Final Group Update from Serbia
Letters from Serbia
Princeton University, Class of 2014
Kuća nije dom bez Plazme. A house isn’t a home without Plazma. Etched on the side of each box of the distinctly Balkan cookies, this phrase was one of my first introductions to Serbia, and you were there when it happened. At Princeton last August, the five of us currently on the program sat in a room with Ceca (our coordinator), you (our mentor), and a few other Bridge Year Serbia participants from previous years. Ceca pulled out a box of Plazma and started handing them out. Those who knew what Plazma was grabbed at the cookies excitedly and stuffed their faces while simultaneously reaching for more. Those of us who had yet to go to Serbia each took a cookie, admired its plainness, and took our first bites of Serbia. My cookie was mediocre at best. How could you drool over this? It’s basically just a butter cookie.
As soon as we got to Serbia, Plazma popped up everywhere: alongside or in the place of every meal of the day, served with Eurocrem (Balkan Nutella), and taking up an entire aisle in the supermarket in various forms (chocolate Plazma, mini Plazma, and Plazma crumbs to name a few.) This mediocre cookie was the cookie in Serbia. No Oreos, Chips Ahoy, or Thin Mints in sight. In the absence of other options, I tried the cookie again. And again.
Maybe you can see where this is going without me having to describe my month-by-month acclimation to Plazma. The point is that I like them now, eat them regularly, and have no idea what I’m going to do without the ever-present box sitting on the pantry shelf, waiting to be opened and enjoyed.
As you well know, people across Serbia place a huge emphasis on welcoming guests into their home with a sense of warmth that is unmatched in the United States, and Plazma is quite often part of that welcome. After three kisses on alternating cheeks (even if you have never met the person before!), you will be welcomed in and immediately offered coffee or tea. Alongside your hastily prepared beverage and perhaps a tray of homemade kolači, or cakes, there will probably be some Plazma. You will not get to choose between Plazma and ten other cookie brands that I have sitting in my pantry back in the States. Either enjoy the plain and simple or don’t.
Over the past nine months, I have indeed learned, or chosen, to enjoy the inherent simplicity of this place, from Plazma to the daily routine. The Serbian lifestyle isn’t packed with 15 extracurricular activities or a schedule planned out to the minute. There are neither as many things to do in a day nor as many different types of cookies. In some way, the people of this country have been able to strip away all the clutter and enjoy life to its elementary perfection. Perhaps when you and the others ate Plazma for the first time in months last August, you were reminded of the simple joys and quirks that this country has to offer, of the pleasures that hold less face value across the ocean. Only now do I understand.
From my time here, I’ve learned to thrive off of the basic things: grabbing a coffee with a friend; playing Slagalica, a popular Serbian game show, with my homestay family; going for walks. These moments color my experience in Serbia. They are the little stories that I will tell when I get back to America, the anecdotes that best explain why Serbia is not just my house, but my home. If my host mom didn’t insist that I wear slippers indoors, or if my other host mom didn’t require me to blow-dry my hair to completion before going out then I would have lived in two Serbian houses rather than two Serbian homes.
I think about this often—how I can take the lessons and customs, big and small, that have grown to be a part of me back to the United States. How will these pieces that fit so effortlessly into the Serbian world translate to the more cluttered, fast-paced puzzle that is America? It’s hard to know now, and I recognize that my transition back will be all about finding ways to integrate the Serbian me into the American world. It will undoubtedly be difficult, but I’m ready to face the challenge, Plazma in hand.
