Week 1: May 28-June 4

First Impression

Wednesday, May 28

I sat in the airplane looking out the window at the clouds below us. I was nervous, and had no idea what to expect from Sarajevo. When searching online for information about the city I was confronted by the brutality of the Bosnian War, and the rich history of the Balkans. I had only been able to find a few videos and blogs about the current state of the city. They painted Sarajevo as a vibrant city with a tasteful mix of old and new. A cultural melting pot that accepted all people, regardless of religion or origin. The people were determined to put the past behind them, but not to forget.

The loud speaker crackled to life, first announcing in Turkish, then repeating in Bosnian and English. “Please return your seat-backs and tray tables to their upright and locked position and make sure all luggage is stowed in the overhead bins or beneath the seat in front of you.” The flight attendants circulated one last time to collect trash and make sure everyone had their seat belts fastened.

The nose of the aircraft dipped, and I held my breath as we broke through the grey clouds. I was amazed by how green the ground below was. All of the hills below were covered in lush green trees. As we continued, the hills became dotted with little red roofs, at first sporadically, but as we flew closer to the city, the little white houses became more frequent. Tall, thin smokestacks rose up where the houses were more clustered together. These large monuments of industry seemed out of place in the surrounding, quiet, emerald sea. The green landscape was disrupted by a quarry that was methodically dismantling an entire hill. The quarry’s bare tan rock stood out and solidified the unavoidable exploitative nature of mankind. In the distance, mountain peaks appeared. These were the Jahorina, Treskavica, Visočica, Bjelašnica, Igman, Trebević, and Romanija mountains that surround Sarajevo like guardians. I had read that the skiing in the area was as good as the Alps. (In 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics, a fact often overlooked).

sarajevo map screenshot.JPG
View of Sarajevo from Google Earth

We descended further as the city came into view. Mosques, churches, and synagogues poked up out of the apartment buildings, offices, and shopping centers that filled the valley. The little white houses with the red roofs looked down from the hills above. As we approached the runway I was surprised to see people. Small farms, interspersed with makeshift cemeteries, lined the runway outside of my window. The people had stopped their work to watch the plane land. We parked the plane next to a full sized propeller plane belonging to B&H Airlines. We deplaned and three officers cross-checked passports with their computer records. Behind them was a large room with one baggage carousel and a bathroom, labeled WC. I grabbed my bag and headed towards the sliding doors.

I must have looked like a deer in headlights when the doors opened. I had just walked into a ring of people looking at me with disappointment as they waited for their travelers to emerge. After a quick glance I quickly exited the crowd and stood to the side waiting for my fellow IAESTE intern to exit the baggage area. I was soon approached by Haris, one of the IAESTE community members that was there to pick us up and help us with everything. In no time at all Jalaj, the IT intern, and I were in Haris’s car on the way to our mystery flat. The roads were thin and steep with sharp turns but that did not slow down any of the drivers. We passed buildings riddled with bullet holes, and small shops that sold everything imaginable. Locals were out enjoying the pleasant evening as the sun was setting. Eventually, we turned left into what appeared to be a small driveway. There were two men standing there waiting for us outside of a small apartment building with bullet holes.

Picture 020.jpg
My apartment building on Ljubljanska. Our room is the lowest one, where the building has been repaired.

The man in the purple shirt owned the building and was going to be our landlord. He knew as much English as I knew Bosnian, and that’s not very much. Haris did most of the talking. We followed him up an unlit staircase into a small apartment. (I have a small flashlight on my keychain for when I come home after dark.) The screen door was made of sturdy steel that looked like prison bars, and the inner door had glass panels covered with Styrofoam.

Picture 018.jpg
Our apartment is very secure.

In fact, all of the doors in the apartment were the same style, with opaque glass panels. The bathroom door had been modified for privacy. The apartment had white walls with bluish-grey accents, and a welcoming hardwood floor.

Picture 011.jpg
The bedrooms are on the left, the kitchen on the right, and the bathroom is in the middle.

The apartment was fully furnished with sheets and dishes as well. I was worried about laundry, and was pleasantly surprised to find a small washing machine and clothesline in the bathroom.

Picture 013.jpg
The kitchen had a small stove and fridge as well as a table and a few chairs.

Picture 014.jpg
The bathroom had a washing machine and a personal water heater.

