Podcast Episode 4: What is Culture and Should We Make It?

It has been quite a while since I’ve recorded a new podcast, and I hope that you haven’t fallen into despair while waiting for this episode. This time we are focusing on culture, something that we think about often, and something that I think is very important. I hope this episode is useful and helpful as you think about your own culture and how you can be a positive influence on those in your community.

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How to go to America

I’M GOING TO AMERICAAAAAA!!!

I’m a bit excited. My family and I are visiting the U.S. next month. I take my family to the U.S. every other summer to visit grandparents, attend a family reunion, drive…

We end up doing a lot of driving. And, now that I have kids in school, we are basically limited to the month of July. The America Trip used to be so simple, back when we had fewer kids and none of them were in school. Now, it’s gotten so complicated that I feel like I need to hire an assistant just to organize all the tasks just for this one trip. Here are some things that go into the making of The America Trip. 

Airfare

We have three kids, which means we have to buy five tickets to fly to the U.S. Any fluctuation in the price gets multiplied by five, so it gets pretty expensive.

It’s also funny that our friends where we live assume that we are going to America for a vacation. Flying in planes for 8 hours with 3 small human beings who think it’s funny to slap you in the face is not my idea of a vacation!

Borrow a Car

A car is a necessity in the U.S., but since we don’t live there anymore, we don’t have one. So, getting one — and sometimes, two — that we can use to go back and forth is a chore. This time, though, we were able to find a company that rents to people like us for a discount. Hopefully, this will be a solution we can use again in the future.

Clothes

Certain clothing items are just not available in Eastern Europe, so we do have to use the time in the U.S. to find what we need. Whatever it is — whether it’s some special brand of socks or a good waterproof jacket — it needs to be good enough to last until the next time we visit.

Food

Yes, that’s a picture of peanut butter. I can’t explain it, but peanut butter is one of those things that Europeans will never understand about the U.S. You can actually find it here, but it’s just not very good. So every time we come (which isn’t often enough) we try to bring back a couple of huge jars of Jif.

 


This photo of Bangkok Baking Company – at the JW Marriott Hotel Bangkok is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Hamburgers

Hamburgers are another thing that America just does better than anyone. I’m talking about a good pub burger here — not Burger King (although Burger King has its place). While it’s definitely not something you can take back to Europe with you, the good hamburger is a thing that we miss about the U.S. very much.

Phone

This is a rare moment where I advocate something that seems like something you’d hear on Dave Ramsey: we buy cellphones in the U.S. every 2 years — full price, no-contract, factory unlocked — and take them back to Eastern Europe with us. There are several reasons for this, but I’ll start with a general financial principle: If you buy a phone in this way — even though these phones can cost $500 and up — it’s almost always a better deal over the life of the contract than getting the phone under a contract with your wireless provider.

After getting the new phone, we sell our old phone on eBay, which has an amazing program for selling your smartphone. In fact, if you have a model that’s not too terribly old, they will format the listing for you, recommend the settings for the sale, and then guarantee the price that you will get it, based upon the average price for that model of phone. If you end up having to sell it for less, they will give you eBay credit for the difference, which you spend on eBay to buy other things you need.

Last time I was in the states, I sold my 2-year-old iPhone 5 for more than the average price (about $120), in less time than eBay had told me it would take. Then I sold my wife’s phone for less than the average price, and as promised, they sent me eBay credit, which I used to buy phone chargers and headphones.

Family

This is one of the main reasons we go to the states — to see uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins — and this is something you definitely cannot take back with you. The time is short, but the memories last a lifetime.

 

Work

There is a lot of actual work that we do while in the U.S., and it requires our family to do quite a bit of traveling. Lots of people, churches, and organizations contribute to our work and we need to visit with as many of them as we can. Sharing with others about the past two years is one of the most important things we do.

Rest

There are a lot of things we do while in America, but rest isn’t one of them. We schedule a week of vacation, immediately after we return from the U.S., near our home in Mostar. This has become a special time for our family to regroup and be refreshed before the next school year comes.

I am beginning to get excited.

Holidays in the land of Narnia

Another November is upon us, the weather is getting colder, windier, and altogether unpleasant. Amid the busy-ness of life in general, we are about to enter the American holiday season — an undeniably important time of year, regardless of our location outside of our American homeland.

