Reflections – Sarajevo to Cavtat

I’m not much of a photographer. I lack the skill and patience to capture telling moments in an artful way. Phone-snapping is no substitute. I simply prefer to remember and, if time permits, scribble some notes afterwards. Most of the detail is lost. But the feelings sparked by these memories – whether written or unrecorded – retain their colour. And Bosnia and Croatia are very vivid places. A few fragments from the summer…

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Bajram
We arrived at the end of Ramadan. Despite the heatwave and the fasting, Sarajevo throbbed with joyous energy. After sundown, fairy lights twinkled across the main street. Folk dancers performed their kolo in Baščaršija. The bakeries sold fresh somun and the char-grilled air was balmy.

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Bajram, as Eid is known here, fell on a Friday. For the kids, in particular, it was a memorable experience. Apart from our eldest, who’d lived in Sarajevo when she was a baby, this was the first time they’d been in Bosnia for the festival. They were happy to get involved in the family celebrations. As far as they were concerned, the occasion meant dressing nicely, eating plenty and receiving gifts. Across the world, irrespective of cultural background, the protocol for feast-days seems pretty similar. Although, I have to admit, the gathering of clans they often entail freaks me out a bit. Even in Ireland I’ve always recoiled from what’s considered a ‘traditional Christmas’. Bajram with my in-laws is along those, rather hierarchical, lines.

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Or perhaps it’s just me – the vegetarian foreign feminist who’s been bringing strange ideas to Sarajevo since 1996. An outsider, she makes weird observations. Like noticing how the men do all the sitting while the women serve the food. Or questioning, albeit furtively, who ‘entertains’ the children. Listening to the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ topics of conversation… lamenting, under her breath, those poor calves whose destiny is teletina.

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Maybe she’s hyper-sensitive, maybe she over-interprets. This is purely a personal, filtered snapshot. Still, from talking to Bosnian women, it’s clear they face many challenges relating to gendered expectations. These issues are by no means exclusive to Bosnia. They’re globally relevant. Rigid concepts of culture and strict social institutions breed injustice. Women and men must, together, create fairer alternatives.

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Above the city
Temperatures are in the high thirties. The tinderbox motif is more than mere historical cliché. Wildfires have broken out in Herzegovina. Sarajevo is a hothouse. We hit the hills. Jahorina. Walking along the mountain track, there’s no shelter from the sun. Shadowy valleys simmer under a diaphanous veil of haze. Insect-buzz – bumble bees, wasps, hoverflies, green bottles. Flitting among a riot of flowers, butterflies… speckled, white, brimstone and meadow brown. Nervous grasshoppers spring from our tread as we step off the path. A stunted fir tree offers minimal shade. Beside it, a lonely rose.

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The woodland way is cooler. We go as far as the wishing well. Under the creaking cables of the ski-lift which – to the kids’ delight and my dismay – seems to be functioning.

‘Can we? Please!’

Overhead, pulleys strain.

‘Are you totally insane?’

The children don’t give up. Soon I’m outnumbered, four to one. Even their father, who usually claims he suffers from vertigo, joins their campaign. He wants to relive his youth.

‘There was loads of snow when you went on it. At least that’d break your fall…’

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The scree slope looks merciless. But no-one heeds my muttering. The ‘safety bar’ descends. The gondola rises. Swaying… The distribution of our weight is skewed. What genius came up with these seating arrangements? The younger two are screaming with excitement. The little one is skinny enough to slide out underneath the transparent hood. Cold feet swing in the breeze. Each time we pass the supporting poles the whole contraption rumbles.

‘This is a horror movie!’

Ovo je super!

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At the top, the scenery is phenomenal. But there’s only one thing scarier than going up. It’s the downward lurch. This where the allegedly ‘responsible’ parent resorts to expletives and prayer… So much for Zdravo Marijo – the last line is too ominous, ‘at hour of our death’ etc.. Not appropriate. Better to stick to daily bread and temptation – hoping that we might survive to get some.

‘OH SHIT!’

My offspring snigger at maternal meltdown as the gradient steepens. And this is the radio edit of our tale. To be honest, I’d enjoy the ride if I didn’t have to hang on to the youngest. By sheer miracle, we make it back alive.