A small balcony was attached to the larger bedroom, where two male interns would sleep once the second one arrived. I was in the smaller bedroom, which had a large window. The curtain had a delightful cat pattern. There were cats ironing clothes, sitting under gigantic mushrooms, roller skating (and falling), and even a mouse being courted by a large cricket.

Picture 010.jpg
My bedroom had a small TV (but no cable) and two dressers.

Picture 006.jpg
Panoramic view from my bedroom window. The British Council is on the left.

After paying the first months rent, Haris took us on a quick tour of the area.
About half a block from our apartment we came to a busy area that had a concrete barrier between the sidewalk and the street. In the fading light, I could see a small creature trundling along the sidewalk. It was larger than a rat, but smaller than a cat. What was this mysterious animal? Haris did not remember the English word for it, but as we got closer it became clear. I was filled with joy to see a wild hedgehog wandering the streets of Sarajevo. Because of the concrete barrier, it had nowhere to run, but we got a good look at it as we walked by. It was black, which is different than the peppered breed that I have seen as pets in the United States. At the end of that block was the Miljacka River, slithering by silently in the dark. The streetlights were not on for some reason, but there was enough light coming from the markets, restaurants, and pekara (bakery) to see where we were going. We returned to the apartment to unpack and settle in. I was exhausted from the trip and fell asleep in no time.

Picture 024.jpg
In this picture are the small markets and it can be seen that half of the road is being repaved.

Picture 022.jpg
On this corner is the pekara.

Picture 025.jpg
One block from my apartment is the Miljacka River.

Thursday, May 29

I woke up very early the next morning, and could not get back to sleep. I laid in bed and listened to the sounds of the night through my open window. In the distance, I heard stray dogs barking at each other, settling turf wars and pack hierarchy. Every now and then a bird would chirp. As the morning broke, larger birds began to wake, and they sounded like crows. They looked like crows too, except they had light grey bodies with black only on their heads, necks, wings, and tails. As the sun was rising, I could faintly hear the Muslim call to prayer, which I had only heard once before in my life. Around 9, the landlord came by to drop off a second set of keys. Shortly after, Jalaj and I walked around the corner to buy some groceries so that we could make breakfast.

Picture 039.jpg
Large grey and black birds that sound like crows

After breakfast, Jalaj went out to explore the Stari Grad, the old part of the city, which is renowned for its Ottoman architecture and deliciously authentic ćevapčići. It is also the home of the oldest mosques, churches and cathedrals dating back to the sixteenth century. I ended up going on a walk along the river in the opposite direction towards Novi Grad, but a light rain shortened my exploration considerably. While the city is being rebuilt and retrofitted, there are not enough resources to mow public grass or remove blatant graffiti. Almost everything in the Novi Grad is covered in graffiti, including schools and banks.

Picture 023.jpg
Graffiti on the outside of a bank.

Picture 030.jpg
Across the river from my apartment is the Sarajevo City Center.

Friday, May 30

The next day we were to meet with Lejla and Amra, a few of the IAESTE community members, to get our tram passes. Jalaj and I were told to meet them in front of the BBI Centar. Neither of us knew where that was so Jalaj proceeded to ask the locals for directions. Although not everyone in Sarajevo speaks English, we ran into enough people to eventually get us going in the right direction. The people were all very polite and did not mind being stopped on the street by foreigners.

BBI Centar, image from depo.ba

When we arrived at the GRAS office we were told that to buy a month long tram pass we would have to return in June, which was the following Monday. After getting our cards set up we went to a restaurant in the Stari Grad for lunch. Both Jalaj and I ordered the sarma (minced meat wrapped in cabbage) and the sogan dolma (slow roasted onion filled with minced meat). These came with rice and our table was given a basket of bread. The food was very good and the bread reminded me of a thick naan.

Sarma, image from Wikipedia
sogan dolma.jpg
Sogan Dolma, image source

Saturday, May 31

The next day I had the chance to go back to the Stari Grad and try some of the ćevapčićithat everyone had been recommending. It was pita bread stuffed with more minced meat. It was freshly cooked and definitely lived up to all of my expectations. On the way back from my lunch I happened upon an open-air market with fresh fruits and vegetables. I bought some delicious strawberries.

ćevapčići, image source

Here are some pictures from my trip to the Stari Grad:
Picture 032.jpg
In the foreground are the rails and cables for the trams. Sarajevo was the second city, after San Francisco, to have cable cars.

Picture 035.jpg
The white houses with the red roofs look down on the city from above.

