“Basically, everyone wanted a piece of the pie.”
“Right — and Bosnia was the pie.”
That’s how my wife Sunčica and her brother Enis described the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the war that resulted. They come from Mostar, a 15th-century city in the southern region of Bosnia & Herzegovina – the Herzegovina part. Fitting analogy: No matter where I traveled in her home country, I couldn’t escape pie.
What Bosnians call pita, we Americans would call pastry – not so much pie as flaky pocket filled with meat, cheese, fruit or chocolate. You could argue it’s the national dish, though ćevapi would give it a run for its money. Go to any household and you’ll certainly find a few pita in the fridge, if not a fresh one in the oven. If you’re not hungry, you’re better off not showing up at all.
The Bosnian word for “enough” is dosta. You’ll want to remember that one – as in, “Dosta, molim, ja sam dobro!” or “Enough, please, I’m good!” or “Please for the love of mercy stop offering me food!”
As it turns out, the language barrier for these interactions doesn’t really matter. Or, to put this differently: Sunčica’s grandmother Hazira doesn’t speak a word of English. My Bosnian is halting and based primarily in stupid phrases I use to impress locals. But I love to eat and she loves to feed – there’s not a whole lot left to figure out there.
Actually, I take that back. While Bosnian food is as dense and filling as it is delectable, it may be hard to express satiation. You start fast and hit the wall quickly, but at that point, your hostess has already hit her stride – she’s got a second helping coming and you don’t know how to say “No.” Well, you do, but it doesn’t matter. Confrontation is normal, denying food is insulting, and besides, you’re American – can’t you eat more?
Yes, I can.
Our visit coincided with Eid, a Muslim holiday with a celebration that resembles Thanksgiving in terms of custom: visit family, eat food, give thanks. As the new guy and the foreigner, I was the one everyone wanted to feed. If it’s impolite to turn down food normally, it’s impossible during Eid – if you’re also a guest, I mean, get real.
“Do you want breakfast? Are you hungry?”
It’s morning. We’d visited the mosque and were back in the house having Bosnian coffee – like Turkish coffee. Bosnian cuisine owes much of its heritage to Ottoman influence. I was told to pace myself during Eid and that’s what makes it markedly different from American feasting holidays: Instead of one big meal, you bounce from house to house, accepting whatever it is they decide to give you. It’s important not to get ahead of yourself. Unfortunately, I tend eat like I’ve got a flight to catch.
But the eating doesn’t really start until lunchtime. So not only are you supposed to pace yourself, but you’re also ravenous and have been awake since 5:30 a.m. Oh, and your first bite of food? It’s a pie. This one was full of essentially the same apple filling we use here in America, baked with love by Sunčica’s aunt.
Her uncle asked me if there are Communists in America. Yes, I told him. You can find pretty much anything in America. I don’t like Communists, he told me. Me neither, I said. Then we each put on a fez and took pictures. I’d eaten two pieces of pie and had a glass of juice. The day was young and I’d started out fast.
Lunch is back home where mama Eldina prepared her specialties – dolma and zeljanica. The former: stuffed peppers with beef, rice, spices and sauce. The latter: Spinach pita, using layers of delicate, paper dough, chopped spinach and a whole bunch of cheese – think spanakopita. Sunčica and I have made both before – I certainly won’t say they were failures, because we ate them and they were tasty. But the dish didn’t really transcend the sum of its parts. Eldina’s, on the other hand, became something new altogether. Rightfully so – this was home cooking. I had seconds. Things were spiraling out of control.
By the time we reached grandma Hazira’s, I was delirious. Much of our fare consisted of sweet pies, cake, and baklava. Everyone has the best baklava and they will each try to prove it to you.
Let me set the scene:
It’s hot – in September, somewhere north of 90 degrees F. We drive from Mostar to Blagaj (“Blah-guy”), which is a smaller town about 20 minutes away. The drive is mostly straight – we pass an airport, plenty of farmland, some hills and fig trees. A few clouds hang low and the sun is high. Yes, it’s a foreign place, but it’s not so different. We might’ve been in rural California or West Virginia.
Her grandmother’s house is in a neighborhood up a steep hill. Our automatic transmission, 2003 Opal Astra tended to shift gears a few seconds too late, so it felt for a moment like we wouldn’t make it. Then we had to park on an incline and starting up again involved slamming on the accelerator – but not too much – to avoid sliding into the front gate.
