May 24, 2008

When in Bosnia


I'm just back from an unexpected week in Sarajevo. It wasn't a pleasure trip (a funeral unfortunately) and I had rather a lot of time to sit and reflect. I thought of a few things that you will want to know if you are considering a trip to the Balkans. Which you should totally do because it is beautiful, steeped in history and inexpensive.

Pack slippers
When entering someone's home you will be required to remove your shoes. Your hosts will have slippers for you and insist you wear them. Bare feet are not an option. On occasion an exception will be made for an elderly person, but if you can bend down, your shoes have to come off. I noticed that a lot of women actually packed lightweight slippers in their purses.

Hostess gifts
All visitors come bearing gifts. Specifically, a pound of coffee, a box of sugar cubes and a liter of juice (optional variation includes a box of sweets).

Coffee, juice or cigarettes?
As a guest in someone's home you will be offered coffee and juice. Bosnian coffee is strong: I can manage half a cup once a year. Also, there is a good chance that there will be tray of cigarettes available for your convenience (very 1950s).

Smoking or smoking?
There isn't a non-smoking section in the entire country.

Cafes are everywhere. At one, you will be able to order coffee, juice, soft drinks or mineral water. Smoking is always allowed, but if you are there in the summer you will find an outdoor cafe every 20 feet in the city.

Ice cream (Sladoled)
It is good, people, very good. Similar in texture to gelato and served in a glass dish with a square-shaped spoon. If you happen to be in Sarajevo, there is a terrific ice cream shop just up from the eternal flame that was reputed to have the best ice cream in the city.

All tea is herbal
I am a serious black tea drinker and I have to say that this is one area where the Balkans lets me down. While there are countless varieties of tisanes lining the supermarket shelves you will have to hunt for that single box of "India tea" that, when brewed, will taste like it is left over from the Raj. Can't live without your tea? Take your own.

Speaking the language
Written Bosnian is phonetic, so learn how to pronounce a few different consonants and you will be able to read out of your phrase book like a native.

I have never been treated with more kindness from perfect strangers than in Bosnia. On my first trip I came down with Norwalk virus and fainted on the street. A complete stranger took me to her apartment, let me use her bathroom repeatedly (it wasn't pretty) and called a doctor who gave me some fluids by IV and didn't charge me a cent. Another time we were trying to buy water in a convenience store but didn't have any small bills. So the store owner gave it to us for free because it was a hot day. Good people, Bosnians.

Need more convincing?


Mortimer's Mom said...

I'm very sorry you had to go under these circumstances, but you certainly do make it sound lovely. I have a friend who feels the same way about Slovakia. Maybe I'll have to make a plan....

Mymsie said...

My senior year of college, I studied international newsgathering in the Balkans. My degree is in journalism, so I was studying what it was like for the journalists there to report on a war on their home soil. It was an incredible experience and I hope to go back some day. Everyone I met in Croatia and Bosnia was so kind and welcoming.

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

I think the Bosnian custom of removing shoes is excellent.

I have an whole blog dedicated to the subject of removing shoes in homes.
Shoes Off at the Door, Please You might want to take a look.