In my last days in Serbia, I will be sure to take a final trip to Tempo (Serbian Costco) and marvel at the Plazma aisle one last time. I can’t purchase a life-time supply (not enough room in my luggage), and my favorite Serbian cookies won’t hold the same meaning in America, where there is a plethora of other options for my snacking pleasure. They won’t stand alone on a shelf in my pantry or be the go-to snack when guests come over. I will take a box or two symbolically though. I will offer Plazma to my friends and family, but they, like me last August, will probably find the cookies less than the best. It is impossible for anyone who isn’t here to understand exactly what this process has been like or exactly the manner in which some oval-shaped butter cookies became one of my favorite foods—how Serbia became one of my favorite places. And that’s okay. But, for my own memory, I will hang that little slogan, Kuća nije dom bez Plazme—A house is not a home without Plazma, without all those little moments—near my bed at home, at camp, and at college in the fall so that I will always remember the mosaic of tiny cookie pieces that made Serbia my true home.
I look forward to seeing you at Princeton next fall. I’ll bring the Plazma.
Mark Dubois, International Relations teacher
North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics
Dear Mr. Dubois,
"So is it true that Americans think we're barbarians?"
I've heard this question uncountable times, and understandably so. As you know, Western media coverage of Yugoslavia in the 1990s wasn't too kind to Serbs and Serbia, and the people I meet here are eager to hear better news about their global image.
But, unlike you, I wasn't very globally aware in the 1990s. My classmates and I have a fairly good excuse: we were only born in 1993. All that my friends back at home know about Serbia is that Novak Đoković, tennis prodigy, is from here.
"No," I answer. The truth is, Americans don't think anything about Serbians, positive or negative. In fact, I'd bet that most of your students can't find Serbia on a map. At the risk of advancing the stereotype of ignorant Americans, this comment always gets a laugh. I try to explain that most Americans aren't ignorant about world geography (or more generally), just that there are a lot of Americans and so the small percentage that may have difficulty identifying countries on the map is still a sizable raw number.
Some Serbians I've met have a hard time simply conceiving of the vast difference in size between their homeland and mine. I recall one poignant example at the American Corner in Niš.
American Corners are small American cultural centers found all around the world, partnerships between local organizations and the US Embassy to the host nation. In Niš I got into the habit of visiting the American Corner for their weekly TED-Talk discussions, where I sometimes met other expatriates, including Julie, a retiree from San Francisco whose husband's work brought her to southern Serbia. At the end of one discussion, a local high-schooler came up to her with a list.
"Have you met," he began, "Mariah Carey?" When Julie said no, the high-schooler was undeterred and continued naming American California-based celebrities. The poor guy simply couldn't comprehend that California alone has about five times as many people as Serbia. I asked the student if he had met Đoković, but he didn't see how these two questions were related.
New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami. Because of American TV shows and movies, those are the standard (and indeed, almost the only) answers I hear when I ask Serbians where in the United States they'd like to visit. In fact, when I tell Serbians that I'm from North Carolina, the most common reaction is trying to hide their ignorance. North Carolina is larger than Serbia, but only about half of the Serbians I meet can place it on the East Coast. (Suddenly, I feel better about my American friends mixing up Serbia and Siberia).
Serbia being so small makes Serbians cling to whatever heroes they can find. Almost every technical university department (and even the Belgrade airport) is named after Nikola Tesla, the prolific and brilliant Serbian-American inventor, best known for his work with alternating electrical current, and his likeness appears on the 100-dinar bill. One evening, when I was out for coffee with Aleks, my former dance instructor and friend, the topic of Serbian heroes came up. I casually mentioned that Nikola Tesla was born in what's now Croatia and unintentionally provoked a passionate recounting of his brilliance and his ties to Serbia alone. The suddenness surprised me—Aleks was one of my less nationalist friends, circumspect and worldly. But when I offended one of his nation's symbols, he quickly rose to his homeland's defense. I suppose the smaller a country is, the more vigorously its symbols must be defended.
The pride extends from these symbols to include their historical background. About every fourth Serbian I meet wants to tell me about some part of Serbian history, from the 1389 Battle of Kosovo to the fall of Yugoslavia. Charlotte, one of my fellow Bridge Year participants, gave me the highlights of one particularly comprehensive Serbian history lesson from her host dad, starting at the beginning of time. I've heard the history of Serbia so many times that I was able to give that hour-long Skype lecture on it to your international relations class without breaks, without notes. "The Balkans produce more history than they can consume," (allegedly) remarked Winston Churchill, and every time I listen to the tales over and over again, I can't help but agree.
