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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3 Essential Elements of Any Great Team And How to Build Them

Working on a team is challenging, even if all the members are seasoned professionals. This year our team consists of several new interns and staff that have never spent time in our location before. Here’s what we are planning to do — things any team can do — to promote clarity, build camaraderie, and develop trust as we step out into another year of work.

Trust

Trust is perhaps the most basic building block for success in any team environment. It’s like air — when we have lots of it, so many things are possible; when we don’t have it, even the simplest things are hard. Here are a couple of things I think build trust in the early going, when you haven’t yet had time to get to know each other well.

Talk about things you value.

Everyone has things that they think are important, and talking about those things will help everyone to get to know one another. At the very least, it will get everyone talking — and talking about something more significant than the weather or the Braves game.

Open your home.

Whether you are a leader or just a team member, I believe inviting colleagues over can be a great first step toward success. It can be for a meal or just a cup of coffee, but putting yourself in a position where you can host others for a couple hours really helps break the ice and get people comfortable with each other.

Camaraderie

It would be a great group activity to see who can spell the word “camaraderie”, for some kind of cash reward. Camaraderie is easier to define, though, and it is something every team needs in order to be successful. When you achieve camaraderie, a group becomes a team, coworkers become friends, and everything becomes possible. Here are a couple ideas:

Attend a social event together.

The day after our team arrives, thousands of people will descend on Mostar for the fourth annual Mostar Cliff Diving competition, in which world-class divers come to jump from Mostar’s old bridge. It’s a magical time, the streets are full, and it’s the perfect opportunity to take everyone out to share a great day together in the city.

Go on a team retreat.

After bringing everyone up to speed in their new job and new surroundings, it might be feasible to take everyone on a team retreat. Retreats are excellent opportunities to go deeper and explore just what makes a great team.

Clarity

If Trust is like concrete, clarity is like the cement in the concrete. Without clarity, it’s hard to make good decisions, people become dissatisfied, and trust erodes. But with it, trust solidifies and teams become super productive.

At first, have lots of meetings.

This may be counter intuitive, because meetings are often said to be a huge waste of time. And they are! But when you’ve got a brand new team that you’re trying to bring together, I believe you need to see each other a lot. You need to learn each other’s strengths, preferences, habits, before you can really start to click.

Maybe those meetings could be just 15-minute standup meetings where everyone just shares the status of their projects and ask questions. Or, you could think of team-building exercises that will help the team think deeply about how they work together. However you do it, in the first few weeks it is important to see each other often.

Write everything down.

This takes a lot of work for the leaders, but I think it can be helpful to write down a lot of the planned events, policies, or customs of your workplace so that new hires have the information to refer back to in the future. Here are a few examples of things you could write down and email or hand out to everyone:

  • A list of all the planned holidays, store closings, or other special events that will happen over the next six to twelve months.
  • The different ways in which your team communicates for work (phone, email, Slack, messenger, etc.), and what situations they are used for.
  • A list of things your team members need for work that might cost money, and suggestions on where to buy them (uniforms, certain shoes, technology, certain books, etc.).

Obviously, you won’t have time to write everything down, but it will make things easier when team members come to you with questions. Even if you need to make an exception, you make the exception with a better knowledge of why the policy was made in the first place.

I hope this has been helpful. What are some things you have learned while working on teams? Leave thoughts in the comments.

Podcast episode 3: The Refugee Question in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Finally, here is the long-awaited third episode of podcast. The audience has been clamouring for the next instalment, the press has been calling, and time has been tight, but I have managed to finally bless my listeners with the sweet sound of my voice again 😉

As you listen, keep in mind that this episode is meant first to inform you of the situation, since it has become an important current event in the country where I live. Second, it is meant to raise questions that I believe we need to think about, especially those of us who claim to be Christians. I have tried to refrain from voicing any hard and fast opinions here, as I know this can be a controversial issue.

Notes and links for the information discussed in this episode can be found at the bottom of this post.

Enjoy.

=== Podcast transcript ===

Podcast 3: Refugee Question

Hi I’m Jonathan, and this is The Bosnia Project podcast. The Bosnia Project is the chronicle of my life as a world traveler youth worker father and husband. Today is episode three, and we are going to talk about the Refugee crisis in Bosnia and how it affects us as believers.

The Bosnia Project is the story of how I came to live and work overseas in a country called Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s my blog, the Bosnia Project dot com, this podcast, and our Facebook community, and email updates we send out to our supporters and followers.

“The Bosnia Project” is a process and a product, all wrapped up into one thing, and this podcast, the blog, and everything else is a way to catch all that work, write it down, record it and preserve it, so that it can be of use to someone. This is the Bosnia Project, and it will continue for a good while longer.

