Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Jolly Old Saint Nikola

Last night we went to our first slava. This is one of my favorite Serbian traditions; every family has a special day to honor a saint and on that day they celebrate by eating A LOT and hanging out with each other. The first night of the slava, the actual day of the saint, is reserved for immediate family. The second day is a chance to invite over extended family and friends. It's also a chance to skip out on work - when a really popular slava comes around, whole businesses close because everyone has the day off.

Vladimir, our friend and trusty language instructor, invited us to day two of his family's slava, honoring St. Nikola. The food was fantastic and it was our first chance to really appreciate home made Serbian cooking (his mom did most of the cooking, and she stayed in the kitchen the whole time we were there). My biggest mistake was not realizing how many courses there were going to be, so I loaded up on the first round. We had:
  1. Pickled peppers, pickles, bread, ajvar, and a salad of tuna, peppers, cabbage, and carrots
  2. Special Serbian beans, stuffed cabbage (wohoo!), more pickled peppers, pickles, and bread
  3. Two enormous trays of smoked fish - scrumptious, but I could only eat one piece after I had pigged out on the salad
  4. Dessert - pastries - yum
Of course, there were wine and sljivovica flowing throughout the evening, and enough people spoke English so we had great conversation. We didn't actually do anything to honor St. Nikola (maybe that happens on the first evening?) but we did get a chance to ask some of our buring questions about Serbia in a relaxed setting.

Vladimir's role was to act as our waiter for the night - as host of the slava, he's responsible for taking care of all our needs. His friends would routinely give him a hard time if they were out of drink. In fact, it's traditional for the host to stand the entire time, which Vladimir did right up until people started leaving (around 1 AM). It was a fantastic evening, and a unique glimpse into real Serbian life.

Dan heard a story about a German guy who decided he wanted to become Serbian. He converted to the Orthodox Church, was baptised, and then had to pick a slava. When he asked the priest for advice, the priest recommended St. John, because there's a St. John's day every month. Dan told this joke at dinner last night, and everyone cracked up at the idea of picking a slava.

Because it's also holiday time for us, we fly home this Friday. I'll return to blogger-land some time after the new year. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


So, I'm supposed to be working on a paper I promised for an upcoming conference of librarians. It's something I really need to finish before I fly home for the holidays (eight days and a wake up) but here I am, blogging. Who else out there blogs to procrastinate? Raise your hands!

This is what's on my mind. People ask us all the time how I reacted when I heard about moving to Serbia, and I usually say that I wasn't sure quite where it was and didn't know much about the history. Yesterday we were having coffee with a few of Dan's students, and I got the question. And for the first time in ages, I thought about my actual emotional response to the news: excited but also scared to go to a place I didn't know anything about.

I'm sure this is occurring to me because we are going home next week, and we're going to see our families and friends and eat all our favorite foods. As excited as I am about that, it's not like we're leaving the gulag and returning to civilization. I have friends and routines here and I'm really quite happy. I already know that when we leave Serbia at the end of the year, there are things that I'm going to miss. What amazes me is just how quickly we adapt to new situations; despite the cultural differences and the lack of M&Ms, life here is really normal and comfortable for me.

I know when I go home I'm going to be bombarded with the same questions I get here: Do you like Serbia? How is the food? How is the language? How is Serbia different from the USA? It will be interesting to see if my answers for Americans are very different from my answers for Serbians.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Would you like fries with that?

This is our dog, Ben. He really belongs to our landlord, but we like to play with him. His latest toy was a plastic flowerpot he had taken away from one of the flowers. We were worried that bits of plastic were not good for his digestion so we got him squeaking rubber french fries as a replacement. He seems to enjoy the flavor - look at his tail wag!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Yesterday I gave a talk at the university.

This was big for me, because there were around 70 people there, and I wasn't sure if I would freeze up or not. The vice dean attended, even though he doesn't speak English. It turns out I was full of pep and gave (what I think was) an interesting lecture on motivating kids to read and incorporating read aloud into elementary school English classes. The phrase that got the best reaction from the crowd was "harvested for his organs." This was to explain that teen novels (such as The House of the Scorpion) are not appropriate for nine or ten year olds, no matter how well they read.

One of the professors asked if I would give the same talk to actual elementary school teachers (instead of students that are about to become teachers) after the New Year. Another invited me to her methodics class that afternoon - it turns out she had put together a special lecture as a follow up to mine. I was flattered and pleased to know that I wasn't just rambling on for my own benefit.

Dan gave me a Kinder egg as a prize. He said eggs are a pagan symbol of new beginnings and now I have "academic gravitas." Kinder eggs (also known as Kinder Surprise) are like Cadbury cream eggs, but instead of being filled with gooey sugar, they have a prize inside! I got two little plastic ghosts. They're guarding my pencil cup.

