Hello everybody! I’m sorry it’s been so long since I last posted–living here has been a lot more intense and moving than I expected, and I’ve been having trouble gathering my thoughts. After this, I might start posting specific stories about my teaching or the places I travel to (such as on Saturday, when we’re going to a bunch of places in Herzegovina), but for now, I just want to start with my general impressions of Sarajevo and my experience. I’ve only been here for a week so far, and it has been kind of rough (I miss my family and my boyfriend much more than I ever expected!), but I’ve learned so much already.
When I first got here, I went from being excited to being in shock and a little scared very quickly. I had spent so much time raising money for the trip, learning about the history of the country and planning lessons that I never really stopped to think what it would feel like when I got dropped off with my host family. Suddenly, there I was, in an apartment on the side of a hill with my big suitcase, alone with my host family–a mom, dad, and two small children. Nobody spoke English fluently. That night, I went to bed almost in tears, wondering what the hell I was doing here.
By the second day, however, I realized that living with a host family is an amazing experience, and probably the fastest and most enjoyable route to understanding another culture. My host mom and dad might not have perfect English, but we can all communicate enough to understand each other and laugh together. Lucky for me, my host mother’s two sisters all speak English to a varying degree (one of them studied and lived in the US for several years.) Unlike many families in the US, Bosnian extended families are usually very close to one another–my host mom’s two sisters live within a five minute walk and visit almost day, usually with their husbands and/or children in tow. Our coteachers at the camp we are working at are also wonderful–they’ve all studied English and are really fluent, and are really open with us about showing us fun places around town and opening up about their lives in Sarajevo.
I don’t want to stereotype anybody and exclaim “I love all Bosnian people,” because that implies that all Bosnian people are the same, when obviously there are good people and bad people here like everyone else. However, almost everybody that I’ve met here has been so warm, welcoming and friendly. There are so many aspects of the culture of Sarajevo that I just find so appealing–unlike most of America and especially William & Mary, people here are less concerned with excessive work and more concerned with relaxing and spending time with family. People here work hard, but I feel like it’s much more socially acceptable here to go to a coffeehouse at night or to go out to a bar on a weeknight instead of just staying at home. Similar to Italian culture (my Bosnian host family actually reminds me a lot of my Italian grandparents and extended family), food is a huge deal. As my host-dad put it: “In Bosnia, you stay out all night, it’s ok. You don’t come home for two days, it’s ok. But eat, eat, you must eat!” The food here is delicious–Bosnian cuisine is based on meat, dairy and bread–so this last challenge hasn’t been very hard for me.
The hardest thing for me has been the shock of living somewhere so profoundly different than what I’m used to in the US. I naively imagined that I easily adjust to life in another culture. After all, I left home when I was barely 18 to go to college eight hours in a way in a state where I knew nobody. I’ve also visited five other countries, including two where I knew nothing of the language. As soon as I got here, however, I realized that those experiences were completely useless points of comparison. As much as I like to joke around that Virginia is like a foreign country compared to New Jersey, it’s really not–you can still get the same food, speak the same language and talk to your family without having to worry about international call rates or time differences. And as much as I believed that my experiences as a tourist in Europe would help me adjust to being in Bosnia, staying in hotels, doing nothing besides listening to tour guides in your own language, and interacting solely with other Americans is radically different than living and working abroad. There are many, many good things about living as opposed to just working abroad–for example, actually getting to know people in the country you visit is a huge plus–but it also presents all sorts of weird challenges, like figuring out how to navigate a grocery store in a completely different language and how to make your way home late at night. Also, for me at least, I had a lot of free time in Bosnia in the first few days, which gave me a lot of time to think about home and how much I miss my family and friends.
I’ve never considered myself to be particularly proud to be American–in fact, my host father and I just had a two-hour conversation completely criticizing American foreign policy–but I’m so excited whenever I meet other Americans when we’re out and about (which has happened exactly once). A few of my friends and I heard people speaking English with American accents at the grocery store our first day here, and we all stopped in our tracks and immediately struck up a conversation. The strange part is, I often feel overwhelmed by how different everything here is from America, but essentially, everything is the same. There are showers. There are cars. There are malls and restaurants and and cafes and bars (and most of these places, especially the malls, are much nicer than anything I’ve ever seen in America). Yet somehow, all of these things are not quite the same, and it’s really disorienting.
Overall, this whole experience has been disorienting–in a way, it’s been exactly what I’ve prepared for and had been imagining since November, but in a way, it’s been completely different and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Living abroad, especially in a country with a different language, is supposed to be disorienting and even though I’m not sure if I ever want to live abroad again, I wouldn’t trade the past week for anything.