Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Nisam pocetnica.

(That means “I am not a beginner.”)

I am no longer a beginner at the Serbian language. I passed my written test yesterday & my oral test today with ‘very good’ marks – the highest.

It’s good that my Serbian is improving because my other language abilities are atrophying. I am putting together the ‘About the Authors’ page for a reader ZuC is publishing, which means I get to google people. The first target of my online stalking was the Argentinean coordinator of Catholics for a Free Choice. Unsurprisingly, much of the info was in Spanish. I stared at articles, thinking ‘I know I used to know that word, but now I have no idea what it means’ and being thankful for online Spanish-English dictionaries.

And it’s not only my Spanish that’s regressing. I am losing some English. I couldn’t define ‘overzealous’ yesterday. I also couldn’t come up with the word for a trail that a lot of people have walked on. Well-trodden, right? And I still don’t know if I should refer to the test I took this morning as an oral test, spoken test, or verbal test.


Scorpions, Srebrenica and somehow, I manage to bring this post back to food

The trial of the scorpions paramilitary unit is continuing this week – they seem to have trials for one week every month. I haven’t figured that out. I just know when it happens because activists from other cities come to Belgrade to witness it & sleep in my office. The Scorpions are responsible for some of the worst atrocities at Srebrenica (or accused of them, I suppose even they get to be innocent until proven guilty). This means that relatives of those murdered come to Belgrade to watch the trial. Last night, about 20 relatives of murdered men from Srebrenica were in our office. Intense. Lots of tears. I can’t even begin imagine such a experience. And instead of saying something articulate about collective responsibility, the failure of the UN, etc., I spoke with one of the women about the food. There was a crazy fruit that I had never seen before. I asked her its name (which I have since forgotten) & she showed me how to peel off some of the skin & warned me about the seeds.

So not international peace and reconciliation, but we both smiled, which is something.

Rumor mill

Rumors are flying that Ratko Mladic (a Bosnian Serb military commander during the war in Bosnia) is in custody and will be sent to The Hague. The news has been published and retracted numerous times now. The word at my office is that the Serbian government, under pressure from the EU, is probably in negotiations with Mladic to turn himself in. Apparently, rumors like this were all over the place the last time they turned someone over. I’ve been told that that man got 100,000 euros for going to trial.

Jesus shaves

Jesus Shaves is the title of my favorite David Sedaris story. It’s about his experience in French class trying to explain Easter to a Moroccan woman who had never heard of it.

Life imitates art. On Tuesday, my Serbian class focused on slava, a Serbian saint’s day, but for an entire family – not like the Catholic individualistic version. As part of the lesson, we were asked to explain similar holidays in our country. I attempted to explain thanksgiving. It was exactly like the inarticulate explanations in Jesus Shaves: “English people went to America a long time ago. It was very hard. After a year, they had a party with Indians. They ate turkey.” Trying to explain that Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday of November was nearly impossible.

Rage at the Serbian Language (part of a continuing series)

On Monday, I was the only one in my language class. The day’s teacher was my least favorite of the possibilities and it was a grammar-intensive lesson, not a good combination.

I’m going to try to explain the grammar -- which is starting to make sense to me after two headache-inducing study sessions -- although I don’t think it translates well to English. There are two ways to say a sentence like ‘A lot of students go to the movies.’ One emphasizes the quantity. (How many students go to the movies? A lot of students go to the movies.) In this variant a lot is an adverb [my grammar knowledge isn't outstanding, but I thought adverbs can only describe verbs and adjectives], the case of the noun students changes to my least favorite case - genitive, and the verb to go is third person singular, even though students is a plural noun.

The second variant of the phrase emphasizes who. (Who goes to the movies? A lot of students go to the movies.) To make this phrase grammatically correct, a lot is an adjective – which means its ending changes to match the subject, students stays in the nominative case, and the verb is third person plural.

This still confuses me. I asked my teacher if this was important to learn and he told me that it isn’t. “Most Serbians don’t even know this grammar,” he told me.

