Thursday, 29 April 2010

The final post. Well almost.

This blog has always been about our time in Bosnia. What it was like to be living in Bosnia, the things that I liked, the things that I find odd, the things I found completely incomprehensible. Now we've moved back from Bosnia, the time has come to draw this blog to a close.

When I started it way back when, it was really for me to keep a record of our time abroad and to keep the odd friend and family vaguely in touch with what we were up to. Eventually I discovered a whole blogging community and this turned into a bit of a life line for me. Life with 2 small boys away from home was, at times, very isolating and lonely. I never really found my Mummy niche in Bosnia, never found other mothers I could hang out with with whom I could despair of ever potty training or getting full nights sleep again. But there they all were in the blogosphere. I could read their stories, often funny, occasionally heartbreaking. It was like having a cup of tea and a natter with a mate over the road. For me, it was invaluable and made all the difference to my time in Bosnia. By providing that headspace, I had the mind set to cope with being an expat.

I was also surprised by the number of people in Bosnia who contacted me through my blog. We met people from all over the country, stayed with a few of them and hope that they will remain friends. Yet others contacted us with all sorts of ideas and help with some of the bureaucratic battles that we were always facing and every offer of help and potential contact was very gratefully received.

Our time in Bosnia was amazing. There were ups and downs but the experiences were unforgettable. Bosnia is a wonderful country full of warm, vibrant, funny and ever so generous people. It is a country that is so let down by its leaders, but a country that has so much to offer and so much potential. If you are thinking of visiting then do. Sarajevo and Mostar are wonderful cities to visit as a tourist, the skiing is good, the scenery spectacular and you will be welcomed. If you are thinking of visiting Bosnia at any point then do get in touch, I can direct you to some good literature, give you some ideas for places to go and things to do.

I say this is the final post, really it is almost the final post. I will be posting a few more times, but with useful information for people thinking of moving to Bosnia, importing a car, all those things that we now have a very detailed knowledge about. Again, feel free to contact me if you want any wildly unprofessional advice. I'll do my best.

So, all that remains is to say a big thank you to everyone. I am going to continue blogging, so if you are vaguely interested then do head on over to my new blog Pants With Names.* No idea yet what I'll be whittering about there, but with the situation in Bosnia remaining fairly volatile expect a few posts along those lines and I suspect that the old small boy destruction tactics will also feature largely. Who knows what else, but I expect I'll find plenty to whitter on about. Pop on over, come follow, subscribe, comment.

In the meantime thank you very much and good night!

* Pants with Names being the winning entry judged by me after 3 days driving in the car with my husband and no radio for company. Congrats to Jen at The Madhouse for her winning entry - do you want a bottle of sljivavica in a plastic bottle? If you do, one will wing its way to you shortly. Alternatively I will buy you a drink when we do eventually meet.... which is also Iota's prize for spotting the potential of the name. For some reason she didn't fancy the homemade plum brandy. Was it the fact the we use it to get ticks off the dog that put you off?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Tricks to help your children settle into new schools

Our boys seem to have taken to going to school and playgroup with some enthusiasm. I'd love to claim that it is because we carefully prepared them for their new schools, talked them through what was going to happen, spent hours settling them in. The reality is somewhat different. They are enjoying school and nursery so much because, as Adam says, "going to storage and unpacking boxes is really boring".

So, my advice to anyone with a child starting school? Make the time spent at home so unbelivably dull that they will embrace any form of anything as far more fun.

In the meantime, I return to going to storage and unpacking boxes. It has to be said that the boys aren't wrong. Going to storage and unpacking boxes is really really boring.


To get you into the election mood, pop over to Mummy Do That for her British Mummy Bloggers take on the election carnival!

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Covered Up

We've been back in the UK for 10 days. 10 days in which we have been living again in a country that isn't predominantly Muslim. 10 days in which I haven't been woken for the call to prayer by the mosque over the road. So why is it that in the last 10 days I've seen more fully veiled women here than I saw in 2 years in Bosnia?
Women in headscarves and loose fitting clothes are a common sight in Bosnia, and they often look amazing, really elegant and very stylish. Bosnia is a country where Islam is widely practiced, yet virtually no woman feels that they should be fully covered. In two years I saw 2 such women, and from the expressions of those around me I could tell that I wasn't the only one to find them unusual.

I like to think that I'm a tolerant person. I do believe that people should be able to wear whatever they want to. But if I'm being really honest with myself I find that I do have a problem with women being fully covered. It makes me very uncomfortable, I don't like it. I can't quite pinpoint what it is that I don't like. Is it that I feel the women are being discriminated against for having to wear it? Or that I just can't trust someone if I can't see their face? I'm not sure, I haven't decided yet. But in my unease I find more discomfort that I appear to be agreeing with the extremist political parties who preach intolerance.

