Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Thursday, September 28, 2006

in praise of Celts

Like any language student, I am a huge fan of cognates.

Unsurprisingly, most Serbian-English cognates are modern words: televizija/television, feminizam/feminism, vaterpolo/waterpolo, etc.

There are a few words that are not modern ideas that I thought, until recently, were just happy accidents, convinient-for-me, but random, allignments of sounds: gost/guest, sestra/sister, and others.

It turns out, there is more to it than that.

According to the explanation of a reliable source, a Serbian woman who teaches English here, milennia ago, there were Celts in these parts. They left behind some Celtic words that were later incorporated into Serbian. Then, these (or other) Celts made their way to the British Isles where some of the same words were absorbed into early English. These words then made their way into modern English.

These words aren't just similar. They are cognates; they have the same root.

I find this historical coincidence stunning, amazing, hard to wrap my head around.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

the evil empire

One of my classmates, T, the man from Japan, spent the weekend in Paris. Today was his first day back after his trip. We spent the first few minutes of class looking over his photos. I’ve never been one of those Americans who have a thing about Paris, but looking at his photos, I realized that it is a really beautiful place. Maybe I’ll have to get myself there.

And he brought back presents for us. Take a moment to think of all the things that one could bring back from Paris… None of these are what T chose to give us. He brought back Starbucks coffee.

I’m excited about it, though. Starbucks has happy memories for me. It’s from my hometown. My suburb has three that share a parking lot. I’ve spent many a lovely afternoon reading and eavesdropping in Starbucks. They're quite good to their employees. And now I have a bag of House Blend. I hope that it tastes okay prepared Turkish-style.

September 27th

Today is one of those days, a day that is burned into my memory because of all the anticipation that once surrounded it. The other days like this are my senior prom and my high school and college graduation days.

Slightly over a year ago, my life revolved around my anticipation of September 27th. That was the day that I left the states, that my new European life was to begin. So, in a few hours, when it’s 5pm on the East Coast, I will have been out of the States for a year.

It’s weird to have that day come around again and not mean anything.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


It has been raining intermittently for the past few days.
I am wearing tweed and tights.
Boots-including the ones that look like Muppet feet-have reappeared in shop windows.
The people who sell things in the pedestrian underpass I walk through on my way to work have replaced the sunglasses and tank tops on their refrigerator-boxes-turned-into-tables with umbrellas and hoodies. [But the change of seasons does not affect the demand for bunnies, apparently.]
My laundry takes more than a day to dry.
Stone fruit is becoming more expensive.

The calendars are right. It is fall… so where are my equinox presents?

should you choose to accept it

So the conference that I will be going to is entitled: ‘The kingdom of God today: challenges to Christian mission.’

I suppose that, technically, I could be considered a missionary. My funding organization is called Frontier Internship in Mission. I am here as part of a church (but not my church) program. But I don’t do any evangelizing; I had a much higher conversion rate (1 total in my entire life) among my friends at home. I’m not trying to save souls here; I’m much more concerned with creating a heaven on earth.

Also, I’m not Christian.

And being a missionary really isn’t so cool. I can’t think of anything positive about missionaries. The stereotype is that they are naïve, closed-minded, misguided. Those are things that I try not to be. In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, they do no good. In my favorite novel, The Sparrow (which has been optioned by Brad Pitt, who I have a lot more respect for after he & Ms. Jolie’s decision to not get married until everyone in the US has the freedom to marry… although I still think a movie version would be terrible), a Jesuit mission ends in catastrophe.

Maybe I should start reading books written for a Christian audience. Maybe then, I can find myself a missionary hero. But, if my brief, painful, foray into the Left Behind universe is any guide, I think I would rather not.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Reflecting on the flexibility of my job, I often think to myself “I’ll never be able to work in The States again.” I don’t think I work less here than I did in my old life, I just don’t have timesheets to worry about. I can work at home or at the office and if I work late at night or in the middle of the day is largely up to me.

This belief was reinforced yesterday. I asked my supervisor for most of December and January off for the conference in Cuba and a month-long visit home over Christmas time. She didn’t even blink when telling me it was fine. Where else will I ever work where taking off 40 days (in addition to my numerous other shorter vacations earlier in the year) is fine, even encouraged?

new words

It has been pointed out to me that I am generally negative about my language classes on this blog. I am sorry to have given such an impression. I like going to classes almost always. I guess it’s just easier to write about the one bad teacher than the two good ones.

