Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

question of the day

Yesterday, we learned superlatives & comparatives in my Serbian class. My teacher asked us questions. The Greek teenagers were asked about the world's most beautiful people. The Swiss art student named the best painter. In that class, I am the bookish one, so my question was:

'Who is the best American writer?'

And I was totally stumped. After a long pause, I settled on Mark Twain. My teacher argued for Edgar Allen Poe. He even recited part of The Raven in Serbian. It even rhymed.

I'm still not satified with my answer. I've been pondering it as I walk around town. I asked a few other Americans & still haven't come up with much. Faulkner (who I haven't read), Dickinson, Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau were all suggested. I realized that I haven't read much of the American Literary Canon. Many of my favorite authors are not Americans: Rushdie, Orwell, Gordimer.

If I was asked the question again, I would say Steinbeck. But I still wouldn't be satisfied. I feel like I am forgetting someone.


After two weeks of living in my flat and a few loads of laundry, I finally figured out how to work my washing machine, mostly.

The machine is Slovenian. All of the words on it are in Slovenian. I do not know Slovenian. And I refuse to spend hours in pursuit of a Slovenian-English dictionary. The machine has is a nob with numbers on it & a nearby panel explains those numbers, I assume. I have been turning to different numbers & testing it out. 4 is the magic number. It not only agitates the clothes, but it spins them, AND drains out the water when it's all over.

I would recommend that you never buy a Slovenian washing machine. Along with the aforementioned difficulties, there is a hole in the back of it. It isn't broken -- it was designed that way. As the clothes agitate and spin, water sloshes out. And the machine leaks - which I don't think was part of the manufacturer's specifications. The final step of every load of laundry is covering my bathroom floor with towels and mopping up the water.

Despite all of this, I consider myself relatively fortunate. A friend's washing machine caught on fire yesterday. She had to call the fire department.

Monday, November 28, 2005

flashcard update

I ran into my Thanksgiving companions as I walked home last night. [I don't know many people, but it seems like I am always running into them. I saw another acquaintance crossing a square this afternoon. It's quite comforting. This place is starting to feel like home.]

After attempting to see a sold-out Harry Potter, we ended up in a cafe. The topic of flashcards came up. Index cards do exist in the Balkans, but one needs to have connections to get them.

J, one of the study-abroaders told this story:
Their group was touring the Croatian parliament in Zagreb. Everyone was hung over & not paying much attention. The tour guide, a Member of Parliament's aide, had them sit at a the MPs desks for a minute. J saw index cards on the desk he was sitting at. He interrupted the tour guide to ask where he could get some index cards. The tourguide took the students to his party's supply room and gave them a banker's box full of index cards. The group could then make flashcards to their heart's content.


I spent the weekend in Kraguyevac, Serbia's fourth largest city. My guidebook notes that the city is known for the massive number of people murdered there under German occupation in WWII, a statue of an autoworker, and for a building that looks like a basalt crystal.

But I was not there for sightseeing.

WiB held a workshop "Dealing with the Past - a Feminist Approach." Part feminist conscious-raising, part post-conflict studies seminar, it was amazing. I spent the weekend intellectually stimulated (the list of authors I now must read is tremendous, as is the list of things to ponder) & emotionally satisfied. We spent hours discussing notions of collective responsibility & transitional justice. Such interesting discussion occurred, namely "what does it mean for me as a Serb that people jusified atrocities by saying they were acting in my interest?" Yes, I am a nerd. Yes, I get really excited about ideas.

And not only ideas. I like to be with good people. The love and support amongst these 40 women from all over Serbia was palpable. I recieved applause every time I joined the group discussion speaking Serbian. We spent Saturday night drinking wine and singing songs. The other American and I led a rousing rendition of 'American Pie' (at least the first 3 verses). A dance party followed in which The Doors were featured prominently. I sat down beside a woman I didn't know for lunch on Saturday & by the end of the meal she was making plans for my visit to her town in a few weeks.

I have had some small doubts about whether I should have signed up for 2 years in this sometimes-frustrating place. This weekend put them all to rest.


I was worried that I wouldn't get a Thanksgiving in these parts, but I did.

Some of the aforementioned study abroaders were back in town. I was invited along to a Thanksgiving at their friends' flat. It was everyone else's first Thanksgiving sans family, so there was much nostalgia. Parent's e-mailed favorite recipes & my not-so-cooking-inclined companions tried to recreate them with the ingredients available here. I learned that walnut pie is a surprisingly good variant on pecan pie. I was reminded how important it is to cook potatoes all the way through.

