Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Monday, December 26, 2005

happy merry

Christmas came and went, I suppose. But it doesn't really feel like that.

This is the first time that I have ever been somewhere that wasn't celebrating christmas along with me. Nothing was closed. A few Serbian friends text messaged me xmas greetings, but they weren't celebrating themselves. There were a few presents, some cookies, French toast at some American friends' house (where I also made a Chanukah candle). We saw the new Narnia movie (all about Jesus after all). It was a beautiful sunny day - the best in weeks.

I also had the first of my new weekly dates with Ira. My aunt gave me a subscription for Christmas. The Christmas spectacular episode is amazing.

But there is no day-after-Christmas lull. There are still street vendors selling Christmas decorations at full price. Decorations will still be up for another 2 weeks, as Orthodox Christmas isn't until January 7.

And, I am heading to the airport in a few minutes to meet R, who is carrying with him more presents.

I like my holidays spread out. I often try to make my birthday last a month. It's nice to have the calendar helping me extend christmas this year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Romania Chronicles--Episode 1: in which our heroines learn that between the two of them they speak .33 Balkan languages

In Vrsac (nearly Romania, but in Serbia) a woman joins us in our train compartment. A is an ethnic Romanian Serbian citizen, fluent in both Serbian and Romanian, but not English. So the conversation becomes interesting. A is a masters student, studying psychology in Timisoara. F attempts to say that she studies public policy. It is a disaster. We both grasp for whatever words we can come up with in our respective Balkan languages – R, with her 2 months of Serbia & F, with her not-used-in-5-years Romanian. A small breakthrough occurs when R remembers the Serbian word for ‘parliament’ & she says “F will work in the parliament.” So, F will be a congresswoman when she grows up.

It is an epic 2 hour, 3 language conversation in which every statement needs to be translated to someone else. An example: A says to F, in Romanian (as best as F understands it) that she was not allowed to take some sort of exam at her Romanian university because she was improperly dressed. She wore a business suit, not the required mini skirt, bellybutton shirt and ugly shoes. F attempts to interpret this in English to R as A looks at R expectantly. F, making small talk, attempts to ask a question. It is not understood, so R must interpret it from English to Serbian. A then responds enthusiastically in Serbian & looks at F expectantly. Repeat ad nauseum.

Insights gain in this conversation include that the Banat is the only beautiful part of Romania; that Romanians are intelligent, gentle, and materialistic; and that there is no reason to go to Bucharest.

And, she gives us cookies.

Romania Chronicles--Episode 2: in which RM’s request that R find a sauna in this part of the world is satisfied.

Please click on this link to read about our heroines' adventures in episode 2.

Romania Chronicles--Episode 3:in which R discovers that Ceaucescu was crazy

After arriving in Bucharest, a brief wander in the wrong direction, and finding our hostel, R & F venture forth to discover the extent of Ceaucescu’s megalomania.

First stop: The People’s Palace. (See how tiny F looks despite her proximity to the building).

This monstrosity is said to be the second largest building in the world. It is made entirely of Romanian materials & Romanian labor. Ceaucescu demolish 1/6 of Bucharest in order to build it.

R learns that Ceaucescu was a fan of demolishing things in order to uglify Bucharest. Piatas are enormous squares/circles/semicircles that are used primarily as parking lots, homes for ugly statues, and traffic circles. It took R & F 15 minutes to circumnavigate the typical piata – and that’s excluding time spent waiting for traffic lights to change. Luckily, there are many women wearing ugly shoes to distract us.

Romania Chronicles--Episode 4: in which a bunch of odd Romanian villager houses are viewed by our protaganists

Please click on this link to read about our heroines' adventures in episode 4.

Romania Chronicles--Episode 5: which our heroines stumble upon the perfect metaphor for Bucharest

Once upon a time, there were secret police that everyone hated. Their main office, a vaguely baroque building next to the communist party headquarters, was torn down by Romanian rioters in the heady days of the only bloody ’89 revolution. Recently, architects decided to make the building their office. Rather than tear down the remaining parts of the building, they decided to erect a blue glass “addition” to the building. Then, some had the idea to have a swanky espresso bar that serves ‘tofu toast’ in the basement and to decorate said espresso bar with pictures of the revolution.

Interlude: in which it is observed that if there were a building-leaving Olympics, Romanians would be the perennial favorites

To read this interlude please click on this link.

Romania Chronicles--Episode 6: in which R realizes the truism “Romanians are a mediocre people.”

