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Juliet Walker: “People here in Bosnia have time for each other”

Juliet Walker has British roots but her accent gives her away – she has spent the majority of her life in Australia. In 2008, she came to Sarajevo for a holiday which was inspired by an article she read about Baščaršija and its craft scene. Two years later, she came back to learn the art of engraving and has stayed ever since – enjoying the city and its people.

You were born in England but you have a distinct Australian accent?

I was born in England and we moved to Australia when I was five. So we moved there in 1984 – the year of the Olympics. (laughs) We went back to England a few years later for six months or so and then we came back, so there was a bit of going back and forth.
We lived in Geelong (Victoria) and in 1997 I moved to Canberra to study art, and a couple of years later my parents moved back to England. I studied gold and silversmithing – it was mostly about making holloware like this (points to džezva).

What did you do after you graduated?


I had a bit of a parallel work history – I was working in the museum industry for part of the time with a company called Thylacine, and I got my first job with them. They got this big contract when they first built the National Museum of Australia and expanded massively. I ended up being an art handler at the Australian Parliament House, and alongside that I was coming back to England (taking leave without pay). The reason I was going back to England is this – my final honors project at art school was making trumpets – unusual, unorthodox trumpets. There was a trumpet maker in my hometown in England (there are maybe 10 of them in the world), so I went back and forth working for him and at Parliament House. Eventually, I left my job at Parliament House and went back to work for him properly in 2005. Unfortunately, everything had changed in the meantime and the job wasn’t really what I thought it was going to be, so I went back to university and did a postgraduate degree in Restoration and Conservation to tie everything together.

During that time, I did a research project about engraving and through that I read about Baščaršija and the living craft here and I somehow stored it somewhere in the back of my mind. I thought it sounded really interesting.

A few years later, I was working for a heritage railway as a steam engine driver. It’s one of those jobs where you work all the time, and sometimes it’s really fun and you can’t believe someone pays you to do it but other times you can’t believe you do it for what you get payed. At some point though I thought “I’ve had enough.”

Did you have any problems working in what some would regard as “male” jobs?

Pretty much every industry I’ve ever worked in has been like this – you spend the first month proving to them that you can do what you say you can do and there are always people who say “it’s a man’s job”. But unless you’re going to be a surrogate mother or something like that, I don’t really believe in “men’s” and “women’s” jobs.

How did a “British Australian” end up in BiH?

I decided to come here for a holiday because of that article that I read, and also because the English winter can be very depressing. (laughs) I really needed to see something new, so I looked it up and it seemed really cool, and I came in March 2008. I loved it. The city was really something special and it had a really nice feeling.

After that I worked in England for another year and then I was planning to come here to learn engraving from someone, but on the way I ended up in Split. I went there through Couchsurfing (a social travel network) and I ended up working for my host, who became my boss – we were renovating houses on Hvar. I thought it would last a few weeks or months, but I ended up there for a year and a half.

Then you actually moved to Sarajevo?

Yes, when I first came, I stayed at a hostel and the people there were really good to me. At that time it was part hostel, part family home and the family took me in; I was really fortunate to meet some really good people right away and that probably added to me wanting to be here a lot. I worked in the hostel for a while, but I knew I needed to do something else to be sustainable. Now I do a combination of different things. As a foreigner here, if you don’t work for a big organization or an embassy you have to do more than one thing; you have to have a few different jobs and hope that every month something works out. Winters are hard. When I first came, I thought winters were hard just for people who work in tourism but they’re not; everyone has trouble during winter, as there are fewer people around spending money, so it affects every business.

What kind of work have you been doing here?

I have been working with jewelry and džezve. With metalwork, it’s all the same principles that you apply to different parts of the craft; if you know how metal behaves then you can do different things with it.

What I really want to do is hand-make džezve using the methods I learned at art school. It won’t make any money, because you can’t do that and then sell them for 10 KM, but it’s what I feel I need to do in order to return to my craft roots. I haven’t started making them yet, but at the moment I get them and engrave them and sell those.

I’ve also just started designing t-shirts. It’s funny that I’m doing that; I’ve always admired tailors and hairdressers, because if you’re working with metal or wood you put it in a certain place and you tell it to do a certain thing and it does it, but fabric and hair are always moving. I don’t know how people work with them and control them that way. That’s why I buy the t-shirts from a local maker and then add my designs to them.

