Sunday, January 30, 2011

Djokovic = Australian Open pobednik

And pobednik = winner! Watched the whole match with my host family this morning.

(Sorry it took me so long to figure out how to link sites properly)

The potluck postulate

The most bizarre thing happened last night right before I went to sleep. I pulled my blankets over my head and it smelled exactly exactly like french toast with Aunt Jemima syrup and all! After six deep breaths the scent had vanished but I swear it was like walking into a pancake house. Perhaps now that I've declared my food cravings they will appear and haunt me.

Anyway thinking about cravings made me realize how much I miss potlucks. I'm not sure if they're popular in all states but I'd say at least once a month in my conscious upbringing there was some sort of potluck, at school, after/during sport games, after shows, for birthdays/graduations/holidays, it was the understood way of sharing meal with a large group of people. No questions asked. One of the best parts is that there's always an excess of baked goods so multiple stops at that end of the table were necessary so as, um, not to waste. And there's such a mix of cultures in Hawaii which creates a huge variety of food and infusions between the cultures create many more options. Hawaii is practically a separate culture since the food, landscape, and climate are beautifully unconventional. Back to potlucks: it's not the food at potlucks that I miss, it's the operation itself; people lining up, assessing your options, small talking your way through, choosing what to take, picking the better looking spam musubis (there's always more than one tray), figuring out how to balance the plate while piling on more food, chowing down while using your lap or the ground as a table and still trying to have some etiquette, and then making sure the wind doesn't blow anything away. I especially miss when these are on the beach and some tent is set up and you just enjoy the calm atmosphere. Honestly I don't miss the beach too much but I miss its peacefulness.

My parents always liked to eat meals on the lanai (hawaiian word for patio) whenever we could and I never understood why. Well after not eating outside since October, I do understand and I miss it dearly! Since it's always warm in Hawaii it's very common to have a lanai and oh how I miss our lanai! It's just so nice to be outside and feel at ease.

This is quite a scrambled post but I just passed the half-way mark in my program and naturally things that I've missed have been on my mind!

Thursday, January 27, 2011


You'd think I would have already covered this topic since I've been away for five months. In a sense I resisted it because, well, what is the benefit to thinking that which cannot be mine until June? But when friends asked me about what they could send to ease my cravings I found myself at a loss. Sure there were many foods which I would love to taste again but I have grown so accustomed to the foods here that nothing seemed to be missing in my palette. As the year progressed there were times when all I wanted was my mom's homemade peanut butter and a spoon or Zippy's chili (those from Hawaii will understand) and there was a certain challenge to adjusting to the food; as delicious as it is not once have I had a meal prepared precisely like one I was used to. Though the ingredients are the same, nearly all domestic dishes are different than anything I've had in the states. However globalization's effects are definitely visible in both what is available and what is prepared.

My host mom in Novi Sad talked about the sanctions that were enforced just ten years ago which didn't allow for any import or export. This meant no supermarkets and only purchasing produce at the pijaca (green/farmers markets), bread at the pekara (bakery), and meat from the butcher. Though this traditional and sustainable way of living is still very much a reality, when my host mom is in need of packaged goods she doesn't refrain from taking advantage of Mercartor or Tempo, two chains of supermarkets in Serbia. I took a while to make this point but another reason for my lack of cravings is that so much is available here. Thrice we made chocolate chip cookies and though they don't sell chocolate chips by the bag we just cut up baking chocolate. Sure they don't have chocolate chip cookies, or any kind of cookie for that matter, that you can buy packaged or fresh from the pekara or supermarkets because for some reason cookies haven't reached the Balkans or are simply not popular, God help them, but when we felt the urge for these treats we whipped them up ourselves.

Those three instances were the only times was in the kitchen preparing something not Serbian. I'm unfortunately not a very good cook but in both my homestays I've asked to be included in the cooking/baking to learn about how their food is prepared and so at least once a week I help or rather hopefully don't hinder work being done in the kitchen and I really enjoy doing this. Oftentimes the foods prepared are variations of what you can find in America: the pljeskavica is a much better form of a hamburger. When purchased at a street stand it is sandwiched between a roll much better than the hamburger bun but at kafanas (domestic restaurants) it's served traditionally without a bun and is sometimes stuffed with bacon, cheese, and various condiments. Their pica (... pizza) is baked dough with ketchup as sauce, ham, cheese, and mushrooms and once it's on the plate more ketchup is spread along the top with senf (mustard) or pavlaka (sour cream), upon request. Boston's pizza is greatly missed (a Hawaii reference oddly enough) but this style has grown on me so I no longer have to be asked if I want to add the extra layer of ketchup.

