Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Friday, April 27, 2007

a very disappointed person is watching Tootsie right now

I have had a bad headache for the past few days - my fingers are crossed that it is finally gone.

Two days ago, I decided that all I was up for after work was watching a movie. As the British Council was already closed, I turned to my friendly neighborhood software pirater. After flipping through his discs for a bit, I settled on a Dustin Hoffman collection. It had a lot of movies that I hadn't seen and heard were pretty good, Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man, etc. I checked to make sure that there was a disc inside (yeah, I've purchased an empty case before. ) and that the number written on the disc matched the number on the case.

I took the disc home and made some popcorn, preparing to be distracted from the pain in my head. I popped in the disc, but there was no Dustin to be had. There was only pornography. From the titles and images of the movie posters (do such films have posters?), it appears to be the variety that features young women and animals, not my cup of tea.

And not a headache cure.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

random aside

I was doing a bit of wiki-reading (that can't really count as research, can it?) on St. Francis of Assisi & got sucked into the lists of patron saints, which I find fascinating.

I started by looking for someone who could be my patron saint, but I got distracted. My new favorite saint--but I only made it to the Ds-- is St. Drogo (good name, right?). Not only was he able to be in two places at once, he is the patron saint of coffee house owners, cattle, hernias, and those who others find repulsive, quite the combination.

And now back to our regularly scheduled blogging about my life, Serbia, etc.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Good things

This morning at half past six, I was awakened by my phone ringing. It was A (not the self-scalding Portland-dwelling one from the sushi post, one who lives here). ‘Can I come over right now?’ she asked.

‘Okay,’ I replied, fearing the worst. Had she had a fight with her ex-boyfriend/current housemate? Why couldn’t she just wait a few hours? And it’s my birthday. I really don’t want to deal with this right now.

I should have dwelt on the birthday thought a bit longer. But if I had, I would have not been so wonderfully surprised when four excessively-cheerful-for-so-early-in-the-morning friends bearing breakfast appeared at my door and started singing to me. French toast and muffins and juice and pineapple are an excellent way to start a birthday. And when they all left for work, I realized that it isn’t even my birthday yet in my native time zone. It’s a little strange to finish the celebration so early.

Other good things: 16 days until the first night of Eurovision. 29 days until Pirates #3 is released here (both of which I expect to be cheesy and—possibly—not worth looking forward to in such a way, but I am still excited. It’s fun to have a countdown. And my friends have already started planning our Eurovision party. We’re making T-shirts).

A Bit of Commerce

Last night, I finally had a long-anticipated coffee with JV. (We have talked about having coffee for months, made plans, but one of us always had to cancel.) She’s buying something off eBay (‘be an enzyme!’) and wanted me to use my having-a-credit-card-that-bills-to-the-US privilege (which I never thought of as a privilege before) to send the money for her via PayPal. [Bangladesh is in the PayPal network, but Serbia isn’t…what does that mean?]

So my streak of eBay avoidance is coming to an end… does it still count if I am only using the site to help out a friend?

Anyway, at one point in the conversation, she was telling me how local activists frequently copy the actions of western activists without thinking about the local context. An example of this was her involvement in organizing a Buy Nothing Day in Serbia 10 years ago.

“But 10 years ago, Serbia was under international sanctions. Wasn’t every day a Buy Nothing Day?”

“It was,” she sheepishly admitted.

This Buy Nothing Day: Serbian Edition has to be one of the most ridiculous things that I have heard about recently.

Just thinking about it makes me giggle.

Sushi Night

In my old Portland life, my housemates and I used to have semi-regular sushi nights, inviting over friends to make and eat sushi. They were always lovely relaxed evenings filled with fun and often haphazard looking sushi rolls.

At my last Portland Sushi Night (actually at A’s apartment in Hillsboro), one of the more memorable, A managed to scald his leg with miso soup and spent the rest of the night not wearing pants.

After a hiatus of nearly two years, I had my first Belgrade Sushi Night on Sunday—and it passed without major incident. There were no burns or articles of clothing removed.

What there was was delicious eating and good conversation. Silly foodie that I am, I was worried about if the Chinese soy sauce and rice vinegar that I was using would taste too different from their Japanese equivalents. Possibly my taste buds have dulled a bit due to lack of exposure to ethnic food, but I couldn’t taste a major difference.

At the close of the evening, a friend officially labeled my flat ‘the good eating house.’

And to your left, some sort of old thing

I now can speak two words of Albanian, two of the most useless words imaginable: monkey and juggler.


Seventeen Albanian women came to my work on Friday. They are members of women’s groups and came to exchange ideas with us. Some of us joined them for dinner (where, after listening to them sing beautifully, JW and I sang ‘This Land is Your Land’).

