What sort of coincidences pass for chance and what others as low-key expectations? Several years ago when I was travelling in Bosnia, I was walking down the high street in the small, war-torn town of Mostar, with its numerous graves and its bullet-pocked walls, feeling that I was in a different world, and who do I walk into but a couple of people I knew from Edinburgh, my home town. I wasn’t especially displeased to see them, but how could a sense of disappointment not hang over our introductions as we all realised that even in so apparently remote a place as Mostar, meeting people from back home seemed entirely likely? Some might say that it was even probable. There was a music therapy centre there, and they were working in it that summer. I knew they were studying art therapy in Edinburgh, and knew also that Mostar was one of the great music therapy centres in Europe. But what was I doing there, they asked. I said I just happened to be travelling around. Which wasn’t really a lie, but behind it lay a truth I didn’t want to reveal to relative strangers, and at that stage a partial truth anyway, for more, much more, was to be revealed a couple of days later in Sarajevo.
Less than a week before, and more than a fortnight into my travels, I spent a few days at the coastal, walled town of Kotor in Montenegro, a town on the way to my next destination, which would have been Dubrovnik, when I thought the majesty of the mountains right behind the town, and right on the sea, compelled me to get off the bus there and then. I had read in some guide that it was a lovely town and a well kept secret, but it was really the landscape, the mountains and the sea, rather than the town, which made me get off that bus and splice the journey in two. But if I were mystically inclined I might just call it fate; or maybe I should call it no more and no less than the difference between chance and expectation. For in expectation lay my meeting with the Edinburgh couple in Mostar, where the unpredictable contained within it almost a probability. But in Kotor I felt what happened was much closer to chance. Imagine, I would often say to myself, and to her, if I hadn’t got off that bus?
Maybe, she would say, I would have met someone in Dubrovnik, and I thought she might have been right. But who would that have been, some backpacker presumably, someone a little lonely, a little fed up, half-regretting she’d split up with her boyfriend before going off on her travels and now looking for a bit of affection. I had come across one or two on the trip already. There was one girl a couple of weeks before in Ljubljana, who would have been what I’d call an ‘expectant’ rather than a ‘hopeful’, someone who admitted that she was travelling through Europe to get over a long-term boyfriend whom she found at had at various stages in their relationship slept with other people. She knew if she had stayed in Liverpool she would have got back together with him; so she left. As she told me this on the hostel sofa, I found her laying her head against my shoulder, and I sat there with my body stiff and reluctant, waiting for her to fall asleep so I could slowly extricate myself from her floppy form.
Probable, all too probable, I thought, perhaps arrogantly; though I hardly flattered myself by thinking it was me she wanted – just a body to supply warmth and comfort and that didn’t go by her ex-boyfriend’s name. The next morning I hired a bike from a nearby camping sight and cycled around the town and the surrounding countryside. As I cycled along the river I passed several women I believed possessed what the girl in the hostel never even hinted at: a sense of the hopeful; a sense whereby my meeting them and them meeting me might surprise both of us, force us to see our lives very differently for however brief a period of time. I ordered a green tea and sat outside in a café just by Shoemaker Bridge that faced out onto the river Ljubljana and watched as the waitress read her book in between serving the few customers. I remember reading once that the definition of an intellectual is someone who has a pencil to hand as they read. She didn’t, unless I was to count her waitress’s pen, yet she read with more than casual interest, as if a customer were more a disturbance than a distraction. As she served other customers I watched as she weaved her way through the tables, dressed in a light, hippy-style summer dress, sandals and head-band. I imagined what it would be like talking to her, and elaborated, on each shift in my personality and life as I got to know her. I imagined moving to the town, getting a job in some language school or tutoring privately, getting involved in the political scene, daubing anarchist graffiti on the walls of Ljubljana and turning my little scribbles on paper into some grander, bolder and perhaps communal project. That would be chance, I said to myself.
It was in that hour at the café, while I half read and half daydreamed, that I formulated what chance meant to me, and so when ten days later I walked along the high street in Mostar and came across the Edinburgh couple I knew that was not really chance at all but probability. I formulated this based not on any great rule of mathematics, but instead a personal rule of thumb: chance changes one’s life, while probability leaves it unruffled. Even if it would seem unlikely that the couple and I would meet in Mostar, the event had within it its own likelihood: the music centre had numerous links with Edinburgh university; the couple were both musicians and studying music; and I was touring the Balkans and, since from Edinburgh, it would seem likely that I would want to go to the Balkan town which had the most links with the city. And yet of course Mostar hadn’t been part of my intended destination had it not been for what I believed was a chance encounter.
