Christmas in Bosnia

As a Jewish, American these were definitely the 4 most interesting days of my semester.

Lets start from the beginning. My flight out of Dubrovnik was scheduled for December 26th. About 2 months ago I was having coffee with a fellow classmate and now my current roommate, Monika. This was the first time Monika and I really had the chance to hangout and get to know each other. We were chatting and I mentioned when I was leaving Dubrovnik and she asked me what I was doing for the holidays. I never really thought about it. Monika immediately asked me if I would be interested in joining her family in Bosnia for Christmas. Of course I said yes, but I wasn’t sure if she was asking just to be nice or if she was serious. The next day Monika told me she talked to her mom and they are so excited for me to come to their house and that her mom already told her entire family. I was very surprised, but also very excited and a little nervous. Don’t get me wrong, I am very good at meeting parents, but most of her extended family does not speak English and Novi Travnik (the city she lives in) does not have many American visitors. I knew this was going to be a very different experience.

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Do not feel bad if you have never heard of Bosnia & Herzegovina, I hadn’t either until I came to Croatia. It is a country that lies directly east of Croatia. It has a very interesting and complicated history. It is made up of Serbs (Protestants), Croatians (Catholics), and Bosnians (Muslims). They each have separate communities and schools. While they each technically have their own language, it was explained to me that it is comparison to American English, British English, and Australian. Even though they are all Bosnian citizens, the Croatians fly Croatian flags and the Serbs fly Serbian flags.

I’m sure Monika and her sisters were tired of all my questions, but it was hard for me to understand dynamics between the different groups and the separation between them. Monika’s family lived in America for 5 years and they recently moved back to Bosnia this year, so they’ve experienced both worlds. I kept reminding myself that Bosnia was in the midst of war 20 years ago and there is no way I would be able to relate to their mindset no matter how much I tried to understand the current situation.

My 4 days in Bosnia can be described mostly by eating. I already told my mom that I thought I lost weight in Dubrovnik, but after leaving Bosnia that is not the case anymore. Our bus from Dubrovnik arrived in Travnik at 2:00 AM andwe arrived home to warm soup, fresh bread, and delicious chicken in white sauce on the table. Keep in mind this is the first home-cooked meal I’ve eaten in 4 months. We woke up to a huge stack of pancakes and 3 hours later we were eating homemade chicken-meatballs and mashed potatoes. Even though we were constantly full we just kept eating.

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Our first day was spent exploring the city in the freezing cold. Monika and her sister Iva showed me their high school and again answered all my questions about the different schools in Bosnia. Monika was the photographer for the day mostly because everyone stared at us walking through the streets. Since they are not used to tourists they are also not used to people walking down the streets taking pictures and speaking English. We must have looked very funny. We stumbled upon the house that the only Bosnian Nobel Peace Prize winner used to live in. We ended our tour around the city at Hari, “the best ?evapi restaurant in town.” Not only was it warm, it was delicious! ?evapi is a grilled dish of minced meat that is traditionally found in southeastern Europe. It is considered the national dish in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

Later that night I went to church with Monika, her mom, and her 2 younger sisters. I have been to church a couple times before, but this experience was much different. Since the entire mass in Croatian and I couldn’t understand anything, it gave me time to sit and think about everything around me.  The major difference I noticed about the church in Bosnia compared to churches I have been to in America was the people who attended it. In America we always talk about the loss of religious beliefs amongst the younger generations and how nowadays when we think of churchgoers we tend to think of elderly people. It seemed to be the complete opposite in Bosnia. The church was filled with young adults and children. I also noticed that religious beliefs are an important aspect in their families. After church we went to a local pub and sipped on kuhano vino, which is delicious cooked wine.

