I Like Your Sundress

15Jun08
I’ve started packing for Bosnia, if you can call throwing almost every item of clothing I have in a suitcase, studying it for a minute, then pulling everything out again packing. The director of Global Youth Connect, Miki Jacevic, a wonderfully in-touch Bosnian native living here in DC, has said repeatedly that shorts and tee shirts will be absolutely appropriate for the majority of the time we’re there. With the exception of a few formal meetings at the UN and the Embassy, and the Srebrenica memorial service, he advised us to just pack “regular, student-type clothes.”

That’s sort of a vague description, at least for me. I have to have details, cultural cues, examples. The first time I tried to pack, I threw in all the pants I own. Then I remembered that we’re going to be there at the height of summer, with very high temperatures and high humidity. And probably no air conditioning. I unpacked all the pants and threw in all my shorts before I realized that what passes for shorts in the US might not be appropriate for a country that is statistically 40% Muslim.

I even tried googling ‘Sarajevo fashion’, ‘Bosnia fashion’, ‘Bosnia women clothes’, ‘Bosnia fashion women’, ‘Sarajevo clothes’, etc. Most of the results I got back were for the Sarajevo Fashion Week and for Clothes for Death – a Bosnian women’s (allegedly feminist) organization that makes and sews the clothes they would like to be buried in. Even Google Images was worthless. Pictures of American tourists were all the results I got.

Luckily, but perhaps financially irresponsibly, I’ve acquired a number of dresses while living in DC. I’m going to be in Bosnia for three weeks though, so when I say a number, I really mean maybe six or seven, which won’t do me much good without a washing machine, which I doubt I’ll have access to.

My plan is to wear dresses, with cap or short sleeves, and a length to about the knee. Conservative enough to not make it completely obvious that I am a tourist, but also cool enough so that I won’t be overwhelmed by the heat. I also have several pairs of mid-length shorts and solid color short-sleeved shirts that I’ll wear, also, and just rotate colors every few days.

I’m possibly more nervous about going to Bosnia that I have ever been about going abroad. I’m trying to really mentally prepare myself for an intense culture shock: Eastern Europe, post-conflict, varying other factors that make me squirm a little bit when I really think about them.

I’m not worried about Bosnia being dangerous or about the people being hostile or anything like that. Frankly, I’m very concerned with blending in, with not offending anyone, and with over-heating, seriously.

I am particularly concerned about the Srebrenica memorial service. We’re going to the 13th Anniversary memorial and burial ceremony on July 11. (If you’re not familiar, between July 6 and 13, 1995, during the war, over 7,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered in the town of Srebrenica. Every year more bodies are discovered in unmarked graves and ceremoniously given a proper burial.) Though the 40% of the population who identify themselves as Muslim are self-described as the most unobservant Muslims on the planet, we are going to a very traditional and unbelievably emotional Muslim ceremony. The women in our group have been instructed to wear either a long skirt or dress or nice pants, and we will be required to wear a headscarf and cover all but our faces and hands. This is not an enforced policy for Bosniak (meaning Bosnian Muslim) women, but is encouraged of us for the ceremony.

I’m not worried about this or uncomfortable with this idea at all. I’m entering someone else’s culture and attending a very important ceremony. Personally, I would feel disrespectful if I didn’t observe the dress code. That said, however, I have just tried on what I plan to wear for the ceremony – an ankle-length brown dress with a white long-sleeved shirt underneath it – and while it looks nice, and obviously covers my body, I think it may be screaming American. I also arranged a scarf around my head to see what I look like with just my face showing, and I was more uneasy than I thought I would be.

I don’t want to get too sentimental here, if I don’t have to, but it was a very awkward feeling looking at myself in the mirror with no hair. I cut nine inches of my hair off a couple weeks ago. I got bangs cut in. I have highlights in the front of my hair. I wear glasses that really only look good in the context of my hairstyle. To wrap a scarf around my hair and to hide one of my favorite physical attributes about myself was scary. My hair has almost always seemed to make up my identity (which is why I donated the hair I cut to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths, so that some girl or woman with cancer can try to make my hair part of her identity) and losing that made me feel, I guess exactly the way a hijab is supposed to make a woman feel, very, very covered up.

I’m sure when I actually arrive in Srebrenica and stand with other women wearing scarves, I’ll forget all about the insecurity I feel here in the comfort of my bedroom. Were I to go to Srebrenica without a scarf, I’m sure I would probably feel more insecure and self-conscious being one of a few women without it than I will actually feel being there with hundreds of other women wearing them.

I’m so excited to go; I leave in just 10 days. I have so much left to read before I leave though. I’m in the middle of Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia: A Short History and I still have to read Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation and reread Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor, which I loved, so it probably won’t take me too long to read it over.

I’ve got to get serious about packing though, which means I need to do laundry ASAP. And update my iPod. Luckily, Best Buy had 2 GB memory cards on sale, so I don’t even have to worry about clearing old pictures off my camera before I go.

How am I supposed to pack three weeks’ worth of clothes (not to mention SHOES) into one suitcase?

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5 Responses to “I Like Your Sundress”

  1. Get a very big suitcase! I’ve got this lovely little portable case, but it can’t really do me for any longer than a week. Especially not the way I pack: I used to be able to bring only what I needed for any particular period of time, but now I can’t disconnect my brain enough to plan what I’m going to be wearing each day for a week in advance. So I throw in everything there’s a chance I MIGHT wear… this is a plan that will need a little more honing before my forthcoming Australia trip…

    Cropped trousers might be a good plan for casual day-wear?

  2. 2 Jewels

    Isn’t that funny, I find so many other endearing qualities about you that I don’t even remember what your hair look like before you got it cut. You know you won’t need a lot of pants or shorts if you wear longish type tops that are light weight and come down low enough. Do you know about rolling your clothes so that they compact together better? I think you will look wonderful with a scarf tied around your head and neck.

  3. 3 Dad

    Whit, I do NOT believe you are actually this insecure about traveling…. This blog must be just for entertainment. Don’t forget some shoes!

  4. 4 Dad

    Whit on 2nd thought, Maybe you should jamb your stuff in a cooler and duct tape the lid shut and get on with it.
    Bye Now, Dad

  5. 5 Mom

    Whitney,
    Take plenty of pictures because I can’t wait to see you in your ceremonial wardrobe. I’m proud of what you are doing in Bosnia…this will be a trip that you will always treasure. Be ready to do some work though, it won’t be easy.

    At least you won’t have to worry about lugging your heavy head of hair around in the sweltering heat.
    Love, Mom


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