Opening Doors

These past three weeks have been a series of openings. On May 4, the first exhibit of the Sarajevo War Childhood Museum opened. For those of you who have somehow missed my Facebook posts about it, the WCM is a fantastic initiative that I am helping out very minimally with communications, English editing, feedback on exhibit design, and moral support. I’m not a super important part of the team, but we are very close, and it was amazing and surreal to be here for the opening and to see how our exhibit is helping others learn about what happened here or process their own experiences. The week and a half that followed–greeting guests, talking to them as they came out, and monitoring their reactions within the exhibit–was equally surreal. It was difficult for me, as I realized how much of a language barrier I am still facing (and how little progress I am making and how that is mostly my own fault), but I enjoyed working with English-speaking tourists and spending time with the team. In a way, it felt like a culmination of my entire experience here in Bosnia, and I am deeply sad that I will miss the opening of the actual museum in August. For the WCM itself, it was an excellent beginning, but for me, it almost seemed like a bittersweet ending.

On May 7, I joined some of the students at FIN on a road trip to another opening–the reopening of the Fehardija Dzamija (Mosque) in Banja Luka. This mosque was one of many religious structures that had been destroyed during the war, and its reopening was especially poignant because when they first attempted to rebuild it, in 2001, a group of nationalists attacked the cornerstone ceremony. I skipped a concert by my favorite local band to attend the reopening, and some of my friends (and my parents) were absolutely shocked that I chose to do so. When my friend Esma came into my room at literally 2:50 AM on Saturday to wake me up for the trip, I also had my regrets. However, once we made it to Banja Luka (folk music blasting the whole way–one of my students sent me an email later saying “I’d apologize for the music, but then again, we are Bosnian…”), I was glad that I went.

First, we visited the castle (a second trip for me) and ate cevapi at 9 AM (because college students). Then as we walked through the city center, the students wanted to visit Orthodox Cathedral, which I had only seen from the outside. Quite honestly, given the tensions of the day (there were more police officers than I had ever seen in my life stationed around the city), I didn’t want anything to do with anything associated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, but I also didn’t want to wait around by myself outside, so I went inside with them. The students immediately went to the front office, introduced themselves as theology students from FIN, and asked if somebody could show us around and explain the iconography. The priest who showed us around was very kind–he told us about how important it was that people in this post-war generation are still interested in learning in other religions, and told us how he wished everybody on both sides (not just students studying theology) would be interested in learning from the others. The students’ interest in learning about other religions has left me speechless on numerous occasions, and this was no exception. My own reluctance to enter the church shows how easily people can be divided by fear and false stereotypes about what lies on the other side. For the millionth time this year, it occurred to me how much I am learning from my students rather than teaching.

We then went to the ceremony, which was long and hot and difficult for me to follow with my pitiful Bosnian, but still very moving. Several of the professors at FIN made speeches or provided narration. I wasn’t crazy about all of the speeches (for example, the two ministers from Turkey kept talking about how great Sarajevo is, which was just uncomfortable to hear in Banja Luka), but I was glad that I was there when the muezzin performed the azan, or call to prayer, at the end of the ceremony. It was one of the slowest but most beautiful azans that I have ever heard (and trust me, I have heard a lot of azans at this point!) People knelt to pray on their jackets in the street; I am not a model Christian by any means, but even I murmured an “Our Father” and took a moment to thank whatever higher power gave me the path to be here in Banja Luka on this day–it felt like the right thing to do. 

All of these openings have made me think of my own sense of openness–to new experiences, to new friends–that I have worked on over the past year. I have always been a fairly open and honest person, but this year, I feel like I have worked even harder to meet people and open myself up to them, especially with my students and colleagues at FIN. It’s gotten me into a few awkward situations–friendships that I’ve tried too hard to make work–but for the most point, I feel such a strong connection with people that the thought of leaving is almost impossible. I feel like crying almost every day at tiny moments–seeing the roses outside my faculty, goodbye gifts from my students, after spending time in my favorite professors’ offices–because I know that these moments are so fleeting, and the world is moving so fast. I know if I didn’t spend so much time at FIN or if I didn’t try so hard to get to know my students, leaving would be easier. As much as it hurts, though, I am glad that I opened myself up to everything that happened this year. If I learned one thing this year, I think it is: “The more love that you make, the more love that you will take.” I feel like I have given so much to FIN and to Bosnia this year, and sometimes I felt unappreciated, but the return on this investment–the palpable sense of belonging, acceptance, and community that I feel whenever I walk into FIN–has been in many ways, even better than I ever imagined.

