Group Update from Serbia
The Unofficial Handbook for Bridge Year Serbia
Table of Contents
Introduction: Where is Serbia?: not Siberia, Syria, Somalia, etc.
- Just say “Yes”
- Don’t forget Taša the Tiger
- Always wear slippers in the house
- How to climb a fortress
- Language barriers are meant to be broken
- Turbofolk: don’t listen to it
- Family always grows
- Meeting your curfew
- How to avoid meeting your curfew
- Befriend taxi drivers
- What to order at a kafana
- Home is where the Bridge Year Serbia group is
- What not to do in Belgrade
- Hardcore Parkour
- If you wouldn’t do it in America, don’t do it here
- Winter boots are your best friends
- When you think you’re wearing enough layers, add two more
- You can never have enough meat
- ...I work out: the dos and don’ts of exercising
- Maintaining an Eastern Standard Time sleep schedule
- Wet hair + outside = disapproving looks
- How to make Serbian friends
- Dealing with your own inability to speak on English
- Don’t assume that all of Serbia is the same
In case you should ever find yourself in Serbia, there are a few things you should know. Firstly, the people are amazing. All you need do is say your name and choke out a few words in Serbian and you’ve found yourself a new best friend. People are always willing to show you what Serbia is really like, (which is awesome). Secondly, rakija (the Serbian national drink) is delicious, and it’s made for trying in a kafana (a sort of restaurant where you can relax and enjoy life; see Rule #11). The music and the people there will be second to none. They call it ”merak”, that special feeling that only a kafana can bring, and you won’t want to miss it. And lastly, when in doubt, just say yes. Or “da,” rather.
Trust me, they’ll be times when you don’t know what’s going on. They’ll be moments when you can’t read the menu. And though most Serbians speak at least some English, you might very well meet one that doesn’t, or who is shy. And in those circumstances, the only appropriate response is da! In other words, just go with it. Serbians will only ever want to show you a good time, so yes is pretty much always a good, safe bet. It works, believe me.
For example, this one time a Serbian I didn’t know asked me to go for some coffee. Back home, I might have said no because I didn’t really know her that well. Instead, I just took a chance and said yes. And it worked out. A few coffees later, Milica and I were tight like two peas in a pod. We were as close as a finger and nail. (That’s a Serbian simile). But seriously, we got along grand, and she became a good friend during my time in Novi Sad (see Rule #22 for more). I know that if she ever comes to the States, she’ll be sure to hit me up. I would have missed out on that relationship if I had said no to something I was unsure about. But I said yes, and it was the right decision.
It was really a lesson I stuck to, which is why I recommend it so strongly. Whenever you go someplace new, or someplace different, there will be times where a part of you wants to say no. It’s tempting and easy to stay in your comfort zone. But if you repress that urge and just get out of that bubble, there’s so much life has to offer. Suddenly you find yourself trying (and liking) new foods, and meeting new people, and getting a view into what life is like somewhere else. Saying yes is a vehicle to taking off the blinders of preconception, and it’s a simple tool for learning just how much you really can do. Usually, that’s more than you think.
In Novi Sad, my host brother Vladimir was a decade older than me. In America, I would have quailed at the thought of spending time with him and his friends. But when he asked if I wanted to come with him to parties, or cafés, or clubs, I just nodded my head. While it was difficult at first, always being thought of as the nice kid tagging along, with time I realized that it was a label I put on myself. If I made the conscious decision to let my personality and actions define me, and not the dreaded question “How old are you?”, I knew I could make some very strong friendships. That changed everything for me. By the time I left Novi Sad, age was insignificant; my relationships were about things we had in common, not about a similar number of years behind us.
Without the decision to always say yes, I wouldn’t have made those same friends. I wouldn’t have fully explored what Serbia has to offer, especially not those things that are off the beaten path. I wouldn’t have learned that, at least where friendships are concerned, age is only what we make it. And it’s those things that really take an experience from great to once in a lifetime. There are many chances in life that only come once. Some are big, like the chance to come on this journey, and some are small, like having coffee with someone you don’t know. Each is important in its own right. Each is worth saying yes to.