Also, last night we had no electricity for a few hours. Not the first time this has happened, but it was the first time when we actually needed lights to see. We lit the one candle we had, made dinner on our gas burner, and went to bed early. Dan lit the candle with a flaming napkin that he ignited on the burner. Then, instead of putting the napkin in the sink and turning on the faucet, he waved it around in the air to try to extinguish it. Fortunately we did not burn the house down. Have added flashlights to the shopping list.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Who would have thought CNN could be cool?

I'm only a recent convert to the Daily Show for the simple reason that I didn't have cable until right before we moved here. So for two weeks I basked in the glory of regular viewings, and then we skipped town.

Late on Saturday nights and midafternoon on Sundays, CNN World runs "The Daily Show: Global Edition." This was an amazing find. From what we can tell, it's the best bits from the previous week stuck together and introduced by Jon. Thank you, CNN.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Stupid Annoying Cultural Differences

I grew up in a family where, when going out to eat, the fight over who gets to pay the bill usually comes to fisticuffs. A prime example occurred when I was in high school. I was going on a school sponsored trip to England and I didn't have a ride to the airport, so a friend's parents gave me a lift. My mom met us there after she finished work, and we went to one of the airport restaurants for drinks. When the bill came, my mom and my friend's dad argued over who would pay. My mom said "Whoever has the most money in their wallet gets to pay." He agreed, so he took out his wallet and counted what he had. My mom had the trump card, though, because she worked at a private school and she had the tuition checks with her (they had already agreed that checks counted). Of course, even though she won fair and square (?) the dad snuck off and paid for everyone.

Here in Serbia, it's custom (a) for the man to pay or (b) if someone invites you out, they pay. I'm told that Rule A always overrides Rule B. Not surprisingly, this is something that I have a lot of trouble with.

I embarrassed myself and a friend the other night when we went out to dinner. We were at a fast food place, and as we got ready to leave I grabbed the bill and handed it to Dan. He obligingly took out his wallet to pay, and our friend looked a little surprised and then came right out and told me that it made him uncomfortable. Of course, that made me uncomfortable and I didn't know what to do. Dan saved the day, telling him that with friends we often take turns paying so we always have to go out again (this is absolutely true, he didn't just make it up to save my skin). Our friend thought this was a great idea, and emphasized more than once that next time it would be his turn. I'm glad it worked out ok, but it's really hard for me to let other people pay. I've been too well trained.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Three projects for me

  • I'm starting to plan a creative writing contest for the American Corner that I hope to run in the spring. There will be two age groups (8-11 and 12-15) and we will provide a theme or subject and allow a month for the kids to write. At the end of the month we'll have an awards ceremony where we will give out the prizes (obviously) and read some of the stories aloud. We're still working out the details, including what the theme will be. Any suggestions?
  • The Dean of Dan's faculty has asked me to write a paper and present it at the conference of librarians they hold in the winter. I'm going to have a translator and everything! I'm supposed to talk about how books are advertised / marketed in the USA and then suggest how libraries in Serbia can advertise their own publications. It seems they've recently gotten into publishing but don't quite know what to do with the books once they're made. I'm excited to be the "Foreign Expert."
  • I'll be working with the local US AID office to train librarians in creating and running storytimes and other programming for children. From what I understand, the libraries here don't offer any events for kids, although there is a specific library building for children's books. I have to create an outline of materials, program ideas, techniques, etc., then we'll make appointments to work with the librarians. Once they've been trained, they will set up their own event calendars. "If you teach a man to fish" and all that.
It's wonderful to have some things to work on after two months of lounging around (bonbons, anyone?), and it's especially wonderful to have projects that are so interesting to me.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

First Snow

Delicate white flakes
Falling slowly through the air
Melting on the ground

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Small Town Blues?

While we were out running errands the other day we ran into our Serbian teacher and his girlfriend; we decided to join them for treats at Srce, the local ice cream parlor. It was a wonderful impromptu meeting, and we lingered over ice cream and conversation. Later on, while we were finishing our errands, we came across two different acquaintances from the American Corner. It's surprising to me every time this happens. With about 180,000 inhabitants, Kragujevac doesn't really qualify as small-town, but to me it is.

Since we're here for such a brief period of time, we see a different side of Kragujevac than most of our neighbors. The people who really live here struggle with high levels of unemployment and poverty in a city whose main industry is defunct. The car factory Zastava once employed thousands of people; starting in the 1960s there was a migration to Kragujevac by people looking for factory jobs. From what I've heard, business was already declining when the plant was destroyed by the 1999 NATO bombings. Many of those people are still out of work, and there's no real backup industry, just unemployment. It's similar to Lowell or Revere - jobs evaporated when textile industries moved south and the cities began to decline.

