Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Monday, October 31, 2005


The only sign of Halloween here is that the mannequins at Benneton are wearing orange and black. Maybe that color combination is the new hip thing.

I dressed in black today, vaguely Halloween-ish. For WiB, October 31 is not Halloween, but the anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. (It's the fifth anniversary this year.) I still have not read the text, but the resolution is about involving women in peace processes. In celebration, we had a conference on the topic of "women, peace, security." (I still think candy and costumes is a better way to mark October 31.) This morning, we demonstrated in front of the parliament, telling the lawmakers to ratify the resolution. (Every time we demonstrate, we wear black.) We then had some panel discussions on our theme. I sat & listened to Serbian for 7 straight hours. My head is full.

I bought myself a snack size Toblerone on the way home & plan to eat it in celebration.
Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Movie Madness

I went to the cinema yesterday night. It was lovely. The theater, called Tuckwood, was lovely. All of the theaters were very small. I was in the row F (yes - assigned seats) and it was the last row. But there is stadium seating and chairs that feel like armchairs. Each screening room was named after a movie star of old. I was in the the Humphrey Bogart room. There was also James Dean, Rita Hayworth & Lauren Bacall. They serve beer, but no pizza.

And I saw Hotel Ruanda (one guess about its name in English), which was excellent. I guess they were a little slow in sticking Serbian (they were actually Coatian- yes I can tell the difference. I learned last week that the Croatians have a different way of constructing "I have to. . . " statements.) subtitles on it. Wedding Crashers, Bewitched, and the new Zorro movie were my other options. It makes me happy to think that I might be able to see a little bit of independent cinema now and again.

The theater was quite empty - there were about ten of us. I think think that's because it costs about as much to buy a pirated DVD on a street corner as it does to pay for a ticket. But I don't really want to own Hotel Rwanda & there's something to be said for reliable quality, a big screen, and leaving the house.

street scene

There are street vendors all over the place here. I like it - I bought a lovely purple $2 scarf from one of them yesterday. Most of the items are to be expected: the aforementioned scarfs, cigarettes, batteries, keychains, socks, underwear, sweaters - but some of the items on offer puzzle me. Right near my office, there is a man who sells shoe laces in every color and pattern imaginable. There are quite a few of these stands throughout the city. My Teach Yourself Serbian book even saw fit to have a closeup of those shoelaces on its cover. Yet I have only seen about 5 people since my arrival in Belgrade wearing crazily colored shoe laces - and I have looked. I don't understand how he is still there.

There is also a man who sells bunnies. Who walks down the street and decides to buy a rabbit? He apparently does have some business. When I walked past early yesterday he had five bunnies. Later in the day, he had 2. There are small bunnies - I don't think their big enough to eat.

And my favorite of the street vendors is "the man with the bathroom scale." There are quite a few of them about, charging 10-20 dinars (75 dinars = $1) for you to step on the scale and weigh yourself. Who wants to be weighed on the street, fully dressed, with onlookers? Again, I do not understand.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

a moment of brilliance

The Serbian word for room is "soba." I remember it with a mental image of a man in a room eating Asian noodles.

At least I thought I remembered it. In class yesterday, the teacher asked me "where are you?"
My answer was "Jesam u udonu." That's "I am in the 'udon.'

Speaking incorrect Serbian because I mixed up my Asian noodles - brilliant.

pen pals

The text of the first piece of mail I recieved in Belgrade:

Dear Rachel,
I am DB and I am the interim pastor of the Ivy Farms congregation in Newport News, VA. One of our ministries is to encourage those who are working in BVS. Your name appeared in yesterday's bulletin and you are remembered in my
thoughts and prayers. The name of your project intrigues me. I imagine it has something to do with grieving women. May you know God's presence and recieve blessings as you are a blessing to those to whom you minister.
In Christ,

If any of the women here thought I was ministering to them, they would throw me out. WiB is not a big fan of churchy types.

So BVS has an adopt-a-BVSer program. [My fifth grade class adopted a wolf. - it's much the same.] Brethren Churches, sunday school classes, & BVS alumni sign up to get a BVSer to whom they send letters, care packages, etc. It reminds Brethren folks about BVS & the BVSers get mail and cookies.

It looks like I'll be making a bunch of new friends in Newport News.

lying is bad

Last Friday, about 5 WiB activists spent the night at my home/office. Exhausted (after 3 hours of sleep the night before) and wanting to be alone, I told what I thought was a white lie. I said that I was feeling a bit sick & since we were all getting up at 5 the next morning, I wanted to rest. I thought that it would be a painless way to excuse myself from a few hours of listening to people speak a language I do not yet understand.

