Monday, September 26, 2011

Mađara & more

This weekend, I went on two excursions from Novi Sad. The first was on Saturday morning. I woke up at 5:30 so that I could get ready to catch a bus to Bačko Petrovo Selo, a small village with a population of roughly 7,000, of which 70% are ethnic Hungarians. Igor, the other volunteer, and I were there to document and help Attila, a resident, and his crew of volunteers rebuild old benches in the local park, and pick up trash along the riverside. As far as I could tell, Attila was the only one who spoke any English. Many of the volunteers spoke roughly as much Serbian as I do, and since Hungarian and Serbian are entirely unrelated languages, I didn't understand a word they said in their native tongue. I wasn't alone: Igor spoke no Hungarian either. I felt like an outsider more at that moment than at any other time in my trip.

Volunteers assembling a bench
BPS has only about one or two blocks of "downtown"-- the rest is houses and fields and farms. Igor and I went for a quick walk down to the riverside, where we watched farmers ferrying their tractors and other equipment across: BPS is too small to justify a bridge. Still, they had a football (soccer) field, and what seemed like an active kids' league. Igor explained to me that most small villages have their own football teams, and they often travel locally to play each other.

Ferrying farm equipment
The second excursion was with the other BYP kids. We piled into a van to Subotica, the second largest city in Vojvodina, after Novi Sad. There, we met up (in front of the McDonald's; we joked that it was the only place the Americans would be able to find) with two of Ceca's former students and a local tour guide, who was leading a group of Serbian bankers around the old town hall. All of the signs in Subotica are written in three languages: Serbian cyrillic, Hungarian, and Croatian. The city is only about 10km (6 miles) away from the border with Hungary, and Subotica prides itself on being multiethnic: Hungarians are the plurality, followed by Serbs and Croats and Bunjevci, a small Slavic Catholic ethnic group that is distinct from Croats (not quite sure how).

Old town hall
One of the other BYP-ers asked what the oldest building in Subotica was, and our companions showed us the Franciscan Monastery, which they said was built in the early 1700s. They told us that Subotica didn't have any really old buildings, which amused me and reminded me of a saying I'd heard: in America, 100 years is a long time; in Europe, 100 miles is a long distance.

Synagogue and Holocaust memorial
We also visited the synagogue, which was pretty run down, but still impressive and beautiful, especially the roof. We weren't allowed inside because of fears that the ceiling would collapse. Subotica had one of the largest Jewish populations in Serbia: roughly 7,000. But only around 1,000 survived the fascist occupation, and now the Jewish community numbers around 200. The synagogue is under renovation, but the population simply isn't enough to keep it open. One option is to do as the synagogue in Novi Sad has done: it's now a community center, where you can go to hear classical and choral music. Indeed, the synagogue at Subotica, when reopened, will double as a Jewish culture center.

Chinese food in Serbia: not that different from Chinese food in the US
After lunch (pretty good Chinese food, though to be honest, I prefer Serbian cuisine. Subotica is known for its delicious gulaš, and I'm a little disappointed that we didn't get to try that) we went to the nearby zoo. For the most part, this was really fun. I especially liked the Meerkat exhibit, and I saw the ugliest camel in the world. There were a few sections that were very depressing. The bear and the leopard were kept in cages about as large as my room, and they both looked sad. I know that this sort of mistreatment is by no means unique to Serbia, or even this part of the world; still, the animal rights activist inside of me hurt a little.

A bear, chillin'

Meerkats. Visitors can go into the glass outpost for a closer look.
We played cards on the lakeside for a while, and then drove back to Novi Sad. One thing that I'm still not used to is just how flat Vojvodina is. You see nothing but grain fields for miles in any direction, spotted with both modern farm equipment and horse-drawn plows. Occasionally there's a tower off in the distance, usually the top of some old chapel.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Omladinski Rad i Rođendani

When I've told people about my volunteer service placement at CZOR, I hadn't been able to give any good details on what I'd be doing on a day-to-day basis. A week into work, this is still true.