“Always winter, never Christmas”

Christmas and Thanksgiving are two of those elements of American culture that we Americans take for granted — everyone celebrates them, everyone thinks they’re important. We take them for granted, until we suddenly find ourselves in an environment where no one celebrates them.

The majority of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina come from a Muslim background, and therefore obviously don’t observe Christian holidays. On top of that, a significant minority are Orthodox Christian, and celebrate Christmas on January 7. That leaves you, if you’re an American, left with the Catholics — who, while they do still observe December 25 as the birthday of our Lord, have holiday traditions that would seem completely foreign to the average American.

This can leave an unsuspecting expatriate in an unexpected place as the weather begins to turn cold. There was a point when our family realized that, if we were to survive the holiday season with the familiar trappings of togetherness and warmth that we all craved, we were going to have to do some very intentional things.

Be resourceful, but content

I can remember one year baking a turkey with an incredibly elaborate recipe, one that required making a spreading homemade spiced butter underneath the turkey’s skin, and visiting every shop in the city in search of sage. Other years, I can remember driving an hour or more from my house to find a place where my family could cut down a live Christmas tree to bring back to our house. In more recent years, I’ve looked back on those experiences and thought, “Why?”

 

Boil things down

The problem with those experiences was that they required very high investment of time and effort, with seemingly little to offer in return. After reflecting on why I felt that way, I was able to pinpoint just what it was that I wanted out of the holidays: a warm house, time with my family, and good memories.

All the decorations and trappings of “Christmas” didn’t really help us capture the things that I was after, and in the end they obscured what, to me, has been the thing that has made Thanksgiving and Christmas good, when it has been good. The warm house is a place of refuge and rest; time with my family is certainly fleeting during the rest of the year; good memories give us the fuel we need to jump in to the New Year.

Recognize your limits

The turkey I mentioned above also highlighted another thing — while I love good food, there is a limit to how good food can be. It might be a truly great turkey recipe, but if I need to give up my family time in order to make it, then it’s not worth the investment. I can make a perfectly good turkey with a much smaller investment of time.

There are many other things — decorating the house, buying gifts, hosting parties — that this lesson applies to as well. There are so many “good” things I can do in an effort to make the holidays special, but many times they can prevent the holidays from being special on their own.

 

These are just some things I’ve learned over years of spending Christmases and Thanksgivings outside America. Things are not always as we thought they would be, but we can experience success if we are patient and hopeful. I hope that your holiday season is a time of refreshment and rejuvenation for you, as we draw closer to the close of another year.

Communism from the southern slav perspective

If you’re American, you’ve been conditioned to think of communism as basically evil, no matter the context. Countless public speeches from Presidents and other public figures have cast communism as a terrible, repressive system that will inevitably succumb to the advancing tide of capitalism.

That’s how it looks to us, but how do things look to people who actually lived under communism? Do they in fact feel liberated, now that their old system is defunct and they have the ability to take part in the open world market?

Enter the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was a complex place. It was a “United States” of sorts, a country created of at least 7 other countries and territories, each with its own ethnic group, identity, and heritage. The country, in its early forms, came to exist as a result of a “Pan-slav” movement that took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries. After four centuries of Turkish occupation, then over a century of Austrian occupation, intellectuals and political elites believed that the best bet for independence was to form a collective entity that comprised all of the slavic peoples in southern Europe. By the end of the 1800s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was born.

Along comes Communism.

The Communists in Yugoslavia were the ones who beat Hitler out in World War 2. After the war, they took over and set up their communist utopia. And the funny thing is, compared to today, it kind of looks like a utopia. 

Every worker has the right to: a dignified  job, an apartment near his work, a car, and a place in the countryside for rest. That was the Yugoslav dream. For decades, this dream appeared to be turning into reality. Healthcare was decent, and free. Everyone had a job. The workforce was decently well-educated.

Remember the Yugo?

An American ad for the Yugo in the 1980s.

Nationally, there was a sense of real pride. The country produced cars that were sold around the world. Entire cities were built. Vast urban planning projects were undertaken to support the population of 30+ million. Citizens were generally free; they could travel to visit other communist countries freely, but also to most Western countries.

Many places in Yugoslavia went from primitive agrarian societies to modern, bustling cities during the time of Communism. Then things changed. 

“Capitalism”.

