Update from Serbia - December 2010
Navigating the Serbian Cultural Sea
I have really gotten close to the people in the Bridge Year program in Serbia. And I mean so literally since in our group excursion to Belgrade we had the pleasure of riding one of the city’s overcrowded buses. It was a fine afternoon and we had just finished rollerblading in what is colloquially known as “Belgrade’s sea” (Ada Ciganlija). We were unsuspectingly waiting at the bus station alongside the many others who also wondered why the bus was taking so long. As the vehicle approached, we started smiling. We were amused by the fact that the bus was completely packed. As soon as the driver opened the doors an ocean of people started to carelessly flood the overworked bus. After all, the only thing that mattered was to be inside and not have to wait for the next one. Once we successfully got in, we realized we barely had any space to move, let alone enough oxygen to comfortably breathe. I was being constantly pushed, Zach constantly dragged, and Asawari couldn’t stop giggling. “People who live in New Belgrade and commute to work have to do this every day” my on-site director Ceca told me. “This is part of your cultural experience.”
But our cultural adventure in Belgrade was much more than old, overcrowded buses. It was about trying to understand how people work in many aspects of Serbian society to improve it. In this respect, we were lucky enough to visit different organizations and meet different people ranging from the Gay Straight Alliance to the students in one of the local high schools. We even had a chance to talk to Božidar Đelić, the current Minister of Science of Serbia and former Vice president in the Serbian Government. By becoming acquainted with how different NGOs and other sectors of the Serbian society work, we had the invaluable opportunity to achieve a better understanding of the different issues that our host country faces. This excursion allowed our group to vividly grasp the idea that solutions to societal issues in Serbia must be multifaceted. By the same token, our excursion included multiple and different components that made us realize Serbian people share some similarities with us. They enjoyed the Serbian version of the musical “Grease” just as much as we did and were as excited as us, if not more, to watch the premier of Hari Poter i Relikvije Smrti, the seventh film in the Harry Potter saga.
Yet, my cultural experience in Serbia has also been influenced by the fact that I am from Colombia. To that extent, I have been able to discover and better comprehend American culture and to integrate it to my life in Serbia. This was most visible during our very own celebration of Thanksgiving. It was remarkable to see how people from four different countries worked together to joyfully celebrate the American holiday. While our director Ceca worked on the breaded turkey Zach peeled potatoes, Jill and Katherine made the stuffing and Asawari and I cooked Samosas, a traditional Indian appetizer. All of this converged into a single dinner featuring traditional Serbian, Indian, and American dishes. This celebration was so special because I felt welcomed to share my culture and to learn about the ones that surround me. In fact, this welcoming feeling has been unequivocally present throughout my entire Bridge Year experience so far.
Being immersed in this culture also means learning how the different organizations in which we were placed work and defining our role in them. I suppose at some point I expected to have a life changing role in my organization. I was wrong. Jazas, the organization where I work, is very structured and with clearly defined projects. Therefore, my initial expectations about my role have been progressively challenged. The first couple of days at Jazas were very disorienting. I did not have any concrete idea of what I would be working on. Most of the day I spent doing little things like reading the material on HIV and designing certificates for those who completed the peer education trainings. As the weeks passed, however, I started participating in other projects that put to better use my abilities. I held some workshops in English, worked in a research project, and became part of a big “caravan for health,” visiting different cities and towns around Vojvodina, the autonomous province of Serbian where we live, to spread information about the prevention of STDs and drug abuse.
Although I have been actively involved with Jazas, each step along the way has presented its own challenges. As I participate in more projects I have become more aware of the big barrier that my incapability of speaking the Serbian language represents. While other volunteers are able to talk to passers-by about the importance of wearing a condom, I often times limit myself to setting up our booth and handing out the material.
Notwithstanding, I am also fully aware that my presence has benefits to the organization as well. Because of my limited Serbian, we hold our meetings in English, which is helpful to many other volunteers. In the same manner, I hold some lectures in English for those volunteers looking to improve their English skills. Therefore, the bigger picture of my service work in Serbia looks very rewarding and promising. Such work also includes aSpanish conversation hour and an English conversation group. The latter activity, led by the five Bridge Year students has many regular participants. They are ever more eager to ask about American culture and to discover some interesting facts about Colombia. The remarkable eagerness to discover and learn that the participants display makes our work worth the effort. Furthermore, it lets us know that, even if sometimes we do not notice it, we are making a big impact in these people’s lives.
Serbians are not only very eager to learn about new cultures but are also very hospitable. If there is one thing I have really experienced in Serbia is this concept of hospitality, primarily in my host family. The five families in which we live are very unique and special. Each family takes special care to make us feel like a member and not a guest. For instance, visiting the Janković family means to be ready for a challenging test to our skills in the Serbian language and a very competitive card game. Jillian’s host mother never fails to check how much we have learned by incessantly asking us about our day and by making sure we correct our mistakes when speaking to her. It is such an inclusive family that it is fairly normal to walk in and see Jill’s host brother in a flamboyant pink bathrobe warmly saying hi to us and his sister candidly asking if we want some kolač, some cake. There is also Nada, Asawari’s host mother, and her nationally famous pastries. When we come by she never fails to offer us some lenja pita od jabuke (Apple “lazy pie”) or some other kind of Serbian dish together with her wisdom and life lessons. Katherine’s host sister (who we have affectionately named Katherine Junior) is always eager to spend time with us. Finally, Bojan and Bojana, Zach’s host brother and Sister, usually delight us with some traditional Serbian food like Punjena Paprika (stuffed peppers) and often invite me to spend some quality time with them playing video games.
Although my friends’ host families are amazingly welcoming, none of them is able to replace my own. I can say, without thinking about it twice, that when picking the Lukić family for me, my on-site director made the right choice. I often find myself willing to play “Superman” with my seven-year old host brother Nikola and looking forward to rescuing Sundjer Bob Kockalone (Sponge Bob Squarepants) from wherever my little four-year-old host brother Dušan might hide him. It is not unusual for me to spend hours at a time talking about politics, movies, technology, or just about any topic with my host dad Ivan. It is also common for me to just sit close to the kitchen with my computer while I talk to my host mother Sandra about her day at work and the traditionally delicious sarma (Stuffed sauerkraut) that will delight us the following week. There is never a day when I am not happy to see my host family after long hours roaming around the streets of Novi Sad. The members of my Serbian family always make me feel like I belong and in include me in all of their plans.
While service has been an essential component of my life in Novi Sad, the highlight of my experience so far has been the people with whom I have interacted. This is a realization that came to me as I stepped out of the bus after coming back from our excursion in Belgrade. I felt like I had returned home. As the prospect of leaving Novi Sad and going to Niš becomes ever more real, I don’t feel like I will be leaving a foreign city. I will be leaving a place of which I have become fond: my Serbian home. In fact, we don’t even use the word “Host” anymore when talking about our Serbian families simply because they have accepted us as members. They are, indeed, an inextricable part of our Serbian lives.
As Jillian eloquently put it “It is just something incredibly special to be able to go 5000 miles away from home and not only be welcomed into a family but also be able to share laughter and happiness together. To me it means that you have truly found common ground.”