The next day was Christmas Eve, which meant a day without eating meat. In Bosnia, and many other countries, it is a tradition to roast pigs to eat on Christmas. Literally everywhere we drove we saw families outside roasting their pigs; some roasted 1 some roasted 5. It kind of reminded me of the pig I once saw at a luau in Hawaii. We spent the day trying to explore but it was too cloudy to really see anything, we could barley see 10 feet in front of us. Today was Monika’s Grandma’s birthday so we all took a trip to Grandma’s house to wish her a happy birthday. She didn’t speak English, but words were not necessary. We smiled at each other and hugged. She was the most curious out of Monika’s family members as to why an American has come to Bosnia. After visiting Grandma, the girls all went to midnight mass. We went to a different church that was much warmer, but also much longer and way more crowded. We stood in the back along with about 150 other people. Monika’s mom explained to me that typically if people have to stand then the women stand on the right and the men stand on the left. We happened to be standing on the left with all of the men, because that’s where there was room. No one even noticed us. After church we arrived home around 1:30 AM to a feast of roasted pig and fresh bread on the table.
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Christmas day was the day I was anticipating. It was the day I got to meet the ENTIRE family. I’m not going to lie…I was a little nervous. When we arrived the table was filled with food and we started eating immediately. We all share the common bond of enjoying delicious food; so I think eating is always a good way to start off when meeting new people. A couple of Monika’s younger cousins were there whom I met a couple days previous so that was nice already knowing them. 2 of her cousins spoke English but still let Monika and her sisters translate for them. We taught them what an “awkward situation” is so that was funny because basically our entire interaction was awkward. Monika’s little cousin, who is 7 years old, just started learning English so his parents tried to get him to talk to me but he was too nervous. That’s okay because we were still friends whether we spoke each other’s language or not.

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In Bosnia it is a tradition that all the “young adults” go out on Christmas Eve and Christmas night. I say “young adults” because they can go out when they are 16 and not have to worry about having an ID. As I mentioned in the beginning, all the Croatians go to Croatian bars, so once again I was the only American in the bar and we were the only group of people speaking English. We were sitting at a table speaking English and Monika’s sister could hear the guys next to us speaking in Croatian about how there was an American there and that they should all practice their English. It was kind of like I was a celebrity. We had a lot of fun and we met Monika’s cousins out, so at least I knew about 5 people. Oh, I forgot to mention Croatians are tall and Monika and her 2 sisters are very tall, so picture a short American walking into a bar and people trying to talk to her and she just shakes her head and dances away. Yeah, that is exactly how I looked. We made it home in time for me to go to the bus station at 2:00 AM to head back to Dubrovnik to catch my flight to London.

Mom, if you are reading this, I am sorry I didn’t tell you about this part of the adventure. You would have been mad at me for not listening to you about going back to Dubrovnik earlier. Love you!

As you should know by now there is usually some adventure that goes on, and while Bosnia was an adventure itself, so was my journey back to Dubrovnik.

I bought a bus ticket back to Dubrovnik and it was scheduled to leave Travnik at 2:00AM. We called the bus station to confirm the bus was running on Christmas night, we checked online, and we even asked the bus driver on our way to Bosnia. Everyone told us the bus would definitely be running on December 26, 2013 at 2:00AM. Well guess what…they were all wrong. Now I would have stayed in Bosnia a little longer, but I had to catch my flight to London and it was not an option to miss another flight. Monika and her father ended up driving me 3 hours to Mostar to catch the 7:00AM bus to Dubrovnik. Luckily I made that bus and was able to catch my flight. Yes, mom I should have listened to you and I learned that procrastination isn’t always key.

From now on whenever someone asks me what my favorite/most interesting part of my semester was my answer will always be spending Christmas in Bosnia with one of my new best friends and her lovely family. Yes, at times it was difficult to understand the current situation and it was difficult to adjust to the language barrier, but it was a learning experience. The people are so hospitable. I mean really there was never a time I felt uncomfortable. They eat a lot of meat, so we definitely get along. They also, embraced me as if I was their own family, which I couldn’t be more grateful for. I am so excited to return this summer!

For all the Gator fans reading this post, you will appreciate the fact that Monika’s dog in Bosnia is named Tebow! Yes he is actually named after Tim Tebow.

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