Updates from Serbia - October 2010
Nada rummages around in the kitchen while I bond with her grandnieces over coffee, lenja pita (pumpkin pie) and kiflica (croissant). I am dressed in my pyjamas, they in semi-formals. It is my third week here and I am already discussing my homestay mother’s lovely idiosyncrasies with the two beautiful girls who sit across me. “I can’t believe you noticed that.” “I know, that is so peculiar of Nada,” I exclaim as each of us rambles on. They say they love Nada’s kiflica. I know. I’ve heard. I mean who doesn’t?
How long have the grandnieces known my homestay mother? At least thirteen years. How long have I known Nada? I can say with certainty not more than three weeks. And yet I nod my head and grin like I know every intimate detail of the history that these two girls share with Nada, my home stay mother.
Thrusting myself into a new family felt more surreal in reality than it seemed to me in theory. It has entailed a lot more than just slipping into the family’s routine, respecting their ways, mending my own. Living with a group of people who do not just share the same private space, but whose blood runs in each other’s veins is sharpening your judgment and knowing when to blaze new ground and when to willingly decline treading undiscovered territory. To me, it is knowing if I ought to be in the kitchen, washing dishes with my mother and sister and participating in their conversation or outside in the dining room deliberately not listening to their discussion.
Nada shares a long history with Novi Sad. The more I understand her way of life the more at home I feel in Novi Sad. Flipping through her photo album, buying breakfast at her favourite bakery, finding her granddaughter games on the Internet, helping her in the kitchen and asking her how her day was when I come back to the apartment every evening brings me closer to knowing the people of Novi Sad, the spirit of Novi Sad. What probably alleviates the strangeness of being an outsider is Nada’s willingness to talk about her late husband, to unabashedly dance to Chopin, to translate the show Selo gori, a baba se ?eš?a or “The Village is burning and grandma is combing her hair” to English and to openly admit that she feels like she has known me all her life. When I focus on her gestures of acceptance and generosity, I do not feel a lethal urge to reject the idea of playing host to her friends and family.
In the past one month we all have had the opportunity to laze around in each other’s houses and visit each other’s families. Overwhelming as it may be, sampling five different lifestyles in quaint little Novi Sad is an enlightening and fulfilling experience. Some families have lovingly offered to serve us peanut butter, coke, other imperialistic condiments and Lord of the Rings for lunch. Some families have lovingly watched us stare at our respective bowls of ?orba (stew)and smack our lips, lick our fingers after having each devoured a dozen Gombodse (sweet noodles with plum) for dessert. While our families often forgive our foreign habits like walking barefoot with wet hair in the confines of their four walls, in certain matters they make no concessions. All of us get a dressing-down if we dare step out of the house with wet hair and flip-flops. A hair-drier is politely handed to us with a look that expects and accepts nothing but compliance. And we willingly comply.
Their knowledge of American culture is a compliment, cause for slight embarrassment and provides an interesting view of the States through the eyes of Serbs. Our passive knowledge of a culture that is seemingly ubiquitous is often the topic of passionate discussions. We’re told of food, TV shows, films that have shaped international perception of life in the US. The Matrix, The Terminator, Jersey Shore. We mention our irreverence towards all of the aforementioned at the risk of being looked at with disdainful affection. However, our families smile at us with approval, pleased when we tell them that some of us are vaguely acquainted with Star Wars.
Communicating with our families is an experience much relished by all of us. Their sentences are peppered with basic English words and phrases like “will you” and “nice” assisted by animated and expressive gestures. Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) we munchkins do not find ourselves responding with vacant stares and/or manifestations of a headache. We fire right back with broken Serbian and even more impressive gestures so that our tolerant home stay families patiently comprehend and logically unjumble spectacular gibberish. They squint, frown, show a trace of a smile and then generously and grandly exclaim. “NICE!”
