Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Thursday, May 31, 2007

I hate bureaucracy

I have never been particularly fond of bureaucracy (who is?), but over the past few days, my distaste for it has grown.

I have spent much of this week working on a grant application. This potential funder requires a ridiculous amount of supporting documents. It requires a lot of forms that are supposedly to conform with US anti-terrorism legislation, but none of our other US-based funders require such things. I spent hours gathering our financial records for the past four years and entering them into the funder’s super-complicated form. I am a college-educated native speaker and I had trouble with it. How are organizations without such a person able to apply?

(Or maybe it’s just that I am losing my edge. First I couldn’t understand Pirates 3, now this… early senility?)

The potential funder also wants all of our founding and governing documents in English and Serbian. I was extremely happy to see that English versions already exist. I was less excited when I discovered that there are no electronic copies of the original Serbian versions. So I spent yesterday afternoon scanning them and running the ones in Latin script through a optical character recognition program. The Cyrillic texts will remain jpegs, as we don’t have the software. Not that they will look at them anyway...


And this isn’t even my #1 reason for hating bureaucracy over the past few days. On Monday night, one of my favorite people in the world called me. He will be spending the summer in Amsterdam and we worked out details of when I will visit him there in July. Conspicuously absent from the conversation was any discussion about visas. As an American, I don’t have to think about such things – at least in this corner of the world.

When I arrived at work yesterday, everything was in an uproar. My boss was just denied a Schengen visa. (That’s a visa for all—or nearly all [I haven’t looked into the details and am not inclined to do so right now.] of Western Europe.) She has received one for the past seven years. Her application included a guarantee letter from a German foundation and a letter of invitation from a member of the European Parliament. She’s a middle-aged lady with a job she is passionate about and a husband who will remain here—not an overstay risk in any way that I can imagine.

Just because of the locations of our births, I can traipse across this continent—which isn’t even my home—to visit friends, while she has to stand in lines, prepare all sorts of supporting documents, and cross her fingers that the powers that be will let her accompany women who lost their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons in Srebrenica on a speaking tour. That was what she was planning to do next week.

Again (can it ever be said enough times?), I hate bureaucracy.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The world (or at least Belgrade) is small

I am becoming friends with MK, someone who contacted me after a work-related google led her to this blog. We have a ridiculous number of things in common. We are the same age, are from the same region of the US, both started college in Boston, both work in the NGO sector, and are charming, intelligent, beautiful and modest.

On Sunday, I joined her and a friend for a drink. MK explained how we met and I—, her friend, told me that she reads my blog. And she remembers what I have written. At points in the conversation, she would say things like, “yeah, so your brother was in Greece last year…” Slightly disconcerting that she would know such things, that anyone who doesn’t know me would pay attention to my ramblings, but also flattering.

At one point, I started telling a story about a guy she met a few days previously at a party. He’s Japanese, studying Yugoslav history at the university.

Doubting the existence of two Japanese Yugoslav history scholars in this town, I interrupted. “What’s his name? I think I know him.”

“It starts with a K, I think,” said I—.

“K—?” I asked.

“That’s it,” she answered.

“Wait,” MK joined in. “Does he wear glasses? I think I met him at a club.”

I’ve heard people describe Belgrade as a really big village. With happenings like these, I am starting to believe them.

disappointment at the movies...

In the past few weeks, I saw two of the big summer blockbusters, Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Both of them could have been much much better. Why do movie-makers now feel the need to make plots so convoluted? The moment Pirates 3 ended, I turned to my movie watching companion and said, ‘I can’t tell you what happened in that movie?’ That shouldn’t happen. I should be able to recount the plot of a summer blockbuster…

The reviewer at slate.com described the watching that movie as passing 'through confusion and boredom into a state of Buddhist passivity.’ So true. And while Johnny was easy on the eyes, he wasn’t ridiculous or quotable in the way he was in the first of the series. Disappointment. And why did his entrance involve his nose taking up the whole screen? I mean, I'm sure there are a number of people in the audience there purely because of his beauty... why do that?

