Week 3: Going to Croatia & Celebrating July 4th in Bosnia

When I first got to Bosnia, I knew that it would be likely that some of my free weekends here would be used to explore other parts of the region. The one cool thing about Bosnia, and I guess Europe in general, is how inexpensive it is to travel to another country. Traveling to another country here is a lot like traveling to another state in the United States. You can rent a car for a little less than $50 USD per day (and yes, they are automatic… you just have to look a little harder), and it’s even cheaper if you decide to take a bus or hire a taxi (between $10-40 USD).

During the first weekend of July, a small group of us (10 people, so maybe not that small of a group…) decided that we would go to Croatia for the weekend to celebrate a birthday (Annalisa’s 25th!). Although I have never driven in any other country besides the United States, I volunteered to be the driver for my group’s car. It was a 6-hour drive to Orebić, a small little town directly on the coast between Dubrovnik and Split, but every hour of driving was worth it. On our way we drove through Mostar, which is one of the largest and most known cities in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia. We couldn’t help ourselves, and had to take a break from the car just to take some pictures and capture the beauty of Mostar’s famous aqua-blue river.

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Driving through Bosnia wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but once we got closer and closer to Croatia, the roads became tinier and tinier. We wound around the mountains, sometimes feeling like we were driving uncomfortably close to the edge. I tried not to peer over from the road, but knowing how steep the cliffs were that we were driving next to made me a bit anxious. Most of the drivers stay in the middle of the road until another car comes, but there were a few times where the cars came around those bends so fast that we barely had time to shift over. There was never a moment where I felt like we were truly in any danger, but the drive was definitely nerve-wrecking and I kept my eyes glued to the road and gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands the entire time. Not to mention being responsible for the four other lives riding in my car… no pressure or anything.

When we finally got to Orebić, it was almost 10 P.M. and most of the restaurants had already closed. The host of the house that we had booked was incredibly gracious, telling us that we were the first Americans that have ever stayed at his rental home. I would like to think that we were also the best Americans that he ever will host, but I might be a little biased. We ended up finding a small little seafood restaurant right on the water to have dinner at. Hoping to try the local delicacy, we asked for an order of fish. The waitress literally brought out a fresh fish that had been caught that day, and asked us if that was the fish that we wanted to eat. When we said yes, the cook immediately started preparing it in the wood-fired brick oven. It was served to us completely whole—eyes, tail, head, bones and all. It was still delicious, though.

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I passed out pretty early that night because I was exhausted from driving all day. The next morning we decided to take a boat to the island of Korčula (pronounced CORE-CHEW-LA), a tiny little island with an even tinier walled city (more like town). If you have ever seen Game of Thrones, Korčula looks just like King’s Landing. Although the birthplace of Marco Polo is still disputed by historians, most agree that it was likely that he was born on the island of Korčula, and then taken prisoner by the Genoese in the naval battle of Korčula, between the Venetian and Genovese states. One thing that was surprised me the most about Croatia was how prominent religious symbols were. As a Catholic country, there are crosses every. It was quite a contrast from Sarajevo, where mosques, hijabs, and the call to prayer had become part of my daily backdrop.

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Our final destination for the day was another small island, which required a water taxi to get to. Once we were there, it was easy to see why Annalisa had picked this spot out for her birthday celebrations. We spent the entire day enjoying our own private beach, swimming in the turquoise water (which was incredibly warm), and sunning ourselves. Of course, there was also some wine and Rakia involved… for celebratory purposes. I couldn’t help but channel my inner mermaid, staying in the water practically all day. The beach was different from most beaches that I have ever visited, because instead of sand beneath my feet, there were tiny little rounded pebbles. After a fabulous day enjoying the sea and sun, we took the water taxi back to Korčula and had an amazing dinner overlooking the water. After dinner, instead of taking the ferry back to the mainland, we found a man who was willing to drive us back in his tiny water taxi for a very small price.Very strategically, the ten of us piled into his boat, cautiously moving around to make sure it did not tip over. Although it was only an eight-minute ride to the mainland, I was a little more than relieved when my feet finally touched the dock.

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Our last day in Croatia was spent at the beach, except this time we stayed in Orebić. We only had a few hours to enjoy the sun, but we all got a chance to swim one last time before heading back to Sarajevo. Once again, I was the driver for our trip home… only this time, I felt much more prepared and knew what to expect. The drive home was much faster than our drive there, probably because we didn’t stop as many times for bathroom breaks, snacks, and gas. When we finally returned, it was almost time to celebrate the 4th of July.

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Celebrating a national holiday in another country is a strange thing. Especially when it’s your country’s Independence Day. Growing up, the fourth of July was always a major celebration for my family, but as I’ve gotten older, it has become much more significant for me. Understanding the sacrifices my family and friends have made during their military service has given me a different perspective on things. I am grateful for the men and women who have risked their lives for my freedom, and I have never been prouder to say that I am an American.

As cheesy as it sounds, I was a bit emotional on July 4th. Here I was, internally reflecting on what that day meant for me, and all around me people were living their lives as if it were just another ordinary day. Not that I expect other people to celebrate my country’s Independence Day. It just felt bizarre to be honoring the sacrifices and loss that our country has experienced while sitting in a café surrounded by different languages, laughter, and cigarette smoke. In some ways, I’ve never felt so foreign. I started thinking about the men and women who were spending the 4th of July deployed and away from their families, serving our country. Suddenly I felt selfish for feeling the way I did.

At the hostel, we decided to have our own celebration for the 4th of July. Everyone got together and cooked staple “American” dishes. I made my fiancé’s famous macaroni and cheese, which was a huge hit. During dinner, the group started playing all of our typical “July 4th” songs, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.” During dessert, the owners of our hostel surprised us with a cake they had baked. On the cake, they had written “Happy Birthday America” in Bosnian. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Not because I was sad, but because I had never felt so welcomed by complete and utter strangers before. It was the sweetest thing for them to do that for us.

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Towards the end of the night, we started getting a bit rowdy. After a hilarious game of “Cards Against Humanity,” everyone broke out in drunken song to “You’re A Grand Old Flag.” As we sang (more like screamed) and waved our miniature American flags, the door to common room where we were celebrating flew open. An angry German girl came stomping in. “We are trying to sleep, you need to be quiet!” she yelled at us. After she stormed out, I made a joke about her just being jealous because German nationalism is sometimes controversial (Thanks, Hitler). Trying not to laugh, we collected our things and moved the celebration to a bar around the corner. As we walked into the bar, donning our miniature flags in our hair, a crowd in the bar started cheering for us. Happy Birthday, America.

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