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.