Pustolovina: adventure in Serbian

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

George W. Bush: ethical?

All of the work time I have been spending on religious fundamentalism seems not to be enough, as I recently started reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris, a book my aunt sent me, on of the recent crop of stridently atheist books being published in the US and UK these days. I don’t agree with many of its arguments, but it makes for interesting reading. Over breakfast this morning, I read the following:

We need only to image how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons-weapons that would have allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property…most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort. A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.

Consider the all too facile comparisons that have been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.)… How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs? Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers? Whether or not you admire the man’s politics—or the man—there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person. What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons? What would Hitler have done? They would have used them rather differently.

I have never been part of the ‘Bush and Hitler are the same/only difference is the name’ crowd, but neither am I a member of his fan club. After reading this passage, I had to concede, (and it feels like quite a concession) that George Bush, while I don’t agree with him on many things (anything?), is an ethical human being, at least as far as not actively desiring the destruction of innocent individuals makes one ethical.

If it’s good enough for presidents, why not patriarchs?

I spent the weekend on Zlatar, what I would call a big hill, in Southern Serbia. I had a work seminar on ‘Warning Signs of Fundamentalism and Feminist Responses.’ It was a lovely place – rolling green hills with villages about. It was nice to escape the sweltering city for a bit. Even the water tasted sweeter there. (Which was nice, as the food at the hotel was terrible. I ate mostly cheese and bread for four days.)

I gave my now-routine talk about the religious left. Look, now that we’ve spent days talking about religious fundamentalism, I am going to tell you that religion isn’t all bad. It went well. As always, the Q&A afterwards was interesting.

Someone asked me about the hierarchy in my church, how leaders are chosen. ‘We have an election,’ I replied. ‘The term lasts for four years.’ People were surprised by that, which, in turn, surprised me. Electing the leader of a denomination is a standard practice in Protestantism. Even the Southern Baptists, not known for their progressive views, elect their leaders. That is not how it is done in Orthodoxy. I hadn’t really thought about that before. Yes... I know its obvious, but I hadn't formed the thought before.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Post Father’s Day Clearance

There have been a few ‘I should write about this’ ideas floating about in my head over the past week or so. Here they are:

I was recently told that I speak Serbian better than the King of Yugoslavia. He was born out of the country (or in a room in London that was temporarily considered part of Yugoslavia just so they could say he was born there) and spent most of his life abroad. Apparently, he’s been studying Serbian for the past fifteen years. Maybe it isn’t saying too much, but it’s still a really nice compliment.

Women in Black recently published a booklet on religious pacifism. I co-wrote it. Much of my job as of late has become being ‘that religious girl who says religion isn’t necessarily bad, but who supports secularism and is against fundamentalism.’ I like this niche and am trying to figure out how I can turn it into a career.

The English word ‘refugee’ is about refuge, what the refugees are seeking, while the Serbian word for refugee, izbeglica, is related to izbeći, to avoid or escape. I am not going to read any deeper meaning into how refugees are seen by both societies. I am not qualified and being so essentialist about language troubles me, but I think it is interesting how these words are constructed.

A few weeks back, an American friend and I spoke about gender in language and how weird a concept it is. During the conversation, I realized that when I am speaking Serbian, I think about people’s genders constantly. Any time I want to say something I think to myself, ‘okay, she’s female, so this is how I construct it…’ Again, I don’t know what the ‘deeper meaning’ of this is, but it’s curious and a little troubling that I always think of people’s gender. It’s not as if I don’t notice others’ gender when I am speaking English, but it is not something I consciously focus in the same way.

My immediate-family-minus-me is going to Portland today for the annual gathering of our church. I am jealous. A weekend seminar on fundamentalism on a mountain in southern Serbia is lovely, but it just doesn’t compare.

I will be going home in five months. I am supposed to be starting to make plans for that. More and more people are starting to ask me about these as-yet-inexistent plans. I am having a really hard time imagining myself not in this place. My fingers are crossed that such thinking will become easier when it starts to turn colder in the fall.

I feel like I have been working a lot recently, between the grant from hell, translating a book, and attending seminars many weekend. Last night, I checked my schedule and realized that I only have one work-free day in June. (Sure, there were a couple of weekend days where I just put in a couple of hours of translating in the mornings.) That day was last Saturday. No wonder I am feeling burned out.

