Sunday, June 25, 2006

Back in Boston

Much to our amazement, we didn't have to pay a penny in extra baggage fees, even though we had twice the allowed amount (and my back still hurts). I'm not sure if it was because Dan spoke to the check-in guy in Serbian, because I smiled cutely, or just because the guy was too stunned by how much baggage we had to think about charging us. At any rate, we're home with all our stuff and we didn't have to clean out the bank account to make it happen.

Since we got back we've been hanging out with family and friends, and I've been talking a lot. It really is great to be back around English all the time, to be able to make small talk with the grocery clerk or whatever. I think in some ways (despite all my English-speaking friends) I became slightly mute over the past ten months. It's very freeing to be back around my native language.

For those of you wondering about our first food indulgences, so far we've had Mexican, Japanese, American, and tonight we're going for Indian food with my dad.

The super-exciting news since our return is that I was awarded a fellowship for school, which means that my tuition is completely covered and I get a super job working on event programming and international programs. Doesn't that just sound like me?

So we're back and things are off to a fantastic start, although I already miss my gang of Serbian friends. Hello you guys!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Last Day

Today is our last full day in Serbia. We'll spend the day packing and visiting friends. Tomorrow morning we head back to Boston. Of course, I'm sad to leave behind my friends and the life we've made here. I still remember returning to Serbia from a trip to Budapest and sighing with relief at the sounds of Serbian. I like that for a short time a language other than my own meant "home."

I'm also excited to get to Boston, see my family and friends, and get started with graduate school. Also looking forward to baseball and asian food.

Leaving Serbia does not mean the end of blogging, at least not right away. I'll keep it up when I get home to talk about reverse culture shock and all the weird things that happen to me in the States.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Serbian Wedding, Part II: The Bride's House

As soon as we arrived and got out of the cars, the accordions started up (of course).

When the groom's party arrives at the bride's house, there is a tradition that the groom must shoot an apple placed somewhere in the yard by the bride's family before being allowed inside. Sometimes they put it in a tricky spot, like on top of the house or up in a tree (how difficult the shot is supposedly relates to how much the bride's family likes the groom). In this case, there was no apple - the groom simply greeted the bride's family at the gate, and they let us in.

We followed the garden path conga line-style, getting pinned with corsages on the way. The line wound its way up to the balcony, where we were once again offered drinks (vino, pivo, rakija?) and pečenje (roasted meat). At this point the bride's brother and the groom's brother began negotiating the price of the bride.

That's right, we were there to buy the bride. While this was once a serious transaction, it's now done very much in the spirit of tradition and good fun. The negotiations were heated, with much waving around of money and arguing, and at one point the groom's brother pretended to walk away, saying "She's too expensive. Let's go." They were all trying really hard to keep straight faces. I just laughed and laughed.

Throughout the negations, the bride was kept inside the house. I've heard that sometimes the groom will arrange with the bride in advance to "steal" her. While the groom is distracting the family, his friends sneak around back and take the bride. In this case, the groom was honest and paid up. The first offer was for 10 euros, and the last offer I heard was for 40 or 50 euros, but I didn't hear the final price they settled on. Once they came to an agreement, the bride was produced and there was much drinking, celebrating, and ooh ahhing over how beautiful she looked. Gifts were exchanged (including jewelry for the bride from the groom's mother and sister) and the groom shot off a full clip into the air (and later his mother would do the same). Does anyone have statistics on wedding day tragedies resulting from celebratory gun shooting gone wrong?

We sat for a while drinking and eating (Dan and I were pleased to discover that many people spoke English) before climbing back into the cars and heading to the opština (city hall) for the first of two ceremonies. It was 11:30 AM, we were already full of roasted meat and home made liquor, and we still had 12 hours of wedding ahead of us.

From here I'm going to throw the ball into Dan's court - he was there too and he should get to write about it. So you can read about the ceremonies and the reception at The Native Speaker, although maybe not until after Wednesday.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

I love The Onion

It's great to see that the US is caught up in World Cup fever this year (hah!).

I was showing this piece to a friend in Serbia, and I had to explain the joke.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Ok, so you'll have to wait a week for the rest of the wedding saga. We leave today for our tango vacation in Croatia. After that, we only have one more week in Serbia!

See you soon in Boston.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Serbian Wedding, Part I: The Groom's House

One question that has come up with surprising frequency over the past year is "Have you been to a Serbian wedding yet?"

While none of our friends were willing to get married just so we could attend a wedding, our friend Milos did get us invited to his friend’s wedding, so I can now answer "Yes." And also "Wow!" Yesterday we spent about 15 hours at wedding-related activities. For blogging purposes, I'm going to break it up into four parts: The Groom's House, The Bride's House, The Ceremonies, and The Reception.

We arrived at the groom's apartment around 9 AM. There were hors d'oevres, drinks (vino, pivo, rakija?), and snacks for us while we waited for everyone to arrive. Also, there were two guys with accordions to get us in the partying spirit (as if we needed anything more than the rakija). From what I can tell, this part of the day is really about immediate family and close friends; we were invited along so we could see how the whole thing works.

Once everyone was assembled, the groom was ready, and all necessary pictures were taken, we headed down the stairs and out to the cars, parade-style, with the accordions in the lead (I think this was around 10 AM, and I’m sure we woke the neighbors). As we were walking out of the apartment, we noticed that the groom was packin' - a handgun in a shoulder holster. I've often heard shots going off on Sunday mornings from wedding parties, but until I saw the holster I had forgotten about this detail.

I understand that in villages the groom's family traditionally walks over to the bride's house (music all the way, of course). In this case, the groom lives in the city and the bride is from a village, so we had a caravan of cars, all decorated with bows and flowers. As we were waiting to pile into the cars, we had our first dance of the day - the groom's mother, sister, and best woman (kum in Serbian, more on this later) got together for a quick line dance, or kolo. I could tell it was going to be a good day.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Goulash Cook-Off

Last Sunday, Kragujevac had its annual goulash cook-off down by the lake. Naturally, this wasn't something we could miss.

It started at noon, and we arrived around 2 to the tantalizing smell of simmering goulash (and the sight of at least a dozen people dressed in traditional Serbian garb). There were about 30 contestants, including a team from the fire department, and each had set up a metal tripod over a fire. The stew pot hangs on a chain from the top of the tripod. Everyone was mixing and stirring, the goulash was bubbling away, and it all looked delicious.

Unfortunately, nothing was ready to taste when we arrived, so we had lunch at the restaurant next to the lake. I figure the restaurant sponsors the competition - all those yummy smells next door must drum up business.

After lunch we walked around the lake (in the process we found the local lovers' lane - identifiable by the scattering of condom wrappers) and had another look in all the stew pots. We saw people lining up for stew at the firemen's station and we went to see if we could get some. We didn't realize it was a BYOB event (bring your own bowl) so Dan went to the beer stand and got two plastic cups. The goulash was delicious, and the cups were just strong enough to withstand the heat without melting, although it was tough on our fingertips.

