Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Other people’s words

My main project right now is working on a booklet about religious pacifism. I am compiling profiles of religiously pacifist individuals and groups that the Women will translate and distribute in collection with an educational program that confronts religious fundamentalism. “Look, religion isn’t all bad…” or some such.

In the process of researching, I’ve had the chance to read the writings of very articulate folks. Here is a selection of some of the best rhetoric I have discovered. I don’t agree with all of it, especially the please-please-martyr-me tone of the Christian Peacemaker Team call to action, but these are good, articulate words. Yes, eloquent rhetoric makes me happy. Yes, I am nerdy.

From Desmond Tutu, the best speaker I have ever heard in person:

“Jesus did not say, ‘if I be lifted up, I will draw some.’ Jesus said, ‘if I be lifted up, I will draw all, all, all, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It’s one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All.”


“It is a moral universe that we inhabit, and good and right equity matter in the universe of the God we worship.”

From Rabia Harris, the founder and coordinator of The Muslim Peace Fellowship:

“If the religion we follow makes our lives cramped, fearful, resentful, obsessive, then we are not following the religion taught by The Mercy to the Worlds [Mohammed]. If the Lord we adore fills us with rage or despair, arrogance or ennui, then we are not adoring The Cherisher and Sustainer of the human being. If the God we serve makes us a burden rather than a blessing, then we are not serving The Revealer of the Generous Qur’an.”


"To deny our responsibility to one another, and for one another… is to decline being fully human, to choose to be something less than we are created to be, which means to tyrannize ourselves.”

From a speech given by Ron Sider at the 1984 Mennonite World Congress that led to the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams:

“We must be prepared to die by the thousands. Those who believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die… Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time… Unless we… are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we never really meant what we said, and we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands filled with injustice. Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce conflict, we should confess that we never really meant that the cross was an alternative to the sword.”


One thing that I have learned—and been surprised by—while doing this research is that I don’t think I am a pacifist. War is bad and should never be a first response, but sometimes it should be the last option. On many pacifist websites, there are attempts to answer The Hitler Question (‘…but what about Hitler, how would you silly pacifists have dealt with him?’) Each unconvincing answer (in a pacifist world, he never would have been in power in the first place; the Danes saved some Jews; etc.) has left me less certain of the morality of strict pacifism.

big break #3

[My first big break in the Serbian media happened in November 2005. My foray into movie stardom occurred last July.]

Women in Black had a vigil on Monday, marking the eighth anniversary of a war crime in Suva Reka, Kosovo. Forty-eight Kosovar Albanians, 47 of them members of the same family were killed by Serbian Interior Ministry Police (this isn’t quite the right way to translate their job title, but I haven’t yet figured out a better translation.)

We stood on the square for an hour. Of course, the press showed up. (We have vigils so often & the press always comes. It doesn’t seem particularly newsworthy at this point, but I am not complaining.) A photo of me, and two people standing next to me, was published in the leftist daily the following day.

I guess I’m some sort of famous now. Not a very impressive sort.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

bracing for imminent invasions

I have spent much time in the past week corresponding with and thinking about possible visitors. If all goes as it could, I could have six visitors in the warm months.

It’s all very flattering. I mean, I like Belgrade a lot, but I know that no one is coming just to see Kalemegdan or Nikola Tesla’s ashes. This reassures me that I haven’t been such as terrible a friend as I have feared for the past 18 months. I have found it really hard to maintain my friendships by e-mail. I have realized that I don’t want to be a long-term expat, so far away from folks that matter. (Unfortunately, I have made friends here that I know I will miss as soon as I return. I just can’t win.)

Regardless, I am very much looking forward to showing off my life here, and in some cases, reciprocating the visit and seeing how my friends are living in other corners of this continent.

nothing too noteworthy

It’s been a while. I have realized that my life is fairly routine right now, or at least the things that would have seen exciting and blog-worthy a year ago, aren’t any more. I’m not sure if I should be excited or disappointed about that.

