Sarajevo is another bright, clear moment shining out amidst the whirlwind of travel. Sean and I had been trudging our way down the sticky, crowded coast of Croatia when we decided to head inland on a whim, in order to meet up with a friend Sean had made at a hostel the week prior. Saša is a beautiful man, his family unusually warm, and together they have built a life that is stunning in its uniqueness. The constant realization of how lucky we were to be staying with them made Sean and me keep whispering and motioning to each other behind their backs about how awesome this was.
The city itself is small and sweet, like a candy I could pop in my mouth and savor for days on end. The general remarks about it revolve around the weirdness of seeing bullet-studded communist buildings in the foreground of a towering glass mall, modern and black and huge. But I was more interested in the compact old town where Turkish vibes of coffee and tobacco and silver and textiles intoxicated my senses. Sarajevo is a perfect blend of history and mystery, East and West.
I know I’ve been harping on how much I’ve been eating in Europe, but that particular week takes the cake, pun intended. I’ve heard that skinny people can eat more, because they have more room to expand; perhaps I am walking proof. I felt like the girl who blew up like a blueberry and had to be rolled out of Willy Wonka’s factory, in every good way possible. We ate Eastern Europe’s best ćevapčići with pita and yogurt, Belgian waffles topped with ice cream and berries and nutella, sweet roasted nuts and Turkish delight. We found a somewhat rare microbrewery and quenched our thirst with homemade red beer. Saša’s parents, who are earthy, fun-loving, and intelligent people, bought and prepared for us an enormous traditional Bosnian lunch, complete with hot soup with homemade noodles; shopska salata; roasted potatoes and carrots and roast pork with real, thick-cut bacon; sautéed mushrooms; and finished with dense, sticky baklava. Every day we sampled a new regional wine from the cozy, tasteful wine shop that their family owns.
Saša is the definitive expert of all things most awesome and excellent in Sarajevo, and he took us places we would have never otherwise found. These places included a small tea shop on a quiet road, right around the corner from the bustle of the main square, reminiscent of Teavana except more local, humble, and just all around better. It is owned by a German man with the gentlest eyes you have ever seen, and not one day passed where I didn’t spend hours drinking his potions and listening to classical music. The three of us also had a date at a restaurant owned by a friend of Saša’s, where we whiled away the evening learning how to swirl, smell, and taste our way through each glass of Eastern European wine—wine supplied by Saša’s family store. But of course, the owner and chef brought us two veal specialties, one tenderly topped with mozzarella and tomato, and the other warmly roasted with potatoes. Another night we walked through dark streets void of humans and up to a seemingly innocuous door, which swung open suddenly to a magical and humming dining room with a cobblestone floor, a roof open to the starry sky and walls completely covered with vibrant plants and Bosnian trinkets. Here, we ate cheese and bread and small bites of fried chicken, lucky to even find somewhere to sit on a weekday night.
I don’t think there was one moment that wasn’t beautiful and marvelous and pleasing. We chuckled together to the old classic Donnie Brasco, hoofed it up an enormous hill to regard the stunning valley below, drank Bosnian coffee and smoked watermelon hookah. I marveled at the way Saša’s father doted on his mother; at their warm, elegant home in which we were wholly welcomed; and how the three of them have built a beautiful and thriving business, defying the relative poverty of their country and the complacency of its citizens. Between our laughter and our Brooklyn-Italian accents, I found joy and satisfaction in watching Saša let himself completely loose inside a glass of wine, in hearing his knowledge and well-wrought opinions, in making another friend that makes life worth living.
After that, Sean and I unexpectedly decided to go our separate ways, and I continued back to Croatia solo on my way to Italy. Dubrovnik was the last main city I had yet to visit on my coastal tour, but sightseeing by that point had gotten a little stale, so instead I hung out with new friends, went kayaking across the sea to an island, and jumped off rocks and swam until my feet went numb. On the ferry over the Adriatic to Italy, I bumped into some delightful Finnish girls that I had met in the city and we spent the night eating nutella and pringles and playing cards. I taught them how to play Go Fish; they were tickled.
Now that Italy has come and gone, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the place. Couch surfing was pretty much completely out as an option, lest I drown amidst the seedy romantic invites of clamoring middle-aged Italians. I did spend a great week in the mountains between Rome and Naples, volunteering on a farm and guesthouse. It’s funny how different every experience can be; this one was so much more about the relationships I made and not about the work or knowledge gleaned. Don’t get me wrong—hauling wood and pruning fruit trees with a sparky old man that doesn’t speak English taught me more Italian than I ever expected to learn and I am well grateful, but there was something especially remarkable about accidentally staying up late every night and discussing politics, the existence of free will, and boys with your three roommates and girlfriends—one each from Brussels, England, and Australia.