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Mount Igman a few days later. Malo Polje – the venue for the ski jump competition in the Winter Olympics of 1984. The commentary box now looks upon an overgrown piste, rusting equipment, a small playground. The sports reporters have long gone. Sadly, they missed my gymnastic debut on a trampoline for kids. A picnic on the fringes of newly cut pasture. The fragrance of haystacks wafts into the forest. Birdsong blends with the rasping of grey-backed crows. The clearing echoes, it prompts reminiscences. The middle child decides that having two parents from troubled places is ‘so awesome’. Or so messed up. These are mountains of dry thunder and grim memories – warring peaks. Still beautiful… still scarred. The mind wanders through the uplands.

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Cavtat
I first swam in the Adriatic with kids displaced by the conflict in the Balkans. Coming from Ireland, it was a thrill to be submerged without the risk of hypothermia. Returning over the years to the Dalmatian coast, I mastered a frog-like version of the breaststroke. Neither athletic nor elegant, but it lets me glide with my head above the surface. A retired couple chat in deeper water, talking about how glorious it is here. How peaceful… ‘nema galame’. The sea absorbs thoughts. Its warmth soothes.

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The children become amphibious. The older two plunge to the seabed. The youngest learns to swim without armbands. Ecstatic, she splashes unaided, stays afloat. Swimming into the sunset until the burnished swell slowly turns to twilight. Climbing rocks into the stars, the trail of a blue moon tapers, shimmering, towards the shore. On the last day, the seascape is four-dimensional. The glittering panorama of the bay gives perspective. Cloudless heights flow into fluid depths. Two decades of hopes and promises are refracted. Tears drown in salty slap-kisses of waves.

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The rocky road to Rio, via Sarajevo

Sport has never been my forte. Swimming I can manage, but only in the serenity of the Adriatic Sea. My ten-year-old outclasses me at tennis and I can hardly run to save my life. Nor am I a great spectator. I lack the patience. Or is it passion? In football terms, anyhow, I wouldn’t be what Bosnians call a ‘fantico’. Although I’ll scream at TV screens when national pride is at stake. And, to my shame, Ireland versus England brings out the raving bigot in me… Sorry!

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Yes, sometimes nerds can share the adrenalin high of dedicated sports fans. Often it’s found in the buzz of rooting for the underdog… particularly if that lowly side comes from somewhere special. So count me among the supporters of the soccer team from Bosnia and Herzegovina! As reported by the global media, their qualification for World Cup 2014 made history. More importantly, on the domestic front, it brought huge joy to our house. Perfect timing too – hours after Ireland had been hit by yet another austere budget.

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Ostrich-like, our heads were stuck in sand dunes of avoidance at any mention of economic news. However, even before the match started, there were plenty of welcome distractions. As well as football D-Day, it happened to be Bajram, as the Muslim festival of Eid is known in Bosnia. True to my tradition of cooking for cultural occasions (and not much else) I was preparing a typical Bosnian spread. Well… a slightly lower-cal version of it – to reduce the risk of fatal cholesterol overdose. Burek and sirnica had just gone into the oven when we heard it was 1:0 in Lithuania. Or so the tweets suggested as, scrolling down my phone with greasy fingers, I noticed word-long messages simply declaring: ‘GOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL!’ Fear not, this isn’t as ghastly as it may sound in English. Au contraire, when followed by a string of blue and yellow emoji, it’s profoundly positive. Things got better still – my husband burst into the kitchen to tell me the guy who’d scored was one of his friend’s (approximately seven billion) cousins. Seems we have an eternal claim to fame!

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Tense minutes dragged – for the person glued to the internet. As I was having a culinary melt-down… Bosnian food is delicious but very labour-intensive. Finally, though, our Bajram meal was ready to be served. However, at about the same moment, a whistle blew in a distant Baltic city. Victory! Fortunately, my precious pita wasn’t incinerated amid the subsequent exultation. Bosnia and Herzegovina were heading to Brazil! The kids immediately asked if we could go too. Sadly, the latest round of Irish fiscal adjustment has quashed all hope of Rio, unless we get lucky in the EuroMillions lotto. But, at least, we’ve got one of the family’s teams to cheer. While Ireland might’ve salvaged credibility with a win over Kazakhstan, its Brazilian quest had already proven vain. Yet Irish disappointment was suddenly irrelevant. The night belonged to Bosnia. Through every form of social media, photos, songs and fireworks whizzed across the diaspora. Sarajevo erupted into jubilance. Celebration went viral. Bosnia was trending with a rare shimmer of success.

