Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Monday, March 27, 2006


I am sitting at the brother's computer in his flat in Greece. It is lovely and warm.

We have spent the past few days wandering around. We watched a Greek Independence Day Parade (but Thessaloniki didn't become independent that day) which involved lots of people marching: people in traditional costumes, schoolchildren, crossing guards, lifeguards, and soldiers. The Greeks are awfully good marchers.

They are also awfully good at making ruins. In addition the the Roman ruins around the city there seems to be lots of half-constructed building that people forgot about or stopped working on midway through a remodel.

Yesterday, we went to the town of Panorama (that pa-NOR-a-ma, not pan-or-A-ma), famous for its view and triangle-shaped custard-filled desserts, both of which were lovely.

There's a new alphabet to contend with here. It shares some letters with cyrillic, so I like to pretend that I can read things. My knowledge of about half of the alphabet does me no good. Even if I can successfully sound out a word, I still don't know what it means. . .

Sunday papers come with DVDs, CDs, and CD-ROMs here. Yesterday, I bought a paper to get a copy of About a Boy. I now also own an encyclopedia CD-ROM (all in Greek) and a 'best of' collection of a Greek singer from the 60s and 70s whose name I cannot read, and a Sunday paper that I cannot read. There are some photos of movie stars in it, though.

The food is amazing. And I'm a fan of ouzo. And the sun is shining. And the company is great.

Friday, March 24, 2006

week in review

Periodically, I have to write reports about what I do for the people who pay me and the people who sent me here. Usually, these aren't very interesting. I don't know if this one is any different, but it is more than an analysis of the internal dynamics of my office. I was asked to write about "an average week." I cut parts that are already posted on this blog. Enjoy:

There really is no such thing as an average day. Some days, I expect activity and there is no one in the office all day. Other days that I expect a calm day, I find myself up late to finish a project. With that in mind, here is a week in my life. I don’t know if it is a particularly representative week (I usually don’t travel this much.), but it is a relatively interesting week & shows a lot of what I do. Wednesday and Thursday are the most average days, or as close to average as I have – meaning that I have one or two days like them every week.

Day 1: Saturday

[mostly previously posted]

I stopped by the office to e-mail a project proposal that I spent much of last week writing. We're working with a Kosovar women's NGO to send a joint Serbia-Kosovo women’s monitoring delegations to the Kosovo final status negotiations in Vienna. The delegations will hold press conferences to highlight the importance of protecting women’s rights and including women in decision-making processes. (There is only one woman at the negotiating table.) I sent the proposal to the leader of the Kosovar NGO and our contact at a funding organization, who has made encouraging noises -- she might fund it.

Day 2: Sunday

This was the first day in months – or at least what feels like months – that was completely unscheduled. I didn’t leave my flat. It was glorious. I caught up on e-mails, quilted, listened to This American Life, baked cookies, talked to my parents, and watched a bad movie on TV. If you ever have the chance to see Rules of Attraction, don't.

Day 3: Monday

I spent my morning studying Serbian before going to the office in the afternoon. (No one is ever in the office in the morning.) I checked the office e-mail & no one had responded to my project proposal. I had a brief meeting with my boss, during which I was told to work on writing more grants. I suggested that I sew some banners, which would be a fun project for me – I like being crafty.

That evening, a few WiB activists and I went to a lecture by a woman peace activist from Sierra Leone. It was fascinating to hear about the conflict there – of which I am completely ignorant – and make comparisons between women’s peace activism there and here.

After the lecture, we returned to the office, so M could pack up an overnight bag. Then he and I headed to the bus station where we caught the next bus to Novi Sad. We spent the bus ride talking in a bizarre mix of English, Serbian, and Spanish, about our families, women leaders, and the history of Nicaragua.

As N, the woman from an NGO in Novi Sad, drove us from the bus station to her office, she asked me to speak about racism in America the next evening at the roundtable on racism they organized to mark the International Day of Action against Racism. I agreed, but had no idea about what I should talk. I spent the rest of the evening chatting with people in the office, eating a late dinner, and being guided around the center of the city.