I also served as their turistički vodić on Saturday morning, leading them through Kalemegdan and to some shopping areas nearby. We watched street performers for a bit (hence my new Albanian vocabulary). Fun and interesting and a bit ridiculous. It was a good, but strange feeling to be their guide to this town (a task that fell to me because the no other English speakers were available—and I am trying to be more hospitable), sharing history and other insights about this place. I spend so much time feeling like an outsider (even though the nice lady at the natural food store asked if I was an American who was born in Serbia or a ‘real American,’ the first time I’ve received such an endorsement of my language skills [months ago, K in Bosnia told me that people said that to her and I was so jealous.]). It’s interesting to realize that there are others who are more ‘out’ than me.

And I even managed to add to my list of foreign-language equivalents of “it’s Greek to me.” The Albanians say, “you are departing from China.” The Swedes say, “that’s Greek” or “that’s Chinese.”

Friday, April 20, 2007

Srpski, Italijanski, sve jedno

So, I've recently been introduced to The L Word, a silly and overdramatic, but addictive lesbian soap opera that a lot of my friends and collegues here love. (I think I am still partial to Queer as Folk for my queer soap opera needs, but this is fun too.) It seems fair to watch the lesbian soap opera with them and talk about it with them since they watch so many movies with hetrosexual love stories (I mean, what movie doesn't have a heterosexual love story?) with me.

In the most recent episode that I saw, the beautiful art gallery director goes to visit the just-retired director of a foundation that has given her all sorts of money in the past. This woman and her beautiful young foreign lover are being massaged. She says something about 'her Nikola.' And I get excited. That's a name from this part of the world.

The lovers then have a conversation - her part in English, his in BCS (It sounded a bit stilted to me. It wasn't proper beogradski srpski, but was still comprehensible.), with a translator, Vesna, chiming in from across the room. The scene ends and we never see the pair again.

But then, in the credits, he is not 'Nikola,' but 'Orlando' and the translator is credited as 'The Italian Translator.'

The show is silly to begin with, but this is ridiculous.

For my father

Danas je divan dan, divan dan, divan dan

Našem Gregu rođendan, rođendan, rođendan

Živeo, živeo, i srećan nam bio

Živeo, živeo, i srećan nam bio


Estos son las mañanitas que cantaba el Rey David

A los muchachos bonitos se les cantamos así.

Despierta, muy bien, despierta

Mira que amaneció.

Y los pajaritos cantan

La luna ya se metió.

El día que tu naciste,

Nacieron todos los flores

En tu pila del bautismo

Cantarón los reseñores.

Ya viene amanaciedo,

La luz que día nos dió.

Levantate de mañana.

Mira que amaneció.


Eid wiladi, ya gamil

Eid wiladi, ya gamil

Eid wiladi ya habibi

Eid wiladi ya gamil.


Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday, Dear Dad,

Happy Birthday to you.

At least I’m I polyglot when it comes to birthday songs.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Big break #4 - updated

This morning, when I came to my language school, my teacher said, ‘good morning, star’ (in Serbian, of course).

‘What?’ I asked, confused.

‘Today a TV crew is coming to film some of the students.’

And so a group of foreigners was filmed by a crew from a TV station. They asked us how long we have been here, why we came, what we think of Belgrade. We also talked a bit about what we believe in. ‘I believe in friendship,’ was my trite response. Of course, everything we said was pun gresaka (full of mistakes). The segment should be pretty amusing. There was a Frenchman with a thick accent who has only been studying for a few months and made many charming mistakes.

So, I will be making my national television debut (if they don’t edit me out) on Friday morning, as part of a segment of the morning program (more or less ‘Good Morning, Serbia’) on B92. The reporter said it would air sometime between 8:30 and 10:00.

The TV crew said that they will give us copies of the segment. I will post it here eventually… if I am not too ashamed.

I was one of four people that made it through the editing process to make it on the air. If you were watching B92 at approximately 9:50 this morning, I could be seen explaining how I can't say the letter 'lj' or hear the difference between ‘ć’ and ‘č.’

A note on Islam in the Sandzak

In one of the many books on the fall of Yugoslavia that I read in preparation for coming to this neck of the woods, the author described Bosniaks as ‘the world’s worst Muslims.’ If religiosity is measured in kindness, generosity, etc., I would disagree, but that is not what the author intended. She (or he)--all the books I read at that time are now a blur--meant that the Bosnian Muslims don’t as closely follow some of the social norms that are prevalent in other Muslim contexts.

The only other Muslim contexts that I can compare the Sandzak to are the Middle East. (I spent six months in Cairo and traveled a bit in neighboring countries.) I am fonder of the Sandzak school of Islam, at least as I saw in practiced by the people I met. It seems let hung up on rules. I am not a fan of religious rigidity about minor things. (Murder is something to be rigid about, eating meat on Fridays isn't.)

(I have been told that imported Wahhabism is on the rise in the region, but I didn’t come into personal contact with it.)

For one, the relationship to alcohol is more relaxed. It is possible to get a beer in most cafes, although most of the people I was with didn’t drink often. (In Cairo, drinking is only for tourists and done almost exclusively in hotel bars.) When a companion was served an alcoholic beer in place of the non-alcoholic one he ordered, he was annoyed that his order was messed up, but not particularly concerned about his accidental alcohol ingestion.