Rule #5: Language barriers are meant to be broken
In any society, language is a key component of communication. But when everyone around you is speaking a language you don’t understand, it can surely be easy to abstain from any interaction with people for fear of misunderstanding or being unable to effectively share your thoughts and feelings. I’m learning that’s not the proper mindset to maintain when living in a foreign country for an extended period of time.
My encounters with foreign languages outside of an academic environment were minimal before coming to Serbia. When my head wasn’t buried in my French textbook, I was at home happily tuning out my parents as they conversed in Ikwerre –a language from Rivers State, Nigeria. The inability to understand what they were saying never concerned me because we were living in an English-speaking country –they were the linguistic outsiders when they chose to speak their language. From the moment I set foot on Serbian soil, I certainly felt like I had entered a linguistic outsider zone and it was overwhelming.
Serbian is quite the interesting language: it has seven grammatical cases, a complex vocabulary, and pronunciation stresses that vary by geographical region. It comes off as a daunting language if you’ve never had any prior exposure to it. I remember in the beginning of this experience how frustrating it was to be unable to understand a thing. There were always so many factors that caused confusion: my hesitance to speak Serbian, their hesitance to speak English, interpreting body language incorrectly. Somehow though each side was always able to convey what it wanted. Very often when someone would ask me a question or say something that prompted a thorough response, I would just smile, nod, and say, “Da” (see Rule #1). Then there would be that slightly awkward moment afterward when he/she would be waiting for a proper response, and when I finally didn’t respond any further, we would both realize that I never understood what was initially said. These encounters never lacked humor; and, I rarely felt embarrassed when I responded incorrectly because at least I was attempting to break the language boundaries by which I initially felt confined.
After five months of Serbian lessons and pure immersion in the community, I’ve learned that the language is conquerable. Now I can understand portions of conversations to the extent that I get a general idea of what the entire conversation is about and then make relevant contributions. A couple weeks ago, Yentli, Charlotte, and I went to a forum theater performance at Charlotte’s NGO “Otvoreni Klub” (Open Club). There, high-school aged students put on short plays about the dangers of the Internet and discrimination in schools. Usually at plays, you can rely on the dialogue and the acting to convey the storyline. However, sitting in the back row behind plenty of people taller than me forced me to rely on my ear alone to grasp what was going on. To my surprise, I found myself being able to follow along throughout the performances. I felt invested in the students and their performances as if I had perceived everything in English. By the end of the night, the themes of the forum theater in Serbian had reached a girl who has spent her entire life communicating in English and I was able to convey how I felt (in Serbian) afterwards to some of Charlotte’s co-workers.
Of course none of this means that I have obtained 100% fluency in Serbian, but I no longer think that it is accurate to say that Serbian limits my ability to communicate with people. Despite the fact that I may not understand everything that comes out of the mouths of natives, I try to participate as best as I can because that is what’s most important. It’s amazing how over time a smile and a nod can transform into articulated thoughts and feelings. You’ll come to realize that, as long as you are willing to put forth effort, a language barrier isn’t insurmountable.
When discussing family with Serbians, there’s more than just a language barrier. “We’re going to my sister’s slava,” my host dad Vladan said one evening.
I was confused. “I thought you were an only child.”
In Serbian, first cousins are also considered brothers and sisters. This isn’t for a lack of a better word—rođak, literally meaning “cousin,” does the job well enough. Rather, it is just one demonstration of the closeness of Serbian families.
Some of this closeness is quite literal. Serbia’s a fairly small place, and Serbian families aren’t that spread out. Every member of my host family lives in or near Niš. For comparison, my parents and I are the only members of our family in Chapel Hill—the rest of our family is spread across three states, each larger than all of Serbia. Visits to or from the grandparents are fairly frequent here in Serbia, while only annual or semi-annual back in the States.
When I got on the plane for Belgrade five months ago, I didn’t expect too much homesickness. I’d been at a boarding school for the past two years, so I was used to living independently, or so I told myself. That much was true. But no one is immune to homesickness, and I’m not as exceptional as I like to think.
This came up the strongest around the holiday season. In November, right around Thanksgiving, I was missing my family’s traditional trip to Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. I missed feasts, gathering with family and friends, and the general holiday atmosphere. Fortunately, Serbia has the perfect substitute: slavas.
