An Emergency Tooth Extraction in Sarajevo and other stories from the Balkans
PROLOGUE: RUSSKIY SAMOLET
A voice came on the flight PA system. First, a string of words in rapid Russian. And then, the same voice speaking English in a Russian accent. “Ladies and gentlemen, your flight has been cancelled for personal reasons”. I heard an American-accented voice a few rows behind me voice an incredulous “Huh?!”. I echoed his sentiment voicelessly.
“Personal reasons?!” What the fuck does that mean? I looked around and my mostly Russian fellow passengers sported passive expressions as if she had just announced that it was 22 degrees and sunny in Moscow. I was not sunny. I had been sitting on this Aeroflot flight on the runway at JFK for close to an hour, after a one-hour delay for boarding. It was about 3 a.m. and I was long past my bedtime. International travel is a slog even when everything goes right, but it had been 3 hours since I was due to take off for Belgrade via Moscow. Unfortunately, things were not going to get better. The more than a hundred would-be passengers on the flight milled around the ticket counter, and I would spend the next 18 or so hours in a present-day simulation of what I imagine living in the Soviet state was like.
At the ticket counter, the Aeroflot employees seemed to be as confused as the passengers as to what exactly to do. One lady had a notebook and asked everyone for their names so we could be sent to a hotel. She spent time painstakingly copying everyone’s names by hand from their passport into this notebook. Everyone was trying to find out when they would be able to get on a flight. Chaos ruled. Another employee fidgeted on her computer while she was pelted with questions from passengers. All of this transpired in Russian, a language that I do not speak or understand. I was at the front of the line, but this meant nothing to the young moms and old stooped women who moved past me as if I was invisible to speak to the strangely expressionless Aeroflot employee in front of me, who in turn seemed almost oblivious to the throng of people looking at her for answers. Eventually, I tired of this nonsense and went uncharacteristically nativist, declaring strongly to the front desk. “I don’t speak Russian and I would like to know what’s going on with this flight.” The expressionless Russian lady advised me that no re-bookings were happening at the moment and that we would be sent to a hotel. She directed me to her colleague with the notepad, who when I asked what flight I would be on, told me that expressionless lady would re-book me. At this point, I lost my cool and tried to see if I could draw an expression from expressionless lady.
“She is not re-booking me! Hey, are you re-booking me?!”
Still no reaction from the expressionless lady, but the Russians behind me started to echo me, in Russian and in English, getting more heated. In the end, we were able to shame her into doing something, and she got go-ahead from someone who looked vaguely in charge, not because he was taking charge, but because he was a man and seemed to be hovering around his two lady colleagues, doing nothing but giving the impression of supervision. She then handed me a print out that looked legitimate, that told me I would be taken a flight to Belgrade via Rome on Alitalia around 4pm that evening. Satisfied and making a mental note to myself that sometimes being a loud whiny demanding American consumer serves you well, I went outside to wait outside with other passengers for a bus to the airport hotel. I was surrounded by families of Russian emigres, ranging in age from toddlers on their fathers’ shoulders to grandmothers in wheelchairs. We waited outside the terminal for the next three hours. There was a strange resignation to our predicament from them that seemed so un-American to me. No one was complaining or venting, or throwing a tantrum — not even the children. I theorized rightly or wrongly that due to the legacy of being formerly a totalitarian communist state, in Russia, unlike America, the individual doesn’t think himself as supremely entitled to his comfort and ease by virtue of being a consumer. Six hours of this nightmare and I hadn’t been able to get a video for my Instagram story of a hysterical blonde woman named Karen screaming to see the manager! How incredible.
I met two other Americans — Sofia, a 23-year old Mexican-American on her way to Cairo to meet her parents, and Nick, a glassblower on his way to meet his girlfriend in Italy. They were the only two who seemed to share the appropriate indignation at our situation. Nick busied himself with finding out what hotel we were supposed to be going to if it even existed. Sofia asked the still uncommunicative and useless Aeroflot staff questions that were met with “I don’t know” and shrugs. I, for my part, was sleep-deprived and could barely make conversation, and I concerned myself with keeping my 1,142 Instagram followers current of the situation. In the end, around 7:30am, we decided to split an Uber to the Radisson, which Nick had concluded we were to be sent to. The three of us got there and convinced a hotel employee to assign us rooms. We then headed to the hotel restaurant to help ourselves to the breakfast buffet. This proved to be a brilliant decision, as the bus finally brought in the other refugees, who then had to get in yet another long line.