Countries like France are considering bringing in a ban on the full veil in public places. On the one hand I oppose it, it affects peoples ability to practice their religion as they wish too and it curtails their freedom to dress themselves as they wish. Vince Cable's argument on Question Time used to defend South Park's various highly insulting sketches is applicable; the right to freedom of speech for everyone must come before the rights of smaller groups not to be offended. So the rights of religious groups to dress as they wish should come before my discomfort at what they choose to wear.

But then I think that many devout Muslims in Bosnia do not feel the need to cover their women in order to practice their religion and at a very basic level don't really understand why others can't practice their religion in the same way, particularly when living in Europe. But I am interested to know what other people think. Do you feel comfortable seeing fully covered women in public? What do you think about a ban on the full veil in public places?  

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

In at the deep end; starting school in April

Adam has really been flung into life in England at the deep end. It seems to be the way we work as a family so I suppose he needs to get used to it, but it isn't easy.

Today was his first day at school, 5 days after we moved back into to our house. He turns 5 in May so didn't need to start school until the beginning of this term. So until now, whilst his contemporaries have been slaving away at their desks learning through play, he's been swanning around in a Bosnian nursery. Of course the reality is that the two aren't really that different, except here everyone speaks English (big plus point according to Adam) but he has to stay until 3pm rather than skipping home with Mummy at 12 (big negative point according to Adam, as you can have too much of a good thing apparently).

But the way things are done in the two school systems are quite distinct. The Bosnian system always seemed to reflect their communist heritage. The emphasis was on learning by repitition and attention to detail. They were encouraged to colour in inbetween the lines, often told what colour to do which section. The result of which is that he has terrific ability to use a pen, but doesn't really know what to do when confronted with a big blank piece of white paper.

3 weeks later he is at the other end of the education system spectrum in the British system. There is so much to do in his classroom, Adam's eyes nearly popped out of his head with excitement when he saw the range of lego and then he caught sight of the puzzles. There's enough there to keep him happy for months.

By the most amazing stroke of luck his teacher is Serbian. She can speak the same language (Serbian and Bosnian are essentially the same language), she knows the system and the alphabet. So when Adam throws in the odd 'lj' 'nj' 'dz' and other letters that I can't work out how to type here, she'll know where he's coming from.

So although he is naturally quite shy and did not want to be left on his own, I think he'll be swimming along just fine in a few days.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Now that April's there...

Oh, to be in England. At long last and now in even more chaos than normal, we are. It’s odd being back. Nothing has changed. Well, the kids on the street are taller than two years ago and the local pub has gone gastro but apart from that, really nothing has changed. We’ve been back for 2 days now and it honestly feels like we were never away. 

A few things though about England though that have really stood out for me over the last couple of days which I want to write down before they become normal.

There are a lot of cars on the roads. Really a lot of cars. Admittedly we didn’t drive much in Sarajevo which is more congested, but we aren’t in London either.

The cars here are all really new. Well obviously not all new, but they seem new, they look new. The Bosnians are masters at patching things together. There are quite a few cars on the roads that due to their age and mileage should probably have been sent to the old cars home a while back. But whilst cars cost so much in Bosnia, no one is going to let an old car wheel their zimmerframe towards a graceful retirement.

There is real racial diversity here. All sorts of accents, languages, colours. I like it. I’d forgotten how long it had been since I saw someone of Asian or African descent walking down the street.

The average Brit does not dress as well as the average Bosnian. By some way.

Supermarkets are enormous, frightening places. In the middle of Tesco Extra I did find myself wondering whether anyone would hear me scream. Still couldn’t find a medium sized pack of plain old cheddar.

Listening to the local radio station to hear about traffic jams on the Abingdon Road is not nearly as entertaining when you are actually on the Abingdon Road.

It doesn't take 2 seconds to get used to driving on the left again, but remembering that the speed signs are in Miles per hour and not Kilometers per hour takes a little longer. 

An English Sunday roast sitting in a field outside a countryside pub is one of the seven wonders of the world.
When the sun is shining there is nowhere in the world more glorious than the English countryside. 

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Bosnian Humour

I've been wanting to write a post about Bosnian humour for ages, but couldn't find the right way to illustrate it. How do you represent something that is creative, quirky, totally irreverent and very funny? Then I saw this picture on Amila Bosnae's blog. It is entitled What to do in Bosnia on a winter's day and was taken this year in Sarajevo. To me, this epitomises Bosnian humour perfectly.


I can't find who to credit, so if you know then please let me know.

