The end is nigh

This past weekend was what I consider to be my last in Sarajevo, at least for this year…and assuming all goes according to plan when I get to the airport on Saturday. Its been great and I have had a blast this summer, but now it is time to go home. I anticipated my last week in Bosnia to be uneventful, seeing as my internships have wound down quite quickly and I have visited just about every place in the tour book. I had been down every ally in Bascarsija, tried every flavor of Burek, and tripped on every pothole from Stari Grad to Ilidza.
But until Wednesday, I hadn’t tried the flavored Rakija, and that’s when things got interesting.

To summarize what started at Barhana on Wednesday night and ended (lets hope) a lot of random pictures on Facebook today: Rakija makes you friendly enough to meet and chat up local guys who then give you all day tours of Vrelo Bosne, drag you 10 kilometers down the side of a highway just to show you a bridge, volunteer you to be in pictures with every passer-by simply because you are American, drive you up to condemned ruins where the cool kids make out so that you can see what prison was like in the 16th century, and then insist on driving you back down to your hostel through every one way street on the way which takes the car 45 minutes but could have taken you 10 minutes on foot all the while listening to Gansta’s Paradise and Ms. Jackson. And as a memento, they tag you in advertisements of Rakija on Facebook because thats where this whole misadventure started.

And here’s what I have learned from this very eventful final weekend: Its really hard for an American to try to get to know a Bosnian when we are programmed to ask things like where they went to school and what they do for a living, because they maybe didn’t go to university at all, and there’s a strong chance that they don’t work because the youth unemployment rate is more than half. And what you really want to know is whether they lived here during the war, but asking that amounts to the same thing as asking how many friends and relatives they lost, how many dead people they saw and how screwed up are they now. So you have two options, ask nothing and hope that they are talkative, or in my case ask stupidly obvious things like ”So you’re practicing Ramadan… that means you’re Muslim right?” How do you learn who a person is without defining them by what they do?
I don’t have a good answer to that, because the book that I had to read for Foreign Policy entitled ”Identity and Difference” didn’t say squat about real people.


These things happen here

Sunday was one of those days that just got better and better. I’ll summarize…

Rakija at 9am

Baby deer on a leash

75 yr old man in dress clothes hiking faster than the rest of us

beautiful forests

climbing a tree

scaling a cliff

snacks inside a cave

and no one died on the way back down

Thats what I call a good day.

We went to Srebrenica on Friday. That isn’t the kind of trip that I can just talk about, as if it could be easily equated to any one of our other day trips. I remember the 90s very well, and genocide happening during my lifetime, on a continent where I occasionally lived, is hard to digest. While I was throwing fits about what I wanted in my lunch, or whether I could go to my friend’s house on a weeknight, other kids were walking 100 kilometers to Tuzla while their brothers and fathers and friends were being killed by artillery and sniper fire. I was begging my Dad for those new Adidas sneakers, while mothers and daughters and sisters in Bosnia were begging for the lives of their husbands and sons and brothers. There is very little I can say about Srebrenica without sounding cavalier, which is why I will say very little this week.

A Lesson in Chaos Theory

My time in Bosnia thus far has impressed upon me one lessonĀ  which I was already fully aware of, though had attempted to ignore as vigorously as possible: I am not in control (just writing that is painful). Due to a combination of situations at home, juggling two internships here, and trying (failing) to communicate with one supervisor who speaks a completely alien form of English (apparently ”potluck” means chipping in 50KM to buy an ugly candle holder, and you thought it meant bringing a dish to share, ha!) I was very ready to get away from it all by last Friday. In search of peace and solitude, I traveled to Jajce alone. My time there was marvelous, but I was still hounded by the nagging knowledge that no matter how far you travel, no matter how tiny and perfect the town is, and now matter how few friends you travel with (in my case none), you still cannot orchestrate every moment of your day. If you had snuck up on me at any point during this previous weekend, you would have heard me repeating my mantra ”I am not in control, and I am ok” or variations thereof, including:

”The bus is late, and I am ok”

”I forgot to write down the name and address of the hostel, and I am ok”

”This pekara doesn’t have anything that I can pronounce much less recognize, and I am ok”

”There is not a single map to be found in this entire town and for crying out loud why do bosnians hate maps so much, and I am ok”

”There is a thug-looking dude running around in his tighty-whities in my hostel, and I am ok”

”This Austrian kid keeps talking to me even though I am clearly pretending to be asleep, and I am ok”

”I can’t find the lady who is holding my passport and oh my god Toto I am never going to get back home, and I am ok”

”I just used all the money on my barbie-sized local phone to talk to my dad for less than one minute, and I am ok”

”I just laughed at previously-mentioned thug-undies man to his face when he said that he is a cardiovascular surgeon but he is being serious, and I am ok”

”This bus is absurdly late and I am never going to get back to Sarajevo and I don’t have any money on my barbie phone, and I am ok”

”My face is getting stuck in this permanently confused expression and I am going to spend the rest of my life looking bewildered like Brittany S. Pearce from Glee, and I am ok”

The good news is that I did get my passport back, and the scary naked surgeon finally put some pants on.