A friend joined us in the late afternoon to hear the band (a local group that covers rock standards). We sat and rocked out until the concert was interrupted by a huge fight. A group of guys were hitting and kicking one guy (even when he was down), really pounding on him. I don't know what started it, but most people had been drinking all afternoon. It was shocking for me - it was the first time I've seen people trying to harm each other in earnest. When it became clear that people were joining the fight instead of breaking it up, we moved on for some frisbee.

It was a beautiful, sunny day to spend down by the lake, enjoying some local fare, although by the end we were a bit dazed by the sun. Nothing a few cocktails at Buena Vista couldn't fix, though.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Serbian Perspective

For my US readers who may be wondering what Serbians really think about the whole referendum thing, Bg Anon, a new contributor to Belgrade Blog, has posted his views on the Montenegrin referendum.

Of course, there are other opinions, but most of the people I've spoken with have had very similar takes on the situation.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Change of address

Unofficial results are showing that yesterday Montenegrins voted (by a very narrow margin) to dissolve the union with Serbia. As far as I can tell, today is business as usual here in Kragujevac. Over the past week I asked many Serbs for their opinions and predictions of the referendum, and I can sum up the overall response with one big shoulder shrug.

I was watching the weather report on CNN this morning, and I noticed they hadn’t yet added the new border to their map of Eastern Europe. I wonder how long that will take.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The countdown is on

We've been busy over the last few weeks completing projects and attending conferences, many of which have long been symbols of the end of our stay in Serbia. The only big thing we have left is our tango vacation.

I don't want anyone to think that I'm impatiently counting down the days until we leave Serbia (because I'm not), but the fact is that today is May 21 and our return tickets to Boston are for June 21. So one more month of fun and games in the Balkans.

Last weekend Dan had the ELTA conference in Belgrade; since hotel accommodations were included in his travel grant I tagged along and had a few days to enjoy our capital. Previous excursions to Belgrade have all be one day trips, and it's hard to really enjoy the city when you have to pay attention to catching the return bus and you have nowhere to leave your stuff or take a siesta.

So while poor Dan was stuck in conferences, I hit the town. The weather was lovely, so I spent an afternoon at the Belgrade zoo, which had a surprising variety of animals, although I have never before seen dogs displayed in a zoo. Some of the living conditions were sad (especially for the bears, I thought), but it is quite an old zoo. A lot of cages and concrete cells. Some rich investor should get involved so they can renovate.

I saw some other historical sites (I didn't make it to the Tesla museum, though. They have really bad hours.) but mostly spent my time exploring on foot. As much as I've enjoyed my year in Kragujevac, I'm sad that we weren't stationed in Belgrade. It is an amazing city, with so much to do and explore. There's also a real vibrancy there. It seems there's always some random event popping up somewhere around the city, whether it's street performers or a dance competition or a rally to get people hyped up about the World Cup. Also, I saw these guys crowding the front of the Hotel Moskva, and at the time I had no idea what was going on.

On Friday night we went to the Indian restaurant, and both surprisingly (because we didn't know they would be there) and not surprisingly (because it's exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find them), we ran into a bunch of embassy staffers. They invited us to join them, and we had a great time kicking around our theories on Serbia and the US, and also eating a lot of great food and drinking quite a bit of wine.

The only down side to the weekend was that I sat in gum. Gross.

Monday, May 08, 2006

It Don't Mean a Thing...

Last Wednesday Dan and I taught a swing dance class at the American Corner. We had 10 couples, and everyone picked up the steps relatively quickly. Such fun!

The flying hair! The green sneakers!

Sveti Djordje

May 6th is the slava of the city of Kragujevac, so this past weekend was one big party.

On Friday we celebrated the first anniversary of the American Corner. At the party, we announced the winners of the creative writing contest and gave out prizes and awards. I was chatting with one of the winners, talking about Lemony Snicket (her prize was the box set of the first three books) and she asked how much Serbian I know. I said not much because my husband (pointing to Dan) learned so much faster than I did. She looked at me in surprise and said "He's your husband? He's so cute!" I don't think she was surprised that I have such a cute husband - I think she was disappointed to find out Dan is married. Nice to know he appeals to the 15 year old crowd.

After the party we went to a new bar with some friends. It specializes in beer, which means they have dark beer, which can be hard to find in K. We went there for the first time last weekend - the owner and I have a mutual friend who has been doing his best to promote the bar. Naturally, we wanted to do the same so we brought our other friends. It was neat to be the foreigner showing the locals a great new place. My favorite thing about this bar: the music isn't so loud that you have to shout to have a conversation. So you can actually sit and talk with your friends over a pint.

From there we went to watch the pre-concert fireworks. I have never been so close to fireworks - they seemed to be exploding towards us. And that's because they were. The parking lot we were standing in was just across the way from where the fireworks were being set off. Apparently the city had suggested that people not park their cars there to make sure they didn't get damaged. They didn't seem to think it was important enough to block the lot off to people. There were literally cinders coming down around us. It was great!

Following the fireworks there was a concert with a famous "stari grad" singer. "Stari grad" means "old town," and I think it's quite perfectly named. I thought it was good, but it wasn't music I would stand outside on a cold night to hear. I might play it while relaxing in the backyard with a book and an iced tea on a summer afternoon. So we listened to a few songs and turned in for the night. Our Serbian friends stayed to enjoy the concert; I think for many of them it's the music they grew up with and so there's sentimental attachment. Maybe if there had been chairs...

After a busy week of party planning and the resumption of Dan's classes, we were too worn out Saturday to get out and see much of the fun. We did go to a Mozart concert at the high school - we finally had an excuse to see the inside of the high school (it was the first one in Serbia, as any good Kragujevcan will tell you). It was beautiful... much nicer than NQHS. The hall the concert was in had statues of the trifecta of Serbian heroes - Vuk Karadzic, Saint Sava, and Milos Obrenovic (labelled, on the wall as "Milos Veliki," or Big Milos). I like the idea that they have representatives of intellectual, spiritual, and political/military greatness, instead of the usual George Washington you find in US classrooms.

I thought the concert was good, although Dan had a few minor complaints (he knows more about classical music than I do) and we were inspired to download a bunch of Mozart when we got home. Happy 250th birthday, Mozart!

Sunday we went out to investigate the newly-opened Srce ice cream parlor, one block over from the original. I felt a little like I was in Disney World - the atmosphere was reaching for a Viennese cake shop, or something like Gerbeaud in Budapest. A lot of thought had clearly gone into the decorations. The ice cream is just as delicious and there are two new cases full of pastry treats and cakes, so I can wholeheartedly (ah! it's a pun! get it? srce means "heart") endorse the new location, particularly the cherry tarts.

