Being an English family in Tuzla we are fairly conspicuous. There aren't very many English families in Tuzla. In fact, I think it is just us. As such, there isn't a big expat circle to become a part of. Whilst this does occasionally make things more difficult, on the whole I prefer it this way. It meant that I didn't have any options, I had to get stuck in and involved in Bosnian life and this has, by and large, been wonderful. Bemusing most of the time, but pretty fun.
In particular it has bought me into regular contact with that very specific breed of Bosnian, the Granny. The Bosnian Granny (henceforth known as the BG) is a force to be reckoned with, particularly in any queue in the post office. Generally fairly sturdy and well wrapped up whatever the weather, nothing escapes her beady eye. Absolutely nothing. If there was ever to be a World Championships in gossip, the BG would win. Hands down. The rest of us, skilled as we may think we are in being able to pass on information about other people, are mere amateurs, school children in comparison. The BGs talk about everything, from the clothes you wear, to the time you go to bed, the behaviour of your children, to how they don't like to gossip but..., to how often you throw out your rubbish. There is nothing they don't know. We are obvious targets to speculate about and apparently they are fascinated by us. But I know that we are far from the only people being discussed, so it doesn't really bother me that much. They are enormously generous, always asking us over, stuffing us with food, never letting us go home without a bottle of homemade grape juice, some cake, a bit of pie and no doubt then analysing in detail how well my boys ate their food, our manners and how different we are.
I come into contact with the BGs a lot. Bosnian culture remains very family orientated. Many people continue to live at the same place as their parents/in laws after they get married, the Bosnians simply building another apartment as another story on top of their houses. Sometimes I envy this; the family all gets together for a coffee in the morning; aunts, uncles, other children all pitch in together for a big melee of people to hang out with. There's always someone around. What it does mean though is that the BG is often very actively involved in childcare, whilst the Mums go out to work. So the nursery gates are full of BGs gathered to chitchat whilst waiting for their grandchildren. They always involve me in their conversations; I don't often have much of an idea what they are talking about. They then pick up their immaculately dressed grandchild, who trots over straight away, leaving me chasing my two far from immaculate boys, trying to hold one down whilst getting boots on the other and stopping them from dismantling the climbing frame. The BG, who fully subscribes to the point of view that it takes a village to raise a child, has no qualms in stepping in to tell my two off (inevitably leading to tears, my boys not totally comfortable with being grabbed by a woman they have never met before and on the receiving end of a sharp volley of Bosnian). It took me a while to get over the 'leave my children alone' impulse - the English just don't tend to interfere like that. I have had to learn to not take it personally and the boys have learnt that if they run around in the supermarket, a BG will get on their case.
The BG's always have their children wrapped up warmly in layer upon layer of clothes, to me they look absolutely boiling. Mine are fully wrapped up at the moment, it is deep winter after all. But once in warms up, I don't tuck their tops into their trousers and they wear as few layers as I can get away with; my washing machine stuggles enough with the laundry pile as it is. The BGs look on at my boys in horror. 'That child is naked' one BG memorably hissed at me. 'Which child?' I wondered? Mine was the only child in the vicinity. His top wasn't tucked in. Ah, that will be my child then.
Then there is the chocolate issue. No BG is ever to be found without a bar of chocolate hidden in her bag, to be bought out whenever in contact with any children. My two, for who chocolate is a rare treat, love this aspect of Bosnian culture. They are present in a flash, suddenly all beautifully behaved, looking like little angels and waiting to be given the next sugar laden candy. Being the one who then has to deal with the inevitable sugar rush and less than angelic manic behaviour that will always follow, I'm less of a fan of this custom. However, I recently had a 'eureka' moment of understand finally realising that this chocolate thing is just a part of the BG assessment of my parenting. Usually in these situations I become very English and end up muttering something like 'gosh, thanks, how generous', wait until the BG is out of sight and then confiscate the enormous bar of chocolate from the boys sticky, sugary hands. I now realise that the correct response is to say, even insist, to the BG that the boys are not to be given chocolate and prevent the kids (despite protestations from the BG to the contrary) from laying their little paws on it. I only realised this the other day, when one particular BG who is a right terror for dishing out the candy and therefore adored by my boys, happened to bring her own grandson along. He was offered chocolate. She didn't let him have any. They offered again, she took it away. There was no way that this BG was going to let any chocolate anywhere near her precious boy's hopeful mouth. 'It isn't good for him' she offered to me as an explanation, leaving me spluttering and open mouthed in shock.
Ah hah, I thought, now I get it. So now there's a bar of chocolate that has taken up residence permanently in my pocket for the next time I meet them. I'll make sure the little boy gets some. I might even stop him running around the supermarket and untuck his top whilst I'm at it. Heh heh heh.