Additionally our friends and family have been very generous in sending us both Skippy and Jif peanut butter, oreos, butterfingers, and twinkies, and I've received much appreciated packages with assortments of Wholesale Unlimited purchases, li hing and the like. On occasion we'll see candybars such as Twix and Kit-Kats on market shelves and we've been greatly disappointed with what we've found. Both candy bars were less sweet than in America and they weren't simply different, they tasted terrible. It really puzzles me as to why because I always thought companies like that succeeded because they found that one inscrutable formula and mass-produced it. Maybe the European recipe caters to their population?

I've been documenting foods I've craved and I've compiled a comprehensive list of them all which is probably not of interest to anyone else but since I made it I figured I might as well attach it to this related post:
Peanut butter, li hing (local Hawaii treat), bagels, cream cheese, french toast, toast, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, everything that my mom makes, fudge, peppermint bark, pop tarts, twix that taste like twix, nutter butters, cheese-its, fruit/cinnamon gum (there's only mint here), reeces, butterfinger, swedish fish, choices of cereal, oreos, spicy-sweet korean chicken, teriaki anything, chilli -- zippys, scrambled eggs, mom's omlette, cupcakes, funfetti, Bostons pizza, english muffins, bread pudding, lemon bars, macaroni and cheese, thick pancakes, maple syrup, pumpkin pie, mexican food, Thai curry, sticky rice, shave ice, spam spam spam spam spam spam, spam musubis, sweet and sour stir fry, bentos, ramen, miso soup, soy sauce, manapua, Hawaiian sweet bread, butter mochi, the cookie corner chocolate chip cookie, caramel cuts, scones, guava, dim sum, malasadas--yes I'm aware carnival is coming up and that would bring a whole new set of cravings, chocolate molten cake, crab cake, frozen yogurt, muffins, pretzelmaker, panda express orange chicken

Gosh this isn't even all of it but I'm sure you get the picture. I know as soon as I have one bite of an American pancake I am going to wish it was a light, thin palacinka and that applies to a lot of these. It's not so much about the quantity but just having that familiar taste again. Oh what growing up in America's consumer culture does to the taste buds.

In missing these foods I have come up with an answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph. The benefit of recognizing that you miss something is that you appreciate it more in its absence. This is true for everything; being, in a sense, deprived of those things, places, and people for an extended period makes your gratification of them expand like you wouldn't think possible!

Ćele Kula

Ćele Kula (Skull Tower), one of the main historical sights in Niš, is adjacent to Trosarina and whether by foot or bus I see it at least twice a day.



Stevan Sinđelić was a commander of the First Serbian Uprising in May of 1809. He's a George Patton-type for Serbs. During this battle between the Serbs and Ottoman Empire (Turks) the Serbs were the underdog so when the Turks began to advance into Niš, Stevan decided that it was best just to annihilate as many as them as possible even if it meant his and his mens' lives. He opened the trench gate, let the Turks fill the trenches, and allegedly declared "Save yourselves brothers, who wants and who can, who stays will die!" Then he fired at the gunpowder container which triggered a huge explosion that killed all of his men and a great number of the Turks.

The Turkish commander was furious so he ordered his remaining men to cut off the heads of all the dead Serbs and to mount them on a tower to serve as a warning for all others who tried to cross the Turks. There were 952 skulls in total and Stevan's skull was placed on the top.

Now there are only 58 skulls embalmed in this structure, and though now there's a chapel protecting it from weathering there wasn't for nearly 75 years. I found it odd they encased it in a chapel since it's such a morbid monument not associated with religion. I'm actually more surprised a movie hasn't been produced, well except for the fact that it's only a big deal in Serbia which means it's insignificant for the rest of the world. Still, I see potential.

And here's a quote from a frenchman who later ran across the tower:
My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it.
Alphonse de Lamartine, Journey to the East, 1833

A bit of Serbian history to complete your day!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Who'd have thought I'd ever blog about sports? Not I. But this afternoon I found myself enjoying a palacinka (crepe) and some tea in a restaurant with a television projecting a seemingly important match between two tennis players. It wasn't simply a background projection, either. No this makeshift screen had been set up specially for their customers and all eyes were fixated to the match. I'd heard about Novak Djokovic the celebrity Serbian tennis player so the trance over all in the restaurant made sense when I saw his name on the screen. He's an idol for many in Serbia. I came into the restaurant when he led 2-0 which created a very fun, not so tense atmosphere. I joined in and watched him win the match but I had more fun hearing the Serbs' cheers and curses through the last twenty minutes and after Djokovic's final serve, which ended the match, applause broke out and I received hugs and handshakes from everyone in the restaurant. In September, I believe, there was some important basketball game in which Serbia was in the final four teams. Unfortunately they lost but our group watched that game in a cafe in Novi Sad and we had an equally fun time watching the passionate Serbs. Perhaps I will follow Djokovic this season...

