Nine Questions for ...

Heinrich Stricker on Sarajevo: “There Were No Windowpanes at 10 Degrees Below”

Copyright: Ana Raos
In Sarajevo’s Austro-Hungarian section with its magnificent Jugendstil façades (Photo: Ana Raos)

5 May 2012

Sarajevo is characterized by an ease in taking things on, its old-fashioned cafés and cosy cevapčići restaurants. Heinrich Stricker has been in charge of the language programme at the Goethe-Institut there since 2010. In the interview he speaks about coffee rituals, sacrificed lambs, and feisty Herzegovinian women.

What do the Bosnians love most of all?

Stricker: Their coffee ritual, which they celebrate abundantly. The coffee is served on a metal tray with its own coffee service. They sit together, dip a piece of nougat in the coffee, talk with one another, and relax. Coffee is drunk in the morning, after lunch, and in the afternoon, well, all day long. There’s a name for it, too – ćeif – it means relaxation or good mood and the Bosnians need that occasionally.

What preconception about the Bosnians ought we rid ourselves of right away?

That reminds me of a joke: Where does a woman from Montenegro, a woman from Bosnia, and a woman from Herzegovina hide her money from her husband? The woman from Montenegro hides it under a shovel, because her husband will never touch the shovel. The woman from Bosnia hides it in a book, because he’ll never look in one, and the woman from Herzegovina puts it on the table and says, “If you touch the money, you’ll have me to deal with.” Of course, we ought to forget the idea that Bosnians are uneducated and the Montenegrins are lazy. Women from Herzegovina are considered feisty. There may be something true in that.

What was your biggest culture shock?

There were two: one was when my neighbour slaughtered a lamb for Eid al-Adha right outside my living room window, the second when it was 10 degrees below in the men’s toilet of the cult bar Kino Bosna and I realized that there were no windowpanes.

Language programme director Heinrich Stricker: “I look forward to the Englischer Garten and a cup of Dallmayr coffee” (Photo: private)
What are the people in Bosnia concerned most about right now?

Probably the economy; unemployment is very high. Even the young, well-educated people have a hard time finding jobs. If they have connections their chances are a little better. The economic situation is related, of course, to the political situation. The political structure is sadly not very stable. It is still based on the Dayton peace treaty signed after the Bosnian War. Back then, a constitution for today’s state was passed that is unfortunately not very functional. For example, it took 451 days before the government could be formed. Of course, the people are also afraid they might have to experience another war. There are three ethnic groups living together here in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Croats, the Serbs and the Bosniaks. Due to the repercussions of the war and the political divisions, relations between them are still tense.

Why do Bosnians learn German?

Many Bosnians come to our German classes who were refugees in Germany during the war and who do not want to forget their German. Many were well received and got to know the German people as helpful and hospitable. Others would like to study and work in Germany or Austria. Another reason is immigration due to marriage.

What book from Bosnia and Herzegovina should we be reading?

Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andrić, who was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature. The work centres on Travnik, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 19th century. Back then, Travnik was a hub of the Balkan; a bit like today’s Sarajevo, which is also a sort of hub between the east and the west.

What is the most beautiful part of Sarajevo?

The place where the two major influencing regions meet: Sarajevo’s Austro-Hungarian district with its magnificent Jugendstil façades and the Baščaršija, the Ottoman district. You see the differences in the architecture, the typical shops, and the small handicrafts enterprises.

What do you look forward to most when you come to Germany?

I look forward to Munich’s Englischer Garten, because there are very few green spaces here. And to a good cup of Dallmayr coffee.

What do you look forward to when you are back in Sarajevo?

In Bosnia there is a generally greater ease when it comes to taking things on. I especially look forward to the relaxed atmosphere in the cafés here, for example at Hotel Europa with its old-fashioned coffee house atmosphere, and to the cosy ćevapčići restaurants with their good meals.

Aloña Elizalde asked the questions.

Heinrich Stricker (62) studied English and German before coming to work at the Goethe-Institut in 1980. Since then, he has held a number of posts: He worked as language teacher at the Goethe-Institut in Blaubeuren and Munich, was director of language programmes in Manchester and Thessaloniki and responsible at the language department of the head office in Munich for vocational German and later for pre-integration. He has been director of language programmes at the Goethe-Institut Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2010. When he retires, he would like to “Maybe go back and study again, perhaps archaeology.”
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