Learning a New Language

Ayla’s English was impeccable. Well, nearly impeccable.

When we first met, someone asked her how old she was.

“Twenty,” she said, without batting an eye.

“Twenty?” someone else questioned.

She flushed and giggled a little, realizing her mistake.  “No, twelve.”

I turned to Amina, our official translator. “Are twelve and twenty similar in Bosnian?” I asked. It would make sense, because they’re pretty similar in English.

“Yes,” she replied.

It reminded me of words that I hesitated to use in Croatia. I had learned over 350 Croatian words using an app before I traveled. Some words, however, I consistently confused.

For instance — zabranjen, which means forbidden, and začinjen, which means spicy.  It would have been kind of funny if I pointed to a food asked “Zabranjen?”

apricots(?) and plums

It turns out that Bosnian food really isn’t terribly spicy, just delicious.  Everything is fresh. The bread was baked fresh for us every day. We had fresh plums, apricots, watermelon. A salad made with fresh tomatoes and cabbage, lightly seasoned with salt, oil, and vinegar was served at several meals (I even got to help make it once.)

They made a most delicious soup called čorba.  The secret ingredient, I learned, was okra. Not fried okra like one would find in the south, but okra that had been cut into little pieces and dried and strung. I’d like to make it here, but I’m not where to find the okra.

Yes, that’s me slicing tomatoes, but Anna, next to me, is eating čorba

Back to Ayla — as I said, her English was excellent. When Amina wasn’t available, I would ask Ajla for help communicating and she was fantastic.

I had brought along a friend’s book to read, a children’s book called Henry and the Chalk Dragon, and finished it on my flight to Dubrovnik. I quickly realized that Ajla had the language skills to read the book — if she was interested. She was.

Ajla and Amina

Some things get lost in translation, though. Mary and I were talking yesterday about the time when Mary was telling a  story she made up with talking and flying animals, Ajla said, “You are a great storyteller  — in the lies.

How could we explain the difference between imagination and lies?

Henry and the Chalk Dragon is a very imaginative book, with chalk creatures coming to life — but it’s also full of truths. I hope Ajla can see them.

She wants to be an artist, and here’s one truth  from Henry that she needs to understand:

You have to be brave to be an artist…. It takes a fearless knight to imagine something and then let it out into the world.

Jennifer Trafton Peterson, Henry and the Chalk Dragon

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Hospitality

Hospitality is certainly part of Muslim culture… It is a reminder of the importance of hospitality in understanding people and allowing them to know you. In our American culture we don’t place as high of a premium on it, and we kind of expect that we can just tell people what we think, and they’ll just accept it because we told them. We don’t have that element of hospitality anymore that allows us to really get to know people on a heart level. 

Jonathan Trousdale, The Bosnia Project

Amy had warned us about Bosnian hospitality before we traveled — but mostly it was in terms of coffee drinking. I thought, That’s not such a problem. I like coffee.

And it was true — we were offered lots of coffee. Served in tiny cups and often with sugar cubes. Made the Turkish way.

It turns out I prefer my large American mug of coffee with half-and-half in it.

But Bosnian hospitality – oh my goodness!

Ajla, our junior hostess, playing the harmonica (aka accordion) for us

The coffee was such a tiny part of their hospitality. On two nights we were welcomed into homes for veritable feasts. The first of those meals I would place in the top ten meals of my life. The food was absolutely amazing, especially the baklava.

Bosnian hospitality also includes music. At that first feast, Ajla started the musical segment off playing the “harmonika” (aka accordion), but then there was singing and dancing that went on late into the night. Such a celebration!

Two nights later we dined at a fudbal (soccer) club and watched a game that included the two men from our group.

Bill-2 and Bill-1 dressed for soccer

Watching the game before dinner

After the game and dinner, someone got out an accordion again and the men sang. The best men’s choirs in the world had nothing on this group. It was wonderful.

The second dinner in a home was on our last night in Gradačac. We drove and drove on winding country roads until we came to the house. We dined on a large porch that overlooked a valley. Once again, an accordion came out after dinner. The food was great, the singing fun, and the view spectacular.

More accordion!

What a view!

If I could do one thing in the Bosnian way, it wouldn’t be making coffee or bread or pie or even baklava — although all those things were amazing — if I could do one thing the Bosnian way, it would be to practice hospitality.


The panorama of the valley is my day two entry for the photography challenge I’m doing. It involves posting nature photos (taken by me) for seven days.

I’m going to tag some of my favorite bloggers to take up the challenge too. If you’re tagged and don’t want to do it, that 110% fine with me. I totally understand.

Maneé Trautz — I’m tagging you for three reasons.

One — because when I was looking for hospitality quotes I found one that said “Be a flamingo in a flock of pigeons.” I’m not entirely sure why that’s a hospitality quote, but it made me think of you and your flamingo series back in February (which I loved).

Two — your last post included a picture of a turtle. My last post included a picture of a turtle! Total kismet. (Plus, turtles amble, and that’s the word of the day.)

