“I think I could just eat you”. It is not as much the text, as the unsavory gesture of the man as he places his hand on my breast, that worries me. The hand is placed close to my heart and the man is a hunter. And I have learned from Snow White that ripping out a heart is really no big deal to a hunter.
The ladies in Bosnia
Hands grab me at both sides and I am encouraged to raise my legs into the air supported by yells that sound like dance-drunken-toad. How on earth did we, vegetarians, end up at a hunters party?
It all started a week earlier at Tuzla’s International Airport. Quite a name for an asphalt strip that sees one plane a week. On the glass doors announcements remind travelers this is not the place to show off your latest Colt.
We soon discover, that the chance of being killed by gun fire is rather negligible. Lung disease is a much higher probability. Bosnia is a country where non-smokers, if they exist, would undeniably qualify as good material for Jimmy Nelson’s Before They Pass Away list.
More so: Those who don’t want to go up in smoke at Tuzla Airport are banned into a non-smoking area the size of a telephone booth. Bullet-proof needless to say.
We are awaited by two men, who lead us into the wintry woods of Central Bosnia. After an hour’s drive they have finished their carton of cigarettes and pull over at a gas station. While the men go for new stock of nicotine, tombstones standing next to the shop, catch our eye.
A collection of simple white stones awaiting the dead. “They are for sale!” the photographer exclaims surprised. “Suppose that’s very useful when you are running short.”
Rest in peace auntie Annie
I can just imagine the conversation. ““Oh darling, we just run out of tombstones”. Could you just speed up to the gas station? Desperately need to chissle Rest in Peace auntie Annie on a stone. Auntie has been getting on my nerves lately.”
“Do you think there is a lot of demand for them”? The photographer asks. “Obviously, people die don’t they?”, concludes the driver with a shrug when he returns.
Stealing toilet paper
We soon discover that there is some discrepancy between what we perceive to be strange and what our hosts find aberrant.
Tombstones at a gas station? A weapon in your car? Nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t brandish them at the airport. But taking some toilet paper, with you from a toilet as I had done! Pure thievery! The men can’t get over it. How could I steal toilet paper?
Not to mention what the photographer did! She crossed the street while the traffic light was red! “But there was no traffic”, she sputters. The men are unanimous in their disgust. “You guys are like Bonnie and Clyde! No respect for the law”!
Rules for a Bosnian car
We continued our journey through the heart of Bosnia. Not a house or light in sight. We only see the outlines of snowy firs when the left headlight– the only working one – shines on them.
From time to time the car skids on the frozen road. For the men a reason to howl as if we have scored a point in a football match. Don’t worry, the by-rider assures us. “There is nothing left on this car that can be damaged.”
While the car bounces over the mountain roads, the driver raises his hand.
“Okay, there just three rules for driving a Bosnian car. One: don’t pick your nose, two: don’t stick out your tongue. And…..”. We”ll never know what the third rule was, as the shock absorber gave way, launching us against the car roof. Apparently there were still things that coud break down on this car.
“Relax”, the driver says, as we rub our sore heads. “You guys are too tense. Hang on. I just have the perfect remedy”.
He all of sudden stops the car in the dark woods, much to the photographer’s displeasure. She turns white. I can see her hand clutching her camera, ready to defend her virtue and her life with 25 kilo’s of Nikon.
Rakija on the snowy hood
However, the driver has something else in mind. After checking the broken shock absorber, it is time to bring out a toast to the guests and to life in general. A bottle of rakija is placed on the hood. In complete darkness we bring out a toast to life.
Rakija is a brandy, made from apples or pears, but the driver seems to think it is a fruit snack. When the bottle is empty, we struggle along until the left windshield wiper breaks. Again the car is parked by the side of the road.
The faulty wiper is put upright and the remaining wiper does it’s lonely job on one side of the window. The by-rider now has to coach the blinded driver.
In short, it was a miracle to find ourselves still alive after a week in Bosnia. Which was a good reason to celebrate life in a restaurant before exposing our lungs to the oxygen-free airport the following day.
We order something without meat. “No meat”? The waiter repeats our order and rubs his chin as if he is trying to remember where he has placed the no meat. He shakes his head. “We don’t have no meat”. “How about a salad than”? “Restaurants only serve meat”, he says.
“In Bosnia there are no vegetarians”, our guide Admir declares with the same assurance Saudis declare there are no homosexuals in Saudi Arabia. Which is unmistakably true, since gays are sentenced to death.
Cheese smothered in bread crumbs
After what seems to be ages two plates appear with lumps of cheese smothered in bread crumbs. Just to show us that Bosnians aren’t cheap, we each get twelve.
While we frantically chew on the lumps, our host appears. The man who lit the fire in our room and made our beds all week. What a coincidence! Yes he is also at the restaurant, only on the other side of it, as he is attending the hunter’s party.
No, he does not hunt. What’s more: he hates it, he always has to cry when they kill an animal. Actually, he is about to be disbarred because of his cowardice, but the parties are nice. “Come, I’ll show you”. In a hurry to get rid of our cheese lumps, we are now punished by standing on the dance floor amongst the hunters.
In the distance I see the photographer making an unsuccessful attempt at avoiding the groping arms of a man. His hat is adorned with a goose feather.
Meanwhile I listen to the romantic warbling of my dance parter. How odd this men considers eating me since I am not even properly dressed for the occasion. Skirts above the belly bottom navel and discarded negligées seem to be the norm.
However I am standing there, dressed in ski-pants and Wellington boots lined with Australian sheep wool. The label tells me they will keep my feet warm in Arctic weather. Here in Vareš, in the Central Hotel, amidst hundreds of carousing hunters, the soil under my feet is becoming way too hot.
A tombstone for auntie Annie
Apparently the man mistakes my flushed face for loving blushes, as he proposes to go outside for a stroll. No way! Snow White has been abducted for less. “I’m sorry” I mumble “I really have to go”, giving him a look that is hopefully understood by Bosnian hunters. “I have to go to the gas station, to get a tombstone for auntie Annie, we ran out you see”.
Text: Anneke de Bundel – Images: Nicole Franken
Translation: Adrienne le Brun Hunkar
This story has been published in Dutch in our book On fairies and bullet holes. You can order our book here.