At the start of our bus journey through Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, our drive from Istanbul to the Bulgarian border had only taken us 2-3 hours. However, we spent almost a full day at the border. The Bulgarian authorities opened all the suitcases on the bus one by one, made us got off the bus and walk up to customs. Then we were made to walk back and then back again to customs. This went on for a few hours. Clearly, their intention was not to make our passage easy.
As we were finally allowed to pass the border, our bus was made to drive through a puddle of disinfectant liquid, so that we wouldn’t carry the Turkish germs into Bulgaria.
My first observation in the country was the abundance of tiny Lada cars and the number of people and furniture that were carried in them. The scene was like a parody. It was as if all Bulgarians were carrying all their family members and their entire livelihood in these small cars.
As our bus stopped to take a break, we were approached by an old lady selling apricots. As she heard us speak Turkish, she started speaking to us in Turkish as well. We knew that at the time, it was forbidden to speak the language in Bulgaria. We asked her if she wasn’t scared. She told us loudly that she was too old to be scared.
Then as we were browsing in a shop, the blond shopkeeper’s eyes widened and a big smile filled her face as she again heard us speak. Then she took a piece of paper and wrote: “I am also Turkish but I am not allowed to speak it.” It was different times back then.
My first memory of Bosnia (back then there was only Yugoslavia) is about a stop we made at dawn in a village by the beautiful, green hills hidden behind the morning fog. It was terrifyingly cold and still very dark. The kind and smiley old village men let us use his toilet, which was in his garden. The toilet consisted of a hole dig on the ground.
This was my first trip in Europe and Bosnia seemed so European, nice and rich to me. People seemed happy and free. Streets were orderly and clean, windows nicely decorated with colorful flowers. It was here that for the first time, I saw couples kissing on the streets so freely. As a child, I was getting embarrassed as I would witness the scenes with my parents next to me.
Our bus, which clearly stated that it was from Turkey was welcomed warmly in Bosnia. It was in the old town of Sarajevo that I really felt like I was in an Anatolian town. The Ottoman elements were visibly clear. I remember a kebab shop, which we visited where we discovered that “kebab” in Bosnian is “kebapcici” and a few other Turkish words were made Bosnian with the adding “cici” at the end.
On our trip to the historical town of Mostar, we had found out that we actually needed to get an official permit to travel from one city to another. I guess, they weren’t as free as I thought after all.
I still remember the scorching heat wave we experienced in Mostar. And of course the bridge. I consider myself extremely lucky to have walked on the original Mostar bridge. That beautiful and unique bridge. It was made of shiny white marble, which was so slippery that I came close to falling a few times.
It was tremendously devastated when the war started and the bridge was bombed. My mom reminds me that the day of bombing, when I saw the bridge collapse on TV, I ran to my mother’s arms when she got back from work, crying “The bridge has collapsed!”
What impressed me the most in Bosnia was the stark cleanliness of the rivers. They were simply beautiful. They were clearer than mirror. It was so sad to think that during the war, the rivers were contaminated with blood.
Belgrade made us realise that this was THE city in Yugoslavia. It had a proper, buzzing city feel to it. I remember a pebbled high street, which reminded me of Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. It was surrounded with tall, grey buildings and shops. Unfortunately, for some reason, we did not have much interaction with the locals.
Macedonia was another place where somehow almost everyone we encountered spoke to us in Turkish. Men were sitting in cafes, playing backgammon, smoking and drinking tea. This image could have been taken from any corner in Turkey. To me, at that young age, the place seemed barren and not much like a country but more like a central Anatolian village. No matter what it felt welcoming.