One of my favorite lazy Sunday afternoon pastimes is going down to city hall and watching the weddings. Everyone has to get married at city hall before going to church and / or party. The entire wedding party usual goes to the official ceremony, which means there are hordes of people, usually at least one trubaci band, and often a gang of Roma kids scrounging for money. This Sunday we saw three different wedding parties. Many people ask if we've gone to a Serbian wedding - it's supposed to be an unrivaled Serbian experince, replete with food, wine, dancing, rakia, and more food. Unfortunately, none of our friends seem ready to tie the knot, so the closest we've gotten is people-watching at city hall. One of these days we're going to crash someone's reception.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Ok, I know that is perhaps the most obvious title I could have used for this post, but I couldn't resist. Who knows when I'll have another opportunity like this?

Dan and I recently returned from five and a half glorious days of exploring Istanbul. The weather was just about perfect, the sights were magnificent, I tangoed in my fourth country, and (unhappily) there were throngs of tourists. We saw eight of the top 10 recommended sights from our DK guidebook, and were brave enough to spend an afternoon in the hamam, instead of just peering through the door into the reception room. I highly recommend the hamam. It's very relaxing, a great break from the running around you do trying to fit in visits to all the Mosques and Ottoman palaces. And wow! Those Ottoman palaces.

Also, we had lunch in Asia, which is technically the fourth continent I've visited. Trying to settle on a restaurant is quite a challenge. Shopkeepers and restaurateurs compete ferociously for the business of tourists. Most stand in front of their shops to talk to people walking by, basically harrassing them into going inside. Being an American, and valuing personal space and the time to make a decision without feeling like I'm being hustled, this was more than a little off-putting. There were many times throughout the week when I felt like I was up for auction. But I have to say, some people really get inventive as they're trying to attract your attention. Here are some of the best pick-up lines we heard:
  • Pretty lady...
  • Hello, nice couple!
  • This is a government place. Our place is over here!
  • Where are you going? The Grand Bazaar is this way!
  • Vous êtes français, oui?
  • Muchas gracias! Are you Spanish?
  • Can I help you spend your money?
  • Try this, it's poison!
  • My moustache is better! (We think he was referring to the guy who owned the shop across from his, not Dan, but who knows?)
  • Your shoes, very dirty! (This from inumerable shoe-shiners, directed at Dan. And they were right, his shoes were very dirty.)
One thing I loved about Istanbul was the sense of entrepreneurship. All you need to start a business is a cart and something to sell. Here's a list of some of the great one-man roving shops we saw:
  • Fruit Juice - This one is obviously intended for tourists because you see these guys mostly in the park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Worth mentioning all the same, especially since I can link to a picture.
  • Cucumbers - Wheelbarrow, cucumbers, knife (for peeling), and salt. Voila, you're in business!
  • Instant Lollipops - Different colors of what I assume is liquefied sugar, carefully twisted around a lollipop stick. So pretty, so bad for your teeth.
  • Tea - The tea-sellers carry around trays loaded with glasses of hot tea. I assume they remember whom they sold it to and go back later to retrieve the cups. In touristy areas the tea-sellers have thermoses and plastic cups. Not nearly as fun.
  • Corn - Boiled or roasted. Salt but, sadly, no butter.
  • Shoe-Shiners - On almost every street corner. As I said above, they don't mind telling you how dirty you shoes are if it will bring them business.
We did visit two rug shops. Those of you who know us may be aware that we already fell prey to the rug salesman in Morocco, and we have three very beautiful carpets to show for it. We were wise this time, and we knew that we really weren't interested. So we were able to graciously accept the tea we were offered, look at the exquisite carpets, all the while being clear that we weren't interested in buying (of course, the salesman didn't believe us). Once they started talking numbers, we thanked them politely for showing us their beautiful merchandise and made a quick getaway. We are very proud of ourselves.

Of course, we did make a few purchases and we shipped them to my mom so we won't have to bring them home in June, when we're hauling all the stuff we brought for the entire year in Serbia. I never thought it would be so entertaining to watch two guys pack a box. They carefully packed our crate of "treasures from the Orient" and used an incredible liquid foam to fill the air pockets. There are two chemicals that mix when they shoot them out of the machine. When they mix, they expand and solidify, so it forms to the shape of our stuff. Wow!

Istanbul really is a stunning city, and there are many more things I could go on about. But I have to leave some things for Dan to write about, such as the Italian uniform, guidelines for tourists, Turkish hospitality, and our favorite moment of sightseeing.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

While you're waiting for our Istanbul stories

We just got back from our adventure in Istanbul, and we're still getting our thoughts in order for blogging. In the meantime, here are a few things worth checking out:

Slate's Fred Kaplan on exporting more of American culture than The OC and tanks.

Two Chinese Boys. Funniest thing I've seen in ages.

New ads for Dunkin' Donuts. Music by They Might Be Giants.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Water, water, everywhere...

In case you guys over in the States haven't heard, the Balkans are pretty much under water at the moment (although not being situated on any of the major rivers, we are A-OK here in Kragujevac). The Danube has reached record levels, and the flooding is destroying houses and farmland throughout the region. When I was returning from Budapest last Monday, there were times when the water was less than a foot from the tracks on either side of the train.

On a lighter note, I wanted to share this picture that I found on the BBC website of an intrepid traveler in Belgrade.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Hey, look, I'm adjusting

While Dan has been busy blogging away over the past few days, I've been taking my mom around Serbia and Budapest. We had a great trip, and my mom did the work of the USPS by hauling lots of my favorite things across the ocean. Three cheers for Ginger Betty's ginger snaps! Also gingerbread cookies that look like the Serbian flag. Thank you mom!

It was interesting to watch someone having first impressions of Serbia - I've been here for eight months now, and everything seems more or less normal. Seeing through my mom's eyes, I remembered the things that seemed so strange to me when I first arrived. (The first picture she took was of the turkish toilet at the Belgrade bus station. I don't like them, but they don't surprise me anymore.)

One thing I realized is that I've learned to accept "Serbian Hospitality" graciously, without insisting on paying for things or making an overly big deal about thanking people, which is potentially embarrassing for the hospitality-giver. I'm pleased to have this new skill, as it's something I really struggled with in the beginning, although I don't know how it will serve me when I go back to the US.

I did my best to respect the traditions of Serbian hospitality and only let my mom pay for two dinners, and that was so she wouldn't be too anxious. (Of course, Serbian hospitality rules don't apply in Hungary.) It was super to see my mom, and it was cool to be the tour guide.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Road Trip

Yesterday our landlords took us on a road trip through central Serbia. We were in search of the Resava Monastery. Fortunately, the man we stopped for directions thought we were looking for a different monastery and told us entirely the wrong way to go.

The monastery the guy sent us to was smaller, but sometimes when you don't end up where you planned, you do end up exactly where you're supposed to be. We looked inside the church, then the nuns made us coffee and we sat and chatted with the head nun and she told us stories about her life. She had everyone in stitches when she told about the chicken that used to sit on her head and sing songs. I laugh every time I think of this 80-something nun, in her habit, with the big glasses, singing chicken songs. Sadly, it was eaten by a chicken hawk. We also saw the peacock that lives there, and he showed off for us, displaying his magnificent tail. What a useless bird! We bought some of the honey the nuns make (I didn't get too close to the bee hives) and then walked down a hill to the riverside where they have a watermill for making cornmeal. Nuns are so industrious.

