I have been back in Pennsylvania for about a week, and I look back fondly on the many unique experiences I had this summer abroad. When travelling around the Balkans, I was surprised by how welcoming the people were. The locals wanted to show me what made their cities special and to learn about America.
Working in another country has unexpected differences. One of the upsides of working in a relatively small company was the close relationships shared by the different departments. For example, if we needed to clarify or make changes to a design we were able to talk to the other departments in person. The collaborative energy was evident. Even though the work atmosphere was less rushed and stressed than how I’ve found it in America, everything was still finished on time. At the office, my coworkers were glad to have me around and liked to hear about the different plans I had for the weekends.
I found that one of the most noticeable differences between Americans and the former Yugoslavians was their compassion. One example of this community responsibility that the Sarajevans had was when I was coming back from Mostar on the train. When I arrived in Sarajevo, a woman that I was walking near offered to show me around the city because I looked foreign. In America, that would be cause for suspicion, but in the Balkans, it was genuine and innocent. The cities felt like small towns because the people cared about their neighbors. The shop owners were all local families that had good products at fair prices. They were providing a service to their friends and not trying to make money off of other peoples needs. Because everything had to be done over the phone or in person, there was an added level of humanity in everyday transactions that made me feel more connected to the people of Bosnia.
My experience as an American tourist in Southeastern Europe exceeded all of my expectations. While many tourist-saturated cities treat Americans with indifference, the people of Sarajevo and other cities in Southeastern Europe were genuinely excited to meet me and were as curious about my culture as I was about theirs. When buying fruit from the markets, I didn’t feel taken advantage of even though I was not comfortable enough to try bartering.
The main challenge I faced was the language barrier. French and Spanish are regularly taught in American schools, but Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian are unheard of. I was able to pick up a few words and phrases from my coworkers. Because of my unfamiliarity with the language, I usually bought my food from the grocery store. As I felt more and more comfortable navigating my way around these language barriers, I started branching out to the local bakeries and open air markets. After weeks of listening to my office-mates talk about different dimensions on the diagrams they were making, I was confident in my knowledge. One of my favorite accomplishments was when I was able to successfully (albeit very slowly) translate numbers and pay for my purchases without looking at the displayed price.
This three month adventure was a priceless experience. Like the average American my age, I have fully accepted the trend towards online information and transactions. Living in a country where face-to-face interaction was necessary put me outside of my comfort zone. At first, this was very disorienting, but after a few weeks, I began to settle in. Being forced out of my comfort zone gave me opportunity to learn so much about myself and how I react to new situations. I surprised myself a few times and I am very grateful for it. This summer I was able to gain a new perspective from living in a region with such a long history. Although their current political situation leaves them with a bleak future, the Bosnian spirit will always be strong and compassionate.