I often say that we are building a community where people can belong, believe in God, and become the people he has created them to be. It all starts with belonging. My personal path to where I am today began with a community that made me feel that I belong, that I had a place in their fellowship. That eventually gave me the tools that I needed to believe and become the person I am today. That’s why I believe that belonging is an essential part of becoming a believer and seeing meaningful life change.

There are lots of groups and ministries that are based on this principle. Alcoholics Anonymous, depression recovery, and many other kinds of mercy ministries are effective because of the community they create for people in need. These communities create a kind of social framework that helps lift people up out of the places they are in, so they can reform their lives.

When people fall into destructive lifestyles, they often find camaraderie there. There are often lots of other people who help them descend into places they otherwise wouldn’t want to go. And when people are finally able to recover, it is often because of the help they receive a community. Very few ever recover in isolation.

For you and me, in a very similar way, I think community is essential if we are serious about becoming the people we are created to be. Any kind of small group, men’s group, women’s Bible studies — they give us hope and focus us, and help us know that there are other people who care about us and want us to advance.

Introduction

Today in Bosnia refugees have begun to show up on our doorstep. These are people who don’t belong anywhere. They’ve been driven from their homes and literally have no place to call home, and they’ve started to show up in great numbers in the country where I live now. We often think of the refugee crisis as something akin to serving the poor in the places where we live. It’s a very complex thing.

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Driving back from meeting

In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have the capital city of Sarajevo, where I lived for a total of 7 years altogether, and then as you go west, towards the border of Croatia and European Union, the only big city you come through is Mostar, where I live right now. Right now, I’m driving back from Sarajevo to Mostar. There’s two small towns you go through to Mostar, I’m in that last stretch before you get to Mostar. It’s an incredibly beautiful, striking drive, especially when the sun is out.

You have a river that cuts through this mountainous area, and the road is down next to the river, so when you’re driving your way down in the middle of a valley, and the mountains go straight up on either side of you. The way the mountains are made up they look like sheets of rock going down diagonally into the water. It’s as if the sheets are almost on a 45 degree with the water, and they are sliding down into the water. It typifies Herzegovina and its distinct look and how it’s different from the rest of the country.

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Bosnian refugee work

Refugees have started to come to Bosnia because they have nowhere else to go. They start in the Middle East, and their goal is to get to a place where they can lead productive, safe lives, unthreatened by conflict. So naturally, they go West. The nations to the east and the north are not really in a position to help them, and they have their own problems. They go west, they come through Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, and many of them get caught there. They stay in camps there, funded by the Turkish or Greek or Jordan governments, and they are provided for, but they have to live in tents and temporary buildings. Their children don’t go to school, their lives sort of go on pause for the time that they’re there.

Then many hear of the locations of these camps, and they choose different routs, searching for better locations. They want to get to Germany, they want to get to France. Once they get to these countries, they’ll be accepted as refugees, or they’ll be able to apply for some kind of protected status, and they will be able to stay. But they get stopped at the borders of the European Union. Once they’re in, they’re in, but the EU doesn’t have to let them in.

So, they try different entry points, which has brought them finally to Bosnia. There are as many as 100 people showing up in Bosnia every day, from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and other countries across the Middle East. They’ve been stopped all across the borders, and so they have to stay in Bosnia. They’re at several different places. There’s a large hostel in Ilidza, there’s a bombed out building in Bihac, there’s tents set up by volunteers in the center of Sarajevo, there’s a refugee camp in Mostar. The response ranges from incredibly unorganized and chaotic, to organized and sophisticated in other places.

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Refugee clarifications

Here are some clarifications that may be helpful as we think about the refugee issue in the world.

  1. Refugee is a loaded word. It’s a politically charged word no matter how it is used. A refugee is someone who is justifiably seeking refuge from a government or other group, and is therefore seeking to permanently leave their home country and take up residence in a safer place. So if you accept that someone is a refugee then you are also accepting a couple of things:
    1. That the country they are leaving is unjustly persecuting that person.
    2. That person is not a criminal for trying to run away.
    3. They have the basic right to leave wherever they were living and seek refuge somewhere else.
  2. All of the people involved in this crisis are technically migrants — and many of the migrants are refugees. Some people are not refugees, because they are migrating for reasons that technically don’t qualify them as refugees. Basically, their home country is not in an all-out war.
    1. However, for the kurds from Turkey, for example, that are part of this huge group of migrants, they’ve always been persecuted by their own government. But Turkey is a legitimate, universally-recognized, functioning state, a member of NATO, and we can’t really say that people fleeing their country qualify as “refugees”. Saying that would imply that a member of NATO is mistreating its citizens, maybe that country is deserving of some type of sanctions, and so forth. It would be unsupportive of its government — a government that’s supposedly aligned with the West.
    2. So, the Kurdish factions of Turkey have taken their cause into their own hands, raising up their own leaders and creating their own institutions that fight for equality for their people in Turkey and the surrounding countries. In the United States, this would’ve been something like the NAACP, the Black Panther movement, the Nation of Islam, and other groups that rose up to fight for Black equality. But in Turkey, there is an obvious difference — these people are going for an independent Kurdish state as the end-goal for their fight. They want Kurdish equality, Kurdish autonomy, Kurdish independence — which means that they eventually would like to secede from the state of Turkey. They view this as their goal, as their right. Which raises a lot of questions — if these people are against their government, what’s the difference between them and a terrorist?
    3. But don’t they have reason to protest against their government — a government that has in the past outlawed the use of the Kurdish language? Don’t they have a right to protest against the suppression of their culture by a government where another ethnic group is clearly in the driver’s seat? And what about the history of crimes, deaths, even massacres committed against the Kurdish peoples over the past several centuries? The Kurdish people have a rich history of existence that goes back several centuries. However, In an attempt to deny their existence, the Turkish government categorized Kurds as “Mountain Turks” until 1991.
    4. So, what’s the verdict? Are these people terrorists? or are they legitimately oppressed minorities? By using the word refugee you would be choosing a side in this conflict — something none of us intend to do.
  3. As a Christian — and I think this is the question that most of us listening want to answer — how can we do what we are supposed to do, without wading into this political question?