All Hail Zeus, God of Comfy Coldness

Praise Zeus, it was rainy and cold yesterday!! Good thing too because my mood and my approval of any place are negatively correlated with the temperature. And since my happy place is a very cold place, Sarajevo and I were on the road to a falling out. Enter clouds and chilly weather, and this city and I are back on speaking terms again. Thank you, Zeus, for that little weathervention. One day like that per week and I just might be a pleasant person for the remainder of this summer…but don’t get your hopes up people.

In other good news, I now have two internships, which almost adds up to a full work load! The Atlantic Initiative finally got in touch with me last week and I start interning with them today. Better late than never. This is also good because they are a security NGO and I am a security student. My other internship at the Women’s Initiative is interesting, though not specifically related to what I study.

The funny/weird/serendipitous part of all this is that the Atlantic Initiative is working on gender studies in security right now. I wasn’t expecting that. I have never considered myself a feminist or a champion of womens’ causes, partially because I have never experienced much in the way of sexism, and also because I have never wanted to be that woman that de-values chivalry. I have tried to work with men on an equal playing field without exploiting any unfair advantages as a woman. But now, this summer, I find myself working with two completely different NGOs on the same issue: the empowerment of women in Bosnia. Clearly I neither understand how pervasive this issue is nor appreciate just how much I have benefited from the work performed by generations of women who have come before me. I may not end this summer as a sash-wearing suffragette, but I will probably be learning a lot about an issue that I have ironically tried to ignore.

Once again, thank you Zeus for the lovely cold day. Please bring more. I would be happy to sacrifice some Sladoled in your honor.

Do you see what I see?

Perspective is the theme of the week, but it is also a force which is ever-present among each individual in every situation. I will admit that I have been rather selfishly cocooned in my own perspective since I arrived in Sarajevo two weeks ago. The reason is simple: my creature comforts are missing. Where are the eight cubes of ice in my water? Where is my free bathroom? And where in the bejeezus is my Air Conditioning? Gdje Klima?? Ja trebam Klima…ahora! Yes, I have been whiny and irritable since I arrived. I am hot, sticky, and per my last post, uncomfortable with the proximity of large masses of people and loud speakers. From my perspective, I can get all of that in Florida, but at least they have AC in Florida.

Well now that I have vented my adolescent complaints, it is time to talk about other perspectives. First and foremost, Sarajevo is a living entity unto itself. Like most cities, it has a personality all its own, which is perceptible to the tourist and citizen alike. When I describe Sarajevo to my friends back home, I say that it reminds me a great deal if Italy, but with a Turkish flare and a lot of war damage. That is the simplest way I can say it. What I find interesting is that, depending on which native Sarajevan you talk to, my description may or may not hold muster. When Idrina took us for our first tour, she made an effort to point out buildings which still stood empty and dilapidated from the war. She showed us new, old, improved and very badly damaged buildings alike. She seemed to embrace the city exactly as it is, the good and the bad. On the other hand, our tour guide from Friday ( I think his name was Haris?) said that there are only a couple of buildings remaining in the city which still have the marks of war. I do not know if that is how he sees his city, with only a few blemishes, or if that is how he wants us to see his city. Regardless, his assertion is flat wrong. I am not saying that is a bad thing either. I believe that if all of Sarajevo had been immediately repaired as if a war had never occured, it would probably have been too easy to forget the war. The younger generation would have no proof of what their city and their families went through. One need only to walk a short distance up any hill to see absolute proof that no building was spared the devastation of the shelling.

What was even more shocking to me, was that Haris mentioned to me that he had been five years old when the war had started. His house had been shelled within the first 90 days, and he is convinced that the person reponsible was the husband of his Serbian school teacher, a commander in the Serb Army. He said he knows the mans name, and he is still somewhere in the area, as are all of the other Serb soldiers. Moreover, Haris said that each of those former Serb soldiers is ready and willing to take up arms against “us” (the Bosniaks or Sarajevo) again. I got chills when I heard that. I have also heard of other conversations in which the Sarajevans have said that they are ready and willing to defend their city once more. It would neither surprise nor frighten them. To this I have no comment. Such a state of mind is too difficult to process when I am living in this city alongside all of these people. That night after talking with Haris, fireworks were set off in celebration of the Sarajevo Film Festival. My first thought was that a gun was being fired. I quickly realized that the noise was harmless, but how odd that my first reaction was to assume the worst of this place. Obviously most Sarajevans are okay with fireworks, or they wouldn’t set them off in a city full of the ptsd-afflicted.

