Friday, December 31, 2010

Srecna Nova Godina!

Hau'oli Makahiki Hou!

Happy New Year!

A nice message from a card I received:
"Ho'ohau'oli a ho'opomaikai'i ia kakou a pau"
May the New Year bring prosperity and joy to all of us

Or as the Serbs say: Sve najbolje! Best wishes to all!

More winter fun: klizanje (ice skating)

Although there's no snow in Hawaii, there is an indoor ice skating rink which I've skated at many times so this was not a winter first. However my previous experiences had only been in controlled environments on Zamboni-resurfaced ice, never on a lake naturally frozen with all the bumps and imperfections of naturally worn ice. The latter, as you can imagine, is a fair bit more difficult but it certainly feels more genuine when the temperature on and off the ice remains constant.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Today the weather was ideal for one of the most fun outdoor winter activities: a snowball fight! The verb in Serbian, if I'm not mistaken, is grudvati sort of 'to snowball fight' so today at work grudvali smo, we had a snowball fight! Mima and I have many times performed philanthropically by removing snow from cars and using it for artillery in our battles which commence each time we go outside. But at Ck there was so so so much pure, untouched snow on benches and tables outside that would come off with a single swipe beaconing to be played with. It didn't feel nearly as cold today as it did yesterday (though I'm told it was) because of the beautiful sunse (sun). I'd like to think this was my first real snowball fight since it included three of my co-workers and I running around the courtyard and having a blast for more than half an hour with readily accessible snow. I was the only one who kept with it the whole time but it was really a novelty to me so I had an excuse to act like a little kid. Actually I don't think you ever need an excuse to act that way so long as it's all in good fun so I take that back.

Lessons learned:
• It's not the most effective to try and catch the snowballs since they merely crumble in your hands thereby worsening the damage
• You should always have a reserve, a snowball stockpile if you will, for when you are caught off-guard
• Don't pack the snow too tightly or else it will not fall apart upon contact
• The reverse is also a no-no: if the snowball isn't tight enough it will disintegrate in midair. It's a tricky business.
• Use structures that are available for defense: tables, chairs, trees
• Keep moving! A moving target is more difficult to hit
• For those hand-eye coordination challenged (like myself), charging is worth the risk for optimum shots
• Dodge with your back. I underestimated my height when ducking causing the snowball to leave traces on my eyelashes
• Note for beginners: do not make alliances unless necessary for your ally might use your tyro status, turn on you, and turn everyone against you
• And always, although this is hopefully effortless, have fun!

I will be eager and ready to face my next match, so the damages will hopefully not be so severe:

I hope all you East-coasters are showing the blizzard who's boss by having fun in the snow!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Srećan Božić!

We celebrated Christmas as a group yesterday on Christmas eve and spending the day cooking, baking and shaping cookies, secret santa-ing, decorating a Christmas tree, and listening to Spanish, Hawaiian, and American holiday classics finally got me in a bubbly, joyous Christmas spirit. For our Christmas eve meal we made full use of the Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, instant gravy, and Stove Top stuffing that Jill's sister sent for Thanksgiving but only arrived a week ago. Plus Andres got us all these nifty holiday hats and I sported mine the whole time.

Serbia spelled in Cyrillic!

Christmas cookie making!

So Srecan Bozic , Mele Kalikimaka, and Merry Christmas to all!

Love our Bridge Year Serbia family,

I have a theory

that some higher power is out to help me through the difficult not being home for the holiday times and here's why:
1. This whole week was in the 40s, 50s, and even low 60s! Sounds like Hawaii to me.
2. Since September I've noted how beautiful the sunsets are in Serbia, another natural beauty that I took for granted in Hawaii. It's not an everyday occurrence but on my walk home from work I try to remember to look to the sky for potential luster and sure enough 5/7 evenings this week gleamed magnificently. Here's an example:

And 3. On the morn of Christmas eve I noticed the most stunning double rainbow! I've seen one rainbow in Serbia so far and it was very faint and small and Mima was completely engulfed with its beauty as she told me it was the first rainbow she'd seen all year. I saw at least a dozen rainbows just in my last month in Hawaii, yet another Hawaiian trait gone unappreciated at the time. And right around Christmas this majestic beauty exposed itself.

So yes it is Christmas eve and yes I am dearly missing my family, friends, dogs, bed, Mom's cookies, etc. But I am so fortunate to be here experiencing this culture and these reminders of back home helped me remember that resolution.

New frames of reference

Earlier this week we received an email from World Learning (the organization through which Princeton has a program in both Serbia and Ghana) which was sent to all participants in their study abroad-type programs. All other participants, however, were on semester-based programs so the email provided support as we integrate back into American living. The lovely workers also suggested that we enjoy being "home for the holidays" further proving that our program is unique as we are the only to which this fortunately and unfortunately isn't applicable.