Today, things are much different. Communist projects lie in ruins. Unemployment in many places hovers around 30% or higher. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority of young people say their highest aspiration in life is to simply leave their country, and live somewhere else.

After the wars that split up Yugoslavia, the new systems of trade and capitalism have not brought prosperity. People live in small apartments and have very little money. National systems are very weak. Politicians are corrupt. Infrastructure projects go incredibly slowly, or not at all. Foreign politicians come and promise assistance, but deliver very little.

To the modern Yugoslav looking back, the modern “system” is hardly a system at all. It’s very hard to see the benefits of a free-market system that leaves most of the country unemployed — especially when compared to a time when everyone worked.

This complexity is something that we live with every day in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Just like most things, the actual situation here is complex. There is not a clear black-and-white answer, especially when it seems that the period of communism was a time of relative progress and prosperity, and the modern period is one of stagnation. As we labor to bring hope and opportunity to young people, we are slow to give too much quick advice, and we do our best to truly understand where people are coming from.

A story of the will: Ernie Johnson, Jr.

To understand me, you’ve got to know something about basketball.

When I was a kid, I loved basketball. I would play all day, and on the weekends I would watch it on TV. But I remember, about halfway through my teenage years, TBS, one of our Atlanta TV stations, began broadcasting NBA basketball on Wednesday nights. And that is when I became acquainted with Ernie Johnson, Jr.

More to the story

One day I saw Ernie on television, but he wasn’t calling a game. He was shaving his son’s face. And in that moment he became a completely different person to me. Suddenly there was a lot more to him than sports.

The son that I saw is Michael, who is ethnically Romanian. He suffers from muscular dystrophy, and today breathes through a ventilator. In an interview for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ernie said, “He’s on a ventilator with a ‘trake’ (tracheostomy tube),” Johnson says. “We’ve all become very good nurses, everybody in the family. We know how to suction his lungs. He has overnight nursing, but during the day it’s me or my wife or my oldest daughter if she’s got a day off.”

“I just don’t have that… courage.”

– Charles Barkley,
about Ernie Johnson

Ernie Johnson, pictured with the rest of his crew from Inside the NBA: Former NBA players (from left) Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley

In 1991, Ernie and his wife Cheryl were watching the news and they saw a report about the hundreds of orphans in Romania that the world found out about in the wake of the collapse of communism. A few months later, Cheryl got on a plane to Romania, and brought back a 3-year-old boy.

One of his feet was turned in the wrong way. He had never been outside. The nurses said not to take him.

Cheryl said, “he’s so much more than we said we could handle, but I don’t know if I can go the rest of my life wondering what happened to him.” Ernie said, “Bring him home.”

The amazing thing about Ernie, perhaps, is not that he decided to adopt a kid from Romania in 1991 with muscular dystrophy.

The amazing thing is that he decided to do it again.

Ernie and his wife have 6 kids — 4 adopted, 3 with special needs.

Now, there is something really special about a person who decides to do all that, and then has to go work with larger-than-life characters like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal.

Doing something like that takes courage, perseverance, and a strong will.

I don’t know if I have a will that strong. Do you?

I sure want to.

 

10 Manly habits for a balanced life overseas

When Americans go to live overseas, it is usually because of their job. They go there to work, and for most of us, the arrangement is temporary. When we know that we are transient, it is easy to get into routines that are unbalanced. Family and personal health can suffer as a result. Here are a few things I have found that help me stay balanced as an expat.

Cut the grass.

Daniel Watson

OK — I realize that many people who move overseas will end up in an apartment where they don’t have a yard. So, if you are fortunate enough to find a house with a nice little yard, cut your own grass. But if you find yourself in an apartment building in the middle of the city, let this be analogous to maintaining your own home — just as you would if you lived in your home country. 

The reason for this is that many of us end up settling for a living situation that we would never accept back home. Things break and we don’t get them fixed, we neglect to hang pictures on the walls, and we fail to make our homes into the nice, warm abode we would have made otherwise. Your home needs to be your castle — a place where you can relax and be at ease after a long day of work. Don’t neglect this subtle element of life, or you will come to regret it.

Learn to fix things yourself.

jesse orrico

Over the years, plenty of things have broken in our houses, and we’ve been in need of a handyman plenty of times. Don’t misunderstand me — there is nothing wrong with calling a handyman. However, I have been disappointed so many times that I decided I was better off just buying some tools and learning to fix a few things on my own. And in the end, I think I’m a better person for it — I ended up gaining good skills and maybe (maybe not) saving a few bucks in the process.

