A down-home cafe brings the Balkans to Burlington
It's lunchtime at Euro Gourmet. Vladmir Selec is preparing grah, a Bosnian bean soup. He sets a colander of dried white beans under running water to rinse. Then he takes a handful of carrots. As he starts to scrape them, a customer calls out, with mock resentment, "Bye!"
Selec looks up, confused. "I'm leaving," the man tells him.
"It's been a really fulfilling conversation," Selec jokes, catching on. He hasn't had a chance to chat with his customer. That wouldn't be notable at most businesses, but here, relationships between the proprietor and the public feel more familial than financial.
Euro Gourmet Market & Cafe opened in May on Main Street in Burlington, next to Souza's Brazilian Restaurant and diagonally opposite the Salvation Army. About a third of its customers are Bosnian, like Selec. They fill up on Turkish coffee and build-your-own panini -- the gourmet answer to grilled cheese, with the diner's choice of fresh veggies, imported meats and melted feta or gouda pressed between slices of golden focaccia bread. They might come to shop in the little market at the back, where oblatne sugar wafers or ajvar red-pepper spread recall the former Yugoslavia. Regulars watch European satellite TV, use the free wireless Internet access, or simply hang out -- sometimes for hours.
The man in paint-spattered work pants perusing a Serbo-Croatian newspaper today is Selec's stepfather. The one with the mustache and wool fisherman's cap is Vasilios Contis, a retired IBMer who imports the olive oil Selec retails.
Contis is here on business, but also "to chat with Vladimir and enjoy his cake and the espresso," he says. "And to listen to the music." Although the folk tunes playing over the sound system are Bosnian, they remind Contis of his native Greece. "We're all mixed up together over there," he says.
Such trans-nationalism is music to Selec's ears. The son of a Serb and a Croat, he lost his job training the Yugoslavian ski team when the country was fractured by civil war in the early 1990s. His family is among the 500 or so Bosnian refugees who have settled around Burlington in the last 10 years.
In 1999, Selec opened the area's first Bosnian grocery. Located in a tiny, below-street-level space kitty-corner to his current location, Balkan Pearls catered to immigrants on both sides of the conflict, as well as culinarily curious Americans. In time, Internet orders supplemented Selec's walk-in sales, and competing import grocers sprang up locally. Selec -- who is now 38, married to Vermonter Anita Pion, and has two preschool children -- decided to find larger digs and open a cafe.
Transforming the new space, a former used book store, took almost a year. "I did everything from bottom to top," Selec says.
He also got a lot of help from his friends. He and his stepfather installed a pipe to bring water from the bathroom to the new kitchen: a minimalist affair with just two panini grills, an espresso machine, a microwave-convection oven and the crock-pot in which Selec slow-cooks his beans. A friend, whose wife is a Kosovar Serbian, built the counter. "She said, 'Don't charge Vladimir. It's our way,'" Selec reports.
Decoration decisions were organic, and sometimes serendipitous. Water-damaged ceiling panels were replaced with ones spray-painted silver and gold. Walls were sponge-painted red and yellow, the window wells a vivid green. Maroon drapes were tacked at the windows' sides, and bright orange mini-lanterns strung across the panes. The couches near the screen where the satellite TV is projected are from Pier One. The cafe tables are cast-offs from the old Higher Ground, gussied up with images of Bosnia that Selec downloaded from the Internet.
The funky result feels like the comfortably unkempt home of a good friend. A stack of well-thumbed literature -- The Joy Luck Club, Angela's Ashes -- invites reading, and Trivial Pursuit is available for play. Coffee cups might sit uncleared for hours. In the dessert case, labels for baklava, Bosnian apple cake and "wrinkled cake" -- all baked for the cafe by four local women from Europe -- don't necessarily correspond to the goodies they mark. Aside from the panini, menu items come and go. One day you might find soup with semolina dumplings like tiny matzoh balls, the next day silky cabbage rolls stuffed with tart ground beef. Out front, a sign held up by an alligator seems more suitable for advertising Cajun gumbo than the Bosnian grah Selec is now seasoning with paprika, pre-packaged bean flavoring and sudjuka beef sausage.
"Too much meat!" objects 21-year-old Amanda Pleau, a vegetarian who has been working at Euro Gourmet since June. "You're a jerk," she mock-scolds her boss.
"No!" says Selec, mock-hurt.
