-Where were you born?
-In which country and city are you living now?
Tuzla, a city in the North Eastern part of Bosnia
-Are you living alone or with your family?
The whole family came out; myself, my husband, our two boys aged 2 and 3 and our golden retriever dog, Jessie.
-How long have you been living in Bosnia?
We moved here in August 2008. We had actually lived in Tuzla before (in the pre-children era) for about a year or so, so it wasn't a complete jump into the unknown. However, it is different with kids!
-What is your age?
Somehow, it is 36. No idea when that happened
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Bosnia?
We always knew that we wanted to live abroad at some point, particularly when the kids were young so would find learning a new language easier and it wouldn't disrupt their schooling quite so much. Life in the UK was very nice but I worried that in 10 years time I would kick myself for not giving it a go. We know that we can always come back to the UK, and in all likelihood not much would have changed.
There were a number of factors that drew us to Bosnia. Firstly, and most obviously, we already knew it fairly well and we had friends here. This was hugely useful when it came to finding accommodation, nurseries and allowed us to hit the ground running.
My husband is a software developer and has his own company that sells software over the internet. He was looking to employ some more developers, but couldn't afford to do so in the UK. Bosnia has a highly educated population, well versed in IT but the average wage is much cheaper than that in the UK.
I've gone back to studying whilst we have small children, and am doing a PhD looking at sport and reconciliation. Knowing that we were thinking of going back to Bosnia it was easy for me to steer my research proposal towards field work in Bosnia.
More of an issue would prove to be where we would live in Bosnia. The capital city Sarajevo is the obvious stopping point for most people. We spent a month here in 2007 exploring our options and realised that although Sarajevo has many benefits (international airport, expat community, skiing, culture, Indian and Chinese take outs that deliver, supermarket internet shopping etc.) the city of Tuzla actually suited our needs better so we moved here and visit Sarajevo often.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?
EU (and I think US) citizens do not need a visa to visit as a tourist and you get an automatic 90 day visa on entry. You are then supposed to go with your landlord and register with the police. Many people don't do this, but if you are caught without the appropriate bit of paper it turns into a logistical nightmare of Balkan proportions. After 90 days are up then you much leave the country and re-enter (and revisit the police for a new piece of white paper).
The Bosnians are looking to join the EU and they are tightening up their visa situations. Last time we went to the police they said that you are only allowed 2 lots of 90 day visas in a year. However, it seems to vary from official to official and as many borders don't stamp passports on the way in (particularly if you arrive by bus or through the border between Dubrovinik and Mostar) it is difficult for the officials to keep an accurate record of who is where.
We are hoping to apply for a temporary residency visa. We can only do this once my husband's software company has been set up. We've been here 5 months now and this is still an on-going process. Apparently you can set up a company in 3 days, but whoever said that clearly hasn't taken on the labyrinthine red tape process of doing so. What with trips to Sarajevo, many visits to the notary and the local courts, not to mention the banks and the official stamp maker, I don't think we could have done it much faster. Apparently the residency visa process includes and psychological profile which at least one person we know has failed. Looking forward to this one...
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
Coming from the UK we had always relied upon our free state health care system and didn't have any form of medical insurance. There is an agreement between the UK and Bosnia for reciprocal healthcare but this isn't always honoured.
There are different opinions about the healthcare in Bosnia. The British Embassy advised us that a trip to the Doctors can be phenomenally expensive and strongly advised that we take out health care. When we got to Tuzla we located an English speaking Doctor, and it appears that his charges are much lower (about 20KM – 10Euro) per visit. That said we didn't want to take the risk so we did arrange health cover through Axa without any problems.
-How do you make your living in Bosnia? Do you have any type of income generated?
Our income comes from the sales of my husband's software on the internet. He has used an IT entrepreneurial centre in Tuzla (BIT centre) to help him set up a Bosnian company which employs him and one other.
We have a slight issue in that his earnings are in USD, our bank accounts are in the UK (in GBP) and the currency here is Konvertible Marks (KM) which are pegged to the Euro. Moving money around is expensive and we are at the mercy of the FX markets. The Dollar is doing better than it was (hooray!) but the GBP is tanking horribly (curses) which is making everything much more expensive for us.