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American attitudes

We’ve got some questions to answer as Americans. At least, that’s what the people at the Pew Research Center say. They do surveys, though, so they’re always saying that. Sir, would you mind answering a few questions? I never stop and answer. I guess I’m reluctant to give my opinion.

There’s an article on the Pew website about how people in the US are turning more negative toward refugees. The picture at the top is of a girl from Bhutan, sitting in college class in the US. The caption reads, “Her extended family was resettled in the area, as were hundreds of other refugees from Bhutan and Nepal in recent years.

In the late 1980s Bhutanese elites regarded a growing ethnic Nepali population as a demographic and cultural threat. The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.

After a campaign of harassment that escalated in the early 1990s, Bhutanese security forces began expelling people, first making them sign forms renouncing claims to their homes and homeland. “The army took all the people from their houses,” a young refugee told me. “As we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave.”

Today, about 108,000 of these stateless Bhutanese are living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. The Bhutanese authorities have not allowed a single refugee to return. In 2006, the US government, seeing an impasse, offered to resettle 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees.

Now, only about half of Americans (51%) say the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country, while 43% say it does not. That qualifies as a controversial issue.

But what would be the best way to assist in this crisis? Would it be to resettle these people into a neighboring country where they would probably become an impoverished group again, never at home, and never provided for? Which nation would be in a position to support a group of people who have no means of support? Which nation would be able to place these people into a situation where they can work, support their families, and lead meaningful productive lives?

To date, 92,000 of the 108,000 total refugees from the situation in Bhutan have been resettled to the United States. Many of them own businesses, work in jobs, and send their children to school in communities across the United States. In the United states, refugees from places like Bhutan are often resettled by large faith-based charities like World Relief, which was Founded in 1944 as the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals as a response to the humanitarian crisis in Europe after World War II.

These are their values: The Example of Jesus as we serve those who are suffering from poverty and injustice, regardless of color, belief, or gender, as part of God’s plan to redeem, reconcile, and restore the world. We seek to follow Jesus by living holy, humble, and honest lives individually and corporately. The Local Church as a primary agent of bringing peace, justice, and love to a broken world.

There are Bhutanese people still in refugee camps, but most of them have been resettled to Western countries. Many were resettled by World Relief. And I think that’s where we’d like for them to be — in the hands of a group of people seeking to live out the “example of Jesus”, working to alleviate suffering because of a deep desire to see this world redeemed.

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Middle East Refugees

In the Middle East, though, the numbers are different. Maybe because it’s such a high-profile struggle, maybe because of the stigma attached to accepting Muslim refugees, or maybe because of other factors, the number of people resettled to the United States has been unimpressive.

There are 6.1 million refugees from Syria.

Many in the US have remarked that these refugees should be taken in by neighboring countries. Well, they have.

Kuwait has taken 150,000

Iraq has taken 230,000 — even as it faces the remnants of ISIS.

The UAE have taken 242,000

One of the world’s poor nations, Sudan, has taken 100,000.

Jordan has taken 1.3 million

Lebanon has taken in 2.2 million

3.5 million have been taken in by the nation of Turkey.

This situation, unlike the situation in Bhutan, is one where the US hasn’t been one of the top nations extending help to those displaced. And as I said before, offering help has a lot of complex side effects. By accepting refugees into your country, you’re saying that it’s ok to call them refugees and give them refugee status. By doing that, you’re saying something about the place they came from. You’re saying it’s not treating its citizens properly.

But in the process, in the US, you’re also giving people like World Relief the chance to have an impact and an influence on people who have been driven from their homes. You’ve giving people who’ve been impoverished, persecuted, threatened, the chance to live a normal, productive life in a nation that can support them quite easily.

