Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Monday, May 29, 2006

Lost and translated

A few days ago, I was in my neighborhood nerd supply store (as R termed it during his visit) having some photocopies made. On the shelf of books, I spotted the Serbian-language version of Where’s Waldo? It’s called Gde je Gile?

I like that they changed Waldo’s name in order to maintain the alliteration, but is Gile a Serbian name? I don’t think I have met or heard of any Giles since my arrival here. I can think of more common men’s names that begin with ‘G.’ Goran, for example. But Waldo is a rare name in the US – maybe the translator was trying to maintain that.

Yes, deep thoughts as I wait for my copies to be made.

my first billboard

I went to Novi Sad on Saturday, for work, for a demonstration marking international day of women’s health. It doesn’t look like Vojvodina will be declaring independence any time soon. A coworker (can I use that term when we are both volunteers?) and I took the train. I don’t talk to her too often about things unrelated to work, so it was nice to have a chance for some getting to know you conversations.

One topic that came up was travel. She told me of her multiple and ultimately unsuccessful trips to Hungary in ’99 to get a German visa. I have heard that Budapest is a lovely city and asked her about it. “It was nice,” she said. “It was the first time I really saw billboards.” My jaw dropped. Life before billboards? I can’t remember my first billboard – they have always been there. Bizarre to think that someone of my generation, a city-dweller all of her life, can remember seeing her first billboard.

I feel like I understand this place now, more or less, most of the time. And then something comes up like this that totally blindsides me.

more podcasts

Want to hear my family talk about riding the bus? Of course you do. Click here.

Want to hear my brother talk about firewalkers, coffee, basketball and other parts of greek life? Visit his podcastblog (which he tells me is only one word, but I am not sure I believe him) here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

adios, chinelas

This morning, I stumbled on my kitchen floor and broke my chinelas. It made me really sad, sadder than a person should be when it is time to throw away five and a half year old bright orange plastic sandals.

Among my possessions here, they are one of the things that I have had the longest. I bought them after my Nicaraguan host mother insisted that walking barefoot was what was making me sick all the time. [And I was sick nearly constantly for the first month of my time in Managua. There was even a spinal meningitis scare.] Since their purchase, I have been largely healthy and completely protected from all of the sketchy showers that I have encountered.

Writing this, hours later, is making me sad again.

Rest in peace, chinelas. You have served me well.

The World is Still Round

The Montenegrins opted for independence. The immediate outcome of the election seems to be the repetition of the unfunny joke of people my Montenegrin coworkers to show their visas. There is also a lot of rumbling about whether Vojvodina (the autonomous province in the north of Serbia) will follow Montenegro and, most likely, Kosov@ in leaving Serbia.

I just starting reading The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. It’s all about how technology and political and economic integration are making the world a smaller, more competitive place and raising the overall standard of living.

From my corner of the world, this seems like a fantasy. Countries are dividing themselves into smaller and smaller units. (Was it Jon Stewart who said, ‘give the Balkans a few decades and everyone will live in their own independent-republic-of-myself-istan?’) Serbia’s EU accession process is on indefinite hold. I don’t want to be overly pessimistic, but it is hard to draw any parallels between the wonders of offshoring, supply-chaining and open source software and the world that I experience daily. (Okay, not the open source software bit. I use Firefox and you should too.)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

vote early, vote often

Last night was the Eurovision Finals. Unfortunately, there wasn’t quite as much spectacle as in the semifinals (although there was a British man who rapped a terrible rip-off of ‘Parent’s Just Don’t Understand’), nor was the music much improved. I was hoping for a Bosnia and Hercegovinan, Croatian, or FYROMian victory, which would mean that I might be able to watch the finals live next year (this year’s winner hosts next year’s contest). Maybe if Croatia actually had the promised donkey they would have fared better.

As it was, the scary Finnish monsters won in a landslide. The T.a.t.U-reminisced Russia song finished second and the Bosnians were third.

People vote by text message with the votes being aggregated and announced by country. It was interesting to see what was popular in various parts of Europe. Everyone liked the scary monsters & the songs of their neighboring countries. Most places gave a surprising number of points to the terrible Irish entry, a song entitled ‘Every Song is a Cry for Love’ that was both boring and painfully cheesy and earnest. The Nordic countries all liked the Bosnian song.