In Kragujevac, people graduate from the university and have little opportunity for employment or advancement, and many end up bitter, feeling trapped here. There are certainly organizations investing in the future - the US government, for example, funded the American Corner, sent in an English Language Fellow, and, most significantly, runs a US AID office out of Kragujevac. But many of the locals I've spoken with don't see the possibilities of the future because they're too frustrated by the current problems. Moving to Belgrade often seems like the only way out, although for many it remains a dream because they lack the financial stability to make that kind of move. Others simply don't want to go because they prefer life in the smaller city.

I empathize with their frustrations and see the overall problems Kragujevac needs to address so they can move forward. For Dan and me, though, day to day life is rather pleasant. Because we don't depend on a Serbian salary, we're free to enjoy our small town experiment.

I was originally sad that we wouldn't be posted in Belgrade because I love city life. Now that we've been here for two months, I'm really appreciating our location. It's been relatively easy for us to meet people from different social and economic circles and we've been able to form some friendships. As I've said many times before, everyone is looking out for us. If I need to register with the police or get a new cellphone or get a haircut, someone knows someone else who can help me out.

This small town feeling is also a bonus for the work that we're doing. I think in Belgrade we would be lost in the crowd, and it would be difficult to make the contacts that we need to get the word out about our programs. Here in Kragujevac, we've been able to establish a base group of participants and get to know many of them. As foreigners, we're interesting enough for people to come to our programs out of curiosity, and we've even gotten some coverage in the local media. (I have no idea what the articles said, but it was cool to see my name in print in Cyrillic).

What brings this all up is that over the past week we've been asked a half dozen times how we like living here, and people are surprised that we're quite happy. I always have to explain that I understand the problems, etc., etc., but that we're really getting a kick out of small town life. I'm not sure if people believe me or if they think I'm just trying to be nice.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Zagat Kragujevac

Eating out in Kragujevac has been something of a challenge. There are many bakeries and places to get crepes (palacinke, in Serbian). There are fast food stands a-plenty (hamburgers the size of my head) and we've found a few pizza joints. Of course there are places to get traditional Serbian foods, although we haven't been able to find them yet.

The problem, as with food shopping, is that there isn't a whole lot of variety. Serbians eat mainly Serbian food, with a little Italian thrown in. This is sad for us because in our old neighborhood we were surrounded by ethnic restaurants of all kinds. I love that the "melting pot" (cue School House Rocks) of American culture has introduced me to foods and flavors from all over the world, and I miss being able to satisfy random cravings for Indian or Thai or Japanese food.

So we were pretty excited to find that right here in Kragujevac we have our very own Chinese Restaurant. I don't know that it's very popular among Serbians, but as soon as we heard about it we practically ran there. Unfortunately, it was closed. We went back last night to celebrate the midpoint between our birthdays (this is not as cheesy as you think - our birthdays are only six days apart). We were pleasantly surprised by the food, although the menu was not as varied as I'm used to. We feasted on hot-and-sour soup, pineapple chicken, broccoli & garlic, and vegetable fried rice. They even had chopsticks. I know I'll be back, and I'll bring my Serbian friends so I can introduce them to the wonders of Asian cuisine.

I heard a wild rumor (ok, I read about it in Let's Go Eastern Europe) that there is an Indian place in Belgrade - we'll be sure to check it out next time we're there. Mmmmm... vegetable samosas.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Halloween Festivities

Last Monday we hosted a Halloween party, our first major event at the American Corner. The two librarians we work with were willing to put up with our craziness, and it was good cultural education because Serbians don't have Halloween.

I enlisted my mom to send us some authentic decorations, and she came through in a big way. We had tons of spider webs, Frankenstein posters, rubber bats and spiders, and even two pairs of Groucho glasses. To add to the atmosphere, Dan and I also spent way too much time putting together a Halloween mix. Here's the playlist:

  • Beetlejuice Main Theme / Danny Elfman
  • Do They Know It's Halloween / North American Halloween Prevention Initiative
  • I Put a Spell on You / Screamin' Jay Hawkins
  • Double Trouble / John Williams
  • In the Hall of the Mountain King / Edvard Grieg
  • Monster Mash / Bobby "Boris" Pickett
  • Ghostbusters / Ray Parker Jr.
  • Dance Macabre / Saint-Saens
  • Don't Fear the Reaper / Blue Oyster Cult
  • Werewolves of London / Warren Zevon
  • Witch Doctor / Sha na na
  • A Nightmare on My Street / DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince
  • Thriller / Michael Jackson
  • Superstitious / Stevie Wonder
  • This is Halloween / Danny Elfman

For a personal touch, we had our dads send us pictures from when we were little. Dan looks great in a Star Trek costume. I thought it was brave of him to put that one on display - it is definitive proof of his geekitude. It was worth any minor embarrassment, though, because people really responded to the pictures. They enjoyed seeing our families and our costumes. I think it helped convince them that Halloween is something that we really do.