Though it isn't the most appreciated in my inbox, the email probed me to thoughtfully reflect on my walk home from work. When I got home I flipped through the first dozen or so entries in my journal and many of my initial observations surprised me since in the past four months Serbian living has become instinctual. My Hawaii/American frame of reference is certainly still existing, but now Serbia has its own frame which muddles the other two. My fourth entry I merely listed a few dozen differences and since I hadn't referenced this since it was written I realized how nearly all of these differences have become so familiar that it's very bizarre to imagine myself ever being perplexed by them.

For instance it is customary to wear 'slippers' or papuce inside the house at all times. My host mom would bring my slippers to my side when I forgot them my first few weeks here. A couple of days ago I found myself alone in the apartment which is very rare as there's always a happy clamor of family and friends -- unannounced but always welcome visitors knock on the door weekly. I stood up to get a glass of water and I seriously felt a chill run through my body as I stepped onto the tiled kitchen floor without my blessed papuce. Barefoot indoors (and often outdoors) for eighteen years and it took less than four months for the concept of unrobed toes to seem a quandary. Now I'll admit the change in climate might warrant more conservative dress but this reverse is hardly unique. Whether it's the custom of never walking out of the apartment with wet hair, the windows that open two directions, or eating bread at every meal, Serbia's culture has blended into my thought's fabric and it will be interesting in five months to become, as the email stated, "reacquainted with America".

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Ok so yes I'll admit that the cold has gotten to me on more than one occasion, and yes I'll admit that I'm becoming increasingly envious of my friends and family in Hawaii who are celebrating this holiday in short sleeves but I am also discovering the perks of snow like sledding!

What fun! Though my family and I didn't find the best of hills it was a hill nonetheless and next weekend we will seek out a better one and do some other sliding activity that I didn't quite understand but it sounds fun. Plus there's ice skating and snow ball fights and, uh, you know it looks really pretty and yeah ok so maybe I miss Hawaii's trade winds. Snow is definitely still welcome is just that dreadful wind that gets to me. This week, however, it has been and will be in the 40s with sunse (sun!) which means fine temperature. And on Saturday it's supposed to snow so I'll have my first white Christmas!

My lil' sis and I after my first sledding adventure:

Slava and other traditions: an attempted explanation

As Christmas draws nearer perhaps you are curious about the Serbian holiday traditions. If so I am here to try and explain what I know so far of these traditions. The majority of Serbs are Orthodox Christians, some are Catholic and some Islam which means there isn't one wholly practiced celebration. As I understand it, way back in the 7th century Christianity emerged from the Byzantine Missionaries in previously pagan Eastern Europe. Then there was the Great Schism which divided the Orthodox East, the Byzantine sectors in Serbia, and the Catholic West, the Roman sectors. And Islam came to be with the Ottoman Empire's influence.

The Catholics would celebrate much like in America celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25th, attending midnight mass, lighting the advent wreath, and I'm guessing other usual customs but I'll admit I don't believe I know anyone in Novi Sad who is Catholic, it's quite a minority.

The majority -- the Orthodox Christians -- celebrate different days based on their family saint or slava. Slavas are generally passed down from the father's side and each family celebrates one by hosting friends and family. There are hundreds of saints in Orthodox Christianity who could be celebrated but the most common is Sveti Nikola or St. Nicholas! This celebration falls on December 19th, last Sunday, and my host mother's parents had a grand celebration in their beautiful farm house in Cerevic, a small village a few kilometers from Novi Sad.

We arrived at their house around 11am and left half past four and half the time was spent eating the delicious food prepared throughout the previous week. Until around 3pm it was just our family, the grandparents, and Irena's brother's family, well not just it was about a dozen people but that was nothing compared to the total influx of guests. From 3 until 9pm there would be up to forty friends and neighbors of my host grandparents coming through to help celebrate good ol' St. Nick and considering the village has less than 2,000 people forty's quite a number. In the time we were there I met eight people who were all thrilled that an American was learning about their traditions and each explained to me their family's saints and traditions. And though these stories were certainly entertaining, we left partially because of the diminishing breathing room. Though their property is big, the kitchen, living room, and dining room don't have an unlimited capacity so it was quite comical the way people kept on having to play musical chairs as more and more showed up.

Getting down to traditions, it is customary to have an icon of the family's patron saint at the dinner table, a lit candle, Slavsko zhito: a sweet wheat/nut dish that you eat a spoonful of upon entering the house, and Slavski kolach (Slava bread) decorated with cross and seal. Right before the meal the bread is turned three times while a prayer is recited and then broken again and again until everyone has broken themselves a piece. Inside the bread there is a trinket or coin and the one who breaks off the bread with it is to receive luck. Comically enough no one found the trinket so there was a joking hypothesis that the slightly less observant grandfather gobbled it up along with the yummy bread.

