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.
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.