But hope does spring eternal, as they say. I just finished a New York Times Magazine article about Judd Apatow, the creator of Freaks and Geeks, my favorite television show ever. He’s coming out with a new film this summer and it features about half the cast from that show. It’s good to see that Martin Starr is getting work.

Now, if only it makes it to screens in Belgrade

Friday, May 25, 2007

Language frustration, RIP

Over the past few weeks, I have made my peace with Serbian…

No one—except people who are trying to flatter me—thinks that I am a native speaker, but it is rare that I can’t make myself understood or understand what others want to tell me. I have even started to be able to have interesting discussions in this language. Just this morning, I finished my first book read for pleasure in Serbian, that great masterwork of Serbian literature Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret? (One of my favorite parts of the book was the footnotes explaining things like Thanksgiving.) So, I have a fourth grade reading level. Not too shabby, really. It’s satisfying… maybe the hours spent with flashcards are starting to pay off.

I’m still not skilled enough to do much translating from English to Serbian (Mrzim padeže.), but a new task at work has been to check other people’s English to Serbian translations. It’s satisfying to catch it when people mistranslate homonyms or don’t understand metaphors. On Monday night, I spent hours watching a documentary about war profiteering in Iraq, checking the first draft of Serbian subtitles. Lots of thick—mostly Southern—accents. It took me a few tries to decipher them; the translator stood no chance.

As part of that project, I explained the non-sexual meaning of ‘incestuous,’ as in “Washington is a very incestuous town.” Always good to discuss sleeping with relatives in the office.


And now that language has ceased to be a fount of frustration and anxiety, I am finding all sorts of other things to be nervous and worried about arising to take its place (post-November plans being number one on the list). Not too satisfying…

Thursday, May 17, 2007

I am trying, but not very successfully, to view the whole thing as flattering

The director of my volunteer program is in town. I’ve spent the day with him wandering around the city center, drinking coffee, and introducing him to the people I work with.

A few hours back, I helped him check into a hotel. This was done nearly all in English. (The desk clerk spoke English well & when such things are the case, it’s nice to include the monolingual American in the discussion, especially as he is the one who will be staying in the hotel.) At the end of the check-in procedures, the woman turned to me and said, ‘Do you speak Serbian?’ When I replied with, ‘a little, I’m learning,’ she told me, in Serbian, that if I plan to "accompany" the gentleman in his room, I will have to leave an ID document at the front desk.

My parents and grandmother stayed at the same hotel a year ago; they even checked in with the same desk clerk, but no such comment was made, even though I spent a few hours in their rooms watching TV, helping them settle in, and chatting.

I felt like I was reclaiming my virtue when, just a moment later, in full view of the desk clerk, I saw my director off at the elevator and walked home.

I don’t think I will be using that hotel again.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Not so much in praise of the parliamentary system

A companion piece to an earlier post, of sorts

And in other voting-related news, Serbia has a new government—finally—after the elections in January. Back in January, I was a fan of the parliamentary system; proportional representation is such a fine idea. The past four months of constant news about negotiations between political parties to form a new government (and the final result being exactly what most people were predicting in the days after the election) has made me appreciate the simplicity of the winner-take-all American electoral system (well, except for the electoral college, which is still ridiculous [and the 2000 pregnant chad debacle and the most recent Washington State governor’s race]).

So no one is too surprised by the new government, but it does come as some relief. The acting leader (the official leader is on trial in The Hague) of the Serbian Radical (and not in a good way) Party became assembly speaker for a bit.

After five days of him, the more centrist parties that are in the government look lovely by comparison.

in which I get all deep about Eurovision

I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have heard the song since that victorious night, on car radios, at last night’s victory concert, sung by random passersby. I’m not sick of it yet. If you want to join in the fun and have this song become your constant companion, click here.

And it’s really hard to not get all deeper meaning about it, even though it makes me feel like an 8th grader writing a book report. What does it mean that Europe picked a ballad in Serbian sung by a lesbian (The rumors have been confirmed.) as the best song and the runner up was a Ukranian drag queen? Sign of acceptance or a restriction of sexual minorities to The Annual Freak Parade (to steal JC's words)?

