I visited my internship supervisor’s home last week. She welcomed Ann and me in, and we got the chance to meet her two precious little boys. One, speaking English perfectly (learned from school…but mostly Cartoon Network) met us where the cab dropped us off and politely made conversation as he led us up the hill to their home. The other, constantly in motion, would occasionally stop and look at me and say something (in Bosnian of course). I tried to explain to him that I didn’t speak very much Bosnian, and he just stared back at me, puzzled, and smiled. My supervisor brought out a pitcher of lemonade and some watermelon out to the terrace, and started to go back inside to make the coffee when her son called after her. She answered him, and seemed to sympathize with his plight. I asked her to translate, and she said that he wanted her to stay on the terrace with us instead of going in to make the coffee. She then told him that if she didn’t go make the coffee, there wouldn’t be coffee to drink. He responded, intelligently, that she should stay here with him; because the coffee would make itself.
At the time, this was adorable. We laughed at how silly that sounded, but I remember that it struck me. How much do I focus on getting things done, and moving on to the next task, instead of realizing the importance of the moment that I’m in right now?
I was wandering through Baščaršija looking for a café where I could have a coffee and read my book yesterday afternoon. I didn’t have to go in to my internship, and I wanted to spend some time walking, reflecting, and relaxing as my time in Sarajevo is drawing to a close. I visited Café Metropolis on Tito Street earlier in the week and enjoyed the welcome air-conditioning and Wi-fi on a hot day, so I decided to visit their location in Baščaršija to pass some time. On the way, I was thinking about home; contemplating how I felt about going back to the States soon and wondering (as usual) if I “should” be feeling differently.
I often find myself in this tension between how I’m feeling and how I think “should” be feeling. I want to give significant space in my life right now for the things I’m experiencing that are different because I’m in a new place; a complicated place where conversations always come back to the war, even 20 years later. Life is lived differently in Sarajevo than it is in Firth, Nebraska, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Budapest, Hungary. I want to make sure that I’m paying attention, even to the little interactions I have with people here, learning as much as I can from others and gaining as much from my short time here as possible. This leads me to judge myself a bit harshly, and also to think that I “should” want to be here all of the time, and not miss home or try to spend too much time thinking about home and communicating with people at home.
That said... Café Metropolis serves Američki Palačinke, or American Pancakes. I decided for once, that I need to give myself a break from forcing myself to try to have the most authentic BOSNIAN experience in Sarajevo. I let myself eat some American pancakes, and it was incredibly healing. I was reminded of lovely experiences at home; breakfast in bed on the first day of school, IHOP free pancake day with college roommates, and eating gourmet pancakes with hipsters on the weekends in Grand Rapids. It’s not bad to appreciate pancakes. These experiences (and many more that may or may not involve pancakes) are all a part of the reason why I am here today; of the person that I have become. It’s not wrong for me to experience a piece of my own culture in Sarajevo, to be reminded of these things. The mere fact that I am in Sarajevo makes this a Sarajevan experience. I can add this to my cultural explorations. There’s no reason to feel guilty; there are just pancakes here, too.
I walk into a restroom without knowing what to expect. Depending completely on the location of the particular restroom, or who cleans it, or on the phase of the moon, maybe… this could be a common experience or one of great discomfort. My goal with this post is hopefully not to gross you out, but to delve a bit deeper into the meaning of a commonplace occurrence.
In the states, going to the bathroom means nothing. It takes a few minutes, and in any public place, there aren’t any greater concerns. If for some reason something is out of order, one could bring it up with an employee of the establishment, and it would likely be fixed on the spot. The scenario in Eastern Europe is very different, even in the heart of a major city like Sarajevo. There’s a chance that you’d encounter a restroom that is kept up just like a typical US or Western restroom, but there’s also a chance that any number of things would be missing. I go through a checklist in my head. First, I grab the pack of Kleenex that I keep with me at all times. If there’s toilet paper in the bathroom, that’s a total bonus. Then, there may or may not be a working sink, soap, a hand dryer or paper towels, and a trash bin. It is a very rare occasion when all of these things are present in the same restroom, whether in a hostel or at the organization where I’m interning.