Serbia isn't alone—I just noticed the most pride there because it's where I spent the most time. Many other countries also suffer from small-country syndrome. On our trip to Montenegro, I heard more about their poet-prince Njegoš than you'd ever believe, and don't even get me started on Macedonia's attempts to solidify their identity via giant monuments. I'd guess that other similarly sized nations would also follow this pattern.
Serbia is small, but Serbian pride is large. Listening to their view on history and their national symbols, I more clearly see the same traps that the American education system and national ideology fall into. Both Americans and Serbians assume that their history is the most important, their heroes are the bravest and most brilliant, and that the world's eyes are on them. The extent to which Serbia takes this pride sometimes feels silly to me, but that's because they're not my symbols. I imagine that on my return to the States, I'll recognize that same pride on American streets, in the news, and in our own historical narrative.
When I return, I hope to discuss my various travels with you and to compare them to yours. Your class helped give me the worldly curiosity that urged me to take this trip and provided me with the vision to see these patterns.
Your former student,
As the completion of this program draws nearer, it is impossible to ignore the impact that my time working with you at RPOINT has had on me. Working with these wonderful Roma children--helping them with their homework, interacting with them on an individual basis, learning about their lives--has taught me a great deal about life. While I truly enjoyed every minute of my work with all of the children from RPOINT, three children in particular stand out. All of them victims of circumstance and of the socio-economic stratification of Roma people in Serbia, they have found ways of combating that which attempts to hold them back.
The first time I saw her, I was captivated by those eyes. By this point you surely know who I am describing, for I have never met another Roma person with the combination of eyes as blue and complexion as dark as hers. Ramajana’s unique beauty made her stand out to me immediately, and I remember asking you about her family. Your prompt response shocked me: that Ramajana shared the clear eyes and distinctive beauty of her older sister, who, at the age of 14, had been married off to another Muslim family and already had a family of her own. Apprehension dawned on me as I heard that Ramajana could expect the same fate: that at the young age of 11, Ramajana knew that her future was already decided. From that day on, I saw Ramajana in a different light, and I was amazed that she continued coming to RPOINT despite the fact that she would be dropping out of school in a few years in order to raise a family. Her carefree spirit and cheerful smile baffled me, and I started seeing in her an unparalleled inner strength, resilience and vitality. Joyfully living her childhood with the full knowledge that passage into the adult world is soon to come, Ramajana is one of the bravest girls that I know.
I remember the first time I met Kristina as if it were yesterday. As I was looking around to see where I could help, Kristina flashed me a shy, half-toothed smile from the back of the room. I wandered over, and after some brief introductions she proudly showed me the letters of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet that she was copying in her notebook. I sat next to her and oversaw her work for the next hour, offering small suggestions here and there on how she could improve her letters. Some of the other children that I’ve worked with easily become frustrated when a tutor offers suggestions on how to improve their work, while Kristina, striving to show me her very best, was taking every one of my suggestions. I distinctly remember thinking how bright this child was. A few days later, I was once again working with Kristina. As I leaned over her shoulder to correct her for the second time, one of my coworkers whispered to me in Serbian, “Just leave it be. She has a learning disorder.” Confused, I looked down at the little head bent over her notebook. I knew that this was not beyond Kristina’s abilities; I had seen her accomplish this before. When I showed Kristina her mistake a little later, she went through all of the wrong letters and changed them. With hard work and determination, Kristina had showed me that she was capable of work equivalent to that of her peers. Kristina was a victim of circumstance; Roma people are grossly overrepresented at schools for those with learning disabilities, and even there many of them do not receive the attention they deserve. I was not willing to treat her differently or underestimate her potential as others had done. Kristina had done her part--she wanted to learn--and as long as she was willing to learn, I would have taught her anything.