Life Moves Pretty Fast

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around every once in a while, you could miss it”– Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

On Wednesday morning, I was thinking about how lucky I was that in my time here in Bosnia, I have not had to deal with any real emergencies back home. My grandparents aren’t in the best health, but my grandpa promised me before I left, “Don’t worry, we won’t die when you are away.” So far that promise has held true, and I was thinking about that Wednesday morning when I left for work.

Don’t ever think that you are lucky like that. I came home Wednesday after a perfectly fine day of teaching–for the first time in a while, I felt like a competent human being–only to see that my friend Kayla’s father posted a strange message on her Facebook wall. “We love you baby… rest in peace.” Kayla and I hadn’t been touch in a while, which is why I didn’t know she was ill, but we were Residence Assistants together back when we were at William & Mary. Being an RA was my least-favorite job that I have ever had, but I worked with a really incredible group of people, including Kayla, who made it a tremendous amount of fun. She was such a wonderful person who I could always count on to exchange incredulous looks at staff meetings, and we had so many great times together–from pumpkin picking to soliciting donations for this crazy block party that none of us really wanted to have to dealing with some very special residents. She was going to go on to do really great things, and now she won’t have that chance. She was two months younger than I am.

In a way, I almost feel guilty for being so upset over Kayla’s death–and guiltier still for using it as a springboard for my blog. We hadn’t talked in months, and to be honest, I’m not sure if our lives would ever have intersected concretely again, besides hugs at Homecoming and college reunions. I just feel so sad for her parents, her brother, the rest of her friends, the life that she never lived, and the memories of our time together. Now, I am the only one who remembers our conversations and laughter.

Sometimes, my life here in Bosnia feels so fleeting. Sarajevo is a city of short-term foreigners–people come here to work in international development for a few years, not to live. To them, staying here for nine months is a long time. However, for my friends from Sarajevo, however, nine months is nothing–barely long enough to have a real friendship. To make things worse, I know that I will be replaced as the Fulbright ETA at FIN next year–and what if that person is a better teacher or a better friend than I have been? Will anyone remember me? However short it seems, though, a lot can happen in nine months. Friends and relatives move and change their lives and pass away. It’s enough time for new lives to begin–and old lives to change forever.

In a way, I am excited to go back to the US and restart my “real life” with David, but the more ties I make here, the harder it is to think about leaving. Right now, I feel like half of my life is in the US, and half of my life is here in Sarajevo. I hate the fact that my time here is so short and fleeting, but in a way, I almost feel like it has to be that way. For a few shining minutes last week, before I was forced to face reality, it seemed like I would be staying in Sarajevo for a second year, and that prospect was honestly completely terrifying. I am so incredibly glad and lucky that I have had the opportunity to spend part of my life living and learning here (and that I have the freedom to leave and return in the future), but, like everything else, being caught between two countries also has its downsides. While I am here in Bosnia, I am missing engagements and weddings and milestones (and funerals) back in the US. When I go back to the US, I know most of my friendships with people in Sarajevo will continue, but I will continue to miss weddings and engagements and milestones back in Bosnia. Life goes on, whether I am on one continent or the other. I have seen so many beautiful things and met so many beautiful people both in the US and in Bosnia, but that means I have so many more beautiful things and people to love (which is in itself, a bittersweet thing) and to miss. To quote Adele, “Who would have known how bittersweet this would taste?”

