Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Friday, June 30, 2006

With a cameo appearance by Serbia

In my experience, Serbia doesn’t make it into English-language pop culture too often. I only know one western pop song with any reference to Serbia. (‘The Ballad of the Sin Eater’ by Ted Leo name checks Novi Sad, but it also mentions Leeds, Ibiza, Sierra Leone, New Jersey, Kigali, Damascus, and tons of other places.)

In the past week, Serbia has been appearing in interesting places in my pop culture diet:

In a recent This American Life episode, Julia Sweeney tells the funny, funny story of both her and her brother getting cancer (she's a comedian - she makes cancer funny). At one point, her father, instead of dealing with his sick children, immerses himself in Yugoslav history and keeps trying to talk to Julia about Balkan Ghosts and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

In Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, which I just started reading, the titular character writes a book. A Belgrade based translator, wants to translate the book. The name of this translator is the completely un-Serbian, the-author-isn’t-even-trying Jajkj Vljkjkjv. I know that vowels can be scarce in this part of the world and that such things are amusing, but this name is absurd. ‘Kj’ isn’t a common (or ever?) letter combination in Serbian.

I am a few episodes into Extras, Ricky Gervais’ post-The Office project. Each episode is set on a different film set. The second episode takes place on the set of a movie about the war in Bosnia directed by Ben Stiller. Except it is never stated that the movie is about the war in Bosnia. I used my sleuthing skills (the man whose life the movie is based on is named Goran, the set has Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian writing on it, the soldiers’ uniforms have a Serbian seal on them) to figure it out. It seems really strange that they don’t bother to say what the movie is about.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Enter the intern

I have a huge project at work right now, putting together the English version of our website. Thus far, it has involved scanning articles from books that we have published and proof-reading them (because some of the English is terrible, bordering incomprehensible). Soon, I will have to start translating the articles that we do not have English versions of. Good Serbian practice - especially since my language class ended today (no one else was showing up & it isn't financially feasible to have only one student in the class) - but tedious.

Fortunately, I have an intern for the summer. I should say that the organization has an intern, but at times, she is very much my own personal underling - as I was the one in e-mail contact with her before her arrival, explained how things work here, answer most of her questions, and give her most of her tasks. She's an American grad student in Russian and Eastern European studies. Being able to tell her what to do (in a nice way, of course) makes me feel powerful - but not as powerful as I did in my last job where I had up to 40 interns at a time.

In other news, I was outed by anonymous expat in the grocery store. It's weird to meet people in real life that are only known across computer screens. As we parted, she said, 'see you in cyberspace.'

And in other other news, footage of me stripping in the square last week will be included in a documentary that is being made about Women in Black.

Friday, June 23, 2006

obligatory World Cup post

As you should know, we are in the midst of the World Cup. It's a really big deal here, even through the Serbian team is now out of competition.

I'm not one of those football-hating Americans, but I am having a hard time being interested. I like to play soccer, but I'm no good at watching it. Maybe it's my lack of a Y-chromosome, but I just can't sit and watch a full 90 minutes of the sport regularly.

I have caught many parts of games, largely because it is impossible to not have a TV showing a game in one's sightline anywhere in Belgrade. I have seen two games in full: the scoreless-until-the-91st minute Poland Germany match & Portugal-Iran, which I don't remember much of. I was at a brewery with some friends and was much more focused on our conversation than on the game.

Attempting to understand people's love of football, I just read Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's account of his football obsession. It's good and gave me a bit of empathy, but I have no idea how it got turned into a baseball-themed romatic comedy.

My family has an online pool for picking the games. Thus far, my average is 25%, which is a bit embarrassing, but probably understandable given my lack of attention. My dad's only correct 18% of the time.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

It's getting hot in here. . .

It has turned hot here, which is lovely. It is not so lovely in my top-floor, feels-like-an-oven flat. I manage, though, mainly by sitting in front of my fan (which is dying - it's isn't good when they smell like burning) and drinking cold liquids and not spending much time in my flat.

And all of this wouldn’t be very noteworthy except that on the first floor of my building there is an air-conditioning store. It just doesn’t seem fair that I have to walk by a purveyor of all things cool as I climb the stairs towards my own personal hothouse.

. . . so take off all your clothes

Yesterday, I stripped on Belgrade’s main square in front of a crowd of onlookers.