Three — You haven’t written much lately, my friend. (nudge, nudge)

 

The Texture of War

Imagine to yourself a gloomy city, all burning with brimstone and noisome pitch, full of citizens who are unable to leave it.

St. Francis de Sales, in Meditation VII: Of Hell

Leah and I watch a short movie about the 1991 siege on Dubrovnik. In it, we saw people clustered in doorways and pressed against walls as they watched the attack on their city. Buildings burned in the background. When I read St. Francis’ description of hell, I thought of Dubrovnik.

When I traveled to the former Yugoslavia, reminders of war were all around me.

I saw shells of buildings, or were they shelled buildings, or both?

I’m the kind of person who averts her eyes in war movies, but I couldn’t avert my eyes there.

I drank it up, storing far more images in my mind than I did on my camera.

War leaves a texture all its own. Even 25 years later.

From Dubrovnik:

Dubrovnik

From Mostar:

Mostar

From Sarajevo:

Sarajevo

From Gradačac:

View from an armored train outside Gradačac

We stayed in a castle in Gradačac. Here’s a picture of the castle in 1992.

 

And here’s what it looked when we were there:

Gradačac castle

Rebuilding brings hope.

Summer Swimming

Hitting is like swimming. Once you learn the stroke, you never forget it.

Stan (The Man) Musial, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame 1969

A baseball quote, because Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend is closing in, but the topic is swimming.

I hadn’t gone swimming in well over a year. Our local pool had been closed, and I’m rather loathe to be seen in a swim suit.

But during my travels, I swam multiple times.

I got in the first time because I was so hot. Leah and I took a kayaking tour around Lokrum Island. The guides had told us the temperature in Celsius which didn’t mean a whole lot to me. 

But it was hot.

On our way around the island, we stopped at a cave. Leah was, I think, the first to hop in the water. Then other people from the group jumped in — so, finally, I joined them. It was so refreshing. Refreshingly cold.

That was swim number one.

A few days later, we walked down a gazillion steps to a little swim area we had noticed on our way to and from the Airbnb.

We got there early. A young woman was doing yoga on the pier while a handful of people were already in the water. Of course, Leah ventured in first. I followed.

Even at 8 AM, Dubrovnik was hot, so the water felt good — cold and refreshing. I swam to the far post, to the mouth of a cave, and back to the post. I hadn’t forgotten how to swim, despite my hiatus.

Swim number three took place during a tour from Mostar. We spent a few hours at a place called Kravice Falls.

Our tour group consisted of Leah, a family of four from Sweden, a young woman who was a recent college graduate, and me.

The two girls from the Swedish family immediately headed for the water. The rest of us sat at a table and ordered some lunch. The girls called and waved to their parents from the water.

“The younger one just learned to swim on this trip,” said the mother.

Subconsciously, I scanned the swim area for lifeguards. Nada.

“A week or so ago, she just decided she would swim,” the mother continued.

There were ropes out in the swim area, but no clear designations what they were all about. People just seemed to swim wherever they wanted.

“There are no lifeguards here,” I said. “Does that make you nervous?”

I asked because it was making me nervous.

“No,” said the mom, “they’ll be fine.”

I realized that Americans are far more safety conscious than the rest of the world.

And that someone who has been a lifeguard/swim instructor/swim coach can’t turn off that part of her brain.

I swam at Kravice Falls with the young woman who was part of our group. We got in the middle of the swim area on our way to the falls, and she said, “I’m feeling really panicky. I don’t think I can make it.”

We stopped and treaded water for a while. Right there, in the middle, we paused and talked. I told her that I was a swim coach. I asked her about her life. I watched the anxiety dissolve before we continued to the falls where we sat on a rock together and let the water beat down on our backs.

My fourth swim was at a lake in Bosnia.

One of the men from Gradacac had made arrangements for us to visit a scuba club. At a lake. In Bosnia.

We didn’t scuba, but we did go out on a boat tour of the lake.

Our sweet translator, Amina, didn’t know how to swim, so she put on a life jacket. And clutched Nicole’s leg.

I reminded her to breathe. And took lousy pictures of her.

After the boat ride, I swam out in the lake. It was cool (not cold, like the Adriatic) and refreshing.

Swimming again gave me great satisfaction.

I hadn’t forgotten how.

I still loved it.

Now that the pool has reopened, I need to get back.

Things I Would Have Done Differently in Bosnia

While I was in Bosnia, I began thinking of things that I would do differently next time.

First, I would bring my computer.  I intentionally did not bring my computer on this trip, so I could “unplug” a little. I had my phone which I thought would be adequate.

I learned something about myself, though. When I journal with a notebook and a pen, I tend to write little notes to myself. Reminders of the day. Conversations occasionally, but with minimal extras.  When I write on my computer, I write complete sentences. Or complete thoughts. (<– see what I did there?) I edit, delete, rewrite, and write a little more — because the process of writing helps me to unfold my thoughts more completely.