More information:

Pardon my butchered sports terminology. Go Serbia!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Winter wonderland

In a matter of days snow has made its presence known. My dad pointed out the irony in the fact that as I first came to Novi Sad I was freezing in the fifties and yet as I moved to Nis I felt blessed with good weather even though it was in the forties. No longer above 0º C, we have moved to colder times yet again.

Yesterday my host mom showed me a beautiful path that leads up the hill that our house is on. It was slightly too cold to take the path all the way up the mini mountain, but we managed to stop and make a snowman after enjoying the view of Nis from a higher elevation. While we were walking, however, I was so focused on where I should make my next step that I didn't even notice how extraordinarily beautiful it had become. There weren't any houses or roads, just prirod (nature). And this path is just around the corner from our house! I'm not sure how many more times I'll walk the trail during the winter but come spring I see many afternoons spent adventuring this path.

sneško belić snowman

Niš + sneg (snow)

It's moments like those where you realize the perks of winter, and then you realize your fingers are numbing, the car windows are frozen over, and you no longer can feel your toes and you just want to feel warm again. Oh Hawaii, how I miss you.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Moj komšiluk: Trošarina, Niš

My neighborhood: Tro-sha-ree-na Neesh

There's nothing too special about my neighborhood but I thought I'd share a few pictures of my daily surroundings. Now mind you these pictures were taken during the week of warmth and now we are blinded by layers of snow. I will at some point take pictures of Niš in the winter but when I step outside I don't like to stop the trudging even momentarily for fear that my body may freeze that way.

Izvolite, here you are!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Wearing Pride

During our Belgrade excursion in November we got t-shirts from the Gay Straight Alliance with a logo of the Belgrade Pride parade. Though we haven’t had t-shirt suitable weather I wanted to see people’s reaction to this shirt so on five different occasions I pulled it out, layered it on top of long sleeves, and observed.

On four accounts it was only visible when I was inside after removing sweaters, scarves, and jackets which limited the amount of people to observe.

At work I didn’t expect any change since CK runs a program for GSA in Novi Sad, but it was still nice to be surrounded by those who smiled and applauded the choice to wear the shirt.

In the company of my friend’s host family her host sister and sister's friends asked me why I was wearing it since they are opposed to the parade and what it stands for, her host father teased me about trying to make a statement, and her host mother thought the way I layered was an odd fashion choice (admittedly so).

At my dance class I noticed a distinct difference in the way the people reacted. I’d been dancing with them for a couple of months and I even attended a few birthdays and other celebrations of members of the class but about five or six of them gave me a bit of a cold shoulder, others were more tentative than usual, and the rest acted pretty normal. Within a week it seemed to be forgotten and everyone acted as usual but I was shocked at the time that these girls who I’d become friends with would act cold (most likely) because I was wearing that shirt.

At the university my teacher asked if I’d been at the parade with a worried expression and seemed pleased that I wasn’t but that could just be because of the safety factor. Otherwise the students who took notice around the campus generally gave me slighted looks with the exception of two students who beamed when they saw it. I’d say there were around a hundred people who I passed at the university that morning, twenty of whom seemed to notice my shirt. However it is very possible that some of those troubled expressions were unrelated. Oh the difficulties of running a controlled experiment.

However one late-December day it was quite warm and usual winter requisites weren’t needed so I simply wore a jacket over the shirt making sure the logo was visible. I boarded the bus to do a full loop around the city to see the reactions of the most diverse group and man was it telling! I took the 4 which starts in the South-West corner of Novi Sad and cuts through University and up the main boulevard and I did so around 4pm after the sun set so many people chose to take the bus. Initially there were only about eight of us on the bus but it soon filled to full capacity. Right away I sensed a sort of distance from seriously everyone. Since most people on a bus are standing or sitting meaninglessly without anything attracting their attention except perhaps what was to be for dinner that evening, almost everyone seemed to see my fashion choice. A little boy started to sit next to me and his mother pulled him from the seat. An old couple who boarded at the first stop with me wouldn’t stop staring at me with a menacing scowl the entire bus ride. A middle-aged woman bumped into me with such force and impropriety not common to Novi Sadians that it felt intentional. And this is just to name a few. There wasn’t one age group or sector who was more inclined to respond a certain way, simply a general negativity. Most people looked at me with slight disapproval, a sigh, or a knowing shaking of the head. There were still half a dozen or so who smiled purposely and encouragingly but this was a striking minority.