And it wasn’t part of some accidentally-showing-up-naked dream.

It was real life.

It was part of a Women in Black demonstration against religious fundamentalism. About 10 of us walked about a rectangle in a very regimented fashion for ten minutes, wearing dark conservative, concealing clothes. Quite uncomfortable, given the heat. We then began taking off our clothes, stripping to brightly colored swimsuits or T-shirts or sundresses to show our liberation. We then began to walk and skip and spin in our own rhythm before standing in a line holding hands.

I don't think I'm totally on board with the less clothes=more liberated equation, but it was a beautiful piece of street theater and fun and grabbed the attention of people who would not have thought much about religious fundamentalism otherwise.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A dash of pretension

I had my book group last night. Very entertaining. We discussed if our story has a hero, who is the guilty party in the marriage, and if it is more damaging to the male psyche to be considered unsuccessful or a bad lover (with a tangent about whether Balkan and English men have different answers to that question). There was a super well-read participant who made me feel dumb with his references to ‘The Invisible Man,’ ‘Anna Karenina,’ and other classics that I either haven’t read or have forgotten much of. Another participant had read every book by the author and gave us a thorough analysis of common themes in his writing. The story had the words ‘fucking’ and ‘cunt’ in it, both of which were never spoken – even when people read aloud the passages with those words in them.

There was also much searching for what my ninth grade English teacher called ‘the deeper meaning.’ In general, I am not a fan of reading things as symbols and metaphors and our story seemed particularly unsuited for such analysis. I can't imagine the author sitting down and saying, 'not seeing any fish through the glassbottom boat means that we can't see inside each other, even if we try.' During this phase of the discussion, a participant chimed in with the most quotable thing I have heard in a long time: “sex is a metaphor for paying the bills.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Navel Gazing

This place is stretching my body image to its limits.

The clothes that I have brought with me, especially the pants, are all looking ragged. For the past month or so, I have been trying to buy new pants. Throughout this process, the ego has been taking some hits.

In the states, I can walk into a store that caters to the reasonably young and reasonably stylish and find pants that fit me. They are not even the largest pants in the store. Here, that is not the case. I am a giantess. I try on the largest pair of pants in the store and they are too small. There’s nothing quite like having a sales clerk tell you that you are too big for everything in the store. Not good for the ego.

But the clothes that I brought from home are all looser. Have I been shrinking or are the clothes stretching out as I hang them out to dry? Or are my perceptions changing? Women here wear clothes about two sizes tighter than women in Portland do.

Recently, people in my office have decided that I look like Nicole Kidman. They call me ‘Nicole’ and tell me I’m pretty. Good for the ego.

And just a few minutes ago, I weighed myself. If my kilo to pound conversion is correct, I weigh exactly what I did a year ago.

Monday, June 12, 2006


The Inside Man, Spike Lee’s latest offering, just made it to the theater here. While a several month delay from US release date to Serbian release date is common for small movies, I saw this movie in Croatia in April.

Serbian and Croatian are very similar languages. Until about 20 years ago, they were the same language. I have seen movies here with Croatian subtitles. Why the delay?

From what I can tell the Serbians & Croatians did not team up on this film. They didn’t even translate the title the same. In Split, I saw Insajder. Here, they are showing Covek Iznutra. Weird.


I have lost my ability to speak Spanish.

Last week, a woman from Madrid came to visit our office and I could not speak with her. I understood most of what she said, although Spanish accents are very difficult for my Latin-American-accent-trained ear. But I could not say much of anything. I would try to put together sentences in my head and do things like conjugate Spanish verbs in Serbian ways or mix vocabulary terribly. And what I could say had a Serbian accent. Ugly.

I knew this was coming. My ability to write Spanish has been deteriorating over recent months. A week ago, I was typing an e-mail and forgot the word for Friday.

It's so frustrating to be losing my Spanish. In the long term, it will probably be more useful than Serbian. In the short term, it is not, so I will continue to replace Spanish vocabulary with Serbian words.

I am in awe of polyglots.

Further thoughts on race and identity

At my seminar over a week ago, we did an activity in which we drew a pie chart (or ‘cake chart’ in Serbian since pies here are not round) of our identities: mother, activist, woman, etc. It was really interesting to me to see what the other attendees wrote. Nearly everyone had a family identity: daughter, sister, wife, mother. Everyone had a gender identity. There were smokers and drinkers and athletes and readers.