This all seems a bit menial to talk about, but I’m discovering that it’s necessary for me to realize that it’s not necessary for me to have all of these things. I’ve come to this realization before, whether it was while I was studying in Hungary, or just while I was camping. I think that this is maybe where I’d insert a line about “people who never have as much as I have on a daily basis,” but today, I don’t need to feel guilty. I can gather meaning from simply noticing differences in ways of living. We can mark these things on a value spectrum from “better” to “worse” but I find that dichotomies are often unnecessary because there are so many other factors to be considered. I thought there might be some kind of conclusion at the end of this blog, but I’m realizing as I write, that sometimes it’s better to leave things up in the air. To raise questions without necessarily……
The honeymoon phase is over. This is neither good nor bad; living in a different country and culture is exciting at first, and then inevitably becomes something… less than exciting. In some ways, falling into this routine is comfortable. I feel nervous thinking about leaving Sarajevo, because I feel that I’ve found my niche here now; I have so much that I’d still like to do and leaving would be another change I’d have to adjust to. Going back to the states will mean the beginning of another quarter of learning, reuniting with my cohort in the International Disaster Psychology program and hearing about all of their summer experiences abroad. I’ll get to have my own room again, in my nice quiet apartment and I’d be able to cook with ingredients that are familiar to me and easily accessible. That said, I’ll be giving up living with my two fantastic roomies here. I’ll miss out on going to the market and buy the freshest ingredients possible, from the people who grew them, at extreeeemely reasonable prices. And I’m definitely going to miss hearing the Macklemore “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us” remixes from the bar next door every hour. I wouldn’t be able to go up on the hill and watch the sunset and listen to the call to prayer, or have tea at Hussein’s comfy tea shop. But more than these things I’ll miss the relationships I’ve formed with people here. I’ll miss the heartfelt conversations I’ve had with Belma, Nadja, Nehru, Minela, Maja, Hasan, and Maria.
Looking at what I’ve written above, this was unknowingly, a bit of an exercise in gratitude for me. I realize how I’ve become attached to my little part of this fascinating place, and I’m still not done listening to friends’ stories and gaining an understanding of what happened here and how that affects Bosnians today.
During the peace march, we stayed with the most amazing couple in the mountains outside of Zvornik, Minela and Nehru. At the end of the Summer University Srebrenica, there’s a 3-day peace march from Tuzla to Srebrenica to commemorate the path that almost 1,000 men and boys took to escape execution in Srebrenica in July 1995 (the path today is walked backwards, to end in Srebrenica for the memorial service for the people that have been identified this year and will be buried. Here’s the link to an article about the memorial service. During the peace march there were participants and non-participants, who were unofficially dubbed the “support team.” I was a member of the support team, transported early in the day, to the house where everyone in the group (of 20ish) will be spending the night.
Our first home-stay was with Minela and Nehru, who I absolutely adore. They are 26 and 27, the youngest people for… probably hundreds of kilometers that have come back, fixed their family home after the war, and moved back into a small village. Most Bosniaks from areas of Bosnia where Bosnian Serbs took control (now called Republika Srpska, or the Serb Republic, essentially ruled by Serbia) moved to Sarajevo or Tuzla, or left the country altogether. Some older people moved back after the war, but young people moving back is so rare because of the lack of benefits (or discrimination against Bosniaks in the distribution of benefits) in Republika Srpska and the high unemployment rate. They graduated from University with degrees in literature and Bosnian language, and moved back to Nehru’s family’s pre-war home in the hills. They both speak English, (Nehru is basically fluent, just from watching tv, and also speaks Italian and German). They can’t find jobs, but live an extremely sustainable life with their cow, chickens, and garden supplying virtually all that they need. Minela asked us when we got there if we’d like coffee or tea, and — though I didn’t want her to have to go to the trouble of making something, but I felt it would be impolite to refuse — I asked for tea. She picked mint leaves from the garden and boiled them, and then brought the tea over with fresh honey from the bees in the backyard. It was the best tea I have ever had in my life. The next morning, I helped wash dishes and stayed after others had left to help Minela and her mother-in-law clean up the kitchen. Minela took aluminum foil and wrapped up the tea leaves that she had been saving and drying, and gave them to me when I was leaving. It was such a meaningful gift. Minela and Nehru were such welcoming hosts and I felt so honored to stay in their home and hear their stories about the war and what Bosnia is like today.