So far, seven years into the Syrian conflict, 16,000 of the 6.1 million refugees from Syrian have been resettled to the US.

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The Question

So, back to that question I raised before — how can we do what we are supposed to do, without wading into this political question?

Think about the question — it’s got two parts. The second part, wading into political arena, is what always stops people from doing things. We don’t want to be political, but we often don’t realize that by doing nothing we become political. We’re political because we are more concerned with the outer appearance of what we’re doing than we are with the act itself.

We need not be reminded — or maybe we do — of other situations in our world’s history. Inaction is action. Not to act is to act.

The question, then, ought to be, how can we do what we are supposed to do? There’s no second part of the question. I’m a Christian anyway, and this is not our home, anyway. Or at least, here we do not have a lasting home — we are looking for the home that is to come. We’re supposed to have an eternal perspective. What we’re supposed to do is the eternal question. Political conflicts are by nature, fleeting, temporary, short. The question that will stand the test of time is, did I do what I was meant to do? Regardless of the political questions involved.

So, whether you’re in Atlanta — where I was over 20 years ago — or in Bosnia — where I am now — there’s the question. Am I going to do what I’m meant to do? Am I going to try to serve this community? Am I going to support that person that needs my assistance? Am I going to go looking for people who need my help? Am I even aware of the help I can offer?

I hope this has given all of us plenty to think about.

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Notes about the Kurdish people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurds#Antiquity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_of_Kurdish_people_in_Turkey#Issues

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey#Demographics

Notes about attitudes toward refugees and immigrants in the US

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/03/the-number-of-refugees-admitted-to-the-u-s-has-fallen-especially-among-muslims/

http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/immigration-attitudes/

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/24/republicans-turn-more-negative-toward-refugees-as-number-admitted-to-u-s-plummets/

Notes about refugees in Bhutan

https://www.hrw.org/news/2008/02/01/bhutans-ethnic-cleansing

Notes about World Relief

https://www.worldrelief.org/values

Podcast Episode 2: Ten things for leading a balanced life overseas

This is the second episode of THE BOSNIA PROJECT podcast. This one came out pretty well, and I hope you enjoy it — it is a rehash of an old blog post, with a few new comments added by me. You can read the old list here, or just listen to this episode via your phone or however you listen to podcasts.

The music in this podcast is mostly from former-Yugoslavia artists. If you’d like to check them out, here is a list:

 

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Podcast transcript

Hi I’m Jonathan, and this is The Bosnia Project podcast. The Bosnia Project is the chronicle of my life as a world traveler youth worker father and husband. Today is episode two, and we are going to share 10 ideas that help give us a balanced life, and they work if you live overseas or in your home country.

The Bosnia Project is the story of how I came to live and work overseas in a country called Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s my blog, the Bosnia Project dot com, this podcast, and our Facebook community, and email updates we send out to our supporters and followers.

“The Bosnia Project” is at least two things. The first is obvious — it’s a project. This life in Bosnia is a project that takes up all my time and talents. But then the second thing is the thing that is produced – the product is me. So The Bosnia Project a process and a product, all wrapped up into one thing, and this podcast, the blog, and everything else is a way to catch all that work, write it down, record it and preserve it, so that it can be of use to someone. This is the Bosnia Project, and it will continue for a good while longer.

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The big idea in the last episode was that belonging changes everything. Belonging is often the key that opens the door to meaningful experiences and lasting memories. If you want to have any kind of influence on someone, you need to try and find some way to invite them into your life. But when you do, you have to be ready – they might influence you just as much as you influence them.

It is also helpful to see just how much we are influenced ourselves by the things two which we belong. We belong to families, and they influence us, forever. We belong to churches, schools, organisations, companies, and they influence us immeasurably.

If you want to change anything about yourself – if you want to experience meaningful progress – you should look for a group of people who are going to help you change in the way you want. If you want to lose weight, if you want to gain a new skill, if you want to become a better parent – it’s always best to find a few people who also want that thing, and go in that direction together. You’ll get encouragement, you’ll get motivation, and you’ll get that sense of belonging that will help you leave your old habits behind and take up new ones that you want.

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Today I am going to share 10 things that I do to try to lead a balanced life overseas. The thing about this is, as you listen to this list, you gain new perspective about living in the United States, or wherever you happen to live. Because really, these are things that would be beneficial to do wherever you happen to live.

And this list can also be found on my blog; a link is in the description to this podcast, and the blog has some different remarks about each thing from what I’ll be saying here.

Cut the grass
When I came to Mostar, the city where we now live, I had not had a yard or garden in my whole time living in BiH. When we moved to Mostar 3 years ago, we had accumulated three kids, a dog, and a few hobbies — we were looking for a house. No more apartments in buildings in the centres of cities — we decided that we would look for a proper house with a little yard around it.

