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.