I have a friend who is an anthropologist (he’s Bosnian and he lives in London) – I met him while teaching a summer school on copper in Stolac, and he was telling me that if you’re doing something you need to have a “brand”, he said: “you need to find some anthropological symbol, a Bosnian one that no one is using and adopt it and figure out how to use it”, so I started looking at symbols on stećci. At first I thought “I don’t want to” because everyone around Mostar uses them, but then I realized they only use a couple of them – the man with the massive hand or the shape of the stećak itself. To me, those are actually the least interesting symbols; I spent last winter at the Bosniak Institute researching this stuff. Now I’m actually using animal symbols from stećci – that’s the design on the jewelry, džezve and t-shirts. It’s a combination of traditional Bosnian motifs and contemporary design. My aim is to combine the two.

Besides this, I also do English-language proofreading, which is good in winter when other work is “slower”.

Do you think it’s strange for a foreigner to be making traditionally “Bosnian” things?

I suppose – that’s always a conflict, as maybe people want to buy Bosnian things from a Bosnian person, but then maybe it’s not as interesting to the makers here. I know that’s the case in England, there’s so much cultural heritage there that local people don’t always see it. The young contemporary designers here from what I’ve seen are exploring contemporary design without it having to be about non-kitsch souvenirs.

Have you managed to learn Bosnian?

My boyfriend is Bosnian and he doesn’t really speak English, which has been really good. We met three years ago, and back then I spoke maybe a little bit better than “caveman Bosnian”. (laughs)

When I first came, I knew about 20 words in Bosnian and 10 of them were animals, which wasn’t that useful. I learned a bit more in Split, where I did a two-week summer school. Here, I took a couple of language courses. Now I do aikido three times a week, so there’s not so much time anymore, but at least I can learn the names of body parts there. (laughs)

What do you like about being in BiH?

It’s the only place I’ve been where I haven’t been thinking about where I’d rather be. I’m normally somewhere thinking “it’s ok here, but I’m still searching”. It tends to be like that when you move a lot, especially as a child. Wherever you are, you’re going to miss something from somewhere else. Here, even though there are things that I miss, I don’t want to move or live anywhere else, even though it’s not always easy. Here, if you don’t achieve anything (if you have a bad working day) at least you get to improve your language. You can have a conversation with someone and feel better – people are nice.

I like the lifestyle here. I probably work harder here, but I can work my own hours, unlike in England. People have time for each other. That’s what I like the most. No one is usually too busy for something – you get done what you need to get done and then you’re free, whereas in England it just feels like you get done what you need to get done and then there’s something else waiting and so on and you just never finish.

I never knew my neighbors in England or Australia. I think it’s much easier to be a foreigner here than it would be in England, where people are cold at first. People make it very easy for you here. In Split, I had the feeling that I could stay for 10 years and still feel outside of it, but here even if you don’t understand what’s happening immediately, you are brought in and people are inclusive. I think that’s what made the biggest impression on me when I first came, apart from it being really beautiful.

One thing I like about Sarajevo – in other countries the old town area of the city tends to be exclusively for tourists and it’s always really expensive. One of the nice things here is that Old Town is sort of the center for everyone, and everyone can afford to eat burek here or have a coffee.

What do you dislike about BiH?

I don’t like the way that infrastructure seems to be going backwards. There used to be a great rail link to Budapest or Belgrade and that’s gone and there used to be a flight from London and we don’t have that anymore.

I think the protesters (at the ongoing protests) have a point about the political situation. It’s frustrating as an outsider to see, so I can imagine how difficult it must be for someone who may have spent time in Germany from the age of five until the age of 15 as a refugee, and they grew up believing that if you work hard you can do certain things. Then they come back here and the government is doing nothing for them. It’s not that there’s no money here, it’s that it’s going to all the wrong places. It’s so frustrating to see that, because you see what B&H could be. The people who suffer the most are always the people who haven’t done anything wrong. People are just trying to survive and have a future here.

But you can still see yourself staying here?

I can definitely see myself staying here. I’ve got a cat now – I think that’s a good sign. (laughs)


Juliet Walker was born in 1979 in England. At the age of five, her family moved to Australia. She studied art in Canberra, specializing in gold and silversmithing. Upon graduating, she worked in the museum industry as an art handler at the Australian Parliament House, but she also went back to England from time to time. In 2005, she moved back to England where she worked for a trumpet maker before going back to university to complete a postgraduate degree in Restoration and Conservation. After that, she worked at a heritage railway as a steam engine driver. In 2010, Juliet grew tired of the lifestyle in England and decided to move to Sarajevo, which she had visited in 2008. She now has a workshop at Baščaršija, where she designs jewelry and t-shirts with traditional Bosnian motifs and a contemporary design. She also engraves džezve

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