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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Volunteers assembling a bench|
|Ferrying farm equipment|
|Old town hall|
|Synagogue and Holocaust memorial|
|Chinese food in Serbia: not that different from Chinese food in the US|
|A bear, chillin'|
|Meerkats. Visitors can go into the glass outpost for a closer look.|