On Thursday, I helped scan old documents for a cross-boarder project between Hrvatska i Srbija (Croatia and Serbia). Kids from Vukovar, Croatia, and small towns across the Danube in Serbia gave the project pictures from anywhere from the late 1800s to the late 1990s, and even old documents, including property records and military records. One of the people at CZOR was explaining some of the old Serbian documents to me: one was a record of a discharge from a Yugoslav-run internment camp for Germans at the end of the second World War; one was a list of property seized from ethnic Germans as they fled at the end of the war, and who the property was to be given to (ethnic Serbs, of course). These documents, plus pictures and more, will be going on tour around the former Yugoslavia. I think the point of the traveling exhibit is to demonstrate the common history of Croatia and Serbia, and to show that like any groups of people, they have more commonalities than differences.

On Friday, I marched in a protest against corruption. Not too many people showed up for the march, but since we were walking through the Centar, plenty of people saw us. Milan, another volunteer, did a fantastic job of making sure that all of the local media was covering the event. One radio reporter wanted to get quick statements from all of us, but when she came around to me, all I could say was "Ja govorim malo srpski, izvini." We talked briefly in English, but I think she was too confused as to why I was in Serbia and marching in a protest (still a good question) to use my brief footage. Along the way, we mostly got stares, but we also got a few thumbs up, smiles, and witty comments. "Are you protesting for corruption or against corruption?" joked one man, in Serbian. Another asked if any of the political parties were working with our march-- no, they weren't. Obviously, a single march won't do much to fix the corruption endemic to the Serbian political system, but hopefully it will show corrupt politicians that the people actually care, and show cynical Serbians that there's still time to fix the system.

Also on Friday, I was put to work updating the CZOR website with information about the new Master's degree in youth work and community work at the University of Novi Sad. CZOR was instrumental in setting up the bachelor's level degree, but they want to go even further and push for youth work as a real profession.

Today, Sunday, I went with a group of CZOR volunteers to a home for young people with developmental/behavioral/mental disabilities. We took a bunch of the residents to a local park and played games with them, from a dodgeball variation to word association to a game where you had to guess the animal written on your forehead (I was a tiger). We ended with a mini game of fudbol and giving out paper and cardboard "medals" to all of the participants. I'll gladly admit it: I didn't expect anything like this when I landed in the Belgrade airport. I had a lot of fun, and I can tell that our guests did too. Apparently one of the girls living there has taken it upon herself to learn English and is pretty good by now, so I hope to chat with her and help her improve it further.

There's really no quick way to explain what CZOR does. All of these programs are so different, and they're all related to CZOR's core mission of improving the status of young people within the community.

Also this weekend was my host brothers' birthday party. They were both born in August, but since everyone leaves town during August, the family decided to hold off on the party until this Saturday. The party was held in a "rođendaonica" which translates most literally to "birthday place." There are many of these around town. They each have some sort of play structure, blacklight dance room, and gaming consoles. You bring your own food and drinks and rent out the space, and the girls who work there lead the kids in various activities. Ivan overestimated the amount of drinks we'd need, so we have enough juice now to last us for a month or so (not that I'm complaining at all!).

On the first ride home, Nikola grabbed my arm and looked intensely at my watch, playing with its little light. Through his parents, he told me that he had a watch but it had just broken. Remembering this, I had resolved to get each Nikola and Dušan a watch for their birthdays. This was a little more difficult than I expected. Nikola had received his last watch as a gift, so Ivan and Sandra didn't know exactly where it came from. Ivan suggested Futoška Pijaca, which I had heard Ceca mention, and so on his advice, I wandered in.

