A Yankee in Sarajevo

I came to Bosnia this summer to intern. I was really counting on eight weeks in a post-war country to give me the insight into human rights violations and reconciliation that would make me an invaluable asset to organizations next year when I begin my quest for a job. I certainly could’ve spent a lot less money to find an internship in the United States that would’ve satisfied the requirements set by Korbel, but I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get a new experience, which would undoubtedly set me apart from those that I will be competing with for a job.

This week’s blog post is supposed to be about perspective, and since it is the only thing that I can think about these days, I’m dedicating mine to the perspective of a Yankee trying desperately to get work experience in Bosnia. It seems to be nearly impossible. I was so eager to get as much experience as possible that I requested to have two internships while I am here, instead of the standard one. I wanted to make sure that I was constantly busy and learning more than I could imagine. Even with my two official internships, I have e-mailed other organizations here on my own and asked (pleaded?) them if they need any assistance.

The Bosnian Work Ethic is an interesting beast. Before I got here, I was imagining it to be similar to what us Yankees think about the speed of things in the South…kind of slow, not in any real rush to get things done, but eventually it all gets accomplished. I have a hard time dealing with that when I visit my mom in Virginia, but I had prepared myself for two months of it. Well, it’s even more extreme here. Forget getting things done…it doesn’t seem that there is anything to do. For one of my internships, I only spend four hours a day there, twice a week. My first day, I was given half-an-hour of work to do. The rest was spent consuming coffee.

I am not saying that taking a break is a bad thing. But when the whole day is spent drinking coffee…what is there to take a break from? The beauty of the American coffee break, to my mind, is that it gives you a break from work. Here, it’s almost the opposite – work is the break from drinking coffee.

I really do understand the value of slowing down and appreciating life more. I’ve begun to do that even in Denver after moving there from Boston. Life goes at a different pace, and it’s really pretty nice. But being from New England, life seems to be almost at a standstill here. Plenty of people have told me to appreciate it, but I’m having a hard time seeing it that way. For instance, Foreign Policy magazine recently released the 2012 Failed States Index (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/failed_states_index_2012_interactive). They listed Bosnia and Herzegovina as being ‘In Danger’ of becoming a failed state. The country has an unemployment rate of somewhere between 40-50%. Following our visit to the US Embassy, we know that the United States is trying to push BiH towards EU and NATO membership, but the likelihood of either one doesn’t seem to be terribly positive.

To me, there’s a very evident correlation here. People spend time drinking coffee and chatting, and not working. Therefore, their economy is failing. It doesn’t seem like a complicated conclusion to draw. Of course, this is far too simplistic a reason to explain it all away, but it’s got to have an impact. If people here spent all day doing work and being productive in the Yankee American sense, who knows where their country would be. I have a hard time accepting that the Bosnian way of doing things is superior to the American way. Of course, talk to a Bosnian and they’ll ask why we’re here since our own country is failing miserably, in their point of view.

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2 thoughts on “A Yankee in Sarajevo

  1. I traveled with Ann on the trip to BiH with other social workers last summer. In response to your post I find your perspective interesting for a few reasons. One being I am a fairly new transplant to Boston and could identify with the change of pace in lifestyle, although mine is opposite of yours as I grew up in Colorado. Another point you brought up is the unemployment rate and report about a ‘failing country’ and drinking coffee all day. Since I have moved to Boston I have become friends with a person who came to America as a refugee during the conflict. In conversations with this individual I have listened to their comparison of the ‘American Dream’ and European life. Some things that I have found interesting were one day this individual was very frustrated and made the comment it seemed like all they did was work to live the American dream and yet had no time to enjoy life. My friends perspective was interesting and may pertain to your comment about drinking coffee all day. It made me begin to think what is the American Dream? Us Americans are all working hard every day to earn an education, to get a better paying job and make something of ourselves, and for what? To earn money to pay off decades of student loan debt and any other debts throughout our life. While in Europe they work less hours, sustain a lifestyle that allows them to enjoy life travel and just be in the moment. While us Americans work 40+ hrs, have no money and are stressed, resulting in higher risk of medical conditions that we struggle to get treated. So how do I see this relating to Bosnia? Well, while I was there I observed and saw some of the same things you spoke of in your post and it got me thinking, are people in Bosnia better off than Americans? If I was looking at BIH from a financial and capitalism perspective my answer would be no, and this response leads to wonder how are people able to have their basic needs met? What I think is people in BIH have a greater sense of community and better family ties. My friend talked about how people in America could live in the same house for 20 yrs and not know their neighbors. My friend said even to this day other refugees in his community here in America all take care of each other just as when they all lived in BIH. Family and community are a way of life. My friend’s mind set is if someone he knows needs something and he is capable of doing he will, and there doesn’t need to be any sort of financial compensation for it. If you observe further you might begin to see that despite the unemployment rate, people in BIH have everything they could need (food, water, clothing, housing and love). This leads me to believe despite the views of the global economy on the success and failures of BIH, does it really matter? As an American I think I have no room to judge (not saying you are). BIH and the people who reside there have a greater sense of family, community and culture than I think I ever would have thought and I am envious of! Enjoy the rest of your summer there, my post is just another perspective to think about as you continue to learn and grow from this experience. Dobar dan, ciao!

  2. Interesting to try to correlate the sense of “community” and neighbor helping neighbor of which you speak so highly, with the idea that the genocide which occurred in Bosnia was perpetrated by Bosnians against Bosnians, neighbors against neighbors.
    Intolerance in the enemy of us all.

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