It was all slightly off. There was no broccoli or brussel sprout (which I never eat, but should still be present) or homemade bread or apple pie or cranberry sauce.

We sat around talking, eating, drinking, playing cards, giving each other geo-quizes (name all of the oceans/EU members/countries in South America) being frequently interrupted when someone's family called on the cellphone.

All in all, it was fun. Good companions, good food, good wine.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

as blonde as the ocean

I try not to complain about the Serbian language. It's hard & makes me think about words in new ways, but that is the case for any language. I need to learn it & complaing does me no good. But some elements of Serbian are beyond absurd.

Today in class, we learned how to physically describe people: height, build, eye color, hair color, etc. The word for a blonde woman is plavusa (with a mark over the s to turn it into a 'sh' sound.) Plav is blue. The literal translation of the word is "blue-haired." I don't get it.

I know (natural) blondes are rare in these parts, but I would think people would know blondes' hair is yellow.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


There are many things that I expect to be distinctly American. This week, Thanksgiving is the most notable example of such things.

One thing that I did not expect to be exclusively American is the flashcard. Every day, I make new slips of paper with my new Serbian vocabulary written on one side, the English equivalent on the other. I carry them around with me, practicing my words when I have a free moment. No one else has seen flashcards before. Flashcards are unfamiliar to Cypriots, Swedes, Swiss, and Serbs. But they all seem to be able to learn foreign languages.


enter winter

I woke up yesterday to see snow falling outside my kitchen window. And it snowed all day. It was quite lovely & fun to see the kids at the school across the street trying to form the tiny bits of snow that were sticking into snowballs.

I have been trying to avoid wearing my winter coat for as long as possible, knowing that soon enough it will be in regular rotation. Soon enough is here. I also am regularly carrying about my hat and mittens. It's all manageable so far, but people keep warning me about the bone-chilling wind that will soon be coming from Translyvania.

I'm not looking forward to winter.

when the brother says update. . .

I won't be writing as much now that I have an apartment. Yes, I no longer live in my office. The only drawback of this new arrangement is no high-speed internet.

Overall, it's fabulous. I can be messy. I can cook garlic without having to close every door leading toward the kitchen to keep the smell contained. No one comes unannounced to spend the night in the next room. It's on the sixth floor, the top floor, which means that I don't need a stairmaster. It also means that everyone else's heat rises up to my apartment & I don't have to turn the heat on very high.

I spent Sunday, the first day in my new home watching Spanish (not Latin American) telenovelas, making stock & then potato soup, baking brownies, studying Serbian, and reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It's an amazing book & from my point halfway through, highly recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


I went home today, sort of. I went to the embassy.
It's American soil, they say, but it didn't feel like home.

There were armed guards and metal detectors. I did not interact with any native English-speakers. The bureaucracy and slowness of the place were decidedly post-Communist.

I sat in a sterile waiting room with years-old magazines and watched employees lounge about. Thankfully, I brought a book. After a chapter, my name was garbled through a loud speaker & I stepped into the "interview room." There, I explained that I needed more pages for my passport. The clerk told me that I needed to have an appointment (although all of the information that I could find on the website said that appointments are not neccessary). I filled out a form. The clerk told me that she might be able to put the pages in within an hour, but it will definately be done by tomorrow morning. When I told her I would come back to pick up my passport tomorrow, she said I shouldn't go a night without my passport. Quite the Catch-22. So she photocopied my passport information page and said she'll put in the pages when I go back tomorrow morning.

Apparently, putting more pages in a passport is a quick enough process that it can be done while one waits. So why couldn't she have done it today?

I have learned not to ask such questions in Belgrade.
I thought things might be different in pretend America.

Today makes me happy that I am not a foreign service officer.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

things to ponder

My boss played Manu Chao in her apartment last night. She had D and me over for dinner. 'Twas delicious: salad, bread, ajvar, and what I have come to think of as the Serbian equivalent of mac & cheese. It's buckwheat pancakes and cheese all baked together. . . delicious.

She's a very smart lady, so of course I came away from the night with things to think about:

Is WiB an organization that can only exist in aggressor states? WiB started in Israel. Now, it has spread to Serbia, the US, & Western Europe. Can women only step out of the dominant nationalist rhetoric if they are coming from a place of priviledge? How would WiB have to change to become open to everyone?

My boss supports both Kosovar & Montenegrin independence. [For those of you not tracking such developments, negotiations are under way for both regions to have referrendums on independence, probably next spring.] It's interesting that she's against Serb nationalism, but shares the goals of Montenegrin & Kosovar nationalists. I guess if you take an opinion on such things you end up siding with someone distasteful . . .

