Pero uncorked a bottle of orahovica (the local grappa-like firewater) and told me his story. He got a monthly retirement check for being wounded in the war, but was bored and didn't want to live on the tiny government stipend — so he went to work and turned the remains of his Old Town home into a fine guest house.
Hoping to write that evening with a clear head, I tried to refuse Pero's drink. But this is a Slavic land. Remembering times when I was force-fed vodka in Russia by new friends, I knew it was hopeless. Pero made this hooch himself, with green walnuts. As he slugged down a shot, he handed me a glass, wheezing, “Walnut grappa — it recovers your energy.”
Pero, whose war injury will be with him for the rest of his life, held up the mangled tail of a mortar shell he pulled out from under his kitchen counter, and described how the gorgeous stone and knotty-wood building he grew up in suffered a direct hit in the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik. He put the mortar in my hands. Just as I don't enjoy holding a gun, I didn't enjoy touching the twisted remains of that mortar.
I took Pero's photograph. He held the mortar...and smiled. I didn't want him to hold the mortar and smile...but that's what he did. He seemed determined to smile — as if the smile signified a personal victory over the destruction the mortar had wrought. It's impressive how people can weather tragedy, rebuild, and move on. In spite of the terrors of war just a couple decades ago, life here was once again very good and, according to Pero's smile, filled with promise.
From Pero's perch, high above Dubrovnik's rooftops, I studied the countless buildings lassoed within its stout walls. The city is a patchwork of old-fashioned red-tiled roofs. Pero explained that the random arrangement of bright- and dark-toned roof tiles indicates the damage caused by the mortars that were lobbed over the hill by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army in 1991. The new, brighter-colored tiles marked houses that were hit and had been rebuilt. At a glance, it's clear that more than two-thirds of the Old Town's buildings were bombed.
But today, relations between the Croats and their Serb neighbors are on the mend. The bus connecting Dubrovnik to Serb¬-friendly Montenegro — which was stubbornly discontinued for a decade — is, once again, up and running. And with age, someday all the tiles will fade to exactly the same hue.
About This Entry
You are reading "Hold the Mortar and Say Cheese", an entry posted on 24 June 2009 by Rick Steves.