The market has dozens of stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to various shampoos and small appliances to virtually every kind and size of casual to semicasual clothes-- and, to my luck, precisely one stall selling watches and cell phone accessories. Between my broken Serbian and the vendor's broken English, I was able to get most of my point across: I needed two watches for small boys. I saw one model that was absolutely perfect, and I tried to ask for two of it. But when the vendor got his English-speaking friend to come and translate, I was in for a disappointment. He had only the single watch of that model, and all of the other models were either too girly or not digital. I wasn't sure whether haggling was expected in the market, but the price he offered was good enough that I didn't worry about it. I bought the single watch and continued on my search for a second. I finally found a kids store downtown that had superhero digital watches.

On Saturday morning, before their party, I gave my little host brothers their presents: Nikola got the marketplace watch, which had an alarm and timer and a light-up feature, just like he wanted; Dušan got a Spiderman watch. They both thanked me in Serbian and English, and they've been wearing their watches around since then.

While my host brothers' birthday party was this weekend, my friend and Bridge Year comrade Dominique had her real birthday this Friday. Ceca baked her an extremely impressive pair of cakes: the first was a felled log and the second was a stump. They tasted fantastic, except for the core of banana (disclaimer: I can't stand anything banana-related). On Saturday, after my brothers' party, I joined the rest of the BYP crew for a small get-together at Dominique's host family's riverside summer house, where we ate delicious BBQ (Serbian style, not NC pulled-pork BBQ) and the single most delicious food I've had here: a raspberry cake. I swear, I've never had raspberries that came close to being as delicious as those in this cake. Serbia produces about one third of the world's raspberries, and Novi Sad is pretty much in the center of the most fertile area of Serbia, so I'm fairly sure that these raspberries were local. Either way, they were fantastic.

As the cake was being served, I tried to catch on to a Serbian card game. It didn't use a standard Western European deck of cards, but a Hungarian deck. Most Hungarian decks start at VI and go to X, then Under, Over, King, and Ace; the suits are Hearts, Bells, Leaves, and Acorns. For this game, which was mostly like Spades or Hearts, we didn't use the VIs. There are eight sets of rules, and you go in order. One round, you're trying to win the most cards; another, the fewest; another, not hearts; another, not a certain card (I can't even remember which one); and so on. I finally started catching on by the second or third time we went through each ruleset, but I still relied on help from Dominique's host dad and host mom to keep me from being totally destroyed in this game which I still don't know the name of.

I'm not sure what exactly my plans are for the next week and/or weekend, either at CZOR or socially outside of it. My guess is fewer birthdays, and more youth work.

On an entirely unrelated note, I've heard a couple of Serbian phrases that I find interesting.

"Pričaj Srpski da te ceo svet razume," or "Speak Serbian and the whole world will understand," amuses not only me but every Serbian who tells it to me, simply because of its blatant falsehood. Before I left, I was reassured that virtually everyone under the age of 40 would speak some degree of English, and this has been pretty much true so far. I have no doubt that I could get by here without ever trying to learn Serbian, which makes me kind of sad. I want to learn the language!

I see the second phrase mostly in a highly abbreviated form in the license plates and in nationalist graffiti. "Само слога Србина спасава" / "Samo sloga Srbina spasava" or "Only unity saves the Serbs" is turned into a set of four "C"s, two forward, two backward, separated by a cross. Originally coined by the Serbian Orthodox Church, the phrase and symbol represent Serbia on its coat of arms and flag, but when used commonly, they also carry strong nationalist connotations. What amazes me most is that this symbol can be traced back to the Byzantine era.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Some thoughts, and a day in the life

I meant to type this up from my notebook last night, but between conversation hour at the American Corner and the beginning of Djokovic's victory, I didn't have any time. All of the "today"s mentioned actually refer to yesterday, September 12, 2011.

Life here is remarkably similar to life in the United States, except with more fresh fruit, less air conditioning, and, of course, conducted in Serbian.

I really feel like the language is the only thing keeping me from understanding this society, but I know that's not true. Langauge is key, but there are all sorts of cultural contexts and memories that I don't even know exist that keep me from fully knowing Novi Sad.

So many people speak English that my minimal Serbian skills are enough to get me by. Both of my homestay parents and everybody at CZOR speaks english fluently. This is incredibly helpful right now, but I'm afraid it will hurt me in the long run. What I'm living in is by no means immersion. Because I don't need to speak Serbian to everyone, I'm simply not getting the practice to become fluent.