A woman stops in for groceries, and chats with Selec about his recent legal troubles. Over the summer, the market's website -- http://www.balkan  buy.com -- became Google's top hit for Kinder Surprise Eggs. The popular German chocolates contain plastic capsules with collectable toys inside. Although they're widely available in this country -- including around Burlington -- they're also illegal, because they're considered a choking hazard for children under 3. In August, the Consumer Protection Agency sent the Selecs a "cease and desist" letter threatening them with a $1.85 million fine and a year in jail unless they stopped selling the confections and destroyed their remaining inventory. On the website, the eggs are now listed as "out of stock." Selec's daughters, 3 and 5, are happily "destroying" the 15 or so remaining eggs, he says.
Two customers take their coffee to the couches, where they carry on an animated conversation in Bosnian. The woman, Daniya Ramadonovic, arrived from Germany seven years ago. "I come here every day to drink coffee," she explains with a warm smile and a heavy accent. Her companion is more reticent. When asked his name, he presses his lips firmly together and shakes his head. "His family not like him coming here," Ramadonovic suggests, laughing. "His wife jealous."
Later in the afternoon, the couch has been taken over by Luis Tijerina, who is watching a 1999 soccer match between two European teams. Tijerina coaches high school soccer, and likes being able to view classic games. As a Mexican-American, he also enjoys the cosmopolitan conviviality. "When I was in Paris as a young man in the military," he says, "you could sit in the cafes and read and write. Vladimir offers that service."
Over at the counter, Pleau rings up a box of chocolates. "Are these a gift?" she teases the customer. "Or are you going to eat them all yourself?"
"They're a gift!" he assures her.
"This is not 'Euro Gourmet,'" Selec quips, commenting on Pleau's proprietary tone. "It's 'At Amanda's.' Or 'Luis' Soccer Cafe.'"
The next day, Selec's grah is ready to eat. It's rich and smoky, perfect for mopping up with lepinja, a yeasty Bosnian bread baked by a local woman. Selec himself is caring for his kids at home in Highgate, and filling Internet orders at the Swanton warehouse. His wife Anita is minding the market. The cafe is open seven days a week, and the couple takes turns there, which means they're rarely together.
Like her husband, Anita Selec treats her customers like family. Tijerina is back, and has brought along his own CD to play: Placido Domingo singing Mariachi music.
Trag Christopher, a 35-year-old graduate student, orders a panini with porcini mushrooms, goat cheese, ajvar and spinach, and an espresso lungo -- a more esoteric coffee than Selec's used to making.
"That will be tricky on this machine," she says, thinking aloud.
"I could order something else," Christopher apologizes.
"Oh, no, no, no," she assures him. "I'll figure something out."
While he waits, Christopher plugs in his laptop. He comes here about once a week to study. He appreciates the free wi-fi, and the fact that he can stay for as long as he likes. "Not a lot of people come here, so there's not a lot of distraction," he says.
From a business perspective, that's not a particular plus. The Selecs hope to increase traffic with live international music and poetry readings. They already rent out the space for parties, and throw their own.
On Saturday night, the place is transformed. Drapes cover the windows. A sign on the door says "Private Party." Inside the overhead lights are turned off and a disco ball sends blue and green spots spinning over the ceiling. The grocery shelves have been rolled away to reveal a dance floor. The local "turbo folk" duo of Jasmin and Edin is pumping out frenetic, Serbo-Croation love songs on keyboard and electric guitar.
At a table near the door, Daniya Ramadonovic and Luis Tijerina sip BYOB wine from red plastic beer cups. Anita Selec and Amanda Pleau are busy behind the counter, preparing the free coffees included in the $10 cover. Vladimir Selec works the room, greeting and clowning and snapping his digital camera. When a woman with fluorescent orange hair arrives with her husband, Selec throws his arms around the man and kisses him on the cheek.
Before long, the dance floor is filled with women. Decked out in tight pants and low-cut tops, they gyrate rock 'n' roll-style and sing along as Jasmin and Edin chorus, "Sarajevo, Sarajevo." The male guests, meanwhile, sit on the sidelines with their drinks. The only men who get up to dance, in fact, are Tijerina and his two American friends, who take turns spinning Ramadonovic under their arms. When the band plays a kola, a driving instrumental with a sinuous, Middle Eastern thread, the women join hands and jog rhythmically back and forth in a quick-step circle dance.
Outside, three men smoke on the sidewalk. Asked if Bosnian men ever dance, they shake their heads. "The women dance and the men watch," says Dzevad Karabegovic. "They dance for us."
He and his wife Diana, the woman with the extraordinary orange hair, almost didn't come tonight. They'd worked all day at Specialty Filaments' Middlebury plant, to which they commute from their Colchester home. "We were tired," says Diana. But Dzevad couldn't stay away. "Back home he had a place like this that he would go to every day," she explains. "This reminds him of that place."