Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Thursday, April 27, 2006

No. I am not dead.

I am back to my normal life after a visit from my mother, father, grandmother and brother and travels to Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, and Split.

I will write more of these adventures after futher reflection.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Working in an office entirely comprised of women and gay men, the topic of men comes up often. When we have big meetings with outsiders, a few of my friends will point out the cutest of the group. Others tell me which stars they have crushes on.

My tastes in boys are a little eclectic (my imaginary boyfriends include Barack Obama, Ira Glass, Johnny Depp, Craig Thompson, Jon Stewart, and after some recent The O.C. watching, Adam Brody), so I can expect others to make interesting choices. . .

But I never see what others see. The men they point out are never people that I find particularly attractive. These guys are average-looking at best. I suppose it speaks well of the world that we are not all ingrained with one universal beauty standard.

Case in point: Rambo Amadeus. He joined the band for one song during the Grupa Kal concert I went to last Friday night with some friends. One of my companions, a friend down from Novi Sad, told me that she thinks he's "sooooo hot." He's not bad-looking by any means & is talented musically and is good politically. I suppose that his music and coining of the term turbo-folk might make him a worthy crush-object, but on his physical attributes alone. . . not so much.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

mail call

Do you want a postcard? Let me know and e-mail me your address if you think I don’t have it.

My family is coming to visit soon and can carry mail back to the states for me. [I have had bad luck with the Serbian postal system.]


The conference room in which I spent much of last weekend looked like it could have been decorated by my 11 year old self. The walls were turquoise with purple trim. There were oddly-shaped mirrors all over the walls. There were columns that had thin vertical stripes of the aforementioned purple and turquoise. The tablecloths were pale pink and the carpet was bright blue. And probably most bizarrely, there were pine branches in flower pots along the front wall. They were very unsightly – most of the needles had turned brown – but it did make the room smell nice.

words, words, words

I have spent some time over the past few days thinking about words. Don’t the experts say that words illustrate what a society values, like the Eskimos who have dozens of words for snow. Since we think in words, what does it mean that words exist in some languages, but not in others?

Serbian has a word for ‘a person who rides a bus without a ticket.’ Someone asked me the English equivalent & I told her that there isn’t one. She told me that that must mean that people who speak English are more honest than Serbians.

The Hungarian language differentiates between slippers that just cover ones toes and the kind that cover the entire foot, like regular shoes. Serbian and English do not have such nuances in slipper vocabulary. Why does Hungarian differentiate? Can slipper style really be that important?

This lack of equivalent words also has political ramifications. In English the adjective ‘Serb’ is generally used to refer to someone or something of Serb ethnicity while ‘Serbian’ describes someone or something having to do with the territory of Serbia. I just learned that there is no equivalent nuance in Serbian. This means that ethnic Serbs who live in Bosnia call themselves ‘Serbs’ while ethnic minorities in Serbia don’t have an easy way to say ‘I am a citizen of Serbia’ without making it seem like they are denying their ethnic heritage. On of the speakers at the conference last weekend spoke of this. Maybe the awkward hypenation that is so common in America can catch on here. ‘I am a Hungarian-Serb’ doesn’t have the best ring to it, but it might be better than the alternatives.


Nearly all of the past week has been devoted to the topics of politics and religion. WiB launched its new series of workshops: ‘Warning Signs of Fundamentalism and Feminist Responses’ with a ‘training of trainers’ conference last weekend. We sat in a conference room and listened to academics and other experts talk about strategies of Muslim fundamentalist in Western Europe, New Age spirituality and Fundamentalism, Feminist tactics for confronting fundamentalism, etc. etc. etc.

And, by some grand coincidence, a bill on churches and religious communities was recently introduced to the Serbian parliament. It is intentionally worded very vaguely (which is super frustrating for one helping to translate it), but looks like it will have the effect of permitting state funding for religious institutions, removing all state oversight from religious schools, and dividing religious communities into ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional,’ which could lay the groundwork for future discrimination. Additionally, the designation of ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’ appears to be arbitrary. Some churches, such as the Pentecostals are labeled traditional even though their presence here is quite recent.

So WiB and other NGOs held a protest of this law on Friday. On Wednesday, I was told to make a banner. I spent Wednesday night, much of Thursday, and Friday morning sewing ‘zene protiv fundamentalizama women against fundamentalism’ onto a white sheet. That’s a lot of letters. It took quite a while.

And all this religion and politics shows no signs of letting up. I am even scheduled to speak at the next ‘training of trainers’ in a few weeks.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

night at the movies

I watched Lord of War Monday night. It was showed as part of the 'Small Arms and Light Weapons Film Festival' (cheery, I know) at the Yugoslav Film Museum. It was sponsored by the United Nations Development Program and involved free appetizers - and the movie was free too.

I decided to watch it after hearing B and K praise it late last week and to give Nicolas Cage another chance. A and my brother have both praised him to me and I just don't see it. He usually does a good job, but has never blown me away.

This film was very good, very interesting, very good dialogue. Or maybe that's just because it was free. My judgement of movies get clouded when they are free. I really liked Legally Blonde because I paid no money to see it & Babe: Pig in the City will always have a special place in my heart because the film kept falling off the reel & I ended up with two free drinks & two free movie passes.

