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.

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4 thoughts on “Polako, Festina Lente, or I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

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