Nice. To my homestay mother it’s all “nice”. And it is nice. It is nice that in the past month or so we have learned to like plazma keks (cookies) and not felt the need to satiate our peanut butter fetishism. It is nice that communicating with our families is not a strain. It is nice that we all have, to a great extent, become part of and try to keep up with a family circle. Most importantly, it is nice that at the end of the day, we all look forward to coming home.
If there is a remarkable aspect of life in Serbia it is the way people interact. From the very first moment that you introduce yourself in broken Serbian saying Drago Mi Je you are fully immersed in this warm, welcoming feeling that makes you wonder if you really don’t know the person from before. As a Colombian who has experienced American culture for only two and a half years, I believe this to be a staggering contrast to the interpersonal interactions that I’ve experienced in America so far. From host families to total strangers at the many kafanas I’ve been to,almost everybody is always willing to show hospitality and to make sure that you feel part of the group, part of the extended Serbian family. America is also a land of hospitality, but the authenticity and kindness of Serbia is truly exceptional. It is not strange to walk through the amiable streets of Novi Sad and find a friendly face, that one person you don’t quite remember, and be greeted with an emphatic ?ao! Kako si? followed by three kisses on the cheeks, a fine Serbian tradition. It is not strange to forget, from time to time, that you are a foreigner who can count the weeks he’s been here with the fingers of his hand.
This welcoming feeling is always present when, for example, we go to a store and order burek or pala?inke with a funny accent and some mispronounced words. What we often get in return are giggles, a nod, and the assurance that the Serbian people appreciate our effort to speak their language. Surprisingly enough, this aspect of Serbian culture is noticeably similar to the way people interact in Colombia. The feeling of belonging, even when you are a stranger, is ever-present. There are also especially strong ties between friends and family, and people are rather lenient toward sparing some of their time to enjoy a coffee or drink some rakija without much rush. This communal culture makes it easier to connect and form strong, authentic bonds with people.
And to a certain degree it can be said that the five of us turned out to be like a little sample of this Serbian “collectiveness.” We are an astonishingly diverse group representing not only very unlike states and countries, but a variety of cultures, contexts and points of view. Besides our being ballerinas, swimmers, runners, singers, and performers, we are also friends, confidants and individuals. Although at some point we looked at the names of the people with whom we would be spending nine months full of doubt and surprise, we now can imagine neither a different combo nor better friends. We also couldn’t have imagined a more enthusiastic and amazingly hard working on-site director. Ceca is always there to advise and guide us, and depending on the circumstances fulfills various roles ranging from understanding host mother to loyal and energetic friend.
To this extent, our learning experience is extremely rich: not only do we learn about Serbian culture and traditions but we also see greater perspectives through our many differences. We, the Serbian group, are similar to the Serbians we’ve encountered because although we know we are different, each and every one of us will always feel welcomed, will always be part of our own mala srpska porodica, our own little Serbian family.
When describing the Serbian language, we would be remiss if we didn’t use the word “difficult.” There are two sets of alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic) with thirty characters, three genders (masculine, feminine, and neutral), seven different cases determined by the context of the adjective, noun, pronoun, and verb, and numerous exceptions throughout. Basically there are innumerable ways to confuse us. However, we would also be remiss without describing what a welcome challenge it has been.
Four times a week we have language classes at the University of Novi Sad for roughly two hours per class. Our two professors are excellent and always incorporate humor into their instruction. Our homestay families each have at least one member who can passably speak and understand English, and all of them are willing and eager to teach us as much Serbian as possible. In Novi Sad, we’ve found that most people speak some degree of English, and that has greatly facilitated our transition. Though we prefer to challenge ourselves and string together perfectly broken Serbian, it has been comforting to fall back on English when need be.
