The train from Sarajevo to Mostar has views and scenery that rival the Alps. With the echoes of recent history lurking in the back of your head, your mind can literally explode if too much time is spent thinking about the juxtaposition of the beauties of nature and the horrors of war. As I shared some random thoughts with my three travel companions whose faces I’ll never forget, but names I never knew, we are interrupted kindly by a traveler in the next compartment.
This man was dressed as if he was ready to work in the mine; camouflage pants that look like they’ve been to hell and back, giant sandpaper hands, hard hat on the seat, and a general vibe that this dude is the essence of tough. He was delighted to speak English because he hadn’t spoken in some time. He was overjoyed that we liked his country and vacillated between telling us how great and beautiful it was, and how horrible and “shit” it was. Having spent plenty of time in the Balkans, I was used to this line of conversation, knew exactly how to navigate it. I was the only American in my group, the others were Canadian, Hungarian, and Australian, and our new travel buddy cornered me and the Canadian dude. When we told him where we were from, his face lit up, and using my Balkan senses, I could tell he had been to the US and I prepared for the usual back and forth about how great the cars, buildings, women, supermarkets, and television were. Life is full of surprises, and what came next in our convo was certainly one of them.
This guy told me where he lived (I want to say Oklahoma, but I’m not sure), told me all about the wonderful people he met and stayed with. He threw some names at me of people that were famous in his eyes, “Yes, this is great man. Very very good man. Real. True.” Then he reached into his pocket and said, “Hey, you know these guys?” and whipped out a wallet with a swastika patch sewn onto it. It had some words around the symbol, and looked more like a seal to an organization rather than something someone can pick up if they know the right/wrong store to go to, so I assumed this guy was serious, and I wasn’t about to examine the patch to verify its authenticity.
Now there was this tension in the air that maybe only I and the Canadian dude felt. The guy headed to the mine was laughing away, looking at my companion saying, “I like you. You trouble. You are Canadian Mafia, yeah…. This guy, my friend, I like you….” Etc. etc. The final piece of information to complete the awkward picture is that the Canadian guy’s Jewish. So the Bosnian guy starts asking me a couple of direct questions, and my buddy slips away and joins our other two companions who wisely and slyly slipped into another compartment.
As I’m bombarded with questions of whether or not I know this guy or heard of that group, or been to this town, I have a moment when I step back and chuckle to myself that a) I am speaking with a real life Nazi, and b) I never thought people with so much to hate would be so jolly. This guy is laughing about all this “training” he did (I didn’t have the guts to ask exactly what he was training for) and how he was in prison for five years and how “I say ‘fuck you’ to judge.”
I really wish I could have seen the look on my face during all this. I had to laugh at all his jokes and maintain friendly eye contact, making sure my eyes were part of my smile, not just my mouth. Something inside me knew if this guy got a hint of the weirdness I was feeling, things could go from awkward to scary real quickly. The train ride went on, and we passed a field with rolling hills, the kind that gave us just enough of something to look at, and we shared a moment of soaking in this beautiful landscape, which was a nice way to end our time together. The train began to slow, and he shook my hand, and said, “Good-bye my friend,” and looked into the Canadian guy’s compartment and gave him a friendly wag of the finger and said “You Canadian Mafia, yes you, good-bye my friend.” His buddy / co-worker came out of their compartment with the guys hardhat, smiled at us and gave a friendly shake of the head followed with his thumb pointing loosely sideways in the Nazi’s direction, which means in any language, “Get a load of this guy, huh.”
Surprisingly all three of my travel companions magically appear in our compartment as soon as the train starts to move again. We share a nervous laugh as I offer the Canadian guy five whole American dollars if he told everyone on the platform at the station exactly what his religious affiliation is. He gives me a “Shut up,” under his breath and we wave to the our friend and, just like that, he is out of our lives forever. We all rehashed what happened, laughed, and for the rest of the day, the Canadian guy’s nickname was “Canadian Mafia.” I hope the Hungarian woman he was traveling with kept it going after they left town.
The conclusion we came to once our compartment was free of anyone who favored of one race over another was there was nothing we could have done in that situation other than smile, play nice, and hope nothing crazy happens. There was nothing we could have done to change that man’s views on race and diversity. Challenging him, asking why he thought the way he did, or acting in any way hostile would have been the wrong thing to do on many fronts. First, from a personal safety sense, angering someone who could literally break one of us in half in an enclosed area with no chance of escaping, surrounded by an unknown number of his friends is just one of the worst decisions any of us could have made. On a deeper level, one of the joys of traveling is meeting people who live in the place you travel to. Leaving oneself open to experiencing everyone and everything a land has to offer may lead to situations just described. If I were angry, condescending, or judgmental, it not only would have accentuated that I wasn’t truly open to everyone and everything Bosnia had to offer, it would have shown I did not do my homework (which is a must when traveling off the beaten path). Being shocked and appalled that I ran into a person with “controversial” feelings on race, in a country with recent history of ethnic cleansing, would have been extremely naïve.
Without getting any more preachy, the largest take-away is this: I saw someone with admitted ties to a Nazi-related group with his arm around a Jewish man (remember, he didn’t know my friend was Jewish). Traveling helps create experiences that to many would be unthinkable. I saw one on a train between Sarajevo and Mostar, and I will never forget it.
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