Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Home for the Holidays

Dear Friends-

After a long process of travel from Sarajevo, through Europe, to home, I arrived safely in the States last week- just a few days before Christmas. I have to admit it was kind of nice arriving so close to Christmas day and seemingly bypassing a lot of the holiday frenzy and hellabaloo that goes with it. Christmas came and Christmas went along with the residual snow then nasty rain then balmy Sunday and now bitter cold- I do thank God for blue December skies and clear winter nights.

What I also thank God for was the amazing life he gifted me with in Sarajevo. I could not have asked for a better realization of my time there as I learned and lived well. Not knowing what to expect across the board, I was able to make incredible progress with the Bosnian language, make a "home" complete with many friends and sense of community, and I was able to define my future volunteering and professional opportunities.

All of that, I believe, is leading me back to a round 2 return trip to Bosnia at the end of January with a potential three month stay in mind. I am excited for this stepping stone period to continue language learning and develop my relationship with Fondaciju Mozaik as I finish the existing design project, seeing where that leads, and jump into other ongoing projects. Also, daily life will be similar and different as I continue teaching English and visiting old friends but will also have an apartment in town and more opportunities to spend time with friends and colleagues.

In a real sense I believe many of you have shared this adventure with me. I thank you for your kind notes of encouragement and interest and I trust I will be able to spend quality moments with you as I am home this January. I have a story to tell and so do you and we can learn from each other. Needing a break, the blog will be on the "down-low" for a while but I promise to revamp it when I return to Bosnia.

Feel free to contact me whenever by phone- 484 941 2450- or by email at
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and blessings upon you.

Friday, December 11, 2009

More Top 10 Sarajevo Sentiments (#4-7)

Not much of an introduction is needed. I can see the day coming when I will be leaving Sarajevo and truly my heart aches a great deal concerning this temporary departure. Beyond just saying that I love it here, I want to give you some concrete, albeit abstracted, reasons why? I trust that you understand.

4. When you travel or live away from home, so much can cling to your name as a clear reference to where you come from and who you are. I have chosen to “wear” the abstracted name of Luka both abroad and at home as I like its ring and enjoy the resulting conversations. Well, I have gotten another name over here and it is also story worthy. My newest name is Amer, which is obviously short for American but is also a traditional Bosnian/Turkish name so it stretches. Members from the hiking club “Lisin” gave me the name and really adopted me as a son. Then my host father Haso, got such a kick out of it that he now calls me Amer, as do my co-workers at Mozaik. When saying Amer, try giving it either an extra “rolled r…ihhh” or “rolled r…ay” at the end and you might get it right!

5. There is an evident rhythm to life here. Dramatically, the “ezan,” Islamic call to prayer, resonates throughout the city five times a day. For me, it is a powerful experience to hear it punctuating the landscape as dusk is befalling the city- first one mosque and then another in a harmonious give and take. Married to the ezan is the churning commotion of traffic that is something in between NYC and small town USA. As an observer I can simply breathe and hum along to the melody that is.

6. In Sarajevo I can bend the rules. With the preliminary schooling as a Landscape Architect (I think I am a pretty good one?) I am here working with Mozaik on a mostly architectural project; developing plans to rebuild a historic Ottoman house that is a marriage of purely traditional and appropriate contemporary artistic/functional elements. In the states I could never touch a project like this and I have been making the most of this unique chance.

Another oddity is my opportunity to sit in on grammar classes and help teach some English classes in the Hadzici middle high school. In America I would be screened, processed and preened (it rhymed) before I could step foot back in middle school but here I am blessed with friendly and trusting connections and a looser system.

7. Friendship is interesting. I think our western tradition promotes an initial bond of trust; until that trust is broken, and, you can become “best friends” or brothers after one drink or experience. (Please note that I am not naïve about the depth of our momentary, western friendships but the moral legacy of trust is meaningful!) From this part of the world, the reality of trusting friendship is a longer process forged over shared time, committed communication and acts of compassion and respect. However, there is spacious room here for outstanding measures of friendship in-the- moment among strangers.