A few mildly amusing things have happened that I suppose are worth noting:

I have realized that living alone makes me ridiculously rigid. Last night, while making samosas, I listened to Barack Obama’s speech at the DNC because I always listen to that speech while making samosas. (Or at least the 3 times I have ever made samosas, I have listened to that speech.)

I learned today in my Serbian class that the word for needles, like on a tree, is the diminutive form of the word for needles used to sew. Small easy-to-remember things like that make me very happy.

A few minutes later after I made this discovery, my teacher asked me about the connection between the words ‘iron’ and ‘irony.’ I suppose I am super unobservant, but I never noticed that irony is just iron+y.

I am going to give up movies for a while. I find that my first reaction is to criticize… I think taking a vacation from the form will renew my sense of wonder.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

the sight on the street

Last night, Iron Maiden had a concert in Belgrade (yeah, we get all the hot new stars). They are still really popular here. When the tickets for the show went on sale, there was a long line at one of the ticket selling venues when I walked past it before 9 am.

Yesterday, I ran a few errands yesterday afternoon and everywhere I went there were crowds of people wearing Iron Maiden T-shirts. Not a normal sight on the high-fashion streets of Belgrade, but very good people watching.

I never wear the T-shirt of a band I am seeing in concert. Part of that is I don't buy too many band's T-shirts (or go to too many concerts, frankly. Wearing the T-shirt of the band playing is just too earnest for me, but apparently it is the hip thing to do here (and plenty of people do it in other places as well).

Monday, March 12, 2007

Movies, yet again

For a while, I have wanted to start watching more local films, but I have felt intimidated. English subtitling is rare and I haven’t been feeling very confident with my Serbian recently.

But faced with an evening of not particularly interesting small talk with an acquaintance who speaks no English, (my language has reached a point where I can small talk very well, but an interesting conversation with nuances is beyond me. I can say, ‘I like this book,’ but explaining why in an intelligent way is not yet in my skill set.) we opted for the movies.

Klopka,’ which had previously been recommended to me by a coworker, was playing at a theater near me. So we went. (If there is justice in the world, it will soon by playing at a theater near you too.) And I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to follow the story. I didn’t catch every word of dialogue, but I didn’t miss any significant plot points—at least as far as I know.

And I was pleasantly surprised by the film as well. It’s the story of a family with a son who has a heart problem and requires an expensive operation in German and his parents’ desperate efforts to raise the necessary 26,000 euros. I have heard multiple times that it 'captures modern Serbian life' better than any recent film.

The direction was good, the story compelling, and the film was well acted, but the most satisfying part of the story for me was seeing my current reality reflected back at me on the screen. The story occurs in Belgrade, so I could recognize places—but it was more enjoyable to see the smaller details. The family’s apartment has the same kind of light fixtures as mine. They use the brand of milk that I use. The clothes that people wear are what I see on the street every day.

I’ve been sitting here for five minutes trying to come up with a thoughtful, graceful concluding sentence, but everything I seem able to produce is hackneyed (‘so now I see why the Hollywood studio system is not for the best and diversity in the media is important,’ ‘movies don’t just expand our horizons, they play an important role in making oneself feel legitimate,’ etc. etc.), so I’ll allow you to create your own elegant way to conclude this thought.

It’s like a mad-lib.

A night on the town

I spent my Friday night celebrating a friend’s birthday at a club that looks like a cave and plays indie pop (the first time I have heard The Postal Service in a public place here – it appears unlikely that it will approach the ubiquity they achieved in Portland, where they were even played in the Fred Meyer), drinking and chatting with an interesting mix of folks – Serbians, French, Finnish, Americans. I learned that the minimum wage in Finland is about $10 US.

Some of the Americans were college study abroaders based in Zagreb, here for the weekend. It had been a very long time since I had spent time with American college students. I was asked about my own college years, major, etc. more times in that night than I had been in at least the last year, possibly longer. I just don’t spend that much time thinking about my college life. It was AGES ago. A few months ago, I got a letter about my 5 year college reunion that started with the phrase, ‘we’ve been apart for longer than we were together….’