Only one more year until I get to watch it all over again.

And in other election news, the people of Montenegro are heading to the polls today to decide if they want to remain in union with Serbia. The polls I have seen show an outcome within the margin of error. Interesting times.

The only beer I like to drink here is made in Montenegro. For that selfish, silly reason, I am hoping that they stay together. Yes I am lame, forming my decision about an entire people's self-determination based on my own need for good beer.

Friday, May 19, 2006

My First Eurovision

Last night, I watched the semifinals of the Eurovision song contest. After watching parts of the Eurovision Junior Song Contest last fall, I was hoping that the adult version would also be a spectacle of the bizarre and marvelous. I was not disappointed.

[For my American readers, Eurovision is sort of a proto-American Idol. Each European country (and for these purposes, Europe includes not only Turkey, but Israel and Armenia as well) has a national contest for the best pop song & those winners get to compete at Eurovision.]

My favorite act going into the night was Silvia Night, the Icelandic fake reality TV star. (remember – it’s only 11 months until my next birthday – maybe her store will be working by then.) Unfortunately, she did not make the finals. My new favorite, Lithuania, did. The lyrics of the song, in their entirety, are ‘we are the winners of Eurovision. Vote for the winners,’ repeated over and over again.

I also enjoyed the pretty Cypriot ballad, the Albanian song (because it had a bagpipe), and the catchy Belgian pop song. None of these made the finals. Neither did the bizarrely costumed pop song with spoken word and Spanish interludes from Poland.

Other spectacles of note include the bizarre, monsterous Finnish entrant and the white-painted ballerina who emerged out of a piano during the Russian song. Both of these acts made the finals, so I will get to see them again. There were also lots of women in precariously high boots and minimal other clothing.

The finals include ten songs picked from last night, top finishers from last year, and the countries who pay for the whole thing. I am looking forward to the German country song, the song by the Spanish Las Ketchup (with that name, how can it not be entertaining?) There are also rumors that the Croatian entrant will bring a donkey on stage.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

bloody dishes

Whenever I learn a language, there tends to be a few words that immediately implant in my memory. And these are always words in the I-know-I-will-never-use-that category. Before my family’s trip to Ecuador when I was in 8th grade, we listened to Spanish tapes in the car. Quitasol, the word the voice on the tape used for sun umbrella, immediately lodged in my head. After our arrival, I discovered that not only is it a rather useless word, Ecuadorians use a different word for sun umbrella.

From my brief study of Arabic, and even briefer study of Somali, I have retained the words for different types of arabic calligraphy and spear, respectively. I can no longer count to ten in either language.

The Serbian words for blood vessels, krvni sudovi, which I learned last week, will probably always have a permanent place in my brain. I first learned the word sudovi months ago. It can mean dishes. Krvni is the adjective form of blood. Technically, it’s not ‘bloody’ – that’s krvav – but I didn’t know that when I learned my new phrase. Accompanied by the image of bloody dishes, krvni sudovi lodged in my brain.

I can’t think of a situation – or maybe I just don’t want to think of a situation – in which the word for blood vessels will ever come in handy.

Friday, May 12, 2006

progress. . .

It's been a good few days for my Serbian.

Yesterday, I translated a grant application from Serbian to English. I needed help from my dictionary - of course - but it was much less painful than I expected. My first translation without someone looking over my shoulder and helping along the way.

And this morning, I was able to ask for a kilo of oatmeal at the health food store grammatically correctly (a triumph - the woman there intimidates me) and even made a joke with the radish-selling lady.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

read me

So my 1984 selection was vetoed. They don't have enough copies. I suppose its a sign that I have been living too long in a land of no intellectual property rights when my initial response to such things is 'take the book to a fotokopiranje - problem solved.'

I settled on this short story. Read it. It's a delight, amazingly compact, well-written, excellent. And it won't take you more than 10 minutes.

