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.