When we moved into our house I really devoted myself to my work all the time, because my idea was that I came to Bosnia primarily to work. But I discovered that I did not like living in a house that looked uncared for. This was a dilemma — I paid money to get this big house so that we would have lots of room for my family and three kids and a dog, but I didn’t like living there, because the yard wasn’t a great thing to look at, and I was always telling myself I didn’t have time to take care of it, because I needed to work.

Eventually, I had to decide that I needed to invest the necessary time to make the house and the yard look presentable, in order to make me happier about my home. It meant taking some time off to build a playhouse in the yard. It meant spending money on a lawn mower and planting grass in the yard. But it’s worth it, because it gives me a sense of a more full life and a life outside of my work, which is a very important thing, no matter what you do.

Learn to fix things yourself
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
This is my thing now — I developed a hobby of woodworking, making furniture and other things out of wood for my friends and family. It “cuts against the grain” as they say — because I have discovered that people are surprised by this. It is a very practical skill that I can nurture over time, and it often surprises people that someone in my line of work knows how to build things. But just like cutting the grass, it does enrich your life in many ways, and it gives you a life outside of work.

Ride a bike or walk to work
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
I still haven’t figured this one out. But it’s a good habit. And it also is a way to lose weight.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
This can be a difficult one. My son isn’t interested in sports, but many young children are, and it is something that will enrich your life and their lives if you can find something that they truly enjoy and that fits with your family’s schedule.

Go on dates with your wife
This is one that you can read about in any book on marriage — one of the secrets to a happy marriage is spending time together, and one good way to do that is to plan it out like a date. Get a sitter, make a reservation, plan on an activity, and make a night of it. Make special time to spend with the person that you love.

This is one of those things that, again, helps someone have a life outside of just their work, and is really important for achieving meaningful success anywhere you are. Just like when Jesus said, what good is it if a man gains the whole world but loses his soul, what good is success in the workplace if your marriage isn’t strong and healthy? Your marriage is like your soul, and your work at the end of the day, while it’s meaningful, needs to be just your work. It can’t compete with your family.

Become a connoisseur of local attractions, restaurants, and cafes.
This is something I have yet to do well, but I’m trying. One of the places that we have in Mostar is the American Corner, which is an interesting place. The US government has these American Corners that they’ve opened in cities around the world that promote things like studying in the US, scholarships for students, work programs, education, and other things. These places usually have lots of English books and a space where you can come and quietly read or work on your computer, and then they often have events where they invite speakers from the US Embassy. This has been a great place for my son to start going and play with the LEGO robotics set that they have, check out books, and have fun.

Mostar has a lot of history as well — the old town is internationally recognised as what’s called a “UNESCO world heritage” sight, which means it’s been historically preserved from medieval times and it’s a very important part of our world’s cultural heritage. There are many great Bosnian cultural restaurants and buildings, but there are also lots of great modern attractions too, and it shows a certain level of personal investment if you know about those things and try to stay up to date on the events of the town where you live.

Keep up with local cultural events.
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.

This has been nine things so far, and the tenth thing I will leave for you to see on my website. So thank you for listening all the way through but there is one more important habit that I think is really crucial to living a healthy and fulfilling life, whether you’re overseas or living in your home culture or wherever you happen to be. You can find it in the blog post that I’ve linked to in this podcast’s description. So go over there, take a look at the post, and at the bottom is a tenth thing that will put the finishing touch on this list.

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The big idea from podcast 1 is that belonging can change everything. And the big idea here is that when we have a place and a community outside of our work where we belong to, it can give people purpose. When it’s taken away — when you begin to make your life all about just your work, no matter how important that work is — life becomes very hard. These are some things that are not gospel, but they are some good things to keep in mind if you feel that life has become dry and difficult, and they are things that help me stay balanced while living overseas.

This has been the Bosnia Project podcast. You can follow the podcast at thebosniaproject.com, on Facebook, and via email. Thanks for listening. In a couple of weeks we’ll have another episode where we’ll talk more about the origin of the Bosnia Project and how living overseas brings experiences you’ll never forget.

Give to those in need and become the one in need

I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’…

I can still remember the day when my good friend sat down with me in a Starbucks in Atlanta and said, “I want you to come back to Bosnia with me.” He was going there to work with the organization that I currently work for, and he was overtly recruiting me to with him. I had lived in Bosnia for a short time right after college, a period during which many surely thought I was sowing my wild oats. I’d get the travel bug out of my system soon and come back and settle down.

But as soon as I heard “come back to Bosnia”, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt a burning desire to go back and help build something meaningful. We mulled the decision over for about a year, but my wife and I eventually decided to go.

Learning a new world

The U.S. can be very different from the rest of the world. Living in Eastern Europe has been an adventure in adjusting to new cultural norms. But somewhere in the process of acquiring a new language and learning new customs, people tend to change. We’ll always be foreigners, but we’re no longer the same people that left the U.S. in 2010.

