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.