“Let’s drive through Mostar, see The Old Bridge”, my mother used to say, every year, every summer, during our long trips from Belgrade to the Dalmatian coast.
We’d get up while it was still dark, at three or four in the morning, and father wound drive us in our old Wartburg, and later in our tiny Renault 4, for fourteen or so hours, and then we’d spend the night in Mrkonjić Grad in Bosnia, in an apartment belonging to someone we were vaguely related to, an anonymous and little memorable apartment, perhaps that’s why I remember it so well. Before the war no one would ever mention Mrkonjić Grad, why would they, a little, unimportant, provincial town in Bosnia, and the only thing I ever thought of when it was mentioned, was that little whitewashed apartment with heavy dark furniture. During the war it was mentioned quite a lot, Mrkonjić Grad. Keep it in mind, the war, I’ll bring me to my point, eventually.
“Let’s drive through Mostar, see The Old Bridge”, my mother would say, every summer. That would have been on the morning of the second day, we’d start later, at eight or nine, but it was still many hours drive until we could see a blue band on the horizon and yell “The sea! The sea!”, and then some more hours until we could just drop our bags and run to the beach for the year’s first dip, although it was almost evening, and mother would protest that it was too cold for swimming. Father was tired, and, between us, a bit cranky, and he would always say “The Old Bridge will be there for ever. We’ll see it next year.” And after ten or so years of repeating the same conversation, it kind of became a little ritual we shared, the same request, and the same answer every year. In the mean time, I had grown from a toddler to a teenager, and somehow “The Old Bridge will be there.” stuck with me, as a symbol of something lasting, unchanging, indestructible.
Only it wasn’t. It was blown to peaces during the war, in 1993, and I still remember how we all looked at each other, the slow deterioration of the society that escalated into the civil war, everything around us crumbling, the country, the society, the reality, and amidst all that confusion, and sorrow, and destruction, a single bridge, a bridge we had never even seen, you’d think it wouldn’t matter that much, but it did, and we grieved for it.
I’m writing this as my way of grieving for Notre-Dame, a cathedral I have never seen. I’ve traveled a lot in recent years, but I’ve never been to France. Because France is just there. Has always been there. Unequivocally, undeniably. And in France — Paris. And in Paris — Note-Dame. It’s just something that will always be there. Lasting, unchanging, indestructible. Until, one day, it is not anymore, its spire is burning, and the world has changed.
I’m so sorry. For my never seeing it, for the people of Paris and France for losing it, for the art and the beauty not being eternal after all.
The Old Bridge of Mostar was rebuilt in 2004. It was too late for my father, he died in the spring of 1994, and anyhow we never again went to Dalmatia again, it belonged to another country, and another time. But the young men are again showing their valour by jumping from the new Old Bridge into the ice-cold waters of the Neretva, and that’s a little comfort. The younger generations will be more preoccupied by the beauty of the bridge, and the brave young men, than that it was once destroyed, now over quarter of a century ago.
And Notre-Dame, too, it will be restored, and after some time, only the old grumps will still remember the sorrow of rediscovering yet again that for ever is not eternal, after all.