Yes, there are new habits and tastes that have developed, but most important is the new awareness that has resulted from our time overseas — awareness of ourselves that we would not have had, had we stayed home.

I’ve learned how to survive — quite well — without all the creature comforts available back home. My children speak a different language fluently. speak a different language. I’ve learned organizational skills I never would have learned had I stayed in my old job. And the young people I have worked with have given me more than I’ve ever given them.

The last shall be first.

In this upside-down world in which we live, I think the principle arises that might not have been as visible before. When one ventures out to help others, often the giver benefits more than the receiver — but in ways that were unanticipated before. The one who helps might gather up clothes to donate to the needy, but in that process they gain an understanding of the things that people truly need. Or, they gain lifelong friends in the process of teaching an English class. Building a staircase might serve a temporal need, but the knowledge and skills gained in the process are valuable for a lifetime.

In the end, the givers become the receivers, the first become last, and those who give help discover just how needy they are.

The secret to living here is becoming clueless

Spurred by my recent post about what you all are apparently buying, I just went over to Amazon.com to take a look at their Best Sellers lists. Apparently, a lot of you want to make sure you know everything about The Legend of Zelda. I know it’s probably those nostalgic Gen-Xers that are finally buying things for themselves now that their kids are old enough to spend most of the day at school and not throwing these on the floor.

I admit, I am oblivious.

The point is that I didn’t know about any of this until I purposefully went online and googled [Best selling things on Amazon 2017]. I have been in ignorance for a long time, and I haven’t noticed. “Oh, but you aren’t any more,” you may say. Yes, but I would have to keep on visiting the Best Sellers lists regularly, and I know I’m not going to remember to do that.

It does take a while to fully leave the compound, but once you’re fully out, you’re out. Whether you realize it or not, at some point, I’ve realized, you cease to consume the culture as you did before, and there is little you can do to get back to the place where you are “up” on all the things your old friends are doing, sruggling with, enjoying.

Disasters, sadly, are not disastrous anymore.

My first taste of this was during my first stint overseas, when I lived in Sarajevo for 2 years from 2003 to 2005. I had some inkling that I was no longer aware of current events in the United States, and so I signed up get CNN’s headlines emailed to me. Then came Christmas, 2004, and I got an email with this subject:

Tsunami in Indian Ocean reported; 10,000 believed dead or missing

Thirty minutes later, I received another email. It’s subject read: “Tsunami in Indian Ocean makes landfall in Indonesia, 25,000 believed dead”. Another thirty minutes went by and I received yet another email, this time with the subject: “Tsunami makes landfall in Indonesia, 50,000 believed dead.” And the emails kept coming every few minutes until the numbers of casualties reached the hundreds of thousands.

The tsunami made headlines, of course, in the local papers in Sarajevo, but I didn’t read Bosnian very well at that point. And for me, that was the end of the disaster. I didn’t watch much TV, because every channel was all in Bosnian, and I had a job that took up most of my time. It was an event that happened one night, and then was over.

I would stay in Sarajevo continuously until mid-August, 2005. And as I came back to my home in Atlanta, the entire Southeast U.S. was bracing for yet another disaster, Hurricane Katrina. As I flew in, people were talking about it. But I didn’t really get it. I had not been exposed to the 24-hour barrage of coverage that my friends had. I had not been subject to hours of talk about the geography of New Orleans and how it was basically a fishbowl.

The storm hit, but I was still in my jet-lagged haze, transitioning from two years of living overseas.

I was still trying to get my head around the idea that, for the past year, everyone I knew had been watching what had happened in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and all the other nations in the Indian Ocean. In the last year, everyone I knew had viewed countless news pieces about the Tsunami; many had given money, a few had gone on mission trips to help. And I had been completely clueless.

I was embarrassed that I had been completely unaffected by the incredible disaster that was the Tsunami of 2004. And on top of that, another enormous event was happening, and I was again caught off guard. I felt as though a significant part of the last several months had been stolen from me.

Being present somewhere means being absent somewhere else.

And this was the beginning of one of the great lessons of my adult life — if you want to be 100% present, if you want to go “all in” on something, if you want to devote your entire self to any one thing at any point in your life, it will be necessary to give up something in some other area of your life. For me, the cost of devoting myself to my work in Bosnia meant that I had missed out completely on some very important things back in my home country. People had gotten married; some had moved away; many were wrapped up in new struggles and challenges; and I had missed out on all of it.

What made it hard, I suppose, was that I never made a decision to miss out on all this stuff — it just sort of happened without me. And yet, after some contemplation, I realized that it was all for the better.

What kind of worker would I have been, had I tried to live with one foot in America and one foot in Bosnia? What kind of friend would I have been to the people I met in Sarajevo, if I constantly talked as if I was not really present, there with them, in my mind? Not a good one, I reasoned. And so it goes on, even today.