We got back on the road, and, with new directions, were able to find the big monastery. It was surrounded by medieval castle walls, which was totally unexpected. The inside of the church was beautifully decorated with frescoes; unfortunately they sustained heavy water damage when the Turks stole the lead roof and all the rain came in. The very sweet nun Anastasia showed us around. I don't think many Americans come through.

Before going to lunch (everyone, from the nuns to our landlord's best-friend, who happened to call, recommended the restaurant next to the waterfall) we stopped at the Resavska Cave. We didn't know that it isn't open for the season until April 1st. Luckily, some tour group had made arrangements for it to be open yesterday and we were able to get in. Cica is a forge-ahead kind of lady, and when we got the cave entrance and found it locked, she located the key tucked under the fence, unlocked the door, and in we went. It was a beautiful cave, with some impressive features. It was nothing like the "wild tour" experience I had in Colorado, but it was lovely. We ran into the guide on our way out, and he was quite disturbed that we had gone through alone. I'm just glad he realized we were in there so he didn't turn out the lights.

We left the cave in a state of extreme hunger; Boban navigated the terrible roads as fast as he could to get us to the waterfall. As promised, the restaurant was situated next to a river, just downstream from a waterfall (any closer and we would have been hit by the spray). We sat for a while, waiting for our lunch to arrive, eyeing the bread on the tables around us. First course: fantastic bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, kajmak, and cheese. Second course, roasted fish. Whole fish, with heads, tales, and scales. First time I have eaten fish that looked like fish. If you're skillful, when you finish eating, the remains really do look like the fish in the Tom & Jerry cartoons - head and tail, connected by spine. We loosened our belts and had palacinke with honey and nuts for dessert.

Back on the road - Dan, Cica, and I all slept part of the way home. It was a glorious day, and I'm sure we all slept well last night from the exercise and the (delightfully) fresh air. Three cheers for Cica and Boban for taking such good care of us.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why I don't like to play scrabble with Dan

I was having a good game (for me). I was definitely on track to break 300. But I had to call "uncle."

Dan got not one (decides), not two (adjutant), but THREE (illness) bingos. It's just not sportsman-like.

Serb's Eye View

Viktor from Belgrade Blog posted an excellent answer to my often thought (but rarely vocalized for fear of being insensitive) question of what it was like during the bombings. Very informative for Americans who have not had to live through anything similar.

I don't care about politics.
Unfortunately, politics care about me.

We were having coffee with friends after a jazz concert last night, and the conversation turned, as it almost always does, to politics. None of us (except Dan) actually like talking about politics, but it's something you just can't avoid. As our Serb friend put it, "I don't care about politics, but politics care about me."

In Serbia, what's going on with politics actually effects people's lives. The three major issues du jour are the status of Kosovo, the upcoming referendum for independence in Montenegro, and the extradition of Hague fugitives. How these issues are resolved will effect Serbs' ability to travel freely around the world (which they can't right now), future economic stability, and possible admission of Serbia into the EU. Among other things. So even though we don't really want to sit around talking about this stuff, it never fails to come up.

You know what? It's exhausting. It goes without saying that these are serious issues, the outcomes of which are beyond the control of the average Serb. It takes a lot of work to stay up to date on current events, and of course there are many opinions on what should happen in each circumstance.

I'm worn out from all this. In the States, it's nothing to go weeks or months without being aware of major events around the world. I'm sure that Americans are too isolated, but I'm looking forward to a solid month of blissful ignorance to world events when I get home. I know that, much like maple syrup, this is not a luxury available to my Serbian friends. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to take advantage of it.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


Belgrade "Help Desk" Blog posted a recap of the events of the past week. Great pictures of the "Spring arrives three days earlier this year" event, where citizens got together in Belgrade on the day of the funeral to wish that "Milosevic doesn't happen to us ever again." Inspiring!

Monday, March 13, 2006

La de da, politics as usual

My U.S. readers may be wondering about the atmosphere in Serbia following the death of Slobodan Milosevic. I can report that in some quarters, his death has been dramatically overshadowed by the Eurovision fiasco.

Eurovision is an annual musical competition among the European countries, and every country is allowed to send one representative performer or group. Serbia and Montenegro are two countries, but they share one federal government and get to send only one delegate.

As in any country, Serbia-Montenegro (SCG) has a national competition to determine who will go. To make things fair, the panel of judges is half Serbian and half Montenegrin. The competition was held this past Saturday, and the Montenegrin judges appear to have conspired against the Serbians. They did not give any points to any Serbian entrants, so naturally a Montenegrin group won the contest. How sad to see politics interfering with such a silly and fun competition.

Who will go to the Eurovision contest in Athens will now be decided by a committee because of the apparent foul play, but this situation is indicative of larger issues in SCG. On May 21 the Montenegrins will hold a referendum to decide if they still want to be part of the federation with Serbia. There has been a lot of hoo-ha about how exactly the referendum will be run, how many people have to vote for it to be valid, and how much the separatists have to win by in order to actually break the union. Most of the Serbians I know are watching this with no great concern. One friend asked, though, "Why do they always make it look like people are running away from Serbia? Why don't they ask us what we want?"

Tonight there was a special TV show devoted to the Eurovision controversy. A panel of experts discussed who was responsible and what should be done, and a number of people suggested that the rules should be changed for next year. By this time next year, though, it might not matter any more.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Holy Cow

The Canadians beat the US baseball team yesterday in the first World Baseball Classic. I know, I know, I didn't want to believe it either. But it's in the New York Times.

Now, I was expecting to face some competition from, say, the Dominican Republic. But Canada? Didn't they just shut down the Expos because no one went to the games?

My boy Varitek hit a grand slam, but Red Sox youngster (and Canadian) Adam Stern thwarted US efforts by driving in four runs and making some great plays in the field. Will I be able to fully support this Stern kid when MLB play begins?

I was surprised to see there are teams competing from Italy, South Africa, and the Netherlands. Anyone think this thing could actually catch on? Are Americans paying attention at all?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

An Aesthetic Kidnapping

Last Friday was opening night of a film festival at our local theater - it seems that the films from the Belgrade festival are making the rounds to the regional theaters. We met up with our friends, bought some popcorn, and went in to see the first film, Broken Flowers. According to the advertisements, the movie was supposed to be followed by some sort of concert.

We took our seats, glad that the theater was moderately full and excited for the movie. Unfortunately, the event organizer had rescheduled the concert to take place before the movie, having realized that no one would stay for the concert or assuming that we wouldn't care/notice.

So what was this concert? A multimedia experience! There were two women on stage, one reading poetry and the other playing the piano. A film was projected behind them, featuring the same woman with the piano (some poor guy had to drag a baby grand up into the hills of Serbia), men in uniform with a huge Serbian flag, and mountain vistas, all intercut with religious icons and scenes of burning buildings. The poetry reading took place during the projection, but the film was paused for the piano playing. Why didn't she play the piano live for the poetry reading/film? I have no answer.