Make things with your hands for your family.

Clark Young

This is a personal belief of mine, so feel free to disagree or leave a comment below. I believe that spending time making and doing things with your hands builds discipline and patience, traits that are necessary for successful family life. It also helps you take pride in something you’ve produced by the sweat of your own brow — a process that can positively influence the way you do your “real work” when you are at the office.

Ride a bike or walk to work.

Chris Becker

Many who move overseas find that it is suddenly possible, in their new surroundings, to eschew driving a car, at least for the daily commute to and from work. I took up commuting by bike last year, but in years past I had always walked. Many joke that it’s part of the so-called American weight-loss plan that American expats commonly take up when they move overseas: cut out fast food (because it doesn’t exist), walk everywhere (because you often have to), immediately lose x-number of pounds 😉

Participate in sports.

Igor Ovsyannykov

This is a big habit that can be healthy in more ways than one. Participating in sports with a group of people, be it organized sports or just a pickup game in a park, builds friendship and camaraderie. And in the end, the relationships forged may be the biggest positive outcome of spending a couple hours playing a game.

Find community activities for your children.

Belle Maluf

Your children would be involved in a dozen different extracurricular activities if you lived in your home country. So don’t just assume that while you’re overseas they’ll be fine spending all their time either at home or school. They need time at friends’ houses, local libraries, etc. And they also need things to do that stretch their physical and mental abilities. Find them a tennis school or organized swimming lessons. Enroll them in an art class at a church or local school. Find something — you won’t regreat the experience, and they will make new friends.

Go on dates with your wife.

Priscilla Du Preez

This is the big thing that many of us tend to neglect for some reason. If we were in our home country, we would not go years without taking our wives out for a nice coffee or dinner togetherBut for some reason, when we move overseas, that becomes acceptable. Buck the trend! Find a babysitter and go out — even if it’s just for an ice cream or a nice walk in town, and even if it’s just for an hour or two. You need to spend time together, without the kids and without the distractions of life abroad.

Become a connoisseur of local attractions, restaurants, and cafes.

Clay Banks

I still haven’t done this, but I would like to. It’s important to become aware of the nice things to do in one’s town. It’s especially important when hosting guests from out of town — something that us expats tend to do a lot of. Learning about one’s surroundings also fosters a willing spirit and an increased appreciation for the city.

Keep up with local cultural events.

Aranxa Esteve

This is related to the previous point, but implies an ongoing habit of keeping abreast of the events in one’s town or city. If there is a festival or concert in town, chances are it would also be a good opportunity for a date.

Find a regular watering hole.

Montse Monmo

Find a great place, and find some friends who will go there with you regularly. I have a group of men with whom I go to a local pub once a week. This is a great time, and I look forward to it each week. As a foreigner, you don’t have that many opportunities to simply go and spend time with people, tell stories, and cut up. Even if you don’t imbibe, most “pubs” around the world serve espresso or other drinks as well as alcohol, and don’t care if you personally choose to abstain. Take this opportunity to let your guard down and be yourself — you won’t regret it.

 

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Four things people might not like about the “land of the free”

“You will realize that other people just don’t have the freedoms that we have,” said my dinner host as we sat down to eat.

I was young — 22, just out of college, and getting ready to go overseas for a year to work with young people in Sarajevo. I was raising money to cover the expenses for my time overseas, and I had just been connected with what would turn out to be my last donor.

“There are many beautiful places to visit, but the people that live there are not free,” they said. “You will realize this, the longer you live and work outside the United States.”

And so I embarked on my journey, with that idea in mind. As I landed in Sarajevo, I can remember looking for all the ways in which people would be walking around, shackled, wishing for a better life. After a while, I asked my boss what he thought. He dismissed the idea outright, and said, “Jonathan, those kinds of people will never live overseas.”

This was a paradigm shift for me. It may seem like a simple thing, but I had been raised — just like many young Americans — to believe that the United States is undeniably the best country in the world, and that everyone outside the U.S. lives their life trying to get there.

Most people don’t really want to leave their home country, any more than Americans want to leave America.

