Derventa, Republika Srpska, Bosnia & Herzegovina

August 29 – September 8, 2019

After Denmark, we drove to Republika Srpska, Bosnia to spend a couple of weeks with my family in the small towns of Derventa and Sipovo. Derventa is my mom’s birth place while my dad was from Sipovo. My parents met in Zenica, where my sister and I were born and where we grew up.
I often mention that I have 108 closest family members, mostly in these two locations, plus in a few more. Each day spent in either of these places is usually filled with doing something with someone, eating loads of delicious food, prepping BBQs, attending gatherings, official reunions, girls’ nights out, kids’ adventures. It is a constant merry-go-round from a dinner at one cousin’s place to a lunch with another, from a gathering at one aunt’s house to stopping by another uncle’s farm, none of them as formal obligation-filled events but instead relaxed, humor-infused, informal meet-ups of people that have known me forever (and some still call me by my childhood nickname of Sandra).

I have been longing for this sort of time with each person for the past 30 years.

For all these years, I’ve rushed through these visits, at times feeling obligated to check off places and rush through conversations. Now I had more time to breathe, relax, enjoy, feel like I belong again. I did not want to take the time for technology, I did not take many photos and did not have any inspiration to take the time away from everyone to write. And still, after almost 2 months in this area, I still didn’t have enough of everyone.

Being one of 108 family members of a well-connected, loud, action-oriented, affectionate family is best demonstrated by too-many-to-count spontaneous episodes of quick get-togethers of family members. For instance, one time, 8 of my cousins packed in a van to drive 4 hrs and cross 2 borders for a dinner to see us “just once again”, even after having seen us at least 5 times over the two months that we were in the area. I called another cousin on a Sunday afternoon to see what he was doing and, within 10 minutes, we cooked up a plan to meet up at our aunt’s house for the Sunday dinner, for him 2 hrs and 2 borders away and for us 1.5 hrs away. These types of actions demonstrate the fabric of our close-knit family.

In Derventa, we stayed with my cousin Violeta and her family. Violeta and I are a year apart in age, we grew up together and have stayed really close despite the physical distance between us over the past 30 years. Violeta’s home is our base when in Derventa and our kids and husbands are almost as close as the two of us are. While there, Petra and I took daily long morning walks around town. We would usually stop by some cousin’s workplace to share breakfast, then go off to another cousin’s house to have some grapes and play with a dog, then to a local fruit stand to get our daily groceries, etc. I developed a terrible cough and lost my voice in Derventa. This seems to be a regular occurrence when I’m in this part of the world. I think I’m allergic to all the cigarette smoke that’s everywhere and with too much talking, I’m regularly battling respiratory issues while in Bosnia. It all “mysteriously” clears up as soon as I leave.

Petra and my cousin Violeta’s daughter Marija spent every waking hour together. Petra even went to school with Marija for a whole week and joined her folklore rehearsals. They were born only 6 months apart and have practically grown up together even though geographically, they are worlds apart. Petra’s observations of differences between Marija’s school and her school in Seattle were interesting. Marija has over 10 subjects that she manages regularly and her schedule is quite different from one day to the next while Petra’s is exactly the same M-F. They are both exemplary students. The level of work necessary in order to reach those levels does not differ much between the two educational systems. Of course, there were also some cosmetic differences between the physical state of Marija’s school vs. Petra’s – restroom cleanliness, chalkboards vs. whiteboards, double vs. single seats, size of the gym, lack of lunchroom facilities, etc. Marija was the most gracious host to her cousin, including Petra in all of her weekly obligations at school as well as her extracurricular activity of folklore dancing.

Even Maksim went to a local school with Ana, Marija’s younger sister. Ana and Maksim are also only 6 months apart in age and they get along perfectly well. It was super hard for him to join a class of 4th graders since he didn’t understand them much and the kids of that age are not as good at feeling and responding to other’s emotional discomfort as older kids (sometimes) are. He went to school with Ana for only one day and he had enough.

During that same week, I decided that Maksim would have to write an essay every time he defiantly broke one of our family’s well-established rules. During those 7 days, he wrote over 15 short essays on the subjects titled “Truth”, “Crying”, “Poor Me”, “What’s Respect”, “Why I am Here”, “Work”, “Why Bad Words Hurt”, etc. This has been the best parenting decision I’ve made in a while. Maksim has noticeably improved his writing and we now have the most hilarious collection of the write ups I’ll, at some point, package into a small personal book for him.

The time we spent with all of my cousins in Derventa made me a bit nostalgic for a simpler life lived in a smaller town, where cousins live close by and happily see each other almost daily. They are all impressively successful and live quite full lives in every sense possible. Their social and travel schedules are bursting at the seams. They see each other often, almost daily. Their closeness is hard to find in this day and age. I watched them from the sidelines at one of our gatherings, and what I saw was a harmonious community of three generations of relatives sharing daily life to the fullest. I observed my cousin’s kids building a new generation of a close knit tribe. I felt somewhat melancholy about missing out on this part of trajectory we were on as kids. Luckily, we are able to keep as close as it is possible even with all the physical distance between us.

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