09 December 2009


So I hadn't really planned to write something here this... morning (or afternoon I guess now), but as I was doing some inbox clean-up, I spotted an email from KFlor regarding this lovely blog.   I first felt a spark of curiousity to check out the latest and then a yearning to contribute my own thoughts (I hope this is acceptable from a BVS alum). 

I have been home for 3 weeks now.  It has been a strange thing.  Initially it was just strange arriving - I hadn't really been mentally preparing myself for home and the U.S.  Instead I had been focusing on leaving Sarajevo, saying goodbye and not hello.  Additionally, I had the opportunity to travel with my family a bit - this also occupied a lot of mental space.  And a lot of physical energy, which I apparently didn't actually have- I ended up getting sick twice over a timeframe of less than 2 weeks.  So it was with very little mental, physical or emotional energy that I arrived in Dulles airport on the evening of November 18th.  Maybe homecoming should be a joyous experience, but instead what I really felt was not much of anything. 

That isn't meant to be a depressing statement - it just was what it was.  And I had warned enough ahead of time about "reverse culture shock" and not getting too jazzed about home that the general numbness wasn't bothersome.  It may have been more of a defense mechanism.  I was too tired to properly deal with the myriad of emotions such a massive transition entailed, and so my brain kept them all at bay for awhile.  I was more than ok with that. 

And now, over these last couple weeks all of the emotions are coming to the surface- sometimes 1 or 2 at a time, but other times in an overwhelming torrent.  This can be frustrating when you feel like you can't talk to old friends and family about your experiences of the last two years- or you can talk to them, but they'll never really get it.  About a week ago while out with 2 friends, one of them actually turned to the other and said, "Sometimes do you just have no idea what Tory is talking about?"  She said it as a joke, but it felt like salt in an open wound. 

Cultural... adjustment, shall we say, has been another issue- and one which is all the more irritating because its a quintessential element of the warnings one receives regarding "culture shock."  Everyone experiences it and everyone is warned about it.  Ok great, so I knew I had it coming, can it just be over now please?  I don't feel like going through this awkward adjustment phase. Plus, it's not like I'm returning from a village in the middle of no where, or a culture that was so vastly different from our own (it was a European city after all), but maybe that's what makes it harder.  There aren't glaring differences, but the little ones which seem like they shouldn't matter so much start to grate and to add up.  I know having to drive everywhere is a common complaint of those returning to U.S. suburbia from overseas.  Yep, it's wearing on me.  All the holiday hullabaloo - also a standard complaint and also one I am experiencing.  Particularly returning from a place which was predominantly Muslim and post-communist.  They didn't really do the whole consumer-driven holiday ostentation thing. 

Another thing that is irking me, not because it is different but because I somehow feel implicated when the idiocy is being perpetrated in my own country- mainstream media and the subject matter they choose to devote air time to.  Again- this isn't really a difference because Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian news coverage is not particularly good.  It is generally blatantly biased and includes absolute rubbish.  But at least its a variety of rubbish. If you've had the opportunity to check the pop culture pulse of the U.S. lately you'll probably be hearing about one thing- and only one thing.  Tiger Woods.  He cheated on his wife.  She beat him with a golf club.  CNN, Fox News (ugh I know - but that's all they have on at the Y, I don't choose to watch it!),  Twitter,  SNL and pretty much every person around the proverbial water cooler are all talking about it.  Ok that's nice, but who really cares?  This does not constitute news!  Can we go back to Health Care reform?  Copenhagen?  (Ok no, I don't expect there to be Tweets or SNL skits regarding these things... but the news at least?) 

What I guess then bothers me about all this is the reactions of those around me.  Because they actually do seem to care about Tiger Woods' personal life and woes.  Or at least they care enough to talk about it in general conversation- and enough to create large numbers jokes about it (I think this is where my beef with twitter and SNL comes in).  Humor is something which is culturally specific and which reflects a lot about a society.  The subject matter of the latest jokes is often linked to recent headline news.  So here I am, back in the USA surrounded by jokes about a professional golfer cheating on his wife.  Hmmm let's see- what are some recent events in Bosnia which became the stuff of jokes?  Ones which come to mind are the Russians turning off the gas last year and the caputure of war criminal Radovan Karadzic in July '08.  Slightly weightier subject matter.  Humor in Bosnia and other post-conflict countries is often of a blacker variety and acts as a defence mechanism.  Its on the morbid side- one is left not know whether it is really appropriate to laugh, but in the end it has its appeal.  Being able to laugh about something which might otherwise induce tears reflects a certain resiliency. 

Ok, I'll try to stop here before I go off into fits of Yugo-nostalgia... but the difference in sense of humor has definitely been on my mind.  And it's really not a bad thing that in the U.S. we have the luxury of joking about trivial items.  It's a good thing not to have to laugh at death- death is not something most Americans (myself very much included) have had to consider as a part of daily life.  And so everything we do can have a certain lightness to it - the jokes we tell, the news we watch, the plans we make, the relationships we form.  I could feel that certain carefree spririt whenever westerners came to visit Sarajevo - it was something I wanted to be near to, it felt familiar and safe.  But over time I absorbed more of the Balkan spirit - which not only comes from experiences of the past, but the lack of hope many feel about the future, and a general sense of poverty.  Not such positive things.  But it did affect the way people lived in the immediate present - again there were good and bad sides to this.  But what I liked, and what I now miss, was the approach to relationships.  Somehow it felt more candid - the bullshit had been thrown out. 

After writing that, I realize there are about a bjillion disclaimers and exceptions I should be noting.  Clearly everything isn't warm and fuzzy.  But this is how I would sum up the overall... feeling... compared to the vibes I experience here in the U.S.  And I've still got a lot of vibes and emotions to sort through - it has only been 3 weeks.  But this is where I stand thus far- transitioning.  Post-BVS Europe. 


07 December 2009

BVSers in Bosnia (and Herzegovina)

This year's trip to the Balkans didn't include a regional BVS gathering but I visited a bunch of projects and the two volunteers in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Here's my "night hawks" version of the OKC Abrasevic project in Mostar. (You can see its progression over the years in one of Katie's posts below.)

So I continue to annoy the BVSers with my camera...
(There should actually have been a shot of rakija on the table along with the coffee. This is Katie in Mostar (on the right).

And we bid a fond farewell to Jen (left) whose new project in Sarajevo more or less fell apart just a few months after she arrived (and since she'd previously had to speedily leave her project in Serbia due to visa problems) - best wishes for a new start back in the USA!