Over the next several years, I came to appreciate the United States in new ways, but I also gained valuable perspective on how people live in other countries. Here are a few points that I came to realize…

The fields of Pannonia, a plane that stretches through northern Bosnia, Serbia, Hungary, and Romania.

Most people don’t really want to leave their home country, any more than Americans want to leave America.

As I have actually seen a few people leave their home and emigrate to the U.S., the emotions that I have observed have been overwhelmingly bittersweet. Unless one is fleeing from war or persecution, leaving home is never easy. And even if there is conflict, most people believe that war is an aberration and not the norm. They are leaving the place of their birth. Most of the time, they simply wish they didn’t have to go.

Fields in the Pannonian Basin, in Eastern Europe.

People who come to America may like the U.S., but they still love their home country.

Even if life in the U.S. turns out to be successful, most people will still always nurture fond memories of their home country. Wouldn’t you?

Fields and forests in the U.S. have long been covered over with houses and strip malls — a sign of development, but also of loss.

There are plenty of things about America that foreigners – and even some Americans – don’t like.

McDonald’s and QuickTrip on every corner. Starbucks coffee for $5. Shopping malls with huge paved over parking lots. These are things that symbolize everyday, modern life in America. But for most foreigners, the ubiquity of commercial objects is a reminder that this place is not like their original home, and it never will be.

Most people in other countries are not “shackled”.

The vast majority of the world’s citizens will never come to live in the U.S., and yet they do not consider themselves particularly unfree. Their country might not be quite as developed as the U.S., but this usually does not amount to being unfree.

People around the world do desire to obtain better opportunities for themselves and their children, but for many, leaving their home for good is an option of last resort. When we look out at the rest of the world from the comfort of our borders, it is easy to imagine that everyone is clamoring to come in. Some are, and others are not. Reality is complex, and if we want to understand reality, then we must embrace the complexity around us.

A new perspective on the millennial myth

There is a glut of material floating around the interwebs about the so-called millennial generation and how the entire generation is little more than an impedance to the progress of the human race. The fact that the entire generation — which includes people under 36 years of age — lives completely inside of a world created and directed by individuals from the previous generation notwithstanding, millennials have recently been blamed for everything from the death of the American Church to the imminent collapse of capitalism.

We are lazy. We are self-absorbed. We are inexperienced. We are soft.

The stereotype is unflattering. Millennials are an entire generation that grew up with technology and wealth that previous generations could have only dreamed of, and it made them soft, selfish, and somehow incomplete. They did not have to pay their dues in order to gain a middle-class life — not the way that their forebears did.

Life used to be harder. They’ve got it so easy. They didn’t have to sacrifice. They didn’t have to give up anything.

I hope the reader will by now have an inkling of my intention with this post (as if the title did not already give away my intentions). The further we go down the road of millennial-bashing, does it not become obvious that all arguments devolve into the mere “us-versus-them” language that we see in every book, every superhero movie, every plot of every story known to man? I’ll cut to the chase: you need a villain, and so you create one based on any kind of stereotype or characteristic you can muster, in order to cast yourself as the hero.  

When we compare movies to real life, what is the number one thing we usually learn?

Movies can be finished in two hours because they are simple. There is usually good versus bad, they face off, and one side wins. Real life, however, does not have a screenwriter. And while there are often many losers in the world’s big conflicts, there are rarely any true winners.

The millennial/boomer dichotomy is not real.

The weakness inherent in most of the millennial-bashing “literature” can be brought out with a single question: Who are the parents of the so-called millennials? 

(It’s easy to figure out — just subtract about 25 years from the so-called Millennial range of 1980-1995, and you get 1955-1970. Younger Baby boomers and older Gen-Xers.)

One could easily say that we should have never expected anything from the children of pot-smoking, free-loving, anti-authoritarian hippies who never paid back their student loans and reaped huge (and undeserved) gains from the post-war growth of Western economies.

Concert goers at Woodstock, 1969

But that perspective doesn’t get expounded because most of the people doing all the writing about so-called millennials are not themselves millennials. Simon Sinek — not a millennial. Joel Stein (the man who wrote this article) — not a millennial. Up to now, mostly because many millennials are still just entering the workforce — the vast majority of voices contributing to the noise surrounding the millennial myths on the internet are not themselves millennials.