PS - in case you are wondering... we have now totally finally and officially left Bosnia. We even (eventually) got the car export documents stamped. Our total belongings and the dog are in the back of the car. We have made our stately and rather cramped progress across Europe and are now somewhere around Switzerland? France maybe?  Should be back proper on Tuesday.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Visas and politicians

I've been spending the last couple of days trying to finish off bits and pieces of my research, which has meant driving all over the country and a lot of coffees with lots of different people, talking about all sorts of things. It has been illuminating for me, a wonderful way to finish my time in Bosnia.

Mostly we've been talking about the situation in Bosnia now. There are elections to be held in October. The politicians are getting ready for them, which means more and more nationalist rhetoric. The Dayton Peace Agreement which bought the war to an end in 1995 established the political structure which operates today. It ensures that each group, the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs are guaranteed a certain number of seats according to their 'nationality'. The unintended effect of this is that the politicians only need to appeal to their own in order to be elected and there is no incentive reach across the divides to appeal to others. In practice this means the politicians become more and more nationalistic as they fight to exaggerate the threat to their people and claim that they are the only ones capable of  protecting their heritage and rights. It's fairly disgusting to watch, makes the nauseousness I feel watching the British politicans point scoring off each other seem insignificant.

The banging of chests started early. The Bosnian Serbs are leaping about saying that they are going to hold a referendum seeing whether the Republika Srpska (the Serb half of the country) should move away (possibly cede altogether?) from the rest of Bosnia. The Croats watch carefully, if the Serbs can then maybe they can too. The Bosniaks leap up and down claiming that their country is under threat. Everyone ignores that constitutionally it can't be done, where's the vote winner in being rational?

Talking to the local Bosnians, you realise that they don't pay that much attention to the politicians. Most of them won't vote anyway, believing it doesn't make any difference whatsoever and that all politicians are crooks. The Brits get expenses scandals, the Bosnians understand that to be a way of life.

There is one thing though that the Bosnians are incredibly bitter about. In December, Serbia was entered onto the White List, permitting Serbs to travel to Europe without a visa. Croatia has been allowed to do so for some time now. Bosnia, although only just slightly less prepared that Serbia was, was not allowed to join as they didn't quite meet all of the standards required. As most Bosnian Croats already hold Croatian passports and Bosnian Serbs can apply for Serbian ones, it is really only the Bosnian Muslims who can not travel freely.

People resent this. They really really resent it. Some people say it is unfair becauseSerbia and Croatia didn't suffer as much in the break up of Yugoslavia and chose to fight their differences on Bosnian soil, for which Bosnians are still paying the price. Others say that it is a conspiracy by Europe against the Muslims in Bosnia, that Europeans are discriminating against them because of their religion. People say that it is deeply unfair that the perpetrators of the genocide in Srebrenica (Serbs) should be allowed to travel freely but their victims (Bosnian Muslims) cannot.

Just sitting and chatting to people, it is this topic more than any other that causes people to get angry and upset. In the run up to the election, with the politicians starting to agitate a nationalistic agenda, Europe should look carefully at their decision not to allow Bosnia visa free travel. There are rumours that they may be granted it in the summer. It would be enormously helpful to the country if that were to happen.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Mean Mummy

Two boys.

Lots of toys

Room for one toy box 40cm sq in the car*.

Not so many toys.

Starting to think I might be being a bit brutal in the toy cull.

*whilst the boys are having a lovely time playing in every playground in England, I'm back in Bosnia packin up the house before driving back with all our stuff. If it doesn't fit in the car then it has to be left behind.

Monday, 5 April 2010

A New Life

The other day I went over for coffee with a friend here, let's call her Azra. We were sitting in her kitchen and she suddenly asked me how old I was.

I'm 37 Azra. Well nearly 38.

Azra carried on spooning the coffee absentmindedly and didn't say anything for a little while.

Do you dye your hair? She asked eventually.

I wasn't sure where this was going. I don't dye my hair but I'm also blessed with not a grey hair on my head despite my advanced age. I said not.

She was quiet again.

You look so much younger than me. I'm only 2 years older than you, but I look like your mother.

She was right. We do look like we come from different generations. It is not so much that I look young, but that she looks far older than her years.

But Azra, I started to say I haven't had to deal with a half of the things you've had to cope with in your life.

For Azra has had to live a life. She came from a village near Srebrenica. When the war started she was newly married with a little baby. They were worried by the rumours of what was happening in villages further north and left her home to come to Tuzla. Her husband joined the Bosnian Army (which was essentially the Bosnian Muslim forces). She had another baby. Her husband sent word that he was so excited to be the father of a little girl and that he couldn't wait to meet her. She never heard from him again.

