SARAJEVO – I was looking at it from 20,000 feet. From high up in the sky, it seemed so little, so quiet and so spread out at the same time. It was a sight I had not seen in almost 13 years.
Sarajevo was once a war-torn city, a city under siege, a city that experienced genocide and murder unlike any other in Europe since World War II.
Now, more than a dozen years later, I was going back to the city of my birth — with expectations of nothing but good weather and hopes of reconnecting with the place that has always been a part of me.
The pilot eased the plane onto the runaway and guided it to the gate. As in most European cities, passengers often deplane on foot, walk into an area and claim their luggage. I ran across the same runaway from which I left 13 years ago.
I was experienced sensory overload ... the smell ... that sweet yet cool breeze coming from the Olympic mountains to the southwest, mixed with a whiff of an afternoon coffee break. There was something comforting about it.
I learned later that the medium cup of coffee I had during my stopover in Vienna was actually four or five espressos.
"They don't have drip coffee," my sister said. No wonder I was so wired.
She and her husband picked me up at the airport and took the long way to my parents' house in the center of the city. My eyes welled up. I cried like a baby and snorted, and cried and wailed some more.
We passed my high school, which was still there — new and improved and considered one of the best schools in the city. When I left Sarajevo in 1994 the school was a bombed-out shell used as an occasional shelter by anyone who needed a place for a few hours.
Business in Sarajevo is booming; foreign investment is visible on every corner, displayed on buildings, posters, cars, etc. Capitalism has finally taken over this part of the Balkans, there is no doubt about it.
The stores are full of food, clothing and goods from everywhere in the world. I focused on the new and different designs of each carton of milk, all looking so European.
It felt a bit like the U.S., only more European, if that makes any sense.
I noticed that the way people do business has not changed. They still meet and get it all done over coffee or in a car while they drive.
People don't really talk about the war. My mother said "Sweetheart, I like to think about it like a nightmare ... that you always remember because it was a nightmare."
My parents explained that there is a divide between those stayed during the war and those who left and came back when the fighting was over.
Some who spent the war working abroad returned with large bank accounts and flashy new cars, I learned. It ignited a feeling among many who stayed and endured the fighting — the economic hardships — that they had missed out.
I could relate to those feelings.
But mainly for me the war is almost like a distant memory.
A couple of hours after I arrived, I went out for a walk. I told my family I needed to stretch my legs after the long flight. It was half true. I wanted to hear and see and touch and smell every corner of this city. I wanted to re-acquaint myself with it.
"Is it still the same? Are the same stores there? What do they look like?"
My curiosity had no bounds.
My sister came with me and we started our trek in the old town, stopping every few feet. I was desperate to hear people speak, finding the accents still the same, the slang still very much in use.
The obvious came to me: If I hadn't known Sarajevo before the war, I would not notice how much things have changed.
I was transfixed, standing motionless at times, just listening to people talk. It was almost as if the before-the-war and the after-the-war connected, and the war itself was amputated and thrown aside.
Smells of grilled meat and burning grease filled the air as grills from the city's traditional restaurants prepared cevapcici or cevapi, veal and beef sausage links mixed with spices that no owner would give a recipe for.
I remembered that my father always referred to the old town as "the crematorium" after all the cattle that met its destiny on endless city grills.
There are few places on Earth where you can hear church bells (Catholic and Orthodox alike), and see a mosque and a synagogue bathed in street lights all at the same time ... all four within 100 yards of each other. It is beautiful.
Having grown up in Sarajevo, a city where three major religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) were equally represented, I was very much used to a world where nobody asks who and what you are.
That's how it was before the war and how it seemed to be now. The war, that ugly part in between, is like a bad dream.
Why did a person's religion become so important? Perhaps, since all three religions believe in the same God, people here had to find something that separates them, makes them different. For nothing else is different.
I found myself closing my eyes and wondering if indeed I dreamt the whole thing, that all those horrible things didn't happen to me and my family, or to any of the millions of other Bosnia residents.
Probably the starkest difference is the currency. I couldn't get used to it. Before the war it was the "dinar." Now it's the "convertible mark" or KM.
Many Bosnians fled to Germany when the war broke out. They were welcomed there with jobs and opportunity.
That could be a reason why Bosnia included "mark," the currency in Deutschland, in the name of the new money. The convertible mark's exchange rate with the dollar is 1:1.5. Its paper is nothing like that of the dollar. It's thick and rough, but it gets soft and thin with repeated use.
Capitalism may have arrived, but Bosnia is still recovering from its socialist past. By law, pensions for retirees are capped, with the highest level of compensation amounting to 600 KMs a month or $400. And there was never such a thing as a 401(k) here.
As a state of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia's economy was classic socialism, featuring free health care, insurance, etc. Now you need money for all of those things, and the costs eat into the fixed incomes of retirees.
My parents, both doctors, lost all of their lifesavings when the war started. We often wonder where the money went. The current government doesn't seem to know, either.
So they depend on their monthly pension, my father's on the higher end, since he's 80 years old and has worked a long time. When we speak of it, my father makes light of the situation by joking that my dowry is almost gone.
Despite the lack of money and the ability to live a comfortable life, women still take very good care of themselves. They are all tip-top.
In Bosnia, appearances are everything. It reminds me of an American saying, "You dress for the job you want, not the job you have."
Even during the war, my mother never went to her 24/48-hour shift at the ER without her hair done. All of us in the neighborhood pitched in and made sure that those who went to work looked good.
"At least they would make pretty corpse," the saying went.
So following in the same tradition, even as a retiree, my mother gets her hair done every week. This time I went with her.
I was apprehensive of going because the salon is in Grbavica, a part of Sarajevo that during the war was known as a "butcher shop" for the killings and death that the Serb nationalists inflicted. Two of my cousins were killed there during the war.
Fear not, I was assured, the neighborhood has become a nice place to live and socialize. On our journey, I noticed the area was packed with new cafes and bustling restaurants.
The salon was full and there was a continuous flow of women getting their hair done. The owners are three sisters who grew up in the same Old Town neighborhood as my mother. I gave in and had my long hair trimmed and styled — how dare I go against the custom I was told. The cost for both of us was 30 KMs ($20).
Rush hour in Sarajevo is really no different from that in the States. It's bumper to bumper and slow moving. The figures show that people like their automobiles here — the city's population is 400,00 and there are 120,00 registered cars.
This really is a pedestrian's city. Public transportation is good, whether it's street cars, buses or trams. It was nonexistent during the war, but it quickly came back.
But never before were there so many cars in the city. The pollution is bad, but the mountain air and all the trees seem to help. People still take strolls through the main city streets to see and be seen in their Sunday best.
So as I start my second week in Sarajevo, trying to reconnect and take it all in, I can't help but compare my life in New York with the life here.
There is something innately comforting about being where I spent my childhood, where I was born and where I got my first scrapes from falling off a bike. I came to the states as a kid, really. I was 19. This is a country that gave me what I have now, its people helping and supporting me along the way.
Nonetheless, I miss New York, I miss America. As much as this is the place where my soul lingers, America is where my heart is. I thank God that my family has a place on this Earth as well. It didn't seem there was one for them 13 years ago.
Shayla Bezdrob is a producer for the FOX News Channel.