How I am going to turn this amazing, but only four pages long, piece of writing into an hour and a half of discussion, I have yet to figure out.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

more holidays

Yesterday, was V-E Day, the Day of Victory over Facism, the Day of Europe. To 'celebrate' coworkers and I attended a rally "For Serbia in Europe," or so said the signs. One would think there would be no need for a rally on such a topic; a consultation with an atlas should do the trick, but sadly that is not the case.

The EU has decided to call off stabilization and association discussions with Serbia, due to the government's inability to hand over accused war criminals. Despite this, the EU and Serbian officials are having "working meetings" today, whatever that means.

The rally was satisfying and entertaining, though. My political vocabulary has reached the point that I can understand politicians' speeches. It also helps that they speak slowly. The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party was super charismatic. He took the stage to techno and danced around for a bit. The crowd went wild. His rhetoric was good, a roughly translated exerpt: "the current government gives people hope. It shows that any deliquent can grow up to be president and that the worst student can be minister of law."

After the speeches, we walked around the center waving peace flags and sharing a two-liter bottle of beer. An acquaintance told me of the anti-Milosevic rallies and how much more crowded those were, how much energy there was.

About halfway through the rally and march, I remembered state department advice that foreigners should stay away from political rallies. I am a failure in that regard.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

superlative authors, revisited

Loyal readership,

Who’s the best British author?

More specifically, do you know of any books by British authors about 250 pages in length that would be good selections for a book group? After my first choice, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was rejected (they’re using it for an online book group & don’t want to double up), I am at a loss. I want things that interesting enough to sustain an hour and a half of discussion but still accessible to English Language Learners (so that one novel you love with no punctuation would be a bad choice). Also: they like mysteries and the supernatural. My mom sent me a list of books and they are either too long or the British Council, where I host the book group, does not have them in their library.

I spent a while in my favorite bookstore this evening with minimal results. I perused their English-language offerings looking for something British that I had already read. I realize that I read few British authors. I don’t restrict myself to Americans; I read Canadians, South Africans, Indians, and translations, but I apparently don’t read Brits.

Any suggestions would be most appreciated.



Monday, May 08, 2006

Srpkinja Redemption

There’s a woman I met a few months ago. She lives in the north and in active in a peace group there. My friends in that organization don’t like her very much & I couldn’t figure out why. Sure, whenever I see her, she asks me which new Serbian curses I have learned, which is annoying, but that doesn’t seem reason enough to shun her.

Last week, the story came out. She used to be a turbo-folk singer. She sang songs that praised Arkan. She even toured in the US spreading her messages of nationalism.

And now she says she has changed her views. She was young then, and easily manipulated. Not to excuse her, but how many teenagers wouldn’t sing hateful music if they thought it would bring them stardom? She is active in the peace group and her celebrity status brings them attention that they wouldn’t otherwise get. The leader of the group likes this, but not everyone else. They wonder if she has changed. The rumor is that she is dating a Dutch former-peacekeeper, a Srebrenica-denier, after all.

But what is the point of working for peace if you are unwilling to forgive people? How is there supposed to be progress if people with questionable pasts are excluded from the movement. She and I shared a long conversation last week in which she told me that she regrets the lyrics that used to escape her lips. To me, this is more powerful testimony than that which comes from livelong activists, the people who tell me stories about activist life in the early ‘80s.

The Birthday: continued

I like my birthday to last for a month or so. Adding in the pre-birthday gift opening, I am approaching the three-week mark. Last night was part of the continuing celebration. A friend invited me over for dinner in her flat. When I showed up other friends were there and falafel was frying on the stove. We watched The Simpson –which made it feel like a real Sunday night – and feasted.

Under some pretext we headed to the courtyard where I was surprised to see a triceratops piñata hanging. (My parents have given me a piñata every year but one for my birthday since I moved away from home. This year was no exception.) A sturdy beast, it took us over a half hour to smash it. At one point, a neighbor came out on her porch. Dressed in her dressing gown, I expect her to yell at us to be quiet, but she didn’t. She wanted to know what we were doing & my Serbian companion explained. (My piñata-related vocabulary is sorely lacking.) She wished me happy birthday and enjoyed watching our long, but not futile to destroy the orange dinosaur. Finally, it broke, showering the ground with gelt, candy necklaces, bubbles, jelly beans, pencils, and those capsules that you put in water to watch grow into sponges shaped like animals. Fabulous.