Haha, Teodora... and Žuti! As the single most disruptive child at RPOINT, I don’t think I could forget him if I tried. I can almost count on one hand the number of times I saw him working quietly. I came to better understand the source of his bad behavior when I learned more about his broken family. Despite the fact that he was hard to get through to, I ended up sharing some valuable moments with him, from that time we worked on the times tables for well over an hour, to that time I taught him how to make a bracelet! Žuti was being noisy and begging to learn how to make the bracelets, while at the same time we had a dozen other kids clamoring for our attention. I doubted if Žuti’s attention span would be long enough to learn this tedious process, but, Teodora, you knew that he could. When I finally had a free moment, I reluctantly started teaching him the steps. Soon enough, Žuti had picked it up and was one of the quietest people in the room. In the following days, Žuti approached me and promptly asked to continue his bracelet. I enjoyed watching his intent focus on weaving the bracelet strands in the intricate pattern, and when you helped him finish it the look on his face as he admired his handiwork was priceless. It’ll take a while before Žuti will become adept in the art of bracelet-making, be able to sit silently for hours learning in a classroom, or become a good student in school. With the cards dealt against him it will take a lot to make a complete turnaround. Watching him work diligently was an oasis of peace in a tempest of unruly behavior, but, more than that, it was a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.
Ramajana, Kristina, and Žuti. While these children hold a special place in my heart, there are dozens of stories just like these. The children at RPOINT allowed me into their worlds, and lent me perspective. They taught me the true meaning of internal strength, hard work and diligence. They taught me that hope is necessary for survival. They taught me that living fully and passionately in the present is the best way of combating the relentlessness of the future. They taught me how they used these qualities on a daily basis to rise above circumstance and demand the just world that is rightfully theirs.
Thank you, Teodora, for being part of my time at RPOINT; for being a teacher, a mentor, and a friend; for always knowing when to listen.
Knez Mihajlova BB
Let me tell you about these two guys I know. We’ll call them Vladimir and Zizi. Vladimir is a businessman with a strong thirst for good times and the finer beers in life, and Zizi is a man so chill the temperature drops by at least 10 degrees when he enters a room. The former is more charming than you can imagine, and the latter is more relaxed than the Dalai Lama himself, and together they form a duo with tales crazy enough to leave anyone’s mouth agape with disbelief. They’re free spirits through and through, living by a fairly simple rule: life is meant to be enjoyed. Without advocating a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure or saying that plans for the future are useless, they hold fast in the belief that life is too fragile not to make the most of it each and every day.
When I met these two on one of my first nights in Serbia, I had no idea that we would become such good friends. But almost overnight they took me under their wing and began to teach me all they could about life. It wasn’t long before they were like two kind older brothers. They always invited me out with them and were always willing to share a funny (and usually also thoughtful) anecdote. Their personalities resounded with me, and I saw in them a glimpse of how I might be able to live one day. They were and are bold men with few fears and even fewer reservations; standing beside them was like staring into a potential future for me. I think they knew it too. Encouragement came often from them, and they once admonished me not to take life so seriously. I tried to listen.
To that extent, and in a throwback to the WWJD bands that used to be popular, I got “What Would Vladimir Do?” and “What Would Zizi Do?” bracelets. I hoped that they would be useful reminders for the future. Vladimir’s unabashed boldness would help me confront uncertainty and doubt; Zizi’s serenity would be an oasis in times of discomfort or frustration. I told myself that these mottos would be a prominent guide in my future decision making, and I recognized that they would always be something to fall back on. That feeling was without doubt accurate, and the bracelets have been put to good use.
But there was this one time, after I had been wearing the bracelets for a while, when you said something that made me stop in my tracks. You wrote it, actually, in the book you gave me for my birthday. A famous quote from Ivo Andrić: “Toliko je bilo stvari u životu koji smo se bojali...a nije trebalo. Trebalo je živeti.“ So many were the things in life of which we were afraid…but it wasn’t necessary. It was necessary to live. When I read that, I stopped and stared at the page for a while. I loved it, and at first I didn’t connect it to my own life, I simply recognized it as some great truth worthy to be shared. With time, however, came reflection and with reflection a reality I had missed all along.