Day 4: Tuesday

M and I woke up early and went out in search of breakfast. We found a bakery and ate on a bench in the central square before wandering around a beautiful city park. We went back to the office and met up with Nada who took us along for erranding and siteseeing. We went to the bank, the beautiful old fortress overlooking the river, a coffee shop, and out to lunch. I had my first-ever pizza topped with raw cucumbers, carrots, and parsley. It was surprisingly delicious – like a salad on top of the pizza.

We then returned to the Esperanca office where I chatted with the activists, learned about the programs they are running, prepared what I would say later that night. As we wandered, I decided to speak about the racism experienced by Native Americans, drawing upon my experiences doing volunteer work on Lakota and Yakama reservations, my dad’s work with some tribes in Northwest Washington, and the stories told to me by my best friend, a member of the Coquille tribe. I feel like I can speak with some authority about that type of racism – all others would require some research.

And then: the talk. There were three of us speaking to a crowd of a few dozen in a student cultural center. After a professor spoke about the history of racism, I was up. I spoke of history – tribal disbandings, the trail of tears, and Indian boarding schools – and the present – tribal sovereignty, controversy surrounding tribal casinos, the lack of positive images in media, rural isolation and underdevelopment, and the issue of “blood percentage,” how native Americans, unlike any other race, have to prove membership. Following my speech, I fielded questions on the first amendment, Hurricane Katrina, and the existence of Neo-Nazis in the United States.

We then all returned to the office for a party. We drank rum and cokes and ate an apple-mayonnaise-walnut salad. At 10 that night, M and I caught the bus back to Belgrade.

Day 5: Wednesday

This was a slow day, to balance out the busyness early in the week. I spent the morning studying Serbian. In the afternoon, I went to the office to check in. I read the office e-mail. There were generally positive responses and a few changes to my proposal. The next step is to e-mail the proposal to a few more people. I was told that the woman who has those e-mail addresses would e-mail them to me shortly.

There is usually a meeting every Wednesday evening, but it was cancelled this week. No one that I talked to knew why. After a few hours of checking the news online and chatting with coworkers, I headed home for a not-so-exciting night of cleaning my house, watching a John Cusack movie, and reading the just-arrived December issue of The Messenger.

Day 6: Thursday

Another morning of Serbian study. I then walked around the city running errands: buying the book for the second level of Serbian classes, picking up a few groceries, and buying a train ticket to Thessaloniki. My brother lives there and I am planning to spend the weekend with him.

Again, I headed to the office where I sent a few e-mails that Stasa wanted me to write, wrote most of this report, did a bit of research on funding organizations and chatted with people in the office. I wrote e-mails to Belarusian NGOs asking what slogans they use in their activism for democracy. WiB is planning a protest in support of them next week and we would like to use their slogans – in Belarusian so the Belarusian authorities that we are targeting will understand us. I also wrote an e-mail to Pervez Musharraf demanding that he protect the rights of his country’s religious minorities.

Day 7: Friday

My first task of the day was packing and otherwise preparing for my upcoming visit to my brother in Greece. I then went to the office of KtK, a Swedish NGO that funds WiB and other women’s groups in the region. The women who work there invited me to stop by their office weeks ago and we finally managed to find morning that we are all free. We spoke about the situation for women and women’s NGOs in the region, regional politics, and our travels. They told me the history of KtK and gave me some of their recent reports on gender and peacemaking. The meeting was cut short when one of them left for a weekend trip to Kapaonik, a ski resort in south Serbia.

I then went to the office, where my coworker J greeted me with, “I need you to help me with research. I am trying to find information on the history of popular tribunals, specifically posthumous tribunals.” I spent the next hour googling and looking through the academic databases that I can access through my library cards in an unsuccessful search for anything on those topics.

I ended the workday checking office e-mail, writing to a new NGO contact in Hong Kong, writing this report, organizing some papers, and debating the merits of black banners with white letters or white banners with black letters before rushing home to grab my bag and head for the train station to catch the overnight train to Thessaloniki.

bus blues

I don't ride the buses here very often. If anything is within a half hour walk, I walk. The buses tend to be overcrowded and uncomfortable.