Not so many pictures this time around (my phone went on the fritz and is currently in my friend’s apartment being fixed), but here are a few from a day trip to Herzegovina earlier this month (PC: Jasminko) and one from happier times at W&M:

Kiev

On Thursday, I returned from spending four days with an unusual combination of Eastern European study-abroad alumni and Peace Corps volunteers in a small Ukrainian village. If you’ve seen the movie Everything is Illuminated, you don’t need me to describe our village. This is the first time that I have traveled internationally purely for “business,” but I still had a little bit of time on our last day to explore Kiev with some of my new friends who I will be teaching with this summer. As we ran around Kiev’s historical center in a few hours, I realized how much my time in Sarajevo is changing the way I see the world.

Kiev is a very cool city (it’s cliched, but there’s no other word for it), with lots of cobblestoned streets with painters and artisans selling homemade handcrafts in the background of stunning cathedrals. Ornate and colorful European-style buildings stand next to Communist monstrosities. We were exploring the city on a nice day, and people were everywhere–in cafes, in the parks, on the street. In a way, it reminded me very much of Sarajevo. Yet for me, the most moving part of our visit to Kiev was our visit to Maidan Square, the site of the Euromaidan protests in 2014.

Between 100 and 700 people died in these protests, which lead to Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution and the Russian annexation of Crimea. In Maidan (and Kiev in general) it’s almost impossible to see the effects of these ongoing conflicts. Besides some ongoing construction on buildings that were damaged and few spots in the square where the bricks are still being replaced, the only sign of what happened is the “Heavenly Hundred Heroes Avenue.” This section of Instytutska Street leads from Maidan to the main government buildings–it is now home to hundreds of moving memorials to the protesters who were killed.

As I looked at these memorials–the colorful votive candles, images of men and boys smiling in school and work photos, the endless flowers–I realized how knowledge of one conflict deeply understands understanding of other conflicts. When I looked at the photos of the men–and sometimes even women and children–who were killed in Maidan, I was struck by how  much they reminded me of the photos I have seen  of the victims of Srebrenica. I read their names, but in my head, I replaced them with the names of my friends’ fathers who were killed during the war, the men who I will only ever hear stories about. I thought about the impact that their deaths had on an entire generation and the gaping holes that they left behind in an entire society. I thought about the testimony and reflections I have read from Sarajevo’s war children, and how the lives of children in Kiev, in Donetsk, in Crimea, have been irreversibly changed. No matter how much research I have done and how many stories I have heard, I still don’t know what it means to live through a war–and I hope I will never find out–but I know more than I did six months ago. And given what I know now, it is impossible for me not to feel more empathy when I hear about conflicts.

It is an empathy that many people in Sarajevo share. I didn’t tell too many of my students and colleagues exactly where I was going, but almost everyone who did know asked me to email them to ensure that I arrived. Once I returned, most of them asked me directly about how the war over Crimea was affecting daily life in the capital. As my colleagues-turned-student-turned-friend in Student Services told me,  “Once you have lived through a war, you naturally are more interested in other places that are going through the same thing.”

Leaving Sarajevo for five days also made me realize how at home I feel in Sarajevo. Many of my friends and colleagues asked me to email them to let them know I safely arrived. As a point of comparison, my parents don’t even ask me to do this anymore when I travel. I spent a significant time while I was in Kiev emailing and messaging friends in Sarajevo–more so than I was talking to most of my friends in the US–and by Wednesday, I realized that I even missed going to work. When I returned to FIN on Thursday, one of my students greeted me with a huge hug. I know I am just a temporary guest in Sarajevo, and sometimes I feel smothered by the amount of people telling me to eat, to take a day off, to relax because you are our guest or because you are so young. But when I think about how happy I was to get back to Sarajevo, and how I was greeted by my friends and colleagues on Thursday, I am falling into the illusion that Sarajevo can be–and is–my home.

A Day in the Life

March 15, 2016

People keep asking me for pictures of my “adventures” or specific stories about where I have traveled. I’ve used this as an excuse to take more photos than I would normally (because truly I love photos), but I think that taking this perspective–only talking and thinking about the days that I visited tourist sites or traveled to other cities–is really limiting. Today was one of my most enjoyable days here so far, but I didn’t do anything special today–I got up, went to work, came home. There were no “photo-ops” or magical stories to write home about. Yet, it was still an unbelievably beautiful and extraordinary day, and I think one that captures the entire essence of my time here and the Fulbright program.