Would the waitress not have been an example of chance, some may ask, and why didn’t I go up to the waitress in that café and simply ask her out? A failure of confidence would be the most obvious answer, and one I would have happily admitted to, but then I would have fallen into the realm of purpose rather than chance. I knew what I wanted from this trip was something close to pure contingency, an experience that I could have not have predicted. Asking the beautiful waitress out would still have seemed too premeditated, or at least that’s the way I would choose to perceive it now.
Which leads me back to her, back to getting off that bus in Kotor because of the stunning mountains so near to the sea, and finding something more beautiful still, and no less surprising. She was working in a café just inside the inner walls of the town, and as she was the first person I saw entering the fortressed walls, I asked if she spoke English, which she did, and whether she knew of any reasonably inexpensive places to stay. She mentioned a hotel inside the town, and said it would be cheaper at this time of year – it was now the beginning of September – and I thanked her and traipsed off to the nearby location. I wanted to turn round, to see if she was looking at me as I walked off, but the rucksack was chafing my semi-bare neck, for all I had on was a summer vest. There was in her smile, and in her manner, I surmised, a disposition that suggested she would look on to see if I had taken the right direction.
As it happened she was looking on, because as I managed to take the wrong street in this labyrinthine town, she shouted after me to take a right, a comment I failed to hear until she came running up beside me and said that it would be probably be best if she showed me to the hotel herself. I asked what about her work, and she shrugged saying it was quiet and there was another waitress on anyway. As we walked she asked what possessed me to stop off in Kotor – most people carry on to Dubrovnik. I don’t know, I replied, it just seemed a place worth stopping at. She said she would see me again no doubt and left me at the hotel’s entrance.
It was reasonably priced and so I took the room; a compact space on the top floor with great views that faced out in fact onto the square where the waitress worked. As I looked out of the window I could see in the distance she was serving a customer. I tried to discern whether she seemed to be giving the warm attention to this man around fifty as she had given to me. Did I feel I received preferential treatment because I was simply another tourist, or did I really feel that she was being especially attentive? As I observed her actions I thought what I fool I must seem: a man in his mid-twenties churlishly worrying about this stranger’s kindness to others when I only knew her nomenclature: as we parted she said her name was Branka. However, I really thought it was more than a predictable infatuation on my part; it seemed relevant to my thoughts over the course of the trip about chance and expectation, no matter if my meeting with Branka was more or less the instigation of that thought process rather than its culmination.
Later that evening, after I had slept for a couple of hours in the afternoon, read for an hour and then showered, I decided to get a cup of coffee before finding somewhere to eat, and thought of no more agreeable a place than of course the café at which Branka worked. As I sat reading my book and waiting for her to come and serve me, I slowly realised that she probably wasn’t on that evening, and was overcome by a very low key sense of desolation. What brought it on: the accumulation of time spent alone over the last ten days, the anticipation of meeting Branka once more, or simply the vague feeling of decadence I would feel eating alone yet again in a restaurant? A combination of factors no doubt, but then the time spent alone and the eating without company hadn’t remotely bothered me up until that moment, and so I had to conclude that it was Branka’s absence, and maybe also the possibility that she was eating with someone else somewhere in this small town.
I alleviated my potential loneliness by getting a sandwich, a drink and a cereal bar and walking across to the other side of the town that curved round like a horseshoe, so that you could get great views of the mountains and the fortressed town. Watching the incredible fjord that overlooked the town I felt that my trip was meaningful: where else could I have seen this view? After eating, I walked for several miles along the road that faced across the bay to the town, and then walked several miles back. By the time I got home it was dark, and despite the music that blasted out of several of the little bars, I fell asleep almost instantly.
