Previously in Atlantic Abroad:

Matsutake Fever (Lawrence Millman, Canada, January 10, 2001)

At Home With Mayor Baby (James Ross, Philippines, December 6, 2000)

Crossing to Kinshasa (Jeffrey Tayler, Zaire, November 16, 2000).

Among the Ruins (Tom Haines, Serbia and Montenegro, October 27, 2000).

Only Today (Michael Carr, Morocco, October 4, 2000).

Going to Meet Aleksandrovsky (Tom Haines, Ukraine, August 31, 2000).

Snowed-in in Shangri-La (Mike Meyer, China, August 2, 2000).

India's Road Cool (Mike Youngblood, India, July 7, 2000).

Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).

Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).

This Goat Goes to Market (Joshua Kurlantzick, Oman, March 29, 2000).

Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.

Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.

Atlantic Unbound | February 7, 2001
Atlantic Abroad

Caffe Sebilj


With its narrow cobblestone lanes, coppersmiths, refurbished covered markets, wooden houses, and mosques, the Bascarsija, as Sarajevo's old Turkish quarter is called, looks much like it must have when it was the Ottoman Empire's westernmost outpost, a crossroads bazaar on the frontier between the Orient and the Occident. Caravans from Constantinople and Rome passed through, staying in courtyard inns called hans, trading in the alleyways and markets, and drinking from the Bascarsija's great fountain, Sebilj, legendary for the sweetness of its water.

I had passed several times through the square that Sebilj still dominates before I noticed the café at its edge, a traditional coffeehouse with "Caffe" stenciled simply across one of its windowpanes. The day was cooling, the afternoon sun losing its power. There was the smell of wood smoke, burning coal. I heard a tram grind to a halt at the end of the square. I decided to stop for a coffee.

The café was small, nearly empty. A few low tables and stools were crowded close together by the window. A young man with owlish glasses stood behind a long wooden bar that ran back the length of the low, narrow space. There was a woman in an embroidered apron at one table. She sat with her back against the wall, her hands folded in her lap. She was staring out the window. She didn't look up as I entered.

I ordered a kahva, a traditional Bosnian coffee akin to Turkish coffee, and just as strong and dark and grainy, and sat down near the woman. Outside I could see an old man in a beret sitting against the fountain in the sun reading the newspaper, and a group of women filling jerry cans from the pipe at its base.

"I am crazy," she said after a moment. I realized she was speaking to me.

"Excuse me?"

"I am crazy. You understand me." She turned and looked at me, smirking. I didn't know if she was teasing me. "Crazy woman, crazy man." She pointed to the young man preparing my kahva. He looked up from behind the counter, smiling, nodding. He was much younger, in his early twenties. I saw they had similar faces, round, open, friendly, and took them to be mother and son. She reminded me of a distant aunt I hadn't seen in years.

"The war. You understand me. We are all crazy." Her laughter was easy, soft, her face expressive. "Yes," she added decisively, with a nod.

Her name was Ljusa. "But call me Mary," she told me. The café was opened by her grandfather when the Hapsburgs still occupied the city, and had been open since. He had named it after the fountain in front. She explained all this. I didn't ask anything, had learned not to in this city, but simply to respond to what was being said.

My coffee was brought over on a tray. It came in a small, hand-pounded copper pot with a long handle, and was served with a thin cup, sugar, and a glass of water. I unwrapped two sugar cubes and placed them in my cup.

"But during four years of war no one came." Her hands were still, one lay in the other on her lap. "But I came. I couldn't stay in my house all day. I came here, sat with a thermos of coffee. Sometimes a soldier came, a Bosnian soldier. I sit with him, drink coffee with him. Then he goes. Fights in the hills, Sarajevo hills. Many not come back. You understand me."

I looked out the window toward those hills, hills white with fresh snow, hills so quiet. I tried to imagine her during those 1,395 days of the siege, sitting in the darkness, sitting in that same chair, the 4,000 shells falling a day.

I slowly poured the coffee into my cup, the heavy sediment gathering at the lip of the pot. I had just come from my hotel, where I'd spent needed time alone, with my notes and maps and books spread on the bed, trying to make some sense of this place five years after the war.

Once the grounds had settled I sipped my coffee. It was sweet, vaguely textured.

A man passed by quickly in front of the window, shouting at something.

"Crazy," Mary said.

He passed by again, and then again, madly charging around the square, shouting. People ignored him. His face was panicky, his hat grasped tightly in his fist.

He stopped in front of an old woman selling birdseed for the pigeons. She sat beside an upturned box lined with small cups of food. Pigeons fluttered around her feet, picking at seeds spilled on the cobblestones. He raised his arms like a conductor, and the birds rose up in unison, making one sweep around the square before settling back down near the woman. She waved a freshly cut green switch protectively over the seed cups.

"I have thirty-five years," Mary said. This surprised me. I tried not to show it. "Ten years ago I had hair down to my waist, and I was thin, not fat like this. I looked like an Indian. I played the guitar. It was fun." She laughed, but the laughter was wistful. Her eyes were on some fixed point in the square. I realized then that it wasn't her face that made her seem older, nor even the gray roots showing through her scarlet-dyed hair, but her mannerisms, the way she sat with her hands in her lap. Her stillness.

She got up suddenly, the first time she had moved her body at all, and left the café. I watched her enter a shop across the square, emerging a few minutes later, coming back with three candy bars in her hand. Retaking her place, she ate them one after another. Her stare out the window remained unwavering.

She smoked a cigarette from an open pack on the table in front of her. Then another. She watched everyone pass. Toward some, she silently signaled with a nod of her head.

"Too many bombs," she said. "You understand me. Too many bombs."

No, I didn't. I couldn't.

I finished my coffee, paid, and headed out across the square. People were moving, going home. The brakes of the tram squealed as it pulled up to the stop. The pigeons on the square flushed, circling above the red-tile roofs, their backs flashing in the light. I turned back to look at the café. The inside was illuminated by the setting sun. I could see Mary, her hands in her lap, staring impassively out the window.

Jeff Koehler spent the past ten years abroad, the last four in Barcelona. He recently moved back to the U.S., and lives and writes in San Diego.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Photographs by Jeff Koehler.