In Bosnia mosques and churches – side by side — something I’m still pondering

For two weeks, I didn’t do that. Now I am left with a hopelessly tangled knot. I try to write about an experience I had there and I can tell something isn’t right about what I just wrote, but I’ve lost the moment. Sigh.

So — next time, the computer travels with me, and journalling will be worked into the schedule.

Second, I would bring more gifts. I was overwhelmed with the generosity of the Bosnian women. They gave us clothes, jewelry, hand-made lace items, plums — not because we needed them, but because they wanted to express things that only a gift can express — Thank you. I appreciate you. I want you to remember me. I was thinking of you and I wanted you to have this.

Group photo — I’m holding some clothing given to me as a gift

Quite frankly, I wasn’t prepared at all for that. I had thrown a few things in my bag to give, and gave them on our last day. (Stay tuned for a future post about that.) But I really wished I had more, much more, because I wanted to say all those things that only a gift can express. (See previous paragraph.)

Third, skip the brick brigade.

Passing bricks

Ostensibly, we were there to help build a house. I was a little skeptical of my part in that from the get-go, but figured there must be something I could do. A prerequisite for the trip was the ability to carry bricks uphill. Well, we carried them downhill. And not even that. We formed a brick brigade and passed them down the line in the many-hands-make-light-work spirit. Moving a palette of bricks took, maybe, 20 minutes. It just felt like, um, fluff — well, as fluffy as brick-moving can be. Later in the week, I saw a truck deliver bricks much closer to the work site. It made me wonder how much of the original delivery site was so that the Americans could feel useful. I didn’t want to feel useful; I wanted to be useful.

Which is why, fourth, I would have volunteered more in the kitchen. On the last day, I went into the kitchen with the Bosnian women. Perhaps I should have stuck with moving bricks because I was pretty terrible at scraping potatoes. Had I started earlier in the week, by this point, I might have gotten the hang of it. Had I known I would be doing that before we left, I would have brought some peelers. As gifts. To say, I want you to remember me — every time you peel potatoes.

Cutting cabbage

But peeling potatoes and cutting cabbage were the highlights of my week. We communicated through hand gestures (when the translator stepped out) and demonstration. We laughed at my clumsiness – ineptness needs no translation and neither does laughter. The women asked if I wanted to make the traditional pie, but, if I couldn’t peel a potato well, I was afraid what I would do to the pie.

Our hostess making pie

Next time, though, I would head straight for the kitchen. I would help with the daily bread-making and soup-making. And I would learn the Bosnian way of rolling out pie dough. (It was pretty amazing!)

Last, I would leave the photography to other people. If I had left my computer home so I could be unplugged, I should have left the camera off so I would stay in the moment. I’m not the greatest photographer. One girl on the trip was truly gifted in that area. My pictures are adequate at best.

In addition to shoveling cement, Nicole took fabulous pictures

Once, when we went out on a boat, Amina, our translator, asked me to take a picture of her. The first three or four pictures that I tried to take were so bad that she turned to someone else. I should have warned her that I was lousy photographer.

As the week went on, I took less and less photographs. I tried to memorize the things I was seeing, smelling, tasting and feeling. All the pictures in the post were taken by someone else — proof that I didn’t need to take any.

A number of people have asked if I will go back to Bosnia.

I guess I need to, if only to do it better.

Počitelj

Coke machines aren’t unusual — except when seen on a trail from a medieval fortification.

One of my favorite days on my recent trip to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina involved a full day tour from Mostar. Our tour guide, Emir, was very knowledgable, engaging, and absolutely wonderful. I highly recommend him. (See: Kravice Waterfalls, Pocitelj Old Town and Blagaj Tekke Day Trip) I’m sure I’ll write more about his tour in the days to come.

But Počitelj.

It was our last stop after a full day of sightseeing. Emir drove us to the top of a little mountain or large hill — I’m not sure what the distinction is.

Side note: Bosnia is a country of panoramas. Every time I looked out the window of the train or car or bus, I was struck by the beauty of the place. A town nestled in a valley. Sheep grazing on a hillside. Haystacks. Farmland. Mountains. Rivers.

From the top at Počitelj, we looked out over the Neretva valley and down on a cluster of homes and the mosque.

According to Wikipedia:

The entire historic urban site of Počitelj and surrounding area suffered extensive collateral damage during the 1992-1996 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Namely, it was heavily damaged by Croatian forces during the 1993 Bosnian War. Following the bombing, Počitelj’s sixteenth-century master works of Islamic art and architecture were destroyed and a large part of the town’s population was displaced.

That’s Bosnia — beauty and war damage intertwined with each other everywhere. Destruction and rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding.

Hope.

Everyone else in our group climbed to the top of this tower, but the stairs of Dubrovnik had done me in. (I made 5x my stair goal one day in Dubrovnik.) I relish alone time, too, and saw this as an opportunity to sit and just enjoy the views.

The place was spectacular.

The Coca-Cola machine on the path down, undoubtedly pre-war, was a reminder of a different time.

I laughed when I first saw it; it was so unexpected.

But if I think too much about it, I may cry.