Monthly Archives: June 2012

A Donkey & Some Trout

This donkey lives on the banks of the  Semesnica Ribnjak (Se-mesh-nit-zah Rib-nyak) and trout pond with dogs, ducks, geese, chickens and roosters. Children can take a ride on his back. We settled for petting his velvet nose and naming him Bumpo. (Later we’d discover he is a she named Brena).

Brena and the rest of the menagerie are part of a cafe named after the river (really a stream), about a 15 minute ride from Donji Vakuf (Doh-nyee Vah-koof). The owners use the stream not only as a setting for meals and drinks, but also for grinding grain into flour and for catching and cultivating their own trout pond.

The trout are caught upstream and then funneled into a hatchery where they are plucked from the water, cleaned and grilled for your meal.

And what a meal you can have. We started with ustipici (oosh-tip-it-say) a fried dough dumpling very similar to the Italian zeppole though savory. You can eat them straight out of the oil or split them open and stuff them with cheese.

Ustipici sizzling in oil.

This particular batch of ustipici was made with buckwheat ground by a mill on the stream, and served with a soft and a semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese.

Buckwheat ustipici with two kinds of sheep’s milk cheese.


Then, the trout. If you’ve never eaten fish this fresh, then you’ve never eaten fish–so clean, so bright in the mouth with a salty pop from the crispy skin. Served with the smallest wedge of lemon, a vinegared potato salad and mound of polenta, it is heavenly.

Start from the tail and work you way to the head.

You can have your meal at tables directly next to the stream or in small, private cabins.

And you can wander around skipping rocks, feeding geese, watching the trout jump, or petting Brena for as long as you like.


Filed under Bosnia-Herzegovina, food, Travel, Uncategorized

The School That Was

On an afternoon drive, we came to a crossroads and Akif, my father-in-law, asked Jas to stop the car. At the crux was a very slight hill surrounded by pine trees. If you looked closely among the grass you could see the remnants of a building’s foundation.

“I taught here for six years, from 1966 – 1972” Akif said. He was the only teacher and had anywhere from 30 – 50 students at a time in grades 1 – 4. The pine trees? He planted them himself to make the area nice “for the children” he said proudly.

I looked between the trees and imagined Akif taking his students on science walks in sunny weather, shoveling a path for them in the snow, putting wood in the stove to keep the rows of students scribbling in their notebooks, warm. A scene from Little House on the Prairie only instead of an American flag occupying a corner of the room, there would be  a photo of Tito.

While in this reverie I stepped in it–the way one who has spotted a dog turd ahead on the sidewalk and makes a mental note to avoid it, gets caught up in other thoughts and splat!

“So what happened to it?” I asked, an idiotic question because in Bosnia when something no longer exists, there’s really only one reason for it.

“It was destroyed in the war” Akif replied.

Yes, of course it was, I thought looking at my shoes and trying to come up with something profound to say.

Instead I ventured: “Tata [Dad], you were the only teacher?”

He nodded.

“And the principal too?”

“Ja, ja” he continued nodding.

“Well…who did you eat lunch with?”

He threw his head back and laughed.

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Filed under Bosnia-Herzegovina, Travel, War

Meeting The Big American

The day I met The Big American was one of the most uncomfortable days of my life. Jas and I were finally able to take a trip to Bosnia together. After years of dating, I had never met his parents, seen the home he’d grown up in, the field where he played soccer, or the hill he’d sled down in the snow. This was my first opportunity to see his past. That would all have to wait as first he wanted to tour the country a bit. He’d picked Mostar as our starting point as the city was celebrating a 700-year old diving competition on the Neretva River. Nothing could have prepared me for the day ahead.

Mostar, is a city of extremes. Its hills are rocks and sand, its air dry and tight. The Neretva naturally separates the city, and inevitably separated the people by religious backgrounds following the war. An enormous cross on a hill overlooking one bank and a mosque that could fit double the city’s Muslim population on the other provide visual labels as to who belongs where. These sights, the ringing church bells competing with the calls to prayer, the crowds that had gathered for the diving celebration speaking a language so alien, can be jarring to the wide-eyed inexperienced traveler that I was. But nothing assaulted me like the heat.

It was the kind that burns you even in the shade, that seeps through the bottoms of your shoes and climbs to the tips of your ears. I dunked my head repeatedly into the Neretva, drank liters of water and stripped to my most decent layers but nothing could stop the heat and soon my cheeks bloomed red and my head pounded. Wandering down the sand-colored stone streets, squinting behind my sunglasses, I spotted through my delirium The Big American, a wide-brimmed straw cowboy hat outside of a shop underneath a pink sign of its namesake. It was a familiar and welcoming shape, like a slice of apple pie, and I bought it without a second thought. It didn’t save me that day from a fever, nausea or bouts of vomiting from heat exhaustion but it became my constant companion during that first trip.

While practical, The Big American was not the most fashionable purchase I’ve ever made. If clothing reflects a message to others about the wearer, then The Big American says: “I’m not from around here, have no sense of style or proportion and did not look in the mirror before I left the house.” It is ridiculously large for my head, always clashes with the rest of my clothing and inevitably draws some unwelcome attention. During our travels throughout Bosnia and Croatia, Jas and I had multiple conversations that typically sounded like this:

Me: People are looking at me.
Jas: They’re not looking at you, they’re looking at The Big American.
Me: Yes, but I’m wearing The Big American.
Jas: Actually, it’s wearing you.

Me, my father-in-law and TBA which has gotten in the way of our hug. This photo makes me realize I will also need to address my choice of eye-wear at some point.

That’s why I left The Big American behind with my future in-laws, never expecting to see it again and even forgetting its existence. And yet it continues to show up. Inevitably at the beginning of every return summer trip I realize I’ve forgotten to pack a hat and when I say that I’m going to the market to purchase one, my sister-in-law disappears into the house and returns with The Big American in all of its loud and gaudy glory. I grab its brim like the hand of an old friend and perch it clumsily on my head.

“I can’t believe you kept this,” I say.

“What else would we do with it?” she replies. “It’s your hat.”

So whether I like it or not, it seems that The Big American is indeed mine. No matter how many times I visit Bosnia, no matter how long I stay or how much of it I see, this place continues to perplex, frustrate and amaze me and that ridiculous cowboy hat always brings a much-needed touch of the familiar.

On this last trip, my sister-in-law anticipated my forgetfulness and left my hat out for me. My daughter, this being her first trip to Bosnia, came across it sunning its ugly self on a stool and plopped it on her head.

For the first time ever, The Big American actually looked cute. And if it can evolve, then maybe I can too.

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