After getting to know my new go-getter American friends over breakfast, I retired to my room and passed out. I woke up a few hours later, excited to get out of New York and be on my merry way. I got to the airport and saw my nemesis from the morning, expressionless Russian woman, still at her desk. I eyed her malevolently, wondering if I would have to yell at her again. I reported dutifully to Alitalia, where I was promptly informed that no record of me existed on the flight and that I would in fact have to yell at the Russian woman again. I made a beeline for her, thrusting the itinerary print-out she had given me only a few hours before.
“Did you re-book me?! You told me you re-booked me! Why are they telling me I’m not on this flight?!”
This came out not in my practiced American accent, but in the Nigerian accent that floats underneath, only bubbling up in times like these. It wasn’t enough to give that woman an expression on her face.
“No seats on the flight”, she murmured perfunctorily.
She continued that there were seats at the time of booking, but no seats now. Her low estimation of my intelligence cut deeply. Thankfully, her colleague with the notebook from the morning was blessed with competency, and a face that seemed alive. She promptly took over, looking at her computer and doing things with her eyes and eyebrows and mouth that gave me the impression she was an employee working hard to solve my problem and not a humanoid call center robot. I left the airport with a third itinerary for this flight to Belgrade, leaving around midnight, a full 24 hours after my original flight should have taken off. I got to have dinner in the hotel restaurant with Sofia and a colorful Armenian-American guy with a giant diamond engagement ring worn around his neck and an equally colorful story about how he wooed the Armenian-American woman he was on his way to propose to in Yerevan. We commiserated about his ruined plans and had several polite exchanges with other marooned passengers. At this point, even without much conversation, I felt I had begun to know some of the other passengers a little bit, since we’d spent 24 hours hanging around each other in the airport and hotel.
A few hours later, I would board a flight to Paris which would be delayed, making me miss my connection to Belgrade. I would be put on another flight to Belgrade (promptly this time by an Air France employee), which would also be delayed. But I would arrive in Belgrade around midnight on Friday night, with an augmented vocabulary of Russian words and a resolve to never fly with Aeroflot even if my life depended on it.
Chapter 1: BELGRADE GIRLS
I landed in Belgrade around midnight on Friday, June 28th, a full 24 hours after I should have been there. I exited the somewhat shabby airport and walked a little to orient myself. I looked back at the airport building on which flashed in fluorescent white lighting ‘BELGRADE AIRPORT — NIKOLA TESLA’ and ‘Аеродром Београд — Никола Тесла’ — the Cyrillic equivalent which is the alphabet used by a lot of Eastern European countries including Russia. I spent about an hour learning the Cyrillic alphabet when I was 12 or 13 because I was a weirdo child, so I noted with satisfaction that I could read Serbian, even if I couldn’t understand it. Except the ‘д’ in ‘Београд ‘was malfunctioning and flashed like a strobe light. Quite dramatic. It evoked the thrilling feeling that I wasn’t in just regular Europe. I was in poor-ish Europe. Who knew there was such a thing?
A short cab ride later, I arrived at the Hedonist Hotel, where I was checked in and by a friendly but businesslike Serb student named Jelena (pronounced Yelena). I had just arrived here after almost 48 harrowing hours since I left my home in Brooklyn, and no way in hell was I going to turn in for the night. On a Friday night, to boot. Coincidentally, a German man named Edwin strode in a few minutes after me, with a military haircut and those very sensible and thoroughly unfashionable trekkers they are so fond of. Since the hostel and streets around the neighborhood seemed deserted, it was an automatic decision for us to team up and find some food and fun. We walked to a take-out place recommended by Jelena and ordered the Serbian version of a burger. There was a coterie of drunk hip university-age partiers milling around, smoking and talking and laughing and ordering food, and I struck up a conversation immediately. A tall slender girl (I would find out quickly that tall and slender is the only way Serbian girls come) named Sara informed us of a rave in the old Roman fortress and told her we could come with her, as she was on her way to join her girlfriend. Fuck yeah!