To help practice my Serbian, I try to sound out in my head all of the signs I pass by. Sometimes it's easy to guess the meaning, especially from context. This expands my vocabulary, though not always in the most useful way.

For example, I passed a McDonalds ad featuring a potato in a graduation cap. Above it was printed "Prosek 10,0". Prosek, I guessed, meant average: with a 10.0 average, this potato was surely at the top of his class, and, I assume, graduated summa cum trans fat as a packet of fries.

I also try to read the graffiti I pass. I don't understand most of it: it's either nonsense or I lack the context to understand what its meaning is. My favorite is a street that has anti-NATO graffiti on one block, and then two blocks down has LED ZEPPELIN and HÜSKER DÜ painted on the wall. I feel like Serbia is a little wary of western culture, but generally embracing it.

Today was my first "normal" day here. I caught the 8:00 bus to the University for my morning Serbian class. Today we had two new classmates, one from Austria, the other from France. Both have done some self-study and are already better than the class, let alone me.

(Side note: When I think about how I have to wake up at 7:00, it makes me smile some. After all, I was staying up until 7:00 Serbian time /1:00 Eastern time nearly every night last year!)

After class, I went to the office of CZOR, the NGO I'll be working with. There's no way to susinctly describe what exactly I'll be doing while here. This Friday, for example, I'll be in a march against corruption. Some marchers will be dressed as doctors and will hand out samples of "anticorruptin" containing anti-corruption leaflets.

I walked to the city center after I was done, and grabbed some water and people-watched. It was a nice break, and it felt kind of strange to have literally nothing to do. Around 6:00 I walked to the American Corner, which is a sort of cultural embassy found in around a dozen Serbian towns. On Mondays and Wednesdays they have discussion sessions for Serbians to practice their English. Today a representative from the US Embassy in Belgrade dropped by to lead the discussion on the world post-9/11 (I had somehow managed to almost entirely avoid news coverage of the anniversary). The conversation was fine, though the diplomat managed to talk more than nearly all of the Serbians. Afterwards, he and I talked briefly about the foreign service, and he encouraged me to apply. I'll seriously consider it.

Going home, I nearly got on the wrong bus! Well, that's not quite true. It was the right bus in the wrong direction. Fortunately, I double-checked at the last second. I caught a #6 bus going through Telep and found my stop without too much trouble.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Političar i Porodica

I have so much to say that I don't even know where to begin.

Around 8:00 we were picked up in two black Škodas with tinted windows and taken into a gated community to have breakfast at the house of a local member of the Serbian Parliament. Nenad Čanak, leader of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, had originally invited us for some sort of lunch discussion, but various reschedulings pushed us to this morning.

I have to admit, sitting behind the tinted windows and listening to the europop/electronica as the driver wove through slower traffic made me feel like I was in some sort of B-roll gangster/heist movie.

Čanak invited one of his fellow MPs (Aleksandra, whose last name I've already forgotten) to eat breakfast with us. The meal was huge, and none of us (not even your dearest Pera Ždera) were able to finish all we had been offered. But despite the pork, game, sausages, ham, and other delicious food on the table, the real meat of the morning was in the conversation.

Čanak started by asking if anyone had any questions, which I stupidly thought was an honest plea for questions. Instead he quickly dived into a quick lecture on Balkan history and Serbian politics starting around the late nineteenth century. He talked about how every tiny nation emerging in between Austro-Hungary and the receding Ottoman Empire had a concept of "Greater ____." The idea was familiar to me from not only my reading about Serbia but also my research about Greece before MiniTerm this year. Every very-minor power had conflicting territorial claims that were far, far greater than they could ever dream of holding. But it was these claims that gave the new nations hope.