Our first game was bobbing for apples. Dan was a good sport and went first, and he really took a bath. One of the librarians went next and even the photographer from the local paper had a turn. It took the kids an hour or so of walking by and staring down the apples before they'd try, but they eventually did and it was a riot.

We also had crafts, which I was nervous about. I didn't know if people would take to it or think it was dumb. They were supposed to make masks using paper plates, crayons, and some tissue paper for collage. Our guests were more creative than we anticipated - aside from stylish masks, people also turned out bow-ties, jack-o-lanterns, and other nifty paper crafts. One girl even made a present for me, a lovely purple candy box, which now has a place of honor on our dining room table.

One of the boys who regularly haunts the American Corner was particularly creative/manic. He put on the groucho glasses, wrapped a towel around his head (it was supposed to be for people who had bobbed for apples), draped himself with ribbon, and made fangs out of candy corn. I'm not sure what he was trying to be...

We also had a round of musical chairs, and I have to say, I have never seen such a polite game of musical chairs in my life. When two kids came to the same chair, they would offer it to each other, or one would simply walk away. American kids are vicious! I didn't know quite what to think, but they seemed to enjoy it, and it did get more competitive as it got down to fewer and fewer people. The prize - a copy of our Halloween mix.

Of course we had candy (lollipop ghosts!) and we showed a few cartoons, including the "classic" Garfield's Halloween Adventure, which is absolutely ridiculous but does a good job of showing what kids actually do on Halloween. (Candy candy candy candy candy ...) Many of the kids I spoke to throughout the night were incredulous and extremely jealous that American kids get candy just for putting on a costume. I'm afraid I've done some damage to the more accurate view of life in the US I've been trying to develop. Now they think the streets are paved with candy instead of gold.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Whirlwind Week, Part II: Book Lover's Paradise

Other events that kept us busy this week were the start of Dan's classes, two programs at the American Corner, and our first Serbian lesson. But by far the most exciting was our excursion to the Belgrade Book Fair.

This is an annual week-long event that takes place at the Belgrade Fair Grounds. There are 14 buildings of book fair - below you can see the main hall, which features Serbian publishers and bookstores, as well as the guest of honor. This year's guest was Great Britain (next year it will be the USA). A separate hall hosted international books, including booths from the US, Russia, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Italy, and Iran. It was an excellent and strange mix. The fair is essentially a trade show, and there were only a few stands that weren't selling anything.

Main Hall, Belgrade Book Fair - can you see the haze wafting up from the crowd?

We went up early Thursday because we wanted to avoid the weekend crowds - fat chance, as it turns out, because it was jammed with school groups and others who had made special trips from around Serbia (like us). We were fighting our way through the crowds to look at books. It was hard work, and I had to use my elbows more than once. But it was really heartwarming. People have been telling us about this event since our first day here, and I've heard that some locals save all year so they can stock up at the book fair. This may seem strange - like why don't you just go to the bookstore? But the selection at the fair is far superior to that of any Serbian bookstore I've seen. It gave the book nerd in me a warm glow to see the throngs out to see, appreciate, and buy books.

Plato, the big bookstore of Belgrade, had an impressive stand/shop with a huge selection of books in English. Hurray for us, because we've had trouble finding things to read. It was a good thing I had the foresight to bring an empty backpack. Talking to the booksellers at the Plato stand made me nostalgic for my B&N days - they were all excited about the books and having fun at their big event. The book the staff were united behind (and I know my bookstore cohorts will get a kick out of this) was the new Serbian translation of House of Leaves. They even had t-shirts printed up with excerpts from the text. That book doesn't make sense in English - I can't imagine reading a translation.

Finally - logistics! I did one trade show in my bookstore days, not nearly so big, and figuring out how to get the books there and back was quite a headache. Books may pack nicely into boxes, but they are heavy. How on earth did they get the millions of books to the fair grounds in some sort of order, with some idea of what belongs to whom? I hope everyone had a busy sales week...

Friday, October 28, 2005

Whirlwind Week, Part I: The Not-So-Blue Danube

We just finished our first whirlwind week and we’re exhausted with a delicious undercurrent of self-satisfaction.

This week actually started last Thursday when we got up to catch the bus at 4:15 in the @(*&%^*! morning. Why would we do such a crazy thing? We wanted to visit my friend in Budapest, and that’s the only way we could make the train connection in Novi Sad.

When we got to Budapest and met up with Edina, she took us to a pastry shop first thing. We got pastries filled with cherry, apple, and chestnut (bet you can’t eat just one!). She was clearly playing to my weaknesses, and within five minutes I was convinced that I should live there.

Thursday night we went to a bar called Old Man’s Pub. I went there with some reservations as it is listed in Let’s Go Eastern Europe. I always have the sneaking suspicion that places listed in guidebooks aren’t really authentic. The décor of the restaurant didn’t help – the walls were covered in instruments and costumes of bands I had never heard of, giving the whole thing a knock-off Hard Rock Café feel. The people around us were speaking English, and the menu was listed in Hungarian, English & German.

