I sought a place to collapse and eat after a day of haplessly wandering Sarajevo map-less and on foot. The choice was made simple when I spotted a man standing in the doorway of his Buregdzinica. He wore a lab coat. I liked the idea of eating in a place where food was treated as a science.
After my gestures to order, he flipped burek onto a scale, then tossed it again onto a plate. I didn’t want to know the weight of the portion he felt would suit me, so I just accepted it with a good American smile.
His radio frequently lost the signal and became static. He wandered to a table and hit his newspaper so it would lie flat. He and a friend pored over the news and a betting form, his friend occasionally dashing out for change, then returning with beers from across the square.
I chose a table in the back corner to eat, to write. The doctor kept pacing back to gaze over my shoulder. I usually reacted with my elbows if someone tried to read as I wrote, but I trusted that between his English and my quick scrawling, not even his name would be recognizable.
It was evident that he was curious about my visit–an American woman alone can be quite a conversation piece. I didn’t know how to explain that charming Bosnians I’d met in the last few years inspired me to travel here, made this a necessary stop. I tried a few phrases I knew, fuming at myself for not being more dedicated or gifted in learning the language, offering a slow-anxious-slaughtering of the syllables. (Reading from my notebook the phrase: Neh-Rah-Zoo-Mee-Yehn. I don’t understand.)
The doctor showed off a noteworthy possession: A photograph with Richard Gere. Through gestures, I came to understand the actor also had burek there–that I was in the leftover presence of greatness. He ordered me a coffee from across the courtyard. He set it on my table, then stirred it for me, then tried again to start up conversation.
Finally, the doctor and his friend applauded the arrival of a French student. He was in Bosnia to learn the language and instantly installed as a translator. The French man was placed between my empty plates and the burek doctor with a Bosnian dictionary and a fast-approaching headache. “Do you speak a word of this impossible language?” I admitted sadly I didn’t know much. I was living in Vienna and in the process of learning Turkish–and the doctor slapped the boy and said something easy to understand: “She speaks Turkish and German and you only speak French!”
Nevermind the man’s translations had to move from a language he was newly acquiring into English, which he rarely used. The doctor snorted, laughing to himself, and the laugh traveled to his distracted friend, who looked up from the newspaper and joined in. And the Frenchman and I also laughed, with a sort of amazement that we should all be in the same place, all completely unable to form full sentences and delighting the broken attempts.