I’ve joined a boy’s club in Sarajevo. We meet between 8:30 and 11:00-ish every morning of the week at Cafe Coccinelle. On the ground floor of an apartment building by the city center mall. Next to a walking tunnel that leads to the bakery and the bus station.
Each member arrives on his own time through the glass door from the patio, some entering like turtles with their necks tucked into the warmth of fur-lined hoods. It’s customary to acknowledge the owner with a knowing Ćao, if he doesn’t greet you at the door with a handshake and subdued admiration. Upon entry, members scan the room, stomp shoes dry on the doormat, and greet others like brothers reconvening after breaking away one-by-one from a family reunion.
Sometimes we grab a seat at a counter-top table on the left, to make sure everyone has their space for unfolding newspapers and disrobing of jackets. Other reunions are more urgent and need close proximity and kisses on the cheek. For this, we squeeze together on the faded upholstery of the fixed bench on the right wall. With each new entrance, we shove our hands in coat pockets and elevate our shoulders to insulate before the room temperature recovers.
As if expected, or telepathic, an espresso materializes in front of each member within 90 seconds of sitting. Voices rise to overpower the sound of coffee beans grinding. The waitress delivers a tall, skinny glass of water with the other hand before returning to wash a cup and check her text messages.
A stuccoed mural of Bacchus and his pleasure party fills the wall above the bench, the most coveted seat in this square of society. Christmas ornaments dangle under the chandelier, each oscillating ever so slightly by the plumes of wintery air that enter or the clouds that rise one after the other. The waitress makes a round to empty each ashtray for immediate refilling. Sometimes I breath through my scarf, but I they take no offense.
One man sees my eyes search the face of the waitress–who’s deeply focused on composing an SMS–and utters something to direct her attention to me.
Another cappuccino, please?
To say my Bosnian is weak would imply I’ve been trying, but my hand gestures are proving effective. I can’t partake in the gossip (maybe I could contribute a wheezy laugh here or there), but I have achieved familiarity in this clubhouse to the point that the owner starts with “Hello” rather than a greeting that I would meet with an uncomfortable smile. They say I blend in, if I don't wear all my red accessories at once. No clouds rise from my table, only fingers politely requesting attention, but they don’t judge me for it. I’m not sifting through the obituaries, but I am reading a thick book about Berlin with dated cover art that must seem untrendy and respectable.
Regardless of the revelry indoors, there’s always one man peering outside, daydreaming, his face well-lit by the reflecting snow under cloud cover. The man with the skinny white beard is sitting in the center of the bench, clearly a storyteller, gripping his fists at his sides like an angry toddler or a downhill skier while he blurts out the punchline. Cell phones ring loudly, and calls are taken on the patio. The storyteller elevates his recount to a standing position. It’s punctuated by unanimous laughter.
Together, we ignore the folk music that fills every conversation gap and develop our bitter coffee breath. Turtle-Neck nudges the stool where my feet rest and quickly apologies with a wave. I crack a full smile, eager to be acknowledged, quick to prove I’m open to chatter myself, though we exchange none. The Daydreamer folds his paper and stands to deliver 1 KM to the bar for his espresso before walking out the door. He waits a beat before turning right, then walks straight towards his car. I notice the others don’t question his departure. He backtracks to the edge of the patio and turns left to saunter by the rest of the shops on the ground floor, hands in pockets–breaking for oxygen, I imagine. The patio door swings open again, and the newest member lifts a cheek onto a stool, pulling his Marlboros from a pocket as first order of business.
My eyes twitch: from cappuccinos, from smoke, from jetlag, but not yet from stress. I refuse to look at the time. Work has yet to escalate and deprive me of these morning meetings with the boys. Though when it does, I wonder if any of the coffee-flavored, smoke-shaped conversations will linger on the absence of the American girl with all the books and the cappuccinos. Maybe one member has a niece currently studying in New York or Phoenix whose experiences require an enthusiastic retelling.
Regardless of who arrives, or how many at a time, there is always an available seat for everyone. The departure of two members signal the okay for two more to amble in, as though the patio has bleachers with eager understudies all watching for their chance to join.
I readjust on my stool to sit up tall, propping my book up with an elbow on the marble table-top and watch out of the corner of my eye as I take a sip of water. The mirror makes me one of them, albeit the colorful one amongst a room of muted tones. I feel self-conscious in this city wearing all the pinks I so enjoy. Women stare, but these men don’t. The Sarajevo Boys Club doesn’t have a dress code. We focus on the more profound: human connections, tall tales, the simple vices of a fulfilled existence.