And some cake-eating and a game of Apples to Apples, in which I triumphed, ended the night.

The host of the party had not yet finished my birthday gift, so the month o' birthday is not yet over.

peti maj

"From this far away, they’re all the same place, right?”

wrote my friend N, an American living in Northern Ireland, explaining her cinco de mayo festivities: margaritas and The Motorcycle Diaries.

I followed much the same school of thought when planning my holiday: a few friends over for tacos with Compay Segundo, Manu Chao, and the top dance hits in Managua in the fall of 2000 playing in the background. A friend brought sangria & another supplied the margaritas.

A lovely time was had by all. It’s strange that I feel compelled to celebrate relatively-minor-in-my-old-life holidays here – first St. Patrick’s then cinco de mayo.

Friday, May 05, 2006

in spring, one's thoughts turn to . . . conjugation

It doesn’t feel natural to start classes right when the weather gets warm. It's time for school to end, but not for me. I suppose I can't complain. I wasn't in classes for nearly 3 months.

So I’ve started up with the language classes again. . . I’m sure my friends and coworkers are happy that I will no longer be asking them to explain the finer points of Serbian grammar.

I’ve joined a class about a third of the way through the course. I’m trying to play catch up and doing okay so far. The second course focuses mainly on new vocabulary and expression, which is way easier for me than new grammar. We shall see. . .

The unit we finished this morning is about internal clocks. Today, we took a quiz to see if we are a morning person or a night person (I’m in between). It feels appropriate to be talking about such things as I try to adjust to my new schedule. . .

I am trying to find a new rhythm with my new schedule and have not been successful so far. Class and studying for class adds another few hours of obligations to my day and I am trying to figure out how to squeeze them in without shortchanging fun, sleep, or work. . .

If only I could just tack on another few hours on to the day. . .

Monday, May 01, 2006

language barriers

I have discovered something more difficult than listening to lectures all day in a language I partly understand: listening to lectures all day in two languages that I partly understand. The conference I attended of the weekend was bilingual: Serbian/Italian. I know Spanish well and there is a lot of overlap between it and Italian. So unlike everyone else in the room, who only had to pay attention for the half of the time when the language that they knew fluently was being spoken, I was always listening, trying to piece the lectures together from some Serbian and some Italian and maybe an English cognate or two in there somewhere. Exhausting.

At least during meals, if I was sitting at a table with both Serbians and Italians, everyone spoke English.

Jesus's spokeswoman

I gave a lecture at a conference on fundamentalism on Friday, my topic was ‘progressive christianity.’ I was scheduled for Sunday, but received a call a few hours before the conference began, asking if I could switch my time. I did and then hurriedly prepared my lecture (yes, procrastination is bad.) I spoke about Jesus’s messages of love and justice and nonviolent resistance to authority and how those are ignored and perverted by the religious right. I spoke about MLK Jr. and Desmond Tutu and Oscar Romero. I don’t consider myself a believer in a divine Jesus, (although I am a fan of him as a social theorist/revolutionary, no more divine than the rest of us) so it was strange to be presenting Jesus, praising his messages to a secular audience. It went well and people had many questions, most of which I was able to answer.

One of the questions asked if there were progressive Christians in Europe. I couldn’t think of any right away – I still can’t. I said that centuries ago most European Christian dissidents – of any sort – were persecuted in their home countries and many of them emigrated to the US. It’s strange to think that centuries-old persecution has left Europe without any progressive religious voices, but that appears to be the case. All the progressive Europeans that I know are secular – all of the ones I know in Belgrade are proud nonreligious atheists.


It is rather rare for small American rock groups to play in Belgrade. I have decided that I should support the ones that do come. With this in mind, I went to see Marah last Thursday night. It was entertaining, but probably not in the way the band members had hoped.

