Category Archives: Travel

Celebrating Bosnia’s Beautiful Victory

It’s a big day for Bosnia as the country’s football team the Dragons, earned its first place ever in the sport’s greatest tournament, the World Cup, by beating Lithuania 1 – 0.

I woke to Jas and Cookie dressed head-to-toe in team regalia.


While I was at work, the two spent the afternoon wrapping up Bean in the team logos,


recording their own private celebration of the winning goal and sharing a chocolate bar following the victory.


During all of the revelry Jas managed to even cook up a traditional Bosnian veal stew for dinner


and send me a text declaring that our 2014 summer vacation would involve sleeping in tents in Brazil.


Idemo u Brazil!


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Bosnia’s Shades of Red

We’re usually in Bosnia at this time of year and probably would be at this moment if I wasn’t days away from expecting my second babe. I am missing our time there and thinking back on our trip last summer in my mind’s eye, I see bright flashes of red. Looking through the photos from our last trip, red is everywhere.

The chairs in the garden

red chairs








A pint of wild strawberries









This stroller









The garden fountain’s spigot









Sarajevo’s Olympic Village playground









Balcony roses











These crocs bought at the market (as ugly as the originals but without the price tag)










A mountain of market tomatoes









The glow of the fire cooking the evening meal










What colors do you see in your travel memories?

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Kafa vs. Coffee

Sitting on Jasmina’s couch, I found myself alone with my niece’s new nanny–a young woman who spoke beautiful English. This was the first time we had met. She asked me where in America I was from and indicated she was familiar with my particular location in New Jersey. “Oh! Have you been there?!” I asked enthusiastically.

“No, no” she replied, flipping her hand. “I watch a lot of movies. The truth is, I don’t like Americans.”

Oh. As I struggled for both a response and a film that my small town had been featured in, she quickly followed it with “No offense to you. It’s just….I don’t understand people who walk down the street drinking a cup of coffee.”

It’s hard to think of a culture that takes its coffee, or kafa as seriously as Bosnians. Their passion for the drink is so great that if you spit in any direction, you’ll hit a coffee bar. Most Bosnians drink several unadulterated espresso-sized cups a day. Ask for milk and you’ll get a sideways look. Forget finding a spot that serves it with whipped cream, caramel or any of the other accoutrements so popular in America today. Kafa is served straight up with a bowl of sugar cubes on the side. It’s drunk before one heads to work, never on the way to work. Nor is it swallowed in one shot as some cultures are prone to do. Coffee drinking in Bosnia is a part of the day that one slows down for, not a means to an end.

When you knock on a neighbor’s door, kafa is brewing before you step over the threshold. Boiling water is poured into a long handled pot and a few tablespoons of kafa are added. The pot is placed on the hot burner to simmer for a minute or two and then is brought to the table with tiny espresso cups and a bowl of sugar cubes. Some sip it straight, while others dip the sugar cube into the cup, bring the cube to their mouth so the dipped sugar breaks off, and then follow it with a sip from their cup, ensuring that each taste of kafa has the perfect amount of sugar. (I’ve never seen anyone drop an entire cube into their cup).

Traditional Bosnian coffee pot

Traditional Bosnian coffee pot

“Sip” is the operative word here though, as kafa is a daily indulgence. An event. It is a time of day to sit and rest. To breathe. To talk with your family, your neighbor, or a complete stranger.  It is a symbol of hospitality, respect, and even superstition as some Bosnian women claim to have the power to read your future in the stray grounds left in your cup. And yet, I’m sheepish to admit, I’ve never been able to join in this daily tradition as coffee has always given me dreadful stomach aches. As an American, I’m allowed such “odd” behavior (hosts will pat me on the back and give me a cup of juice), but Jas is also not a coffee drinker simply because he does not like the taste. This is not as acceptable and he often finds himself “drinking” a cup for the two of us. What he really does is use it as a dip for the ubiquitous sugar cubes. It’s not uncommon for a host to rise and refill the bowl repeatedly when we visit.

The honest nanny was not employed by the family long–something about eating her weight in Eurocrem–but her observations on our different approaches to coffee drinking did , and still do, ring metaphorically true. When I’m home in America, I think of her everytime I see someone speed-walking, cell phone in one hand, styrofoam cup in the other.

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Rose Juice–Our Summer Drink

Bosnians mine their natural resources in as many ways as they can and one way in particular is through the making of juices from native berries and flowers. Our family is known for rose juice made similar to sun tea, but so much lovelier.

This recipe is old, passed down from Jas’s paternal grandmother. When the roses bloom they’re collected, stripped of their petals and added to large clear jars with water and a tiny bit of citric acid, then placed in direct sun for a few days until the petals lose their color to the water.  Then it’s strained, mixed with sugar and chilled. Describing the taste is not easy–sweet, flowery, like Bosnian summer.

We make jugs as the flowers bloom and have enough to fill the summer days and share a few bottles with the neighbors. Here’s as detailed a layout of the process that I can give. The measurements are based on a two liter glass jar and about 20 rosebuds–simply adapt it to how many roses you have.

This is the rose we use and despite several attempts I am unable to determine its variety. It’s a small bud though not as small as a tea rose, and fully bloomed is about the size of a ping-pong ball. It has a rich perfume much stronger than the large buds that you’d give to your sweetie on Valentine’s Day. The scent is important–it is what gives the juice its flavor.

Snip the roses when they’ve bloomed,

pull off the petals and place them into a large clear glass jar or other clear container.

Add about one teaspoon of citric acid (or two teaspoons lemon juice), fill the jar with water, give the contents a stir and cover. Place in the sunniest spot of your garden. If it is sunny and warm, in about three days the petals will lose their color and the water will take on this shade of pink.

Strain your juice into a large bowl.

Add 1/2 cup sugar.

Stir, stir, stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Taste. (Note: if the juice tastes like air freshener, add more sugar one tablespoon at a time until you have a nice balance of rose flavor and sweetness).

Strain one more time into bottles or the serving pitcher of your choice and chill.

You’re in for a very special treat.


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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.


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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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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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