Reading maps

25. Juli 2011 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

I’m in Dubrovnik now, just back, after a day’s rest, from a little sunset outing on foot to the famous Srd hill that looms over the ancient city and former Maritime Republic. I did write ‘loom’ because it was from this coastal range that Serb and Montenegrin forces (with remnants of the Yugoslav People’s Army) attacked Dubrovnik in the autumn of 1991. The city had been demilitarized in the 1970s and its fortifications were meant to be seen as mere memories of more violent eras. I’m not going into the details of this particular episode of an atrocious war, but need to say that this war has been tracking me ever since I passed though the fringes of what was once called the Krajina, not far from infamous Knin.

When I wasn’t reminded of it by dilapidated buildings or cemeteries with conspicuously high death rates in 1992 and 1993, I got my nose pushed onto unexpected borderlines. This happened drastically on my way from Mostar to Dubrovnik. I had cycled out of my 1:200,000 scale map of Croatia, a trusted companion showing me the white back roads very reliably. Bosnian Mostar was still on it, although these parts were not rendered very accurately by the cartographers. Fair enough, I said, after all it’s a Croatian map, but then behind Stolac, the bleak outpost in easternmost Herzegovina, I had to resort to my 1:1,000,000 Michelin map (which has all of Ex-Yugoslavia on it, without calling it by that name).

Now, I know it’s all my fault, I didn’t look very closely and somehow, for self-protection didn’t add up the numbers (e.g. the kilometres, which, at the end of the day, came to 135, quite a bit over my average of 80km/day). I also ignored those squiggly yellow bands with ++++++++++++ that criss-cross the mapscape.

So as I rode over another hill pass and looked down at a flat valley floor I said to myself: oh my, look at that model farm down there, all neat rows of veggies and fruit trees. Isn’t that encouraging (I meant in contrast to the untilled land on the other side of the hills). And gee, look at that flag blowin’ in the wind! Isn’t that the Russians’? How nice that they dropped by to help the poor Bosnians!

Then came a small town. Wow, now this is the first Orthodox church I get to see, isn’t it lovely how the Muslims and the Croats here are tolerant of other minorities? I must have sounded real stupid when it dawned on me at a café on main street, talking to a couple of men who barely spoke any English. Oh, is this a Serbian town? Purely Serbian? Ah, I added, with an embarrassed grin, Republika Srpska! I felt I had put my foot in it and didn’t dare to deepen the subject any further.

Yep, pure and cleansed. Ljubinje is trying hard to give itself the look of a model town, but there’s no feel to it. Different sorts of men are lounging about in similar kinds of ways as across the cantonal border. Too many cafes line the street with too many of the owners and waiters or their friends and family being the only patrons. Hardly any shops, craftsmen or workshops to be spotted. Lorries on country roads are always a reliable sign of economic activity. These streets remind me of Morocco in this respect.

No lorries may be good for a vulnerable cyclist. But in this particular historical context it feels like a huge unacknowledged hangover from something that nobody wants to say how they got into it. I’ve been talking to three young people in three days, one Muslim (the girl in Mostar), one Serbian (Zako or similar at the tourist office in Trebinje) and a Croatian-Bosnian binational, Ivan, here in my guesthouse.

It’s hard to misread this map of their lives they are showing me: compromised opportunities for the future, a silent grudge against the elders, little hope that a Deus ex machina like the EU will save the day. None of the three gave me the impression of despondency or fatalism (cf. Morocco), but it’s painful to think where they might stand without the obsessions and foolhardiness of their fathers. They only really differ in their prognosis for the state of Bosnia & Hercegovina: My landlord’s grandson gives it a max of ten years, the other two are fairly confident that it will survive much longer, perforce, perhaps.

Oh, yes, and language: the boy in this house told me he didn’t want to go to university in Split because of  the way they speak there (a sort of dialect he doesn’t much seem to like) and because of the football club, Hajduk Split and its not-so-well-behaved fans. He now studies the law in Sarajevo, where, he says, they speak his language. He likes it there, but, he says, the Arabs and the Turks are building skyscrapers there in a new advance on the occident. And Germany must curb its immigration, otherwise the Turks will outnumber Germans soon in their own country. I think of Elma’s invisible war that festers beneath the touristy surface.

But there’s relief. Shortly before sunset I begin an impromptu climb behind the house and don’t stop before I’m three quarters of the way up Srd. The location, the hues and colours, the lights within and without the walled city, the cypresses and pine trees like dark cut-outs take my breath away. And best of all, you can’t see or feel the throngs of tourists up here. I’m all by myself, apart from a group of men who are praying their way up the mountain from cross to cross.

LIBERTAS, freedom, is Dubrovnik’s ancient motto. If only it wasn’t an ever-escaping figment.

My need to decorate a gloomy text with a lovely picture

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