Let us begin with the ‘frenchurro.’ Mexican food has arrived in Bucharest, in the form of deep fried dough. Initially, we can not decide if the light brown cylindrical things that people are carrying in an upside down sombrero are French fries or churros. People dip them in ketchup as if they are French fries. They have the same ridged texture as churros at an amusement park. Upon further recognizance, also known as standing beside the food booth for a sure-to-confuse-the-people-working-there length of time, F decides that ‘frenchurros’ are indeed churros, albeit unsweetened ones augmented with ketchup.

The aforementioned frenchurros are being sold at a gathering that can only be described as the Romanian version of Folklife. One tenth of the acts, one tenth of the quality, one tenth of the vendors, and one tenth of the people. There is tsuica, so it is not a total loss, although F and R are forced to endure men chanting ‘in unison’ while banging hand drums. Luckily, there are many ugly shoes to distract us.

The Chronicles of Romania--Episode 7: which the scene changes, but the bizarreness continues

Please click on this link to read about our heroines' adventures in episode 7.

Chronicles of Romania--Episode 8: in which our fearless heroines brave Romanian musical theater

On a lark, F & R decide to attend the evening’s production of “My Fair Lady.” R, although not keen on the story to begin with and uncertain of attending a play in a language she doesn’t even want to try to learn, agrees to attend for the “spectacle.” She is not disappointed. The theatre would be beautiful, with red brocade (uncomfortable) seats and pretensions to grandness but sadly is marred by the ugliest ceiling mural either R or F has ever seen. The orchestra is impressive, as is the singing ability of the three leads. In fact, when F and R close their eyes and listen to the music they almost feel they are at a professional performance in respected theatre in the states. Unfortunately, F guesses, the director must have quit half-way through rehearsals and left the cast to choreograph, block and direct the show for themselves. It is a disaster. R and F watch in disbelief as men stand in rows, snapping and swaying. The sets reminds F of her high school play production days and R is annoyed by the fully audible chatter of the light board operator sitting in a booth a few rows behind them. But the worst by far is the costuming. The costumes reflect 150 years worth of clothing styles from at least two continents. It is as if the women have picked out two or three outfits that would have been their ideal dress-up clothes when they were 7. Shiny with sequins, bows, velvet, and boas, the only way to describe the effect is to say that it “blows.” One of the actors wears blue plastic shoes. Luckily, there are many ugly shoes to distract us.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Warning: horribleness ahead

Romania was a bizarre place, more information to follow.

I am back at work today proof-reading some translations that we are going to publish. I just read the following paragraph, from a panel discussion on women human rights defenders that was held in October. The words are from a woman who runs a safehouse in Montenegro. I was sitting in the audience, but had little idea of what anyone was saying. Strange to think that this, which seems like an element of a movie I wouldn't watch, was floating over my head in a language I did not understand. (It's terrible stuff - not my usual, fairly light entry - but it's real and happening near me. I am still trying to wrap my head around that.):

We have heard terrible stories from women who were victims. They were maltreated and threatened. They were forced to smuggled drugs in their genitals (from 250 to 300 grams of heroin can be placed into vagina). They smuggled arms and ammunition. Police knew that this was occurring, but did nothing. Many women were transferred, after they were deemed ‘worn out,’ to special places where they were used for organ harvesting. Those who were designated for organ harvesting were not older than 25 years of age. I recently met one woman, relatively young, who looked like a fifty year old. She was kept for years as a sex slave for Arkan's troops. After her parents abandoned her, a Montenegrin soldier brought her.

The world can be a really ugly place sometimes - and not just in the Bucharest is the ugliest city I have ever seen sense of the word.

I promise, the forthcoming Romania-themed entry will be cheerier.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


Yesterday, I had to do some things that I was not excited about. I had to pay bills. I had been told by D - the woman I replaced here - that paying bills is a headache. The line at the post office - people pay bills at the post office - is long. The clerks yell at you if you don't fill out the payment slip correctly. After initial difficulty locating the post office, It was painless. I stood in the longest line for about 5 minutes, chatting with F. I stepped to a window, handed the clerk my payment slips & cash & there was no yelling.

F & I went to the train station to figure out how to get to Bucharest. I frustrate easily when I can't make myself understood, so I wasn't looking forward to buying tickets. After being redirected into the correct line, it was painless. Between my bad Serbian and the clerks decent English, we bought tickets on the Friday train to Bucharest. I also discovered that there are 2 trains daily to Solun/Thessaloniki.