We also danced the traditional kolo dance to traditional Tamburaši folklore. To do so you link arms, hands, or whatever else you can hold onto and do a sort of grapevine to the right and left with a few more jumping steps and then throw in any sort of enthusiastic cheer when so inspired. Twas a lot of fun trying to do so with fifteen people from age 2 to 80-something in an intimate living room. The dance sort of just continues until someone falls, and even then sometimes the person's just hoisted up and taken along for the ride again. After this dance came the meal.

The table setting. The icon is the bottle in the center and the bread has a cross on it though it may be difficult to make out.

And this is about 1/2 the food, seriously. Before this came soup and after multiple cakes, baklava, sweet rolls, and an assortment of domestic cookies and not all the main course food could fit on the table at one time.

Though my host sister didn't participate in this since it's not her direct family's saint, children put a shoe on the windowsill the eve before and in the morning the shoe is filled with dried fruit, nuts, or small toys left by Sveti Nikola and the naughty find a sole of onions.

Families also might plant wheat kernels with a candle in the center and the buds that sprout by January 7th signify Christ's birth.

Why January 7th? This is the day Christ was born by the Julian calendar used by Orthodox Christians. My host family celebrates this day, Božić - Christmas, as their slava . This falls on our second to last night in Novi Sad so I'm very excited to spend my last week helping to prepare this celebration for my family's extended family and friends and really anyone who decides to show up. I think that last part is what I like most about this celebration: the fact that guests need not be invited they simply present themselves for the celebration and the more the merrier is collectively embraced.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Nylon market

Last Saturday I took my third trip to Nylon market and brought my camera. I didn't go intending to purchase anything just to wander and the people and their belongings speak for themselves. Here are some pictures!

Slightly worrisome...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ok, so I had this dream

And in it I was reaching for a paradajz. I stood at the kitchen counter cutting vegetables with Mima and I said “daj mi paradajz.” But instead of obliging and handing me the paradajz located centimeters from her pinky she said “Na Engleskom” (in English). And I simply couldn’t. I couldn’t remember the name for that plump, water-based produce over which many a debate has ensued to determine its proper trapezoid in the food pyramid. Now up until this point the scenario was plausible but then my imagination took wing and the paradajz, much like the Grinch’s heart, grew three sizes but no prosperity came from the enlarged paradajz, much unlike the results of the Grinch’s heart augmentation. Fortunately the babel of farm animals – this week’s alarm chime – awoke me before the paradajz had the chance to develop a temperament or do any further harm and once I stood up to quiet the moos, the word tomato floated in and I felt set to embark on the day.

While trekking through the usual terrain to the university this incident of my unconscious brought me to thinking about the peculiarities that have come with learning a new language. Foremost we’ve all noticed our mother tongue slip while asking how much something costed or more regularly questioning our word choices. This has brought his unfortunate friend, apprehension, especially when hearing about the tough academia to come in but nine months. Furthermore French, the language I studied from 7th through 12th grade, has slipped in on more than one occasion, most regularly in pekara (bakeries), which adds a new bout of minor confusion setting apart the languages and slightly more worry for the times when I can barely complete a conversation with the French friends I’ve made. Serbian is unquestionably my focus this year but I never thought the two languages would mingle unsympathetically. However there’s been a consistent enchantment while learning a language in its apt abode and even if my French slips a bit this scene of my subconscious encouraged my wish to speak Serbian so well that English becomes secondary.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Takeaways from Belgrade: US Embassy & Minister Djelic

I’d never been inside nor really recognized the presence of US Embassies before visiting the one in Serbia. This being said my first interaction with their staff was being told that no pictures were allowed of the outside of the building by a large, domineering man who appeared out of thin air. He showed no mercy after we identified ourselves as Americans and claimed to have a scheduled appointment with some chief officers within the office. Still once we got through the heavy-handed security who forced us to drink some of our water to prove it wasn’t poisonous, we had a wonderful few hours talking to smiling, eager to please faces of the staff of this Embassy post.

Basically the objective of the Embassy, as they told us, is one of classic diplomacy: to help Serbia understand the United States and forge a positive relationship. Every twenty minutes a new staff-member came into the conference room and told us more about his or her responsibilities and we wound up hearing from five sectors through the press attaché, deputy chief of missions, consular chief, political officer, and culture department. Naturally we learned a great deal and all these interesting, intelligent people sparked an interest for all of us in Foreign Service. Here’s some of what I took from our conversations:

Serbia has three primary international tasks at hand: EU integration, defending territorial integrity with Kosovo, and regional cooperation.

