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Sweet Sarajevo :: When A City Changes Your Life

I don't quite have the words to adequately describe Sarajevo. All year long, I've been scribbling down ones that come close, ones veering juuust short of deserving for such a place.

Among them: hopeful. Heartbreaking. On the cusp of past and present. Revitalizing. Lively, bursting with energy, radiating with spirit and strength and hookah smoke. Sadness that lingers. Incredibly packed with history: every corner, every footstep carries countless stories. Witness to the devastating, horrifying, helpless. Rising from the ashes. Visceral heartache. Resilient. Beautifully mixed in culture, religion, and ethnic groups. Humbling.

There simply aren't words in our language to describe the events that have transpired in Sarajevo, no possible way to convey the complexities. To fully understand, you'd have to visit. But until you're able to go up to your boss and be all "hey my girl Caroline says I need to peace out and explore Bosnia," I'll take you along on our two day sojourn.

After spending the day roadtripping through Pocitelj, Jablanica, and Mostar, we pulled right up to the Hotel Europe, one of the fanciest hotels in the city and a far cry from our worn down digs in Dubrovnik. Shrieking like middle schoolers, we jumped onto each other's beds, poking our heads out of the skylights to check out the view:
Jaw-dropping, right? We took in the scene as the golden glow of the sun set gently behind the mountains and the prayer call from the mosque reverberated across town. Absolutely mesmerizing.

Peekaboo! I spy Justine and Malia!
At dusk, we wrangled a few members of the crew and set out to meander the area surrounding the hotel: we strolled down the "West" side, admiring the Austro-Hungarian influences and the modern lights and shops, quietly taking in memorials set in place to honor the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, gazing at building facades still mired with bullet holes. We weaved our way through the busy maze-like avenues of the "East" side of town where Ottoman roots are apparent and stopped at the bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, effectively sparking World War I, or so the story goes.
The next day, after a riveting morning lecture about the psychology of reconciliation in Bosnia, we set out on a private tour of the city. Our tour guide greeted us, apologizing for the heat, which we promptly scoffed at because Sarajevo was practically chilly compared to Mostar or even Dubrovnik.

She led us primarily through the East side of town, Baščaršijaducking into peaceful courtyards that hosted colorful shops full of Turkish lamps and handwoven rugs:
(If you're wondering if I managed to bring home a rug in a tiny carry-on suitcase that also housed a wardrobe that lasted me two months...)

(Yes I did.)

(But I had to leave behind my graduation dress in order to do so.)

(I don't regret it for a second.)
Popped into City Hall and observed the intricate ceilings and the exhibit in the basement that chronicled significant moments of Sarajevo history.
Admired the handiwork lining the sides of the Copper street, oohing and ahhing over Bosnian coffee sets and various other treasures.
Crossed the "Meeting of Cultures" line, which divides the more traditional eastern side of town from the modernized western side.

Toured the carefully preserved home of a merchant:
Aaaaaand were rewarded with hearty borscht, meat pies and cheese pastries and lots of cabbage salad. Although cevapi was still our absolute favorite meal in the Balkans, it was quite the treat to taste variations of Bosnian cuisine.
The plaque marking the spot where Franz Ferdinand was shot.

Gives you goosebumps, doesn't it:
*Deep breaths*

So. Later that afternoon, we all trudged over to the History Museum of Sarajevo for a lecture. It was tough. The class dragged on, we watched sobering footage from the siege, listened to tales that had us shaking our heads at the lack of humanity in times of war. There was no air conditioning in the dark room, our sticky thighs slipped on the plastic chairs, a few of us felt our eyelids flutter close after such a heavy meal.

We were then introduced to a lovely young woman, a museum curator, only two or three years older than us. She took us upstairs and explained that the "museum" was so incredibly rundown due to a lack of funding. It is not a priority for Bosnia to preserve memories from the war because... well, because it hurts to. She showed us makeshift stoves hacked together from soup cans, pointed out how to make a scarily small portion of food last multiple meals. Here are illustrations of the luxuries that kids missed the most:
We asked her a few simple questions: how old were you during the war? Were you here?

Teardrops pooled in her eyes, and we stopped prying abruptly.

It's still painful to think about, she said. For her, these artifacts represent a very real part of her past. For four years, she spent her day to day suspended in fear because she didn't know if her friends were dead or alive. She figured out over time time which corner of the apartment was safest from the snipers shooting with abandon from the hilltops. She survived four years wondering why no one was coming to save them from such brutality, terrified each time someone left the house to fetch a can of water or to buy a loaf of bread that it would be the last time she saw them.

We apologized for being insensitive, thanked her for her memories, and left the museum, silenced. We trudged home with heavy hearts, stopping only to buy some water in an effort to cut the tension.

"Sarajevo roses," which mark where grenade blasts killed children:
Our first day in Sarajevo, we begged our professors to extend the stay. It is an enchanting city with so many things to see and taste and hear and learn.

After those hours in that museum, our perspectives shifted. Suddenly, we felt like outsiders who had unintentionally forced both the city and its people into a fishbowl. For weeks, we were deep in the trenches of analyzing the war, the causes and the effects. Unknowingly, we had weaved together a narrative for Sarajevo, subconsciously insisting on having concrete 'why's and how's' when actually, the only truth that mattered was,

There was a war, it was incredibly sad and incredibly complicated. People suffered. Terribly. And they're still learning how to recover today. That's it. 
Desperately needing to lighten our moods, we took a dip in the gorgeous pool, followed our noses to sizzling cevapi, and then congregated for some midnight Bosnian tea. Not too long after, we retreated to our hotel rooms, deep in thought.
For our final morning in Sarajevo, we were privileged enough to talk to author Aleksander Hemon about his experiences, before we shuffled into the Venetian cafe where Archduke Franz Ferdinand had his last meal, to sip some cappuccinos and chat about all the things we felt and learned and discovered. 
(Well of course, we raced off for one last round of cevapi before boarding the bus home.)

Sarajevo is a city that changed my life. At a point in time where I felt so sure I knew all of the answers, where I felt so confident in at least my worldview and the fact that being a bearer of a newly minted psychology degree meant I must understand the way the world works and the way humans function, Sarajevo was a slap in the face.

It will forever be a reminder that I won't ever understand fully this world and our race and the 'why,' but that what is important is to be relentless in seeking that which I don't understand anyway.

ICYMI: roadtripping to and from Sarajevo.


  1. What a beautiful post about a city with such a poignant history. Your posts about this roadtrip have really brought these countries alive and now I feel silly for never having gone myself! P.s, impressed with your dedication to those rugs! xxx
    Lucy @ La Lingua | Food, Travel, Italy

    1. Lucy, you have no idea what that comment means to me! Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comments :) I do highly recommend visiting for yourself sooner rather than later though!!

  2. Loved this city! I met the friendliest people here and heard some of the most amazing stories of survival during the war. Thanks for sharing this!


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xx Caroline