The family that owns the farm gives off the impression that they are only living together out of familial obligation, and that perhaps ten years of volunteers moving in and out has become a bit tiring. Nonetheless, I found contentment watching the rain and mist move across the solemn mountains from tiny craggy towns; swimming in the iciest, bluest mountain pond; getting caught in a downpour and hitching to town; sharing beer and ice cream at a dusty, plain cafe-bar full of Italian, card-playing men; participating in my very first yoga class; hurtling down curving mountain roads and shouting Italian songs about gelato at the top of our lungs; listening to an orchestra play ‘Figaro’ at a nighttime street festival in the mountains; exploring town on foot, buying market sunglasses and eating ice cream with friends; drinking wine in front of a stone fire; frying zucchini flowers and eggplant with a smiling, toothless Italian man while he riveted me with his life story (the one where he breaks both his legs while drunk in his twenties; quits drinking; finds scuba diving; works with and worships rare, ancient books; travels the world; and now farms around Italy to be near his darling daughter). And between each of these moments, I laughed and told jokes and discussed life with my new friends, pleased as hell.
Rome next, for the express reason of meeting my sister and brother-in-law. There we spent together two and a half beautiful days, not nearly long enough. My sister proved the benefits of doing your homework before you show up; she knew where to find a handful of exceptionally good experiences in the enormous sprawl that is Rome. One food tour, three historical sites, two mouthwatering dinners, and about fourteen cones of authentic gelato later, I am left standing alone on a train station platform, overcome with homesickness. I spent the rest of the week wandering around the city in a considerable haze, sleeping and somewhat disconcerted and realizing I hadn’t spent any time planning my next moves. The combination of having no clear plan or direction and not knowing the next time you are going to see anyone in your family can really set a girl back. For a minute there, I lost almost all of my self-possession. Luckily, I had a few enjoyable moments in good company; the brother of a childhood friend happened to be in Rome after a European tour with his band, so that was cool.
I dunno, I just didn’t have great luck in Italy after that. I was feeling very done with Rome by the time I left, especially after being approached by two different creepy men, getting bed bugs (I counted—well over seventy amazingly itchy bites), catching a ride and then running out of gas, catching another ride that was five hours late, spending more money than I needed and wanted to, being forced to stay up late three nights in a row based on surrounding circumstances, and descending into my rare trifecta of misery (cold, hungry, and exhausted). Not that it was all bad; I spent one relatively pleasant if not awkward evening in Turin, and had a couple enlightening conversations with nice people along the way, but I gotta say, I was immensely pleased to get to Lyon. Almost the moment I left the company of Italians and entered that of the French, my state of affairs spiked upward.
Vive le freaking France. I’m not sure I’m just relieved to be out of Italy, or if anything that strikes me as vaguely familiar feels like balm to my soul at this point in my travels (completely plausible), or if I just really like it here, but everything about my last few days in France has felt incredible. I adore practicing the language, even if my grasp of it is barely loose. Or perhaps it’s the fact that autumn is tumbling across Europe, but there is something in the air here that is making me very happy. It’s giving me the feeling that I would very much like to come back again and explore even further, to stay a while, to live, to learn. I’ve barely been here but I can’t help but feeling like I really like France.
Anyway. These last few days I stayed at an apartment with a handful of French kids and blended in with the comfortable, fun daily routine like I could, or did, belong there. In fact, I didn’t see a lick of Lyon except for a few main drags during two different nights—a shame, since I hear it’s charming. But, I can hardly complain, because I couldn’t have spent a more enjoyable weekend. Thomas (pronounced Toe-mah), my host, has a personality that is both delightfully down-to-earth and funny, and we hit it off immediately. My three days with him and his roommates was pretty much completely comprised of sleeping, eating and drinking. I tried foie gras and French blood sausage, had beer and mussels and fries (moules-frites) at the most idyllic medieval festival you have ever seen, took two naps, won a game of pool, rode rental bikes home at five in the morning, and taught English while lounging in the grass. I am very grateful to those boys for being as hospitable and kind and fun as they were. They brightened my spirits immeasurably.
I am doing well; I have regained the ground under my feet. But as always, ceaselessly I wonder what’s next, what is to become of me? To what will all this lead?
For now, my faithful friends, I have found myself in the Alps on a juice farm that is so picturesque that I’m afraid I’ll never leave. I can’t wait to tell you all about it, next time.