But I really should have had more faith in Edina. The food was good, and the band ROCKED. As Dan put it, the Takáts Tamás Dirty Blues Band had their mojo going. The classic American blues songs sounded just like they should, gritty and intense. So it was surprising every time the lead singer started speaking Hungarian between songs. To hear a clip of the band, go to the Old Man’s Pub website, scroll down to “Old Man’s CD” and click on Takáts Tamás Dirty Blues Band. You won’t regret it.

Friday was a crash day after the loooong travel day – we rested, had a short walk, and went to dinner with some of Edina’s friends. Before dinner we had coffee at Gerbeauds. I stood and drooled in front of the chocolate display cases while I waited for our coffees to be served. Aside from the spectacular chocolates and cakes, the café itself is complete eye candy. This is what the website has to say:

The plans for the interior decoration of the café were completed by the artisan Henrik Darilek in the years after 1910. Fine woods, marble and bronze were used. The ceilings were decorated with rococo plaster work in Louis XIV style; the chandeliers and wall lamps were created in Maria Theresa Style. Gerbeaud had secessionist style tables sent from the Paris World Fair so that the elegant ambiance would be perfect.

I felt like I was in another age as we sat there sipping cappuccinos. The ambiance is perfect, I just needed to be in an evening gown instead of dungarees.

Saturday we went up and saw Buda castle and the panorama of the city. In the evening we went to a concert starring a Cuban jazz singer accompanied by Hungarian musicians. We saw the pianist (a famous Hungarian musician) afterwards on the tram and Edina was too shy to give him her compliments. So Dan leaned over and asked him if he spoke English (which he did) and expressed our appreciation. I believe Edina was embarrassed and delighted.

You’d think that after a concert we would maybe have a glass of wine then turn in for the evening. Instead we went to see Sin City at the local art house theater. Both the movie and the theater were fantastic.

Sunday we visited St. Stephen’s Basilica so we could see his mummified hand (only 100 forints to light up the display case). After an early dinner we saw a photo exhibition put on by World Press Photo. The photos are the winners of the annual competition of the best photo journalism of the year. It was a great reminder of what happened last year. Remember the Olympics? How about the Russian school that was overrun by Chechnyan militants? It was a mix of the delightful, surprising, shocking, and downright depressing, but definitely worth seeing and discussing.

Monday we journeyed home after fortifying ourselves with Edina’s scrumptious home-made goulash. We arrived back in K at 1:30 AM (stupid train connections) with plenty of time to spare before Dan’s first class at 8:30. I’d just like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to Edina for putting us up, cooking tasty things for us, and showing us around the city. You are super!

Stay tuned for more stories from our hectic week…

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Settling In

Tomorrow is our one month anniversary in Kragujevac. Dan finally starts classes next week and we're getting things going at the American Corner. So far we've had two discussion groups and one cultural presentation on baseball. Everyone talks about how excited they are that we're here (for many of them, we're the first Americans they've ever met) but it's hard to read their reactions to our programs. So we're merrily plugging along, hoping that people are finding us entertaining / informative.

Of course, I've been putting together some programs for children and I have my first event next Wednesday. I'll be having a "spooky tales" storytime and then a Halloween party on the 31st. I have no idea what kind of crowd I'll get. Up until a few years ago, kids started English in fifth grade, and now they start in first grade. So I could get a weird mix of ages and language levels. Bobbing for apples should be fun for everyone, though, as long as no one loses a tooth.

Right now my only obligations are to the American Corner, and that adds up to just few hours a week. I'd like to get more projects going because I don't think I'll make much of a housewife. One of the professors at the university has asked me to give her methodology class a talk on children's lit. - I could have a lot of fun with that, but I need to get a better idea of what she's looking for. Also, we're starting Serbian lessons next week, so when Dan and I come back to the US we'll basically have a secret code. Most people think it's cute and amusing that we want to study Serbian. I think it would be rude if we didn't even make an effort, plus we live here - getting around will be much easier if we don't have to rely on people to translate for us or hope we come across anglophones.