A few nights ago, Jillian, Erin and I went to a place that our group has come to love: Hussein’s tea place. (It may have a real name, but no one uses it.) Hussein is one of the warmest most hospitable men I have ever met. Since he speaks 4 other languages but none of them are English, I floundered my way through conversation with Spanish, hand gestures, and my limited Bosnian. Every time I knew a pertinent word in Bosnian, I’d switch from Spanish to Bosnian, and Hussein would beam and clap his hands because I had said something like “sister” (sestra). He was so gracious and fun to talk to. When we had paid and were saying goodbye, he hugged me and gave me a huge kiss on the forehead. Bosnian Bucket List #247: Be kissed by a Bosnian. Check.
On a completely different note, for the next two weeks, six of my colleagues and I will be joining about 30 other graduate and undergraduate students from all over the world for the Srebrenica Summer University. There will be speakers and round-table discussions, poetry readings and panels. The genocide in Srebrenica (and genocide in general) will be discussed from many angles. I have so many thoughts about what that will be like, how I’ll handle the intensity of the topics, and what my role is as a foreigner/student/woman/non-Muslim/etc. attending such a sacred event as the memorial service at the end of the two weeks but in spite of all of that, it is a beautiful morning in Srebrenica. A cow is mooing outside our window, and I am looking forward to our first day here.
The sun was high above Mount Igman as the car zipped up the winding roads, passing charter buses full of elderly Sarajevo citizens. There were ten buses in all, slowly winding toward the top. The mission was a serious one: to set a Guinness World Record for most elderly people exercising on a mountain.
The citizens disembarked and spread out on the mountainside, to the surprise of several families out camping for the weekend. Once lunch was collected all shady spots in the vicinity were occupied. Each person received a paper grocery bag full of food to enjoy in the company of friends. Then, the exercise commenced. As is becoming noticeable in Bosnia, not all people who came decided to participate in the exercise. In fact, most stayed with their friends and families and watched. There were possibly 100 people participating in breathing exercises and arm stretches (some were Amerikankas – see below) and afterwards people joined hands and began to dance sevdalinka, a traditional Bosnian dance that looks kind of like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0USb5zievZs. Some women walked over to our group and taught us a few steps.
I felt so welcomed by the people that morning and humbled by their invitation to dance with them. It was especially salient for me that they were members of the older generation, who – in any culture – might be hesitant to welcome foreigners; even more so with Bosnians toward Americans because the US was involved in the NATO bombings at the end of the war. I’m so glad I decided to get up a bit earlier on that Saturday morning and spend my time on the mountain. What a rich experience.
As I sit at Cheers with Coldplay’s song “Paradise” filling the air, I reflect on my first week “living” in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Paradijs (pronounced just like “paradise”) is the Bosnian word for tomato. I hate to get too cheesy here, but that seems to be a metaphor for the mix of my American culture and what I’m used to, and the Bosnian culture I’m surrounded with (fantastic tomatoes, by the way). I’ve done this international travel thing before. I’ve left my home and the people close to me for a new setting and a new set of people. You would think that each time it would get easier. I’d learn how to navigate a new place, how much sleep I’d need, and how long I can be in groups of people before it becomes necessary to step back for some introspection. Traveling is not that easy; a fact that is both refreshing and (honestly) a bit frustrating. I’ve had new experiences and also a few situations of déjà vu from my previous visit to Sarajevo.
The people are really what make a place a place, and the people here are kind, family oriented and generous. They are sometimes hesitant to trust a foreigner, but I would feel much the same if my town was a tourist destination. Our first days here were lovely; discovering new places and drinking plenty of kahfa (for about 50 cents each!) My supervisor at my internship is wonderful, teaching us how to use transportation to and from the organization (not an easy feat) and assigning projects according to my and my colleagues’ interests. I’ve only had two days at my placement, but I’m very much looking forward to the next two months with Wings of Hope.
Fun fact: Pita is a Bosnian specialty, made with fillo dough stuffed with a variety of fillings. Burek is a specific kind of pita, made with meat. Pita also comes in other varieties such as krompir (potato), sir (cheese) and spinac (you figure that one out).