After an amazing time Spain with my best friends, I had a few days before a major trip with my family that would last for four weeks and would take us from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Italy! I knew I needed to rest, recuperate from a lingering travel bug and gear up for what I knew would be a fun, but potentially stressful month ahead.
So I took a flight to Portugal and went to Albufeira in the Algarve, a little town on the gorgeous coast with soft sand beaches and tangerine colored cliffs. My Airbnb host Raquel picked me up from the tiny airport which I was incredibly grateful as I didn’t realize that I booked her place that was almost 45 minutes from the airport and the public transportation options are pretty much non-existent in this part of Algarve. It turns out Raquel quit her stressful job as a journalist working in Lisbon a few years ago to slow down and reassess life, move to her small hometown, which led her to meeting her German partner and having her first child. We had a great conversation about city life, demanding careers, travel, the European economy and ventured into more philosophical territories about the meaning of life and how quickly it passes, which is why we both knew it was time to make a change. She told about how tragic it is that the economy in Portugal has suffered and the struggle of trying to make a culture and people conform to “German standards” of the EU. It was a really interesting perspective that I hadn’t heard on such a personal, but quite informed point of view. Raquel’s place was 5 minutes from the beach, amazing and cheap food and little to no tourists — it was paradise and I soaked it up for five days.
I decided in my last day to stop by a beauty salon to ask about getting my color done. I’ve spent the past 3 months without wearing makeup (I don’t count lipstick/lipgloss as makeup as these are in the “essentials” category for me like water) and it’s been GLORIOUS. As a woman, you can appreciate how much time even the lowest maintenance versions of getting ready with as little makeup as possible still adds up. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup when I was younger even in high school, mom didn’t want me to wear it because she said it would ruin my skin, so I didn’t really wear it in college and so entering the “real working world” I was a little gung-ho at first and probably looked like a drag queen. So not having to do it and just walking around the world without any makeup on is so DAMN LIBERATING. And here’s the thing, I feel more beautiful now with nothing more than sunscreen than I do when I’m all dolled up with full make up on. I’m sure the not-working is making a major difference too. OK, back to the salon story. So the lady was very sweet and she didn’t speak any English and I spoke no Portuguese so when she asked me about my hair and lifted the greys and asked me a question in Portuguese about it, I said “yes” thinking she was asking about covering the grey, but it turns out she turned my reddish highlights in the front of my hair to full blonde. So now, I am a blonde Korean.
Flying to Sarajevo is a little challenging from Portugal, so the only flight I could find for less than 1000 euro was to spend a night in Brussels and leave the next morning so that’s what I did. I arrived in Sarajevo to find my mom, sister Sylvia and her boyfriend Ervin and his aunt waiting at the airport for me (they flew in the evening before). Although it had only been a couple of months since I’ve seen them, it was nonetheless super exciting to see the people I love most in the tiny arrivals area of Sarajevo airport. And as expected, my mom was thrilled to see me and the first words out of her mouth expressed dismay and horror, “ohmygod! You soooooo DAAAAHHHKK!!! Your face ruining all those feckles (freckles)!” Korean culture like many Asians, believe “clean”, fair milky skin is the definition of beauty. But this Korean American loves her some sun and the more Vitamin D I can absorb into my body, the better. I was excited to see my family for our first trip to Europe as a family and we would spend the next two weeks in Bosnia and Croatia visiting Ervin’s family.
My family didn’t have many opportunities to go on vacations. Mom was always working and money was often tight. And now that mom is retired and I am taking this time off, we decided that it would be a chance for all of us to meet some of Ervin’s family in Europe and enjoy some time here together. Ervin and Sylvia have been together for a long time. At this point, I honestly don’t even remember a time when he wasn’t part of our family. He lives in Alexandria with mom and Sylvia and he and his family left Bosnia toward the end of the war and immigrated to a suburb of Chicago.
We stayed with his sweet and kind mom Dijana in her home in Sarajevo and Ervin’s family adopted us for the next two weeks, feeding us, driving us around, and just making us feel as welcome and like we were part of their family. There is no better travel experience than being with locals, and there is certainly no better way to see Bosnia than being with Ervin’s family. There was a constant stream of aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, neighbors and friends and they were all the warmest, hilarious, generous and most thoughtful people. They brought us into their homes, fed us enormous quantities of food, poured potent shots of rakia (homemade liquor that can be at least 40 proof) into our glasses, gave us gifts and shared stories and much more.