My classmates are all really interesting. It feels like a mini-UN with an Uzbek, Moroccan, Belgian, Kenyan, Ukrainian, a Chinese girl, a Japanese man and me. (Why is it that writing ‘a Moroccan’ is correct, but ‘a Chinese’ isn’t?) So, in addition to learning Serbian, I get to learn about life in Taskent/Casablanca/Mombassa/etc. Today, after reading a story about a bohemian who vowed to stop drinking and then rewarded himself for keeping his promise with a drink, the Japanese man spoke about how Japanese people generally have firmer characters, showing off our newest vowel-free vocabulary word, cvrst (firm). He continued on to say that this not always good and tried to explain that some Japanese students kill themselves if they don’t get good grades. It was a valiant effort, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to pull it off.

But now he does; we all do. We spent about 20 minutes going over different words for ‘to die.’ Serbian uses different words depending on the cause of death, one for old age and illness and one for war and injury. We also learned how to say ‘to kill,’ ‘to kill oneself’ and ‘to commit suicide.’


Completely unrelatedly, not even in my language class, I learned the word for ‘to slit someone’s throat’ yesterday. It was in a press release that I was translating & wasn’t in my dictionary. A coworker mimed it for me.

Good times.

Friday, September 15, 2006

back to school

I'm back in Serbian classes, which is good for my grammar, but bad for my mental health.

One of my teachers is an insufferable old-school conservative Montenegrin nationalism all-around bad guy. I wouldn't care so much about his politics if he was a good teacher, but he isn't. He likes to talk politics with us, which is lazy teaching and unfair. We really don't have the capacity to make good arguments in Serbian, so he always wins by default.

Yesterday, he turned the topic to religion. He told us how each country should only have one church. American pluralist and secularist that I am, I argued that point, attempting to say that having many churches gives people many choices and keeps church leaders from becoming to powerful. He countered with, 'but churches aren't political parties.' My response was, 'but they act like them' (except filled with stupid grammatical mistakes for sure).

He then moved onto insulting Islam, which brought the Moroccan student into the discussion. She speaks well, so her points were much more coherent than mine.

He's so frustrating, but at least he motivates me to study.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

victory at last

After disappointing performances in both the World Cup and the Basketball World Championships in recent months, Serbian athletes have finally redeemed themselves. On Sunday night, Serbia became the European champion in waterpolo (which is a sport that people pay attention to here).

The match was a short distance from my flat, so throughout the evening, I could hear the crowd’s cheers. After the victory, I could lean out my window and watch the celebratory fireworks. Then, the predominant sound shifted to honking horns, blasting stereos and cheering and singing fans. Had I been more motivated, I would have gone downstairs and people-watched. I’m sure it would have been entertaining.

As it was, I laid in bed listening to the ruckus and after a while went to sleep.

An exciting life, I know.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

a little light reading

Turning my embattered blog away from the political for a moment. . .

On Friday night, I sat in a park drinking wine with D. After he failed at opening the bottle with his teeth (classy I know. And it had a bottle cap, not a cork.), he asked the nearby police officers for help. The opened the bottle for us.

The whole episode, police-enabled public drinking, did not seem out of the ordinary to me. Only upon retelling the incident to A & J, fellow Americans, did it sound strange. Where I come from, one doesn't drink in parks - at least without disguising it - and one would never ask a cop for help with a bottle of wine.

Another amusing (but only because it didn't happen to me) incident: Last night, the aforementioned expats and I went out for fancy curry. As A and I stepped off the bus, her phone somehow leapt out of her purse bounced once and fell down a sewer grate. We stood there for a while hatching plans to retrieve it (if we come back tomorrow, when it's light, with tongs. . .), before realizing that it's a lost cause.

When I got home, I promptly wrote down all of the numbers I have stored in my phone, just in case my phone has a similar death wish.

Friday, September 08, 2006


I had a lovely, sprawling conversation with F this morning, catching up on the events of the past few months.

One of the many questions that she asked me was if I have a different personality when I’m speaking Serbian. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I definitely do. I don’t speak much in my Serbian-language conversations. I ask rather boring questions: “what’s new with you?” “what did you do last night/over the weekend/etc.?” “how is your family?” and then make non-committal replies to others’ responses: “nice,” “interesting,” “really?” I also smile and nod a lot. That is not too similar to my English-language personality.

