The evening with its fading light is my favourite time of day and the midsummer gloaming affords a slow lingering glow to bask in long after the brute force of the sun has gone. But tonight my pleasure is tempered by unease.
I’m approaching the Croatian border with Bosnia. All land borders are scored into the landscape arbitrarily but the violence here is stark and overt. The houses that line the road are scarred with shrapnel pock-marks, burnt out, all the roofs caved in. This is a border marked out in obvious human suffering.
Most of the houses are boarded up but amongst the derelict abandoned buildings are a few that have been repaired, replastered, repainted. Flowers bloom on the occasional window sill, some gardens are planted out with tomatoes and salad greens. Fruit trees that have probably seen more than one war pass over them still bear fruit. This is a bountiful time of year.
But the people who can be seen at work in the fields and gardens, or the ones already at rest on the benches at their front gates, are all old. There are no young people here and most of the buildings bear hopeful notices advertising the house “For Sale”. It is a melancholy scene and the camping prospects look grim. Sheltering for the night in the gutted shell of a house destroyed in an internecine war bodes fitful sleep.
But suddenly I hear music. An accordion, a guitar, voices singing. I turn and standing astride my bike on the road gaze back at a party of people sitting partly visible on a wide veranda at the back of one of the smarter houses. The song finishes and, after a moment of laughter and comment, another starts up.
A woman comes round the corner of the house to the open door at the side of the house carrying a pile of plates. She smiles and waves. A man sitting at the table looks up, catches sight of me, and beckons extravagantly. I am drawn in. The host of the party rises from the table to shake my hand. He sizes me up briefly, and then bids me sit down. A plate, food, a glass, wine, all appear in front of me as the bittersweet accordion music goes on.
The music is interspersed with snatches of conversation and those who can switch to English for my benefit. Milan, my host, takes it upon himself to make sure that I am adequately informed of the area’s history.
“As you can see, we had a war here.”
“Yes. I do see.”
He gestures at the circle of people around the table.
“This is my family. My sister, there, she lives in Belgrade. In Serbia. These are her children. They are Serbs. The man playing the accordion – he is my friend. He is Croatian. I am Croatian but I live in Bosnia.”
The children run out onto the neatly mowed lawn of the backyard. One little girl executes a neat cartwheel, legs straight and toes elegantly pointed. There are three children, a brother and a sister, and their younger cousin, the acrobat.
Milan gestures around the table again and tersely sums the matter up.
“Croatians. Serbs. Bosnians. It doesn’t matter.”
Another song starts and my wine glass is refilled. I protest but I am informed that this a drinking song and so we must drink. The guitarist speaks good English and is obviously a professional performer. He introduces each song with an anecdote or a joke. The songs are traditional songs from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bulgaria. Everyone knows the words and even I am familiar with a few.
“This was my father’s house,” Milan tells me. “I grew up here. Now all the houses are for sale. Nobody wants to live here after the war. Everybody has left. There is no money here. No work. I live on the other side of the border in Banja Luka.”
People around the table ask me questions.
Where am I from? Where am I going? What am I doing here?
These are questions that have no simple concrete answers. Or not ones that I am aware of.
I’m just travelling around, I say. Just looking at things. Meeting different people. It my turn to gesture around the table. Different people, different food, different music, I say, inanely, and my superficiality doesn’t pass unchecked.
Milan looks at me and says urgently, impatiently, “Yes, yes, all that is different – but really people are all deeply deeply deeply the same.”
I have no argument with him.
“Yes, of course. You are right.”
Later, after the musicians are gone and the party is breaking up, we stand around my bike gazing at it.
“When I was ten years old I remember seeing foreigners for the first time,” Milan says. “An Englishman on a bike. He had a big beard. I’ve never forgotten it.”
I try to imagine which of the legendary cycle tourists might have been in Yugoslavia in 1968 – there can’t have been that many cyclists casually passing by back then. Milan looks at the three children standing next to us.
“And they will remember you!” he adds. And then, suddenly and emphatically, he says, “I’m scared that there will be war again here.”
We look at the children and the little girl turns another pretty cartwheel.
Finally, when everyone has left, Milan shows me a bed and the bathroom, hands me a bunch of keys and instructs me where to put them when I leave in the morning and then he gets into his car with his wife and they drive back to Bosnia leaving me in sole possession of the house.