I haven't formed much of an opinion on "the independence question." My outsider's view is that is seems very anachronistic (not to mention impossible) to draw borders along ethnic lines. There will always be ethnic minorities, regardless of where borders lie. Independent Kosov@ or Montenegro just don't seem viable as states - they are so underdeveloped, they are so small.

As I pondered such things on the bus ride home last night I thought of a passage in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that described a brief failed attempt for a pan-Balkan state immediately after the Ottomans were defeated. What would this region look like if there was a state that stretched from Greece to Romania? It's entertaining to think about. Maybe I'll contribute that essay to the next edition of What If?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Music Notes

There's a cafe/bookstore that I walk past every morning on my way to Serbian class. It's where the hip kids from the just-down-the-block University of Belgrade's philosophy department hang out. The name of the cafe is Plato.

It usually plays music loudly. It's usually quite good.

Today was no exception. On the way to class, it was Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day.' I smiled and thought of a bus trip across the Sinai to meet up with H in Israel, listening to a borrowed mix tape and hearing that song for the first time. I thought of D, how he told me that he sang that song to himself for weeks after his beloved Red Sox won The Series last year.

And on the way home from class, it was Manu Chao. I smiled and thought of a man I met while walking along Havana's malecon, his recommendation that I listen to Manu Chao. I thought of the beautiful coincidence that one of my traveling companions had a tape of his music along with her. I thought of buying pirated copies of Manu Chao's CDs in Madrid and of all the odd places that his music has appeared in my life since then: parties, on airplanes, movie soundtracks, on VH1 Europe last week.

And the world felt very small. And I felt very happy.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

on God and Peanut Butter

I wandered to St. Sava's church this afternoon. It is enormous & still uncomplete after years of work, part of the post-communist religious revival. The doors were open & I wandered around inside for a bit. It felt more like a domed stadium than a church, with its high ceilings and concrete floor. It also didn't help the atmospere that there were cars parked inside, scaffolding, and workers using loud machinery.

I stopped for groceries on the way home. I bought fixings for soup & orange juice because I think I'm getting sick and the good kind of dark chocolate - it's Croatian & hard to find - because I'm watching Chocolat tonight. I would rather not find out if it's possible to watch that movie without eating chocolate.

I got some peanut butter pretzels for the walk home. Peanut butter pretzels are cheap - a one serving package costs about 25 cents. Tiny jars of sugar-filled peanut butter are relatively expensive at $5 (yes still not that expensive, I know). As I walked home, I pondered if it would be worth it to buy many bags of peanut butter pretzels and extract the peanut butter, putting it in a jar to make the occassional PB&J.

It took me a surprisingly long time to decide that it wasn't.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

My big break

I forgot about election day this week, but I suppose you forgot about 'International Day of Action against Fascism' yesterday, so we're even.

WiB had a big demonstration on the central square. I stood with a sign that said "Women in Black - Belgrade," making small talk with a fellow demonstrator. [I can do passable small talk in Serbian: 'where are you from?' 'do you work?' 'do you have a family?' 'Who do you live with?' 'what do you like to do?' - I just can't say anything interesting yet.] Lots of people gathered to watch, although I thought we weren't that much to see. Women laid on the ground to symbolize persecuted groups and then rose and unfurled a gigantic rainbow flag. Then, the music started & the surreality began. The selection was vulgar vulgar songs by Peaches (does she make any other kind?), words that are not allowed on American TV blasted through the central square of Belgrade. People started juggling. So very strange.

After the demonstration ended, we had a little party in the office, a going away fiesta for the woman I am replacing here. We watched the national news & our demonstration was featured. My face appeared for a split second on Serbian TV.

And now I am famous.

just like home

In my Portland life, there was a circuit that I would walk a few times a week to provision myself, physically, intellectually, entertainmentally. It was:

1. The best vidoe rental store ever
2. The library
3. The everything store: food, pharmacy, household goods, pretty much anything I could want or need
4. The natural food store

and sometimes I'd throw in a stop in a coffeeshop, a thrift shop, or some other lovely place.

And I have come close to recreating that here, albeit in a particularly Serbian way, as you shall see:
1. A coworker used to work in a video rental place & has friends that still does. She has offered to bring me DVDs free of charge. I requested Johnny Depp (and if anyone knows if it's possible to de-regionalize a computer's DVD player I would be most grateful).
2. The Autonomous Women's Center, a NGO that helps women who have survived sexual and domestic violence, has a lending library. Many of the books are in English. So I have things to read, but they are all about Feminism, the Balkans, etc. It should keep me going for a while, but I will eventually want something more escapist. I have also heard the rumor that the city library has some English books. . .
3. An everything store is not possible in this place, but I have found that by walking into many many stores, I can find things. My latest triumphs were finding envelopes (One would think that would be easy, but it wasn't.) and my brand of contact solution. So I can find all that I need.
4. There is a macrobiotic grocery. It's tiny, but has miso and ginger and tofu and yellow lentils and oatmeal and all of the odd gluten/lactose/everything-free food - they have millet yogurt - one expects of such a place. It even smells like a natural food store.