My dear friends Vladimir and Zizi never meant for me to copy them. They never wanted to tell me how to live my life. They only wanted to show me what it meant to live: to be unafraid, to be daring, to grab life by the horns without flinching. Their example was meant to serve as a template for crafting my own vision. The question I should have been asking the entire time was not “What would Vladimir do?” nor was it “What would Zizi do?” It was, from the beginning, “What would Jacob do?” What would I do in a given situation if I were free of constraint and indecision? What would I do if I stopped over thinking almost everything? Just like that I recognized not only that fear was my problem, but that I needed to face it on my own terms to overcome it.
Since then, I like to believe that I’ve become a better person, or at least a bolder one. Andrić, for all his wisdom, didn’t give instructions on just how we’re supposed to live. So I’m figuring it out, one day and one situation at a time. Sometimes I refer back to Vladimir and Zizi, because truthfully, they got a lot right and there’s a lot still to learn from their example. But when the cards have all been played, I turn to the guy in the mirror. If the quote you gave me was an awakening, I spent 19 years, one day, and approximately 12 hours learning to live with fear. My two dear friends gave me the tools to live without it, and you gave me the push in the right direction. For that, I’m ever grateful.
I have this tendency to associate the end with closure. The end of a sentence is the completion of a thought. The end of a day is the completion of the sun’s presence in the sky. The end of this program is the completion of this experience…but that’s not true at all. When I finally set foot into my Waxhaw home, sleep in my bed that first night, and wake up to my parents’ voices, it won’t be as if I went to bed Serbian Dominik and woke up American Dominique, ready to pick up right where I left off almost nine months ago. Too many things have changed for it to be that way; the number one thing probably being me.
I say probably because it is rather difficult for me to see now how I’ve changed while still living in the context of the program. Once I’m back among the circumstances that are usually my norm, I will start to see this experience’s effect on me. Even though the end of the program is standing on my doorstep, closure is still hiding somewhere waiting to reveal itself bit by bit as I gradually integrate back into an American lifestyle. It makes me feel like I’m in limbo —not quite done with Serbia, not quite ready for home– because the finish line isn’t so clear anymore. I’ve already realized that it’s not when I leave Serbia nor when I’m back on American soil, so is it once I’ve discovered the ways in which I’ve changed? Nah, that’s not sitting quite right with me either.
Perhaps I am trying too hard to draw lines where they are not necessary; perhaps, there is no finish line, no end. Does that mean there is no “closure”? Maybe. This experience isn’t something I can tack a period at the end of like a sentence or declare complete once its presence is gone like a day. There are threads of people, places, and moments that I can weave into the fabric of my life as I continue to grow and progress forward. In this way, these facets of my Serbian experience can serve as constant sources of inspiration and reminder. The Skorić and Ković families were exemplary at welcoming a total stranger not only into their homes but into their families; the volunteers from Omladina Jazas-a Novi Sad at establishing meaningful friendships with an American, not because of her citizenship, but because they took the time to get to know her; the children of Svratište za decu ulice at refusing to allow circumstance to deter them from living a life full of joyous spirit; the cafe culture at revealing that life needn’t be rushed but rather savored moment by moment; the list goes on and on.
I will get to share some of these Serbian threads with my older sister Adaku —the first piece of home after nine months— when she comes to Serbia in June. To have a piece of home in Serbia is to have the opportunity to start overwriting the idea of an end with a melding of two worlds. Just as well, to have bits and pieces of Serbia in the States is to preserve the legacy of this experience as I return to my norm and discover how this experience has changed me. Once I do, I know that it won’t signify closure but rather the next step in fusing Serbian Dominik and American Dominique into an individual equipped with lessons and memories to last a lifetime.