We walked and talked and I took in some first impressions of Belgrade. There was a run-down quality to the city, uncommon to Western European capitals I have visited. Overgrown grass, roads with potholes, dangerous looking and yet inexplicably accessible construction sites. We walked through the latter of these and arrived at Belgrade fortress, the core of the old city of Belgrade and built around the 3rd century B.C by a Celtic tribe. It was later conquered and occupied by Roman legions and formed the military frontier against barbarian Central Europe. It had changed hands many times, as the Balkans have always been located between, and disputed by many empires. However, in the last century or so, since military advancements rendered such forts obsolete, it had found myriad uses, including as a venue for late-night raves. Alas, the thump-thump of hard techno was a bit much for my tired and jet-lagged self, and I could tell my companion Edwin the German Army officer was not much of a raver. We walked further and spotted the famous floating boat clubs of Belgrade (known as splaavs) across the Danube river, but we could see no way to cross the river. I had come all the way here and the largest river in Europe was between me and the party. We walked further along the river. The city seemed strangely deserted although we would spot groups of women — two or three — walking around, almost without exception, tall, dark haired and strikingly beautiful. Not just generically conventionally attractive, but so striking that a face I passed on the street would linger in my mind hours and days after. Hmm. No one told me about this before. In the next few days I would conclude that Belgrade has the most beautiful women I’ve seen anywhere, without a doubt. Later in Novi Sad, I ended up picking up a book by famed Serbian writer Momo Kapor called “A guide to the Serbian mentality”. In it, he confirms what I’ve seen with my eyes.
“A foreigner who happens to be visiting Belgrade for the first time will notice that this city certainly doesn’t number among the most beautiful in the world, but that the women in its streets are more attractive than those seen on the catwalks of the world’s metropolises. More specifically, Belgrade’s daughters are the most beautiful — they are prettier than those of previous generations”.
Yes, Momo Kapor, I am that foreigner.
“Today’s Belgrade girls are marked by an often slender, tall figure: long legs, narrow hips and broad shoulders, a free leisurely step, but the last thing one notices are their eyes.”
I wasn’t imagining things.
Edwin and I chatted with a few of the women we encountered and got directions. Edwin was impressively well-traveled and equally knowledgeable about world affairs and our conversation flowed easily. We continued to walk through empty construction sites until we found a block with a few bars. We chose one of them to enter randomly and were treated to a party with well-dressed 20- and 30- somethings, and a DJ spinning house and disco tunes I knew by heart. I knew what to do with this. I ordered two bottles of the local beer (Lav) for Edwin and me. Let the good times roll.
Here’s the thing about partying in Serbia: they don’t dance! Imagine club music blasting, disco ball spinning, flashing red and purple and green lights, you think you know what that scene looks like. In most countries in the world, human bodies would cavort and gyrate and at least sway in rhythm. The Serbs are, for a reason I failed to discover in my time there, strangely immune to the effects of such an environment. They just stand there at the tables, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, talking and laughing and maybe doing the barest minimum head bob. What in tarnation! I have reviewed my Instagram archives and I’m still bewildered when I watch it. In New York or Mexico City or Berlin, I walk in da club and I do my dance and I can usually count on this to make friends (usually and preferably of the fairer sex) easily. Here in Belgrade, I would need to adapt. I adopted the strategy of flashing a friendly smile and asking for a cigarette, and hoping that my exotic African visage in these parts would be enough to spark their interest. It worked well enough, if chain smoking for free had been my objective. The Belgrade girls, tall, athletic with insanely symmetrical faces were friendly and gave me cigarettes all night long, but were sadly not much interested beyond that. And alas, it was the guys that were much more interested by my exotic African visage. Here’s a typical conversation with a Serb guy in a Belgrade club:
Serb guy: “Hey man, where you from?”
Me: “New York City”.
Serb guy: “Wow! I love New York!”
Me: “You’ve been?”
Serb guy: “No, but I see in the movies! So cool! Let’s take a photo! You want a cigarette?”
Here’s a typical conversation with a Serb girl in a Belgrade club:
Me (flashing my winningest smile): “Can I ask you for a cigarette?”
Serb girl (smiles encouragingly and hands one out): “Of course. What are you doing in Belgrade?”
Me: I’m visiting! From New York!