And the college kids are all so young. Drinking in a bar is still a novelty for them. Consequently, they have that unhealthy relationship with alcohol typical of 20 year old Americans – one threw up, another stumbled along as we helped him back to his hotel. There was not a chance that he would have been able to find it on his own.

Further proof, as if any more is needed, that having the American drinking age be 21 is not a good policy.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

flowers or powers?

Happy International Women's Day!

I spent a bit of today holding a sign celebrating women's autonomy before the police told us to leave. Even though another group said they'd share their permit with us, the police didn't see it that way. At least it was sunny and I met a Portlander.

The main event in the square today was not us, but something sponsored by Avon. For the past few days there have been people all over the place selling flowers and hearts. I've witnessed longer than normal lines in chocolate shops.

So, International Women's Day is losing it's orginal political character, and becoming more of a one-sided Valentine's Day, with some stuff for mothers and friends thrown in. I guess such things are to be expected; no one calls it Mother's Day for Peace anymore either.

And it lessens my American guilt slightly to see that the rest of the world is capable of stripping all of the importance from a holiday without any North American assistance. (No one cares about International Women's Day in the states.)

Monday, March 05, 2007

sign of spring

I gave my first set of directions to a map-clutching, enormous backpack-toting trio of tourists on my way to work today. They were the first tourist I have helped this year...

I am hoping that my helpfulness is being noted somewhere, so the next time I am a clueless know-nothing, someone will appear to direct me to the train station (or help me with whatever it is I am searching for).

Saturday, March 03, 2007

On babies

I spent Friday night hanging out with a 20 month old. A coworker invited me to tag along on her regular Friday night visit to her sister’s. It was great. I don’t have any children in my life here—or even my life at home. [I know I am at an age where reproducing is not unusual, but so far my friends, my brother, and most everyone else that I know in my age cohort are ignoring our biological clocks.] It’s been nearly two years since I spent any quality time with a toddler.

My friend, the baby’s mother (who, for the record, is 31), and I sat and drank tea and played ball with the little girl. All the while, Teletubbiesi (as they are know here) played in the background. It’s dubbed in Serbian & ridiculous, but fun to watch. M, the little girl, received the DVD only 3 days ago. She is already obsessed. The only crying of the night was when Teletubbiesi was turned off. We also spent some time looking at a children’s picture dictionary, asking M to point out the horses, houses, and puppies. It was a Disney dictionary that the girl’s mother, and my friend had when they were little. M also rode her big wheel around the flat.

It was surprisingly comforting to see that the trappings of childhood here—or at least of M’s childhood- are so familiar.

More movie notes

Day Night Day Night, which I saw on Thursday, is one of the most haunting movies I have seen in a while. A few times per year, I try to see a movie that I know nothing about. This was one such movie and I was surprised and satisfied. It’s the story of a suicide bomber in New York City. The audience learns nothing, not what her cause is or even her name. In the credits, she is listed only as ‘she.’ My moving going companion and I debated that approach and a few plot points for quite a while after the film ended. It’s a slow film, almost meditative, with minimal dialogue, but fascinating. I’ve seen a few yellow backpacks [what she carries her bomb in] in the past few days. They now make me nervous.

Breaking and Entering was not so intriguing. I wanted to see it because Juliette Binoche plays a Bosnian refugee. She does it well – even saying some phrases in the local language [but speaking English with a Russian accent—I couldn’t have stated that there is a different between Russian- and BCS- (as I hear the American university language departments call Bosno-Croato-Serbian) accented English until her words just didn’t sound quite right]. Her performance did not redeem the film.