The problem is that now I AM sick. I think there might be something to new-agey theories that verbalizing something makes it so. My stomach has been a bit strange & I woke up this morning with a sore throat. Nothing terrible, but I would rather not be experiencing it.

The moral of my story: lying is bad.

Monday, October 24, 2005

ugly shoes

Belgrade is a town of fashion victims. Very few people look good, but everyone looks like they have put a lot of time and money into their appearance. It just seems sad. It's one thing to not care about one's appearance and not look good, but it's quite another to spend a lot of money on clothes and still look bizarre. Most of the women here have a style reminicent of Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex and the City. In short: hideous.

The ulgiest aspect of most outfits is the footwear. The two most horrendous types of shoes that I have seen so far are:

-leather high top sneakers that look like wrestling shoes, but go up to mid-shin. They are worn with jeans tucked inside them. [All jeans are too tight to be worn outside of boots.] Everyone wears these.

- A bit less common are furry boots. They look like someone cut off a muppet costume mid-shin. They are furry, fluffy, and bright. Bright pinks, purples, and greens are common although I have seen a few pairs in more muted brown.

When I see these shoes, I want to cry.


The WiB team went to Priboj, in the Sendzak region of south Serbia on Saturday. It was the 13th anniversary of a massacre. In '92, a group of Serb paramilitaries took 17 Muslim men off a bus and shot them. [Yes, there are Muslims in Serbia, but not many and mostly in the Sendzak. I heard a call to prayer while we were there & it felt comforting.]

Our first act of commemoration was a tribunal. Local leaders, the German ambassador, & my boss spoke. I understood the German ambassador - he spoke in English - & a few words from everyone else. The gist: the killers have not been caught. The killers should be caught. Those further up the chain of command should be held responsible. The German ambassador spoke about how the Serbian state needs to deal with its past before it can get into the EU. An interesting carrot to dangle.

And then we marched - through the town and across a shopping center - to the river. Relatives of those massacred led our procession, carrying photos and crying. Intense. We dropped roses in the river in remembrance.

And we ate: pita. I'm guessing pita is short for spanokopita, as it is made from philo, cheese and spinach, but it doesn't taste as good. It's always soggy and every time it is served to me (often), I eat more than I should and my stomach hurts. . .

They gave us about 15 minutes of free time before we had to head back to Belgrade (it was a 7 hour trip each way). I sat in a park & watched a wedding party arrive at their reception site. The dress was absurd - the first wedding dress that I have seen that incorporates feathers. It looked as though she had a feather boa wrapped around her shoulders & there were small gathers in her skirt accented with clumps of feathers. Ugly. All the men in attendance had shirts or towels wrapped around their necks - it looked like they were wearing capes. I asked a woman that I knew why they did that & she told me it was symbolic. Of what, she did not say.

on the town

Serbs, at least most of the ones that I have met so far, are night owls. Plans for a night out start with, "let's meet up around 11. . ."

And so I haven't been sleeping much.

Last Tuesday, I went out with G, the BVSer from 10 years ago back for a visit, & the women she's kept in contact with since she left. Many interesting people - most of whom spoke English, which was great. It is hard to spend hours a day listening to a language that I can only understand bits and pieces of. We went to a -nearly vegetarian- restaurant on the Danube. It's walls were covered with potraits of people in strange clothes - shirts printed with sumo wrestlers, octopuses, elephants. It would not have been out of place in Portland. And there was amazingly good music - a house band that was little more than a rhythm sections, a violin, & a couple of singers. They played traditional Serbian music, a set of American standards, some reggae, & the highlight of the night: Croatian pop hits of the '80s. They played songs that most people hadn't heard since the war. Everyone was singing along and many people stood up and danced around their tables. A lot of fun.

And last Thursday, it was with my boss's nephew and his friends. They came down from Novi Sad to see Deep Dish. Deep Dish is very popular here & my companions were shocked that I had never heard of them. I don't follow house music, but if they were HUGE, I think I might have heard of them. After being reassured by a companion that "if you like Depeche Mode, you'll like Deep Dish" (I like Depeche Mode.), we were off. And they were not like Depeche Mode. The music was boring: boom, boom, boom, with some repetitive female vocal on top of it. And the venue was crowded - there wasn't room to dance, so the purpose of "dance music" was defeated. I learned later that the show was oversold. The venue is only supposed to fit 700 people - over 1,000 people were inside.

