Lying in bed, listening to the voices and sounds of the city, my thoughts jump back and forth between two continents. I try to reimagine work and life and old friends back in the U.S. But then, will I be able to have coffee with Alma this week? Can Safet and I do more interviews in Grbavica? Is there time to plant flowers at the synagogue? To teach a challah baking class before I leave? What new people will come to Friday services in September when I am not there? Am I completely replaceable? At what moment does one begin to belong and then conversely, at what moment does one begin to unbelong?
I was sipping a veliki macchiato soaking in the morning rays, savoring a buttery croissant sa makom (poppy) at the local semi-hipster hangout café Galerija across from the Academy of Fine Arts. In Sarajevo a hipster café is really any cafe that plays anything other than American pop 80s / 90s or Bosnian Turbofolk. At nine in the morning, it was a distinct salsa rhythm floating over the outdoor seating.
An older man rested on a bench nearby. His hands, resigned to his lap sat, were loosely holding a pair of crutches, and his faded beige cap and jacked looked as tired as he looked. I watched as the Galerija bartender skipped over to him from the cafe, coffee tray and espresso in hand. The old man greeted him with a weak toothless smile.
A quick diversion....
I was listening to an interview not too long ago where the topic was the stress inducing task of "finding the right person.” Helen Fisher talked with Krista Tippett about the dangers of the expectations we place on what we seek. Because of many factors - the thinning and unraveling of family and neighbor networks, sprawling urban design, ever-increasing privatisation of public space, and education and healthcare --- without local community support naturally we expect a lot from a potential spouse. The emotional and social needs that were formerly filled by whole communities are now demands we expect a romantic partner to meet. If nothing more, it is a thought provoking interview. And it gave me pause to think, what if instead of the focus on finding “the right person” we were instead urged to focus on finding (likely a better word here is creating) “the right community?”
Back to the present...
I’ve decided that if you want to see the real people of a city, get up in the morning. In Sarajevo before noon, in Bascarsija, one hears the most Bosnian and the least English, Turkish, Japanese, German or French. One sees the shop keepers preparing their stores for the day, bringing the goods from inside out to the street where they can be visible to passerbys. Shopkeepers, both men and women, can be seen bringing each other coffee on little trays. One woman, wearing an apron, stood in the doorway of a shop holding a tray with several espresso cups and a large dzeva. “Hoćeš?” I hear projected into the doorway as I pass.
The street cleaners can be seen eliminating the last of the previous night’s evidence from the street, sucking cigarette butts from the cobblestone with a giant city-branded vacuum cleaner. Leaning my head back and up towards the sun I see women from windows high above the street, shaking sheets, watering balcony plants, or sometimes just leaning out a window observing. There are baristas laying out and straightening hundreds of outdoor cushions, preparing the cafes which will be full in a few hours with large thick boned men can be seen daintily sit on cross-legged, reading the paper in the sun and sipping espressos from cups smaller than the ones I used as tea sets for my dolls.
Galerija’s outdoor tables are nearly all full. The cigarette smoke curling around the table legs and freshly opened umbrellas. This is the place where people wear patterns and colorful pants, mismatched socks, smoking- they lean into the screens of their smart phones to check email.
It’s a popular café. People take their dogs here too, even inside. The man at the table next to me bends over a small white husky puppy. He stands up to leave and the puppy yelps. A girl calls to the dog, “Dođi Rea!” but the puppy stands and barks as the man crosses the street. “Dođi!” she calls again, but the dog just stands, its tail wagging, barking, its eyes following the man until he is no longer visible.
The old man across the street has now finished his espresso. He's still sitting on the bench, half sitting, half leaning/stand. His crumpled fist is slightly exented towards the sidewalk and I see a few women stop in front of him and reach into their purse for some coins which they wedge into his hand.
The Latin rhythms over the cafe speakers play on and the sugar at the bottom of my coffee is finally starting to hit me.