Being present means being absent. You can’t be everywhere at once, and at some point you learn to accept that, and you learn to pick your battles. You can only win the battles that you are in.

 

Ways to keep up with the culture when you are far from it

Culture affects everyone. There are lots of people who try to claim they aren’t affected. “I don’t listen to commercials.” “I don’t watch TV.” “I don’t follow sports.” “I don’t really like music.”

The truth is, you live in a world where other people are around you all the time. And because they are affected, because they change, because they evolve — you change, too. You are unaware of all the ways that marketing, music, books, politics, and culture affects you. And yet, you and I and everyone, everywhere, are cultural animals — constantly moving, pushing, and chasing others, while constantly being moved, changed, and chased ourselves.

And yet, it is possible to move to another culture and miss out on the things that we once took so much for granted. After a while outside our home culture, we can come to a place where we miss our roots, and it can become appealing to look for a way to plug in — even if from afar — and reconnect with the places and cultures that shaped us into the people we are today.

So here are some things that I have started to rely on to stay aware of what’s going on in the US.

News: PBS News Hour

This one is just me — I grew up with my parents watching the News Hour every night. So, I subscribe to the podcast, which you can find here. It’s not practical to watch American news on TV, but at least I can listen to the podcast in the morning, and hear the news from the night before. The News Hour tends to be middle-of-the-road, and then every once in a while you might get to hear David Brooks.

Sports: Sports Talk Podcasts

I never realized how much we men (and some women) take sports on TV for granted until I had been gone from the US for a couple of years. So, as a substitute, I listen to sports podcasts quite a bit. It isn’t the same, but it does give a little bit of the commentary and news that I used to get just from existing in the states every day. I listen to Colin Cowherd just about every morning (even though he hates Atlanta); Atlanta sportswriter Jeff Schultz has a decent podcast (when he decides to record episodes); and Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe have a great show called Undisputed.

Books: Amazon / Kindle

Maybe it’s a good thing, you can’t go into a bookstore and end up buying books that look good on the shelves. But then again, maybe you Americans don’t do that anymore either. And then again, again, it is a whole lot easier to go on Amazon and fill up your Kindle by clicking on books that have nicely designed little cover pictures next to their titles. So, when I read books, it’s because they’ve been recommended to my wife on Amazon.

Side note: if you want to keep up with culture, be married.

My wife and son are avoiding this nice selfie.

Movies and TV: Netflix

Movies are a hard one, because when you’re out of your cultural “zone”, you don’t watch the TV shows and channels that everyone else in town watches (because you’re a foreigner), and you lose out on that thing where you see the same commercials and marketing that everyone else in your neighborhood sees. So, if a new, big movie is coming to theatres here, you miss out usually, because you haven’t been exposed to the movie trailer every time commercials come on during Lud,zbunjen i normalan.

CATCH THE IRONY THERE? I miss out on elements of my culture (movies in the cinema) because I don’t participate in elements of the culture where I live…

For this, I really have to depend on the marketing inside of Netflix and Hulu. When we watch TV, that’s what we watch, and we tend to watch things that are recommended within the apps, or things we read about online. So, that’s an area that we really tend to miss out on. Oh well…

What to buy: Amazon

This is an area that you really would not expect or really understand until you experience it yourself. Eventually, if you stay outside your home culture long enough, you lose all concept of what people are buying or interested in. Hmmm, how can I explain this better?

Remember that whole Yetti thing? The $40 thermoses that everyone carries around (or complains about)? I missed it completely. Began to hear about it a couple of years after it became a thing, and by that time it had already gone.

And Bulletproof Coffee. I remember learning about that a couple of years ago, and trying to make it in the blender, after it’s time in the spotlight was just about done.

WOW… I just found a list of the “hottest” products of 2017 — the ones that all of you are supposedly buying… And it’s… disappointing. Just let me list most of them here with my reaction:

  1. Amazon Echo. $149.
    Never heard of it.
  2. Amazon Echo Dot. $49.
    What’s that? And why would you buy the other one instead of this one?
  3. Instant Pot 7-in-1 Multi-Functional Pressure Cooker…
    Are we really buying these things again?
  4. Something to mount your phone to your car dash.
    Yipee!
  5. Fire HD Tablets.
    Are people still buying those?
  6. Sony Wireless Headphones. $150.
    They better be… more than headphones. Are people crazy?
  7. Roomba. $375.
    Weren’t those a thing last decade? Is that how much those cost?
  8. Some other headphones.
    Is sweat a problem with headphones? Do you sweat out of your ears?
  9. Kindle Paperwhite.
    Isn’t that old? And I thought Kindles were supposed to be cheap.
  10. Oral-B Pro 7000 SmartSeries Electric Toothbrush with Bluetooth Connectivity. $109.
    What??? Bluetooth? In your mouth? Is that supposed to be a joke?
  11. TaoTronics Dimmable LED Desk Lamp with USB Charging Port and 5 Color Temperatures and Brightness Levels.
    I should take a picture of my reaction, but I’m not going to. Is it a thing that desk lights are dimmable?
  12. 23andMe DNA Test. $199.
    I have no words. Are people buying this? What is this exactly?