For example, on the tram yesterday I had the briefest of conversations with an older guy relating to irresponsible youth and when he exited he invited me to go out for coffee- “dali ti zelis izaci na pitce?” Saying “no” due to my schedule, I thought about it, got off the tram and went along with the invite so that maybe, Aid and I can someday be better friends.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More about Mozaik

Mozaik is a team of fifteen talented employees and volunteers, a dynamic combination of non-profit and for-profit enterprises and is located in the Skenderija neighborhood overlooking center city Sarajevo. It has been a pleasure to get to know the Mozaik staff and feel at home at their office and as I begin volunteering with them, I am more comfortable aligning my goals and talents with theirs.

I shared with you a few blog episodes ago that I was in the “getting to know you” phase and there was the basic opportunity to casually volunteer with Mozaik leading to possible future employment. This positive embrace from Mozaik, and specifically its directors, was for me a solid step towards establishing a life in Sarajevo. Since that beginning time, I have been able to jump on board with s specific project regarding the renovation of an Ottoman period house complex into a ethno-cultural restaurant highlighting one of Mozaik’s for-profit companies: EthnoMozaik.

Let me give you a quick glimpse of what Mozaik is doing. Since its beginning back in 2000, Mozaik has developed a strong profile of successful program implementation in the non-profit sector including work with youth empowerment and rural community development, special needs inclusion and social justice, cultural heritage and related tourism development. Building upon these successes, Mozaik has emerged as a community development foundation positioned to start new innovative development programs, including for-profit companies; expanding the scope of their existing and future programs.

Mozaik’s for-profit companies demand a brief introduction. Currently, Mozaik is launching a PR agency that promotes and manages events geared towards positive social responsibility for businesses operating throughout Bosnia and the region. Thus, MaSta Ltd, is developing a social responsibility consciousness in Bosnia both programmatically and as a for-profit company.

Another for-profit company is EkoMozaik which is currently engaged in a heavily invested agri-business that is developing honey production, medicinal and aromatic herb management and beehive construction. This launched project has successfully created thirty out of a projected fifty jobs and could reach its goal of organic honey production next year, 100 tons, that would make it the biggest honey producer in the country and region; meeting a specific market need and developing Bosnia’s agricultural sector and creating more resources for Mozaik to use in the community development sector.

Lastly, the previously mentioned EthnoMozaik, is a natural next step for Mozaik as it realizes success with MaSta and EkoMozaik, expanding its work directly into Sarajevo. Tourism has suffered greatly due to Yugoslavian war of the 90’s and general ignorance and lack of tourism services throughout the country. Mozaik wants to address this market opportunity through developing an ethno-cultural restaurant highlighting Bosnia’s diverse cultural and historic identity through an educational dining and entertainment experience right in Sarajevo where tourism is strongest. The restaurant will also be a natural outlet for consistent sales of organic products coming from rural communities. While making a strong profit to further Mozaiks community development projects, the restaurant will most importantly be a concentrated effort to celebrate everything Bosnia is from border to border.

And so, I am currently investing time in this EthnoMozaik project. With any old house, this one being around 200 years old, there are no original documents and plans so I am creating “original” plans. The house must be totally rebuilt so there is an amazing opportunity to redesign the interior and courtyard of the house (in an appropriate Ottoman with modern and sustainable methodology) while returning the exterior facades to their exact original appearance. So, as a landscape architect, I am happy to get started working on this project and let the house come to life detail by detail.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Top Ten Sarajevo Sentiments...

I wrote these personal observations in response to a friend's email asking me to simply tell her about Sarajevo and how I feel here. It was fun thinking through it and I promised her and you that I will continue to 10. This is kind of silly, the stuff that blogging is made from, but I also think it is important that all of us could describe 10 things about where each of us live that we enjoy and adore, making us such willing citizens. So, I hope that this run-down of thoughts will give you a little more insight into my life over here and once again feel free to say hello and we can stay in touch.

1. Sarajevo has such a strong sense of story. It certainly is not a merry-go-round happy one, but is so beautiful and eloquent and so rich with all the colors and sounds of a multi-cultural intersection; since this fusion happened hundreds of years ago, east meeting west and european merging with the oriental, their is a uniquely singular voice. For me, I want to write and live my story into this one.