The way people described their locational/ethnic identities were really interesting. There were no Serbs or Serbians. There was a number of Yugoslavs – which really only works for people over 40, people who lived a large portion of their life in Yugoslavia. There were a lot of people without a location-based identity. And then there were the Mediterraneans. I have never heard of such an identity and found it fascinating that people would claim Spain to Syria to Morocco as their home. But these were all people from Montenegro who grew up near the sea. As the rest of the world changed, the sea remains constant. The name of the sea won’t change no matter how many times state’s borders are redrawn. Interesting.

I was one of three people who put ‘white’ as one of their identities. One of the women asked us about why we included white as on of our identities. Does that mean that we are racist? I tried to explain the institutional racism of the United States as best as I could, and how I believe that it is important to recognize the privileges that have accrued to me because of my race, even if I have done nothing to seek them out.

Another woman who listed ‘white’ as one of her identities, T, started quoting bell hooks on white privilege and talked about how she felt guilty for being white. She said her guilt is paralyzing sometimes. I spend a long time talking to her about how bell hooks wasn’t writing for her, she wasn’t challenging white, financially precarious activists in Serbia, but the American white upper middle class. I spoke about this later with another activist friend and she told me that such situations aren’t uncommon here, that Serbian feminism has problems with importing western writers and failing to see that they write for a very specific context.

For more thoughts on race and Serbia, click here. This is fast becoming a feedback loop.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

people watching jackpot

There are many updates to be written of my recent life, but they probably won't make it to the blogosphere until Monday.

warning: I sent some letter across the Atlantic and some of the stories will be repeats. I had a talk with my brother a while ago and he said that it is okay to blog, e-mail, and write the same story more than once. I still have my doubts.

In the meantime, a little story:

Last weekend, I went to a village in Southern Serbia (8 hours on terrible busses each way) for a conference for work on ‘Warning Signs of Fundamentalism and Feminist Responses.’ The conference was interesting, but, for me at least, it was outshined by the people watching in our hotel.

The village is known for its hot spring, which people visit for medicinal reasons. It is right across the street from the hotel & the only reason people come to the village, as best as I can tell. At all hours of the day, there were old people wearing bathrobes and swim caps wandering the hall or waiting for their friends in the lobby. Very entertaining.

That would make it good, but overly dressed high schoolers made it amazing. On Saturday night, the local high school had their prom in the hotel’s dining room. The place was filled with girls in fancy revealing (and generally ugly) dresses and boys in T-shirts and jeans dancing surprisingly awkwardly. The prevailing theory was that the kids were drunk. This prom prompted others to tell stories of their proms, which were very entertaining.

I had no idea that Serbia even had proms.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

art imitates life imitates art

A few nights ago, I met up with a man who made contact with me through Friendster. He is not my new best friend. In addition to his long long (I even yawned in the midst of it) monologue on how the second X-Men movie deviated from the comic books, he told me a series of racist jokes. I can enjoy the occasional racist joke shared with someone I know well when the joke is clever or particularly outrageous and I know the teller believes none of it. I enjoy the funny-because-there-is-a-bit-of-truth-in-it-and-that-makes-everyone-uncomfortable humor of Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock.

But telling unfunny far-from-clever racist jokes to someone you just met? A terrible first impression. Especially since the jokes mocked Mexicans and Indians, groups with minimal-if-any presence in these parts. How can you play around with the stereotypes of groups of people you’ve never met?


Last night, I watched The Believer, a powerful, interesting movie about a Jewish boy who grows up to become a neo-Nazi. It’s interesting to watch him try to reconcile his Jewish past with his fascist ideas. Not a happy film, but highly recommended.


This morning, on my way to language class, I walked by a woman waiting for a bus. On her bag, she had two buttons. The one I saw first had the Star of David inside a red circle with a line through it (in place of the cigarette in no-smoking signage). I was really shocked to see it & broke stride to make sure it was really there. Even the Nazi in the film had the good sense to wear a jacket over his swastika T-shirt. After that sunk in, I saw the next button: a cross with the words ‘white pride world wide’ (in English) around it. What is with the overt racism? I don't think I have ever seen someone wearing such things before.


Continuing – and I hope ending this racist trend – we were taught the derivation of a slur for Germans in my language class. I already knew the word, but I didn't know that it’s derived from the Serbian word for cockroach.