A friend's house is not within a half hour walk. It's in the upscale suburbs, so I have to take the bus. Last night, I was running late. The buses are being continually rerouted due to construction projects and it always takes me a while to figure out where the new bus stops are. I found my new bus stop a few minutes before my bus arrived.

It was rush hour and the bus was full. I managed to squeeze my way onto the bus and stood pressed against the door. At the next stop, the door opened. I wasn't paying attention, so I didn't move out of the way of the opening door. My foot became trapped between the door and the side of the bus. My foot was smashed against the wall and halfway out of my shoe and my leg was twisted.

A woman asked me to move and I responded in my best-I-could-do-while-panicked Serbian, "I can't, I can't," and pointed at my foot. She yelled to the bus driver and I was released.

I spent the rest of the bus ride standing as far as I could get from the door (not far, the bus was so crowded) with my foot halfway out of my shoe. Today, my leg is sore from its ordeal.


There was an earthquake here on Wednesday. News reports said it was a 4.4. I didn't think that Serbia had earthquakes.

I was sitting at my kitchen table writing when it happened. At first, I thought it was just some weirdness in my apartment building. (The power and water cut off fairly often, there's a woman downstairs who screams all the time, shaking didn't seem like much of stretch.) But it was the movement of techtonic plates.

Now, I have experienced an earthquake in every country in which I have lived.

Apparently, I am bad luck.

Monday, March 20, 2006

crowded weekend: episode 4

And the finale of my tour of very diverse Belgrade crowds happened on Saturday evening. A few friends and I took in the Belgrade International Wine Festival.

A Portland beer festival, it was not -- as my companions learned from my repeated comparisons -- but it was really fun. One way in which it was much better than PDX's alcohol festivals was that all tastes were free once you paid your entry fee. So, I tasted all sorts of wines from all over the region and a few from Spain and Argentina, along with some pelikovac and rakija. The whole evening highlighted my ignorance of all things wine. I do not have the vocabulary to say much more than I like it or it's sweet. If only I had paid closer attention during Sideways.

Someday, when I am not working to pick up another language, I will educate myself about wine.

crowded weekend: episode 3

Later on Saturday, I attended the Serbian version of a FlashMob. A sms message was sent out telling people to assemble in the main square and bring a balloon when Milosevic's funeral was scheduled to start. A few thousand people were there holding and shaking balloons, blowing on whistles, and dancing, chanting "gotov je" and "prolece" (that's "he's finished" and "spring" (the season, not the source of water or the metal thing in one's mattress -- they rhyme in Serbian).

I don't know quite how I feel about having a party because someone died - it seems morbid. I understand the need for it, though. It's important to respond to the crowds gathered earlier, to give the international press an easy "on the other hand. . ." to incorporate into their stories. It's good to not feel so isolated, as though everyone is a instantly a Milosevic fan because he died.

And it was really fun.

This is the Serbia that I like.

crowded weekend: episode 2

Saturday at noon was the big Milosevic memorial in Belgrade. Really scary. I skirted the assembled masses on my way to and from the grocery store. After I came home, I opened a window and listened to the roar of the masses. So many people - I heard estimates of 80,000, many sporting buttons in support of Seselj. My lack of Serbian language comprehension (or I can blame the bad amplification) was probably beneficial. I could pick out words, "Kosovo, Albanians, Serbia." It's probably for the best that I couldn't string them together.

My Serbian existence is such a bubble. The only people I ever talk politics with are my super progressive coworkers. I sometimes forget that they are not representative, that there are people who still like Milosevic, who would come out to stand in a crowd to support him.

I suppose it's good for me to remember how special and extraordinary my world is here. Next time I am in need of such a reminder, I would prefer it not to involve 80,000 nationalists.

crowded weekend: episode 1

I spent my weekend navigating crowds:

On Friday night, for the first time in my life, I made an effort beyond wearing green to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I went out to see Irish music. The Orthodox Celts are a local band that play a mix of traditional and contemporary Irish music. (The Celts were the first people to settle what became Belgrade, back in the BCE. It's quite a migration they had.) The music was fun, the musicians were skilled, and the crowd was really into it. There's nothing quite like a room full of Serbians singing traditional Irish music in English. One of my concert-going companions went through an Irish music phase a few years back. Every so often, he would turn to me and say "I can't believe they know this song!" Apparently the band (and the crowd) knew even the obscure songs.