The epitome of family closeness, a slava is a family saint-day. Each family has a particular patron saint from the Serbian Orthodox Church and celebrates that saint’s feast day. Even Serbians who aren’t members of the Orthodox Church have their own slava, during which they are officially excused from school and work. In practice, a slava is a personal mini-Thanksgiving: food, friends, and family all cram into a house or flat for a nice long feast (see Rule #18).
I experienced my first slava just before American Thanksgiving, so I’m sure I exaggerate its similarities by virtue of wishful thinking. But at that moment, a slava was exactly what I needed. Tagging along with the Lukić family, my Novi Sad hosts, I went to the home of a long-time friend of Ivan, my host dad. Not knowing anyone other than the Lukićes, I feared that I’d be silently poking at a plate overloaded with food. Instead, I was welcomed without any hesitation. The several slavas that followed helped keep the edge off of spending Christmas without my family as well.
During my first week with my new family in Niš, we went to a slava for the cousin of my host dad, Vladan. I had the same welcome and familiar feeling that I had at that first slava. Again, knowing no one, I was immediately accepted as a friend and family member.
By sheer coincidence, during the gathering, Ivan called to check in with me. Speaking in my simple Serbian to my two little host brothers back in Novi Sad, it all finally clicked. I am not only an American Jones, but also a Novi Sad Lukić and a Niš Milošević. Homesickness is natural and expected, but the solution is clear. Whoever you’re with becomes your family. Family always grows.
I was nervous last summer. When I thought about spending nine months in Serbia, I imagined homestay scenarios, potential volunteer experiences, sights to see and complex grammar to learn. I envisioned getting lost in the city (this expectation has been realized time and time again) even though I had no mental image of what the city actually looked like. I knew that everything would be fine, but I couldn’t help but be afraid of stepping into entirely unknown territory. At the time, it felt like I had thought about every aspect – the home stay, the language, the volunteer work, the food, the culture. But I skipped over one essential part: the Bridge Year Serbia group.
This situation is rare. Normally in social settings, we are presented with dozens or even hundreds of peers from which to find our close friends. Often, friend groups are bound by similar interests, common classes, shared backgrounds, etc. In this case, the common thread was what we were about to do together – our shared future, not past. Other than living on the East Coast, the five of us have little in common. During one of the youth conversation hours we led together at American Corner Novi Sad, one of the Serbian participants asked us to talk about our hobbies. We each spoke for a minute or two and our answers revealed that, believe it or not, there is no overlap in our main interests. If we were at Princeton in the Class of 2015, I highly doubt that we would have found one another and yet, here in Serbia, we have already built an undeniably strong group dynamic.
Suffice to say that, soon after arriving in Novi Sad, my nerves settled, I adjusted, and we started to get to know one another. But that was five months ago. Just one month ago, we moved to Niš. In a way, it felt like we were starting all over. New family, new work, new city. This time, though, we came in with the ability to communicate in Serbian. And, more importantly, this time we had a Bridge Year family moving with us. Call me corny, but it really made a difference. The move happened to fall on my birthday, making for a transition in more ways than one. We spent four hours in a van leaving the known for the unknown once again. However, Dominique, Jacob, Tucker, and Yentli still wanted to make my birthday special and to show me that not everything was being left behind in Novi Sad. Knowing my odd obsession with multiples of three (hence my insistence on being Rule #12 in this update), the group planned to play music, feed me, and give me a note every 33 minutes. Of course, I foiled the plan by falling asleep and grumpily asking them to stay quiet, but the sentiment was there.
Our familial bond isn’t Brady Bunch style, that’s for sure. In fact, Yentli once brought up that we always, always, question one another. Alongside almost any statement is a question of reliability – “really? I heard otherwise…” or “Come on, that’s not true.” Last week Tucker and I bickered over the countries that border Bangladesh, until we ultimately resorted to Wikipedia (Tucker was right). I think that the ability we have to constantly question one another and ourselves is our strongest asset. We care about each other enough to push each other and to be wrong in front of one another. Last summer, I never even considered how much I would learn from my American peers here – how much they would teach me about Serbia, the United States, the world, and even myself.