2. Their are three different words for intersection in Bosnian. Simply, their is a male form of the word and female form barely differential (raskršće vs. raskrsnica) and their is a classic lit form that is romantically historic (sredokraća). For me, this language is insanely hard and proses many problems to the learner but, in so much, lies the challenge that surely will involve a few chapters of my Sarajevo story.

3. I love Bosnian coffee. I usually get a velika kafa sa miljekom- longer pulled shot with steamed or cold milk- and it is growing on me as I have only ordered only one cappucino since Ive been here. In Sarajevo you have a great mix of posh and historic Austro/Oriental heritaged cafes and then, all of the little Mom and Pop places around the periphery of the city center that are usually filled with smoke and old men reading their papers, counting teeth and playing chess. I don't fit in but the exercise of feeling awkward and then comfortable and then going back to show that I wasn't a lost tourist is great. All the neighborhood patrons are miffed the next time I enter when the bar-man knows what the stranger wants.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

From my Journal (past and present)

Dec. 11, 2008

Why is Bosnia rejecting me and Boyertown reluctantly claiming me as it's own?

My army coat becomes heavy as my boots spring a leak testifying to the nature of this night. No starlit sky or waxing moon to illumine the crescented minaret. Just angular rain stiffly annointing this sorrowing head. As I walk, enjoining my senses to this hour of discomfort, grabbing ahold and letting go of my vision is expressive and experiential. Following the lead of Lenape lane, I cannot help but wonder if my now leafless outstretched form will survive the fall of winter to realize passion's rebirth. What I know is failure and talk and my words alone are dry tonight.

Words won't save me or change Bosnia.

Do I really want it? Will I embrace this suffering, these trials of the storm? My ego prefers a sonnet but my soul assures me of the power immanent in this broken free-verse.

The storm cannot kill me or keep me from Bosnia.

Nov. 12, 2009

Time is understood today by the passing of the clouds, exchanging minutes for moments, a cooler now sunnier appreciation of her presence. Sarajevo's before me, along with bridged river, rocky and woody chasms and gracefully proportioned and situated gardens of sacred memories. I realize again what this city means to me as a friend appreciates another. She has everything and yet almost nothing. Her intamacy felt; otherness cultivating that flame of discovery. Playgrounds next to cemetaries and places of worship married in space to the devil's brewhouse. A transient cloud now dwarfs a cosmic sun as I feel November once more.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Student and Teacher

Once more in the position of student at the junior high school in Hadžići, I can now teach my own young students in a more sensitive manner. I know the value of slow and exagerative conversation and the communicative clues of hand and body language. I think most importantly that I realize that the teacher and learned material must be presented as a friend and ally and not as a military outpost to be taken. For, as you are learning a foreign language, you are weak and humble and laughter is the best tutor.
In our first class on Friday and again last night, I made it clear through dramatic explanation that learning a new language, with it's new sounds and persona, will cause the most unnatural contortions of the lips, tongue, cheeks and eyes and we all must have fun and laugh at each other, together. And so, I begin teaching English to a small group of neighborhood kids in Blažuj three times a week. For me this is a way to give back to these new friends and say thanks to all the folks around me who have been so patient and guiding in my own language study.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Lighter and Darker side of Life

I follow the professor into the classroom. Like any classroom, this one is minimally furnished with desks for two, proportionately small chairs and attentive students in rows. Actually, the class is bursting with chatter belonging to hormone and insecurity driven teen-agers so amused and curious as to my strange presence. After a two sentence intro and proper understanding that I am from PA and not Virginia, the class is assigned overhead notes and me, an overly simplistic intro to Bosnian vowels and consonants. I try to look intelligient (the insecure teenager in me) and the class tries to avoid scolding. The professor concludes our awkward lesson and the entire class, myself included, enter into a lecture about Stari Grčka (Ancient Greece) and it's intellectual fathers- Platom, Herodot and Homer among the rest and I have the notes to prove I was following along. So began a unique opportunity for me to learn the Bosnian language through listening in on a normal junior high class in nearby Hadžiči, Bosnia. I'm just a kid again.