Serb girl (looks incredulously): You came here?? From New York? Why???
(Shakes her head laughing, like I must be crazy).
I obviously cannot live in Belgrade. I won’t be able to dance, and I will chain smoke myself to death. I don’t even like cigarettes all that much.
Before I came to the Balkans, the only concrete association the words ‘Balkan’, ‘Serbian’ or ‘Bosnian’ had for me was a brutal bloody war in the 1990s which involved a genocide and war criminals who up till today are still being captured and brought to justice in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and of which I had seen a few American movies about as a kid. Naturally, I expected to learn straightforwardly about the events that transpired here and expected to leave solemnly knowledgeable of yet another example of the capacity of humans to be cruel to one other. In retrospect, I laugh at my naivete. The conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, its prologue and its resolution are unbelievably convoluted and I have only come to barely understand it. Here is my best summary of the situation: the geographical region known as the Balkans consists of thirteen countries, of which five countries are ethnically Slavic (Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia). The region was situated strategically and was constantly conquered and disputed by empires throughout history. The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire, the Ottoman empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, even the Venetian city-state at some point. In the wake of World War I, after defeating the Austro-Hungarians, an entity called Yugoslavia was formed and presided over by benevolent dictator Joseph Broz Tito beginning in 1939. He tamped down nationalist sentiment among the different ethnic groups and basically held the country together with an iron fist. Socialism was the order of the day; the country was prosperous and everyone was very happy (unless you were a political enemy of Tito’s in which case he had an island on the Danube river just for you). The Yugoslav partisans under Tito even managed to defeat the Nazis, which is super impressive. Tito is much loved to this day in both Serbia and Bosnia and his picture hung in many rooms I saw, as he was a brilliant political and military leader who prevented the country from dissolving while he lived.
Eventually, Tito died as all men must, and that’s when shit hit the fan. Nationalism fermented, and everyone wanted their own country. The Serbs, who practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity had a dream of creating a Greater Serbia that would take land from Bosnia. Bosnia, populated mostly by Muslims known as Bosniaks lay in between Serbia and Croatia, who were also looking to expand. There are Bosnian Serbs who are Orthodox Christians but live in Bosnia. Then there are the Croatians who are Roman Catholics, so different type of Christians. And then there are also Bosnian Croats. Confused yet? Yeah, me too. And basically, everybody hated everybody and it ended up in a shooting war replete with mass torture, rapes, massacres and genocide. And then, get this, they all speak basically the same language but called differently (Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian) and they can all understand each other perfectly! Oh, there’s also Montenegro which claimed independence from Serbia successfully and Kosovo which claimed independence from Serbia unsuccessfully and is populated by Albanian Muslims but is still claimed by Serbia. The occupation of Kosovo was the reason NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999 until Serbia pulled out. The countries of Albania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Macedonia are also there too and generally try to stay out of this mess. Ok, I’m sure I got something wrong and the Serbians and Bosnians reading this will want my head. Oh well. You can have it, Belgrade girls!
Of course, with this many sides to the conflict, every side has its own story. Over many generously poured shots of rakija, I spoke to Serbs in their 20s, slightly older or younger than me, who had childhood memories of air raid sirens and getting hustled by their parents into shelters. I got the sense speaking to them that the Serbs were victims of NATO aggression. Of course, the reality is more complicated. In the three days I spent in Belgrade, I had the feeling that tensions relating to nationalism were always below the surface, even if the young Serbs I was hanging out insisted on the opposite. Take for example, Nikola Tesla, the famous Serbian-American inventor. Serbs are fiercely proud of him and claim him as their own. Their airport is named after him. I visited the Nikola Tesla museum in Belgrade, which houses his ashes in addition to a number of his equipment and inventions. He was born in a village that is in present-day Croatia but was an orthodox Christian and so the Serbs claim him as do the Croats. When someone mentioned to the tall athletic Serb girl leading our walking tour of the city that he’d been told Tesla was Croatian, she snapped back at him in impressively sassy English. I dared not be cheeky and mention that he ended up an American. When another guy asked Neven, the hostel manager how to get to Kosovo, he remarked only half-jokingly, “You mean how to get to South Serbia?” My conversations with Bosnians, when I got to Sarajevo later would only serve to reinforce this notion.