So why are you teaching it to me?


I spent last weekend in Zagreb, which has now claimed its place among my favorite cities. It’s a bit sad that at this point sun and warmth (I didn’t have to wear tights under my pants), painted buildings (Belgrade’s are uniformly gray.) and Indian food (saag paneer! mango lassi!) makes a city outstanding.

The company was good too. I was there for the Southeastern Europe regional retreat for my program. There were six of us: volunteers in Bosnia and Slovakia, me, and the European coordinator based in Geneva. The other volunteers have all been in the region for a year longer than me. They were all happy with their work & thinking about staying in this neck of the woods beyond the two years they signed up for. They all spoke the language well enough to chat with shopkeepers, kids on the bus, etc. It gives me hope.

I went up a day early and stayed with J, an American expat. We stayed up late drinking tea, talking about politics and whether her son should take a year off of college to do volunteer work. She’s been in ex-Yu for 20 years and does really interesting work. It gives me hope.

I haven’t given tremendous thought to what happens after I have been here for 2 years. Grad school is the default answer. Thus far, I haven’t thought of myself as cut out for the long-term expat experience. I wonder if in a year I’ll be like my colleagues, trying to figure out how to stay in the region.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

in search of heart-shaped pizza

I went to Pizza Hut yesterday evening, because it was Valentine's Day. F told me that five years ago in Romania, Pizza Hut served heart-shaped pizzas on Valentine's Day. Then and there, the restaurant was brimming with high school students. I was curious to see such a sight.

There wasn't too much Valentine's celebration in Belgrade yesterday. Some selling of roses and stuffed hearts (like stuffed animals, but heart-shaped) on the street. I saw a few couples on the street with the female half carrying a present or two.

There were no heart-shaped pizzas in sight when I visited the Pizza Hut. It was around 5pm, though, probably too early for dates and most people seemed to just be having coffee. (And I couldn't motivate myself to leave the house to investigate later in the evening.)

And the music playing in the restaurant: REM's 'Everybody Hurts.' Not so Valentine's-appropriate.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Much of my recent time has been taken up with domestic chores, such as:

Fixing my shower. Showers here generally only have one spigot - the one at bathtub height & then some long flexible metal tubing connected to the showerhead that one uses to actually take a shower. (Shower curtains are few and far between, but that's another story.) My metal tubing started leaking, so I had to buy a new tube. (in?)conviniently, this is a pretty regular occurence in these parts, so the new tubing is easy to track down. Early last week, I bought a metal tube at a booth at an open air market, only to come home and discover that it does not fit with my showerhead, leaking much worse than the first tube did. I went back a few days later, bringing the original tubing with me. In my best Serbian, I asked, "do you have the same thing?" while showing my tube. And that tube did not fit with my showerhead. So on Saturday morning, I bought a new showerhead (also sold all over the place) & now I can shower without drips.

Defrosting my freezer. I had never defrosted a freezer before yesterday. It feels like a really grown-up chore. My tiny (maybe 8 inches tall) freezer hadn't been working for a while - the door didn't really close & things I put in it melted. It was covered with frost. So after searching some online how-to sites, I embarked. As things started to thaw & I was able to break away some of the ice, I discovered a nearly full bottle of vodka that had been buried beneath the frost, left behind by the last tenant, like buried treasure.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

notes on food

I dreamed of nectarines last night & woke up with their taste in my mouth. . .

I discovered canned tomatoes yesterday. And they weren't even that expensive. This ends my list of food that I look for as I wander supermarket aisles. I've either found things (the aforementioned tomatoes, soy sauce), figured out reasonable substitutes (making my own tortillas, chopping up chocolate bars to replace chocolate chips), or given up and decided that some things just must be imported (good tea [although I figured out where to get Twinings last week], salsa, certain spices) or done without.

K from Geneva, who I will be meeting in Zagreb next weekend, offered to bring me any 'western' food that I desire. I asked for chocolate chips & salsa. She told me that neither of those things exist in Switzerland either. I don't know if that is comforting or unsettling.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


So the Seahawks lost. . .