It seems to be mostly men that drink, though. On my last night in Tutin, I was out at a club (they all close at 11pm) and ran into some of my new acquaintances. A few of them told me ‘I am going crazy tonight.’ It was an odd juxtaposition to then look down at their hand to see they were holding a coca-cola bottle. Drinking a few coca-colas does not seem to be particularly crazy-making.

And the relationships between men and women seem more reasonable than what I experienced in Cairo. (Still, I don’t think I could handle Tutin life on a day-to-day basis.) Men and women touch each other and talk to each other on the streets. Friends kiss each other hello. These are all things that I didn’t see when I was in Cairo… There, I lived in a dorm where guards kept watch to make sure that men and women didn’t touch.

But no one ate pork and the call to prayer was just as lovely.

In the Sandzak, it takes longer for the fish to start stinking.

This is the second year in a row that I have missed Easter. That's okay, though. The crucifixion and empty tomb don't hold a lot of meaning for me. Last year, I was in Serbia for western Easter and Croatia for Orthodox Easter. This year, both Easters were on the same day, but I went to hang out with some Muslims. I spent the Easter holiday in Tutin and Novi Pazar, in the Sandzak region (an area in south Serbia that is majority Muslim).

I spent my time with a colleague and her family, seeing how she passes the time, meeting her friends, attending family gatherings, checking out the local night life. It was lovely. The level of hospitality was amazing. I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything and was given gifts (a pair of shoes—her family owns a shoe factory, kajmak, coffee, lotion) to take back with me.

What amazed me most about the hospitality was that it seemed so pure. What could they have expected in return? I’m not much of a conversationalist in Serbian, I don’t have many connections. I did manage to help my colleague’s son with part of his DaVinci Code videogame. Just sitting on a bus for 6 hours and being willing to listen and being there was enough.

And these mostly strangers who took me in were disappointed that I left after six days. Such a different cultural norm.

There are plans to see them again shortly, probably for the May Day holidays.

Is hating Belgrade a deal-breaker?

[Yes, I feel like a ridiculous Carrie Bradshaw trying to tie a big thought together with a reductive sentence.]

Early last week, I went out for a coffee with an acquaintance. A few minutes in, the conversation turned and I thought, oh, this is a date. And so my mental commentary shifted from ‘should he be a new friend’ to ‘do I want to date him?’

Unfortunately, many of the things that made him entertaining to talk to, made him less attractive. The first among these was his hatred of Belgrade. At one point, he asked me to name 10 things that I like about Belgrade, presenting it as some kind of challenge. Although I am not in love with Belgrade (will a city ever take Portland’s place in my heart?), I like it and named five or six things without effort (how parks are everyone’s living room in the summer, kajmak, that there seems to always be a film festival going on & movie tickets are cheap, my job, how nearly every café is elaborately themed and serves coffee and liquor and pop, the way women dress here [not that I intend to dress like them, but they are very fun to look at], etc.) and quickly filled out the rest of the ten.

But he hates it here.

If he was from here and family, lack of opportunity, ridiculous visa regimes, etc. were keeping him here, I would be more sympathetic. But he isn’t. He’s working for the foreign service of one of the world’s most developed countries. He has the resources to make his life different, but shows no initiative in that direction. And he will be serving in the Balkans for at least the next 15 years. Maybe it’s just the influence of a book I have been reading, but I have a lot of trouble understanding someone who seems to be choosing unhappiness. Especially in a city that is big enough to find a few things that bring joy.

When I asked him what he did for fun, he said sleep.
When I told him that I know some people who are really interested in his country and are learning his native language, he didn’t believe me.
When I mentioned that I had dated a Serbian guy for a bit, he became really harsh and judgmental, surprised that I could be attracted to anyone from here.

(True, not a horror story of dating don't like some dates I went on in the states, but still not the best.)

And now maybe I am being the judgmental one, writing him off like this, but my happiness can be fragile here at times. It just doesn’t seem wise to connect myself too deeply to someone that I know from the start is so gloomy.

I never thought that hating Belgrade could be a deal-breaker, but—at least in this instance—it sure seems to be.

Monday, April 02, 2007


I spent a lovely weekend at a seminar on transitional justice in Jastrebac, a mountain vacation-place a few hours from Belgrade.

The seminar was interesting, but I had heard most of it before. I attended a very similar conference nearly a year and a half ago. This time, though, I could understand what was going on sans translation. Hooray for progress! And now, with my language skills, I 'get to' serve as a minder of sorts for the non-BCS-speaking foreigners who appear among us. This weekend, that meant trying to help out a co-producer of a movie I have heard of, but never got around to seeing, who was filming us.

The real joy of the weekend was being in nature for a bit. It had been ages since I had been out of a city for real (not just looking at the countryside from the window of a train). Wandering around, looking at trees and brooks and mountains and the signs of spring was renewing, even if the underjunk wasn't quite what I am accustomed to.

I had forgotten how clean air can be.