Furthermore, while the shooting war ended two decades ago, the political fallout has not cleared up. When I asked Neven, who I spent a ton of time drinking rakija with, if I ought to go to the military museum to educate myself about this labyrinthine conflict, he shrugged dismissively. Apparently, no one can agree on the record of events that should be taught to young Serbians in schools or to adults in the museums. Not even just about the war in the 1990s but reaching as far back as WWII and how the resistance against Nazi occupation transpired. Apparently, that too was marked by a lot of infighting and betrayals between communists and various other partisan groups and is still a touchy subject to this day. And so, the military museum history ends at World War I.
I left Belgrade with an urge to read a book about the conflict, because I could tell I had barely scratched the surface. But it was time to leave for Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I looked forward to hearing the other side of the story. However, in typical fashion, I had delayed too long to buy a bus ticket and only one went every day. Fortunately, I was told that I could get a bus to East Sarajevo which was just right next to Sarajevo.
“East Sarajevo? Where’s that?”
“It’s in Republica Srpska”.
“It’s the autonomous region for Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and East Sarajevo is the capital”.
“Huh? You mean there’s basically a Republic of Serbia inside Bosnia just for Bosnian Serbs? Why they don’t just live in this Serbia?”.
“Because they are Bosnians and that’s where they live”.
I shook my head in amazement. I went to the bus station and bought a bus ticket to East Sarajevo, Republica Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina, leaving at 6:00 AM the next day. And then my tooth started to ache.
CHAPTER 2: AN EMERGENCY TOOTH EXTRACTION IN SARAJEVO
I exited the bus in East Sarajevo, hungry and a bit disoriented. Meanwhile, I had realized the day before in Belgrade, that on my lower left jaw, a wisdom tooth which had been innocently peeking out for a couple of years and which I had heretofore ignored, had chosen this week, when I happened to be out of my home country, to make its presence known with a persistent dull ache that I found unbearable. I had been medicating with Ibuprofen and an oral gel, but relief lasted a few hours until the pain returned. I wondered how I would survive the next few weeks in Europe like this. I stepped out into the blazing summer heat (91 degrees Fahrenheit according to the Instagram story temperature filter), and made straight for the convenience store to find food. I then realized I did not have the local currency, which was not the Serbian dinar. I was not having a good time.
“ATM?”, I inquired at a couple of the old folks walking by. Their weather-beaten faces showed no comprehension. In Belgrade, everyone had spoken English and I had gotten comfortable. I mimed cash with my fingers at an older woman in a headscarf.
“Bankautomat!”, she said pointing at a large shopping mall along the highway about a 10-minute walk away. Ugh. I gestured my thanks, licked my dry lips, adjusted my backpack and began to trek under the scorching sun. When I arrived at the Bankautomat, I realized I had zero idea what the currency was, and its exchange rate to the dollar. I found out on the screen that it was called MAK and I could get somewhere between 100 and 2000 of it. I withdrew 500, hoping it would be enough to get me a cab to Sarajevo and some food. I then got something to eat in the mall, which only cost me 2 out of my 500 MAK. I would find out later that I had withdrawn $300, an insane amount of money for a 3 day stay in Bosnia.
Luckily, I found a line of taxis right outside the mall and jumped quickly into the first. I pulled out my phone to show the driver the address of my hostel in Sarajevo. It would be a 30-minute ride. “AC?” I received a blank expression in the rear-view mirror. I mimed a fan. “Climat!”, he replied and laughed. He turned it on and gave me the thumbs up. Yet the sauna-like conditions in his 90s-model taxi did not abate and I noticed his window was halfway rolled down. I gestured to him to wind it up and he somehow interpreted the opposite. He wound it all the way down with the hand crank, as I mimed and spoke my displeasure. It took a few extra minutes of frenzied gesturing and both of us speaking in our respective languages before all the windows were up, cool air circulated and we were off to Sarajevo.
I had taken my phone off airplane mode to search for directions and noticed to my dismay that my battery was at 10%. I also noticed to my delight that my phone was blowing up with notifications from Tinder. I liked Sarajevo already. As you can imagine, I made the sensible decision to conserve my battery just in case I needed it to navigate the new and foreign city I was headed to. No, just kidding. I spent the taxi ride exchanging messages with my matches and watching my battery go from 5% to 4% to 3%, because I like to live on the edge.