These homes are one or two stories, with a large patio, red roof, pastel-colored walls and adobe architecture. There are high cliffs in one direction. The backyard is a garden where figs, pomegranates, grapes and rosemary grow.
I’m sweating as I greet them. I’m sure I look as bad as I smell. We sit around a small table – Sunčica, Enis, Enez (their dad), Hazira, I – when Hazira gets up and starts pulling plates of food, bowls, boxes and treys from every corner of the room and placing them down. There’s a plate of figs there, which grow wild in Bosnia, and Enez – who also speaks little English – instructs me on how to eat them, visually. It’s a simple process: Toss it back whole like popcorn, wipe the juice from your lips when it bursts out.
There was local cheese (tangy and crumbly), japrak (“yah-prock,” rolled leaves filled with rice and meat), goat milk (satisfying), baklava (everyone’s is the best) and a bevy of other morsels.
When I was full – which was almost immediately – all I could say was “Dosta, ne hvala” (“Enough, no thanks”). But then she would ladle some more stew into my bowl or push over another piece of baklava and I was powerless.
At the onset of this writing I had a vague idea in my head that food is the universal language. Some say music, but I disagree – what’s harmonious to the ears of an Arabian child would probably sound foreign and strange for those accustomed to the Western 12-tone system. But food, I learned, is no more universal a language than English. What’s universal is the instinct to provide – the desire to please – the unique satisfaction arrived only at sharing a hot meal. Even that can be one-sided: Heaven forbid you turn down seconds.
Afterward we walked next door to Sunčica’s great aunt’s – we promised ourselves we wouldn’t eat. Here, again, she insisted on baklava and we obliged. Here’s this tiny old woman flying around, pulling sweets out of every cabinet, every drawer, emerging into a closet and returning with some basket of goodies.
“Man,” I commented to Enis and Sunčica, “there’s food everywhere – this place is like a bomb shelter!”
“It was,” they both replied.
In the Old Town (Stari Grad) there is an Old Bridge (Stari Most). It’s a stone, Ottoman structure spanning the Neretva River and connecting two sides of an Ottoman citadel. It was destroyed during the bombardment of the 1990s and later rebuilt faithfully. There is a malaise that hangs over some days in this country – a suspicion and anxiety that might descend like a fog, visible in residents old enough to have lived through turmoil. These people saw their neighbors turn on them, mark them as others, acquiesce to and even participate in their disenfranchisement. Families who’d lived next to each other for years were sudden deadly rivals, and the one with the wrong last name was targeted. Some fled forever, some fled and returned, other remained there and picked a side. Men and boys were sent to concentration camps, starved and beaten and executed; women were raped and abused. The worst of it happened in Srebrenica and Sarajevo. The entire region was aflame as the world hoped for an outcome that would not come without intervention.
That was over 20 years ago. The malaise that still lingers like depression is beginning to lift more and more frequently. Now, on Stari Most, tourists from China and Japan take selfies. Americans drop Bosnian convertible marks in the wallets of artists and vendors on cobblestone streets. Every year, a professional diving competition sponsored by Red Bull holds a major event on the Old Bridge, as acrobats twist and somersault off the structure into the Neretva in the same way locals have for generations. Students of once warring backgrounds have begun to attend the same schools – a fledgling trend that must continue.
Corruption is prevalent, the future is uncertain and old grudges are not yet reconciled. But Mostar is no war zone.
Most Americans I’ve spoken to know Bosnia only for the war or they don’t know it at all. Some even expressed skepticism over my visit, as though some danger lay there still. I will tell you this: The only danger I ever felt was that which came from eating a lot and standing up too fast. But people set their opinions about something and those can be hard to change. Luckily, there’s a prescription for that:
Go there. Eat the food. Talk to the people. Go to sleep early (for the jetlag) and wake up early (for the breakfast). Order a meal without a translator, learn a few words, walk. Just look at everything, take it all in, be immersed. Take careful note of how much the same it is – the stupid, mundane, boring daily things – banks, restaurants, houses, places of worship, nice people, mean people, cars, roads, businesses. Don’t be intimidated, or do, but know that’s a reaction ingrained in you from eons of evolution, and know some of those instincts no longer apply.
And if you happen to find yourself in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina, go to the Old Bridge, order kafa i sir pita, and make yourself at home.