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The Young Adult and I: A Day in Sarajevo

The Café

The young adult and I are sitting on the outdoor balcony of a 10th floor café at a hotel in Sarajevo. Our serious young server who speaks minimal English stands before us. As the young adult hands money to the server to pay his check, he knocks over a glass of water. I reach to try to save the glass of water but instead knock over the young adult’s espresso… spilling coffee onto the table in the direction of the server (a very important detail!). The server looks distressed, picks up the young adult’s damp phone from the table, dries it, and hands it to the young adult.

The server steps away while another staff member walks up and cleans our table; the server returns with another water and espresso. Feeling guilty for the mess we made, I give the server a 50 mark ($25) tip. He looks even more somber, bends down to untie his left shoe, slides his heel slightly out of the shoe, and then without saying a word limps away. The young adult and I look at each other. He asks me, “What just happened?” “I think we just ordered a hit on someone,” I reply. “Or we just bought blue meth. Let’s get out of here.” The young adult downs his espresso while I grab a final photo of the view from the balcony on my phone’s camera.

We pass the server as we move toward the exit. He stops us, smiles widely, and shakes our hands vigorously. He gives both of us a piece of hard candy. We say goodbye, exiting by some steps that go down a floor to the elevator. Once at the elevator, we look up to see him coming down the steps smiling. He shakes our hands again and says something in Bosnian to another employee. Both wave at us as the elevator doors close. We wave back. Once the doors are closed, the young adult turns to me, puts his hands to his temples, widens his eyes, and exclaims, “WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?!?!?!?”

The Background

It was day number 12 of a 16-day European adventure for me and the young adult, my 20-year-old travel charge previously referred to in this forum as “the teen.” He's a brilliant, friendly, funny young man whose mind should be exposed to far more than the small parochial southern town in which he lives. We share a common interest in history, especially military history. Last year, I took him to Normandy and Berlin. This year, I took him to Poland and Bosnia.

The Breakfast

Our day began at Halvat Guesthouse, one of those great RS-type places with a handful of rooms owned by a local family in a great location -- a block or two away from Baščaršija Square aka Pigeon Square. Our awesome hostess Valida made an amazing breakfast for us complete with Bosnian coffee, which she offered to us every time she saw us and which we gladly accepted every time it was offered!

As the radio played, Valida groaned. It was 25 May – a day of remembrance for the Tuzla massacre in which 71 people, the vast majority students, were killed when a shell hit and detonated in a café. 240 were injured. “Every day there is something sad to remember,” said Valida.

The Morning Tour

Following breakfast, we met our young, smart private guide from Funky Tours at the tour company’s office. She gave us a very nice tour of central Sarajevo that ranged from metal worker shops to the Latin Bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot to a city park where retirees played chess on a large chess board painted on concrete to the eternal flame that recognizes Yugoslavians of all nationalities and religions who freed Sarajevo from Nazi rule. The tour concluded with… Bosnian coffee!... and conversation... at a large, open, busy coffee shop in the Baščaršija.

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The Afternoon

After a quick break at the guesthouse, we decided to heed the advice of Mustafa, our guide from the previous day, who recommended we go to the City View Hotel and visit its 10th-floor café with great views over Sarajevo. Mustafa, by the way, had taken us to the Sarajevo Tunnel and shared his story of walking the length of the tunnel to get supplies for his family when he was 14 years old. After our visit at the café, we watched the retirees play chess again at the nearby park.

The Homemade Dinner

We then headed back to the hotel to be picked up for our next activity… dinner… with a Bosnian grandmother, mother, and 14-year-old son… in an apartment building with bullet holes still ringing many of the windows in the building. The grandmother had lived there during the Bosnian War. The mother was 2 months old at the beginning of the war. As we ate the homemade meal that included vegetables from the family’s garden, the young adult and I learned the family’s perspective on Tito, the War, and modern life.

We asked the family if they would help us understand our encounter earlier in the day. We were told that it is Bosnian lore that when coffee is spilled, good fortune and/or money is coming to the person in whose direction the coffee was spilled (remember that detail?). Our tip was probably a few nights worth of tips – maybe more. The mother said she had worked as a waitress in a restaurant and never received a tip like that.

We finished our meal with homemade baklava and… yes!... more Bosnian coffee. The time for our departure neared, and the family graciously let us take a selfie of the five of us.

The Park

After dinner, there was a lot of daylight left. We returned to the park to watch the old guys play chess. I was secretly hoping they would invite the young adult to play, but an invitation was never extended.

There was another chess board drawn on the ground nearby. The young adult and I set up the pieces to play. A couple of teenagers came and sat on a nearby bench to watch, and I struck up a conversation with them. First, they complained that the old guys would never let anyone else play on the “good” chess board. Then, they asked where we were from and why we were in Bosnia. They also gave a list of places to see, which I dutifully recorded in my phone. One teen had to leave; to the other I offered the chance to play the young adult in chess. He accepted. It was a nice experience.