The people watching and coversation was enough to keep me interested for quite a while. . . until I gave up at 5am and stumbled home, trying to figure out who else on the surprisingly full streets was still up from the night before and who was getting an early start on their Friday.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

another link

Again, I'm famous.
(This time it's me, not my residence.)

The moral of the story: send postcards.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


My boss took me shopping today.

We first went to a bedding & clothing store. She decided last Friday night that I need new bedding, that the stuff they had already in the office isn't good enough. "You should live like a queen" were her words (but in Spanish). I don't think it's possible to live like royalty in a glorified storage room, but I held my tongue. She bought me a new pillow & a sheet/pillowcase/duvet cover set. She didn't want to get normal sheets, but insisted on a type that is a lot like seersucker, that has very complicated washing instructions (which again, she told me in Spanish, so I'm not sure I fully grasped them). They are green plaid with yellow daisies. She also spent some time looking at the underwear. I didn't know whether to offer suggestions or avert my eyes.

And we continued on to a series of stores & bought a variety of things: a blanket, some sweets, bread, grapes, fabric, beer. I spent the trip trying to keep up with her - she's a fast walker - & listening to her complain about menopause in three languages. I was also trying to figure out what was for me. The blanket was, as was some of the bread.

The fabric stores are quite interesting here - piles of bolts with no apparent order. One asks for fabric by the meter, but pays by the kilo. I didn't ask why.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Look! I'm hip, or at least Belgrade is.

Monday, October 17, 2005

not so sweet

My boss gave me some bags of candy today, types that are special to her, that she remembers from her childhood.

Sweet, but foul.

There is a reason why Yugoslavian sweets of the '50s and '60s are not widely celebrated. The supposedly licorice-flavored hard candy Negro tastes a lot like a menthol cough drop. Ki-ki is a less flavorful version of Starbust. Her final gift was some sort of soft toffee confection. While eating it, I could feel my teeth rotting.

I suppose it is the thought that counts.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

joys and sorrows

some snippets of my recent life:

- I have a lead on an apartment. It's in the center of the city, which is where I want to live. It's within my price range. It's small. A crazy lady lives downstairs. I could move in mid-November.

- My parents' cat (my cat? - I don't know how that works anymore.) is dying of liver disease.

- I went to a cafe that serves excellent hot chocolate (almost as thick as pudding) & good baklava. It's called Kandahar & plays Arab pop music.

- I discovered the arthouse cinema in town. It's connected to the Yugoslavian film archive, which apparently has films and news footage dating back to the 1890s. They have an extensive library of scripts, movie posters and whatnot & show classic films every night. Unfortunately, nearly all of these films are French or Yugoslavian - without subtitles. They do show the occasional Spanish or American film, though.

- I watched a beggar's child play with a still-smoking cigarette butt like it was an airplane. He was moving it through the air and making motor noises.

- I found fresh basil at the market today & have constructed the best fake pesto that can be under the circumstances. Pine nuts are too much to ask of this city. I am in awe of people who lived before food processors.

- With people out of the office, I've been catching up on This American Life episodes that I have missed.

- My CNN international doesn't play The Daily Show at the time CNN International's schedule says it does.

- I start Serbian language classes tomorrow.

Friday, October 14, 2005

peppers, reconsidered

I am not a fan of the sweet pepper. They take over dishes until that is all one can taste. I believe I have referred to them as the imperialist vegetable.

But all that is starting to change. It's pepper season right now, which means everyone buys tons of peppers to preserve for the winter.

Along with pickling, they turn them into my new favorite food, ajvar. Ajvar (eye-var for those of you who don't know Serbian) is a savory spread of eggplant, tomato, and sweet pepper. It's like ratatouille with the consistency of jam. It is delicious.

I was praising it last night over dinner #2 .(I haven't figured out meals here. When I expect there to be food there isn't. When I don't, there is. Most days, I end up eating either 2 or 4 meals.) People came into the office bearing food at 10pm last night. I had had dinner #1 a few hours previously & didn't want to refuse their generosity. Upon hearing my praises of the ajmak, S offered to bring me a few jars of ajvar & some apricot jam that her sister makes. She said she'd bring me 10 kilos of each - I couldn't figure out if that was a promise or a threat.

We'll see if I'm still praising the stuff after consuming over 20 pounds of it.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

not covered in my guidebook

The Belgrade colloquialism for strong unsweetened coffee is "coffee to induce abortion." Both men and women ask for it by name.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I'm the smart one

C, a Swedish student at Antioch College who has been in Belgrade one day more than me has started working in the WiB office. She was already frustrated at her last internship place & decided to join us.

