As you walk the narrow stone streets of Baščaršija, past the dogs lounging in the shade and the Gypsy children begging from restaurant to restaurant, clouds of smoke roll through the open doors and flood those streets, sifting through the tour-guided groups and the outdoor café-diners. A wall of grill-smoke may hit you head on, yet somehow it pulls you deeper into old town. This is a well-loved cultural district of Sarajevo, and marks a stark contrast with what I remember of my last experience in McDonalds. A month ago, after some reflection on the importance of this coming change, my friend Mate and I decided to ask a few of the local fast-food shop owners, as well as some street passersby, what they thought about the coming McDonalds.
The owner of Mac Doner, a kebab shop just down Maršala Tita from the McDonalds location, thought I may have been working for McDonalds as an undercover agent. Maybe this is why he had only praise for McDonalds. “McDonalds is a sign of progress and development. It will be good for Sarajevo.”
The owner of a Buregdženica near the McDonalds location wants his name and business to remain anonymous. He said that there are two different markets for burek and burgers. “If people want burek, they want burek. There will be no substitute for burek at McDonalds,” he said.
Next we went to Gladne Oči Hungry Eyes, a fast food burger joint one block from McDonalds. Samir, owner and manager, greeted Mate and I with a kind smile, a handshake and a gift of cold Coke. We sat down and he explained that he does have some nervous anticipation for the new competition. He says that if his profit does take a sudden dive, he will not hesitate to relocate the business. “I made this restaurant because I wanted to eat good burgers. I made this for my own taste,” Samir told me as he handed me my cheeseburger with the house sauce. “Go ahead. That’s the best burger in town.”
Mate and I then stood on the sidewalk in front of the new location and persuaded a few people to answer some questions. Opinions of the possible effects of McDonalds on Sarajevo were mixed, but I found one debate particularly interesting. Many people think McDonalds cannot, and will not, survive. “Look at the local food! It’s delicious. It’s cheap. You will have the option of a big-mack meal for six marks or an authentic čevapi. McDonalds cannot compete with that.” This was the opinion of one Sarajevan čevapi fan, but there are many more who also believe McDonalds will have trouble competing with the local, semi-fast cuisine.
This morning, as I walked Maršala Tita while the rest of Sarajevo was still sleeping, and the new McDonalds banner fluttered a little in the cool breeze, I noticed the McCafé graphic pushed off to one side. It takes some imagination to visualize the people of Sarajevo strolling sidewalks while carrying paper coffee cups, golden arches clutched in sweaty summer palms. I have been here for two months and have only seen two cafes that advertise coffee to go.
Coffee, cigarettes and conversation at a café is one element of the Sarajevo lifestyle that seems at least as sacred as čevapi. The experience of sitting down to enjoy the moment, maybe an hour, is just one manifestation of Sarajevans’ approach to life and time. Time here seems to pass in these moments, gaps absent of concrete measurement. It slips through one end of a burning cigarette, over the edge of a ceramic coffee cup, and comes to rest somewhere deep in the gut. With the grand opening of McDonalds just around the corner, only time will tell its effects. Consciously or unconsciously, McDonalds may challenge the very passing of these precious moments in the daily life of Sarajevo.