Today I want to write about disappointment. I have been planning a journey to Sarajevo since October as part of the Making Tracks project. I chose a weekend in February when I thought it would be a good time to visit. A weekend around the anniversary of the 1984 Winter Olympics opening ceremony. I made contact with the curator of the Winter Olympics museum who arranged for me to visit early on Monday. I emailed a member of the ZOI committee that looks after Winter Olympic sites. She kindly offered to take me on a tour of the Zetra Stadium and into the Igman mountains today to look at the Olympic ski slopes. I had been told about two shows happening this weekend by a contact at the MESS Festival in Sarajevo: Cornershop at The Chamber Theatre and Orwell’s 1984 at the Sarajevo War Theater. I was looking forward to going to the theatre in Sarajevo. As it is, I am sitting in a cafe in Vienna airport called The Ikarus Bar which seems strangely appropriate. I have not made it to my destination. Like Icarus, I am grounded.
It was all going so well. I left Nottingham for Manchester yesterday morning at 8am. Strolling from my home to the train station with my rucksack – a complicated packing balance between warm clothes, writing and documenting equipment, Bosnian guidebooks and a biography of Ravel. I wore two pairs of jeans and three jumpers so I could fit it all in the bag. I was a walking wardrobe. Manchester to Frankfurt was on time. Frankfurt to Vienna was on time. Then at Vienna, there was something not quite right about the way we were checked in. A man from Austrian Airlines wandered amongst us with a biro. Scribbling on boarding cards with a look of mild panic in his eyes. We were loaded onto a shuttle bus and taken out to the plane but kept on the bus while the POLIZEI boarded the plane to talk to the aircrew. It took a long time to get on to the plane and we shivered in the dark. When we were finally in the air the air stewardess offered us snacks and drinks with a smile as if to say ‘This is to take the edge off.’
At the same time, I was talking to a man from Sarajevo sitting next to me. His name was Edward or Edin. We spoke for a while about why we were travelling to Sarajevo. He was heading home after working at Budapest Airport. When I mentioned my project and why I wanted to visit the Zetra Stadium and how I was interested in its history he became more animated. He said he was concerned about Westerners visiting Sarajevo and telling stories about the war without knowing the details or without getting the details right. He talked about the film by Angelina Jolie, Milk and Honey, which tells the story of a relationship between a Serbian soldier and a Muslim girl during the war. He had not seen it but he was disappointed that someone was telling this story, who was not from the city, who had not lived its history, so did not fully understand it. He may be reading this now because I gave him my card, and if he is I hope I am capturing the conversation accurately. I said that I thought when you tell a story about a place you have to tell it carefully. I said that I thought you have a responsibility to the place or the people who have shared their history with you. He smiled at me.
It was the first time I had met someone so close to Sarajevo and it was an important encounter because it made me aware of how delicately told the story has to be, how I am potentially telling a story that does not belong to me. It is the same of Maurice Ravel, of Torvill and Dean, it is a biography not an autobiography, it does not belong to me, but to others, and, to some extent, it is a biography of a city too. A city that sits on the edge, historically, politically, geographically. A city that knows all about disappointment. A city that knows what it is like to be left alone when it needed help. A city surrounded by mountains that was besieged. Ed was telling me about how because Sarajevo is surrounded by mountains it is difficult to land there when it is snowing. And as we were talking, the pilot made an announcement in German. ‘We are going back’ said Ed. He put his head in his hands, disappointed again. ‘Back where?’ I said. ‘Vienna. But first we go to Belgrade to refuel.’ I have been to Belgrade before.
Belgrade is almost equidistant from Vienna, about an hour north of Sarajevo. I looked out of the window and the lights on the wings illuminated the snow so that it looked liked sparks flying. We landed in Belgrade in a blizzard. The plane crunching along the runway, lined on both sides with deep man-made waves of white. We spent an hour at Belgrade, but were not allowed to disembark. Passengers were restless. Children were crying. We were re-fueled and de-iced and set off again. There was disappointment in the air. We were going back to where we started. Back to Vienna where we were offered a free meal and accommodation. We were rescheduled onto another flight to Sarajevo but with no guarantee we would make it to our destination if it is still snowing. It still is.
So here I am. Waiting at the Ikarus Bar, where I sat last night before my first attempt to get to the second city in my story. Waiting to go to Belgrade again in an hour before, hopefully, travelling on to Sarajevo. I have repacked my bag again and will have passed through passport control and emptied my pockets six times for security by the time I get there. If I get there. But each time I do I feel a seed in my pocket. The seed that I was given by the tour guide when I visited Ravel’s house. When I get to the stadium, I am planning to plant it. So that it might grow and the house where he wrote Bolero in 1928 would be connected to where it was danced to in 1984. It may be difficult to get there. It may be difficult to plant the seed in the snow. It might not grow. But my journey is not complete until I have sat in the stadium and listened to Bolero and then planted the seed.
Then it will be time to go home again. And if I don’t make it this time, I will try again later in the year, when it stops snowing. As I said to Ed in the queue last night, waiting for our free meal in Vienna, after six hours travelling to Belgrade and back: ‘This is not the end of the journey. This is only the beginning.’ ‘Ah yes, you are a writer,’ he said. And smiled at me. Before going to sit down. Whatever I do with this story, whatever it is, I want to write something Ed will like, that won’t be a disappointment. That will be sensitive to his city’s history. I will be careful. Like a pilot coming in to land in the snow. Because there is a lot of responsibility.