Mirsad and I met on the always crowded tramway earlier during the week. Then I didn't notice that he is missing his right-hand thumb but one enthusiastic handshake this weekend proved his loss. Mirsad is 26 and a first year Journalism student at Sarajevo University. Mirsad is also from Srebrenica, a place where Tragedy happened. On Saturday night I heard one of Tragedy's many stories.

We met that night to hang out and help me learn Bosnian through normal conversation. 'It' came up rather quickly that Mirsad has lost a lot. His father and grandfather were murdered during the siege and overthrow of Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian conflict. Mirsad was just ten years old when neighbors, I think he said his father and grandfather, were shot before his eyes and his thumb was shot off by a malicious Serb bullet. His family is broken and his story has charred pages. My heart broke for Mirsad as he simplistically told me his story as I was able to understand it. I truly thank him for befriending me and being open to hang out and help me with his language and moreso his vulnerability so that I can see into a Bosnian heart.

Friday, November 6, 2009

First Visit with Mozaik

OKay. I came to Bosnia with only the guarantee of a welcoming family and home thanks to the Rotary Club. Over the past few months I have had contact with the director of the Bosnian NGO- Fondaciju Mozaik- which I discovered on-line and seemed that it was doing community development work that I was interested in. Besides some basic info and welcoming emails from its director, Vesna, I did not know if I could team up with Mozaik to volunteer as a landscape architect. But, the 'idea' of volunteering with a grassroots Bosnian non-profit like Mozaik was enough to convince to give life in Sarajevo a chance.

So, today I had a much anticipated meeting with Vesna in their office in Sarajevo. From the start it was just an enthusiastic exchange of who I am and what Mozaik is all about. Even more than in her emails, Vesna was totally welcoming and made it clear that their is every possibility for me to involve myself and talent with Mozaik. Like all of their employees, I can carve out for myself a working identity which creatively interacts with the rest of the team. I learned a lot about the organization and was really surprised by the scope and success of their work and was pleased to find out that they have a great reputation fiscally and with municipal governments across Bosnia.

When it's all said and done, I have a legitimate opportunity to work with Mozaik. It's still unclear when and how that can happen but I know I am touring a potential project area with them on Monday and I have been invited to start hanging out at the office getting to know the other employees, sitting in on meetings and getting in the loop with their prospective community development opportunities. I know that this is still a little general but in the following weeks I should be able to get some clarity and share that with you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

From my Journal (past and present)

Oct. 26th, 2008
Wether you believe in God or life or in yourself, all of us can look back at moments and seasons when we doubted...The existence of love, reality of peace, hopeful futures, a reason. In my life I have questioned much in reaction to the loss of family and friendships and those internal battles I cannot win. Too, my sense of 'Home' and where my heart needs to reside has brought me to tears.

At this moment I am still thousands of miles away from Bosnia. I have fallen out of favor with my church and sending organization and therefore, logistically, I am even further away then a year ago. But, my heart tells me that I'm just an overnight flight away from being there, serving there, loving there.

I think I have discovered God's unmarked path to a destined home. I don't need a wallet or a way out to make it there. My grandfather, Pete Talacki, has been telling me to 'go, just go and trust in God.' A God that inspired his father to work and minister to an immigrant community in Philadelphia and led him through WWII. So maybe it's just natural for me to follow this obscured, unmarked path back to Bosnia.

Nov. 1st, 2009
And so it begins. It's the first day of a new month signaling my first efforts to begin a new life in Bosnia. Outside my train window, excepting our present motion through tunnelled darkness, I see a part of Bosnia that is so reminiscient of home with it's Autumn shrouded forests (suma) and choreographed river valleys falling from mountain slopes. This is the romantic in me that values this enviroment as my wild garden of eden fit for adventure and dependent exploration. Then I realize landmines infest some of these beautiful hills. Life is explosive here.