One part causing this and one part caused by this, the Balkans, especially around Serbia, is pretty ethnically mixed. So mixed that there's no way that any contiguous national borders can ever include all Serbs or exclude all non-Serbs. This wasn't too big of a problem under the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, which became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and later Tito's communist Yugoslavia, since statesmen just shoved them all into the same nation and called the problem solved. But when "Brotherhood and Unity" fell apart, Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, and Albanians couldn't divorce peacefully like the Czechs and Slovaks did.

Čanak protested the war, and led hundreds with him in his cause. He was jailed and drafted as a result. He was sent to Vukovar, Croatia, which the Serb-run Yugoslav National Army sieged for nearly three months. The war wouldn't break him, and he returned to protest the Kosovo War and to help in the October 5th Revolution (Čanak called it a coup) that brought down Slobodan Milošević.

Like Nikola, Čanak would consider himself a realist, but unlike Nikola, the only future he sees for Serbia is continued European integration (If the EU still exists, he qualified). The only way to settle border disputes and "Greater ____" ambitions is to make borders irrelevant. Who will argue over the precise border between Serbia and Kosovo when they both follow the exact same laws and customs?

Also like Nikola, Čanak seemed jaded about the prospect of today's Serbian youth. They care more about partying and living for the present, they only join political parties so they can work their way up and earn a job, they see politics as a means for themselves rather than something greater. I hope, for Serbia's sake, that he's wrong on this one.

For the record, there's so much more that Čanak said, and so much complexity to everything I've already mentioned, that there's no way I can do it real justice. There's no substitute for the man himself in full swing.

(Remind me to post pictures from the breakfast sometime tomorrow. It's late and I'm too lazy to find my USB cord.)

Around 4:00 this afternoon, we all walked to a small café/restaurant and prepared a few short sentences in our simple Serbian to introduce ourselves to all of the host families. Mine was:
Ćao! Zovem se Tucker. Moj srpski nadimak je Pera Ždera. Ja sam iz Severne Karoline. Imam osmanaest godina. Ja sam jedinac, i volim da čitam.
or, in English,
Ciao! My name is Tucker. My Serbian nickname is Peter the Eater. I'm from North Carolina. I'm eighteen years old. I'm an only child, and I like to read.
These few phrases were taxing my Serbian ability, but the audience was appreciative anyway.

I met my family, the Lukićs. Ivan and Sandra (another Aleksandra, I know, I know...) are my host parents, and Nikola and Dušan, eight and five years old, respectively, are my little host brothers. Nikola knows English far better than I know Serbian, which embarrasses me a little. Ivan's fluent in English and Sandra's pretty close. Both of the little boys were shy at first (as was I) but we bonded over flicking a bottle cap across the café table.

On the car ride over, the boys asked me many questions, only one or two of which I could comprehend and answer, and most of which went without Ivan or Sandra's translation, since they were trying to drive and to hold a more intellectual conversation with me. Dušan began calling me "Duck," which I guess I won't stop him from doing. After registering my change of residence with the local police office, the Lukićs took me to their wonderful home in Telep, a neighborhood of Novi Sad that I hadn't visited yet. There I met Meda, their giant labrador retriever, the only member of the family who understands less Serbian than I do (I was pretty quick to learn "sit").

Ivan, with a straight face, sat down with me outside and told me that he would always address me by Mr. Jones, that I would always refer to him as Mr. Lukić, and that I wasn't to refer to or look at his wife at all. The boys, he said, should always be called "the offspring," though I could number them if I needed to differentiate. Fortunately, a previous Bridge Year student had warned me about Ivan's very dry sense of humor, so I smiled and played along. He later called the offspring over and told them that they were to call me Mr. Jones, so now when they want my attention they have a choice between "Duck" and "Meesterdjons!" After dinner, Ivan put on Mr. Jones by Counting Crows (which, incidentally, is as old as I am) and Nikola danced along.

During our car ride, Nikola noticed my very simple string-and-bead bracelet that we made at Bridge Year orientation, and after dinner he gave me a bracelet that he had woven out of string earlier. He then came up with a big pair of scissors saying something in Serbian, so I decided that I'd trim the bracelet with his help, instead of vice versa as he had been planning. Dušan then called me over to the computer to play Angry Birds: Rio with him.

