Ask any seasoned traveller about their favourite experiences in Bosnia and almost all will describe, to some degree, interactions with the locals. Meeting locals and making friends with them open many doors while giving you insights into their traditions, lifestyle and way of life. If you’re travelling to Bosnia, you should make an effort to speak to the Bosnians for the following reasons.
Most nations around the world have a reputation for being hospitable towards foreigners, especially in less-visited places such as Laos and Azerbaijan. Bosnia is no exception. If you’re staying at a homestay, don’t be surprised when they bring you burek or invite you to sip coffee with them.
One of the legacies of spending four centuries under the Ottomans is the modern day emphasis on drinking coffee for hours on end with friends. Walk around the streets in Bosnia, and you’ll see cafés bursting at the seams. Students, office workers, police officers and everyone else in between will nurse a small coffee for an incredible amount of time while they catch up with each other.
Some nationalities have a negative stereotype for coming across as pretentious, pompous or arrogant (you know who you are), but you won’t find much of these in Bosnia. Sure, there’s a class system, and the rich-poor gap is as wide as any, especially with the high unemployment rate. But most people tend to be down to earth. Perhaps a legacy of socialism under Yugoslavia. Perhaps it’s a cultural trait shared with some of the other Slavic races. Who knows? But it’s quite rare to find an arrogant Bosnian.
Bosnia is a diverse country with three major ethnic groups living within the borders who identify as Bosnian. Bosniaks are Muslims and have a majority in the region of Bosnia. Croats, or Catholics, have a large population in Herzegovina while the Serbs (Orthodox Christians) are the largest demographic in Republika Srpska. Despite all groups being of Slavic descent, each ethnicity has their own culture and traditions.
Despite Bosnia still recovering from the 1990s conflicts, with high unemployment being one of that era’s unfortunate remnants, many of the younger generations are optimistic. Several new start-ups in Bosnia and Herzegovina and efforts for social change emerge each year. And many Bosnians are happy to spend their tiny budget at cafés rather than sitting at home feeling sorry for themselves.
The word secular gets thrown around a lot in today’s day and age. But what does it actually mean? Secularism, in short, is the separation of religion and state, giving people religious freedom. In Bosnia, there’s a certain level of religious tolerance between Muslims, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians as well as the Jewish minority. Many Muslims celebrate Christmas in Bosnia with their Catholic friends. And, likewise, Christians attend Ramadan and Eid events. Bosnia’s tolerance is refreshing in a modern world dominated by religious conflict.
Some Western cultures have lost their family values and traditions over the last few generations. Babysitters took the place of grandparents while carers looked after elderly relatives. You won’t find much of that in Bosnia. It’s not uncommon for several generations to live in one house, and if not, for people to return to their villages on a regular basis.
By nature, Bosnians are very sociable and are close to neighbours, colleagues and the people in their lives. Combine this with an intrinsic curiosity and people will be chatting with you in no time at all. If you’re in tourist areas, expect people to ask where you’re from. When you get out of the cities, villagers will be helpful and accommodating. Countries that get relatively few tourists tend to be more receptive and appreciative of tourism.
The Balkans are culturally different to the West and politeness and niceties may not necessarily be part of a Bosnian’s etiquette. People tend to be straightforward, and that has two advantages: it makes people more sincere, and there’s less chance for miscommunication. If you get to know a Bosnian, expect direct questions such as: ‘Are you married?’. You should also be direct when speaking to a Bosnian, especially when it comes to buying tickets at the bus or train stations. Superfluous speech leads to miscommunication and frustration.
Like many other countries around the world, young Bosnians learn English and can converse, to some degree, with foreigners. The hope is that knowledge of English will give them better opportunities in the future. Young Bosnian’s can speak other languages such as German and Italian, among others, too.
The final and most striking thing to love about Bosnia’s people is the laid-back attitude towards life. You’ll always see Bosnians laughing and relaxing, despite a stern expression, and regardless of how bad their situations may be. Speak to people, and few will ignore or react negatively. Ask for help, and most will happily oblige. Sociable, laid-back, and curious people who can often speak a little English make it easy to get to know the locals. They’ll love talking to you. And you’ll get a lot from speaking to them.