We don't have a bank account in Bosnia. Bosnia is a cash based economy and everything must be paid for in cash, even relatively large items. So at the end of each month we make several trips to the cash machine to withdraw enough money to pay our rent, bills, nursery fees etc, all in cash. There are many cash machines, especially in the cities, and withdrawing from a British bank account isn't problematic.
Unemployment in Bosnia is very high. If there is a job available and a Bosnian can do it, really a Bosnian should be doing it. There are a few jobs open to native English speakers, helping write grant proposals and the like, but I imagine it would be difficult to find paid employment here.
-Do you speak Bosnian and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs.
Bosnian (or Serbian or Croatian depending on where you live in the country and who you are talking to , even though it is the same basic language) is a difficult language. On the whole you could get by without learning it, most people speak some English and the young people are often very good. That said, when I give Bosnian a go, I do feel that people appreciate that you have made the effort. Some of my most memorable moments have come from having coffee with people who speak no English and the whole afternoons conversation has relied upon my Bosnian. We have lessons, but I do find the language difficult. Still, practice makes perfect (or in my case nowhere near perfect but we'll give it a go anyway).
Having children here has made it much easier. Firstly, the conversation will follow fairly obvious paths. How old are they? What are their names? And so on. It also provides a focal point for everyone. The Bosnians adore children. It is a very child friendly society to live in. Waiters will often amuse the children for you whilst you eat your food. Most people smile as a tear-away toddler steams down the middle of the restaurant waving an tractor shouting broom broom. Everyone wants to say hello and have a coochie coo moment. I'm far more comfortable taking the kids out here than I am in the UK. Children in Bosnia have a culture of playing in the streets and seem to grow up outside. They are very respectful, with the older kids looking out for the younger ones. It seems chaotic but it also seems to work.
The main cultural tenet of Bosnia is to have coffee. Nothing works without coffee. You meet someone for the first time, have a coffee. You see a friend you haven't seen in ages, you have a coffee. You go to work, you have a coffee. You go to a meeting, you have a coffee. And this isn't just Nescafe instant stuff. Oh no. This is the turbo fuelled, rocket powered, sludge at the bottom kind of coffee. One cup has me careering off the walls all day. But, it is such an important ritual that it is rude not to partake. Sometimes you can get away with a mint tea though. Every now and then someone will decide to feed you. Be warned, you will barely be able to move from so much food and you will always disappoint the cook who will feel that you have not eaten enough, however much food you have put away.
Bosnia has a complex history and there are 3 main religious cultures here. People don't tend to be overtly religious and, on the whole, extremism is not tolerated. Bosnian Islam is sometimes called Islam lite – many Muslims drink beer, seldom wear headscarves and go to the mosque for big holiday events only; much like Christianity in the UK I guess. That said, it is always important to be observant and watch what everyone else is doing to make sure you aren't inadvertently doing something people might find offensive.
Obviously the war in Bosnia has had a huge impact on society from which Bosnia is only slowly recovering. The political situation here remains very tense, particularly in the Republika Srpska (the Serb area). Not everyone wants to relive their war time experiences with every expat and many people are fed up with talking about the war to every passing research student and tourist. That is not to say that people won't talk about what happened but there is a real need to be sensitive. The Bosnians are trying to move beyond the conflict (except possibly their politicians) and are keen that Bosnia should be seen as a European country, not an ex-conflict zone.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Of course we miss our family and friends, although Bosnia is only a 3 hour plane ride away so we have had quite a few visitors. Skype helps, we can call home for 1p per minute to a landline. Our internet connection is usually good and many retailers will deliver to BiH.
My biggest issue has been the loss of the 'mothers union' network. With 2 toddlers and a dog in tow, I hadn't appreciated how reliant I was upon being able to call up a fellow Mummy and decamp to their house for a cup of tea (for me) and run around with other children (for the boys). This was a regular lifesaver, particularly on those days when it was all getting a bit, shall we say, fraught. Here, I haven't been able to find an equivalent. Obviously there are many mothers and children, but I haven't managed to find a friend with the same aged kids as me. Some mothers work and therefore are not around at the crucial moment when I've absolutely had enough. I don't know where the others are. There aren't any toddler groups or general childrens activities to attend. The playgrounds here are, shall we say, sparse, and not many people seem to go there either. I went through a phase of jumping out on likely candidates in the supermarket but that wasn't terribly successful either. We've kind of reached a balance now but I do miss the stimulation of other children and parents during the day.