The next morning I woke early and walked up the hill at the back of the town before returning at about nine for breakfast – which I of course took in the café where Branka worked, and this time she was on duty. She smiled, recognising me immediately, and asked what I would like. I ordered, ate my breakfast, and then ordered tea after tea, sitting through till eleven o’clock, reading. This I would do most mornings at various cafes in which I had breakfasted, but I also wanted the opportunity to speak to Branka, and thought I would stay in the café until the breakfasts were finished, hoping she might have time to sit down with me briefly. As the sixth century clock tower struck eleven, and Branka passed by my table, I asked when it would get busy again for lunch, and she said in an hour and a half. I wondered if she had a few minutes to tell me what I should see in and around Kotor, and she took the opportunity to flop into the chair opposite me, saying that she needed desperately to sit down for five minutes. She actually sat there for fifteen, as I asked her questions about the town, and also a few questions about herself. She said she wasn’t actually from Kotor but from Mostar, and that she was working here for the summer – it was a relative’s café. She was going back to Mostar soon but only for a short while: she was studying in Sarajevo. I said I had wanted to go to Sarajevo, and quickly reeled off my itinerary pointing up its absence in it: Trieste, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Bar, Kotor and then I would go on to Dubrovnik, Split and back to Trieste to fly home. She said she would love to talk about what I made of Ljubljana – where she had been only once – and Belgrade where she had been many times. But looking up at the clock tower, she said she should get back to work.
A minute or two after that a stocky, balding man came into the café with a suitcase and I surmised quite quickly that this must have been the owner, and her relative. I didn’t know whether to take her enthusiastic suggestion that we should talk about the towns we both knew as an extrication or a chance for further communication. As I went up to pay, and she took my bill, I asked if she would like to meet up later and talk.
We met under the clock tower at seven, and I said if she wanted we could get something light to eat, and take it over to the other side of the bay and watch the incredible view from that side of town. If she had been more smartly dressed I would immediately have proposed a restaurant, but she was wearing a pair of jeans, a burgundy vest and trainers; she obviously had no expectations that I was taking her out for a proper meal.
As we ate the breads, cheeses and fruit, and opened a bottle of wine which we drank straight from the bottle, she said when she was there you could almost feel how lucky Ljubjlana was to escape the war with so few deaths. She believed it possessed a tranquility no other former Yugoslavian town or city now shares. I wondered about Kotor. She smiled, looked across the bay and said there was certainly something so majestic about the mountains and the sea that it seemed to be impervious to any notion of conflict. I asked her about her hometown, which of course I hadn’t yet seen, and how conflict-ridden that happened to be. You should come and see it, she insisted, but you’ll see signs of war everywhere. As she looked not at me but out at the water, I felt she needed someone to hug her, and yet I felt too much of a stranger for that, and instead, perhaps impertinently and no more appropriately, turned her face towards mine and kissed her lightly on the lips. She pulled away, and then moved forward again, kissing me on the lips equally lightly as if to say thank-you for the tentative affection, but that was the most that she could offer in return. It was a curious form of rejection, and one that left me feeling strangely elated. She kissed me in such a way that I felt whatever made it impossible for her to reciprocate properly at least didn’t lie in her lack of attraction for me. It was, I suppose, a gesture that purified her; and perhaps especially so in the wake of that all too easy situation that could have arisen in the hostel in Ljubljana.
Over the next couple of days Branka and I would see each other when she wasn’t working, and we explored the hills behind the town, and the roads on the other side of it. Some times we would just sit in a café and talk for a few hours, and yet we never talked about what seemed to me to be quite obvious: that she had a lover either in Mostar or in Sarajevo. It became somehow the undisclosed statement that allowed for much openness elsewhere, as we talked about our families and interests, about books we had read and artists we admired.
Then of course she left, returning to Mostar as promised. Maybe she thought she could be so warm towards me, so open and so willing to spend time with me, because she would be leaving; and perhaps I accepted this emotion without expectation knowing that she was to leave. But, obviously, our emotions don’t work quite so efficiently as that. After she left, as I wandered around Kotor no longer lonely but curiously bereft, I imagined her back in Mostar, preparing to return to her studies in Sarajevo, and presumably to the man she cared about enough to return my kiss with, finally, no more than an enchanting politeness. I stayed in Kotor for a couple of days after she left; at first because I believed I didn’t want to see anywhere else, but more especially because if I wanted to see Branka again it made little sense heading north, but instead made sense for me to travel east. I decided that I would change my itinerary; I would go to Dubrovnik briefly, then on to Mostar and Sarajevo, and then again to Belgrade, where I would get the early morning train that would take me into Trieste about eighteen hours later.
I convinced myself this was not only about chasing after Branka; after talking to her, how could I not pass through Bosnia, having gone through Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia? How could I avoid the graves that littered the hills of Sarajevo, as Branka said, or the bullet holes that peppered the walls of houses in Mostar? To understand this beautiful stranger; should I not try to understand the place that she had come out of; and not any place, but a part of the world that had become only a few years before synonymous with tragedy and horror?
