. Sarajevo consists mainly of two straight streets running west-to-east on the north side of the Miljacka River. On either sides of these streets, irregular finger-like alleys and avenues crawl north and south up into the two large hills shadowing the Miljacka valley.

Soviet-era and 1984 Olympic-era apartment towers rise up on the west side of the city: they are cement blocks with a few missing windows and dozens of satellite dishes. Newer, more modern glass skyscrapers, many of them under construction, have begun cropping up on the east side. The government offices have only just been reopened; the power station, bombed out in both World Wars and the civil war, lies unrepaired next to the river; the Sarajevo Library still shows shadows from the night it – and the most books since the firing of the Library at Alexandria – were burned by Serb Nationalists in October 1992. An old tram line creaks through the center of town and it seems the red-roofed houses in the hills are stacked one on top of the other.

Orientation starts with introductions and as the 16 of us begin to talk, we realize we have the same apprehensions about the program. But we also realize we have a lot to learn: about Bosnia, its people, and its culture.

The group reunites for dinner at the oldest surviving building in the old-town market square. Called the “Karavan” in Turkish, the restaurant was used as early as the 1490s by Ottoman merchants and caravaners. We eat a traditional Bosnian meal with soft, doughy flatbread, veal, potatoes, rice-and-meat-balls, and Baklava (pronounced the Turkish way with the emphasis on the first syllable) for dessert. We drink traditional Turkish or Bosnian coffee – sharp, painfully bitter, taken in tiny cups with lumps of sugar – and dip pieces of soft Turkish Delight sweets in the steaming, mud-colored liquid.

The city is aromatic and smells like hand-rolled cigarettes, gravel dust, and summer. The heat is thick and we all shine with sweat. The sidewalks are cobblestone and old. Mosques stand on almost every corner: copper domes faded with time and weather to Statue of Liberty green. I run my hands along the walls of buildings that line the alleyway behind my hotel and I am surprised and incredibly horrified by the sight of dozens of unrepaired bullet holes.

After dinner, a few of us wander the old town market and settle into a bar with the bow of a ship growing out from under its taps. We watch Spain as they beat Russia 3-0 in the Euro 2008 semi-final and are served only Heinekens because that is the beer of the game. The night air is cool and the walk home is pleasant.

Tomorrow’s orientation begins at 9:00 am, followed by a four-hour drive north to Sanski Most, where we will spend the next nine days in workshops and internships. Unfortunately, we will not be in Sarajevo on the 28th for the 94th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Isabella, essentially the beginning of World War I.

It’s been a long few days. Every muscle in my body has been overexerted from dragging luggage around. My ankles, feet, and hands are swollen from flying. And I’m sweaty and dirty from 18 hours of travel. I am delightedly content and happily overwhelmed. I am exhausted and can’t wait to sleep.

Hey, I’m famous! DC has linked to me for this post.


7 Responses to “back in the ussr (Day 1)”

  1. 1 Mom

    Oh Whitney….I’m so relieved that you arrived safely and have made contact with your American family and friends. I can tell in your blog that you are enthusiastic about your trip and are having a fabulous time! This is defintely an experience of a lifetime!

    I hope you were able to soak in a nice warm tub after your 18 hours of travel….peweeeey!!

    Keep the blogs coming….I love reading about your travels! Your American family misses you terribly :(

    Be safe.



  2. 2 katrina

    I’m so grateful to read of your travels. You are such a talented writer and I am honored to have a name drop in this blog. I know you will find what you need in Bosnia. I love you!

    Your abffae (american best friend for ever and ever),

  3. It really does sound like the trip of a lifetime so far. Glad you arrived safely, too!

    Although I’m totally struck by your amazement at the hanging bottle of Jack Daniels in the bar; how on earth do they pour spirits in America?!


  4. 4 libby

    i’m a jerk, but you’re the only one who will appreciate me for this. franz ferdinand’s wife was named sophie.

  5. 5 Mom

    Oh, but your friend Libby is correct. Sophie was a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella who was the wife of Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen. Franz Ferdinand married Sophie on July 1, 1900 and he did not attend the wedding. (Maybe he was off searching for Isabella?)

    Whitney – Can you tell that I have been reading up on my Austrian history?

    Sunday Footnote – I watched the first new broadcast of Meet the Press this morning with Tom Brokaw as the temporary replacement for Tim. While Tom did a good job on this new format of the show, he will never replace our beloved Tim (RIP).

    Miss You
    Miss You
    Miss You



  6. 6 libby

    that’s awesome that you got linked on dc post

    did you have to submit it or did they just find you somehow?

  7. 7 libby

    * dc blogs

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