There aren't many child orientated activities in Bosnia. The playgrounds are usually basic, often broken and dangerous and usually in the middle of a mud fest worthy of The Somme. We go there anyway but can be quite a stressful experience. That said, a trip on the tram in Sarajevo is a great way to spend the afternoon, so with a bit of imagination an afternoons activities can be sorted.
The dog has been another factor. Bosnians tend to have 3 types of dog: a) the stray, b) the huge guard dog chained up outside with a kennel or c) the very pampered, never off the lead pet. Our dog is as spoilt as anything and lives inside but loves a good run off the lead and is also partial to raiding the odd picnic whenever possible. As the Bosnians tend to view a dog off the lead as a stray and are often frightened of a loose dog, this can make dog walking stressful. Throw in a 2 and a 3 year old having a couple of tantrums, wanting to do a wee and a determination to walk in a different direction to the one we are going in, and you have the ingredients for a tense afternoon. Finding new areas to walk in is also an issue as many areas of Bosnia were mined so you can't go off the road unless you know for sure that it is safe.
However, despite all of the above, it is great fun living here. We can go skiing on the Olympic slopes near Sarajevo for the weekend. We can visit the stunning Croatian coastline. There are big national parks and several eco-tourism outfits to help organise trekking. Rafting is a huge thing in BiH, particularly on the Drina and in the area near Bihac. Tennis is strong in the Balkans and even here in Tuzla there are some amazing clay courts. There are gyms, pilates and tai chi classes, there are film festivals, cultural exhibits and lots of music. The summers are hot and there are lakes to be swum in and barbeques to be had. The winters are cold and there is tobogganing and ice-skating. Bosnia is European, the lifestyle reflects that. However, sometimes you have to look a bit harder than you might expect to find it all, but it is there.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
We thinking about steering clear of the UK until the economic crisis has blown over. Our eldest is due to start school in the UK in April 2010 so that seems an obvious point to re-examine the situation and see if we want to go home then.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
We rent a 3-bedroom house with an enclosed garden for 450 Euros a month. The Bosnians seem to think this is quite expensive for the place, but at the same time it is not the silly ex-pat rates that can be charged. We're pretty happy with it.
-What is the cost of living in Bosnia?
Cheaper than the UK. We reckon on a total expenditure for a family of 4 (and dog) of about 2500KM (1250 Euros)a month. This includes the odd weekend trip etc but we do try and look after the pennies.
-What do you think about the Bosnians?
On the whole they are great. Amazingly friendly, always generous and genuinely delighted to see a foreigner visiting the country (particularly if it is for a reason unrelated to the war). Petty crime in Bosnia is very low (although it can be an annoyance in Sarajevo). There is the odd guy who will look to rip you off, but on the whole the Bosnians are honest and charge foreigners the same as the locals. This is particularly true in Tuzla, but there are virtually no tourists here so a foreigner is a rarity.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Bosnia?
Positive: The people, the scenery, the rawness of life here, the adventure of it all. I'm loving the seasonal aspects to living, cooking and the organic, domestically produced nature of the food and produce.
Negative: The red tape, the driving (it is truly dreadful), the politics, turbofolk
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Bosnia?
Be patient, expect everything to take about 60 times longer than it should, make friends with the Bosnians, do not ever buy fruit and veg from the supermarkets – it is much nicer in the local shops and markets, be prepared to laugh at adversity and be prepared to drink a lot of coffee and eat a lot of food.
Explore outside of the cities. Sarajevo is a big capital city but other cities are very different and the rural areas are also fascinating.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Bosnia?
My own blog, www.britsinbosnia.blogspot.com concentrates on living in Bosnia with 2 small children, how they are adapting to life in a Bosnian nursery, learning the language and getting used to the culture. I try not to mention the politics, the war and so on, but sometimes it is unavoidable.
For a good understanding of the current affairs and news in the region I like to use Balkan Insight: http://www.balkaninsight.com
Americans for Bosnia has a great blogroll for lots of blogs and sites about Bosnia and concentrates more on reconstruction and reconciliation issues. http://americansforbosnia.blogspot.com/