And there are coffeeshops everywhere I look and a surprisingly high number of thrift stores, mostly stocking German discards.

Monday, November 07, 2005

the great Satan

When I went to Nicaragua, I expected some anti-Americanism, what with a decade-long proxy war & all, but it never materialized.

When I went to Egypt, I expected some anti-Americanism, what with US policy in the Middle East & all, but it was rare & most people were happy to talk to me, to try to figure out why the US government acts as it does.

When I came to Serbia, I expected some anti-Americanism, what with the NATO bombing & all, but it has been slight: an unfriendly police officer and stumbling upon the monument to "the children killed by NATO aggression" last week.

What I did not expect was the tremendous anti-Americanism from Western European ex-pats here. Sure, the US is imperfect. Our foreign policy is misguided. Our insistence on driving collosal cars hurts the environment. The lack of a national healthcare program is criminal. We eat too much.

But America's absurd military spending kept Western Europe free from communism. Coca-Cola wouldn't be everywhere if people didn't buy it. Our unemployment rate is nowhere near the 30+% it is in Sweden.

Maybe we deserve a little bit of credit.

Maybe people shouldn't say "and you admit it?" when I say I'm an American. American citizenship is not a pathology.


I spent the weekend in Zrenjanin, an hour and a half north of Belgrade. It's a town that my guidebook says isn't worth visiting, but I enjoyed it. That was because of the company, not the city itself. My friend D, a WiB activist, lives there. We spent a night bar-hopping and a day cafe-hopping and drinking sljivovica - homemade plum brandy - with her uncle and grandmother.

Zrenjanin is in Vojvodina, an autonomous province in northern Serbia. [The much more famous Kosovo is Serbia's other autonomous province - or it was. Now its a UN administered region or some such.] It isn't like Serbia. It isn't linked historically with the region to its south. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire while the rest of Serbia was ruled by the Ottomans. When lines were drawn through the Balkans after WWI, The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, & Slovenes (proto-Yugoslavia) got Vojvodina.

And it's religiously & ethnically diverse. Something like 40 ethnic groups live in Vojvodina. I saw Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. There's still a ton of nationalism - "kill Croats" is a phrase I recognize in cyrillic & it was painted thorought the town - but it is better. It was the only part of Serbia my hosts, a half-Serb half-Croat woman and her half-Serb half-Bosniac (that's Bosnian Muslim) husband, felt comfortable moving back to after Sweden denied them permanent residence.

I think it's a bit troubling to have to go to a small town to feel cosmopolitan.

Friday, November 04, 2005

All I want for Christmas:

The parents asked me to put together my Christmas list. It is definately the most boring Christmas list I have ever created. I just don't want to be accumulating lots of stuff here, only to leave it behind when I move on in a few years. I like to pretend that I travel light, although the people who helped me carry my luggage up the hill from the bus station to my office would disagree. And here it is:

- a short wave radio (so I can listen to BBC world service & other non-Serbian radio. Nothing helps me sleep as well as the British talking about cricket matches.)
- a black fleece jacket & other black clothing (I don't have enough)
- a gift certificate to audible.com or the apple music store so I can get This American Life & other nice things to listen to
- books - preferrably paperback & not related to feminism, the Balkans, peace, etc. (I have plenty of books on those topics here.)
- money for traveling and other fun things

So unexciting. I guess that is what happens when you have enough money to buy yourself what you want, when you want it. I don't have to save up my desires for gift-giving time.

At least I'm not asking for sox.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

buy a vowel

The Serbian language loves those consonants, but is not a huge fan of vowels. I suppose that's unsurprising for a language that calls itself "srpski." These words look like something that would appear on your computer screen if you just type keys as fast as you could:

trg: square
smrt: death
cetvrtak: Thursday
znam: I know
prvi: first
crno: black

They tell me that 'R' is technically a verb in Serbian, as it is pronounced "er," but I am not convinced.

Also: WiB made the front page of the local leftist/intellectual newspaper yesterday for our small protest outside the National Assembly. I was going to include a link, but I figured no one would want to see photos of people they don't know (I'm not in them) or look at a language they do not understand.