I occupy my train booth with two older men who are 50 and 77. I am just a young boy again who wishes to be taken seriously in a mature world. I speak Bosnian like a 4 year old and I'm dependent on my dictionary like a mother. I struggle around a fragmented list of basic words to articulate how I feel and the spirit behind it. 'I am America. I want to live in Sarajevo.' And in that can these strangers realize the journey I've been on and the life I imagine? Today they cannot but I won't allow this frustration to cut my heart and stab my tongue. While learning to speak I will constantly address the personalities within me, declaring who I am. I am just a child but one who is loved and protected and belonging to a home. I will grow here and play here and respond instinctively to the opportunities and constraints awaiting me.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Beginning...

Okay. I like to write because often times I can express what I cannot say with my physical mouth. The words will come out in black and white though so please understand that I am just trying to express, to unveil as much of my heart as possible. I have some friends editing most of the upcoming notes and such but this one is just me.

I'm here. It has been a long time in my heart's waiting room to get the chance to come to Bosnia and try life for a while. I guess that is how life usually works and in all honesty the journey was worth it.

Basically to give you a little background info...
My Sarajevo story started in Sophomore year in college at Temple University Ambler when one of my landscape architecture professors gave me an article about a LA(landscape architect) doing humanitarian/community development work in Bosnia soon after the 1990's conflicts. Knowing my desire to use my abilities as a LA in a humanitarian setting, this professor gave me an article that described how I could possibly use my education in a humanitarian context and also spoke the country of Bosnia into my imagination.
As a senior I was able to interview this LA, Karla Christensen, for a professional practice course, working through some of the nitty-gritty realities of her life and work in Bosnia. Also, I was able to realize another experience when I spent two weeks in Haiti with an engineer and through that I learned that my pretty education did mean something in impoverished contexts where the needs were basic- food, water, shelter, and not flowery. Upon graduating, my mind was made up to pursue humanitarian work in Bosnia as a landscape architect.

Originally, I wanted to pursue this opportunity through the church because I believe in the Church's calling and responsibility to heal the spirits and bodies of the nations. I believe a mended spirit can mend the body but also that the process of meeting the physical needs of a person can release a new spirit in them. And so, I choose to work with a missions org that had a humanitarian heart and was doing work in Bosnia.

That decision involved the next year of my life as I joined the organization, traveled to Bosnia to learn and visit the team of volunteers there, and began the legwork of raising relational and financial support to begin life in Bosnia. All in all, life took a slight bend to the side as I realized my full commitment to this organization was making me compromise important aspects of who I am and what I believe so in October of last year, I formally left the organization.

So what next. I lived life and loved realizing a new life in Boyertown, PA with my emerging role as a manager at a newly established cafe, the Hard Bean, and I went to town with landscaping projects at my parents home in Bechtelsville- the Homestead. All of these avenues were healing for me and also instrumental in realigning my values and sentiments about pursuing community anywhere but especially at home and in Bosnia. The whole time I was also searching for new roads to get to Bosnia and then so unlikely I found an abstracted version through the Rotary Club and a Bosnian non-profit/NGO.

In May I was able to participate in a Rotary sponsored GSE (Group Study Exchange) program that took a group of younger professionals from their home countries to another part of the world to see how their professions looked there, how life was lived and how the Rotary clubs worked in their respective locales. The trip was great for me because it took our group from Southeastern PA to south-eastern Europe and I got so close to Bosnia being in the former Yugoslavian countries of Slovenia and Croatia. Overall, I had a month to travel and experience life in Europe again and most importantly I realized so accutely that I wanted to pursue life in this part of the world.

Okay. To sum it all up. I realized I couldn't keep waiting for a propped open door into a life in Bosnia. I had to check for open windows and the right keys. Through the Rotary Club, I was connected with a Bosnian family, Haso(rotary member) and Sadeta, whose son was hosted in the states by a Rotary member and were willing to host me. Also, I found a Bosnian NGO, Fondaciju Mozaik, which is doing outstanding community development work through out Bosnia but head quartered in Sarajevo and after initial emails it was clear their was a possibility to volunteer with them. So I am here. To learn the language. To check in with Mozaik and any other non-profits I come across. To live with Haso and Sadeta and make some other friends.
We will see what happens.