Picture 043.jpg
Ali-pašina džamija Mosque built in 1561.

Picture 047.jpg
In front of the BBI Centar there were tents selling books. In the foreground are stray dogs napping in the grass.

Picture 048.jpg
Across from the BBI Centar is a fountain which is dedicated to all of the children that were victims of the war.

Picture 060.jpg
Memorial for the First Police Brigade in Stari Grad.

Picture 062.jpg
Men playing chess in the Stari Grad.

Picture 061.jpg
There are some amusement park rides in the heart of the Stari Grad.

On Saturday night I took myself to the Sarajevo Beer Festival, a three day event celebrating pivo. It was held in the Zetra next to the 1984 Olympic stadium. As I was approaching the stadium I was surprised to hear Cat Scratch Fever playing over the speakers. There were seven large tents selling different kinds of beer and a few food tents selling hot dogs and sausages. The hot dogs didn’t taste the same as American hot dogs, but they were similar enough. I tried a Czech beer called Staropramen and it was good. They continued to play American music such as The Beastie Boys and The Doors until it was dark enough for the performances. They had three bands lined up for that night: Bad Copy, Letu Štuke, and The Bleat Fleet. All of the lyrics were in Bosnian but the music was enjoyable.

image source

The event ended at 2am after an encore performance by [TBF]((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beat_Fleet)). Hoards of young people spilled out into the town and many of the pekara were open late to catch these hungry, drunk pedestrians. I made it back to my apartment with no problems although I did see quite a few cars getting pulled over after they left the festival.

Monday, June 1

On Monday I got up bright and early around 6:45. I was excited to start my internship. After making some eggs for breakfast, I caught the tram and was on my way.

Picture 080.jpg
Every morning I take the #3 tram which runs the length of Sarajevo.

I got off of the tram near a large crane-like structure that said Energoinvest. Although my internship was with a company called Petrolinvest, Energoinvest is one of the parent companies so I was hoping they would be able to show me where I needed to go. After being directed to a man that spoke some English, the workers at Energoinvesthailed a taxi for me and told the driver where to take me. It was a short ride but I was glad to finally be headed to exactly the right place. He dropped me off right in front of my building.

The woman at the front desk was expecting me and called my supervisor Senad, to let him know that I had arrived. I was given a visitor’s pass and Senad led me up the stairs and into a small wing with four offices and a lovely secretary named Dinka.

Picture 081.jpg
The desk in the middle is where Dinka works. The safety department is on the right and the process department is on the left.

I shared the “Odjeljenje za Sigurnost” (Safety Department) office with Amer and Mirela. Almost immediately, Amer offered to get me a kafa, and soon returned with a small cup of strong coffee. After briefly explaining what the department was responsible for, Amer gave me some reports to read so that I could become better acquainted with the work that they do and the standards they use. Once I was settled in, Mirela took out her small radio and quietly played some music while everyone worked.

Picture 082.jpg
Amer, Mirela and I share this office. When taking coffee breaks we all gather in here.

At 11:30 we had our lunch break. I had brought a lunch and the rest of my coworkers were kind enough to order in so that I would not be alone. Ida and Drina worked in the office across the hall in the “Odjeljenje za Process i Tehnologiju” (Process and Technology Department). Amer and Drina speak the most English, although everyone can understand quite a lot. During lunch they taught me how to say thank you, hvala, which is a very useful word because everyone was so helpful and welcoming. Petrolinvest is a relatively small company but I met a lot of people my first day, including the CEO. Each time I told someone that I was from California, they would ask me “What are you doing in Bosnia?”. 

After lunch, the power went out. My coworkers said, “Welcome to Bosnia!”. They assured me that this was the only time the power had been unreliable and told me it was my welcoming gift. The power continued to fluctuate for the rest of the day. These fluctuations may have been related to the tram issues that were also occurring on Monday.

At 1pm we had another break for coffee and tea. Ida, Drina, and Dinka joined us in our office and we all sat around and talked for a bit before getting back to work. We have this coffee break everyday and it reminds me of the British tea time. There is a window on the first floor that supplies all of the workers with drinks, such as coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. I interrupted Amer multiple times with questions about the reports that I was reading and when I had finished them he happily explained what he and Mirela were working on. I left early that day so that I could make it back to the GRAS office in time to buy my June tram pass.

