Mirsad Zekic was slumped in a chair at a sidewalk cafe when he heard voices speaking English in the darkness. "Where are you from? " he called out, putting down his sandwich and...

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MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Mirsad Zekic was slumped in a chair at a sidewalk cafe when he heard voices speaking English in the darkness.


“Where are you from?” he called out, putting down his sandwich and looking up as we passed. “The United States,” I said. “Seattle.”


“Ah, … West Coast,” he said. “I used to live in Calgary.”


It was past 10 p.m., and my husband and I were looking forward to getting back to our hotel after a late dinner and long day.


Instead, we spent the next hour talking with Zekic, a Muslim who uses the nickname Tale. He owns the Restaurant Lido in Mostar, one of Bosnia’s oldest cities.


Before war broke out in 1992, first with Serbian forces, and a year later, between Bosnian Croats and Muslims, Mostar, part of the former Yugoslavia, was a tourist town. Set in a lush valley about 90 miles from Dubrovnik, it was known for its medieval architecture spanning both sides of a rushing Neretva River and a graceful, 90-foot-high stone bridge built 500 years ago by the Ottoman Turks.


Tale, 42, ran a popular restaurant, but finally, when the fighting grew intense, he, his wife and two children left and became refugees in Canada.


There he worked two jobs, at a Pizza Hut and in an Italian restaurant. His dream was to save enough money to come back to Mostar and reopen his restaurant. Two years ago, he returned and did just that.


“Before the war, we had lots of tourists. We could make really good money,” he said. Now most of his tables are empty, but he is hopeful. And every chance he gets, he looks for ways to practice his English.


It was never his war. Like most Bosnians, Tale had friends and relatives who were Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. He didn’t make decisions about with whom he associated based on their ethnicity or religion. Despite the fighting and destruction that left much of the region divided, he still doesn’t.


“You have to know somebody, then you can make conclusions,” he said.


Citizen diplomacy


The same could be said about Americans traveling abroad during these delicate political times. We’re not at war with the world, but sometimes, watching TV or reading the paper, it feels like we are.


Traveling is a reminder that it isn’t so.


It was getting late and we had to get back to our hotel, but before we left, our new friend in Mostar said he had a gift for us.


“It’s something from my heart to you,” he said. From behind the cash register, he found a framed drawing of the Old Bridge drawn by a local artist using flowing Arabic script that included a passage from the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Koran.


Bosnian Croats for years mostly lived on one side of the river and Muslims on the other, but there were no real dividing lines. Pre-war Bosnia had a history of multiculturalism, and people crossed back and forth with ease, to work or visit friends and relatives. The bridge linked the two sides in more than a physical sense. Its destruction in November 1993 by Croat forces was a symbol of division and hatred; its reopening, set for next month following millions of dollars spent on reconstruction, is a symbol of a fragile yet sustaining peace.


“I believe there is just one God and that we are all just going in different ways to the same place,” Tale explained as I slipped the drawing into my bag and we said goodbye.


Peter Hwosch, an American musician we met earlier in Sarajevo, has a term for these kinds of chance encounters.


He calls it citizen diplomacy. Through our words, actions or a gesture as simple as a handshake, we all have the opportunity to cut through the fear, the stereotypes and misconceptions and show the world who we are and what we stand for — one person at a time.


Hwosch, 46, spent six years on the Kitsap Peninsula near Seattle working with a program called the Compassionate Listening Project.


He traveled to Europe with Bainbridge Island-based Earthstewards, a grassroots group that promotes citizen diplomacy, environmental service, global networking and conflict resolution.


He now lives in a Sarajevo apartment a few blocks away from the yellow Holiday Inn where journalists worked during the 1992-1995 Serbian siege. For the past two years, he has worked with the Seedlings of Summer Peace Camp in Croatia, a project aimed at helping youths of different national, religious and ethnic backgrounds build relationships and bridge postwar divisions.


“People here have a very mixed reaction (to Americans) because the Dayton Accord (the Bosnian peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, during the Clinton administration) stopped the war, yet the U.S. has been very aggressive in its policies towards Muslims around the world,” he said. “Many people can separate the two, but the less educated you are, the more difficult it is … I’ve had to do a lot of listening to people with grievances against America to get them to realize I’m not a Bush supporter.”


Random acts of kindness


Those living abroad sometimes have it tougher than do we travelers when it comes to explaining our government’s actions. But whatever your political beliefs, I can see no reason to hide the fact that you are an American.


During three weeks I spent recently in Bosnia, Croatia and France, I was on the receiving end of random acts of kindness more times than I could reach out or reciprocate.


The gift from Tale was just one example.


There was the waiter at the Restaurant Sorgo in the Croatian town of Ston who asked where we lived. When I told him Seattle, he beamed and said “Sonics!” He’s a basketball fan and follows the NBA on satellite TV.


After serving us dessert, he placed a bag of sea shells on our table. “A gift for you to remember Croatia,” he said.


In Dubrovnik, we couldn’t find a gas station before returning our rental car. When we told the clerk at the rental office, she got into the car and drove us to one so we wouldn’t be stuck with a fuel surcharge. After we went back to the office to finish the paperwork, she drove us to our hotel on her way home, pointing out her favorite city views along the way.


Finally, one morning back in Mostar, I had a chance to repay the kindness that kept coming our way.


We were caught in a thunderstorm, and we had taken cover in a cafe to when a man in a black beret appeared in the doorway. He pointed to my umbrella on the floor and asked if he could borrow it. He said he lived nearby and would be back in five minutes.


I was already soaked, and the rain wasn’t slowing down. I had work to do, appointments to keep. I really needed that umbrella, but I said “OK.”


“Goodbye umbrella,” a customer having coffee at the next table teased.


Ten minutes passed. Then the man in the beret returned. He was carrying my umbrella and his own.


He thanked me and said something to the waiter. A few minutes later, when we asked for the check, we were told the bill had been paid.


We had succeeded at being Good Samaritans, but more important, I hoped, good Americans.


Carol Pucci’s Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com