I woke up this morning in a really bad mood. It has been extremely cold and rainy lately, and I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed with the amount of work I “have” to do (although, all that work is all my fault–see my previous post). In a way, the six-month blues have sunk in, where my body is beginning to realize that I’ve been here a really long time but there’s still a while to go before I will be in a country where I can give my grandma a huge hug, talk to salespeople in English, and eat a Chipotle burrito. This morning, I didn’t even want to leave my apartment–the prospect of having a two minute “Dobar dan, kako ste?” (Good morning, how are you?) conversation in Bosnian with the very nice woman who works in reception in my faculty was just too much.

I came in, got my key anyway (and had an entirely painless and pleasant conversation in Bosnian while doing so) and settled in for a long day of individual classes with different professors. I was especially nervous because I was meeting with one of the Arabic professors who I had never worked with before, and I wasn’t sure of her level. Although I soon realized the lesson that I prepared was above her level, it was OK–we ended up just practicing conversation (which is what she wanted to do anyway). I posed what seemed to me to be an innocent question– “Where did you study?”–which of course in Bosnia, with the history of forced relocations and ethnic cleansing, turned out to be incredibly complicated. She told me the condensed version of her war story, which was a sobering reminder of how almost everyone I know here has survived unimaginable horrors. I don’t usually think about this very much anymore (ostensibly because I don’t want my friends to feel like I’m pitying them, but in reality because it’s too intense), but sitting in the safe space of my office and helping her practice English, it felt right to talk about everything, good and bad. The world can be an awful place and humans are capable of doing terrible things to one another, but all of the people that I am honored to call my friends and colleagues here so incredibly strong and resilient and good.

Then, another Arabic professor, who is the closest I have to a “work mom” here, came for her lesson. Like my first lesson, things also derailed into a deep conversation instead of the text and exercises that I had prepared. She is one of my favorite people to teach and to talk to, and we often talk about her time studying and living in Morocco while she completed her master’s degree. Quite honestly, even though I meet many people here who have studied and lived abroad, she is one of the few people who I meet who truly understands everything I am experiencing. We talked today about how living abroad changes you as a person and helps you “find” yourself. At the end of the lesson, she assigned herself homework, as she always does, and I had a quick break before my next meeting.

This impromptu meeting was with one of the philosophy teaching assistants, who has become my go-to source of information at the faculty, and one of my favorite people in all of Sarajevo. He is working with me on reading twentieth century classics of American literature in English. We’ve already revisited one of my absolute favorites (Of Mice and Men) and are now working on Hemingway–who, I’m embarrassed to admit, I had never read before. We usually just go over words (and usually they are the kind of obscure words like types of plants that I completely fail at defining them), but this passage of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” we were reading was particularly powerful, and we kept stopping to underline various lines and or admire Hemingway’s constructions (or he did. Because I’m not a writer or quite honestly much of a thinker, I just sat there and vaguely contemplated, “This is deep.”)  For those of you who, like me, avoided Hemingway completely in high school, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is about an American who joins the resistance during the Spanish Civil War and leads a plot to blow up a bridge. Given how important bridges were in the Bosnian war–they were destroyed for symbolic effect in Mostar and for tactical effect in Gorazde–I spent most of our meeting today thinking how ironic it was that I was “teaching” this book to somebody much older than me, much more intelligent than me, and much more experienced in these particular matters. This point was driven home whenever we came across words for particular weapons or military tactics. “I know it’s a part of a gun, but I’ve never seen one before, so I don’t know exactly,” I repeated over and over. I knew I am the only member of the teaching staff at my entire faculty–probably at my entire university–who has the luxury to say that.

