I arrived in Sarajevo on June 12th of 2015. Within an hour of landing I found myself in an apartment building in Alipašno Polje, about 20 minutes by tram outside of the city, with a family that did not speak a word of English. While I have worked hard to teach myself Bosnian (or “BCS” if you prefer) over the past three years, this was the first time I had found myself in a position where using my native language was not an option. In a sense, I was thrown into the deep end and had to learn how to swim fairly quickly.
However, the panic surprisingly subsided almost immediately after I met my host family. I stepped into the apartment of Vezirka Kečo and was greeted by her daughter, grandchildren, and an assortment of traditional Bosnian food from begova čorba, to pita, to kompot, and much more. The hospitality I was shown by Veka in the first few days was almost unbelievable, as I felt as though I was treated as a member of her own family. As a result of all of this, the host-family facet of the program has been a constant source of security and stability in a foreign place that I only know from history books and documentaries.
Because of my host mother, I do not believe that I have really felt what has been described to me as “culture shock.” In fact, thus far I have enjoyed many of the customs or practices that are different than what I am accustomed to in Canada or the United States. The type of food offered in Sarajevo, for example, has been phenomenal. In my experiences so far, I would characterize Bosnian cuisine has being very heavy and very much centered around meat and bread. Both ćevap and burek have become regular meals for me by themselves, as I do believe that any addition of a side dish would put me in something of a food coma. Moreover, it feels as though the majority of restaurants in and around Baščaršija serve fresh, home-cooked meals and they are far from expensive; I am pretty sure that I have spent more on two slices of cheap pizza in Montreal than I have on a large portion of burek at a nice café or restaurant in Baščaršija.
One cultural experience that has been very interesting for me during my time in Sarajevo is observing the practice of Ramadan in country with a Muslim majority. Though I have travelled to a number of countries in Scandinavia and Central Europe, this has been my first time living in a city in which mosques are more prominent than churches. Nonetheless, I do not feel like I have been treated as an outsider despite the fact that I do not practice Islam. On the contrary, my host mother and others I have met have demonstrated excitement about the opportunity to include me in their practices. During the third week of Ramadan, for example, my host mother invited a dozen of her friends and family to partake in an iftar. Throughout the evening I was not only encouraged to enjoy the mountain of food that was prepared, but also to sit in on an hour-long prayer session.
The main goal of this blog entry has not been to highlight feelings of “culture shock”, as I do not really feel like that is something I have experienced. Rather, I hope this has demonstrated how welcomed I have felt in Sarajevo despite my foreignness and lack of proficiency in the language. In this second month I hope to take advantage of that hospitality to practice speaking BCS more, and to learn as much as I can about the language and the people while I am still in BiH.
By: Kevin Hackley
Program: Balkan Language Initiative
Term: Summer 2015