30 minutes later, I checked into the Balkan Han, a delightfully air-conditioned hostel run by an avuncular man dressed in Muslim fashion. Once settled, I headed straight to the Latin Bridge where I was informed a walking tour would start at 4 pm. Despite the heat, I really liked what I saw of Sarajevo. A much smaller city than Belgrade, it is situated in a valley, surrounded by lush green hills and mountains on all sides. The city center hummed with life and I observed the people walking through the streets and in and out of shops and cafes. I saw many women in hijabs, and just as many in regular Western attire. Quite fascinatingly, some of these women and the families they accompanied were blonde and blue-eyed, shattering any subconsciously-held racialized assumptions about what Muslims should look like. I walked towards the Latin bridge, and stopped by the plaque commemorating the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire by Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year old Bosnian Serb nationalist. This event launched World War I, up to that point the deadliest conflict in human history and the first truly global war. I found the tour guide, the perfectly named Nermin Bosniak, a tall smiling Bosnian sporting a fedora. I spent the next few hours walking through the old town, learning about Sarajevo’s history dating back to the arrival of the Turks in the 16th century. Known as the Jerusalem of Europe, it is the only city which has an Orthodox church, a synagogue, a Catholic cathedral and a mosque in the same neighborhood. Similarly, Muslims, Jews, Orthodox and Catholic Christians had lived together peacefully in Sarajevo for hundreds of years. Regrettably, the Nazis did away with most of the city’s Jewish population during World War II, and 50 years later, in the Bosnian War, Sarajevo suffered the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. For 1,425 days, the Bosnian Serbs (Army of Republica Srpska) encircled the city of Sarajevo, camping in the surrounding hills. From there, they bombarded the city with artillery and tanks, and hunted civilians with sniper rifles. Gazing at the surrounding hills, it was easy for us to see how helpless the inhabitants of the city would have been. As we walked through the city, we spotted scars in the concrete from artillery shells, which have a big circle in the center and smaller marks spreading out concentrically. Some of these have been painted red in the time since the siege, to mark sites where many people were killed. They are known as Sarajevo Roses. Nermin shared horror stories of his memories as a boy during the siege, and observed that despite living in such conditions, it was the happiest he’d ever been, because he was a child. I took all this in while trying to ignore the pain of my errant wisdom tooth. I feared I was going to overdose on painkillers if I had to go on like this for the next two weeks. I mentioned my predicament to Nermin and asked if he knew a dentist in the city. He did in fact know of one, right next to the cathedral and in the same building as the genocide museum. Fantastic.
A short while later, I found myself sitting in a dentist’s chair in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with my mouth open wide and staring up at a Bosnian father-son pair as they prepared their instruments. I was given a local anesthetic which numbed the left side of my mouth and gum. I expected a half-hour long operation after which I’d be out and free to go on a date with the nice girl from Tinder I had been chatting with. Instead, I would spend the next two hours like this, as Dr. Mucić and son drilled, hacked, pulled at my tooth to no avail. The sounds of the suction tool alternated with the sound of the drill and admonitions from the younger Dr. Mucić to “open wide’’ whenever I let my mouth go slack. I somehow persevered through it all until about an hour in, when Dr. Mucić and son began to speak to each other tersely in Bosnian. At this point, the strain of keeping my mouth wide open, the industrial nails-on-chalkboard sound of the drill, the anesthetic beginning to wear off, and these men speaking to each other in a language I did not understand combined to send me into panic mode. Why did I choose to get my tooth removed here? Did I have any teeth left? I began breathing deeply and drumming my fingers to get control of myself and the doctors asked me if I needed a break. Yes, thank you very much.
“You’re a strong athletic guy and your bone is very strong. The tooth is deep in the bone and so we have to drill deeper”.