All in all, I'm happy to report that we're settled in and content in our new city. I'm looking forward to finding some good work that will be useful to our fabulous hosts and challenging for me.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Top Five Reasons Baseball Fans are Wusses / Soccer Fans are CRAZY

  1. Before entering a soccer match, you have to get searched. I mean, really patted down, not just "can I have a look in your bag." This is a measure to discourage soccer hooligans from bringing in anything potentially dangerous. They do have women security people to search the women, though, so it was fine.
  2. Red Sox fans get up a good cheer of "Here we go Red Sox" or, when feeling mean-spirited or drunk, "Yankees Suck." Soccer fans also chant slogans, and in Serbia they go something like "Let's go kill some Turks." Interestingly, for both teams, they don't have to be playing the Yankees / Turks for the crowd to shout these things.
  3. Baseball fans toss around the occasional beach ball, and once in a while you hear about some trash / beer being thrown into the field. Soccer fans throw their chairs at other fans (of the opposing team).
  4. Fans of the visiting team are segregated into their own area, circled by police in riot gear, and separated from local fans by completely empty sections on either side.
  5. Being separated does not prevent people from throwing things at each other. The aforementioned chairs as well as FLARES. First of all, how do people get the flares in when they're being searched (see #1)? Second, do people practice throwing them far enough to go across the empty section into the middle of the opposing fan seating area? Third, what the hell?

Last night we went to the World Cup qualifying match between Serbia and Bosnia. It was AWESOME. Our friend Andreja pulled off the miracle of getting us tickets the night before the game, so off to Belgrade we went.

The stadium was packed - I understand it holds between 55,000 and 60,000 people. Technically speaking, we had assigned seats, but that doesn't mean anything. When we arrived a half hour before the game, the seats were already full. We pushed about ten rows down the stairs, and there we stood for the first half of the game. The aisles were completely full of people. Looking around, the stadium was just a sea of bodies with no apparent way to get in or out. Fire hazard, you say? What's that?

The best was when people actually tried to use the stairs as stairs - whenever someone tried to get by it was like body surfing, trying not to get knocked over or into the nice lady in the aisle seat. It was like riding the T during rush hour. Dan and I mostly shared a step, and it was really ok. We had a great view of the field and we were right there in the middle of the frenzy.

Just before the game began, two dozen doves were released. This was a beautiful sight, although some of the doves came back down and landed on the field. Players chasing them off drew a hearty chuckle from the crowd. The birds continued to fly in and out of the stadium throughout the match. The symbolism of the doves was lost on / ignored by the crowd as they chanted "Bosnia will be the heart of Serbia."

Almost as soon as play started, the first flare went sailing into the Bosnia section. This resulted in a huge cheer. The Bosnians sent it right back into the Serbian crowd. For the rest of the game, things kept getting hurled back and forth, including these red squares that I couldn't identify. Eventually an extra twenty rows of Serbians were cleared out so the distance would be too great for tossing things. The Bosnians were also compressed into the top part of their section so they couldn't roam around as much. It was at this point that I realized that the red squares were chairs that people had been prying up. The chairs are just these little plastic things attached to the concrete, and Andreja said they only cost 10 euros each, so a bunch get pulled up at every game and then replaced before the next one. Imagine that at Fenway.

(For anyone concerned about my safety, rest assured that I was well out of firing range on the opposite side of the stadium.)

During halftime our aisle thinned out a bit, so we worked our way down to the front and were about as close to the field as you can get. Dan and I were actually able to get seats, although we stood on them the entire time, which certainly seemed to be the custom. I didn't see anyone sitting. As for the game, the Serbians won 1-0, and go forward to next summer's World Cup in Germany. People who know about soccer say the team didn't play exceptionally well, but, as always, that doesn't matter since they won.

It was an incredible night. Soccer fans are so intense, and the energy in the stadium was unbelievable. A little scary, but mostly amazing. For the Americans who've told me that soccer is boring to watch, I say it's because you've never been to a game where people really cared about who won. Every play close to the net has 60,000 people holding their breath, not to mention all the people watching in bars and at home. For the record, it's really loud when 60,000 people all exhale at the same time.

The World Cup is truly an international event (unlike the World Series). So it's not just regular sports fan pride, it's also national pride. While I do look forward to returning to the relative calm of baseball games, the furor evoked an unexpectedly strong emotional response in me, and I found myself chanting Srbija, Srbija along with all the other fans. I would have joined in on the other cheers as well, but I don't know the words.

The Serbian uniform, by the way, is blue jerseys, white shorts, and red socks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Hills Are Alive...

Over the weekend in Novi Sad we finally had a chance to listen to some Serbian folk music. We first encountered it in the restaurant of our hotel. We went down for dinner and the band - one bass, one violin, one accordion, and two guitars - was just finishing their card game so they could start the next set. As they were picking up their instruments, two new patrons entered the restaurant, both male, and if we had been in New Jersey, I would have guessed they were related to the Sopranos. Black t-shirts, gold necklaces, and, as Dan said, "scraggly beards that just scream button man." They sat down, ordered some drinks, and beckoned the musicians over to their table.

For the next hour, the band encircled the table and played song after song for the two men. The guys would stop the music mid-song to demand a different one, sing along, close their eyes, and wave their hands in the air. It was clearly an emotional evening, and an impressive performance by both groups. I described it all to Dan, as he was unfortunately seated with his back to the "dinner theater." When we left, the men hadn't broken into tears, but I'm sure it was just a matter of adequate alcohol consumption.