It's nice to have someone to speak in English with, although that might be bad for my language learning.

We have decided to eat lunch together every day. In search of salad ingredients, we went to Belgrade's central open air market, conveniently across the street from the office.

I haven't liked going to the market very much because of my limited Serbian. I hand people bills bigger than what the item could cost and rely on their honesty. Today it all clicked. I recognized the words that people said - granted they were only greetings and numbers. I was able to ask for mushrooms by name. I even asked for half a kilo of spinach grammatically correctly. C's Serbian is less developed than mine (apparently such a thing is possible) - I was able to interpret a bit for her. It felt like a breakthrough.

Maybe I will be able to speak this language someday.
(I'm starting classes on Monday.)

I'm the old one

On Monday, a group of American college students from the School for International Training (the program I went to Nicaragua with) came to the office. They are based in Zagreb & came through Belgrade to talk to some Women in Black & other civil society activists.

At the end of the talk, the director, an American who has lived in the Balkans for the past 20 years, gave me her card & invited me out with them last night.

We went to Tri Sheshtra (three hats), a traditional Serbian restaurant on my favorite Belgrade street (cobblestone, pedestrian-only). There was a band - accordian, clarinet, violin, upright bass, guitar - playing traditional music. Most of the diners sang along. As the menu was mostly meat & there were a number of vegetarians in the group, we shared appetizers - super salty cheese, Serbian salad (cucumbers, hot peppers, tomatoes, and onions), the Serbian version of the chile relleno, baked beans, cornbread, & rolls.

The study abroad group was only 6 (mine was 16) & they had been together for a month. They were close & I spent much of the conversation being filled in by the student next to me about what everyone was alluding to. But it was nice. It was comfortable. Everyone spoke fluent English. I did feel very old, though - I did study abroad five years ago.

I did secure myself a place to stay when I go to Zagreb - with the academic director, which is excellent. Currently, when anyone goes to Zagreb, they have to stay with my boss's crazy husband who likes to talk about the best way to remove someone's fingernails.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

29 channels and nothing to watch

Tired from all of the activity in my home/office and happy that everyone else had left, I sat down last night with my quilting and a mango drinkable yogurt in front of the TV.

Belgrade TV is interesting, a collection of things that I don't understand. There's fashionTV, which from what I can tell only broadcasts footage of models walking down the catwalk. There's a collection of local TV stations that I do not yet understand. There's the Hallmark Channel, which I had in Nicaragua too, that only broadcasts wholesome, melodramatic made-for-TV movies. There's CNN international (which means that I can watch The Daily Show at 1:30 on Saturday mornings or at 9:30 on Saturday nights). There's EuroNews, CNN's European cousin. The only two American channels that we get here are The History Channel and the National Geographic Channel. I do not understand why these channels. There are also a few music channels that seem to split the videos that they show between American country music and Serbian rap. Again, I do not understand.

And lots of subtitled Latin American telenovelas that I can listen to, but don't think I should. I'm trying to keep the Serbian and the Spanish seperate in my head.

So last night I watched some CNN footage of the South Asian earthquake, a feature story on the beginning of Serbia's partnership talks with the EU on Euronews, and part of a subtitled One Night at McCool's, which is terrible.

I switched to The Daily Show clips online and was much happier.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

minor complaints

Norms concerning space and ownership are very different here & I'm having a bit of trouble adjusting. It doesn't help that this weekend is the quarterly 'network meeting,' so there are dozens of folks in the office & that I live in the office's storage-room-with-a-bed-in-it.

A few days ago, I was writing in "my room" when I was called to help out with something. At the meeting an hour later, the facilitator was using my pen. (it's one of those good Pilot inky pens.) She had apparently taken it off my bed. At the end of the meeting, she set it down & I tried to pick it up, but before I got there, someone else had snatched it up. And I have watched its new owner use it to take notes throughout this weekend's festivities. Not a big deal (I think I took the pen home from my last job.), but annoying.

Women from southern Serbia have been in charge of the food during the meetings, which has been uniformly delicious. Unfortunately, I had a few things in the fridge when they got here. My milk, cheese, & eggs were used. This morning, I found the two eggs that I had hard-boiled a few days back cracked open and hidden at the back of the fridge. Again, not a big deal (a contribution of $2 for a weekend of delicious food), but again annoying.