I enjoyed the game, although I am still recovering from the late night. The game started at 12:30 local time. I was maybe asleep by 5.

I missed all the (what I imagine to be) good commercials. There were 3 commercials total - all during the first quarter. I guess the Serbian station couldn't sell any ads. They were all for beer, though, which is comforting. While those of you in America were watching commercials, we were looking at random footage of fans, sidelines, garbage cans, etc. We also had the occassional Celine Dion or equally good half-a-music video. Lovely. It was the NFL international video feed on local TV, which meant Serbian announcers, but English languages graphics. It was quite entertaining, especially when what they were saying was in no way related to the fancy graphics onscreen.

Just wait until next year (that's what I'm supposed to say, right?)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

go Seahawks!

I will be watching the Super Bowl shortly at my friends’ house. I don’t think I would bother to stay up if the hometown team wasn’t in the game – even though, as was pointed out by my brother, I cannot name a single Seahawk.

My parents always have a Super Bowl party. I have lots of memories of the party, but no memory of ever watching the game. I remember walking around the neighborhood talking with S. I remember the year it snowed and very few people came. I remember dressing the younger kids up in my brother & my dress-up clothes. We had such great dress-up clothes – Care Bear and chipmunk and Minnie Mouse costumes, a kimono, etc. etc.

As I do not have yards of fake fur or a small child here, I have resorted to another Super Bowl ritual: the Mexican dip. I used to always make a multi-layer Mexican dip & I have recreated it here as best I could.

The first layer is refried beans. In the states, I would just open a can. Here, I soaked dry beans for a day, boiled them to softness, and did the refrying myself. The second layer is guacamole. I found an avocado here. It’s not very soft, but a passable guacamole was created. The third layer is sour cream mixed with taco seasoning. Thankfully, F and R brought me taco seasoning when they came. I don’t know if it could be found in these parts. The next layers are chopped onions, tomatoes, and olives (which I am omitting because I don’t like them) and shredded cheese. Edamer is a good replacement for cheddar.

What I am most worried about is the tortilla chips. I did manage to avoid the ketchup-flavored ones & opted for ‘natural.’ Upon closer inspection of the label, I discovered that they have rosemary in them. Maybe next time I will be making my tortilla chips from scratch as well.


This weekend was ZuC’s quarterly meeting. The last one was the weekend after I arrived in this country. It was good opportunity to measure the progress I have made in this place:

I know who people are & have made friends with some of the women from outside of Belgrade. I can hold small talk conversations with them in Serbian. I spent Friday night leading an impromptu tour of the center of the city for some friends from Nis and Kosovo. It was bizarre to be a foreigner guiding people around their capital city, trying to explain the sights in my broken Serbian.

Not living in the office makes me much more able to be present and engaged with people when I need to be. I don’t get as burned out when I can go home and be alone any time I want.

I can follow the general topic of conversation without a translator. This is mostly good – I like knowing what is going on without having to depend on someone to translate - but I am starting to realize the tremendous inefficiency of the organization. We spent 15 minutes pointlessly discussing how to layout a sign-up sheet (which, as it is part of an international campaign, tomorrow I am going to check with our partner organization to see what they actually want us to do, ignoring anything that was said in the discussion). I am starting to appreciate why people said, “You’re lucky you don’t understand” months ago. At the time, I thought it really annoying. Now, I see their point.