When thinking about the European Union the main gap lies in the Balkans. A mission of the US Embassy in Serbia is to prepare Serbia to be able to be integrated into foreign affairs and the Euro-Atlantic institutions: the EU and NATO. NATO would also welcome Serbia but Serbia is not so willing as just eleven years ago NATO bombed Serbia. However ascension into the EU is much more likely. The Embassy informed us that Serbs are polled as socially conservative with 60% wanting to join EU, but less than 50% trusting the institution. They say this doubt stems from the general pessimistic mentality of ‘if they didn’t want us then we don’t want them’. Minister Djelic -- Minister of Science and Technological Development -- echoed this saying that he admits that Serbs have a stubborn expectation that “only the gold medal will do.” On October 25th Serbia received great news from the EU that their application is moving forward because of the 11th hour decision President Tadic made in August to agree to begin negotiations with Kosovo. This was against the advice by his senior advisors and “not a typically Serbian act” (according to the chief deputy of missions) but the US strongly supported this and this progression was the main reason for Hilary Clinton’s visit in October. The Embassy also told us that this was virtually the first thing that President Tadic has done with the EU since he ran in 2008 with succession to the EU and preserving Serbian history and relations with Kosovo as his platform. And even though the EU application has now been forwarded to the commission this fall, Kosovo is still outstanding which leads me to the second task.

Right as Serbia agreed to negotiations the president of Kosovo resigned, suspicious? Many people at the conference thought so and most people we talked to in Belgrade as well. But one fundamental paradox with the relationship with Kosovo is that President (of Serbia) Tadic can make strategic missions with Kosovo but it is political suicide to formally recognize Kosovo. With this position it’s no wonder why more isn’t done with this fragile matter. In the EU, 22 out of 27 countries recognize Kosovo and three have declared that they will not recognize it even if Serbia chooses to. That struck me as quite a high percentage so I looked into it a bit further and found that only 72 of the 192 member states of the UN formally recognize Kosovo which makes Serbia seem like less of a variance although its association to Kosovo is closer than all others. Another factor which makes you question why Kosovo is not being more cooperative with the negotiations is that Kosovo is not self-sustainable. I learned from the conference that it spends $5 billion more than it earns each year with major trades of human and drug trafficking. This conflict is playing out as most seem to where the only change will be seen when both parties are ready to forgive past wrongs and move forward to compromise.

Regional cooperation is key to pacify the lingering tensions between neighboring countries since the 1990s. Macedonia and Montenegro recognized Kosovo in 2008 which was a slap in Serbia’s face at the time because it was right after Serbia sent them an unrequited request to hear what they thought about Kosovo’s independence. Slovenia and Hungary are both members of the EU who formally recognize Kosovo. Bosnia-Herzegovina has a very complex governmental structure with a two level state of the Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with sub-regional, local, and national governments. In 2006 Serbia signed a “special ties agreement” with the Republic of Srpska to promote cooperation and support territorial integrity between the two nations but this convoluted compound seems awfully unstable to me. And hostility with Croatia, the most futile relationship, has been unresolved due to the disputed border on the Danuv and the Serbian refugees unlawfully kicked out of Croatia. These relationships are in no way effortless but they are necessary to generate complete Balkan integrity.

So what is holding Serbia back? According to the Embassy, the government needs to make their stance reflect the will of Serbia, shape the public opinion to build support, and move proactively to sensitize the public. Serbs do not favor the current government like they’d need to for the government to have the ability to change their opinions because the economic standard of living -- the people’s direct and daily glimpse of the government’s work -- is not improving. Additionally Serbia has much baggage from the Yugoslav wars, Serbia doesn’t want to open up their market and compete, and Russia doesn’t want to see the western Balkans in NATO and the EU. Serbia needs to recognize human rights, fight the organized crime, bring war criminals to justice, and bring prosperity and welfare to the people, all matters that would make Serbia more like the western world.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pada sneg! It snowed!

Novi Sad's first flakes of snow fell yesterday making it my first time (that I can recall) in falling snow! People around my service placement sighed and shrugged it off but I went outside and danced around in pure bliss. Knowledgeable snow veterans told me it wasn't even a 'good snow' since it was more like rain/light sleet but I had fun and it's all the better if there's still 'good snow' to come! Mima (host sister) is only ten and is also thoroughly amused by winter and the magic of snow so we played outside for a bit making icy snowballs and catching the snow with our tongues before we were ordered to come inside so we wouldn't freeze. Then we came inside to tea cookies and hot chocolate and watched the snow falling through the window which was even more enchanting from indoors. Everyone says this enchantment is merely a honeymoon period but I think it will last through this year and hopefully through the next few years!

I hope all of you are enjoying this holiday season as well!