Updates from Serbia - April 2010
By Lelabari Giwa-Ojuri
The end of April marks the closing time of the Serbia Bridge Year teams stay in Serbia. At the end of May 1st, an important Serbian family holiday when people around the country join together for a day of rostilj (barbeque) and bonding time, we will travel to Montenegro where we will participate in a environmental group project and then to spend a week in Croatia where we will have “re-entry” workshops where we will reflect on out past experiences and how they will play a part in our future. As the month of April has marked the closing of our time in Serbia, we have begun to experience many forms of “lasts”. The last palačinke (Serbian pancake) we’d eat at one of our favorite hang outs, Prima Donna. The last languid stroll along the Nišava, Niš’ small but rapid river which wraps around the walls of its fortress and meanders through the city. Or the last Serbian spring Monday lazy afternoon in the city center surrounded by music, café tables and people. Or that last earnest bonding session with a host sibling. But as the Serbian phase of our program drew to a close we all learned to cherish these last moments and to continue learning about and exploring Serbia and our established relationships as fully as possible.
The month provided many moments for us to spend quality time with our host families and delve further into Serbian culture. The month started out with quiet and somber Easter celebrations. The night before Easter, Mariam Wahed attended a Serbian Orthodox Easter service with her host sister, Milica. Mariam and Milica brought candles to their neighborhood church and joined throngs of church-goers as they lit candles to honor their living and departed loved ones. Candles hold a very significant power within the Orthodox faith and often symbolize faith, love, wishes of health and good fortune, life. Though Mariam is not religious she appreciated this gesture of love and respect and felt able to participate in the service despite her differing belief system. Among the numerous unfamiliar rituals she witnessed that night that one simple, compassionate and humble act helped her relate to and understand the Orthodox faith in a more personal way than she had before.
Differing drastically from the multiple day, festive and strongly family-centered Christmas and New Year’s celebration which defined the Serbia Bridge Year Team’s entrance into Nis, this spring holiday was celebrated mostly in the morning with quiet small family celebrations. On Easter morning, Bridge Year participants woke up to the Easter holiday greetings of “Hristos Voskrese!” (“Christ has Risen”) and its response “Vaistinu Voskrese!” (He has Risen Indeed). I began the morning by playing a game with my family where each person takes an intricately colored hardboiled egg and smacks the top against the other to see whose is stronger. Whoever has at least one intact side at the end wins the game. Families enjoyed cracking their intricately colored painted eggs against each other to see which egg was strongest. After a short lunch members of the family returned to their respective homes and continued doing everyday individual tasks. The unexpected quietness of Easter reinforced some budding feelings of homesickness as the Bridge Year group celebrated another family holiday away from home as the wear of living within another culture continued to take root.
Even as Serbian life became more normalized for us, we still got many opportunities to experience new cultures and events.
Mariam spent an evening within the Serbian mainstream turbo-folk culture when she attended the concert of Jelena Karleusa, one of Serbia’s most famous turbo-folk singer whose scandalous antics and concerts have led her to be a notorious Serbian pop icon. Surrounded by Lady Gaga look a-likes and turbo-folk enthusiasts, Mariam felt a little out of place but enjoyed the energy of the scene and the chance to spend a night out with her host sister.
The entire Bridge Year Program also spent an evening within the Serbian teen rock scene as we watched Alex’s host brother’s band, The Combs, a British-indie inspired rock band, play at a benefit concert in the Law Faculty. Before the bands fiery performance I interviewed the band as part of the youth international media project, “Know me. . .,” which Club O18, the organization I am working for, is currently working on. Through the project “Know me. . .” Club O18 hopes to showcase the talent of youth from Niš and Bela Palanka, Serbia and Dupnica, Bulgaria. Throughout the past months I have heard the stories of break dancers, soccer players, folk singers, synchronized swimmers and musicians all with amazing talent and potential, but also all with little to no possibility of being able to find a lucrative and satisfying outlet for their passions and talents. While Serbia has many talented youth, the economy and educational system make it difficult for them to fully achieve their potential. Many youth can’t envision being successful without going abroad and many college students feel disillusioned because they know once they finish their grueling university studies they will probably not be able to find a job within their field of studies. Through this project we hope to highlight talented and creative youth who still stay hopeful and committed towards pursuing their passions despite their seemingly unpromising prospects.