Recently, we’ve started thinking about our goodbye that is now only four months away. I cannot really fathom how it will feel to say goodbye to these people for three months when, up until now, the longest we have gone is maybe three days. Yes, our Bridge Year Serbia family will be at Princeton next fall, where we will join the 40 previous participants and 15 other current participants in forming our extended Bridge Year family, but we will be five among 7,000. Jacob will be studying Slavistics and playing soccer, Yentli will learn Neuroscience and participate in the marching band, Tucker will take on International Relations and Economics while engaging in Model United Nations, Dominique will study something cool yet to be determined and will play lacrosse, and I will also study something not yet known and will sing and be active in Jewish life on campus. We are going to make new friends in the “normal” conditions that exist outside our BYP world. That said, I, for one, am not worried. During the past five months and the four more to come, I am living in and travelling around the Balkans with my own Bridge Year family, creating memories that are sure to last a lifetime. Although we now have homes in the states, in Novi Sad, and in Niš (see Rule #7), I’d also argue that home is wherever the BYP Serbia group is.
As we stepped out of the van on a cloudy Monday afternoon outside of the Youth Training Center, where we would be staying for our Niš orientation, our feet landed on a thin crust of trampled snow. Having yet to see snow fall and accumulate in Novi Sad, we noticed this straight away. That evening, as we walked to the nearest bus station, Charlotte commented on how odd it was that we had arrived and already our first snow fall of the winter had come and gone, in a sense. As we gradually transitioned into our life in Niš, we would learn that many more “first experiences” awaited us in this city which was so different from Novi Sad.
Niš is nestled between several mountains; this detail might appear negligible at first, but imagine, for a moment, not having really seen mountains for the past four months. Vojvodina, the region where we spent our first term, is flat. In fact, Vojvodina is different from the rest of Serbia in a truly distinct way, with many of the differences being traceable back to cultural influences from the Ottoman Turks and the Hungarians. Novi Sad, the most populous Vojvodinian city, is more culturally Western-European due to the centuries of Hungarian influence, which contrasts with the large Muslim and Turkish influence in the south of Serbia, especially in Niš. This causes there to be diverse and sometimes unexpected differences between Novi Sad and Niš, making the transition to Niš in many ways a form of adaptation.
There are many more Roma settlements in Niš, and some of them are located near the city center. Because of the larger Roma presence in the Niš community, three of us work with Roma children as part of our service placement. Every day, I walk to RPOINT, my NGO, which is across the railroad tracks from a major Roma settlement. RPOINT provides academic support and tutoring for Roma children, as well as extracurricular activities including art, dance and music. Unlike at NSHC, my service placement in Novi Sad, I get to interact primarily with the same children every day. This allows me to build meaningful relationships and friendships with these children and learn more about their culture first-hand.
Having lived in Serbia for five months now, I am expected to speak Serbian more often. As we were preparing to leave Novi Sad for Niš, we were told by our host families and others that, generally, people in Niš speak less English. The change of environment gave us an opportunity to start anew; right off the bat I started speaking in Serbian with my host family, coworkers and local youth. The change in setting has pushed me to use my Serbian first and, if I am unable to communicate my ideas, revert to English (see Rule #5). For the first time, almost every day I work with children and youth who know little to no English, which forces me to depend solely on my Serbian in order to teach the children to the best of my ability.
Now it’s February, a month after our move to Niš, and I, for one, feel completely adjusted to this new city. Most people that I have met in Niš will admit that Novi Sad is a prettier city; the majestic Cathedral in the main city square, the picturesque pedestrian walkway, the glistening Danube river, and the sight of the Petrovaradin fortress overlooking the whole city. But there is something equally entrancing about Niš--the colorful, noisy and alive pijaca, or market, that I pass every day on my way to work; the grand trvđava, or fortress, whose ancient walls hold more than two millennia of history (see Rule #4); and the mountains in the distance, with tendrils of fog drifting between their peaks, a daily reminder that we have left the flat plains of Vojvodina.
My experience in Niš has taught me that while it’s impossible to view all of Serbia as culturally identical, there is at least one aspect of Serbia which is fairly consistent: the people. Whether our group is in Belgrade, the capital; Subotica, a charming Vojvodinian city; Novi Sad, our old home; or Niš our new one, Serbian people have welcomed us with open arms, excited to show us their culture, their traditions, and their homeland. It is these people who, regardless of which part of Serbia we are currently in, have made Serbia our home.