Back to Bosnia – Bosnia-Hercegovina

Back to Bosnia


It was one of those lovely nights on the Adriatic. The fall air was crisp, and my husband and I could just see the outline of the Croatian island of Korčula through the night mist. We had just moved to Bosnia and were busy exploring the regions of Herzegovina and the Croatian coast before winter hit. We had little experience in the region, but, already, we had noticed the ethnic tensions that rippled beneath the surface of the seemingly tranquil region: the division between Catholics and Muslims in Mostar, the Catholic/Croat secessionists of Herzegovina, and the continued separation of the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation in Bosnia.

These thoughts were playing through my mind when my husband and I were approached by a particularly well-dressed couple. Work colleagues from Zagreb, it turned out. He was in Korčula for business; she was visiting family. They were curious about this American couple visiting this far-flung island in the middle of October and asked the inevitable questions, including, “Where are you staying?” My spidey sense was tingling before I even said, “Sarajevo…”

“Ah.” Pause. “Do you like it?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Ah. Well, wait until you see Zagreb. Now, that’s Europe.”

I love Sarajevo. I live in Sarajevo. And it’s the loving and the living that has made me very protective of the city. In fact, I’ve become protective of the country as a whole. More than a decade after a war that turned neighbors into enemies and destroyed centuries-old cities and villages, prosperity has yet to return to Bosnia. Sadly, the unemployment rate hovers between 40 percent and 60 percent. These folks don’t have it easy, but that doesn’t make Sarajevo a sad place to be. On the contrary, the city is alive with outdoor cafes, culture, and entertainment. And, oh my God, is Bosnia ever beautiful. The mountains, the gloriously clean and deliciously clear water, the ample hiking opportunities…Okay, litter is a bit of a problem as are the landmines, but note! There have been no tourist fatalities due to mines. I know those mountainsides look perfect for climbing and those abandoned villages seem ripe for exploring but resist the temptation and you’ll be fine.

So, now you know my prejudice. Be merciful.

And Europe is…?
What is this Europe of which people speak? Why would Zagreb be “Europe” and Sarajevo not be? It is interesting to see how the former Yugoslav republics are attempting to reinvent themselves, specifically Croatia and Slovenia. Folks, you can’t shed your Balkan identity like a pair of underwear. And why would you want to? I love to think of Europe as more than Parisian cafes. I like Parisian cafes; really I do, but Europe’s more than that, isn’t it? There’s room for a little diversity. Good for the blood.

A landscape of minarets…

On one of our first evenings in Sarajevo, my husband and I were just coming back from dinner, when, bam! The call to prayer jangled out of three mosques simultaneously. We laughed and tried to differentiate between the voices. “Hmm, good sound.” “Eek, needs voice lessons.” Over the following weeks (and now six months later), the call to prayer has lost its novelty. We notice it in much the same way we notice church bells in the states. But, in the beginning, those melodic and melancholy sounds, along with the smell of čevapi and pita, created a lingering impression of Sarajevo.

Be still my beating caffeine and carb addiction

It is impossible to come to Sarajevo and not try čevapi (grilled rolls of beef and/or lamb) or pita (meat, potato, cheese, or spinach-filled phyllo pastry). Much to the horror of my husband and my expanding waistline, I have embraced the Bosnian love affair with bread and the delectably fattening phyllo pastry. I’m going to be very un-Bosnian and admit that I don’t like čevapi. Blasphemy! I’ve never been one for sausages, too greasy, and that’s pretty much čevapi. But, let me assure you, I am in a category of one on that score. Pretty much everyone, foreigner and native alike, love čevapi.

Greasy sausage aside, the bread is sublime. And fresh. And cheap (a little over thirty cents, U.S.). Give me a good loaf of hljeb over Wonder Bread any old time. As for pita (potato or cheese, for me, please), I have to physically prevent myself from eating this more than once a week. Calories, ahoy!

Last but not least, the coffee. If I had to pick one defining trait of Bosnia, I’d have to choose the culture of coffee. This intensely bitter and strong coffee is to a Bosnian what a cup of tea is to an Englishman. You drink coffee in times of trouble, to be sociable, and just, well, to drink coffee. FYI: you will not find Starbucks here. Coffee take-out does not exist. Bosnian coffee is served and/or delivered hot and fresh. Yes, delivered. Example. You’re a shop owner. You want your coffee, yet you can’t leave your business unattended. What do you do? You call the local coffee shop and have your caffeine delivered to you. True.

Of natural beauty and ghosts
Ten minutes from my home in Baščaršija (the old town) is the winding pathway of Bentbaša. Without a doubt, it is on my top ten list of things that I love most about Sarajevo. As an East Coast city girl – I’ve lived, for various periods of time, in Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, thank you very much – I can’t imagine walking out of my front door in, say D.C., and into rural mountain wilderness in less than 10 minutes. Unfathomable. But, here it’s possible. In fact, I do it every day and never cease to be amazed. Around 8:00 a.m. on most weekday mornings, me, my indefatigable (and frankly weird looking) mutt Veli join the rest of the Bentbaša crowd, mostly pensioners, for a low-key hike around the mountain.

I think my favorite time is winter. Sometimes, in the cold, in the snow, it’s only me and the pup. On those days, I let her run loose in front of me. The only thing that breaks the peace of the trail, apart from Veli slobbering up to a very annoyed jogger, is the sad shells of homes that dot the landscape. Here, there, everywhere. One February day, after a light snow, Veli and I took the long road up the mountain. Tape screaming “Danger! Mines!” had fallen from the trees and into the path. Houses, once beautiful, once homes, were to the left and right of me. If I walked a few yards up that hill or down that path, I could touch them. And this put me in mind of ghosts. Not the tantalizingly (and slightly unreal) scary or sad ones that come out during American Halloween tales but real ones. Maybe, the people who lived in this house. Aren’t ghosts forced to relive their last moments, over and over again? Standing there, alone, with only Veli for company, I felt nothing. Just the snow. Just the quiet. If there is a God, he has given them peace.

Final words
The relationship between my Bosnian language teacher, Menada, and her husband, Veki, is strangely endearing. He chauffeurs her from lesson to lesson and patiently waits. In the car. Time and again, I had invited him into the warmth of our home. Better then freezing yourself to death in the car, no? He always declined the invitation, perhaps out of shyness. I never pressed the subject.

Then one particularly cold and blistery Bosnian day, I just couldn’t bear the thought of this man sitting in his freezing car, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Between us, Menada and I managed to coax him into my apartment. As any proper Bosnian hostess would do, I set to making Bosnian coffee and placed an ashtray on the table. We chatted with Menada serving as interpreter when my limited Bosnian failed me. Abruptly, he said, “Žaklina, write this down and remember it.”

Sve što sam čula o Bosni i Hercegovina sad kad sam vidjela to što sam čula je laž. Što sam vidjela je istina.

Roughly translated, “Everything I heard about Bosnia and Herzegovina now that I have seen it is a lie. Everything I have seen is truth.”

So, what have I seen? In my mind, in my heart, and with my own two eyes, I see a country of great natural beauty. In the people, I see strength, spirit, and humor, dark though it may be. And in Sarajevo? According to legend, the fountain at the Gazi Husrevbeg mosque is enchanted. One drink and to Sarajevo you will return. Two drinks and in Sarajevo you will remain.

Enchantments and legends aside, Sarajevo won my heart almost instantly. No magic required.