So, you can see, especially when Christmas rolls around and I try to send my family gifts, or when I try occasionally to buy real, physical things from Amazon (not books), I am completely clueless as to what is in style, or cool, or whatever. So I rely on Amazon to tell me what people want, and I buy that, and hope for the best. And if it doesn’t fit or work, I hope the merchant will accept returns.

So there you have it, 5 ways that I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to keep up with culture in America. Really, I’m just creating my own thing here. It’s pretty good.

Adventures in Herzegovinan spelunking (Vjetrenica Cave and Stanica Hotel in Ravno, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Lately, it seems our family has done nothing but drive around Bosnia and Herzegovina, visiting tourist sites and eating at restaurants. Well, the trip we just came back from was for work, so we didn’t get a choice in the matter. Upon returning home, we found ourselves in an 85-degree (29 C) home with three screaming children, desperately wishing for school to hurry up and start. So naturally we looked for an opportunity to get everyone out again. Because if things are bad in the home… surely getting out will make them better.

As I had begun to grow quite impulsive from the constant presence of The Heat and The Screams, I decided that the 1-hour-and-45-minute drive to The Cave would be tollerable, and so we set out from our home in Mostar on Friday afternoon. The Cave was impressive, and it did provide a respite from The Heat, but we are still in search of a remedy for The Screams.

Tyler and me before the Great Cave Adventure.

Vjetrenica Cave

The castle at Stolac brought a brief bit of relief from The Screams, but they returned as we headed around the bend. In general, the scenery was quite beautiful, and the wonderful road, with it’s many curves and bumps and holes, requires one to drive so slow that even the driver can appreciate the view.

Even before entering, The Cave makes its presence felt via strong gusts of wind blowing out from its entrance — hence the name Vjetrenica (“Wind cave” or “Blowhole” in English). The air coming out is 11 degrees C (52 F), which means that everyone must wear pants and shoes, regardless of the temperature outside.

I will say that the air inside The Cave was a welcome relief from the air outside, which was well over 90 F (32 C). The temperature inside The Cave is constant, and the wind is created because of the great difference in temperature.

Inside Vjetrenica Cave.

 

A rock formation that we decided is “The Dinosaur” of Vjetrenica

At the end, I wished that I had been able to get more good photographs, but the darkness did not allow for it. It did allow, however, for The Screams to return and increase, as the enclosed space and hard rock created a terrific echo effect.

An Olm, or, as Bosnians call it, “Human Fish”.

The Cave was not disappointing. It is surprisingly well developed inside, and our guide was very good and informative. If you are looking for a one-time adventure, and don’t mind the drive (since Zavala is not really near any place where people seem to live), Vjetrenica Cave is worth the price. The short guy selling tickets at the cave’s entrance was less than helpful, but the tour guide was excellent.

A few details for those who might actually go:

  • Tours at Vjetrenica Cave are conducted at the top of each hour. 
  • The last tour is scheduled at 6:00pm every day. 
  • Tickets cost 15KM (7.50 EUR) for Adults and 8KM (4 EUR) for children over 4.
After the cave. Tyler quickly assumed his best Slavic pose.
The obligatory family picture.

Stanica Restaurant and Hotel in Ravno, Herzegovina

After The Cave, we stopped at Stanica restaurant and hotel, in Ravno. The actual village of Ravno is ironically located up on the hill behind the restaurant (“Ravno” means “flat” in Croatian/Bosnian/Serbian). This place opened last summer, and I would highly recommend it. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t snap any photos of the place, so I included a couple of theirs from Booking.com.

Stanica restaurant/hotel in Ravno

“Stanica” means “station” in English, and this building was at one time a railway station, on the original rail line from Dubrovnik to Vienna. There is even a piece of the original railway under glass, in the sidewalk in front of the building.

Besides eating and sleeping, the big thing to do here is rent bikes, as the hotel is located on the new-ish Ćiro bike trail. The trail is mostly an old railway bed (hence the convenience to a place like Stanica). The food was absolutely, really, very good, and the outdoor seating area is very nice.

The outdoor dining area behind the Stanica restaurant/hotel.

After stanica, we hopped back in our car and decided to drive on the Ćiro trail most of the way back to Mostar, going by Hutovo Blato, Čapljina, and then home. It took a little longer, but we decided the longer we had the children stapped to seats in the car, the better.

So there you have it — another adventure. It was real, and it was fun, and provided us with a diversion as we draw ever closer to the beginning of another school year. The year that is makes us long for the year to come.

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.