F called the new, Serbian-language me a ‘politician’s wife,’ friendly but a bit boring (except she didn’t say the boring part – she’s too tactful for such things).

This is good motivation to keep up with my language study. Maybe in a few more months I will develop a halfway tolerable Serbian-language personality.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Book Report

School started in Belgrade yesterday. I woke up to the sound of children playing at the elementary school across the street. There were long lines outside all of the stores selling school supplies last night. In high school, I was always required to show up on the first day of school with a series of essays on books that I had read over the summer. In keeping with that, here is what I read on my recent 24-hours-over-4-days on the bus.

Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan

I was predisposed to not like this book after reading in a far superior book that is was the only book on the region that Clinton read before the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Power argued that the way the conflicts in the region were presented greatly informed Clinton’s belief that conflicts here are intractable. I refuse to believe that any conflict is intractable.

The travelogue aspects of the book are entertaining, as is the biographical sketches of the people he meets in Bulgaria and Romania, but I think the book to too reliant on analogy in its explanations of the region. True, the American audience of the book doesn’t know very much about the Balkans, but calling Kosovo ‘The Balkan West Bank,’ and the Soviet Union ‘The New Ottoman Empire’ (not to mention analogizing Athens and Beirut) is lazy and inaccurate. It made me angry; at times I had to put the book down. (I spent some time thinking about what analogies I would use – I think I would compare Kosovo with Kurdistan, but most people in the west don’t know too much about Kurdistan either, so it’s not a very useful analogy.)

The author also likes to emphasize the exoticness of the region, explicitly stating that he did not spend time in or write about Timisoara, Romania because it was too ‘Central European.’ The Balkans are unusual and interesting, but even Timisoara has aspects of the bizarre (such as ‘My Fair Lady’ in Romanian). It seems like a disservice to the region to only seek out and catalog the most foreign-to-a-western-audience aspects, but it does make for a more entertaining travelogue.

And now a book that I actually like:

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges

I read this book a few years ago & liked it, but wasn’t blown away. It’s one of K-in-Banja-Luka’s favorite books, so I thought I would try it again. Simply amazing. Hedges is a journalist who has spent most of his professional life working in war zones. He was also a student at Harvard Divinity School. He writes about the seductive nature of war, how society shifts during war time and values are inverted. He writes quite a bit about the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosova. His explanations of the start of the conflicts – ethnic divisions manipulated for political purposes and the self-interest of those in power –are much more convincing to me than Kaplan’s. (Or maybe it's what I need to believe. If the conflicts are unsolvable, why am I here?) And it’s beautifully written, like a really well-constructed sermon in which excerpts from classic literature, personal experience, and current events are woven together to deliver a powerful message:

‘to survive as a human being is possible only through love... It does not mean we will avoid war or death. It does not mean that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its mystery, has its own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has power both to resist in our nature what we know we must resist and to affirm what we know we must affirm. And love, as the poets remind us, is eternal.'

And somehow he manages to make it sound much less heavy-handed than I do in my little review.


I can now say that I have salsa danced in a cave converted into a nightclub with a crowd of Kosovar Albanian and Serbian women.

I spent my weekend on the shore of Lake Ohrid, one of the prettiest places I have been in a long time. The lake is huge and beautiful and, if I squinted, looked like the ocean (quite a compliment in my book). I probably won’t be going back there any time soon, as it is a 12 hour bus trip from Belgrade.

It was work that took me to The Republic of Macedonia/FYROM/AlbaniTurkiSlavistan (the names that the country’s residents, the Greeks, and my brother have for it, respectively). The Women’s Peace Coalition (Women in Black + The Kosova Women’s Network) held a conference on women, peace, & security, to share experiences of the war, lobby for women’s involvement in the Kosovo Final Status Negotiations—and peacemaking in general, and build relationships.

It was amazing to hear the Kosovar women talk about their experiences, start crying & say, “I thought I would never cry in front of a Serb.” It was powerful to listen to a young Serb man apologize for all that had been done in his name, to ask for some kind of forgiveness.

Every few months or so, I have experiences that remind me why I am here, that make me feel like I am in the right place, that there is some meaning to the crooked path that brought me here.

This weekend was one of those times.