At the end of the show, I volunteered to get my party's coats. Generous of me, but an offer I probably wouldn't have made if I had know what was involved. You know how every so often there is a news report about people being trampled to death at a supermarket opening? I never understood how such things could happen before Friday night. Now, I get it. The crowd was so packed together that I could have stuck out my elbows and picked up my feet and not have fallen. At one point, my purse was around two other people's arms. But I managed to get the coats and fight my way back through the scary crowd.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

an imperfect evening

I speak way better Serbian than Lou Reed.

I went to see him in concert last night. A friend got tickets and invited me along. It was a lot of fun, great people watching, but he didn't play my favorite of his songs, Perfect Day. Whenever I go to concerts, I always pick my favorite song to hope for. This was the first time in memory that I have been disappointed.

His supporting musicians were amazing. My companion aptly described their solos as "musical orgasms."

I think I've developed a new rule, though: I shouldn't go to concerts of artists who were at their peak before I was born. His voice has changed a lot - he doesn't sound like the album I have. It feels a little sad to watch someone play songs that are decades old, knowing that he plays them every night.

At the beginning and end of the show, he butchered "thanks" in Serbian. Adding an extra syllable hvala became havala.

He play guitar way better than I do, so I guess I can't be too hard on him.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

slobodan means freedom, how ironic

I just sat with coworkers drinking beer watching Slobo's coffin being taken off the airplane in Belgrade. It felt very much like watching the State of the Union and cursing my dumb president. So he's being buried here [most likely - anything can change.] with a service this saturday a few blocks from my house. I might wander by, but I don't want to see anyone there. I would love for there to be a service and have no one show up. . . very unlikely.

I saw yesterday that people are saying that Slobo killed himself by taking anti-leprosy medication in order to be sent to Russian for medical care. As someone quoted in the article said, "from there, he is not likely to return. . ." It is where his wife, brother, etc. live. I would dismiss the story, but it was in the NY Times. It seems too strange to be believed, but so did last year's Ukrainian dioxin poisoning. What is it about this place that makes everything seem like a badly written thriller plot?

And more of my thoughts - probably more coherent thoughts - and some other people's about the region in the "post-Milosevic era" - a phrase I will never repeat - can be found here if you scroll down. (It compromises my anonymity, but I might get on NPR - keep your fingers crossed.)

Sunday, March 12, 2006


So Milosevic is dead. I haven't seen much reaction to it yet. In my wanderings around yesterday, people were much more concerned with the honey festival and the free balloons being given away outside the new Nike stores.

On to the small everydaynesses of my life. Last week, I introduced the concept of "jinx" to Serbian school children. I had one of my native speaker classes that I teach at a local language school. During the class, two kids said the same word at the same time. An elaborate ritual of trying to touch each other while crossing their fingers ensued. I explained what happens in the states if you say the same word at the same time. Someone says "jinx" and then the other person can't speak until their name is said. For the rest of the class, the students tried to catch someone speaking simultaneously with them, in order to "jinx" them.

At least it kept the class quieter.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Women's Day

Yesterday was International Women's Day, a day that I would imagine is celebrated all over the world, but I had not paid much attention to before.

Most of Serbia seems to celebrate it like a one-sided Valentine's day. People selling flowers were everywhere.

It's the biggest day on the ZuC calendar.

We protested outside the US embassy to stop the war in Iraq. We delivered a letter to the Russian embassy (closed for the holiday) demanding that they stop supporting Milosevic. We went to a press conference promoting a book about women's experiences of war. We did street theater in the main square. We marched. (I held up half of a banner reading "we want democracy, not theocracy" in local language.) There were workshops on fundamentalism & the future of Kosov@.

And my role in this day of women's liberation was very stereotypically feminine. I was up late the night before sewing - making pocket in our banners to put sticks in. As someone who knows how to sew, I am a rare breed in my office. Only the older women from the smaller towns know how to sew. I baked cookies for our potluck lunch. I spent a lot of time getting people from out-of-town to and from the bus and train stations. I enjoyed all of those tasks & I suppose that's what International Women's Day, feminism, etc. is all about: doing tasks because you want to do them, not because they're expected of you.