Latter-day Nostradamus

The book I picked up immediately post-West was Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness by Tony Kushner. The opening epic paragraph of ‘On Pretentiousness,’ the text of a speech he gave at a conference in Boston on March 3, 1995 is:

Everything I say to you tonight, indeed everything discussed at the conference this weekend, is overshadowed, if not actually overwhelmed, by the fact that down the seaboard, in D.C., the scariest congress this country has ever elected is energetically, industriously, enthusiastically dismantling the federal government. The America we live in today, still racked, starved, burned, brutalized and unrecovered from the pillaging it endured in the eighties, this present ravaged America will seem in ten years’ retrospect a paradise; that’s an easy prophecy; the future that’s being legislated into existence in these last few weeks is as we all know no future at all. All the important accomplishments of struggle, all the benchmarks of agonizing progress, are going up in great puffs of unregulated uninvestigated nicotine-laden tobacco smoke. In ten years’ time public education through high school will be nothing more than overcrowded indoctrination in Rightist political cant, supervised by Bill Bennett and his ilk, with no bad-tasting non-nutritional but at least free lunch. Affordable public education will be virtually nonexistent. This will help make people even more docile when faced with downsizing, which surely must produce prodigious rates of unemployment; and there will be no organized labor and no social net. Multinationals will have near-absolute sway over the workplaces and breathing spaces and landscapes and mindscapes and airwaves and information pathways; corrupt and unaccountable state legislatures will be big business’s eager foot-servants; minorities will have no legal protectional guarantees and will be ruthlessly dominated and policed by a pseudo-majority whose real power derives, not from brute numerical superiority, but from an unchallengeable stranglehold on realpolitik financed by multinationals. Progressive taxation will be a memory; the rich will be very rich. Searching police will need no warrants, recent immigrants will have no rights, the rights of the rest of us will go next, civil liberties will be lost, abortion rights will lost, civil rights legislation will be lost, health care is lost already. Laws that protect children from abuse will be lost. Laws that reinstate death penalties and limit the number of appeals a death-row inmate gets; laws limiting the possibility of suing miscreant corporations, or the government—these will be passed in every state. Guns will be available. Prisons will mushroom. Sodomy laws will mushroom. Public discourse will have degenerated to such abysmal depths that George Bush will seem to have been eloquent; there will of course be no federal funding for the arts or humanities. Colleges will offer courses in hokey-scientific theories of race-based genetic superiority, and on the history of the failure of feminism, and though abortion will be illegal, eugenics will be a coming thing. Research on AIDS, research on breast cancer will have stalled; pharmaceutical corporations and managed care corporations and insurance giants will control the medical front, concurrently racking up astronomical profit—the FDA, deeply flawed as it is and has ever been, will be a thing of the past and, dare I say it, missed. Some wizened Republican horror will occupy the White House, and whatever his name is he will be Nixon, he will be Reagan, he will, perhaps in name as well as in spirit, be Newt. You went to bed in 1994, and wake up: It’s morning 1953! Except in 1953 things were better.

At least sodomy has been legalized. . .

books - part one

I finished the longest book that I have ever read. My edition of Rebecca West’s epic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the definitive ex-Yugoslavia travelogue, is 1,150 pages long. She’s such a dense writer it feels like twice that length.

This isn’t to say it’s bad. It’s amazing – just hard to take in long stretches. I have been reading it on and off – mostly off – since September. I’ve grown used to it, to being able to pick it up and learn the history of the region mixed with her thoughts about dancing or nearly word-for-word repetitions of the conversations she had or why the Serbs are the best people in the area.

I need to give the book back to K next week. I will be sad to see it go.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The simple life

The Brethren are big on simplicity and big on God. Last night, my activities would have pleased them.

I have never before mended a run in my tights - I usually just throw them away - but I decided to start last night. Reasons: I wear tights every day under my pants for extra warmth. They get runs in them from so much wear, from handwashing, etc. I really don't want to have to buy a new pair of tights every few weeks - I would rather spend my limited funds on more interesting things. And, as these tights are worn under pants, no one sees them, so there is no fashion police to see the navy blue thread that patches the holes in my black tights. So I'm living simply, conserving resources, etc. The Brethren would be proud.

And the God bit: I recently discovered that one of my favorite ministers posts mp3s of his sermons. I have downloaded a bunch of them and am slowly making my way through them all. It is good to have some spiritual & mental stimulation as my hands are occupied with such a repetitive task.

I didn't realize until this morning that last night was also the state of the union address. I think I made the better choice with my listening material.