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Lunch with a Bosnian, if you don't know any Bosnians, isn't the easiest thing to arrange. I wanted someone to guide me through the cuisine at Bosnian Cafe Sarajevo, just east of 35th Avenue on the south side of Northern, and also to tell me what life is like here for the recently swelled Bosnian refugee community. This took some doing.
My initial approach was, perhaps, naive. I thought maybe I could just walk into the place and find someone chatty. So I tried it. I ventured past the posters in the window for the Balkan versions of Celine Dion and Robert Palmer, into the clean, well-lighted cafe. It was full of attractive, ruddy-faced folks in nylon athletic wear -- nylon, as far as I can tell, is the Bosnian national fabric. There were married couples talking, not in English, at the tables, and men talking, not in English, on cell phones, and a little kid talking, in excellent English, to her Barbies.
I walked up to the counter, below which there was a glass case full of sausages and other such goodies. Above the counter, on a letterboard, was the menu -- all in Bosnian. There were regional CDs and videotapes, as well as a small selection of groceries, stacked around the beverage cooler. A TV was on, tuned to Animal Planet.
I could see a guy in the back, cooking something. It smelled yummy. He didn't see me, and no one else in the place paid the slightest attention to me. Clearly, I had come in by mistake, and the easiest thing to do was to ignore me until I left, which is what I did, but not before I had taken a pair of business cards from a stack set out next to the counter. Both cards were for the same guy -- on one, he was a real estate agent; on the other, an insurance salesman. His name suggested he might have language and cultural skills that suited him to serve the Bosnian community. This guy, I figured, would either be a good lunch date himself, or would know who was.
So I called him, and explained what I wanted. He said he'd have lunch with me, but not at Bosnian Cafe Sarajevo -- he'd prefer to eat at an American restaurant. I said that I really wanted to focus on the Bosnian place, and I pressed him a little on his reluctance.
"Well," he said at last, "I am Serb."
Ah. Yes, that would explain it.
The next Saturday, I walked into the Bosnian Delicious market at 27th Avenue and Northern, and struck up a conversation with the pretty and friendly young woman who works there. She agreed to meet me for lunch at the cafe the following Monday, and, a little to my surprise, she showed up.
Her name is Aldijana Sutkovic, and she moved to the Valley five years ago, shortly after the war, with her family. She turns 20 this month. She spoke no English when she got here, but now, though she has a pleasant accent, she speaks it almost flawlessly. Her parents speak very little English, but she and her brothers do, because they went to school here. This is true, she says, of many other Bosnian families here. "They have kids, and they speak English, so they take the kids everywhere. I used to go with my dad to the doctors and the bank and everywhere."
An impressive-looking lady waits on us, and Sutkovic orders for me, in Bosnian. She knows the lady -- the proprietor's wife -- and just about everybody else in the cafe.
"Everybody knows me, because I work in the store," she says, "and it's the only Bosnian store." The Bosnian community here is close-knit. Sutkovic has made few American friends. She works a lot; she's in her third semester at Phoenix College, where she's studying accounting; and on the rare occasions when she does socialize, it's usually with Bosnians.
She talks me through the cafe's short menu. It's not for the faint of artery. Suho Meso, she says, is dried beef. Sudzuka is dried sausage. Kahva is Turkish coffee. Kokosua Pasteta is a sort of chicken spread. And then there's the pricey Junece Glavuse -- a calf's head. This isn't what she's ordered for us, however. We're having a lunch special: "meat sticks" with vegetable spread and onions. While we wait, I ask her what, ethnically, it means to be Bosnian.
"Most of the people that say they're Bosnian are probably Muslim, or their parents are mixed religions," Sutkovic explains. "If they say they're from Croatia, maybe they're from Croatia, but probably they're from Bosnia, and they're [Roman] Catholics." The Eastern Orthodox Catholics are Serbian. Sutkovic is Muslim, though her family isn't particularly religious.
They came from a very small village called Novi Travnik, two or three hours from Sarajevo. Sutkovic can wax nostalgic about her hometown. "It's beautiful," she says, and in making her case for its beauty she sounds like someone who's spent five years in the desert: "There's really many mountains, trees; it's really green."