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 ĂȘtes 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.