The whole performance had clearly been soaked too long in a big vat of melodrama. The only light came from candles placed all around the piano (except for the lantern in the Chronicles of Narnia display on the other side of the stage) and the women were dressed all in black. The piano player, who was clearly the ringleader, wore some flowy outfit and an oversized black hat. In the film she was wearing a long black veil, fishnet gloves, and bright red lipstick. When she played the piano she had these fantastic arm flourishes that made me think she was trying to combine modern dance with her music. Or that she had some sort of neurological disorder.

Perhaps I'm being too mean, but you have to understand that even under the best of circumstances, I don't like this kind of thing. And the whole audience was basically taken hostage for this performace - we were there to see Broken Flowers, remember? One of our Serbian friends was so embarrased that he sent Dan a text message in apology (he was sitting in a different part of the theater) before walking out. We (as an audience) sat there and took it for over a half hour before people really started getting restless.

It started with general murmuring, then progressed to bursts of applause during the segues from film to performance, with shouts of "Oh! You're not done yet?" Then people started to shout out (I wish I could tell you everything that was said. Alas, language barrier.), and eventually the performance stopped and the piano player had some conversation with the audience about how she had performed in Kragujevac twice before (in 1976 and 1978, I believe) with positive reactions, but that now she was never coming back. This, naturally, resulted in more applause. Somehow they decided they were going to keep performing, although they agreed to cut it short, and within another ten minutes they left the stage.

Part of me feels bad for the performers. I'm sure they believe they have an important message and a quality performance, and no one wants to be ridiculed. But we were victims of a bait and switch, and the audience was polite for quite a while, but who knows how long the show would have gone on for if it hadn't been stopped? And as I have described here before, the chairs in that theater are no La-Z-Boys. I just didn't need the extra time sitting in that seat.

Of course, before starting the movie they had to take down all the equipment from the performance. Dan took the opportunity to stand up and stretch. There was some general shouting from behind us, and Maja turned to talk to the people. She told them that we are Americans, and then one of them said "sit down" in English. Dan responed, in his best Serbian, "But my ass hurts." It was a linguistic triumph.

We finally got the movie after that, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. As for the performance, I'm sure there's an audience out there somewhere for those ladies. Unfortunately, the audience they got last Friday was for Jim Jarmusch. It was nice to see democracy in action.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Great event coming up at the American Corner

In case you don't check our "official" blog, Serbia ELF News, here's the scoop on an exciting event we have planned at the American Corner. Thanks to Speedy Rice for volunteering to come speak.

Is a newspaper wrong to print cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, even if hundreds of people die in the resulting protests?

Should a newspaper blow the cover of a covert CIA operative? Should reporters go to jail for protecting their sources?

To help us explore these and other related issues, American law professor Speedy Rice will lead a discussion on freedom of the press and the US constitution.

March 21st, 17.00

Free and open to the public

As if Serbs didn't have enough problems...

Check out this International Herald Tribune article about corruption in the healthcare field.

In the States we may have an outrageous system of paying for our healthcare, but at least the doctors are generally honest.

A Serb friend of mine is just two months away from having a baby, and throughout the pregnancy she's had to go to a number of different doctors and pay I don't know how much to get the care she needs. It helps if you know someone in the field.

I heard another story (and this one might be just a story) about someone who was going to visit his wife and new child in the hospital and he stopped on the way to buy flowers. Not for his wife, but for the nurses, to make sure they would take good care of his family.

As my friend Edina says, you have to "show appreciation" to your caretakers.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Joke

In light of all the recent talk about fugitives from the Hague Tribunal, I would like to share a joke that we heard from a taxi driver in Belgrade.
Radovan Karadzic is tired of being in hiding, so he goes to a plastic surgeon in Switzerland and says, "Change everything, make me completely different so no one will recognize me." The surgeon says, "No problem, Mr. Karadzic." So he has the surgery and when it's done he looks totally different. His face is different, his voice is different, his fingerprints are different, he's shorter...

So he goes to Belgrade to see what will happen, and he's walking around and talking to people and no one recognizes him. And he thinks, "That's ok, but I have to really test this. I'll go to Sarajevo." He goes to Sarajevo, walks around, talks to everyone, same thing. No one knows who he is.

But it's still not enough, so he goes to his village, and even there, no one recognizes him. He walks around the main street, talks to old friends. Then he goes into this little garden off to the side, where he meets an old grandmother, who looks just like you expect: hunched over leaning on a cane, peering out through thick glasses from under her head scarf. She looks at him and in her little-old-lady voice says, "Karadzic, is that you?"

Karadzic is horrified, so he flies back to Switzerland and tells the doctor it didn't work. The doctor says, "I'm so sorry Mr. Karadzic, we'll do it all again, no charge, and you'll look even more different. Absolutely no one will recognize you."

Once the surgery is over, he goes back to Belgrade and no one recognizes him. Again, he goes to Sarajevo and talks to everyone, but no one knows who he is. He returns to his village, for the final test, and he talks to all his cousins, and no one has any idea who he is. He turns into the garden, and the grandmother is still there. She says, "Karadzic, is that you?"

Karadzic is furious, and shouts "How do you know who I am?!"

The grandmother responds, "It's me, Ratko Mladic."

It's Official

Bird flu has now been found in Serbia.

I don't spend any time near poultry, so I'm not worried. I am surprised that it took this long to show up here, since it's seems to be everywhere else in Europe.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

What was it I said about the weather?

Ok, maybe it's not a blizzard, but poor Srce went and put all their tables outside. Ice cream, anyone?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Pictures, at last

I've been meaning to set up an on-line photo album so we can share pictures from our travels. I've finally done it (although I haven't put them all up yet). You can see our Sarajevo photos here. I've also added a link over on the right there under "Serbia Links" that you can check periodically for new collections. I'll try to post here when I put up new pix.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

I'm developing a complex

In our house, Dan does most of the cooking. There are some things that I make very well, but mostly I'm too lazy, and tend to eat cereal rather than make a "meal." Dan, not being such a fan of Frosted Flakes, makes very nice meals for us on a regular basis.

That's not how things work in Serbia. The women are definitely the ones who cook and clean, and it's not just what the men expect of them, it's what they expect of themselves. One of Dan's students, upon hearing of our role reversal, said she thought women are "designed by God to do certain things."

What? Ok, culture shock, I'm not from here, I understand that. I thought people would at least be amused by the "modern" relationship Dan and I have, even if it seemed weird. When we first arrived and people asked me what kinds of things I cook, I was always quick to point out that Dan does the actual cooking. I'm realizing now, though, that this doesn't make us seem cute or quirky, it makes me seem like a bad wife.

While I'm very comfortable with (delighted with, in fact) the cooking roles in our house, I'm starting to worry about how people must perceive me. No one has said anything to either of us (except that one student), and I’m sure I’m just imagining it, but I'm afraid people don't think my wifely-skills are up to par, that I'm somehow deficient.