I was given another dose of anesthetic and on it went for another hour. At this point, I was convinced it would never end. I closed my eyes and tried to make peace with the sound of the drill. Finally, after few more terse exchanges between the two doctors, I was assured that we were almost done and that I was doing okay. And yet the drill and the suction tool continued their torturous symphony. Every few minutes, the younger doctor would take a scalpel and pull with what seemed like all his strength, yet my tooth would not budge. He was red in the face and sweating profusely. After what seemed like an eternity, a small piece of the tooth came out in his hand and he dropped the bloody thing into a container behind him. A few more turns with the drill, and a few more pieces of the tooth came out. I realized, thankfully too late, that I could observe the procedure in Dr. Mucić’s glasses. It was not a pretty sight. And then finally, it was over. The last piece of tooth came away and all that had to be done was to stitch up my gums. I endured a few more minutes of opening wide and then Dr. Mucić took off his surgical mask.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen bones as strong as yours. That was a very hard operation”. He proceeded to write several prescriptions for antibiotics, probiotics, anti-inflammatory medicine and other drugs as he gave me advice.
“Get an ice pack to help with the swelling. You will have to go to the emergency pharmacy since it’s 9 p.m. and the pharmacies are closed. Take this for the next 3 days, and that for the next 1 week. No food or drink for the next hour. And certainly no alcohol”. Oh no.
He told me that it would be 350 MAK ($200 USD), higher than we agreed since the operation lasted two hours, longer than it should have. My mouth was still half numb and had been open wide for 2 hours, so I didn’t have the will to protest. Besides, it would most certainly have been more expensive in the States, even with dental insurance. Luckily, I had withdrawn an extraordinary amount of cash just hours earlier and so I paid the man, and stepped out into the cooler night air of Sarajevo. I then went to the emergency Apoteka, where I picked up the gazillion drugs I was going to be on for the next week. Dr. Mucić had advised that I go home and rest, but the good doctor did not know that I was only in Sarajevo for two nights and I had made plans, and I was not one to go back on my commitments. So, I headed to the Blind Tiger to meet Ayla from Tinder, a Turkish-American Harvard Law student who happened to be interning at a human rights NGO in Sarajevo for the summer. I arrived before her, went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and saw that the left half my jaw was three times the size of the right half. I’d forgotten Dr. Mucic’s advice to get an ice pack for the swelling and now I looked like a cartoon character. I went to the bartender and used the working half of my mouth to explain my predicament. The good man went in his kitchen and came back with a plastic bag full of ice cubes which I held to my jaw. Meanwhile, half of my mouth was still numb from the anesthetic. I was ready to make an impression.
Ayla was surprising chill about having dinner a random dude from Tinder with a swollen face who could only talk and eat out of one half of his mouth, while he held an ice pack to the other, and looked like he was going to pass out. I can only imagine how poor the selection of eligible men in Bosnia must have been for her to be okay with hanging out with me in this state. I probably came across as having special needs, as half of my mouth was still asleep and my words came out mumbled. In retrospect, I think she was mostly amused by the spectacle I presented. She had an easygoing manner and a big smile with the whitest teeth I’d ever seen, of which I was very envious, given my situation. She told me about going to Harvard Law, and I told her that my current roommate back in New York for the summer was also at Harvard Law, and that I had never met anyone so smug and self-satisfied, and yet so joyless at the same time. She said Harvard Law does that to people, but that she worked very hard to escape the bubble. We Facebook-stalked my roommate, as one does, to see if they had mutual friends and to hate on him. I liked her immediately.
This whole time I had been delicately nibbling at a falafel salad out of the good side of my mouth and when I finished, we headed out to check out one of her favorite bars in the city, Zlatna Ribica, a kind of hoarder’s dream, stacked completely with all kinds of random objects and antiques. It was as though they spent 10 years shopping for household miscellany at garage sales and antique shops and put everything they found in one room, and opened a bar. It was kind of amazing. Sadly, I had to content myself with a non-alcoholic drink (the concept was novel to me) and jealously watch Ayla sip her cocktail. I made my best effort to keep talking as spasms of pain wracked the entire left side of my face, from my jaw to my temple. But it was a losing effort, and Ayla noticed my struggle. She, being more responsible than me, thank God, insisted that I needed to go to bed at 11. And so, right on the hour, we left Zlatna Ribica and walked to my hostel, where I said goodbye and thanked her for being game for what I had to believe was the strangest Tinder date she had ever been on. I would see her again the next night, when my recovery was farther along, so I guess there was something about my lop-sided face she liked. What an incredible 9 hours in Sarajevo.