And space: my stuff is constantly moved around. No one knocks when they enter "my room." I went into my room yesterday afternoon to see four women sitting on my bed and smoking. Last night, someone slept on the floor. Again, I was not asked. Again, annoying.

I am supposed to live in this space for a month. I have already started asking people about flats for rent.

Friday, October 07, 2005

How do you say "mass grave" in Spanish?

I've been spending the past two working days translating some Women in Black press releases from English to Spanish. I'm realizing that my Spanish isn't as good as I would like it to be. "Extradict," "detained," "to humiliate," and many other words have slipped from my memory, if they were ever there in the first place. I've found a reasonably good Spanish-English dictionary online and am progressing slowly. For an unexplicable reason, this computer has Spanish spell- and grammar-check, which is fabulous.

Last night, over some surprisingly good Montenegrin beer, I was complaining to some new friends about how spending so much time thinking in Spanish is not helping my ability to learn Serbian. About halfway through this rant, I realized that my companions were a Swede and a German and we were speaking in English.

The first of many ugly American moments, I am sure.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

my life as a dog

There's a Far Side cartoon about what dogs hear.

Throughout my first Women in Black weekly meeting, I was Ginger, picking out the few words that I recognized:

. . Rachel. . . and. . . fascism. . . one, two, three. . . American. . . October. . . or. . . Republic Square. . . Serbia. . . Reading Lolita in Tehran. . . fifty. . . and. . . Croatia. . . prostitution. . . no. . .Israel. . . good. . . please. . .nationalism. . . Amnesty International. . .yes. . .

Fortunately, D, the woman I am replacing as BVS's person in these parts was sitting beside me, filling me in on everything that I missed.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

on Belgrade bookstores

For my early evening walk, I went past the Che Guevara-themed restaurant (named Revolucion!) to the pedestrian promenade. I decided to investigate the two bookstores.

It was my first bookstore visit in my post-Portland life that did not involve a sighed "it's not Powell's." It's kind of sad that I have to leave the hemisphere for that to happen.

These stores were fascinating. They both had surprisingly large English language sections, although I was sad to see that the their English options are primarily chick lit and thrillers. I spent a while in the children's section. The spot books, which I remember my brother loving when he was very young, were prominently displayed in each store. There were also a lot of Disney books.

On a completely unrelated note, both bookstores had disproportionately large sections on ancient Egypt.

I was drawn to the translated books. There was a section that was all Serbian versions of books that had been made into American movies. There were translated comics and novels. It was all fascinating to see. I think of American music & visual media infiltrating all corners of the world, but I had never thought that books do. The Da Vinci Code is a best-selling novel in Belgrade, too.

The authors names were all transliterated which looks strange, but was a good test of my ability to read Serbian. A few that I remember:
Nil Geymen = Neil Gaiman
Margaret Atvud = Margaret Atwood
K.C. Levic = C.S. Lewis

And one of the stores had an atlas section. I spent a lot of time looking at the maps. I had to force myself not to buy a cyrillic world atlas. I was proud of myself for being able to read it.
And it just looked really cool.

Monday, October 03, 2005

the journey

I am in Belgrade. And I don't know what to say about this city yet, so I will tell you of my journey.

I came from Geneva. I switched trains in Zurich and Zagreb. I crossed Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia (a beautiful place to wake up to, just as F said), Croatia, & part of Serbia. I was travelling for over 24 hours.

There were about a dozen people boarding my train in Zurich carrying kayaking paddles. They were not on the train in the morning; there must be a kayaking hotspot in Austria.

I shared a tiny sleeping car with a Croatian woman. We communicated without sharing a language. She had almost as much luggage as I did, so there was no space. The Croatian rail company gives those in the high end sleeping cars complimentary toothbrushes & toothpaste, washclothes, chocolates, bottles of water, shoe shine pads, and toilet seat covers. Yet they did not have toilet paper in either of the bathrooms. I had to search out some in a second class sleeping car.

Crossing Croatia, I spoke with a man in his mid-60s from Zagreb who does marketing work for an African casino. I made up a story about how my Serbian grandmother is losing her English in her old age, so I am going to Belgrade to learn her native language so I can communicate with her. (I was told not to tell anyone on the train my real purpose - if someone disagreed with peace or feminism, they could make it harder for me to get into Serbia.) When the conversation died down, he asked if he could lay his head in my lap & rest. I said no -- he assured me he would dream about resting his head in my lap & then closed his eyes and dirfted off to sleep. I was happy when he got off the train 20 minutes later.

This will be an interesting place to be.