When I told Dan about my growing neuroses, he pointed out that I shouldn't be bothered by what people think (or what I think they think), and that some people will understand, and someday the people who don't might. How rational.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Taxi ride of DEATH!!!

Yesterday Dan and I had the opportunity to go to an Embassy-sponsored jazz concert in Belgrade. It was a great excuse to go to the city, take in some culture, and catch up with some of our Embassy friends, so Dan moved his classes around a little and we went.

We had some errands to take care of before we left for the city, and we were running a little late to catch the 1:00 bus. We grabbed the first taxi we could find to get to the bus station. Dan was telling the driver where to go as I was getting in the car. I grabbed the door, pulled it shut, and... it bounced open. I tried again, same thing. The driver said to pull the handle as I slammed the door. Nope. He got out and started really smashing it from the outside and playing with the latch. Under ordinary circumstances I would have gotten out of the cab and found another one. But we had a bus to catch. So, at the driver's suggestion, I held the door shut for the two minute ride to the station. I do not recommend this at any sort of high speed. I had images of myself being flung from the car into some ditch on the side of the highway. Fortunately, we were only traveling at moderate speeds on city roads (not that being flung onto the sidewalk would be any less painful than a highway ditch), and it was really no problem except when we made right-hand turns and I could feel the door pulling away from me.

When we got to the bus station, we found out there wasn't a 1:00 bus after all, and we had to wait until 1:30. Dan was a little grumpy because we had a few appointments in the city and we were going to be late. I was positively giddy, having just had the best taxi ride of my life. That cab was the absolute epitome of some Serbian something; I'm just not sure what.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The people here...

...are just fantastic. Check out this article Dan found about the taxi drivers / philosophers in Belgrade.

P.S. Dan can't remember where he found the link, but he suspects it was on another ex-pat blog. So if it was you, sorry for the poor scholarship!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bright Sunshiny Day

We're having a spell of stunning weather - temperatures around 18 C with sunny skies. It makes me impatient for the real spring and the trove of delicious fresh vegetables we've been promised. But being a New Englander, I fully expect a blizzard next week to make up for the warmth.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

First City

I'm feeling a bit guilty because I haven't posted any insightful yet witty commentary on life in Serbia lately; I just haven't spent a lot of time here in the past two months.

Yesterday I flew back to Serbia from Vienna. One of the major triumphs of my trip was getting from the bus station to the Belgrade airport and vice versa without any help. This was a huge accomplishment for me, because Dan, being the language guy, does most of the communicating for us. The return trip was particularly satisfying because when you come out of customs at the airport, taxi drivers (SCAMMERS!) start following you around, sweet talking you, trying to get you to ride with them and then they'll charge you an outrageous fee. Knowing their schemes, I ignored them all and took the cheap-o bus to the city center provided by JAT (pronounced yacht), the Serbian airline.

Vienna was absolutely stunning, as expected. I had two days of conference and two days of tourism. The best part of the conference was being in a work-like enviornment again. I haven't had a full work day since I left B&N back in August. I gave a kick-ass presentation and made friends with all sorts of people. The other best part of the conference was that all my expenses were covered by the US government. Your tax dollars at work...

Tourism was also great, and somehow special because Vienna is the first international city I traveled to, way back in 1994. I was on a high-school trip with 39 other students and various chaperones and we made the grand tour of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. That trip was unquestionably how I became hooked on international travel, and so must be partly responsible for this year in Serbia.

The major sights I visited were the Prater ferris wheel - I'm sure you all remember the famous speech Orson Welles gives in The Third Man. In case you've forgotten, here's the text:
Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
I also had the tour of the famous Opera House (WOW!) and saw the morning practice of the Lipizzan horses at the Spanish Riding School. And I ate a lot of strudel. My overall impression of Vienna was that they should still have a king. They have so much tradition and opulence (next Thursday is the annual Opera Ball) and it seems a bit wasted without a monarch to appreciate it all.

I am staying put in Serbia for the next month, when my mom comes to visit and we travel to Budapest. So I promise more cultural commentary is forthcoming.

Viva Mexico

Regular readers know that one of the things we miss most about the US is ethnic food.

I found taco seasoning packets in Vienna.

I understand that actual Mexicans don't necessarily use spice packets, but for me that's just about the real thing. We just finished our first "taco" dinner, Serbian style. We have no tortillas or taco shells, so we used slightly oversized melba toast-like crackers. It worked, and I am happy.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Eight Days to Pitchers & Catchers

I've clearly got baseball on my mind. I was preparing a handout for an upcoming presentation, and I listed the author of Frindle as Matt Clement (Red Sox pitcher) instead of Andrew Clements (the actual author). Eagle-eye Dan spotted the error before I made any copies.

First Tango in Belgrade

I'm sorry, I couldn't resist the cheeseball title.

I finally got in touch with the tango community in Belgrade, and last Wednesday Dan and I went to our first milonga. One of the things that I love about tango is that it's instant community wherever you go. We arrived at the club 15 or 20 minutes after the milonga started, put on our shoes, and had a few warm-up dances. When we sat down for some water and a look around, we were immediately approached by one of the locals. She had spotted us as newcomers, and wanted to make sure we got properly welcomed.

I danced pretty much non-stop until the end of the milonga (oh! my tootsies are sore!), and I was impressed with the tango skills of my many partners. I'd rate just about everyone I danced with as intermediate, with a few beginners and advanced dancers mixed in. It's the perfect level for us, and I had a wonderful time. Carlos & Tova, I think I did you proud, and I received many compliments on my own style and technique.

So the Belgrade tango community gets high marks for dance skills and super-high marks for friendliness. Can't wait to go back.

Thanks to Papa Tango for telling us when the dances are, Dragana, Misa, and Bojana for being so friendly, Sasa for the lift, and Andreja for putting us up for the night even though you had an exam the next day.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sticker Shock

Today we went to our local UPS office to mail off my application for graduate school.

It cost 50 euros. And that's taking into account the discount the UPS guy gave us because he remembered reading about us in the newspaper (he was a very nice man).

I had better get accepted.

Monday, February 06, 2006

I Got The Serbian Blues

Tomorrow we're celebrating Black History Month at the American Corner. We've put together a presentation on African-American music that should be excellent, if the play list is any indication. Here is the list of songs that we'll be playing all or part of:
  • Menu Di Ye Jewe - Babatunde Olatunji
  • No Room in the Jailhouse - Reverend J. M. Gates
  • Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel - Howard Roberts Chorale
  • Good News - Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • What'd I Say - Ray Charles
  • Chain of Fools - Aretha Franklin
  • I Heard it Through the Grapevine - Marvin Gaye
  • Po' Lazarus - James Carter & The Prisoners
  • I Got a Gal - Big Joe Turner
  • Boom Boom - John Lee Hooker
  • One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer - George Thorogood and the Destroyers
  • Pineapple Rag - Scott Joplin
  • Minnie the Moocher - Cab Calloway
  • It Don't Mean a Thing - Duke Ellington w/ Ivie Anderson
  • Cottontail - Duke Ellington w/ Ella Fitzgerald
  • The Great Pretender - The Platters
  • Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry
  • All Shook Up - Elvis Presley
  • Thriller - Michael Jackson
  • The Message - Grandmaster Flash
  • Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia) - US3
Are there things we missed or left out? Of course. After all, we only have two hours and we need to leave time for discussion. What would you have done differently? Leave a comment...

