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Burch, Burek & Buddies

Cultural Exchange in Bosnia and Herzegovina, March 2016, Part 1

A hundred-and-eighty miles does not seem like a very long distance for an experienced traveler. Mind you, I am not an experienced traveler, but some of the people who I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by on the trip from Belgrade to Sarajevo and, later, to Mostar, can definitely say they’ve done their fair share of traversing the globe. Even I’ve gone further than the short distance between Serbia’s and Bosnia’s capitals.

So, you could say that experiencing such a huge culture-shock upon arrival was a bit unexpected. Everything seemed different. Some things were completely foreign to me and my limited experience, but others were just familiar enough for me to know that they are not the same as they are back home. The language is almost the same; the accent, however, makes the words sound so much more heartfelt, and there are many expressions which are sorely missing from my own vocabulary. The people might seem the same, but Sarajevo is a blend between three religions, three nations and the shadow of the two-decade-old conflict between them that still looms over the city, shaping its denizens into who they are today.

This is what officially happened: under the leadership of Serbia’s English Language Fellow, Nathan William Meyer, seven students had gone to spend four days in two Bosnian cities, Sarajevo and Mostar, at a conference and meetups with other young people from the region. It sounded innocent enough on paper. Our trip was a business trip, a mission to share our experience, ideas and accomplishments at the Fourth Annual Student Symposium at International Burch University, through the most neutral and inclusive medium there is – the English language. Some of us gave talks on youth entrepreneurship, initiative, creativity and similar big words aimed at encouraging others to try their hand at working on something larger than themselves. We met another group of young writers and poets from Kosovo, led by Sara Vandenberg, and that very evening, after the conference, international friendships were forged between kids from various parts of the Balkans over the ultimate icebreaker – Sarajevo kebabs. And that was just the first day.

Baščaršija, Sarajevo's old bazaar and the historical and cultural center of the city.

The second day was the day of sightseeing, but it was also a day we spent getting to know our peers in a creative writing workshop. The American Corner in Sarajevo was kind enough to lend us their space, and what was meant to be a one-hour reading session with the students from Kosovo turned into an experience which lasted for more than two hours. Both we and the Kosovo group shared our unique literary contributions, opening up new worlds and perspectives, raising questions and solving mysteries, all in the space of several minutes per person. You wouldn’t think that’s enough for a decent read, but it allowed us to catch the glimpse each of us needed to see how diverse and intriguing creative minds can be.

One of the regrets most of us have about the two days we’d spent in Sarajevo is not exploring nearly enough. But what we did manage to see almost makes up for it. Nearly every single building, from shops to restaurants to houses to stalls seemed like it was a landmark, in addition to the actual landmarks ‒ like the three houses of prayer for three different religions, all located within the same tenth of a square mile; the Latin Bridge; the cathedral-turned-academy-of-fine-arts; the many monuments raised after various wars; the sorrowfully beautiful graveyards and so on. We even found time to climb (that makes it sound so dramatic – we actually took a cab) to the hills above Sarajevo and explore the derelict bob-sled track, dating back to the 1984 Winter Olympics. The views are magical, but the site is somewhat eerie, like the concrete skeleton of an ancient dragon – oh, and you need to watch your step, because some remnants from a minefield might still be there.

Innocent on paper, I tell you.

Still, the thing that I will remember the most about the 48 hours or so I spent in Bosnia’s capital with my colleagues-turned-roommates-and-friends is how time seemed to pass by both incredibly quickly and to stretch out endlessly before us. There were always things to do, people we needed to see, places we wanted to visit and, of course, things we wanted to eat (because, really, you cannot go through Sarajevo without tasting it, as well), and we were always in a rush to get somewhere else. However, when we reached the top of that bob-sled track and gazed upon the city from above, its mismatched buildings protruding from the valley surrounded by the sky-piercing mountains from every side, there was suddenly all the time in the world. There were smaller pockets of infinity, too, like when I was crossing the Miljacka river on the way to some other place, where some other engagement waited for us. The sun was reflected just so on the water and I was obliged to stand and watch for what seemed like a very long time, before getting back onto the roller-coaster that was our two-day stay in Sarajevo.

After triumphing in both the trials of the Sarajevo wilderness and its more urban challenges, we set out early on the third day of our journey to the city of bridges and crystalline rivers – Mostar, some eighty miles to the west.

The BWP Team enjoying a break from their busy schedule

The photos in this article are courtesy of Anica Marković.

For more photos and info about our trip click here.


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