My bus arrived in Mostar yesterday at exactly 6:40 pm just as it was listed online. As I stepped off the caravan I instantly made out the sunglasses and familiar hairline I’d seen in the photo of my host, Jan. A bus that arrived at the time it claimed and a punctual local who insisted on picking me up gave Mostar a comfortable leg up in the first impression contest.
I smiled as I approached Jan offering him a firm handshake. He greeted me warmly as if we’d roomed together back in college, or once played on the same little league team. “Your bus is on time,” he said. “That’s rare.” He stood about 6’3 and moved with a confident stride. He struck me as the type of person who’d grown self-assured by things seen, or accomplished, or perhaps both. I gathered we were around the same age as we made our way to his black Mercedes.
We spoke about my journey before he dove into a very interesting and slightly rehearsed history of the town, referencing the Ottomans and Romans on several occasions. After a short drive we arrived at the place where I’d hang my hat for the next 3 nights - a newly constructed complex that doubled as apartments and a hotel. His place was clean, simple, and conveniently situated.
We made small talk in the kitchen as he ran me through the building’s features and amenities of which there were many. In between he told me he worked in IT. He’d left a low-paying government position for a private sector gig, which appeared to be working out quite well for him.
He also told me he’d once visited Pittsburgh on a student exchange program many years ago. “That’s a really random place to go,” I said. He seemed underwhelmed by the whole experience as I half-tried to convince him to visit New York or San Francisco on his next trip to the States.
Just as I was getting ready to rest after a tiring day, Jan insisted I let him drive me to Old Town. He wanted to help me get my bearings and probably share another Mostar anecdote or two. “Sure,” I said. “Just let me run to the bathroom real quick.”
We got back into his car and listened to the playlist he'd chosen for our short ride. “You like Sinatra? I asked. “Doesn’t everybody?” he said. This guy's got style, I thought. We drove past apartments and commercial buildings that had clearly been bombed or heavily shot up during the conflict that began in 1992. The contrast between a shiny new shopping mall towering above the skeleton of a home where lives were likely lost was stark and unfamiliar to me.
“What was it like back then? If you don’t mind me asking,” I asked nervously. “I don’t really like to talk about it,” he responded. I felt silly for the inquiry. He then delved into more history, throwing around names like Milosevic, while explaining the role religion played in the Balkan conflict. He skillfully elaborated then demurred, leaving me enough to consider.
Soon he dropped me off in front of the Cathedral of Mary, Mother of the Church, pointing the way to Old Town. I thanked him for his generosity mentally wording the stellar review I intended to give him. It was not lost on me that this was probably part of his intention, but I must say he also seemed to genuinely like, and possibly need the company.
Now I was alone. I began to saunter through the city of about 110,000. I set out for the Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century and perhaps the most iconic structure in the Herzegovina region. Mostar, I learned, is derived from, “Mostari,” who during medieval times guarded the Stari Most, or Old Bridge. It really was as beautiful as the pictures I'd seen.
Almost instantly, I found myself in the midst of a mob of tourists clamoring for selfies and family photos with the Nenetva River as the backdrop. Not one for crowds, I glided past the madness in search of some tranquil adventure.
The shops that lined the cobblestone streets could just as easily stood outside the pyramids in Cairo, or the begrimed streets of Little Italy in New York. I made it through unscathed and soon found myself eating at a very pleasant little Italian restaurant Jan had recommended an hour or so before.
As I sat alone nibbling on some bread in between scribbling notes, I stared at the mountains in front of me. A familiar feeling washed over me. It was the same sentiment I’d felt eating alone in Siracusa, Sicily ten years earlier as I gazed at the Duomo di Siracusa. In both instances everything seemed to slow down, offering a sense of clarity, even if briefly. Time and space allowed, or rather, demanded a moment of gratitude. I hear you, I thought. You don’t have to ask me twice.
My mentor from Columbia University, Don Goldstein, a 60-something career counselor originally from Brooklyn, New York shared this with me today: "This might sound a little sappy, but when I was a little kid my mother told me; 'If you love to read, you’ll never be bored.' She reinforced that with regular trips to the library together, discussions about books and a general reverence for books. I never forgot that. I always have a book with me and I’m never bored."