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Maybe that’s the beauty of the game – its power to generate euphoria, no matter how ephemeral. A football match can’t heal post-war divisions. It won’t make life, for most Bosnians, any less of a struggle. But, for one evening in October, past scars and future uncertainty were forgotten. It felt like Ireland’s trail to Italia ’90. That virginal delight of qualifying for our first World Cup… especially as it came when horizons still seemed bleak. Then, Ireland’s reputation was defined by violence in the North, economic stagnation, corruption and emigration. As a nation, we were minnows – a poor, peripheral member of Europe’s clan. Perhaps our status now isn’t that different. Though surely, in the late 1980s, our FIFA rankings were higher.

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Soccer gave us a boost. Long reviled as a ‘foreign’ rival to native Gaelic (all-limbs-allowed) football, it helped us to restore faith in ourselves. Everything stemmed from Stuttgart… The European Championships in 1988 saw the epic defeat of our former colonial masters by a team that couldn’t be described as quintessentially ‘Irish’. Lads from mixed backgrounds joined the squad. Red hair and a thick brogue weren’t exclusive criteria for selection. Once a chap could trace his granny’s roots to somewhere between Dingle and Donegal, all he needed was the skill and the will to win. And the country got behind this motley bunch. Singing tributes to our English manager, we became ‘part of Jackie’s army’. Houses were re-painted in the Irish colours. Babies were taught how to chant ‘olé!’ Flags were draped from windows until their edges frayed. Years were spent paying off that pilgrimage to Italy.

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But, as the expression goes, ‘the craic was ninety’. Even if – in retrospect – it was quite over-the-top. Sport is no panacea for the trials of reality. The diversion it provides is akin to bread and circuses. Or beer and football, in many Irish cases…  And soccer itself is tarnished. Racism on the field and in the stands, fans with neo-Nazi links, and hooliganism are some of its corollaries. Allegations of match-fixing, bribes and seedy deals, the exploitation of workers building stadia for major tournaments further undermine its ethos of ‘fair play’. Exorbitant salaries paid to players who are seized by a celebrity culture that turns them into idols, then ogles their fall from grace, also attract bad press. Nor is football the automatic leveller of fraught pitches. Ireland, for instance, is home to two ‘international’ teams, both of which have their own distinct fan-bases. In its northern counties, the Scottish Premier League gets harnessed for sectarian purposes. Identities are gauged from Glaswegian club preferences – are you for Celtic or Rangers? Bosnian soccer is plagued with similar problems. More complicated, as the potential split is threefold. Still, nothing can detract from the achievement of a team that, whatever cynics and propagandists say, is multi-ethnic. So, in our hearts, we’re with the Zmajevi

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All the way to Brazil! An amazing country – I had the sheer good fortune to visit it in 1990. On a holiday I’d won, at the age of sixteen, as first prize in a national competition for poetry. Back when I’d the guts to enter contests… The week I spent there, accompanied by my rather overwhelmed dad, was unforgettable. It’s a place that rightly revels in its diversity. Yet, although I had no previous travel experience, I was struck by the starkness of its inequality. Dual faced Rio de Janeiro – a city of hills, where favela-covered slopes plunged down upon the opulent Copacabana coast.

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On our last day in the city, we took a tour by taxi around its centre. In a battered VW Beetle which, fuelled with ‘alcool’ (a cheaper, ethanol substitute for petrol) reeked of booze. We passed the famous Maracanã stadium and another striking example of modern architecture, the cone-shaped cathedral. Naturally, my devout father wanted to drop in to say a prayer. Possibly to beg God to grant us safe passage home, after our numerous adventures. The driver, however, advised against any such show of piety. His unequivocal Portuguese – ‘drogas!’ – as he mimed a point-blank shot to the head, was enough to convince us to stay inside the car.