In one particularly interesting encounter on our third day in the homestay, I was forced to ask a neighbor I’d previously never seen for the phone number of my host mother. After merely a week of Serbian language classes I hadn’t a clue what to say when a tiny, elderly lady answered the door, so I mumbled “moge telefon” which means something along the lines of “can phone” and she looked utterly confused responding with quick and muttered Serbian. Then I mimed picking up and dialing a phone while reciting the same line and she smiled, took my hand, and led me inside while continuing to talk in Serbian. Love those universal gestures. The neighbor responded in the remarkably hospitable manner of the domacin (host) and immediately gave me the number – along with a full course meal. Universal gestures and expressions have helped us overcome the inherent language barriers.
Novi Sadians tend to be a very welcoming and friendly people and we’ve been well received by nearly everyone here. People love it when we attempt Serbian, whether it’s just explaining dolazim iz Amerike (I come from America), or acknowledging their statements with dobro (good). To see so many people rejoice when someone is making an effort to speak like them makes us sorry that sometimes in America the initial reaction to foreigners who speak poor English is agitation. People here are honored that we’ve chosen to learn the language, history, and culture of Serbia, and their response to our effort has been to welcome us into an unfamiliar society. This collective Serbian affability is one more motivator for us wanting to speak, understand, and learn everything we can while we’re here!
We began working at our service placements three weeks ago eager and excited to start the work that will continue to occupy our thoughts and actions for the next three months. We immediately threw ourselves into our work, quickly establishing relationships with our supervisors and the other volunteers around us. While our work so far has taught each of us many lessons, more than anything, these first few interactions have shown us the meaning of the Serbian word polako.
By definition, we as Princeton students are highly motivated and used to a fairly quick pace of life. The word polako, on the other hand, is a way to say “chill out”, or maybe more politely put “stop and smell the roses”. The polako mindset can be seen in many of our interactions with the volunteers in our organizations. One thing that continually surprises us is the belief that if it is left unfinished one day, there will always be time to complete it the next. Initially it seemed to us that things simply can’t get done this way. Yet somehow they do. Volunteer actions are planned and carried through, work camps planned and successfully run through, and awareness workshops adequately advertised and completed. While our approaches may be different, it safe to say that the confluence of our two opposing philosophies is just another influence pushing us from our comfort zones, where McDonalds, Automatic transmissions, and native English speakers abound, and into the learning zone, the place that we have consciously sought by choosing to take this journey.
Along with getting to know our organizations and the volunteers around us, we have also begun to delve into the work that we have come here to do. We are each busy with different things that range from researching films to include in an international human rights film festival, to planning a series of environmental awareness workshops, to organizing events at a community center. In addition to working for our individual service placements, we have volunteered at the local American Corner, an organization associated with the US Embassy in Belgrade that promotes American culture here in Novi Sad. Here we have put our status as native English speakers to good use, starting a youth conversation hour where kids that want to improve their English can come to practice.
Overall, each of our service experiences has reinforced the fact that Serbia’s needs are fundamentally different than those of other BYP countries. Here, the focus of our service lies in raising awareness of global issues and building a strong sense of community. True, problems like homelessness, joblessness, and incurable diseases do exist in Serbia, but Serbia’s longstanding isolation from the rest of the world, brought about by the sanctions and hyperinflation it experienced in the 1990s means that a more pressing issue is a lack of exposure to the ideas and cultures that abound in the outside world. Providing this exposure, albeit on a small scale, is a task that we as a group are particularly suited to accomplish. We hail from three separate countries (the United States, Colombia, and India), three very different regions of the United States (Texas, Mid-Atlantic, and Hawaii), and, aside from English, speak four different languages (Spanish, French, Hindi, and Punjabi). This diversity within our group is perhaps our biggest tool, as it not only enables us to bring a wide range of experiences and viewpoints to share with those around us, but proves to all that ethnicity is nothing more than a label.
