On a recent Saturday morning, Amela Svalina worked a ball of dough in her hands. She flattened the ball and gingerly pulled at the sides. Each tug spread the dough thinner and thinner until before you know it, the ball of dough had become a gossamer sheet covering two long workspaces like a sheer tablecloth.
The dough is so thin, Svalina can see her fingers through it. It’s amazing that it doesn't rip. Svalina chalks that up to lots and lots of practice.
“I guess because I'm doing it so long, it’s just a matter of practice, you know?” she said. “Our girls in Bosnia a long time ago need to do that before they married, or marriage was in question. But now it’s no more like that. That was long time ago.”
These days, Svalina’s dough handling doesn’t determine whether she gets a good husband — she already nabbed one of those. But her livelihood and her reputation do depend on it.
Svalina and her husband, Ivica, own Cosmopolitan Grill — a United Nations sort of restaurant tucked into a nondescript shopping plaza in Alexandria. They cook Bosnian, German and American food, which is served by wait staff from Romania, Bulgaria and Tunisia, among other places.
On this day, Svalina is making her specialty — a pastry called burek — for the restaurant’s World Cup party later in the evening. Burek are generally filled with meat, cheese, spinach or potato, and are often served as lunch in Bosnia.
Svalina doesn't have burek on her menu regularly because they're so labor-intensive to make. In the restaurant’s tiny kitchen, there would be no room to cook anything else.
In the 10 years that they've been running their restaurant, Svalina and her husband have made do with their less-than-ideal kitchen. Going back home to Bosnia wasn't an option.
“The war started and it was really scary because I had a little child. And the situation was really dangerous,” she said. “So we decided to escape from Bosnia and we went to Germany.”
After a decade in Germany, the couple and their two children faced a decision — return to a Bosnia they would no longer recognize, or strike out on their own in the U.S. They chose the latter.
The family moved to Northern Virginia and Svalina and her husband both scored jobs at the Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City.
“I was serving English high tea. That was of course when I learned some English. But before I learned some English, I had to spend nine years in housekeeping like a turn-down service lady,” Svalina said. “And now I'm here.”
By here exactly, Svalina means hunched over the table in the restaurant’s postage stamp-sized kitchen, spooning a cottage cheese mixture onto the stretched out dough. Once she made two parallel rows of filling, Svalina was ready to roll the dough.
One ball of dough makes eight pieces of burek. By the time the soccer game came on, Svalina made about 80 servings.
The Bosnian community in the D.C. region isn't big, but it’s vocal. There’s no sport its members love more than soccer. And there’s no better place to watch their team than the Cosmopolitan. Mirzo Babic is one of many Bosnians who packed into the restaurant for the Bosnia vs. Nigeria World Cup game.
“When Bosnia play, I put up my flag and come to restaurant and watch the game with my friends,” Babic said, noting that soccer is number one in his life. “Everything else is second."
The game was a nail biter for the Bosnian fans. The refereeing was questionable and the Nigerians were a stronger, more muscular team. But Ivica Svalina and his daughter Carmela held out hope.
“We're going to score. We're going to score twice,” Ivica said. “It’s not problem. We just need little bit of time.”
“It'll be ok. Positive attitude, that’s what we need,” Carmela said.
Sadly for the Svalina family and the diners at the Cosmopolitan, Nigeria won the match, knocking Bosnia out of contention. But on the bright side, the burek were a hit. Svalina sold out of the pastries.
That made all her hard work earlier in the day worth it. But she would've preferred a win.
Music: "Igraj Bosno" (Bosnia Football Anthem) by Skroz