Local community in Sarajevo looks different from what I experienced in midwestern America. Take for a moment, older people. Firstly, in Sarajevo, they are everywhere. On the street. On the tram. On benches. In cafes. Sitting by the river. On the bus. They speak and socialize loudly. Their voices and bodies more visible than anything I can recall in the U.S. where my memories consist of a shriveled pile of visits to lonely, secluded residents at the Jewish Center for Aging. Of course, certain professions – health care – deal often with seniors but I’m talking specifically about the presence of seniors in the public space. Not a private, quarantined campus made out of linoleum hallways and 1970s-era carpeted multi-purpose rooms where people stare blankly at televisions. Why does it like in the U.S. that people go quickly from age 75 to “nowhere to be seen?”
Actually, in reality I think it is far less about the number and more about mobility. If your neighborhood does not make it possible for you to walk, if it does not have sidewalks, railings on stairs, safe streets to cross, benches to rest, covered bus shelters… wait, hang on, hang on… a bus system, i.e. public transportation. Despite its many steep, windy, and slippery cobblestone streets, I still see many seniors shopping, walking, and occupying public spaces. It is common to see young people accompanying them on errands, walking on the street or sharing a bowl of ice cream at one of the many slastičarnas.
A few days ago I was exiting the tram and noticed some commotion behind me. An older man had slipped and fallen into the street while trying to get out of the tram. As I turned around I noticed he was gripping a cane while struggling to get out from the small space where he lay trapped between the sidewalk and the train. I hurried over but even faster there were three women at his side, hoisting him up, lifting him to his feet and guiding him onto the sidewalk and then to the bench under the covered bus stop. As a foreigner, it was a remarkable scene to witness, particularly because, although frightening, the reaction seemed to unfold in such a natural way. It was absolutely normal for three women in heels to not only be alert enough to see a man who needed help on the tram, but to react with the timing that they did and without hesitating, get him out of danger.
There’ve been other moments where I’ve seen strangers, and different generations, interacting in surprisingly kind ways. Women with strollers receive helping hands to hoist a stroller in and out of buses. Despite severe problems with government accountability, a free media, mere wisps of an independent economy, Sarajevo citizens amaze me in the way they seem to so effortlessly create and exist in a communicative multigenerational community.
Then however, there was the unsettling interaction that happened a few days ago. I was looking for a new USB cord for my phone. It was a rainy day. I stepped into the electronics store around the corner from my building, carefully placing my umbrella in "the umbrella bucket" as I had learned to do. A brief exchange helped determine that no, the shopkeeper did not have a USB cord for an iPhone. As I often have to do in Sarajevo, I inquired if he knew about a store where I might find the item I was searching for.
“Da li znate drugu prodavnicu gdje…” I began.
Suddenly, he interrupted. “Where are you from?” He seemed surprisingly irritated.
“Uhh…uhh... Uhmerica…” I was startled by his interruption.
“Just tell me in English” he said shortly. “It will be easier.”
“Ok,” I began again, slightly confused. It was a question I was accustomed to asking in my practiced Bosnian, and had been for months. I would go somewhere in search of some item. They would not have it. I would ask if they knew of a store where I might find it. Standard protocol.
But his temper seemed short. He was a young person. It’s always a little embarrassing for me when someone asks me to stop my stammering Bosnian and speak English. The young man had a particularly condescending tone as if to say, “Stop wasting my time. Just speak something I can understand…”
“You know the Academy of Fine Arts?”
“They sell Apple products. You should go there. Be prepared to spend. It will be expensive.”
“Ok, I’ll look. Thanks,” I said turning towards the door.
“Have a good stay in Sarajevo,” he called after me.
As the words settled in my ears I caught a glance of my own impermanent reflection in the shop door as I pulled it shut. It felt as if during the few moments of that brief conversation a giant tree unearthed itself and was shaking loose the ground from its roots, the dirt raining down from the sky and into my eyes. Have I really only been just a long-term vacationer? At one point does one belong somewhere and at one point does one then un-belong? How was the shop keeper supposed to know that I was just “some tourist” in town for the weekend – that although I’d never been inside, I’d still walked past his corner shop every day for the past ten months?
Much as I like to pretend otherwise, particularly while sipping 'kafa' at Galerija, this question of belonging, and reminders of my own impermanence are never far. Is it that transparent? Through my thick English accent people can tell, I’m just a visitor. For however long, they hope I enjoy my stay. I’ve been a guest, but no more.