“Zdravlje na usta ulazi,” the old Serbian adage goes. “Health through the mouth,” summarizes how strongly Serbs feel about food. In Serbia, showing hospitality means dishing out loads of food and coffee and in order to be a good guest, one is expected to fully partake in all that is offered. Thus, in our first month in Serbia we have become well, perhaps all too well, acquainted with food. We have tasted many uniquely Serbian dishes: pljeskavica, gibanica, burek, gulaš. All of which are hearty and full of flavor (and probably calories...). Serbian meals originated in a society facing long wars, hard work in the field, and frigid winters. Though the society has changed drastically, the menu, from what we have had the pleasure to perceive, has not; and thus, traditional Serbian foods are still rich in protein (lots, and lots of meat) and carbohydrates (lots, and lots of bread). Those who now consume the food, however, lead mildly less demanding lives but still get to relish in the quality and quantity of typically Serbian food. The way in which most urban Serbs shop for food though, has not changed. Fruits and vegetables are eaten in season and are purchased at the pijaca (green market), the bread is fresh and purchased at the bakery, and the meat and fish from the butcher. Some families do go to the supermarket such as Marcator or Tempo, but the traditional and sustainable way of food shopping is still very much a reality.
Every aspect of food in Serbia, its attainment, preparation, presentation, the company it provokes and the entertainment it creates can provide a deep and unique insight into Serbian life. In the same way, the food we have eaten can also provide a deep insight into our life in Serbia. Some authentic Serbian items we have tried have pleasantly surprised us, for example, baked prunes wrapped in bacon. Also, I would have never thought, being from the NYC metropolitan area, a place that prides itself on its pizza, that I would ever eat, never mind enjoy, what Serbs call pica: baked dough with ketchup as sauce, slices of ham and cheese, and mushrooms topped off with even more ketchup, and mustard, upon request. These Serbian foods have been completely new experiences for us, some easier than others to digest.
We have been surprised by how much food in Serbia reminds us of home. Our favorite pekara (bakery) by the university always has croissant ?okolada krem filled with eurocream and, when we are lucky enough to get them warm, they taste like chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven. Speaking of chocolate, one of our favorite cafes, Izba, has the best topla ?okolada (hot chocolate) any of us have ever tasted. In actuality, it is closer to a cup of melted chocolate than it is to a drink. Some foods, however, like the ‘Nju Jork’ (New York) brownie, Katherine and I excitedly ordered one day, are simply not as good as those found at home. As far as dessert goes, we have many new favorites, to which nothing at home compares, including Jaffa Cakes, Plazma, Smoki, pala?inka and the list goes on…
We have had many other varieties of food in Serbia including Chinese, Greek, and Argentinean. Along with introducing us to the foods of different nationalities, our time in Serbia has introduced us to people of different nationalities. Students from France, Yemen, Finland, Austria and Portugal have dabbled in our Serbian language class and in our daily activities, whether at our NGOs, American Corner, or socializing, we have encountered Australians, Norwegians, Montenegrins, Croats, Canadians... It is sometimes easy to forget that just within our group we represent many parts of the globe: Colombia, India, Hawaii, the Northern USA and the Southern USA. Though we are having a Serbian experience we are also simultaneously having a global experience. Through food we have learned that some things are truly universal like a bottle of Coca-Cola or a plate of pomfrit (French fries). In the same way, we have come to realize that most things, at least the important ones, are more so universal than not (love, laughter, family, friendship).
Admittedly, we thought one of the biggest challenges we were going to have in Serbia would be finding food we enjoy. Our actual challenge that pertains to food is quite the opposite, we like it all entirely too much. The same goes for our challenges, in general. In many, probably most, cases, the ease has surprised us. The challenges we face are almost always surprising or under the surface. Our experiences in Serbia have paralleled the foods we have tasted, in other ways as well. Some experiences have been like a bacon-wrapped prune, completely new, and surprisingly enjoyable. Other experiences, have reminded us of home; and in some cases surpassed the old and familiar, like a warm croissant ?okolada krem, while others have been more like pica, not quite living up to our past. Our experiences have been not just Serbian, but international and in many cases, universal. Perhaps, an appropriate saying for our Bridge Year in Sebia is “iskustvo na usta ulazi” or, “experience through the mouth.”
So as the Serbians say before every meal, “Prijatno!” Enjoy!