After that, I went to debate school uniforms with one of my many groups of first-year students. I had been dreading this debate, and in this class in particular, but it went quite well. The students have gotten used to the fact that I make them stand up and argue in class, and they got really into it. Then I had another “lesson”–really just an extended conversation–with the student services officer, went home for two hours to eat and shower, and came back to my faculty for my Islamic Studies class. Just my typical 12-hour day.

When I look at my schedule, it seems like I am mostly just talking with people and reading books. I jokingly mentioned that to somebody earlier this semester; they responded, “Oh, it must be frustrating, don’t you feel useless?” However, my answer at the time–and my answer now–is still a resounding no. I have never felt less useless. Yes, I spend a large part of my day as an observer, listening to people tell their stories and occasionally helping them find the words to express themselves in English, and that in itself is a powerful thing. I don’t know what concrete work I will accomplish here, but I do know the relationships I have made–with my colleagues, with my students, and with my friends outside the faculty–will continue to affect me long after I have left Bosnia. More importantly, given today’s maddening political climate, what I have learned about Islam–the concrete stories I can tell about students whose families opposed them wearing the hijab or the way my colleagues embrace inter-religious dialogue–will be ever more important as I return to the US. I don’t feel like I am developing any skills here as an employee, but quite frankly, I do not care. For the first time in my life, I feel really passionate about what I am doing–everyday when I come to work, I feel this overwhelming sense of goodness and purpose, and nothing (not university politics or plagiarizing students or even my frustration over the nine cases of the Bosnian language) can take that away.

Polako, Festina Lente, or I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

It’s been two months since I last wrote, although not for a lack of trying. I’ve started and stopped a million times, and have plenty of more personal diary written. I’m not even sure where to begin with this one, since so much has happened. One semester ended, another one began, I moved to a new office, I moved to a new apartment, I’ve gotten involved in a fabulous start-up museum, David visited, and we got engaged. To quote my favorite movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Life moves pretty fast… if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you can miss it.”

Ironically, given what I have just said, my favorite word in Bosnian is “polako,” which roughly translates into “Relax!” It’s a word that is directed at me often, especially during my first trip here in 2013. When I first arrived here three years ago, “polako” for me meant spending three hours drinking coffee with friends, talking about nothing and everything. I thought, “Unemployment is so high, everything is so hopeless, so what else was there to do here besides caffienate into oblivion?” Now that I’ve spent more time here, I’m beginning to realize how naive I was to think that “polako” was just a result of the dismal economic situation here. “Polako” (to me, at least) is no longer an action but a mindset. To me, it now means taking the time to relax, to have extravagantly long coffees not out of boredom, but rather in spite of everything that everyone always has to do.

I met Eldin, who has become one of my closest friends here, at a Skype conversation with a group of American college professors about what life is like in Bosnia. During our conversation, he mentioned the Latin phrase, “Festina Lente,” the name of Sarajevo’s newest pedestrian bridge. He explained that “festina lente” translates into “make haste slowly”–the idea of both being incredibly busy and incredibly relaxed at the same time. This idea is Sarajevo at its utmost, but for reasons that are vastly different than I ever expected.

I grew up in an incredibly fast-paced, privileged bubble in the Northeast US and then finished my degree at a top university. Everything I did in high school was focused on securing admission into an uber-selective college. Likewise, everything that my peers did in college was focused on landing a top internship and high-paying career that would somehow leave us emotionally fulfilled as we navigated the extravagance of the Washington and New York City elite. We laughed about this fast-paced life, called it “Montville Mentality” or being a “Typical William & Mary Person.” We all involved ourselves in a million extracurriculars, overexerted ourselves in every way possible, complained about our workload at every opportunity and bemoaned, “This is something I just have to do” as we sipped five-dollar to-go double-shot latte macciatos. I never thought to ask, “What would happen if we didn’t try so hard?” For most of us, the answer was “Nothing.” Most of us came from upper-middle class backgrounds with the money and connections to get us to Montville and W&M in the first place. If we failed to get the top job we wanted, it would be disappointing, but we could work in a cafe for a while, live with Mom and Dad, try again next hiring season. Safety nets abounded, but we all felt that one moment spent guiltily chatting with friends was one moment closer to failing.