One of the most incredible aspects of our trips was hearing from Ervin’s family about their stories from the war in the ’90s. I’m embarrassed to say my memory of these horrifying events was vague at best as I was in college at the time, so hearing accounts of survival, escape, injuries, death, heroes and heroines and even happy tales was so inspiring and humbling.
The Bosnian War took place between 1992 – 1995 and was part of the break up of the former Yugoslavia and the conflict between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. It was a brutal and devastating war that led to approximately 100,000 deaths and over 2 million people were displaced, horrifying rapes and murders with some later convictions of war crimes. We heard stories over the years from Ervin, but hearing them from his mom, aunts, uncles and cousins painted an even more harrowing and inspiring picture. There were tales about hiding during the bombings, knowing that their homes were not able to withstand these type of weapons, children playing outside near barricades and bombs, food, supplies and people making their way through tunnels, surviving with little food and constant fear and so many examples of heroism. It’s hard to believe that while I was dancing at frat parties to Naughty By Nature, people not too far from me were figuring out how to survive.
And the most remarkable part of these stories was how they banded together, across cultures, religions, families and borders to take care of each other. At the time and now, it didn’t matter who was Muslim, Bosnian, Croatian or Catholic, they were family, friends and neighbors and they were going to survive together. It’s a lesson that I think that’s more valuable now than ever. And these people do not wallow in loss and sorrow, the family lives fully, work and play hard, and are justifiably proud of their countries and histories.
Seeing Bosnia and Herzegovina was eye opening and my family and I really enjoyed our time there. We spent a few days in Sarajevo visiting family, touring the old city where the mosque and Catholic church are less than a mile apart, ate delicious treats and mom and Sylvia relished in buying the bronze Turkish tea sets and other souvenirs. Much like the people, you could still see evidence of the war all over the city, but repairs and resilience were also evident.
Ervin’s family took us from Sarajevo through the gorgeous drive through Herzegovina where lush mountains looked down into crystal blue lakes and rivers. We were heading to Croatia to Ervin’s family’s beach home and went via Mostar, an ancient city close to the border. Our stop there included an extravagant meal (yes, my pants were tighter after this trip) and seeing the cliff divers who jump off the old bridge, but not before asking the audience for money to watch the spectacle.
I’ve heard so many things about how beautiful Croatia is and all of the hype is true. It’s gorgeous. The mountains aren’t lush like they are in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the climate is more arid, but the Adriatic Sea is spectacular to behold. The beaches are rocky, which is pretty typical of many European beaches, but the water is bluer than the sky, and little towns are set along the cliffs with white and nectarine colored roofs.
We stayed in a tiny town called Repiç, just about an hour from Dubrovnik, but quite different in that it’s mostly undeveloped and locals who have resided there for multiple generations (although that is changing with more foreigners buying property there). The house was built by Ervin’s grandfather who made everything from the structure, to the welding work of the iron terraces, plumbing, and electrical. His grandfather and really the entire generation of men from that time, including his uncles can build anything. It makes me embarrassed that I can barely assemble a 3 piece shoe rack from Ikea without having a complete mental breakdown.
When we were in Sarajevo, Sylvia accidentally stepped on my iPhone, which at the time felt like a punch in the gut because my phone was my map, my calendar, my email, text and really my lifeline to everything and everyone. Being in small towns without having a phone and without internet access was frustrating at first, but eventually allowed me to really relax and unleash. And it was really easy to do this in a little town like Repiç, where our routine consisted of breakfast outside on the patio, followed by a quick walk down the steps to the sea (which was pretty chilly, but worth diving in because the water was so clear), laying in the sun and staring out into perfection, lunch, then a brief walk over to the tiny town of Klek where we would get ice cream, then dinner and bed. It was quiet, simple and perfect.
We ended our time together with one night in Dubrovnik, which after almost a week in Repiç felt like NYC in comparison. There was a serious issue with my Airbnb host pulling an awful bait and switch (first and hopefully only BAD Airbnb experience) and so we were left scrambling for a new place to stay at the last minute. Dubrovnik has been a hotspot for tourists for some time, but it seems Game of Thrones has really upped the fervor as there were so many tours and shops with GOT themes.
The city is really as beautiful as the photos and as much as I wish I had more time to explore there, I was really happy I spent my time with my family in the quiet and off the grid in Repiç. We were all sad to part and say goodbye to Ervin’s family. In just two weeks and despite language and cultural challenges, we had all become one family and shared so many laughs. We hope that we have an opportunity to show even a tiny bit of the hospitality and generosity that they showed us when they visit us in the U.S. We also said goodbye to Ervin who had to return home and get back to work while mom, Sylvia and I set off for part 2 of our European adventure.