The Walk

After the chess match, the three of us walked out of the park together. The young adult mentioned that we had seen Nazi bunkers during our time in Europe, and they were well-constructed. He then added that he was in no way endorsing Nazi philosophy. The Sarajevo teen replied, “Well, they had some good ideas.” The young adult, trying to give the kid an out, said, “Like architecture for bunkers.” The teen replied, “Yeah, that too.”

As we continued walking, we passed a Sarajevo Rose. I said, “Look! A Sarajevo Rose!” The Sarajevo teen said he did not know what that was. I explained that it was the red-paint-covered splatter from an explosive device that killed a person during the 1992-1995 war. The Sarajevo teen was surprised and said, “You know more about my city than I do.” Shortly after that, we went our separate ways.

The Café Part II

The young adult wanted to go back to the café to see if our server was still there. So… we went… and he was! The young adult and I sipped our (fruit juice) drinks as we had a conversation through Google Translate with the server. The server was fatherless. His brother had recently died. The server could not support his mother with what he was making in Sarajevo, so he was headed to the sea in a few days to start working on a ship. He had never received a tip like ours, which was quite helpful to him given his current circumstance. He was very thankful.

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The time came to leave. We left the same tip we had left before. The server resisted, but the young adult insisted. The server broke down in tears and hugged us. The young adult and I wished the server well and departed, leaving the server leaning over the railing of the balcony, face in hands, attempting to regain his composure.

The End

We wandered the city a bit and then headed back to the large, busy, open café that we had visited earlier in the day after the morning tour. We had yet another Bosnian coffee and reflected on the day. The young adult and I certainly failed the “tip like locals” traveler test, but it had felt right that afternoon to give the server that tip. Little to our knowledge, it would mean the world to him to receive it. Our time with the gentle, somber-turned-happy server was a rich, rewarding experience. And that experience never would have happened without an accident compounded by another accident that resulted in a mess of water and coffee on our table. It was a gentle reminder that mistakes can be the impetus for something meaningful, beautiful, wonderful.

It was a great day.

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239 posts

Dave, that is the best story I’ve heard in a while—how you you turned a minor mishap into a lovely experience.

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3270 posts

This: ...The young adult and I certainly failed the “tip like locals” traveler test, but it had felt right that afternoon to give the server that tip. Little to our knowledge, it would mean the world to him to receive it.

And this: ...And that experience never would have happened without an accident compounded by another accident that resulted in a mess of water and coffee on our table. It was a gentle reminder that mistakes can be the impetus for something meaningful, beautiful, wonderful.

What a great story.

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3917 posts

A lovely, heartfelt story. One act of kindness can have a profound effect on people. That server will remember you both for a long time.

Posted by
6679 posts

Dave, this is such a charming and beautifully-written story. I read it through once (rather quickly), then went back and read it again in more detail. It was the perfect start to the day.

Thank you for sharing this.

Posted by
9727 posts

Dave, my goodness. You do know how to craft a story ! (And how to live generously and kindly.)

I can't believe it's already been a year since that Normandy/Berlin trip.

Eager to hear more, especially from Poland. thank you for sharing.

Posted by
2407 posts

chiming in to ditto the "you win the internet" comment above. Fantastic.

Posted by
3878 posts

For the record, a report about the rest of the trip is in the works.

Posted by
972 posts

Good story and good writing, Dave! I'm sorry I missed meeting you when you visited our RS group in Atl a while back.

Posted by
553 posts

Wonderful story! And, yes, that server will remember you both for a long time.

Posted by
3923 posts

He then added that he was in no way endorsing Nazi philosophy. The Sarajevo teen replied, “Well, they had some good ideas.” The young adult, trying to give the kid an out, said, “Like architecture for bunkers.” The teen replied, “Yeah, that too.”

Yikes, I guess plenty of that sentiment still lingering around that part of Europe, being passed down from older generations. Himmler had a talent for manipulating ethnic minorities. Many Balkan peoples, like Albanians and Croatians, readily joined the Waffen SS, with little in the way of guilt or culpability to this day.

Posted by
197 posts

Dave, thanks for sharing such a heartwarming story. The young adult sounds curious, thoughtful, and compassionate, and I am sure your influence has contributed to those wonderful qualities.

Posted by
697 posts

Wonderful story, thank you for sharing! And thank you for “over tipping!”

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18287 posts

This gentleman was kind enough to let you know what you had done for him. But I suspect you did a lot more good in life that you just don't know about. Read of tzedakah. You did good.

G-d Bless

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2479 posts

A heartwarming story. You are an inspiration and I’m glad you made the effort to come to Atlanta to meet us. It was a special time! I look forward to reading your trip reports.

Posted by
998 posts

Your ability to tell a travel story is amazing. I remember the teen going to Normandy and now is a young adult. Keep on traveling and writing great trip reports. BTW, You need to look into travel writing for competitions/magazine articles. You have a very unique travel writing style - I love it!

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14580 posts

There is that famous film clip of Himmler reviewing the volunteers of Bosnian (Moslem) Waffen SS unit (regiment ?).

Posted by
104 posts

I'm late in ready this post, but WOW, powerful! My favorite part of my trip to Bosnia was the people. And I second the idea of looking into travel writing...you have a real talent for telling a story.