In Sarajevo, the tables are entirely turned. Youth employment is through the roof. Salaries are constantly late. Young people here need to do twice as much to have half a chance at the same opportunities that were literally handed to my friends and I in the US. Most young people are supporting their families; there is no such thing as a safety net. Yet still, people take the time to meet for coffee and sit for hours and spent time with friends. Unlike our stolen moments at W&M, where we all complained constantly about how much work we have to do, they usually spend a few minutes bitching about that and then move on to bitching about everything else. Then they part with a kiss on each cheek or a handshake and instantly dive back into a life of hecticness, simply struggling to get by. Yet, if you pass a cafe full of young people at three in the afternoon, you would never know how much everyone had to balance and move to make the coffee date work. Polako isn’t a state of actually being busy or free, of hardworking versus easy-going–it’s a state of mind.

Despite this state of mind, it should come to no surprise to either my Sarajevo or my W&M friends that I have vastly overcommitted myself during my second semester here. In addition to my ever-increasing courseload, I am also taking an English-language course in Islamic studies, working with a really fabulous non-profit to establish a start-up museum, and continuing with language outreach at the American Corner and EducationUSA. I’m very busy and I don’t have to be and in a way that’s somewhat smothering but also very touching and very Sarajevo, everyone is ridiculously concerned with how busy I am making myself. “Lexi, I urge you to reconsider your schedule” is something that I have now heard several times from both new and old friends (with almost as much frequency as “Lexi, this is your fault” or “Lexi, learn this important two-letter English word: N-O.”)

But as much as I complain about this, I wouldn’t change a thing. Why am I taking on so much more than I can (probably) handle? Quite honestly, even though it is hard work, I have made so many amazing connections and conversations doing projects like this in the past few months and I would like to use my little remaining time here to continue these conversations. I am exhausted, but for as much as I complain, I love what I do. My time here is so short that it feels like a tragedy to waste even a minute. However, as I continue to make haste slowly (or quickly), I hope to embody more of a polako mindset. After all, I will sleep when I’m dead (or back in the US).

Some photos… exploring Sarajevo with David and Travnik with Monika. Just some of my many adventures of the past two months.

Jerusalem of Europe

In tour guides, Sarajevo is often called the “Jerusalem of Europe.” As the guidebooks like to tell you, Sarajevo is one of the only cities in Europe where you can find a mosque, a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox church, and a synagogue within 500 meters of each other. World War II and the Yugoslav wars have taken a toll on Sarajevo’s diversity, but at least for me this week, this spirit of tolerance was very much still alive.

In the past week and a half, I have celebrated the birth of Jesus (Christmas) at a Catholic cathedral and the birth of Muhammed (Mevlud) at my faculty. I have gone with my Muslim students and friends (the terms are becoming interchangeable) to a mosque, a cathedral, and a synagogue. Even though my understanding of Bosnian is limited, I have recognized many of the words in the sermons and lectures at these places: words like “light,” “goodness,” “welcome,” “peace.” I am missing the finer details, but from the very limited amount that I can understand, I can really see the parallels between the different Abrahamic religions. Religion is often used as an excuse for all sorts of conflict in the world, and differences in theology can lead to some seemingly incomprehensible differences in culture and lifestyle, but fundamentally, all religions seek to provide the same things: guidance, support, hope, a reason to live for. All religion–from Christianity to Pastafarianism–gives life meaning.