After the war she remarried, had another baby. This husband started beating her, so she left him. He cut all ties, refusing to acknowledge his son, refusing to pay towards his upkeep.

So there was Azra. 3 children. No money. No job. Her family were scattered across the world. One brother was in the US, another in France yet another in Germany. They sent her money occasionally but it wasn't really enough to live on. Her father was dead now, her mother came to Tuzla, sick, and moved in with her and her children into their 1 bedroom flat. She tried to find work but couldn't. They found the remains of her first husband in a mass grave near Pilica. She went to the mosque for the first time in years.

I'm going to leave Bosnia, she said. There's nothing for me here except sadness and loss. I have no more hope here. I must leave.

They decided to move to a Germany. Azra asked her brothers for money and paid 4000KM to a fixer to obtain for them a visa to travel as tourists into Europe. The fixer organised everything for them. He arranged for a letter to say that Azra's eldest son was employed  (he wasn't). He arranged for a letter stating that they had a certain amount of money in the bank (they didn't). He arranged for an invitation to be provided by someone in Poland to make it look as if they would be travelling there, but applied for a Shengen visa, which permits travel to any European country.

Their visa request was refused. They reapplied. It was refused again. They applied once more. I asked Azra why they didn't wait until Bosnia gets visa free travel, likely to be this year.

I can't wait any more. I want to go. I have to go. I can't stay here any more. I'm stuck, I can't do anything here.

The third time they applied they got it. The next day they were on a bus, with all their belongings, off to start their new life.

I haven't heard from Azra since they arrived in Germany. I don't know what she is going to do in Germany. She didn't finish school and has no formal qualifications. None of the family speak German. I asked her what she would do there. There are lots of jobs for cleaners she said. I said that the global recession had hit European countries pretty hard too and that there weren't lots of jobs any more. There are she insisted. Someone told me there are. I will find one. I will have a job. 

Their tourist visa is about to expire. They have no intention of coming back. I wonder how they are finding Germany, if Azra has found a job. But I wonder most if they are missing Bosnia. The blossoms are out here now. Everyone is sitting outside having coffee, tending to their vegetable patches and enjoying the sunshine. The young kids are playing on the streets and the older ones are strolling up and down the road laughing with their friends and eyeing up the boys.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

New Blog Name competition

I need a new blog name. When we get back I can't keep calling myself Brits In Bosn3ia because, well, we are not in Bosnia.

So, I'm opening my first ever competition. Leave a comment with a suggestion for my new blog name. The winner, totally random and chosen by me according to my whim on the day, will receive a genuine bottle of home-made plum brandy for that genuine authentic Bosnian moment. Actually you will need to put on a tracksuit, pair of wellies and sit outside singing raucous songs and eating half a cow for the actual authentic Bosnian moment, but this will be pretty close.

For some extraordinary reason, no one is sponsoring this post but I can guarantee that the sljivavica is homemade as we were there when it was made. Or maybe I'll offer up the stuff that the vet gave us, currently used for getting ticks off the dog, but locals say that his stuff has a good reputation. The winner can choose.

PS - on a totally different track, I'm ridiculously chuffed to have been nominated in three categories for the MADS awards. If you nominated me, thank you so much, you have no idea how much that made my day/week/month/year. If you haven't nominated already then click on the MADS button on the right and go and do so now. 

Back Again

Literally. I'm back in Bosnia. The boys are staying with my Mum and I'm back in Tuzla thinking that the house is too quiet and what on earth am I going to do with all that time today.

We flew back on Tuesday. Drove through northeastern Bosnia playing our uniquely Bosnian car game - spot the bombed out house, with extra points for the mine signs. The road from Tuzla from Bijeljina is a good one for this game and as I'd spectacularly forgotten to put any toys or anything in the back of the car for the boys to play with on the 3 hour trip to Belgrade (had been thinking of the flight, forgot that the trip to the airport was also a fairly substantial length of time) we were getting desperate for car games to keep them amused. It was a lovely day, English summer like day. Warm, but not too hot. Gentle breeze. Lovely.

We had decided to fly back from Serbia. Unfortunately it was also the day that the Serbian Government had decided to debate the resolution condemning the events in Srebrenica which was also making the Serb border guards jumpy. We spent a long time at the border, making the final drive to the airport a race against time. Mild panic about missing the flight, always conducive to a stress free trip I feel.

Of course we made it, no problems. Of course the boys were perfectly behaved. It was actually a remarkably pleasant journey. We flew across Europe, looking down through the clear skies. We crossed the channel and started our descent into Heathrow, meeting the clouds on our way down. We landed and rain battered the windows.

Mummy? said Adam
Yes Darling?
Does it always rain in England?
Um, quite often, but they do have lots of playgrounds.

And so we were back.