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.

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