Here’s a summary of the different houses of faith and religious services I went to this week:

Midnight Mass at the Cathedral:

On Christmas Eve, I first worshipped at the temple of Shakespeare by watching Macbeth at an art cinema with my best friend. Then, I met a few more friends at the Catholic Cathedral for Christmas drinks and the midnight mass. In Sarajevo, there is a tradition that everybody goes to the midnight mass, no matter what their religion. Now that the different groups here have become even more distant, this idea of everyone coming together on Christmas has become even more important. It’s a beautiful idea in theory. In practice, it means that the mass is a total zoo–there were TV cameras and lights everyone, people leaving early, coming in late, texting, making phone calls, and pushing (Sarajevo people pushing is a topic for another blog post, or maybe a novel.) In short, it was exactly like Christmas mass in the US, minus the screaming children. I have attended mass in Bosnia and Croatia previously, and I always found it somewhat easy to follow, but I struggled to figure out the corresponding English prayers this time around. It was hot in there, I was tired, and the smog was making it difficult to breathe. I’m glad I got to see the church decorated for Christmas, but I ended up leaving after Communion. If I’m in Sarajevo again for Christmas next year, I’m not sure if I will go to the midnight mass.

Mevlud at my Faculty:

On Tuesday night, my faculty held a special, student-led service in honor of Mevlud, the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday. I only found out about the event because the singers have been rehearsing loudly for the past several weeks right outside the rooms that I teach in. While I wish they rehearsed somewhere else, I’m really glad that I went. From what I understand, mevlud services and traditions vary widely in different Islamic countries. In Bosnia, mevlud is kind of like a Christmas “Lessons and Carols” service–there are recitations from the Qu’ran and then performances by the choir. I couldn’t make out the meanings of the Qu’ran verses from my limited Bosnian (it was a good reading exercise for me to see the Arabic and then the Bosnian translation, since those are both languages I have studied yet totally failed to remotely master), but it was nice to see the students perform. The traditional Bosnian Islamic music that the students sang, accompanied by a drum, was equally moving. Most days, I see the beauty in Islam in the way that my students live their lives. On Tuesday, I saw the beauty of the traditions.

Synagogues and Mosques and Churches… Oh My!

In my English classes, we are talking about different religions in the US. I’m mining my own friends for sources about their religious practices. It’s a little bit hard to make a good comparison because most of my friends do not study theology, while my students obviously are, but we nevertheless had some really good discussions. After we talked about Catholicism, two of my students asked me to take them to visit the cathedral. They told me they always wanted to go inside but were afraid to go because they both cover themselves. I told them sure… as long as they took me to visit the Gazi Husrev-Bey mosque. Unfortunately, the cathedral was closed when we tried to visit, but they took me to the mosque anyway. I was there during evening prayers, so I was able to really relax, reflect, and observe the motions–it was really peaceful and beautiful. I especially love just hearing the muezzin recite in Arabic–it reminds me of going to synagogue for my friends’ mitzvahs and weddings. Even though it takes away a bit of understanding, I sometimes wish that Catholic services were still in Latin–there is something beautiful and powerful about using an ancient language to connect traditions to the present. The best part of the visit, however, was spending time with my students. We talked a lot about our own lives– where we were from, what our friends are like, how it is to be living away from home at 18 or 19. At the end of the visit, they reminded me that I have two more friends here in Sarajevo. Most of the time, it’s very awkward to have students who are basically my age, but at times like this, everything is worth it.

The trip to the synagogue and Jewish History Museum with the student group was also simultaneously beautiful and moving. I didn’t know any of the students going, but the president of the student group and a few of the upperclassmen who wanted to practice their English made sure that I felt welcome. Some even offered to translate the tour for me, but since I had already visited the Jewish Museum (and already know a lot about Judaism), I was able to follow the Bosnian. Sarajevo’s history is fascinating on all fronts, but the history of the Jewish and Islamic communities here are especially amazing (see this New Yorker article for an in-depth look at this history). I am excited to go back to the museum, with hopefully some of my first years and David in tow.

In conclusion, I had a very beautiful week in Sarajevo, filled with faith and tolerance and a desire to learn more about other religions. Overall, this week, I just felt very welcomed and embraced by my friends and colleagues, especially in the Islamic community. I wish that Donald Trump or anyone who believes in his Fascist misconceptions of Islam could spend a week in my shoes. If the average American could have experienced what I saw this week, I think there would a lot less hate in the world.