And so it was that I decided to get a bus up to Dubrovnik, stay for just one evening, and then take a three hour bus ride across to Mostar. But of course in so demarcated a state as the former Yugoslavia that wasn’t so easy, for the bus stopped at the Montenegro/Croatia border, and we had all to get out and make our own way to Dubrovnik from there. A couple of middle-aged backpackers on the bus asked if I wanted to share in the cost of a taxi, and I said that would be fine. On the half hour or so taxi ride they said this was their second time visiting the Balkans; the first was before the war at the end of the eighties. They said they passed through Kotor for a couple of days because they had known someone there, someone who still owned a café in the town centre. It was Branka’s uncle, and I of course asked them a few questions about him, somehow feeling that I would have been intruding if I had asked Branka the self-same questions. I asked them what he had been doing during the war, whether the café stayed open. They said he had been untouched by the war, but the same could not be said of other members of the family. They chose not to elaborate; and I felt it was the sort of divulgence that oughtn’t to be extracted. They said nothing more.
I suppose, looking back I would have called this hint at Branka’s life the second example of chance, if the initial one was meeting Branka. The first person inside those walls could have been anyone, but it happened to be her and, if there hadn’t been a queue at the tourist office just before the entrance, I would obviously have asked there. It wasn’t even as if I looked around to find the prettiest girl to ask; she was standing in front of me as I entered the town. And if I had taken the right direction to the hotel, and if Branka had been busy, then would we have never really made that second contact? When I would have gone to the café and seen her next, would I have assumed that she wouldn’t remember me, because all I had asked her was whether she knew of anywhere to stay? Then again, do we paradoxically call chance that which we want to happen but find unlikely to happen, and coincidence that which we have no interest in at all?
By chance I meant my meeting with Branka and meeting people in the taxi who knew her uncle. But when I arrived in Mostar, I of course called meeting the two acquaintances from Edinburgh a coincidence, however was that because as I walked the streets of the town I was looking so obviously for Branka, and instead came across a couple from my home city? It should also be added that by the time I bumped into the couple from Edinburgh, I had been in Mostar for three days and though I spent all day sitting in cafes, and walking the streets, I never saw Branka once.
I even popped into a few art exhibitions in the town, less because I wanted to see the work, than that I might find Branka in there. Perhaps she had gone on to Sarajevo, I thought, and decided to spend just one more day in the town before going on to this city that had become a metonym for war torn destruction. About the only time I managed in Mostar to forget about Branka, and the presence of the war, was one afternoon when I swam in the calm, green waters of the river that split the town in two. But even, then, looking up, I would see the famous Mostar bridge that had been blown apart and was still under reconstruction.
Arriving in Sarajevo at about ten in the evening, on what seemed like the outskirts of the city, I took a bus into the centre, by the Turkish quarter, and wandered around looking for places to eat. The streets were surprisingly empty and most of the cafes and shops closed. I managed to find a place that was still selling food, and sat on a bench eating an egg sandwich and drinking a bottle of water. As I ate, I heard someone asking me something in Serb-Croat. I apologised, saying I didn’t understand, and the young man asked me if I knew of anywhere they might get some tea or some coffee. There were two other people with him, and, as they introduced themselves, it turned out that Samir was from Mostar; and he had met the others – a Swiss couple – in his home town as they were travelling through the Balkans. He pointed to a large, purpose built camper van nearby. They had been living in it all through the summer he added.
We passed through the quiet streets and after about ten minutes managed to find a café that would serve us tea and coffee though they were shortly closing – it would now have been midnight. After a stilted conversation with the four of us, the couple said that they were going back to the van to get a few hours sleep. Samir said he would be fine. He had friends in the city, and he would spend the night with them. As the two members of staff tidied up around us, we started to talk. I had earlier said that I’d been in Mostar, and so he asked me what brought me there, and I said, with the openness perhaps of the desperate, that I was looking for a woman, and a specific one at that. I also said that I was of course, generally, exploring the region, but that where before the journey had merely an underlying sense of purpose, now it had a concrete one. He asked if she were from Mostar; and when I said that she was, he was sure he would know her. I told him her name, and described the way she looked, and he said that he knew her quite well, though her brother better.