From there, we met up with some friends to go to a konoba bar to listen to another band. I love when you have a local to guide you to the places you would never find on your own (so thank you Kristina & Peter). The bar is basically three rooms in a basement - it's only open three nights a week starting at ten, and people go just for the music. Peter said that particular bar is where he and his friends go to get drunk and sing when one of them breaks up with a girlfriend. The songs are all about lost love and drinking, and Kristina would translate particularly stirring passages for us. If you have a message for someone, you apparently call them from the bar and hold up the phone so they can listen to the appropriate song. We got there early (10:30) to reserve seats. The band was already going, and as the night progressed the bar filled beyond capacity. We stayed for hours listing to music and drinking wine.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Are we having fun yet?

Here we are, on our big adventure, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm a little bored. Dan's classes don't start for another two weeks and the things I've found to do (more later) don't get going until next week. It's a "hurry up and wait" situation, and we are getting stircrazy. Thank goodness for the Discovery Channel - Mythbusters is on every night at 7 and 9. We're also hanging out in downtown Kragujevac, walking circles around the city and drinking cup after cup of Turkish coffee, but there isn't a ton to see or do.

We're slowly turning into slugs. In an effort to stave of the incredible lethargy that is overtaking us, we've decided to hit the road for the weekend, heading north. Our destination is a city called Novi Sad, and is generally considered the "Athens of Serbia." We're looking forward to some architecture, culture, and fancy restaurants. I'll report back next week.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

You Can't Always Get What You Want

As a middle-class American, I'm used to being able to get whatever I want whenever I want. I think it's in the Constitution. In Kragujevac, the variety of products available is unexpectedly broad. I can get Gillette razors or Nike sneakers or McDonald's hamburgers (not that I necessarily would - I'm just saying I could). This general availability of things makes it even more surprising when I really can't find something. So I've been a little disconcerted by the trouble we're having at the supermarket.

When you walk into your local Shaws or Stop & Shop, the first thing you see is the incredible array of fruits and vegetables. Foods are shipped in from all over the world to cater to our desires. Want a mango? No problem. How about some bok choy? One aisle over.

We have a market, called the Maxi, that looks very much like an American supermarket. Except that the only vegetables you can get are the ones in season right now. Shocking, no? The upside is that everything is very fresh and super tasty. I'm just sad we missed the summer harvest - I've heard all about the amazing raspberries. So when I go to the Maxi, I have no idea what we're going to cook in the week ahead. It depends on what they have on their shelves. Today we were delighted by some fennel. Hopefully fall vegetables will start to show up soon. What will we do in the winter? Frozen veggies. Most locals I know pickle peppers and other summer produce to tide them over.

Here's another weird thing about the supermarket - from what we can tell, people here cook mainly Serbian foods. Because that's all we can find the ingredients for. No salsa, curry, or teriyaki. This is tough for us, because we make our meals (specifically, Dan makes our meals) out of ingredients from all over. We're also missing some classic American things. Despite the amazing number of chocolate products, many made by Nestle, I can't find toll house chocolate chips. Maple syrup? Nowhere to be found.

While we are missing some of our old standbys, we're also enjoying food shopping as a whole new experience. We really have to look at all the products available and evaluate - what can we do with this? How can we adapt our old recipes? There's a new challenge to shopping and cooking, and I think we'll end up with a more varied food repertoire because we can't run out to the supermarket to pick up exactly what we want.

At the Embassy in Belgrade, there is a commissary stocking US food items. It's $45 a year to join (available to American citizens only). We opted not to join since we're not going to be in Belgrade that often, and when we are, I don't expect to be food shopping. What I've heard is that it's perfect when you need a fix of something distinctly American. I wonder if they stock my teriyaki sauce?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Why Serbia?

When I first told my coworkers about our plans to move to Serbia, I got a lot of surprised, questioning looks. I also got a lot of "Where is that, exactly?" We eventually made a game of what's the craziest place that starts with an "S" for Meaghan to move to. Siberia, Syria, Samoa, Sri Lanka... you get the idea.

The truth is, I had a hard time selling the idea of Serbia to myself and to my family and friends. There are posts for this fellowship all around the world, and I had imagined myself in Africa. When the fellowship came through for Kragujevac (K), it was hard to reconcile my excitement for an adventure with the idea of Eastern Europe. All I could picture was frigid weather and concrete slabs of communist "architecture." We made the mistake of tracking down the one existing guide book to Serbia available in the States. It's made by Bradt guides, and they make guides for all the places no one really goes to, like Syria and Rwanda. This is what it has to say about K:

The city of Kragujevac, capital of the Sumadija region, has the fourth-largest urban population in Serbia with about 180,000 citizens. In contrast to the bucolic delights of the lush Sumadija countryside, Kragujevac is a modern industrial city with little to tempt the casual visitor, although its proximity to both Ljubosotinja and Kalenic monasteries makes it a suitable destination for an overnight stay.