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Mid-Year Report

We recently passed the mid-point of our stay in Serbia.

I don't have anything grand or profound to say, but I'd like to pause and take note of the moment. I can't think ahead to actually leaving; we have so many things to do between now and then... coffee will be drunk, conferences will happen, and babies will be born!

Dan had to submit a mid-year report detailing all of his professional activities. I'd like to offer an incomplete and somewhat random accounting of what I've done since our arrival:
  • Many hours at the computer
  • Drunk gallons of coffee
  • Learned how to make turska kafa
  • Tasted many new foods
  • Serbian lessons
  • Attended a soccer game
  • Belgrade Book Fair
  • Snowboarding
  • Birthday party for Meg
  • Tango
  • Dined with a former ambassador (Pakistan to Nigeria)
  • Stayed out way too late for a couple of old fogeys like us
  • Baked chocolate chip cookies, attempted to bake banana bread
  • Visited the US Embassy
  • One magazine and one TV interview
  • Attended a performance of traditional Serbian folk dances
  • Attended Slava & Orthodox Christmas
  • Workshop at the university
  • Workshop in Lapovo, Serbia
  • Applied to graduate school (found my next calling?)
  • Published 1 1/2 blogs
  • Places I've travelled:
    • Belgrade
    • Novi Sad
    • Nis
    • Budapest, Hungary (x2)
    • The USA
    • Sarajevo, Bosnia
  • Books I've read all or part of:
    • The Read-Aloud Handbook
    • The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear
    • A is for Alibi
    • The Unexpected Mrs. Polifax
    • The Partly Cloudy Patriot
    • Dear Mr. Henshaw
    • Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs...
    • Catch-22
    • Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction
    • New York Trilogy
    • The Power of Reading
    • The World is Flat
    • The Ballad of the Whiskey-Robber
    • others that I can't remember because we took them home at Christmas
  • Passing Addictions:
    • Sudoku
    • Computer Pinball
    • Srce hot chocolate
    • Various flavors of Next juices
    • Knorr cream of asparagus soup packets
    • Burek sa mesom
    • Mythbusters
    • American Chopper
    • Lost

Confused foreigner

I have a question for all the Serbs out there reading my blog:

Who actually likes turbofolk?

I am mystified by the continued existence of this music form when I haven't met anyone who will fess up to actually enjoying it. The only people I know who listen to it are the bus drivers (which is unfortunate for those of us who rely on buses to get around). Everyone else just talks about how bad it is.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Working something very different from 9-5

Dan and I recently started a third, joint blog to keep track of some of the more official things we do, including upcoming events at the American Corner, any special workshops or presentations we're giving, class assignments for Dan, and other related news.

The new blog, titled Serbia ELF News, may be of slightly less interest to our American family and friends, but the Serbian bloggers out there should check in now and then because we'll be doing a few presentations in different cities around Serbia this spring - you never know when we'll be coming soon to a theater near you.

I only have one posting up at the moment, and it's that I'm going to VIENNA in February to present at a conference for American Corner staff from all over Europe. The conference is How to Run a Model American Corner and my topic is library programs for children. Yes!

The King of Kong

Last night we went to our local theater to see the new King Kong. I'm a long time fan of the original - when I was little my Uncle Donny would bring over a VHS tape to play for me and my siblings, and we watched it many, many times. So I was excited to see the remake with new special effects and whatnot.

The gorilla was great, I though the actors were good, but I think Peter Jackson is suffering from George Lucas syndrome. Which is to say that he's so popular, there's no one to say "No, Peter, you don't need that CGI effect" or "Do you really think it advances the plot to spend two hours wandering around the jungle?" or "Man, Peter, what's with the bugs?"

There were parts I enjoyed quite a bit, but I thought it was way too long. I admit that I was especially sensitive to this because the seats in our movie theater can only be charitably described as chairs, in that I can sit on them but only if I'm willing to endure intense physical pain. And for those Quincyites out there, I'm talking about seats WAY worse than The Wolly.

I'm glad we went; it was a definite cinematic experience and it was easy to see how much Peter Jackson loves the original. I just have to remember to bring my own chair when we go see Narnia next week.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Bathing Beauties in Budapest

I had a great time exploring Budapest while Dan was in meetings. We were there for the regional ELF conference, and I was the only spouse, so I had all sorts of time for myself. I walked all over the city and poked into different shops, enjoying the sights and sounds of a new place.

My favorite thing from this trip was going to the Szechenyi thermal baths located in the city park. Beautiful 19th century buildings surrounding us, warm thermal pools in the crisp winter air - the best. One downside: the mad dash back into the main building when we were dripping wet in sub-zero (Celcius) weather. Eeeeeeegah!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Baby it's cold outside

We're getting the tail end of the recent Russian cold snap (it was -50 C there) and temps here are hovering around 0 F, dipping below at night. Not nearly so bad, but still quite chilly.

I was on my way downtown this morning and, as I turned a corner, I saw two guys standing in front of a beat up old Yugo with the hood up. They were holding this big black box thing under the hood, balancing it precariously on the front of the car. I couldn't imagine what it might be; it looked maybe like the back of a TV. As I walked by, I turned my head to see what it was, and it was an electric heater. They were literally warming up the engine to combat the cold.

Pictures from Sarajevo and Bjelasnica

Lunchtime! Beef stew, stuffed grape leaves, roasted potatoes, pickled cabbage, and Fanta!

Inside the mosque.


The view from the slopes.

This guy cruised over us while we were on the chairlift.

Monday, January 23, 2006


We have a three day turnaround between our vacation in Sarajevo and Dan's conference in Budapest, and I wanted to let you know about Sarajevo before we dash off again.

We took the bus out last Tuesday, and it was a magnificent ride through the mountains of western Serbia / eastern Bosnia. The vistas were stunning, but it was best not to look over the side of the road; it's a loooong way down to the valley floor, with only a flimsy guard rail between the bus and the drop off the winding two-lane roads.

We spent the first two days in and around Bascarsija, the old Turkish part of town. It's a beautiful city, with plenty to tempt the tourist - shop windows full of copper Turkish coffee sets, leather goods, jewelry, and all sorts of shiny and tasty things. We saw a big poster for TANGO on Wednesday night, so of course we went even though we only had our sneakers. It turned out to be a beginner class, not a milonga. It was fantastic to be there and do some dancing at long last. Be on alert, tangueros - the Sarajevo tango scene is just beginning!