Ivan and I discussed a variety of topics, from politics to books to computers, until we both got pretty tired. I was about ready to go upstairs to bed, when I realized I had forgotten about my host family gifts! I dove into my suitcase and pulled the protective packing (spare socks) off of two bottles of Cackalacky sauce, which Ivan and Sandra seemed to appreciate. They say they'll try it out tomorrow, so here's to North Cackalack.

My bedroom is great- I'm upstairs with shelves of books, magazines, and VHS tapes, and sharing the floor with me is nothing but the billiards room and the balcony.

Tomorrow, I'll get pictures of the family, the home, and the dog. For now, bed!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sorry for not updating lately. I slept through most of Tuesday and Wednesday as I battled some sort of travel bug, but I think I'm mostly over it now.

Tomorrow morning we get to meet a local politician, and tomorrow evening we meet and move in with our host families! I don't really have anything that could possibly be more exciting than that.

Oh, and tonight, I saw a two or three story tall electrofunk praying mantis.

The legs sticking out of the mouth belong to the woman operating the head and arms.

The giant praying mantis makes an annual appearance at the Festival of Street Musicians, which kicked off earlier tonight. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


One thing that hasn't changed much around here is the music. On a walk earlier today, I heard what was probably a Serbian-language cover of Listen to Your Heart pumping out of a café-bar. This afternoon, Ceca took us to a less-known café above an Italian restaurant, only accessible by going in an undermarked alleyway and in a door behind a utilities compound. As I walked in, True Faith, one of my favorite songs was playing. It was immediately followed by a Lady Gaga song. This is pretty much true in all of the cafés I've been by so far-- they play lots of europop and europop-influenced music. The ambient music certainly adds to Novi Sad's European feel.

Walking around on Sunday, Yentli and I ran into a more stereotypical Eastern European band, with accordion, fiddle, et cetera. They sounded somewhat Klezmer-influenced, but I wasn't quite able to place it.

We discussed Novi Sad's night life and clubs with Aleksandra, one of Ceca's friends today. She told us that there were essentially two main types of clubs: electronica or turbofolk. Turbofolk is a sort of adaptation of Balkan folk tunes to dance and pop themes, including serious synthesizers and europop influence. It became popular in the early 1990s, and is considered anti-intellectual music. It's also sometimes considered nationalist, because some of the more popular singers are the girlfriends/wives/exes of war criminals and gangsters. But it's widely popular, especially since it's accessible to so may from the countryside.

I've tried a bit of turbofolk, and what I heard wasn't inspiring. It wasn't exceptionally bad, but it didn't really strike me as very interesting. And I can only take so much electronica. I'll probably sample both sorts of clubs here, but I'm more interested in the independent and local music around town. Aleksandra promised me that I'd be able to see a great variety of non-club music, from rock to hip-hop.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Stronghold and the Strongman

Though yesterday was Saturday, we still had our Serbian class in the morning. We learned to conjugate biti/бити (to be) in the present tense, and zovem se/зовем се (to be called/my name is). We went to Ceca's and talked with a doctor about how health care works in Serbia (national single-payer insurance, just like the rest of Europe) and what to do if we get sick or injured. This hasn't been a serious problem in previous years, and I don't expect it to be this year. Still, now I know who I'm gonna call. (Not Ghostbusters.)

That afternoon, we all went on a scavenger hunt that Milica and Ceca designed for us. It was a pretty long trek, but the most interesting task was to learn the song "ocam tamburaša/оцам тамбураша" (eight tambourine players) from a local and to sing it, on camera, in view of the Austro-Hungarian-era Petrovaradin fortress named in the song. As luck would have it, the first pair of Serbian women we ran into spoke about as much English as we spoke Serbian and were eager to help us. They enlisted passers-by to try to help remember the lyrics, and, despite the odds, they taught us the chorus and a verse. I promptly forgot it. Oops.