This was not encouraging. Fortunately, I'm not a casual visitor.

Kragujevac doesn't have a lot of scrapbook-worthy architecture. What it does have is amazing people. Our contacts at the Embassy, the university, and local cultural center are all eager to take care of us and excited to have us here for the year. I've met more Serbians in the past two weeks than Parisians in a whole semester of study in Paris. People have taken us out for coffee, helped us register with the police (a task we surely could not have accomplished on our own), interpreted bus schedules for us, ordered taxis for us, and many other things that I'm not remembering at the moment. Just today, a rainy Saturday afternoon, our landlady unexpectedly brought us some homemade cauliflower soup, hot off the stove, and a sweet dessert of pudding, peaches, and biscuits. Delicious!

In fact, Dan sometimes gets frustrated that we aren't doing more things for ourselves. I'm inspired to someday host a foreign visitor in the USA so we can send the good karma back around. And this is just a first impression - I've only been here for two weeks. If I do make a Serbian scrapbook, I imagine pictures more meaningful than random shots of buildings - events we will host, experiences we will have, and people we will meet.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Another great t-shirt...

"Stars and Strips Forever"
I'm thinking of starting a collection of "anguished English" shirts.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

City Slickers

Today we had a field trip to Belgrade for orientation and registration at the US Embassy. The bus to the city was easy, although in the end it took close to two hours. Walking around Belgrade made me a little sad not to be posted there - I always have been a city girl.

A trip to the embassy is really something special, especially in a country with some security concerns. The first thing you see is the guards - solid, serious men with very big guns. You can't just hang out in front of the embassy, and they certainly won't let you take a picture.

Once you get in, you go through the metal detector, have your bags scanned, turn over any electronic devices (incuding phones), and hand over your passport. We got badges that said in bold letters "must be escorted at all times" and went to the waiting area for someone to pick us up and bring us to the Public Affairs conference room. While it really is very serious, and I appreciate the protections provided for the Americans (and Serbians) working at the embassy, I also felt completely like I was in a spy movie, and loved every minute.

The conference was for Dan (English Language Fellow or ELF) and a Fulbright Scholar working in Belgrade. We got some excellent information on topics ranging from the economic state of Serbia to what services the embassy provides for us to how we can keep safe while we're here. Apparently if we want to go further south than Nis (heading in the direction of Kosovo) we have to go in an armored car - of course this is only provided for us if we're on official business, and since we don't actually work for the State Department I don't expect that will happen. Which is very fine with me, as I have no plans to travel in that direction.

What really struck me during our briefing was just how involved the US is all over the world. We have projects to develop school systems (what we're here for), build the economy, provide cultural exchange for students, and so many other things I don't even know about. I'm excited to see this, because one of my first impressions upon arrival was the contrast of how strongly Serbians feel about Americans (resentment after 1999 NATO bombings) and how Americans don't really think about Serbians very much at all. This bothered me because we interfered enough to blow up their buildings ... I'm glad we sent in cutural diplomats after to help the country rebuild. I'm inspired by the work being done in the embassy, and love the idea that projects like this are happening in embassies all over the world. I'm having a love affair with cultural diplomacy.

Speaking of culture - on the bus ride home a Jay-Z song came on the radio. Surprisingly, all the swears were bleeped out. I guess US swears are universal.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Inside the Fishbowl

We arrived in Serbia one week ago today. We just got internet at our house last night - this is a great relief, as I'm tired of watching the ticker on CNN World to find out if the Red Sox won. My husband Dan and I are here through a fellowship Dan has with the state department. He'll be teaching English at the local univeristy... I'll be, well, I'm not sure yet.

The strangest thing so far is definitely that we're The Americans. Everyone is very excited to have us, our welcome has been overwhelming, full of food and turkish coffee. We get small hints of what people assume about American culture. So far we've had coca-cola pushed on us at least three times. Our wonderful landlady, Milena, made sure there was some food in our fridge upon our arrival, including a two liter bottle of coke. When visiting the American cultural center, they brought us coke without even asking. And when Dan went to visit the faculty at the university, they appologized for not having coke and gave him whiskey instead (sljivovica - locally produced). All this soda pop in a country with award winning fruit juices. Please, no more coke, I'd just like to try the raspberry juice!

On our second or third day we were walking around the city center and I suggested that we might be the only Americans in the whole city. Ironically, less than ten minutes later we were doing our food shopping (the Maxi is the biggest store around, but maybe half the size of the bookstore I used to work at) and we met a man from Chicago. He's just on vacation, though. We're here for 10 months.

Favorite wrong English so far: A t-shirt proclaiming "I Love to Bee..."