Back from Bosnia (and Belgrade and Britain) Again

Over the course of a decent number of individual trips to the Yugosphere I’ve spent a decent amount of cumulative time in it, so with each successive trip it gets a little harder to do or see something I’ve never done or seen before. But not so hard that on this most recent trip to Bosnia (with side jaunts to Belgrade and London), there weren’t still a few noteworthy firsts. To wit:

This was the first time I’d been to the Yugosphere without including a visit to Slovenia; it was also the first time I’d flown to Sarajevo, and the first time I’d been in the city not during the summer. The Sarajevo airport is, as you might expect, tiny. And in the winter, quite foggy; I was told it’s not uncommon to have flights cancelled on account of fog.* So, fittingly as it happens, I landed on a grey cloudy day whose gloominess was only enhanced by the thick coating of smog hanging over the city, held in place by cold air and valley walls and leaving Sarajevo to do its best Beijing impression. The city smells different in the winter, too; more like cigarettes because you can’t sit outside at cafe, more like wood smoke, I assume from stoves deployed to stave off cold.**

This was the first time I’d actually spent a night in Belgrade (I was there for two). On all my previous visits I’d had twelve hour blocks between trains and buses, which is enough time to walk around the nice bits in the center, but not enough time to properly go out on a Saturday night. Which means…

This was the first time I’d actually gone out out in Serbia, to a kafana with a live band.*** Napkins were thrown, drinks were drunk, the cigarette smoke was thick as pea soup, and when I went to bed around 4am I couldn’t hear a damn thing. At one point, for no obvious reason (really, in the face of an intense absence of any reason whatsoever), it seemed like the group adjacent to us was seconds away from starting a fight, only for whatever tension may have existed to dissipate as immediately as it had initially surfaced.**** Hooray testosterone.

This was the first time I’d used one of the combi taxi services that have sprung up to ferry travelers between Sarajevo, Belgrade, and other regional cities, filling the vast gaps which afflict regional bus and train transit (there are basically no useful bus connections between Sarajevo and Belgrade; other itineraries are marginally better). I got picked up maybe 45 minutes late in Sarajevo, and barely had we left the city center when Bosnian police pulled us over. The car’s Belgrade plates made us an appealing target, and after a few minutes of “discussion” and a 10 euro “administrative fee” (or whatever bullshit euphemism was used) we were on our way again. I chatted intermittently in Serbian with the driver, and he pointed out that a strength of the American political system was that even with a “retard man” like Bush in office, the institutions of government themselves continued to function more or less normally.

This was the first time I landed in Turkey (as opposed to taking off from there), and the first time I’d spent the night in Ataturk Airport. I mean, n=1 so take this with as many grains of salt as appropriate, but it seems Turks still applaud upon touchdown. When I was a kid the Greeks were enthusiastic applauders with high standards, so a nicely executed landing on the flight from Ioannina to Athens or Athens to Rhodes usually prompted especially effusive clapping. I suppose there is something to be said for a decrease in applause triggered by safe landings, since there’s something unnervingly superstitious about the practice (like, Greeks don’t cheer when they reach their destination by car, but statistically speaking doing that successfully is much more of a feat), but I was still a bit disappointed when my domestic Greek flight this summer arrived in Athens with nary a golf clap. By contrast, arrival at Istanbul’s Ataturk was pleasingly hailed by my co-passengers. If the clapping is a bit retrograde, Ataturk is an aggressively modern airport, and its vast acreage of duty-free shopping is clearly designed to position the place as a viable global hub for, one assumes, Chinese tourists heading west (I believe the Chinese are understood to be voracious duty-free shoppers). It’s also astonishingly expensive, even seemingly by airport standards, and they don’t even offer free WiFi (neither does O’Hare, but DTW of all places has excellent free WiFi). I paid something idiotic like $25 for a beer, an entree, and a muffin.

This is of course hardly all that happened, but for the good bits of the rest of it, you’ll just have to read  slog through my thesis – I don’t want to spoil the fun and recap here all the research I did there.

*A side question: what are the economics of investing in a higher-rated ILS? Would the airport attract more traffic if fog were less likely to suspend operations, or is it not worth spending the money to avoid fog-based suspensions because the airport sees (relatively) little traffic? Here is an article suggesting a pretty basic installation runs ~$1.5 million per end of the runway, which doesn’t seem like much, but on the other hand the Sarajevo airport is probably not swimming in unlimited free cash flow
**And it seemed, too, more like some sort of industrial-type fumes from power plants. Some sort of inappropriate nostalgia-by-osmosis from reading others’ accounts of winter in communist Europe makes me want it to be lignite, but it’s not like I could pick that scent out of a lineup
***Having read a lot about this sort of thing from a sociological/musicological perspective last semester it was especially gratifying to finally have the chance to be there in the flesh
****Blog shoutout if you’re scoring at home: the “us” here was two dear friends from Slovenia and their cohort of Belgradian relatives and friends. Seeing them, and other friends in London, was really the highlight of the trip. That the thesis research I was there to conduct came off decently was just an added bonus