But there’s a better reason as well: Baby boomers (and some old Gen-Xers) are our parents. We know that our parents worked hard, whether in a factory or in an office. We also know, thanks to the hours of documentaries we watched on their cable, that some of them made some bad decisions. But to say that our parents by-and-large are “lazy”? “Pot smokers”? “Hippies”? That’s not something that anyone is really able to say. The real world, it turns out, is a lot more complex than that.

So, IMHO, when we participate in the Millennial/Gen-X/Boomer rivalry, we are not commenting on modern culture. We’re advancing a myth. 

Tell me about how the world is messed up because every millennial got a participation trophy, has a smartphone, and is lazy. I can just as easily say that their trophies and smartphones were given them by Baby boomers, who themselves all have smartphones, and are in massive debt.

Basically, the Millennial stereotype — just like the Baby boomer and the Gen-Xer — is a caricature. It may have some element of reality in it, but it is mostly an inaccurate, insulting representation of an enormous group of people. Just ask any actual Baby boomer.

When we attribute real problems to simplified caricatures, three things happen.

First, we harm our ability to build meaningful relationships with the people we have caricatured. Who wants to be friends with someone who assumes they are lazy, based on merely their birthdate?

Second, we rob ourselves of a more objective perspective on the world. The truth is, for every story about the laziness and self-interested nature of Millennials, one can easily produce a matching story to say the opposite. Laziness? Every generation has always considered the next one lazy. Maybe they are lazy, but in comparison to what? See — it’s subjective, not objective. They  probably aren’t actually any more lazy than their parents were at the same age. Once we come to realize that, it enables us to relate to each other without pretense. But we never come to that place if we insist on keeping up the stereotypes.

Third, social structures begin to crumble. The fact that we all — Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials — choose to think in terms of those stereotypes is a reason that we don’t want to be in groups together. It’s one of the reasons that, once people get to be adults, they leave things that their parents made them participate in. They realize that as long as they stay around, it’ll be hard for the group to view them as adults. It’s something that they never saw their parents have to deal with, and something they would rather not deal with, either.

Conclusion: So what then?

First, abstain, as hard as it might be, from the building of the myth. No generation is really better than another — just different. Generalizing is not wrong, but this post isn’t about mere generalizing — it’s about pitting gross generalizations against each other, to try and justify some form of superiority in comparison to others.

Seek knowledge. The more we read, listen, and talk to others, the more we will understand just how complex our world is, and how much it is different from a movie. We will become more comfortable with the complexity around us, and stop trying to blame the world’s problems on any one group of people.

Be friendly. The more friends we have, the more we will understand about different perspectives. Go out, find someone from a different generation, and be friendly to them — you will not regret it.

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5 things I never did when I lived in America

America is its own world, that’s for sure. When I lived in the states, there were lots of things I never thought about — I just assumed they were the way things are done, period. However, when I moved overseas, I discovered that there were many things that are simply different abroad. This list is by no means exhaustive — there are endless differences when you take time to sit down and think about it — but these are little things that my family has experienced as we have adjusted to living in Eastern Europe.

Take off my shoes

In America, we wear our shoes everywhere. When I was growing up, some people associated going barefoot or sock-footed with laziness, similar to spending the day in your pajamas. Taking your shoes off was more appropriate if you had clearly just spent a long time doing some sort of strenuous activity — not as a regular state of being. And, in addition to that, your feet smell! Nobody wants to smell your socks or feet, especially after they’ve been cooped up in your dirty shoes.

However, in most places throughout Eastern Europe, taking your shoes off is a requirement upon entering someone’s home. Many homeowners will even provide generic houseshoes for you to wear while in their home. It’s a way to keep the house clean and free of dust and dirt that comes in from outside. Wearing your shoes inside is often considered impolite, as well.

Don’t leave a tip

In the states, you leave a tip when you eat at any full-service restaurant. It’s understood — waiters and waitresses earn $2 or $3 per hour, and the rest is made from tips that people leave. Don’t leave without leaving a tip, or you’ll get some choice words from the restaurant’s personnel.

Where we live now, tips are simply not customary, unless you are at a very nice restaurant. Nearly all foodservice establishments offer table service, and waiters and waitresses don’t usually expect tips.

Drink things without ice

Eastern Europeans have some very entrenched views about cold things, like the belief that drinking too many iced drinks will give you a cold or strep throat. So, they won’t offer you ice, and in many cases, they won’t have it, unless it’s the middle of summer.