The film is about an arms trader - it's grim & the anti-light weapons people definately made their point.

The best moment of the film was when Nicolas is complaining that one of the warlords in Africa just signed a peace treaty & Nicolas won't be able to deliver a planeload of weapons, "let's send them to the Balkans. . . they always have a war when they say they will." Everyone laughed. It was a bitter laugh, but they laughed.

Monday, April 03, 2006

I am being followed

It is getting closer.

Portland, Northern Greece, it's after me.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

quarterly report

Six months ago – nearly to the minute – I arrived in Serbia. A quarter of the time I am scheduled to be here has passed. Craziness. I feel like I should be sharing some grand insight into life in Belgrade, but there wasn’t a flash of lightening as I rolled out of bed this morning.

One thing that has been on my mind for the past week or so is spending my time in ‘Serbian ways.’ On the nights that I hole up in my flat to watch movies or stay in to clean, cook, and do laundry, I feel a bit like I am wasting the precious time I have here, that I am not taking ‘full advantage’ of the city I am living in. This is becoming stronger now that it is warmer, now that it’s so cold, doesn’t overrule any desire to leave the house.

It’s pointless, though. Wasted emotional energy. I am trying to get over it. I can’t go out on the town every night; it isn’t feasible physically, financially, mentally. I never had any sort of feelings like this in Portland, where I lived for less time than I will live here. A night spent of TV on DVD marathoning with friends was a perfectly acceptable way to pass a Saturday night there, so why does it feel strange to do that here? (Some friends and I watched 5 episodes of Gilmore Girls last night.) Comfort and solace and mental health days are just as important here –if not more so- as they were in my previous life.

It’s time to stop feeling weird about that.

Blok 70

Blok 70 is Belgrade’s Chinatown. It’s basically a big mall where one can buy very cheap imports from China. I went there yesterday to pick up some housewares. My family is visiting in two weeks and it will be nice to have enough glasses for everyone. I also needed some new sunglasses. So I wandered the shops looking at the merchandise. About half of the staff of these shops are Chinese immigrants. When I had questions, bought something, or stumbled into one of the tiny restaurants in search of lunch, I spoke with people in Serbian.

An American conversing with a Chinese person in Serbian: the world is flat.

I’m sure all the locals were wincing at our bad grammar and pronunciation.

On travel

I only told two of my coworkers that I was going to Greece. It feels very awkward and distancing to talk about traveling with them. I am uncomfortable discussing my ease of movement and financial ability to do so with people who do not share it.

I only talk about traveling with the older generations in my office, people who traveled back when it was easy for Yugoslavs to do so. These women tell me that, while I’m in this part of the world, I must go to Athens or Florence or Rome or Vienna. They tell me stories of their visits there 20 years ago or tell me that they wish they still had their summer house on the Croatian coast because they would love to invite me there.

When I mention traveling to the younger people, they say, “I wish I could travel,” and I don’t know how to respond. One coworker keeps telling me to take the trips that she dreams about – most of which involve visiting Iran or Russia’s Pacific ports. Again, I don’t know how to respond.

I discussed this Friday night with B and K, the peace corps volunteers I stayed with in Bulgaria who spent a day in Belgrade as part of a Bosnia-Croatia-Serbia spring break tour. Before they left, they emphasized to coworkers that they were visiting people that they knew, as they have found that that goes over better and is less awkward. That’s probably a better tactic than saying nothing.

another podcast

My brother again made me the topic of his weekly podcast. Most of my words have already appeared on this blog in written form, but should you want to hear the sound of my voice, click here.

Further thoughts on the land of free dessert

It’s a Macedonian (that’s Greek Macedonia – not Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) tradition to have free dessert in restaurants. It’s a tradition that should be exported. My brother and I went out for meals twice – both times enjoying delicious sweets at the end of the meal. One would think that since the dessert is free, the restaurant would skimp. They do not: crepes with ice cream and chocolate sauce one night, chocolate cake after a late lunch.

I spent my last day in Thessaloniki museum-hopping. Fascinating. Whenever I think of Greece I think of ancient Greece, Zeus-worshippers and the like. None of the museums were devoted to that. Thessaloniki wasn’t founded until the Roman times. So I learned of the Macedonian struggle (further proving that while no groups in the region can get along well with each other, they can at least agree on hating the Bulgarians), Byzantine Culture, and the Jewish community (apparently, Thessaloniki was the place to be if you were Jewish between 1500 and World War Two – by 1940, half the city was Jewish.)

When I lived in Cairo, I often spoke to locals who were annoyed that the tourists were only there to see the pyramids and other millennia-old sites. “Don’t these tourists realize that Christianity thrived here in the early BCE, that we have relics of saints on display in the heart of Cairo?” The Copts would say. “Don’t these tourists realize that Cairo was the seat of the Caliphate for a few hundred years, that some of the oldest mosques in the world are here?” The Muslims would say. They hated that no one wanted to see anything that the people living there now felt connected to.

With that in mind, it felt good to investigate other parts of Greek history.