Maybe it plays differently in Peoria, but here, to me, it felt exploitative and minimizing to group escaping the siege of Sarajevo with melodramatic plot points like a possibly autistic daughter and a series of robberies. Dramatizing the conflict Juliette’s half-Bosniak half-Serb son has with his Serb relatives shouldn’t be followed by the subplot about the coworker who has a crush on the cleaning lady. The parallels don’t work for me. Maybe they should. Should war and ethnic tensions be as boilerplate in such movies as marital problems? Maybe such things should be portrayed as everyday occurrences? Should the movie get some credit for a least trying to connect the story of a ridiculously wealthy urban planner with the lives of those in the neighborhood he is gentrifying?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Seriousness, as requested by my mother

A few days ago, my mother asked me for my thoughts on the two recent news stories about Serbia that made it onto NPR – The Hague ruling & soccer hooliganism (what an image this place has).

Last Saturday afternoon, buzzing on cold medicine, I took a short walk around my neighborhood. I hadn’t been outside for a day or so and thought that some air would do me good. And at one point on my walk, I was forced to seek refuge on a side street because of a parade of soccer fans with a large police escort. It was all very surreal. And that’s really all I have to say about such things.

And my feelings about the ICJ ruling are a bit more complicated. (I am realizing I could never be one of those bloggers who instantly responds to the newest news items. I just don’t think that fast.) I am frustrated by the fact that the Court found that the Serbian government could have taken action to prevent atrocities, but didn’t, but that the state was not found guilty of genocide.

Over the last few days, I have been pondering concepts of guilt and responsibility. One of the conclusions I have come to is that I could never be a lawyer. I have a hard time separating criminal guilt from moral responsibility. The Serbian state had the power to prevent deaths but did not exercise that power; there is moral responsibility there. For better or worse, the ICJ doesn’t deal in morality. Should institutions be asked to tackle questions of morality? Public shaming isn’t in fashion anymore.

In addition to pondering these ‘big issues,’ I am dealing with the fallout of the ruling on a far more personal level. It saddened and frustrated coworkers. Adding to this frustration is the decision of Women in Black to cancel our public commemoration of the crimes in Strpci (14 years ago yesterday, Bosniak men were taken off a train and massacred by Serb paramilitaries in South Serbia). This decision was made because of fears for our safety—there was a rally outside the US embassy yesterday; our vigil was planned to start near the rally’s ending time, only a 15 minute walk away. Women in Black activists were afraid of energized ralliers turning violent towards us.

Because of all this, everyone’s been quicker to anger than usual. I am hoping that this passes quickly.

Frivolity, as wanted by me

The Belgrade Film Festival, one of my favorite things about this city, is on now. It’s a welcome distraction from the recent news. In addition to being able to see interesting movies from all parts, I enjoy this time of year because my work becomes much more relaxed, as everyone shifts their scheduled to accommodate movie showtimes.

Thus far, I have seen only three films, Babel, Imitation of Life, and Little Miss Sunshine. Short reflections:

Babel was a really hard movie to watch – I knew enough going in not to expect happiness. It’s hard for me to watch people make one bad decision after another. And echoing the sentiments of my family members, it really should have been at least two movies. I’m glad I saw it, though and not just because my attempt to explain the plot in my language class resulted in my acquisition of the Serbian words for ‘deaf,’ ‘sign language,’ ‘to injure,’ and ‘veterinarian.’

Imitation of Life was ridiculous, melodramatic, and satisfying. There was swelling music and crises every ten minutes for the two hours of the film. It was a bit strange to follow the story of a black woman trying to pass as white when the print was so bad that everyone was purple-tinted. I was half-hoping for the surprise twist ending of everyone actually being aliens.

I liked Little Miss Sunshine more than I expected to. It's not a best picture, but it is a fun way to amuse myself for a few hours. I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I was watching it in a theater in the states. Much of the film is so America-specific. After the film, I explained to my Serbian companion that child beauty pageants really happen like that in the states. Many times, I was the only one laughing. It reminded me of seeing School of Rock in Woodinville; my mother and I laughed more than everyone else in the sold-out theater put together.

Maybe I should say I should have seen it in an American city.