In other ways, I think I have become very desensitized to the war that happened here. In reality, I think I have felt like that since I got here. We spent so much time talking about the war at DU that when I got here I wasn’t surprised by what I saw. I don’t know what I expected of myself, but I didnt expect to feel nothing. When I look around this city, I think I just see a city. Maybe that is just as well. Maybe that is all the Sarajevans want us to see.

Sarajevo for the Neurotic: or how to build character in the Balkans

Introduction: Consider this post a self-help guide for those with severe personality quirks. It takes one to know one, and if you are anything like me then you suffer from a deranged need for control, personal space, cleanliness, punctuality, anonymity, silence, and solitude. You will not find one of these things in Sarajevo. However, that makes Sarajevo the perfect place to go cold turkey and tackle your neurosis head on. With a slightly less than totally negative attitude on your part, and a little well-earned advice from me, you can visit a fascinating place while shedding your more severe idiosyncrasies.

1. Choose a hostel in the dead center of the clubbing district. This will ensure that you get an immediate idea of what the cool Bosnian kids are wearing and listening to. (We will talk about blending in a little later). Staying in the area of Bascarsija will also ensure that you sleep only 2 hours per night, the optimal amount of slumber for triggering your various neuroses.

2. When staking out your territory, get to the hostel before anyone else. Once there, pick the room with the fewest people. Next, pick the bed that lies perpendicular to the others so that you do not feel like you are participating in kindergarten nap time. Also try to pick the bed that lies in the farthest corner of the room but still faces the door. This way you will be the most aware and the farthest from danger if your room is invaded by zombies or any other products of your sleep-deprived insanity.

3. When attempting to blend in, the idea is not to look Bosnian necessarily, but rather to not look American. This can easily be achieved by simply not smiling and showing off the thousands of dollars your parents put into those pearly whites. Just to be sure however, always avoid wearing jeans, baseball caps, tennis shoes, thonged sandals, anything with a logo or carrying backpacks. It is also important to assume a convincing demeanor that does not betray your tourist origins. Once again, no smiling, no talking, and do everything with confidence. If your are lost and have no idea where you are, do not under any circumstances look lost. Just keep walking as if your had every intention of passing through the middle of the life sized chess match.

4. Sarajevo is the perfect location for personal-space rehabilitation. Your bubble will diminish from a four foot radius to a negative three inch radius within one week. Be prepared to be bumped, jostled, touched, and battered by passers-by without any apologies for the shattered invisible cocoon which you have so lovingly constructing since the age of five. If this task is especially difficult at first, I suggest visualizing the sidewalk as if it were a game of tetrus, and your are the moving puzzle piece which must fit in to the improbably tiny space without touching anything (this is also effective when driving on any given highway). If the tetrus method is ineffective, I would suggest imagining that you are a football player (American) and it is your job to jab the opposing players with your shoulder in order to break through their defensive line. This just might get you through the pedestrian rush hour.

5. If you plan to ride a bus anywhere, it is vital to choose your seating partner with great scrutiny. I would suggest a malnourished mute with no identifiable odor. Take it from me, six hours from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo passes by blissfully when you are mostly unaware of the person sitting next to you.

6. If it is blazing hot (and it will be) I would suggest stripping early and often to avoid the inevitable crankiness on your part. Get used to your hostel-mates seeing your jiggly bits, because it will soon be too hot to care.

7. If your prefer to maintain plausible deniability by avoiding having your picture taken, or if you think the camera will suck out your soul, offer to be the photographer so that the owner of the camera can be in the picture. This will not only make you look generous, but it will also preserve your anonymity. If Japanese photographers spot your red hair in excitement, offer a view of the back of your head, or take a picture of them taking a picture of you. This will make them laugh more than you would think.

8. At every single moment you should always know where the nearest user-friendly bathroom is. You should also know if it is clean, carries toilet paper, and if it costs anything. Just to be safe, I suggest hording dinner napkins and small change, avoiding bran and dairy, and dehydrating yourself just up to the point of illness, but not beyond that.

9. If your neurosis is especially strong, do not under any circumstances come to Sarajevo straight from Germany. For obvious reasons this will greatly exacerbate your condition.

10. If you become inconsolable, they do sell chocolate here.