And I am trying to care about tennis. Serbian teniseri players are high on the world rang-list. People talk about it all the time now, but I still can’t manage to work up enthusiasm. There was a big gathering for the triumphant returnees from The French Open a few weeks back. Even though it was only a block from my house and would have been good people watching, I couldn’t muster up the effort.

To je to.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A bit more drama

I had long suspected my friend R of having more than platonic feelings towards me.

I don’t reciprocate such emotions, but I didn’t know how to address the situation. We speak Serbian together, so anything I would say would lack nuance. But, even if we communicated in English, I still wouldn’t know what to say. An unprompted ‘just so you know, I am not attracted to you’ seems like the height of presumption and rudeness. Is there a way to nip it in the bud?

Last night, I had my prompting to say such things. Over lemonade in Kalemegdan, R told me that he loved me, that he has loved me practically since we met. He even managed to work a few mentions of marriage into this declaration of love. ('Very Austen-esque' was JW’s commentary.)

I told him that he is my friend, that I don’t want to date him. (The thought of marrying anyone at this point in my life is horrifying.) I tried to be as diplomatic and ethical as I could. After I said that I didn’t love him, he suggested I take a month to think it over. Since he had been thinking about telling me this for a month, I should take a month to respond was the thought process. In the abstract, I suppose there is some logic there, in reality: not so much. I told him that I wasn’t going to change my decision, but he insisted, saying I could take even until September if I needed to. I lost the argument; I will be having this same awkward conversation again in July.

After this conversation played out, I made a move to go home. He asked that I stick around for twenty more minutes, as his bus runs infrequently at night. I acquiesced to that small thing; it was an awkward twenty minutes.

It’s hard to talk about movies after a declaration of love.

Monday, June 18, 2007


I got the best haircut I have had in a long time Saturday morning. Maybe the cut itself wasn't the greatest - my hair has been thinned to an almost-ridiculous degree, but the experience was great.

I went to a place that a woman I know from work recommended. She always has great hair. She’s also in her mid-60’s so I was expecting an old lady salon. No one there—clients or stylists—was over 30, which makes me think even more highly of my friend.

I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. My haircut vocabulary is terrible in English. My usual request is ‘shorter, relatively low maintenance, and please don’t make me look like a triangle head,’ which is typically interpreted well. It had been five months since my last haircut – which I got at my favorite beer-serving punk rock barbershop – but it had kept its shape surprisingly well, so all I had to say this time was ‘shorter.’

But I am getting ahead of myself. The best part of the whole experience was the shampooing. It had been a long time since I had leaned back into a fancy salon sink. (The punks don’t do such things.) Having someone else wash my hair—especially when the shampooing involves scalp massage—is among the best feelings that I know.

And the haircut was good, too. My friend warned me in advance that the hairdresser is not one who chats (something that a foreign friend was warned about a different hairdresser – I think it’s strange that such things are warned about.), so I felt okay when the conversation stopped after a few pleasantries. She echoed the only-in-Serbia comment that I look like Nicole Kidman. I am not one to chat at the salon, anyway, as I like my hairdresser to be giving my hair their full attention… although there was that one time that I read aloud part of a Rushdie novel to F and the punk that was cutting her hair…

And she blow dried my hair straight, which was nice and something I am too impatient to do for myself. I became straight-haired Rachel (which feels like an alternate personality) for a few day, laughing at myself while I showered with a plastic bag on my head to preserve my straight locks.


Months ago in my Serbian class, we read a newspaper article about unemployment. It said that the day after men get fired, they spend all day in the kafana. Women head to the salon after they lose a job. I didn’t understand it then, but now I see why.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A dash of theology

Over the weekend, I attended a seminar on ‘Warning Signs of Fundamentalism and Feminist Responses.’ I gave a lecture on ‘The Religious Left’ as part of the program. I spoke in English, as my Serbian is not yet advanced enough for much nuance.

I used the ‘go the extra mile’ part of the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate a ‘Jesus supported resistance to authorities’ point. It turns out that the Serbian translation of that phrase is ‘go the extra hour.’ It doesn’t really change the meaning of the idea, but it is curious.