They were drunk, high, or a combination of the two beyond belief. The music was okay, but the between song banter was amazing, almost like watching a car crash. The two singers talked about how pretty the Belgrade women are and propositioned the entire (male) first row. They kept saying how playing in Belgrade was a lifelong dream for them. One of the singer told a not-to-be-repeated-in-polite-company story involving candy bars, a pornographic magazine, and talking on the phone to his mother. They also played three encores even though the applause definitely did not warrant it.

Throughout the show, they invited the crowd to hang out with them after the show. Needless to say, I did not take them up on the offer.

family resemblance

I realized some family traits while we were all traipsing about ex-Yu:

We all like to be the leader. This wasn’t an issue in Belgrade or Sarajevo, where I had been and could lead us around until everyone else got their bearings, but came up with a vengeance once we arrived in Croatia. We got a bit turned around getting from the bus station to our hotel. At one moment we had four guidebooks open, each one of us trying to plot a different course to the hotel through the twisting streets up the Dubrovnik hillside.

We all share an inordinate concern for staying out of other people’s way on the sidewalk. I think that most people don’t worry too much if there is someone coming up behind them on the sidewalk, with aims of overtaking them. My family is not most people. We are a considerate group and try to stay out of other people’s ways –so end up yelling at each other any time there is a fast walker behind us.

None of us can make decisions when we are hungry. I know this is a trait of mine. I get hungry and then I can’t decide on a restaurant or what I want to eat. It is particularly acute when traveling. Usually, whoever is my traveling companion can take charge and all will be well. I learned that this is a family trait – a bunch of hungry, approaching irritable people who can’t make a decision is not a fun way to pass the time.

Every day, we had a 15 minute ‘family freakout,’ usually related to one of the aforementioned traits. But 15 unpleasant minutes were more than compensated for by the rest of the day being good.

enter Croatia

There’s just something about Croatia. During a February trip to Zagreb, I was able to stand outside without a coat for the first time this year. During my trip to the coast, I could walk around in a tank top and skirt – glorious. Maybe summer will arrive in Belgrade soon too.

I have been told that the Croatian would be beautiful, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how stunning – and warm – it would be. Old Roman-era buildings right along the shore, ocean, islands. Wandering through tiny streets in search of restaurants, museums, ice cream. Delicious sea food. Being able to show off my local language.

And the tourists. So many tourists. I haven’t been in a touristy place in a while. It was strange to see the shops selling T-shirts and paperweights, and see the people wandering around with their tour groups or clutching their guidebooks or expecting locals to speak their language or toting their high-tech backpacks.

In all, it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Belgrade has grown on me. (My seventh month anniversary in this place is tomorrow.) Seeing the tourists everywhere would get old quick – and I like having to speak the local language.

There were also people selling Ante Gotovina – heroj T-shirts, and lots of graffiti supporting him. Not particularly welcoming.

And we celebrated my birthday with cake on Split’s Trg Republike and a Spike Lee movie, my grandma’s first, I would imagine.


We went to Sarajevo, which, after two visits, I think of as 'the city of perpetual rain, but good beer.' Maybe it's the Balkan Portland.

We stayed in a cute hotel in the center of it all. Cute, but not cloying. Interesting things on the wall. We had to remove dolls and stuffed animals from our beds so we could sleep on them. Old magazines around, French ones, mostly. I tried to take a quiz from a French teen magazine on Leo DiCaprio and failed it miserably. Not too surprising, as I don't know French.

We visited the Synagogue and the Jewish Museum, which had an exhibit about the Viennese Jewish community - but it was all holograms. Very jumbled together holograms. One hologram would have a building, some coins, a book, a hat and a menorah one top of each other. Interesting information and holograms are cool, but this was definately not more than the sum of its parts. I wonder what the curator was thinking. . .

and we celebrated my dad's birthday with good cake. . .

in which I try to cram the entirety of my family's visit into a few paragraphs

I've been meaning to write. . . oh how I've been meaning to write. . . and now everything is piled up and there will be an epic blogging session. (Thankfully today is holiday so I can spend the day on such things.)

My family came to visit and it was lovely, lovely to see them, lovely to show off my life. And we travelled. So many long bus trips. Belgrade-Sarajevo, Sarajevo-Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik-Split, Split-Belgrade. The bus riding wasn't as lovely, but the traveling was great. More stories to follow.