Pay with cash

We pay with credit cards everywhere in the United States, and we don’t think twice, usually. Sure, there are those who tout the virtues of cash and the envelope system, but the convenience and track-ability of using credit cards or online payment for everything just makes it the desired method for all transactions.

But that’s just not how it is everywhere. Come to Europe, and there are plenty of places where you must pay with cash, especially if you want to get some of those nice little souvenirs at the Old Bridge. Count your money and keep track of it — it’s not as hard as you think.

Walk places

In America, a car is a necessity; in Eastern Europe, it’s a luxury. In fact, for American families, the norm is two cars — no question. Here, people don’t think twice about walking places, and cars are simply not for everyone.

Americans think about cars differently, as well. While an American will view a car as important, people in Eastern Europe treat their cars with much more reverence. While most Americans might never even think of buying a brand new car, people here view buying “new” as a viable solution. It’s a way to get peace of mind and ensure that you don’t have to deal with a former owner’s problems. Cars are kept in tip-top condition until they are sold, at which time the owner will use the income from the sale to “upgrade” to a higher class of vehicle.

As I said, this list is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope it just wets your appetite for more new perspectives. These are simple things, but when you begin to put them all together, it certainly changes how you view the world, little by little.

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Why would an American want to leave America?

Since my recent interview aired on local TV, I have gotten a few questions from friends and acquaintances around town. They usually mention they saw the interview, and then their face becomes a bit confused and they say something like, “all of us are trying to leave this place. Why would an American want to leave their own country and come here?”

I usually say something like “well that is a long story.” But like most things, there’s more to it than that.

A calling

I have a close friend who is a police officer and I often tell him I don’t understand how he can do his job. I know I would never be able to chase criminals around in a car every day.

But over the years I’ve realized, just like a pastor has a “higher calling”, police work is his calling. He’s uniquely equipped to do his work, and he is good at it. That’s a good enough reason as any.

As I ride my bike to my office, organize events, and make strategies to reach out to young people every day, I feel a similar sense of calling to this place. It may not be a perfect place, but I have become “good” at what I do, and I have skills that uniquely equipped me to do what I do. This is my calling — perhaps not forever, but certainly for this period in my life.

The grass is never greener

I often tell people here that Americans say “The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence”. I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to belittle the problems that people face everyday in my current location. Corruption, disrespect for the rule of law, and economic depression prevent thousands of normal people here from leading productive lives. I don’t mean to diminish that fact.

However, few people in eastern Europe understand the level violence and danger that Americans live with every day. I can remember being in our church in Fayette County, GA, the day after a robbery at a local gas station had produced the county’s first murder in 3 years. However, in neighboring Clayton County, where I lived, there had been about 15 murders that year.

Statistics in urban areas are much worse. In Atlanta in 2015, there were 94 homicides, 170 rapes, 1,995 robberies, and 2,944 cases of aggravated assault. There were almost 5,000 burglaries, over 16,000 cases of larceny, and over 4,000 cars stolen. All this happened in just one year, in a city that is widely considered to be merely average in relation to other large American cities.

Statistics from Eastern Europe simply do not compare. Zagreb, Croatia, for example, a city of about 800,000 people, recorded 5 murders in 2009. For the same year, Ljubljana, Slovenia, had 1. Last year, Sarajevo had 11 total murders in 2016, only 3 of them by firearm.

In Mostar, I can send my 8-year-old son alone to the store 100 yards from my home to pick up a loaf of bread. Everyone knows who he is, and the threat of danger is nearly nonexistent. I doubt that sending a child on such an errand alone would even be legal in an American city.

While I know that the United States will always be my home, I can appreciate some of the practical advantages that living in a foreign country provides. Safety and crime were in no way reasons for leaving the U.S., but they are things that come to my mind whenever locals ask about my decision to leave my country.

Deeper significance

But in addition to these things, the question always provides a chance to go deeper and discuss important things about life in general. I believe my work here has eternal significance. For me, many of the things that Americans — and Europeans — chase after are of lesser significance. I believe that helping people improve their lives and become the people God created them to be is a worthy cause.

In conclusion, the question always brings a chance to get to know people better and inject something thought-worthy into our relationship. It is in itself a chance to fulfil a little part of the purpose for which I came here.