It was six o’clock, I was standing on a bridge over the river Vrbas in Banja Luka, Bosnia. Two days ago I made a decision, choosing not to follow the initial plan of traveling alongside the western coast of the Balkan but go straight through. After crossing Slovenia and the countryside of Croatia, I entered Bosnia, heading for the city where, according to my cousin who visited the city a few years before, so many beautiful women walk the streets. I just had eaten the worst pizza in my life and was considering my options while I watched the water rushing down underneath me: either go early to bed and leave well rested in the morning or go to a local pub where I had been writing earlier that day and see what the night had to offer. Not knowing what to do I turned around and strolled into a sketchy alley behind a supermarket. From across the street someone said something. At first, I didn’t hear what the young man said but when he asked again, I understood: ‘Do you want a beer?’
Listening to my gut feeling I thought, why not. I nodded and went over to the man who was sitting with another young man on a terrace in front of a shop where they could sell anything. He stood up, shook my hand and introduced himself as Vukavin. His companion told his name was Milan. They were discussing with a middle aged woman where to buy good wine. The place was a small bar, she was the waitress and apparently the bar had no good wine to offer. Vukavin ordered a beer for me and told me to join him and Milan. I sat down and explained to them who I was and what I was doing. After I had answered their questions, it was my turn asking what they were doing. Vukavin told me, as if it was something futile, that he would become a father that night. For the first time? ‘Yes, for the first time’, he answered. Up to this point I still do not know why he couldn’t be with his wife in this critical hour – maybe it was something cultural or traditional – but anyhow, he was not allowed to be with her in the hospital. Instead he invited his friends over to the bar and drink with him until his daughter was born. And as of that moment, I was one of his friends.
I looked a little puzzled towards Milan. He gave me a sly smile. I had so many questions but I forced all of them to the back of my head and started with the most logical one: where did Vukavin meet the woman who was about to give birth to their child? He started to tell me. Just before he went from Bosnia to the United States – he was planning to move in with his American girlfriend he had at that time – he met the woman that now was in the hospital and instinctively knew: she is the one. So he asked her: ‘Can you wait one year? I first need to settle some things in America but I will come back for you’. Completely swept off her feet she must have been, or loyal by nature, she waited patiently on him.
And this night, though separated in distance, together they would become father and mother and he invited his friends and me to be a part of this magical moment. I felt humbled, truly touched.
Since the process of giving birth had not yet started and all the other friends had yet to arrive, we kept on talking. About the complex political situation of the country and why there were all these Serbian flags in Bosnia. I was wrong, it was not Serbian: the flags were of the Republic of Srpska, one of two entities that forms the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. ‘Guido, you should know: in Bosnia everything is built on a scam. The politics, the people, how we organize things. I mean, even this bar. It is the only bar in town where you can smoke weed without any problems. When you hear the fan of the bar, you know: inside they are smoking. The police know it as well but for some reason or unwritten rule, they allow it.’
Because of my lack of knowledge we changed towards more accessible subjects. Milan told me about Exit 2015, the best festival he had ever been to. About praskozorje, the most beautiful word in the Serbian language, describing the scattered light before the sun rises. About zagrijavanje, the warm up moment with friends before you go to the bar. Vukasin made me understand that all the regular customers of the bar make their own raki, bring it here so you are never really sure what you were drinking. As in life, sometimes it is good, strong raki – sometimes it is bad raki. One by one, young men with big smiles on their faces joined us, gave Vukavin a solid hug, introduced themselves to me, sat down and started talking. With each other, with me. It felt completely normal, for them and for me, making it at the same time paradoxically strange in a certain way. At least, that was how I felt: joining a group of strangers and quickly discussing some very personal things.
But maybe they were no strangers after all. It already occurred to me that Milan – in the way he drank, talked and sat – reminded me of a close friend back in the Netherlands. ‘Guido, I am a marathon runner. If I can determine my own pace, I can drink more than most of them.’ I told him I had a friend who was the same. Not only regarding drinking habits but with other things as well. Together we brewed a not scientifically substantiated theory that every group and all its members – regardless the country, religious and political beliefs, etc. – are in principle the same. ‘So, we only just met, but since I am who I am and I have a certain role to fulfill, letting this group function right here, and a close friend back home is somewhat the same, you know me very well.’ We toasted and went inside.
Hours went by. More beer and more raki was ordered. A joint was passed. Food from the market across the street found its way on our table. Milan’s girlfriend also brought food and joined while Vukavin told me he hoped his daughter would be born after twelve, making the 20th of April (4/20, the marihuana holiday) her birthday. He also explained that a close friend of his mother’s worked in the hospital and would call him were there any noteworthy updates about the situation. At around ten his phone rang. The bar, in which, outside our group, maybe four other people were, fell silent. Vukavin went out, came back and smiled. She hadn’t been born yet. Half an hour later the phone rang again and again everyone grew silent. Nope, still not born. An hour later, the same message.
And then, at two minutes after 1 am, the message came through that Patricia was born. With tears in his eyes – tears of what probably was pure joy, what else could it be? – Vukavin came back inside, grinned and everybody started shouting, singing and tearing apart his shirt (another tradition?). I stood at the back, witnessing this moment as a spectator filled with a feeling of enormous gratitude. I waited until everyone had congratulated him and then went over, hugged and kissed him on the forehead and asked if the mother was doing okay. ‘Everything is fine. I am a father now.’ The disbelief and happiness dripped from his face. It was a special night, that night in Banja Luka and I felt privileged being a part of it.