Over the past couple of months, I’ve started hearing the same question from many of the Bosnians I meet for the first time. Jeste li Slovenac? They hear me say a few words, know I’m not from around here, but they’re not really sure where I’m from. The “where are you from” game has been one of my favorites since the first time I came to Europe, back in 1999. That summer, I worked at a grocery store in Switzerland. My German wasn’t very good at the time, and most people picked up on the fact that I was an American, or at least a native English speaker, very quickly. Nevertheless, when I worked as a checker, people would still sometimes try to guess where I was from. I thought I’d made real progress when someone guessed that I was German, but it was pretty clear that they only said that because I spoke German-German and not Swiss German.
When I was in Austria, my German improved, so people had a much more difficult time trying to figure out where I came from by my accent. I even picked up something of an Austrian accent. By the time I left, people just thought I was “not from here”.
I started learning Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian while I was in Austria. Consequently, I’ve got a little bit of a German accent when I speak B/C/S. When Melinda and I came to Bosnia in September, everyone thought we were German. Melinda’s blonde hair and my accented Bosnian, gave us away as Germans…even though we’re not. My Bosnian has improved, so now the default guess has moved south to Slovenia, a place I’ve only visited. The Slovene language is distinct from but similar to Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, so I take it as a great compliment that folks here think I’m one of their neighbors from the north and not from another continent.