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Brazil has made substantial progress in the decades since. Today, with its economy at a ‘newly advanced’ stage of development, it’s added its initial to the BRICS. But it’s been the scene of popular unrest. And many of the issues prompting recent protests relate to the extravagant hosting of next year’s Mundial and the 2016 Olympics, when poverty remains rampant. Sporting glory, it appears, can’t eradicate suffering in a country of two halves.

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A glimpse of Brazil… it’ll always brighten my mind with vivid snapshots, such as those from our brief trip to Amazonia. There, among other escapades, I got my heel clamped between the jaws of a jaguar (it may have been crippled, but its teeth were sharp as sabres). We also journeyed by boat through a confluence called the ‘Meeting of the Waters’. Where, due to a temperature difference, the dark Rio Negro and the silt-rich Rio Solimões flow in separate shades for several kilometres. Until, mingling, they become the largest river in the world. And so, perhaps, with football…

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My dreams of returning to Brazil aren’t likely to get much further than a café of that name in Sarajevo. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance again to sample its chocolate-oozing palačinke (scrumptious crêpes). As for soccer, thanks to a testosterone deficiency, I’ll never understand the offside rule. But when it comes to shouting at the TV, you’ll hear my roars – and those of my ‘dragons’ in Ireland – right to the very top of the Corcovado.

‘Hajmo Bosno! Hajmo Hercegovino!’

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‘Hurmašice light’ – celebrations without borders

Cross-cultural cooking… I didn’t think this blog would begin in the kitchen. Not exactly my environment, suffice to say I’m not a fan of MasterChef. But today, I’m rolling up the sleeves, checking out recipes and trying to remember to switch the oven ON. My brief culinary conversion must be due to divine intervention, for this miracle occurs four times a year and coincides with the festivals my family celebrate: two Muslim (Bajram, as Eid is called in Bosnia) and two Christian (Christmas and Easter). Today marks the end of Ramadan and we’ve just returned from Bosnia where, even amid the bustle of Sarajevo, the serenity of the month of fasting was tangible.

To be honest, my inter-faith family isn’t too much into self-denial. Be it Ramadan or Lent, we’re rather lax. Also, living in present-day Ireland, the cultural norms are different and attitudes towards religious observance have changed in recent years. Gone are the days of my childhood, when to eat a sweet between Ash Wednesday and Easter was to risk eternal damnation. Throat lozenges, being ‘medicinal’, escaped doctrinal bans and suddenly became delicious – though I’m not sure if fake coughing was a sin! But celebrations have always been important. And for my children, the chance to experience some of the common ground between their parents’ religions is something that might help them grow up more tolerant.

So back to the cooking. Assembling all the necessary ingredients, I know my attempts will be paltry compared to traditional Bajram spreads that run to many courses. I’ll keep it simple, though, with a little bit of fusion. And some cheating – shop-bought filo pastry! We’ll have burek (proper spirals) and sirnica (filled with a mix of cottage cheese and Philadelphia) along with improvised salads.

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Dessert poses the biggest challenge: my pièce de résistance – Bosnian cakes known as hurmašice. To be made from a recipe printed in Kuhar (Svjetlost 1965), a dubious gift from my mother-in-law shortly after my wedding. Unfortunately, I haven’t put this hallowed tome to a lot of use, but it comes out of the cupboard biannually for Bajram… with its measurements in dekagrams and vague tips for seasoned cooks who can judge correct amounts odoka. Still, it somehow works. I may never get them quite right, but my hurmašice go down well with the kids. Even hubbie, the connoisseur from Sarajevo, is impressed.

However, being Irish, I’ve slightly amended the instructions. When it comes to making the syrup, I’ve halved the sugar content. Hence, we’ve ‘hurmašice light’. Either gourmet heresy or how cultures blend and evolve… Anyhow, it’s a recipe I’ll pass on to my daughters. Taken from their grandmother’s cook-book, adapted with my pencilled-in suggestions. They can adjust it, as they like, to their own tastes.

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Wishing all who celebrate today, in Bosnia and across the world, Bajram Šerif Mubarak Olsun!