For dinner, we took a taxi up to the fortress itself and had dinner at the restaurant at the center of the stronghold. It was beautiful to watch the sun set and moon rise over Novi Sad. From the fortress I also saw fireworks from a local music festival on the beach of the Danube.

Sorry, no pictures. It's late and I don't have any good ones of the fortress. I'll definitely be back by there.

Today was our first real time off. Jacob and I walked to a bakery and picked up croissants for breakfast, and we walked to Ceca's to talk with the group's psychotherapist. We had an interesting conversation about the millennial generation, and our defining characteristics.

In the afternoon, we went to Milica's apartment to watch a movie, Bringing Down a Dictator (narrated, as I later found out, by Martin Sheen, or President Bartlet of The West Wing). I had already covered most of the content in my self-imposed summer reading, but it was still fascinating to see footage of Otpor (literally "Resistance," the main anti-Milošević organizers) in action. Some of their techniques were plain hilarious. We were shown an ad ostensibly for detergent that promised to remove stains; the example stain was in the shape of Milošević's face, the product's name was Otpor. One scene was particularly touching.

On Orthodox New Year (January 13) 2000, Otpor put on a big party in Belgrade. As the clock struck midnight, the live music stopped. Projected onto a screen were the names of those who had died under Milošević's rule. Everything was silent except for a narrator reading out the names. Once the names were through, there was an announcement:
Serbia doesn't have any reason to celebrate anything, not even the new millennium. It was 1999, it is now 2000, but nothing has really changed. In fact it is all getting worse. And you must go home without your celebration, because you have nothing to celebrate. 
This evening at dinner, I sat next to Nikola, Milica's husband, and we discussed (in English; his was nearly flawless) geopolitics and the movie. I mentioned that, according to the movie, it seemed like Otpor and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia were heroes. He smiled a little. According to Nikola, Otpor and the rest of the anti-Milošević movement were entirely backed by the States. I asked him again, to clarify whether he meant USA-backed (which is widely acknowledged) or USA-started; he claimed the latter.

Nikola was interested in talking about geopolitics. He was very much into the "Clash of Civilizations" theory, which I'm only barely familiar with. He was also very much a realist-- he saw international relations as pure power politics. He saw the "humanitarian" intervention in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars as a facade, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a complete sham. He brought up Milošević's convenient death in jail as an example of NATO sort-of cleaning up their mess. Nikola made it very clear that he wasn't nationalist, and that he saw Serbia's flaws too. He was anti-Milošević, but he saw that the democrats who took power afterward were not that much better. His view was very jaded, but somewhat convincing.

What struck me the most by this conversation was how defeated he seemed. "What have we in Serbia done to deserve this?" he asked. He never wanted Milošević, or his wars, or the sanctions, or the bombing campaign. He reminded me that Serbia's got a losing record-- it first lost (the Serb-held areas in) Croatia and Bosnia i Hercegovina, then Kosovo, then Montenegro. I asked him what he thought the way forward for Serbia is. Nikola couldn't see any positive future for the nation.

I don't know how common this attitude of defeat is, but it's certainly shown up in what I've read about the country. That attitude is foreign to me. As cliché as it sounds, I think most Americans have been brought up with some internal anchor of hope. My generation especially was taught that we can do anything we want, that life always gets better, and that just by being who we are, we have something to be proud of.

Nikola also pointed out something that I hadn't realized at all. "Yugoslavia was the first EU," he said. Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims, six individual nations, all lived together during the Yugoslav golden age-- he pointed out the EU's current tensions with Muslims as a sign of it falling short of the Yugoslav standard. I'm not sure that his nostalgia for a country that no longer exists is completely founded. I'm glad that we had this conversation, and it encouraged me to seek even more viewpoints.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

This morning we had our first Serbian class. Ceca picked us up and walked with us to a pekare (пекаре, bakery) for breakfast. I had a pastry made of not-quite-philo-dough and stuffed with a warm apple paste, sprinkled with powdered sugar. We went onward to the University of Novi Sad, to the Philosophy building where the Serbian classes are held. There we met Ivana, our teacher, and Mikhail, our classmate who's visiting from Russia.