Ashley and I took up an offer for bi-weekly “trbusni ples” or belly dancing from our friend Kristina who teaches beginning and intermediate belly dancing classes while attending high school. After we successfully completed a month’s worth of training we have been jokingly told that we are now eligible for marriage as we have learned how to dance and can make Turkish coffee.
Taking advantage of opportunities to see and experience more of the Balkans and Serbia, many of us participated in short regional trips. We enjoyed two exciting excursions; one to Felix Romuliana, the extensive ruins of a Roman complex with palaces and temples built by one of the Roman Tetrarchs, and the other to the seemingly miraculous “hoodoos” or earth pyramids of Đvolja Varoš in Southern Serbia. I traveled to Bulgaria with Club O18 and again with Mariam on a youth excursion organized by my host sister’s youth club which Mariam volunteers at. Though while we were in Sofia, the Bulgarian capitol, we didn’t get a chance to grab a much longed for latte from Starbucks (the closest one in the area), we did enjoy visiting Neo-Byzantine churches, a flea market and the central street. Alex Rafter spent several days in Belgrade and Hungary with his family for a short Easter vacation to visit extended family. Ashley spent several weekend afternoons in Bela Palanka, a small town near the Serbian-Bulgarian border, visiting extended family. Narrowly avoiding the airport crisis caused by the Icelandic volcano, Ceca, our program leader whisked around Eastern Europe participating in conferences and human rights trainings in Novi Sad and Vranje, Serbia as well as in Rome.
Though moody spring weather threatened to forever push pack her plan, Ashley’s wish to organize a field day for the students who attend classes at HUR (Humanitarno Udruzenje Roma), the organization she has been working at, was finally realized. The action, which came to be called “Igre Bez Carnice” (Games without Borders), took place on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the local park, Cair, located down the street from my homestay. Katherine and I arrived at the park just in time to meet 26 energetic kids, led by HUR volunteers, ready to take a break from studying books and get creative in the park. The students got a chance to participate in a three-legged man relay, human knot competition and hopscotch race. Bridge Year volunteers had a fun challenge trying to explain these family childhood games to Serbian volunteers and children who were unfamiliar with the games. After the students participated in the races, Ashley led a three-part obstacle course where students first had to put together a puzzle, then complete a word-association games and then finish with a quick dash to the finish line. After an exciting and gooey egg toss competition, students enjoyed free time, Ashley’s favorite part of the day, where they danced to pop hits, tossed water balloons, got their faces painted and created chalk drawings. Though organizing the event was stressful for Ashley she was really happy to be able to accomplish her goal of providing an event where the kids she tutors at HUR could have fun and be creative outside the structure of HUR and school. Though many creative and artistic activities were integrated into Ashley’s childhood education, within HUR and Serbian classes young students rarely get to time to participate in interactive games and imaginative crafts. Through her creative workshops and field day, Ashley wanted to show that creative outlets within an educational context are important and constructive.
When we started this program it was hard to imagine what it would be like to live in Serbia for week, much less 8 months, and now as our program reaches its ending phases many of us find it hard to imagine a long term future apart from this new world of friends, family and experiences we have grown so attached too. Though many of us are excited for the summer and the chance to reconnect with family and friends and return to what was once completely familiar, it is hard for us to wrap our minds around being away from our lives in Serbia for an extended period. We often joke that we think about the summer as more of an extended excursion before we return to our lives in Serbia as opposed to a transition time between our times in Serbia and our future at Princeton. In spite of this feeling, we also have a growing sense of “Princeton fever” as we hear more announcements about the Class of 2014. And so, with this mixed sense of excitement for the future and extreme gratefulness for our past experiences and opportunities which will stay with us throughout our lives, we prepare ourselves to depart from our current homes. But, unlike our first departure from Novi Sad, this upcoming departure has, as Alex Rafter described, a marked sense of readiness to begin the next and final step of our program.