And what does it mean that Martti Ahtisaari, Finnish UN Special Envoy for the Kosovo Final Status Negotiations, made a special public congratulatory statement to Marija (the singer) and Marija herself talked about this victory being for a ‘new Serbia?’

Can a cheesy, but very good, pop song really be that significant?

And in probably my favorite bit of look, there is significance here, last night’s celebratory ‘Thank You, Marija’ event was at Belgrade City Hall, which is located more-or-less across the street from the Federal Assembly Building, where the Milošević memorial was held 14 months ago. Not only was the average age of the attendees at last night’s event decades younger than the average age at Milošević’s shindig, but they were all facing in the opposite direction. Look, it’s the new Serbia facing a new direction. So heavy-handed.


A parting tip for future Eurovision watchers: while it may seem clever at first to have ‘every time they switch languages mid-song, have a drink’ be part of the evening’s festivities, I would advise against it. Inevitably, there will be a song like this year’s Romanian entrant; six guys, each of whom sing in a different language tell someone (the same someone?) that they love her. My glass was affixed to my cup for three solid minutes, only stopping to refill at the musical interlude.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

‘Mi’ smo pobedili

So, a few weeks ago, when my friends and I were planning our Eurovision party, I said, ‘if Serbia wins, I will come back next year to see Eurovision in Belgrade.’ [I am planning to blow this popsicle stand in November.] I never thought it would actually happen. I mean, the song is lovely, but its in Serbian. The singer has a beautiful voice, but her physical form… not so much. As much as I’d like such things not to matter, I recognize that they do. It’s even rumored that she’s a lesbian. That might play well in the Low Countries and Scandinavia, but not as well in the former Soviet bloc.

But she won…

So I’ll be returning to Belgrade next year. Friends and I even made a pact to meet up next year and then every five years wherever Eurovision is taking place for reunion and cheesy spectacle-watching.

I spent the night with friends, watching the show and realizing that naša pesma had a shot. Sadly, this year’s show was short on singing monsters (although there was a song about vampires and lots of gothy chicks), dancers emerging from pianos, and dancing robots. I still think Andorra, with a French speaking group of seventeen year olds (so emo—they looked like they needed a hug and a bowl of soup) playing music reminiscent of Blink 182—but about saving the world—were the best.

And then the voting: I know I am dorky to say such a thing, but I enjoy watching the votes roll in. It’s interesting to see the regionalism at play in who the votes go to. Of course, Greece got the top place in Cypriots’ votes and Moldova gave the most points to Romania. I think it’s a distinct advantage for the Ex-Yu region that it is now 6 countries—and if I recall correctly, Serbia got top votes from all of them. My palms are still sore from all of the cheering as I watched the votes roll in.

And throughout it all, I kept using ‘we’ to refer to Serbia. It’ the first time I have done such a thing, but it felt really good. And after ‘we’ won, we headed to Belgrade’s main square where people gathered to celebrate, singing ‘our’ winning song (I need to learn all of the words) and chanting ‘Serbia, Serbia, Serbia.’


I so often feel like an outsider in this place. It was nice to have a night of belonging… even if it was because of a lovely, but cheesy, pop song.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ekstra Fanci

The number of English words that have crept into Serbian is quite astounding and I am very thankful for all of them.

My favorites, though, are the words that don’t mean the same thing in Serbian. None of these words have yet become proper Serbian, but I enjoy them.

In Tutin, I met a girl who said the word ‘extra,’ or as it is spelled here, ‘ekstra’ all the time. But for her, it is a synonym of good. ‘That’s really extra.’ So amusing.

M and her friends use the word ‘fancy’ as a pejorative for the Pink/Grand/kitsch culture that is dominant here and that they strongly dislike. Most people don’t use the word with any negative connotation. Even though I know that, I was a bit taken aback when M’s mom told me that I looked ‘fanci’ on the day I left Zaječar.