During class, we steamed through virtually all of the Serbian I know. We went through the alphabet-- Mikhail was far better at the cyrillic, and we were better at the latinic. We went over the basic numbers, and a few other concepts.

Outside our classroom was a poster describing the various types of emergency alarms. I was most surprised by two: one depicted a mushroom cloud, which I guess we have in some old or highly populated public areas in America; and the other showed a pair of jet fighters and two bombs. Ceca joked with me, "We used that when you bombed us." "Sorry about that," I replied. She knows that I was only six years old during the air raids, and none of the Serbians I've run into yet seem at all hostile toward Americans because of the events of 1999.

After class, we walked back to the area around our hostel. We went to a café and started our homework: transliterating latninic Serbian into cyrillic. I had an espresso to ward off jet lag.

Around five in the afternoon, Milica, our homestay coordinator, picked us up and took us to the shipyard. We boarded a small boat (brod/брод) and went down the Danube a ways, passing under two bridges (rebuilt where the old ones had been bombed out during NATO's air raids) and passing the Austro-Hungarian era fortress. It was warm out there in the sun, and the beaches on the river were in heavy use.

Going back upstream, our captain dropped us up at a restaurant floating on the river where we met Ceca and her husband, Ivan, for dinner. The Danube is particularly low right now, so we got to see a few swimmers "walk on water."

We talked there until a little after sunset, then took a taxi back into town. While Charlotte, Dominique, and I were waiting with Ivan for the rest of the crew when I noticed a sign for Liberty Square, Trg Slobode (Трг Слободе). Ivan explained to me that the name "Slobodan" literally means "liberty" or "freedom." Oh, irony.

We have a new nickname going around. Whoever's done something stupid gets the name "glupa klupa" (глупа клупа) or "stupid bench." Charlotte and Dominique also started assigning us permanent nicknames, with help from Ceca, Milica, and the rest of us. Mine is Pera Ždera, (Пера Ждера) or "Peter the Eater" after a cartoon character I've never heard of, and being the only one to have finished every meal.

After dinner, Jacob and I sat out at a café and watched Serbia pull out ahead of Northern Ireland 1-0 in the EuroCup qualifiers, then headed back to the hostel.

I've also hooked up my twitter to my phone, so expect updates there. I added a feed from my twitter on the side bar of this blog too.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Novi Sad, day zero

On the flight from Zurich to Belgrade, I napped hard. I woke up about twenty-five minutes before landing and looked across the man to my left and out the window. From the corn and grain fields, it looked like it could have been the American midwest. Then the dark Danube (Dunav/Дунав in srpski) cut across the landscape-- we were certainly over Vojvodina, not Kansas.

On the van ride to Novi Sad, I saw the corn fields more closely. Many are completely parched. The western Balkans have had a bad heat wave lately. Last week, Belgrade got all the way up to 40°C (~104°F).

Driving down the highway, I saw some graffiti on traffic signs (no more than in North Carolina) that reminded me of some I saw in Greece. I was able to pick out the Celtic cross, a symbol often associated with the far right all across Europe. When we got into town, antifascist and other graffiti was equally or more common.

As we approached Fruška Gora national park on our way north, the crops started surviving better. I saw several roadside stands selling fresh fruit, and one selling shoes. 

The Serbian language is written in either of two scripts: Latin or Cyrillic. I find it extremely easy to read the Latin script, simply because I'm so familiar with it, but the Cyrillic is more common on signs. I really need to work on my Cyrillic. I've been able to recognize a few cognates and loanwords on my ride here, but only when printed in the Latin alphabet. 

Jacob and I are sharing a room at a hostel. The room's a little small for all our luggage but it's pretty nice otherwise. Dinner with the rest of the BYP Serbia group soon!