Our drive to the town of Knin consisted of conversation regarding this "former Yugoslavia." What did that mean? Driving past dilapidated homes, whole villages all but abandoned, we read and asked questions about this people with their sense of fortitude and bold determination. What was the fight about? Why the bloodshed?
I recalled a friend from back home in Washington state, her Bosnian accent thick and full of emotion, "It seemed that over night everything changed," she said. "One day we were all fine. And the next day you couldn't trust anyone. It was brother against brother, father against son," she gestured wide with her arms, "even your best friend who you grew up with... no one, no one could be trusted." Her eyes were wide, filled with longing, as she spoke about her mother and siblings who were still in a refugee camp waiting for visas to come to America.
Now, to meander through fields, past vineyards, wave to the woman herding sheep... two and a half decades ago feels a little surreal... perhaps even, in some small way, tangible...
We arrived in the town of Knin, nestled in a lovely valley, surrounded by the Dinaride Mountain Ranges, overlooked by an enormous castle fortress on the hillside.
More history. Ottomans. Kings and knights. Christians and Catholics. Dungeons, moats, and drawbridges.
Why walk across a drawbridge when we can storm the castle via the moat?
How is it that I can always hear the rhythmic clop-clopping of horse's hooves when entering through castle gates?
To be able to trace the lines of cobblestone walkways, touch the side of an arch, be able to hear the stories written here...
To explore ancient corridors, walk in the footsteps of those in the 13th century...
...Wonder what their daily battles were back then. Back then... when entire kingdoms were at stake. Back then... Entire kingdoms. Entire kingdoms... Same stories... Different century.
Taking in views through fortress wall windows...
Admiring the panorama...
Taking in a valley of stories... recreating history in our imaginations...
A short time later we crossed through the border patrol into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Entered through the Knin Gate, wound our Riviera-acclimated selves to frosty altitudes to have lunch in Bosnia.
With gorgeous scenery...
...framing crumbled cottages... homes that belonged to families who fled to safety when the war began.
Where do families run to safety when the infrastructure of their relationships crumble... lives framed by beautiful Western suburbia?
...to stand in spaces different than we prepared for...
...to get momentary glimpses into different ways of life...
...virtual world fading to real life... textbook knowledge and CNN, mere schema as reality stimulates senses. The town we drove into, we would have missed it had I not looked up just in time to see the hearty "Welcome to Bosansko Grahovo," bold and slightly bigger writing on an otherwise blank space on the map in my lap. I was expecting... something else.
Nearly deserted, with roofless buildings lining streets, a school building with broken out windows and peeling paint, we rolled to a stop along the street to ask for directions.
"Excuse me, sir... you speak English?" LeRoy and the man, his eyes engaging, his jawline strong, exchanged smiles.
"Yes," his tone invited LeRoy to go on.
"We're looking for a cafe... or restaurant?"
His smile, even more amiable, "Ah, yes! Just up the street. There..." he said pointing and then leaning in, "not that their food is any good, though." We chuckled and offered our thanks as we drove away.
"Well, I'll go in and check it out and then come back and let you know." LeRoy disappeared into the tiny cafe. We waited in the car for several minutes until a chocolate Labrador, large but puppy-like in his playful prance, walked by our car. One by one, children clambered out, running circles in a game of tag with their new-found friend. I watched for a bit until, impatient, I got out to join them on the sidewalk, the crisp air causing me to shiver as I wrapped my jacket tighter around me.
What was taking him so long anyway?
The glass door swung open easily, my arm catching it just before it hit the wall. Peering into the salmon-colored room, empty except for the two men drinking coffee at a sun-splashed table near the front, I stepped inside. That's when I heard LeRoy's laughter -- you know, that we've-been-friends-forever-and-we-were-just-catching-up kind of laugh. Looking toward the dim kitchen in the back, I saw LeRoy's outline along with two other figures.
"Hello?" I called softly.
"Oh! Hey Sharon! You want to get the children? We'll have lunch here." He strolled around the counter, still smiling, followed by a waitress and an elderly woman dressed in typical Serbian house dress and scarf tied on hair.
Apparently, because of the language barrier, the two women invited LeRoy back to the kitchen to show him what they had available. He related to me later, "They motioned for me to follow them around the counter and then, in Bosnian, told me what was cooking in each kettle, while pointing and nodding and smiling. It looked and smelled good. And they seemed to recommend it... so, I thought it would be a great place to eat!"
It was perfect. Everything. Shortly after sitting at our table, two Border Patrol workers strolled in. One of them was a woman who immediately walked over to our table and struck up a conversation with us. She spoke perfect English -- with a beautiful accent. Not only did she translate for us with the two women running the kitchen, but we had a fascinating conversation about the history, legacy, and modern culture of Bosnia. She was passionate and smart... and kind. And we marveled -- again -- at these beautiful moments in which we get to connect with people in the most unlikely places.
We were taken back when she told us that the school nearby -- the one with the broken out windows -- only held "school through the second class."
"You mean, they hold school in that building?" She nodded her head yes.
"But only through second class because the building is falling down. So they bus the older children to a larger village with a new school about an hour from here." Does that challenge any of your paradigms the way it does ours?
The goulash-like dumpling and beef stew... (Well, we don't actually know if it was beef... But it was delicious! We would have asked our 'translator' but it was so delicious that we didn't even think about what kind of meat it was until we were on our way home. smile.)
The cevapi, (pronounced che-vah-pee), famous in Bosnia (as well as along the Croatian coast), with its soft fried bread filled in the middle with sausages. It came with a generous helping of bright red ajvar, (the Serbian version of mayonnaise, only made of mashed eggplant and red pepper... mmmm-delicious!), to spread on the inside.
On the way home we detoured, (always and forever detouring...), to the tiny village of Skradin where we wandered through narrow alleys as we climbed to castle ruins with great views.
Lesson learned: ancient castle ruins... are still crumbling. Seconds after taking this photo of Israel, Isaiah pulled a good-sized chunk of rock loose... on his head. Instantly, the gash in his head... gushed...
Ah, well. We used my wadded up jacket for compression then made our way down to the car, the scene becoming a sort of First Aid station, Nurse Mama praying for wisdom and cleansing the wound. A short time later, we stopped at a gas station / cafe where Eli asked for ice (typically a rare commodity anywhere in Europe). He emerged from the cafe chuckling and as he handed Zae a bag of ice for his head, he told us, "The man's accent was hard to understand but he was so nice. He handed me the ice and said, 'He got in a nasty brawl, did he? I hope the other guy is okay.'"
The drive home was quiet, peaceful. The children mostly slept while LeRoy and I dialogued about the events of the day. By the time we arrived home, Zae's head was already mending. Quick showers, fresh pj's, a bedtime snack... another day ended with covers tucked under chins, prayers of thankfulness for the plethora of blessings dousing our moments.
To fall asleep with visions of crumbling architecture, warm people rebuilding lives...