As the two of us got up and walked around the Turkish quarter, he asked me how I knew her; I said I met Branka while she was working in her uncle’s café in Kotor. We met up several times and talked. I liked her way; I said I thought she might have liked mine. At that point he asked me, in what seemed like a non sequitur, whether I had been to any galleries in Mostar. I said as it so happened I had, though without really paying much attention. My mind seemed to be on other things and I admitted to Samir that I wanted to try and see Branka again, though had no address of telephone number, and later felt the war-torn aspect of the town somehow shrank anything the galleries were showing. He said that was one of the problems for artists in the aftermath of the war, and it was certainly one of the problems for his father, whom Samir he said was an artist, and whose work I would almost certainly have seen if I’d been to galleries in the town.
He described one painting that was based loosely on a work by the Croatian artist Ivo Dulcic, where a girl was shrunken and humiliated. Of course, Samir said, Dulcic was painting long before the war, but what his father wanted to do was remove the ambiguity of meaning from the Dulcic work, and make it categorical, make it unambiguously uneasy as the little girl stares out at the space that the observer will be looking from. I wondered if that didn’t make the picture too heavy, too single-minded. He said he didn’t think so – his father’s work was based on trying to give to art the singularity that one sees in a town like Mostar when you look at the cemeteries, the bombed out buildings and the sniper pocked walls. Samir believed that while we’re in no doubt about the cause, we have to use our imagination. Not for drawing out our own perspective on ambiguity, but for an empathy based on understanding the reality of the situation over the ambiguity of a situation that can leave our emotions somehow intact. Samir was saying when he painted (for like his father he was a painter) he wanted the same type of unambiguous empathy. He quoted to me an essay he’d recently read in French called La Procédure Silence, where a French theorist Paul Virilio argues for a less representationally ambiguous art because it seemed to mitigate against feeling. For his father, and for some other artists, the unambiguous was attached to deep emotion.
As he said this, he waved his hand away saying that wasn’t really his point. As we passed a bench he asked if I would like to sit down. His point, he said, when he mentioned his father’s work in Mostar, was in fact connected to Branka. That picture, the one I would have seen but paid little attention to, the one based on Dulcic’s picture, was of Branka, and the shamed stare that she offered to the world was the look on her face her brother found her with when she came home after witnessing several of her relatives shot dead. She was paying them a passing visit on the way to a friend’s – her friend had phoned earlier that day to say she would be late for the meeting, and so Branka decided to pop in on her aunt and uncle and their two children on the way. As she came up to the house she heard shouting and then watched them being shot. She hid behind a wall, shivering, and then, sure it was safe, walked back home in a daze. Her brother supposedly immediately responded by shouting and demanding revenge, but Branka simply had this desolate look that suggested there was nothing in this world that could remotely compensate, and they would have to wait for the next world to be with them again. That was how Branka’s brother described it to him weeks later, Samir said, and that was how Samir related it to his father some months after that. Not so long ago, maybe a year past, Samir’s father managed to persuade Branka to pose for him, though pose was hardly the word. His father had said what he wanted to do was to talk about that moment with Branka, and to paint her while she talked: he didn’t want her to sit still, merely to stay focused and concentrated. That was how the picture of Branka in the gallery in Mostar came about. Yet for all its directness, it wasn’t a realistic representation: he had protected Branka from that.
I felt a curious sense of shame that I had paid the painting so little attention. I remembered it, certainly, but not really any more than numerous other pictures that I had seen, and I felt then that I couldn’t go on to Belgrade and get a train to Trieste. I felt I must go back to Mostar, and perhaps even to Zagreb, where there was a permanent exhibition of Dolcic’s work in a gallery that I remembered passing but hadn’t gone in to look at. I asked whether Branka was in Sarajevo, or still in Mostar. He said he wasn’t sure: the university term didn’t start for another week or two. I had five days left before I needed to be back to Trieste for the flight home. But if she were in Sarajevo I felt I would be pursuing some silly idea of her, some notion that wouldn’t be taking into account her pain. This was perhaps the very pain that may have been part of that chaste kiss she offered – she had no boyfriend Samir insisted. If I were to go back to Mostar, and then on to Zagreb, I believed that any chance I might have of seeing her had been curiously earned, earned by a combination of accident and intent, as if that is really what chance, rather than lazy, or horrible, coincidence, really is. If I were never to see her again, chance might have been cruel – however idly I use the word – but hardly purposeless. And as this story is set in the past, I should say that chance wasn’t especially cruel, and certainly very purposeful, but to explore that would be to tell another story altogether.