Tuesday, June 2

On Tuesday morning there was a kafa waiting for me when I walked into the office where everyone was drinking and catching up before starting work. Since I had finished reading the reports, Amer found a book for me to read in English called Crude Oil, Processes and Products. For lunch we went to Panera, not to be confused with the American franchise. On one side of this restaurant they had hot food, where I ordered the sogan dolma again. The other side was a bakery and the bread was very fresh and delicious. They taught me four more words and in the afternoon Amer helped me print out some forms that I needed from his computer.

After work I went grocery shopping. Among other things, I bought a mug and premade cevapcici that I am looking forward to cooking. The mug says “Zmaj od Bosne” which I think means dragon for Bosnia. I am now ready to watch BiH participate in the World Cup for the first time!

Picture 077.jpg
Zmaj od Bonse!

Wednesday, June 3

The next day, Wednesday, I arrived on the same tram as Amer and a few of the other workers. As usual, we began the day by drinking our coffee all together and they taught me how to say good morning. At 9:30 Amer and I went to the terminals with two men from the piping department. The terminals were where the diesel, gasoline, and LPG were stored before they were trucked to all of the gas stations in Sarajevo.

This was the train station where the vagons discharged their products.

This was the truck station where the trucks were filled before heading out to the gas stations.

During the war in the 90s, these tanks were targeted and have been out of service ever since. When we arrived, the area was bustling with workers clearing weeds, cutting grass, and getting the grounds ready to be used again. The two men measured pipe dimensions and pipe thickness (with ultrasound) while Amer showed me around. Since the tanks had all been empty for 20 years we had the chance to look inside them and even go on a few roofs. Amer pointed out different safety features that I had read about in the reports. Even though the tanks had been attacked, the fire safety equipment and infrastructure that Petrolinvest had installed were able to keep the fire contained within a small area.

These are the pipes that run from the pump station to the tanks and truck station. The woman in the red jacket is Ida. The tank in the center was the one that was burned. The cement wall served two purposes, to contain spillage and fire. The pipes on top of the cement wall were for firefighting. A fire hydrant can be seen on the left.

This was the pump station. While the terminals were abandoned, the Gypsies had stolen all of the pumps. The man on the walkway is Amer.

In the twenty years that the facility had been abandoned a lot of metal had been stolen. The gypsies in the area had taken much of the metal walkways as well as all of the pumps in the pumpa stanzia, which was an impressive feat considering their weight. There was also a lot of corrosion and general degradation. The measurements that we were collecting would be used to determine how much would need to be replaced before the terminal can be used again. It was a beautiful day and the view from the top of the tanks was breathtaking. All of the houses in the surrounding hills were new because they had been severely damaged in the war.

This was a floating roof on one of the tanks.

On the way back from the terminals we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant. Amer taught me how to order, “Daj mi pet ćevapčići.” We made it back to the office in time for the coffee break. They talked about their favorite actors and actresses and I was able to recognize most of the names. Later that afternoon, IT came by and set up my computer. There are two small cats that live in the courtyard behind the Petrolinvest office. It was a very nice day so they were basking together in the sun under the rosebushes.

In summary

My first week in Sarajevo flew by. With the help of the IAESTE LC community and my coworkers I have started to settle in. I am beginning to learn what makes the people of Sarajeo so wonderful and unique. The city is busy and exciting but not overwhelming. It has the hustle and bustle of a large city mixed with the laid back feeling of a small European town where the cafes spill onto the wide sidewalks. There is so much history; it makes me realize how young America is.

So far my favorite part of this experience has been the people I have met. They are so welcoming and excited to teach me about their complex culture and tumultuous history. They are inclusive and compassionate. Sarajevo has been the center of so many conflicts but the people are very happy. They are positive and enjoy life to the fullest. Things are done in a timely manner but everyone is relaxed. Everything here is much more personal compared to plugged in, tuned out Americans. It’s the kind of city where every cafe-goer is a potential new friend. If it weren’t for the scarred buildings, I would have forgotten there was ever a war here.

One thing that surprised me was how developed certain parts of the city are. The shopping centers seem newer and are really destinations. They are not only for spending money, people sit and drink coffee while the young people hang out with their friends. Another thing that suprised me was that the particular mall that I use for wifi employs the same janitorial company that my university does.


Now read this

Week 5: June 26-July 2

Thursday, June 26 During our afternoon coffee break, Drina told me about different summer events in the Balkans. After helping me research a few of them, we found out that I will be here during the Exit Festival. The Exit Festival takes... Continue →