Having graciously accepted defeat, I was determined to become her friend and to this day, we keep in touch, although she lives far away and I haven't been able to visit for quite a while. We invited her daughter to be a bridesmaid at our wedding and found out the week before that they had got their visas. Ekaterina was 11 then and yesterday she posted a photo of herself - a stunning Serbian young lady - all grown up. I am sad that I missed those years, so I will start a fund to go visiting again.
The first time I visited was after many requests. Each time there was another outbreak of violence though. Eventually, I bought a plane ticket and set off for Belgrade. My friend teaches and lives most of the year in Banja Luka, as part of the mass influx of Serbs that increased the size of the city by a third of its original size. In troubled times, though, she had bought a little German-built house in between some great grey communist tower blocks in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade). It is tiny (though now has a second floor, I am told), but a sancturary for us and I did experience joy living there for a while, making friends with Baba Savka, the old lady who lived next door. She gave me some beautiful crochet work when I left. After enjoying Belgrade for a while, it was time to head back for the start of term at Banja Luka University, where my friend works as an English Professor. We bought tickets for the bus journey from Belgrade, but, as was quite common then, they double-sold the tickets, so we ended up sitting far from each other, with my friend at the front and me at the back next to a dentist (not so good) who spoke excellent English (a good thing as it turned out).
We set off and soon, a snow storm blinded our way. It became dark, as it was only March, and after an hour or so, the road became very bumpy. I asked the dentist why it was so rough. He replied that we were on the rail bridge. I asked him why we were on the rail bridge and he told me that the road bridge had been blown up during the war. Disconcerted for a moment, I remembered that I had been fine about the state of the road before I knew, so nothing had really changed - just my awareness of the situation.
We got to the border and border guards came and dragged a woman off the bus after a loud exchange of non too friendly-sounding Serbian. Again, my interpreter offered an explanation: she had run away from a psychiatric hospital and was being returned to it. They left and others took our passports, then the bus set off again. I didn't have my passport back, so real panic ensued and I passed a message up the bus (in several languages, but Passport is pretty much universal). My friend turned round and grinned, waving my passport at me.
Next stop was a restaurant, where we took a break from the journey. There was no loo on the coach so I tried to use the facilities here, but, having borrowed a coin from my friend, I found that they were of the Turkish 'hole in the ground' style and I changed my mind. I went back and said to her that I would wait until we got back to her apartment in Banja Luka, but that I had had to give her coin to the lady in charge of the facilities. She said with all the gravity of an embassador, "In my country, we have to pay for cultural experiences."
We made it to Banja Luka without further incident and I made some unforgettable memories of the town on the banks of the River Vrbus, which rushed through snow piled banks past the European Union police station. I said hello to the guard each morning cheerfully. I went into the Tourist Information in Banja Luka and they couldn't believe I was a tourist and "not from NGO?" - they did a little dance, then recovered themselves, but couldn't stop smiling. I was the first, I think, since the troubles. I built snowmen in the street with Ekaterina and was set up by my friend, who left me teaching her English class while I thought she was photocopying - she was standing right outside the door the whole time, seeing how I got on. She challenges me - always has done - and pushes me to think about things in new ways.
The journey I've been on with Oakdale Links has not been disimilar, and the destination is another town that will increase in size by a third. My friends around the world are not sitting right beside me all the time and sometimes challenge me like Sanja (Sanya) did (and does). Was it better to ask about the state of the road that night or not? Going blindly into a blizzard, through the night, through the fragile peace of a recent war zone...possibly this was a formative experience that I should remember in these times. Sanja's name means 'Reverie'. Her name for me is 'Pesnik moi' - 'My poet' - so here is the poem that she taught me all those years ago.