Appendix Appendix

I spent last weekend with M, in her hometown, Zaječar. It’s in Eastern Serbia, a few kilometers from Bulgaria, in a region known as ‘the appendix of Serbia’ (at least that is what I was told). Some thoughts, experiences, etc. of the trip:

-I think a lot of why I was invited a long was to serve as a buffer between M and many of the people in her life. Things couldn’t get too intense between her and her parents, between her and her ex-girlfriend, or her and her ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend (one of the most attractive people that I have seen in real life in months), if I am sitting in the room trying to follow along with the conversation.

-I think I ate only one meal a day, but I definitely made up for any caloric deficiency that that would have cause with coffee and beer consumption.

-I have long thought that Serbia is where American TV comes to die. There are all sorts of odd shows that are on the air here, some of which get quite a following. M’s friends are really into That 70s Show, which is broadcast a few times per day on the town TV station. I also watched an episode of a cartoon called Funky Cops, about bell-bottom wearing disco cops in San Francisco. Bizarre.

-M’s brother is the closest thing to a white hat that I have come across in Serbia. If his room had had a Dave Matthews Band poster, if would have been complete. Even though I was never particularly fond of those guys, there was something strangely comforting about running into one here.

-On Saturday night we attended a maskenball (costume party) at the local youth cultural center. I felt bad that had no costume, but it turned out that no one was dressed up. Of about 100 people, there were five in costume, counting M’s ex who wasn’t dressed up, but since she’s a bit gothy the party organizers thought she was. (How I missed E.) There was a 300 euro prize for the best costume. Had I put any effort into putting together a costume, I could have walked away with it (and crossed something off my life list).

-On a few tipsy nights, we played a word game. The first person said a word and the next person repeated that word and added another. At first, we played with random words in Serbian [I chimed in with my favorites—kikiriki (peanut), fioka (drawer), and piksla (ashtray).] We then switched to making actual sentences:

Juče, ja
Juče, ja sam
Juče, ja sam bila gola
Juče, ja sam bila gola na
Juče, ja sam bila gola na travanu…

(Yesterday, I was naked in a field…)

All the while, I was nervously awaiting my turn, hoping not to embarrass myself too terribly with my bad grammar.

We also played a round or two in English. My favorite go-round, started with ‘hello, my uncle is crazy and very nuts…’ It turned M’s friend’s living room into a strange, strange _________-Anonymous meeting.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

All About M

M is a coworker of mine who is fast becoming a friend. We pass slow afternoons in the office watching music videos online and discussing The L Word. She has an obsession with the show that is really amusing. The theme song is here ‘you just got a text message’ tone. She's a popular girl, so it means that it is constantly going off. I can’t even count the number of times that we have had conversations about which of the lesbians we know are most like the characters on the show. (Her resemblance to Shane, both physically and personality-ly is uncanny.) Not being a lesbian means that I am like no one. There is no unequivocally straight girl on the show.

In addition to being fun, M is also one of the strongest people that I know. She’s only 20, but has had enough living to fill at least three decades.

A small example of this is her coming out story, which is horrendous. She’s from a small city. When she came out, her family disowned her and sent her to a psychiatrist, spending what little money they had in hopes of ‘curing’ her. She spent months in a medicated stupor, arguing with her family and being harassed by nearly everyone in town. At one point, she convinced a male friend of hers to act as her boyfriend, so everyone would leave her alone. That didn’t work.

She ended up moving in with her grandparents across town, but still argued with her parents all the time. This came to a head when, during an argument with her father, she punched a hole in the wall, screaming that if he didn’t kill her she would do it herself. She was sent to a mental hospital, where she was put on more drugs and slept away most of three months.

After all of this, her mother realized that M was ‘still her daughter’ and that she still loves her. She started to accept her…

Unsurprisingly, M moved to the big city as soon as she could. (I find it interesting that the come-out-then-move-to-the-city narrative is dominant here too.)

And if this story isn’t heartbreaking enough, M still has all sorts of health problems, after effects from the medicines she was put on. Those drugs surely weren’t designed for curing homosexuality.

And still some people would insist that this whole ugly episode was her choice.

I spent last weekend with M in her hometown. Fascinating. I will try to shape my thoughts and experiences into something coherent and post it soon.