And I do like doing them. Getting to sew and bake and walk around the city for work is a good deal in my book.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I will survive

Bird flu was finally found in Serbia last week. [It's been found in every country surrounding Serbia. I just figured that people weren't bothering to test here.]

While staying with my friend over the weekend, I petted a few baby chicks. I forgot about "the great pandemic."

I am still alive, although I do have a sore throat. Is that a warning sign?

at least I can understand a Serbian newspaper article

While reading the Serbian-language paper in my office, I learned that Brad Pitt is going to turn my favorite book into a movie.

This makes me much angrier than I have a right to be. And I am angry. The book is brilliant, with a thoughtful plot, very well-crafted characters, and an interesting narrative style. I don't think any of that will translate to the big screen. It would be so easy to make it so terrible and over-the-top. Some reports say that Brad Pitt will act in it as well. None of the characters - as I have imagined them, as they are described - look anything like him.

After this movie comes out, when I tell people about my favorite book, they'll think of the not-so-good movie that was based on it. That might be easier than trying to explain the plot, though. Praising a book about a Jesuit mission to another planet in a way that doesn't immediately invite others to judge me harshly is difficult.

On the upside, the author deserves to make more money from her wonderful creation. It's nice to know that Brad Pitt has good taste in books.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Reinventing America

Whenever I meet someone here, they ask me why I decided to come here. Some of it is ‘why Serbia?’, but a lot of it is 'why move halfway across the world?' ‘why start over somewhere new?’ (‘your poor mother.’) I can answer the first, but the second is really hard to communicate – and not only because of language barriers.

People don’t start over here, in the same way Americans do. It isn’t a normal thing to move to a new city and make a new life because one thinks life would be better somewhere else, because one can.

Reinvention seems to be an integral part of the American experience. Among my -- admittedly non-representative -- group of friends, there are Americans who are working in Greece, Nigeria (previously in Italy and France), Northern Ireland, and Ghana (after a year each in Egypt and Malaysia). There are people who have returned to the states after working in Spain, Mexico, and Ecuador. I won’t even try to count the internal migrants. I always seemed to be running into ex-Buffaloans and ex-Floridians in Portland.

And this doesn’t seem to be a phenomenon restricted to the educated, the middle class and above, etc. When I was working with people on public assistance, people who were born in Texas and lived for a while in Wisconsin before settling in Oregon (or similar migrations) were not unusual.

To me, today, this encouragement to reinvention, to starting a new life in a new place, is my favorite thing about the States. I like the improvisation and excitement it entails. Unlike equality or democracy, it seems to be something that happens in practice, an ideal that is lived out. People don’t settle. That is good.

weekend update

I spent the weekend in Nis and Babusnica in southern Serbia with my friend, D. She’s my first friend here who doesn’t speak English. I was really nervous about the weekend – would I be able to communicate at all? It was lovely. Some highlights:

We spent Friday night watching TV – English language programs with Serbian subtitles. She read. I listened.

Nis put on a show for us Saturday morning. It was sunny and warm as she took me on an idiosyncratic tour of the city: the old fort, a shopping mall, a floating café/bar for cappuccinos. My guidebook says there is a tower with skulls imbedded in it. We never saw it.

On Saturday afternoon we drove to Babusnica, D’s home town –a village of 5,000 in the mountains. Her friend drove us. We stopped often along the route so D’s boyfriend could test out his new digital camera.

The hospitality was overwhelming. D’s mom made us a huge spread: cooked vegetables, ajvar, two kinds of cheese, bread, and pickles. She sat there watching us eat. Every time I started to slow my pace, she asked me if I liked the food. When I said I did, she put more on my plate. I was so full. We spent the evening going from one of D’s friend’s house to another. I must have had 7 cups of coffee. I feel bad refusing anything offered to me.