I learned about a discrepancy in translation that is a bit more troubling on the car ride home. A friend asked me about the English translation of ‘Love thy neighbor.’ I translated it to Serbian for her and explained how it is typically interpreted to mean ‘love everyone.’ She said that the Serbian version is much different. She told me that the Serbian version of that passage is ‘Love thy nearest’ and is usually taken to mean ‘love your family.’ It’s interesting—and also troubling—that the translations and interpretations vary so dramatically.


I guess that is just another reason (are more needed?) not to take every word in the Bible as the literal truth.

In which I know neither Georgian and Abkhazian history and politics or how to speak Russian

Late last week, a group of women from Georgia (the country, not the state) and Abkhazia came to my office. It was interesting and I realized how profoundly ignorant I am about that region—discovering the vast areas of my inexpertise seems to be a theme of recent weeks.

It wasn’t quite as interesting for me as it could have been, as the lingua franca between the visitors and my coworkers was Russian. Listening to them speak, reminded me of the beginning of my time here, when I could only understand a few works per sentence, mostly English cognates.

I spent the hours of discussion straining to pick out the shared words between Serbian and Russian, trying to make sense of what people were saying. What I understood was quite interesting. People drew parallels between the breakaway Abkhazia region of Georgia and Serbia’s own Kosovo, discussing UN precedents, similarities and differences in the regions’ histories, etc. The women from Georgia did not support Abkhazian independence—many of them are ethic Georgian refugees from that region—while Women in Black supports Kosovo independence. It was interesting to watch the women from each group try to make sense of each other.

As I walked home that night, I wondered when—if ever—I would use my Serbian after my return to the US. It’s not much of a lingua franca.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

apparently, Serbia is not always the bad guy

It's nice to see that the NYT is giving Serbia some positive press.

In other news of my life, I have realized that the random layout of the keyboard is good for something. If one is removing diacritics from a Serbian text because the computer of a Frenchman one is collaborating with can't read those characters, one's movement is economized. C, Z, D, and S are the only letters I type when doing such a task.

(And yes, I know that taking out the diacritical marks can change words, but I think that is better than have random characters or '_' appear in the middle of words.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Thanks and no thanks, Mrs. Harris

Over the past few weeks, there have been torrential downpours most evenings. The sky opens up around 6 in the evening and sheets of water fall, drenching anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside. I have taken to carrying an umbrella with me everywhere and trying to be inside in the early evening.

Last night, I had plans for a lecture at 7. When the nightly storm started at 6, I seriously considered not going. But I went. (Would I still be able to claim Seattle as my home town if rain kept me indoors?) I walked and bussed my way to the hall, passing crowds of people gathered in any covered space, waiting out the rain.

I am glad I faced the rain. The lecturer, a Bulgarian professor at an American college promoting a new edition of her book, was interesting and engaging. She discussed ‘Balkanism’ and concepts of Europe and The Near East. Her vocabulary was amazing—-she used palimpsest as one of her central metaphors. Thankfully, my seventh grade world history teacher spent at least one class period teaching us the meaning of that word.

One of the most interesting ideas that I took away from the lecture was that the first meaning of the word ‘Europe,’ as used by the ancient Greeks, referred to the continental land to the north, i.e. the Balkans. The earliest conceptions of ‘The Near East’ meant the Orthodox/Byzantine lands of Southeastern Europe, i.e. the Balkans. So while the earliest meanings of Europe and the Near East referred to this part of the world, now one calls this place the Near East and there are debates about whether it is truly part of ‘Europe.’ Curious…

After the lecture, a few friends and I went out for a drink. Our discussion touched on the fall of the Roman Empire and I realized how huge the holes are in my knowledge of European history. I was embarrassed. It wasn’t even that I had learned things and since forgotten them. I have never learned European history. My seventh grade world history class barely made it to AD. (Not that I really remember anything about the Mesopotamians or the Minoans, but at least I recieved instruction about them at some point.) My knowledge picks up again with the Corn Laws and The Treaty of Westphalia, and the reconquista, things I picked up in political science and Spanish classes, respectively. Maybe I should learn European history in my vast quantities of spare time.

But ask me about palimpsests and I am your woman.