Pictures from Christmas week and New Year’s:

Interesting Conversations

One constant feature of my life here in Sarajevo is that I always have the most interesting conversations. Among other conversations in the past three months, I have heard my favorite colleague’s personal stories about her father’s dear friend Vaclav Havel, talked with my students on the theological and personal reasons that they chose to wear the hijab, and learned why my friends who were refugees in other countries decided to return here. In the three month period before I left in the US, the most interesting conversations I had were about my dental problems. When I meet with people here (both old and new friends!) our conversations flitter around thousands of more topics, and topics of far more substance, than they do with my friends in the US.

I’m not sure why that is. Maybe Bosnians are just better conversationalists (even in English.) Certainly the crowds that I hang out with–almost all my friends are English professors or teachers who are at least several years older than me–are more intellectual and interested in the humanities than my friends back home. Maybe it’s because I am just a temporary stranger and talking in a second language brings a certain emotional distance–as one of my most perceptive students put it, “It’s easier to say I love you in English than volim te in Bosnian.” Or maybe it’s just this innate need for people here to communicate their perceptions about Bosnia to an outsider the wider world. Bosnia is massively overlooked on the world stage, and especially in Sarajevo, people are used to foreigners (backpackers and aid workers and exchange students alike) showing up and knowing absolutely nothing about where they have just arrived. Even now, if I don’t tell somebody how long I have been here, new acquaintances will tell me at the start of a conversation, “You know there was a war here, I’m not sure if you heard.”

I tell people that I teach here, but really, I spend most of my time listening. For a few hours a week, I stand in front of some very small formal classes, but much of my other teaching activities here–holding book clubs and conversations at the American Corner, giving individual lessons to professors at my faculty, visiting local schools–mostly devolve into me listening as my friends and colleagues recount their experiences during the war and after, and their dedication to their studies. Informal coffees with colleagues often go the same way. When I first met one of my closest friends, a teaching assistant at another university, we were originally just planning to compare our curriculums for our freshman classes. Instead, we ended up talking about literature and our teaching philosophies for four hours. Our conversations are sometimes less serious now, but no less entertaining and enlightening. In short, I can’t seem to avoid having interesting conversations with people.

These conversations have led me to reconsider my life’s work. I’d always imagined myself as a history teacher, a teller of stories. Here, though, I am just a listener, a repository of information rather than a curator. I know that they key to being a good teacher is being a good listener–I have had the most success with difficult students when I have talked with them about their lives outside school–but sometimes I wonder if I have missed my calling. Perhaps I was destined to be a journalist or a writer or a cultural researcher instead. I certainly have contemplated all these paths, although I know I am far too verbose for any of them and also that I will miss teaching too much. I never regretted not taking those roads until now.

I also find that when I’m in Sarajevo–perhaps because of these inspiring conversations–my brain operates on a much higher level than it does back in the states. Part of this, again, comes from hanging out with literature geeks rather than scientists. Still, when I’m here, I find that I am constantly thinking new thoughts and having dramatic insights about friendship and faith and travel and the idea of home. Most of these insights aren’t actually that dramatic, which is why I am only on blog post #2. When I told one of my closest friends about this, she was not at all surprised. “Of course, your brain is always just comparing the two cultures,” she explained. It was a simple but profound insight. I love learning about and comparing different cultures, so it’s no wonder that I am feeling so intellectually fulfilled here.

People here often ask me what I have left the US for.  Last month, I saw one of my host mom’s relatives for the first time since 2013. He asked me, “Did you find what you were looking for here in Sarajevo yet?” I didn’t know how to respond in the moment and I’m still not sure what I would say. I’m not sure if I was really looking for anything concrete when I decided to apply for Fulbright. I don’t think I will know what I have learned until years after I leave here. As far as what I have found… I have found great friends and great food and a way to put off the responsibility of being a middle school teacher in the US, but what else? Compared to six months ago, I feel more lost than I ever have regarding who I am as a person and what I want to do with my career. However, I have had so many great conversations–and looking back at my journals from 2013, these conversations was why I loved Sarajevo so much in the first place. I’m not sure what I will do, what I can do, with all that I have learned from these conversations, but I feel more intellectually fulfilled than I ever have felt in my life, and that is at least something.