About a month ago I bought a soccer ball in Sarajevo. This purchase was nothing unusual, yet led to my favorite study abroad memory thus far.
Walking through Bascarsija, the old Turkish neighborhood of Sarajevo, my friend David and I had an idea. We dropped down into Gazi Husrev-begov bezistan, a covered marketplace, and bought a small soccer ball. Our program provider tasked us with visiting the Sacred Heart Cathedral, giving us two hours to complete an assignment that, I would argue, requires only 20 minutes. We hoped that the ball would help us pass some time.
As we waited for another student in front of a local mosque, David and I kicked the ball between us. A young boy passed by, probably on his way to school. His pace slowed. His eyes furtively darted between the ball and us. David kicked the ball to him. The boy turned, stopped the ball, and passed it back to me. With a smile painted across his face, he continued on his way.
This gave us an idea.
We kicked the ball amongst ourselves as we walked down the main pedestrian street, Ferhadija. Whenever a child walked by we would pass the ball to them. Every child enthusiastically took up the invitation. Many simply passed it back—some juggled it; others incorporated fancy footwork. Every single one of them smiled as they walked away.
What surprised us was the reaction of the older pedestrians. Whenever the ball rolled out of our reach, and ended up at the feet of a parent, or other adult, we experienced the same result. They just played the ball back to us. Not once were we chastised for playing in the middle of the street. No one displayed frustration with our antics.
After playing in front of the cathedral for a while, our interest began to die down. Then we met Fado.
“Can I play with you guys?” Fado asked me. He looked to be about seven years old. He had spiky black hair, dark eyes, and an easygoing smile. We formed a triangle in the square, with the cathedral overlooking our game.
Fado’s leg was a cannon. He shot ball after ball at us, which would have been great if it weren’t for his poor aim. The ball was flying all over the place.
It hit a woman on the arm; she just smiled as she tossed it back to Fado. A middle-aged man jumped out of his way to intercept and return the ball to us. After having the ball fall at his feet, an elderly man paused for a second, laughed, and then tricked Fado with a no-look pass to me.
Everyone was enjoying the game: me, my fellow students, bystanders, passersby, and especially Fado. People smiled at us as they passed by. There was a warmth in the square, a mutual connection—fudbal.
In a city where shopkeepers regularly invite customers in for a cup of coffee, we shouldn’t have been surprised by our experience. Bosnia, especially Sarajevo, is known for warm compassionate people and hospitality. Although Sarajevo is a metropolitan capital, the city has the feel of a small town; people gather in public spaces to gossip and mingle; they smile openly on the street, and locals regularly lead lost tourists to their destinations.
As our game was coming to a close, Fado asked, “Are you two footballers?”
Both being soccer enthusiasts but amateur players, we assured him that we were not footballers. Then I asked if he was a footballer.
“No,” he said.
“If you keep practicing you could be one day,” I answered, as I presented him with the ball. “Do you want to keep the ball?”
The smile on his face said it all.
Even though, I only knew Fado for about an hour, he still made a huge impact on me. I got the true feel of Sarajevo. All it took was the simple act of playing soccer with a friend. No museum, cultural space, or tour could have provided me with the same experience. Sometimes spontaneity is all it takes to truly experience another culture while abroad.
I would like to thank Fado for approaching me in the square, and I hope he enjoys his new ball. Who knows—he might even become the next Cristiano Ronaldo.