We visited the medieval Serbian Orthodox church, the medieval synagogue, and the medieval mosque. They were all lovely in their own ways, and I think we both felt serene from having been in so many places of worship. The mosque was the most interesting because we weren't sure how to go about visiting. I carried around a large shawl (thanks, Hannah) because I knew I would need to cover my head, but we didn't know when we could go or what door to use. Fortunately, Dan's Serbian / Bosnian is progressing quite nicely, and he found a caretaker who told us when to come and led us in the door to the woman's prayer area. He did take us into the main hall as well, which made me slightly uncomfortable, but he said it was OK for tourists. It was beautiful inside, especially the Persian carpets covering the floor and the delicate, intricate designs on the ceiling.

Our other big tourist venture was not so serene. Zlatan, the co-owner of the hotel we stayed in (with his brother, Allen) drove us to the outskirts of town to visit the famous tunnel. During the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992 - 1996, the Bosnians were entirely cut off by the Serbian forces surrounding the city. In fact, if you stand in the city looking up to the mountains, you can see the weird artificial tree lines - the hills are bare up to the top (the front lines of the war) and then there's a small copse of trees. The Bosnians chopped down all they could for heating in the cold winters.

At some point the UN took over the airport to deliver humanitarian aid, and the Bosnians tunneled under the runway to reach the Bosnian territory on the other side. This way they could get supplies and move troops, and they even ran electricity, phone, and oil lines through the tunnel. A piece of the tunnel still exists and is maintained, along with a small museum, by the father and son who owned the house when it was commissioned by the military. It was fascinating to walk through the remaining 25 meters, then look across the airport to see where it used to connect. It was FREEZING outside, though, so we didn't stay long.

The other sight of historical importance we saw was the bridge where Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, jump-starting WWI. If you're not familiar with the strange, slapstick-like story of the assassination, definitely check out Wikipedia.

We saved snowboarding for Friday, and it was perfect weather. Blue skies, no wind, and, once we actually got to the mountain, mild temperatures. Of course, we had imprecise information about when the bus left, so we stood in the early morning cold for an hour before it came, but we made it! We passed the Olympic ski-jump on the way (Sarajevo winter Olympics 1984). Many of the buildings and even the lifts were destroyed during the seige, but the hotels are being rebuilt and they've fixed the main lift almost to the summit. If you look around from the lift you can see poles where other lifts used to run. The snow and the riding were fantastic, and at one point a parachuter / glider passed overhead.

We took the bus home on Saturday so we could get ourselves together for our next trip. I'll report back sometime next week!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Lively Librarians of Lapovo

Just before we went home for the holidays, I did the first of a series of training sessions with local librarians. Verica, my contact from ACDI-VOCA, and I traveled to the village of Lapovo to talk to the librarians about promoting literacy in the community, the importance of reading aloud, and the nuts and bolts of how to give a good reading.

The workshop was attended by the librarians and by two teachers from the local kindergarten. They all seem interested and excited about having storytimes, and they seemed to understand my English even though they would only speak to me through the translator. Over the course of the three days, they became braver and would say short sentences or ask me questions directly.

The most interesting/surprising question came from one of the kindergarten teachers. She questioned showing the pictures during a reading, saying she was taught that it would inhibit children's creativity. (If you show a picture of a witch with black hair, the children will assume all witches have black hair.) I paused before responding. I understand how someone could come to that conclusion, I said, but I don't think it's appropriate for today's media-driven world. We are bombarded by images on tv, the internet, as we walk around town; children see these images whether we want them to or not, whether they're appropriate or not. When we have a chance to select or influence what children are seeing, it's up to us to show quality and variety. And of course pictures help tell the story, making it interesting and easier to understand.

After the initial discussion, the librarians chose books to read aloud and we left so they could practice. Or rather, we tried to leave but the car wouldn't start. Verica called one of her counterparts from ACDI and he drove out (about a half hour), and of course the car started right away when he got there. Verica was embarassed, but it gave us a chance to have a coffee and chat while we were waiting. The next day the librarians practiced reading to us and we talked more about the different techniques. Finally, on the third day, we visited a kindergarten and the librarians read to the children.

The school was fantastically decorated with Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus, although these things are associated with New Year's in Serbia, not Christmas. The school director is very aggressive in getting things for the children and running innovative programs. They have a special sewing room to create costumes and sets for their plays. They also publish their own monthly magazine for children, made by the teachers, with pictures, activities, and original stories. It's done quite nicely, and the activities are just about the right level for Dan's Serbian (far too advanced for me).

They read to two different classes, and the children were excellent and seemed to enjoy the reading. Marijana, one of the librarians, was very nervous before her reading, but she did a wonderful job and the kids laughed and responded positively to the story. Afterwards the children drew pictures of their favorite moments/characters, and it was clear they really understood what had been read to them.

Marijana was totally pumped up by the experience, and is talking about hosting regular events at the library and the school. This is exactly what I was hoping for - the training is only valuable if the librarians take to the idea and decide to initiate programs on their own. Like Marijana, I'm energized and motivated by our meeting and am looking forward to visiting more towns to repeat the training.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

A Tango New Year

Dan and I went to our second annual New Year's tango in Providence (although this time we didn't get there until New Year's Day) and our photo is up on the website. Check it out! We were out of tango shape in a big way - we hadn't really danced since September - but we had a fantastic time and got to meet up with our tango friends.

A Christmas Miracle

We returned to Serbia last Wednesday after an action-packed ten days stateside. The flight back was uneventful until we arrived in Belgrade and my bag wasn't there. This was upsetting because (a) it had some of my favorite stuff in it and (b) the bag itself is a fancy backpack and would have been pricey to replace. I gave about a 50-50 chance of seeing my things again and was delightfully surprised when our Orthodox Christmas dinner was interrupted by the bag delivery man. I was especially surprised that it would get delivered on Christmas because everything is closed.

Serbians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7th (so we just had Christmas 2006) and it's a much more religious affair without the commercial maddness that exists in the States (it's not considered a time for gift giving). Our hosts invited us to celebrate the holiday with them so we got to see the different traditions first hand.

Before we started the meal, we broke a special bread that has a coin baked into it. Everyone put a hand on the loaf and we turned it three times, then everyone pulled out a piece. Whoever gets the coin will have good fortune in the coming year. There are other things baked in, cloves and spices, each with a different meaning. Dan got health and I got fertility (uh-oh).

This posting on a Serbian news site details more of the Christmas traditions. We had a wonderful time and ate loads of food. It's marathon eating - you have to pace yourself or you won't make it to the end. Before the meal we snacked on nuts and dried figs. After we broke the bread, we started with salads, then soup, then sarma (stuffed cabbage), then huge trays of pork and lamb, finishing up with dessert. Now that I've experienced my second big Serbian meal, I've come to the conclusion that while hosts are required to put out dizzying amounts of food, guests aren't actually required to eat it all. This was a relief for me, because I know I can't eat my equal share of the food that is served (even though it's all delicious).

Now that we've been back a few days and are settled in (finally did my laundry this afternoon) we're looking ahead to January, which will definitely include another trip to Budapest for a conference and will hopefully include some snowboarding and, at long last, tango.