But, as is often the case, the craziness came from an unanticipated source: my washing machine. It turns out that the water that it spills all over the floor is not just bothersome to me. It drips from the bathroom ceiling of my downstairs neighbor. I recieved an angry call in which the words 'bathroom' and 'water' figured largely. I told the caller that I didn't understand. A few minutes later, there was a knock on my door. It was a woman I had never seen before, dressed in an orange bathrobe. I followed her downstairs & saw the dripping water. I spoke with her & another neighbor for about 15 minutes. I tried to explain that I know where the water is coming from, that there was a giant puddle on my bathroom floor at that moment, but it wasn't working. I listened to them complain about my landlord & chatted with them about how I was studying Serbian. I left her flat with instructions to run my show & then run my washing machine. I recieved another call, thus confirming that it was the washing machine that was leaking.

So it looks like I will be handwashing for a while - at least until I can network my way to a decent plumber.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

F arrives

The weather turned cold just in time for F's arrival.

[She hates the cold. One of my first memory of her was her complaining about how cold Seattle was. . . in September.]

I met her at the airport. We went to my flat to drop of her luggage and to have tea and bread and cheese. We shared good, effortlessly interesting conversation. We wandered about the city, stopping at bookstores and to look at ugly shoes and clothes. We ended up at a cafe/bar drinking fancy coffee drinks before heading back to my flat for dinner. We watched a bad Johnny Depp movie on TV. She read aloud to me.

It was as what we would do anywhere. Except this time, we were in Belgrade.

Friday, December 09, 2005

It'd be better in Greek

I went to the movies last night to see Paradise Now. There's a film festival going on right now, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to see something a bit more obscure than King Kong or The Transporter 2.

It was okay, what I understood of it (which wasn't much). The film is in Arabic. The subtitles were in Greek and Serbian. I spent most of the movie trying to piece together something from my terrible Arabic & somewhat better Serbian. I read the subtitles looking for familiar words. When I recognized a word, it usually took me a minute to remember what the word meant and to figure out how it was conjugated. By that time, three more lines of dialogue had passed.

Two thirds of the way through the film, I realized that the word that I thought was 'excellent' was actually 'to decide.'

At least I had a good reason for my silence during the post-viewing discussion about how "politically irresponsible" the film is.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Yesterday, I realized that me + umbrella + crowd = a danger to society

There should be a licensing program that one must undergo before being allowed to use an umbrella on a crowded street. And I should not be given a license.

I've never been one to carry an umbrella, but I decided to here, as it is what everyone else seems to do & my raincoat doesn't fit over my winter coat. It is a terrible idea.

The streets are crowded here, so when I pass by others, I either raise my umbrella up so high that I get wet or keep it low enough to keep me dry, but catch it on others' umbrellas, shoulders, etc. [I don't think I took out an eye, but I could have.] To save others & maintain some relatively good karma, I'm resigning myself to being wet a lot. Or maybe I'll track down a broad brimmed fisherman's hat.

In other news, after this morning's humbling review session in my Serbian class, I have decided to see if it is possible to speak without using adjectives or pronouns.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Life isn't being particularly blog-worthy at this moment, so here's an entertaining story from a few weeks back that I forgot to post:

Scene: conference room in a Kraguyevac hotel, during a pauza (break for coffee and cigarettes)
Characters: me, and M, a Serbian woman in her late 40s that I don't know well

M: I really liked what you said earlier. I can identify with it.
me: oh, really? [or some other supportive, but not very engaged words]
M: Yes, and I think you'd be perfect for my son.
me: oh. . .
M: Yes. He's 24. He's handsome. He plays the guitar. He's kind.
me[furiously trying to think of a way to extricate myself from the impeding 'can I give him your phone number?']: yeah. . .
M: I think the two of you would really get along.
me [still thinking, not having come up with anything graceful to say.]: okay. . .
M: But he's married and has a very jealous wife.
me [knowing exactly what to say]: oh, well. That's too bad.

I've come to expect women to try to get me to date their sons, but that's the first time that I have ever been encouraged to break up a marriage.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

how i spent my Saturday

It's 10:30 on Saturday night and I'm in my office. Eating cheesecake and playing a not so fun game of translation-telephone. J and I have a text in Spanish that needs to be in Serbian by tomorrow. So it's Spanish-English- Serbian. (I'm doing the Spanish-English leg of the journey.) I didn't ask why our boss, who is fluent in both Serbian & Spanish, not doing it herself.

And I have been working since 9am. There was a missing person's conference. I listened to Kosovars, of Serb, Albanian, & Bulgarian varities discuss their family members who disappeared in the late '90s. I listened to debates on forensic anthropology techniques. I got to wear one of those cool simultaneous translation headsets that I thought only people at the UN got to use.

The translation is done. Time to sleep.

Friday, December 02, 2005