On Saturday night, we went out to a café/bar for “rock night.” I was amused to watch D spend a half hour on makeup only to sit in a very underlit place where no one could appreciate her handiwork. When I arrived, the bartender/DJ started playing grunge in my honor Soundgarden is from Seattle, right? Very nice, especially since Evanescense was on when we walked in.

D was not so subtly trying to set me up with one of her friends. It didn’t happen. Big language barriers & living six hours apart do not make for a romance in my book. He and I couldn’t communicate well at all, although I did manage to explain to him that I grew up thinking of Serbia as the bad guy in the region, and that most Americans, when they have heard of Serbia at all, have that impression. I don't think he was super excited to hear that.

And that’s my weekend.

Friday, March 03, 2006

such thing as a free lunch

Shortly after we arrived in Prijepolje on Monday, a few of us stopped in a little restaurant for some burek and yogurt. The others chatted with the men in the place as we ate. I listened.

When we were done, one of the men in the place made a big show of paying for our lunch - about 5 euros total - with a crisp new 50 euro note. He also passed out his business cards which said he worked in export/import (AKA smuggling). I thought to myself: he's an obnoxious machista, but at least I got a free lunch. I knew I was only going to be in the town for 3 more hours & had no plans to be back, so I didn't worry.

That act of lunch-buying has provoked endless hours of post-gaming in my office. The story has been told many many times & our reactions questioned & discussed. Should we have let him buy us lunch with his ill-gotten money? Was it a patriarchal power play? Why didn't we demand to pay for ourselves? And - direct at me - does this kind of thing happen in America?

Maybe I'm not as pure in my feminism as my companions, but I'm really not that concerned about it. A man bought us lunch; it doesn't seem to be a big deal to me. With my lesser understanding of the language and culture, I might have missed something important. Even if he was a bigger jerk than I thought, we still will never see him again.

We have another meeting on Monday. I'm sure it will come up again.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


I spent over half of my Monday - 13 hours - on the bus. For work, I went to the titular town in South Serbia for a commemoration of the 13th anniversary of a massacre in Strpci, a nearby town. Muslims were taken off a train and killed.

It was nearly identical to the commemoration I attended in October in another Sandzak town: a lot of time on the bus, a panel discussion, a march, throwing some roses in a river, watching mothers cry. The towns even looked similar enough that I wasn't sure that we weren't in the same place for a hour or so. Some slight variations: there was no English speaker on the panel and there were movies on the bus. It's a bit troubling that these things are starting to feel routine. At this one I had a special purpose, beyond just swelling the ranks. I was the videographer. It was my job to record everything. It was nice to feel useful, although by focusing so much energy on holding my hands steady, I totally missed what most of the people at the panel discussion said.

Maybe I should replay my video and figure it out. I probably won't bother.

nights at the movies

The Belgrade Film Festival is going on right now, which is fabulous. It's my one chance to see movies that are not the big blockbusters. Unfortunately, English subtitles are not consistent, so I've restricted my movie-watching to English-language films.

On Friday night, K from Banja Luka, a fellow BVSer, and I took in Syriana, which wasn't part of the festival. We both fell asleep - not a good sign. The 'official festival' films have been much better.

Brokeback Mountain made me want to move to the mountains. The scenery was beautiful but the film was really hard for me to watch. It hurts to see people who are so unhappy & who seem to accept that as the way life is supposed to be, who aren't doing anything to change their situation. The theater we were in, which seats 4,000 (by far the largest movie theater I have ever seen) was really full, which gave me hope for increasing tolerance in Serbian society. If a few thousand people want to spend their Saturday afternoon watching gay cowboys, maybe people won't be attacked the next time they try to organize a gay pride parade in Belgrade. . .

On Sunday night, I saw Mrs. Henderson Presents. I knew nothing about the movie except that Judi Dench was in it. It was satisfying. She plays the same character she always plays, the spunky old lady who speaks her mind, but I like that character so I didn't mind. I don't know if she deserves a best actress oscar, though.

And on the schedule for the next few days is The Constant Gardener and possibly Tommy or Hair on Sunday night, depending on when I get back from a weekend trip to Nis. The film museum is showing movies from or inspired by 1968.

And this film is nowhere in sight. (thanks, A, for alerting me of its existence.)