But where these lines blur and sharpen still confuses me. When I am alone, I can forget this more easily. I feel at ease in Europe, in the small streets and local bakeries. A primarily pedestrian culture dependent on public transportation. Car-sharing. Leisurely time with friends and family sitting outside as many days of the year as possible. I remember in March, when the first warm rays of the sun seemed to be pushing through the grey late winter sky, the cafes eagerly pushed tables out into the sun, and to my surprise, despite the cold, the tables filled, people puffing on their cigarettes and sipping espressos.
Although the world is very connected through internet, phones, Facebook and webcams, I continue to feel a world away. Living abroad certainly created conditions for unique difficulties but in comparison I would take these challenges any day over the feelings of numb out of control, self or other imposed expectations I’ve experienced for most of my (relatively) still new, adulthood in the U.S.
A few have told me that I fit in well in Europe. In public, at least, I am "too relaxed," "too quiet," and "too reserved" to be a "real American." And frankly, I've relished the distance from my home country. Had I understood the opportunity of time and space to think, reflect, and reimagine who I might be away from the emotional and economic pressures that are in many ways the air we breathe in America. It’s hard to see when we are so steeped in the system. A system where “normal” is living in our cars by ourselves more than our own living rooms. And where many don’t see seniors except for holidays or if they go to a hospital. Sarajevo in 2015 is a confusing mix of old and new, religious and secular, east and west, local and foreign, but it’s hard to explain to people that despite all these layers, a sense of local community still exists here in a way that still remains a challenge for me to fully conceive.
Meanwhile, news abroad from the U.S. is not making the situation any better. A racist white American 20-year old killed nine people in a church meeting including a senator and the director of the library. A dear friend, personally knew both of them. Thinking back on my year, have any violent shootings occurred in Bosnia, a country that experienced a genocide and then was forced to sign a peace agreement with the nationalist aggressors? Well, there was one violent attack ... The frustration is visible on the signs that line the highways (motorways) where people continually graffiti over the Cyrillic writing of town names (traditionally since Bosnia has a shared cultural heritage of two alphabets have always been used). But the level of gun violence that occurs on a daily basis in the U.S. is something unfathomable to most Europeans.
But in the U.S. the police have highlighted the deaths of unarmed black men, there are continued shootings, not to mention daily gun violence in many neighborhoods. My former colleague, Ashley Walls, was passionate about this subject (among many). In 2013 she wrote a blog post for Planners Network UIUC about the prison industry, and passionately on other occasions on her own blog.
Ashley is an important person to mention, perhaps also because I am thinking about her on this one-year anniversary of her death. Like me, she traveled to a foreign place, with open eyes and an open heart. Stunningly, and tragically, she contracted meningitis, and died within a week. Her absence has left a large hole in the many communities she touched not to mention her family and many, many friends and mentees.
What I remember most about her was her strength, her persistence, her faith in God and an enduring stubborn optimism, that good will overcome. I can't think of a message that needs more bolstering in the U.S. right now. From abroad, we are laughable, an embarrassment, "the strongest country in the world" who seems ready, idiotically eager, to tear themselves down. Lamenting over the lack of recycling in Bosnia (nothing - glass, paper, plastic - nula) a friend here gave me pause when she said, "Well... the U.S. may recycle some but they still consume and pollute far more than anyone else."
It's true. From abroad we seem out of control. Our legislators cannot put limits to protect the environment - the lobbies that make dollars NOW are too powerful. Our legislators cannot put limits on guns - the lobbies that make DOLLARS on the sale of guns are too powerful. Our legislators have made baby steps on limiting the cost of healthcare but we maintain a culture that is emotionally stunted, one that prefers quick fixes than the sustainable more emotionally difficult work of deep and honest knowing. From the lens of Europe, we appear to be a country incapable of sustainability, continually lost, a big rock on our own shores that just gets thrown up and down in the ever returning waves. We are stuck in our own surf and as John Stewart eloquently put, allow ourselves to be distracted by fear and messages of foreigners or foreign attacks, of ISIS, which is easier than looking at our own ever widening self-inflicting wounds. I have to be careful and intentional about seeking out stories of resistance and positive action in my own country or else... I may never want to come back.