I spent the next day guzzling painkillers and learning about the Siege of Sarajevo on a comprehensive tour led by Nijaz, a warm Bosniak who seemed really content with his life and made me worry for him on account of his cigarette-a-minute habit (I hardly exaggerate). This comprehensive tour of Sarajevo took us to bullet-ridden apartment buildings where the fighting was fiercest during the war, the site of the Olympic village (Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, a high point for the city and for Bosnia just a decade before its low point), an abandoned bob-sled track used in those games, the ruins of a hotel on a hill overlooking the from which Serbian snipers would terrorize it, and the secret tunnel that was built to funnel supplies into the city, thus breaking the siege and saving the lives of Nijaz and his fellow Sarajevans. As we walked through the tunnel and photographed the Sarajevo roses, Nijaz told stories from the siege, which he experienced as a young boy. The things he described were so horrible, and were so real, because I was hearing them from a man only a decade older than me who saw those things, and not on the cold distant pages of a book. Hiding in a basement, placing bets with the other children on whose house the next rocket was going to hit, using cigarettes as currency when food, water and fuel were extremely scarce commodities. I came away from the tour wondering why human beings were so needlessly cruel to each other.
By the time I visited the museums dedicated to the War and to the genocide at Srebrenica, I remember thinking nuclear war wouldn’t be so bad if it rid the planet of our violent cruel species once and for all. I spent a miserable few hours staring at artifacts and reading plaques that relayed stories of unimaginable savagery — rape, torture, mass murder, committed against Muslim men, women and children by their former countrymen who practiced a different religion. In contrast to similar images and stories from World War II that seem somehow distant because we see them on jerky black-and-white footage, the victims of this genocide appear in color, wearing brightly colored 90’s era jackets and baseball hats, and it’s much easier to imagine them as real people, not unlike the ones walking around the city today, and in many cases they are in fact still walking around. The perpetrators are dressed in modern military fatigues and camouflage, and record their savagery with camcorders just like I record my travels with my iPhone. As I posted photos of Bosnian Muslim women digging to find the remains of their husbands and sons to my Instagram story, a girl I met in Serbia replied, “And how many Bosnian Serbs were killed or became fugitives?…I just hate it when Croatians or Bosnian Muslims make propaganda against Serbian people…”. I could tell feelings were still raw.
As Nijaz drove me to the airport, I asked him how things were today between the different ethnic groups. He informed me that Bosnia is very much a mess politically and economically in large part due to the legacy of the war. The Dayton Accords which ended the Bosnian war and were signed in Dayton, Ohio in 1995 divided the country into two entities, The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina governed by Bosniaks and Croats, and Republica Srpska governed by the Bosnian Serbs. Each entity has its own constitution, government, and flag. There is a rotating presidency shared between the three ethnic groupsto keep everyone happy. Unfortunately, this has created political instability, with a new president every few months and very little getting done. Nationalism and ethnic tensions still roil under the surface, as evidenced by the abundant flags of Republica Srpska I saw as we drove through their territory. While the president and top general of Republica Srpska during the war (Radovan Karadzić and Ratko Mladić respectively) were convicted of war crimes and given long prison sentences, apparently, many war criminals remain untried, and many schools in Republica Srpska are even named after them. A Bosnian college student told me that many of her Serb classmates will walk out of the classroom when the topic of genocide is discussed, and will post extremist nationalist content on their Facebook profiles. Nijaz told me with a pained expression that because of the high unemployment and lack of opportunities, young Bosnians are leaving the country in droves for Western Europe and the USA.
We got to the airport and I thanked Nijaz for his time and hospitality and I promised to come back to Sarajevo. He told me to take care of my tooth (I think everyone in Sarajevo knew about my tooth, it’s a small city after all) and hugged goodbye. As I sat in the airport, ate my last burek and prepared a cocktail of prescription drugs before my flight to Cologne, I pondered the very intense three days I had spent in Sarajevo, and the Balkans in general. This was a different kind of Europe, poorer and more sectarian, and probably as a result, more stimulating to me as a traveler. While the richer western democracies of Europe and the Americas are in political upheaval over national identity, immigration, and the failures of neoliberalism, this Europe is quietly struggling to overcome the trauma of the last time people stopped talking to each other and started shooting. I knew I would be back.