I’m not sure what to take from all of this. Like I mentioned earlier it is so difficult to conduct a fair experiment since it’s possible that everyone I ran into had just lost their jobs or heard bad news and even more possible that since I was searching for reactions I took usual scenarios to mean more. However it seems like these five encounters confirm what I already knew, that Serbs of all backgrounds and ages are less than sympathetic to this issue.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Though Serbs tend to go through life with a short-term focus, the ten changing to eleven is a clear-cut way for them to recognize time’s passing. And this evidence of senescence (what a fun word) brought many a conversation about Serbian politics, problems, and lack of change at literally every gathering of friends and family. Much of the time in such gatherings was spent laughing, reflecting, eating, and dancing and most of this was done in Serbian but if they could speak English they graciously spoke in this tongue when discussing these heavier matters for my benefit.

Everyone agreed that times were bad in the Milosevic era from 1989-2001, but most contend that times are still just as bad if not worse because the world economy has declined and because things are more complicated. Last October was a milestone for Serbia as a decade in a tried democracy. Milosevic was taken down in October of 2001 and after that fair elections were held and the government was reorganized. This reorganization intended to create a more stable and fair political structure but from the public’s perspective it just created a more complex design for figuring out who’s at fault. My host dad said “Milosevic was wrong and everyone knew” but now with the various ministries and levels within each the public cannot track the actions of each. Even though they now have the right to vote they don’t know who’s doing what so they don’t want to vote at all, either because they don't want to be uneducated voters or because they have lost interest, hope, and faith in the government and for most unfortunately it’s the latter. I too cannot keep track of the various wings of Serbia’s local, regional, and national government and my host dad said the only thing to remember is that “everyone’s corrupt, everyone’s promising and not doing, and everyone’s taking bribes.” Obviously this is greatly exaggerated but similar statements are consistently followed by nods and various sounds of agreement which implies that the public believes this to be true, almost invalidating the fact that there are good politicians out there.

My host mom talked about the health care system now and in the 90s claiming that ideally it should be better now because it’s supposed to be paid for by the government through work but that actually it’s worse now because employers (her employers for instance) aren’t signing and submitting the necessary documents and instead pocketing the money for their company. Since no one knows who in the ministry of health is supposed to monitor this process the fraud is going unnoticed and she’s left without health care. As for unemployment, Serbia has proof of the poor economy with 80% of its working population without a job.

The overall consensus of the past decade seemed to be that times aren’t better, just more confusing, and perhaps the worst part is that it’s diluting Serbia’s only personal exposure to democracy. My host uncle said “that’s what democracy does” after hashing out the past ten years. They aren’t living in good examples of democracy and capitalism so their views are being turned against them, and since the US is working with the government people think that the US is trying to impose their system “on the rest of the broken world” (host dad).

Strasno was the most common word used in these conversations and it means terrible. Serbia’s current state really is terrible and neither I nor those who've contributed in these talks have a clue how to help.

Friday, January 14, 2011

добро дошли у Нишу! Welcome to Niš!

Sorry for the lack of posts as of late, on January ninth we said goodbye to Novi Sad and welcomed Niš as our new home and we've been kept pretty busy adjusting to a new family, school, city, work, etc.

A little information about Niš:
Though we haven't been here too long and this is the only place we've been to in Southern Serbia so far, when I compare Niš to the villages and cities I've seen in Northern Serbia they hardly feel like the same country. Niš is a city in Southern Serbia about 4 hours from Novi Sad, but those 4 hours seem much greater as there are vast differences between the two cities. Novi Sad is the capital the autonomous region of Vojvodina and because of that many Novi Sadians tend to separate themselves from the rest of Serbia. To put the autonomous region claim in perspective Kosovo (before independence) also carried that title so some in Novi Sad claim they could break from Serbia as Kosovo did but they wouldn't because Serbia really relies on this province for a significant amount of the country's production and foremost because Vojvodina's relationship to Serbia isn't full of hatred caused ethnic and religious tensions. Vojvodinians might regard themselves as better than the rest of Serbia but they haven't been in constant disagreement for centuries.

Anyway back to Niš, it is the third largest city in Serbia located on the Nišava river, one with much more rapid waters than those of the Dunav in Novi Sad. Niš is an industrial center for Serbia with electronic, mechanical engineering, textile, and tobacco industries. The largest visible difference between Novi Sad and Niš is in the architecture. Niš was under the more Eastern Ottoman rule for 500 years whereas the Austro-Hungarian empire ruled Vojvodina creating an arena more akin to the Western world. I haven't seen much of Western or Eastern Europe but we've been told a similar relationship exists between Northern and Southern Serbia. The topography of Niš is much different too as Novi Sad is a flatland but there are many hills and mountains in and around Niš. To be honest I'm very happy about this difference because I lived on a mountain all of my conscious life and Hawaii is anything but flat so I'd been missing peaks and valleys. And just a fun factoid, Constantine the Great was born in Niš!

When we told people in Novi Sad that we'd spend the second half of our program in Niš we almost consistently received looks of confusion and pity followed by a very exaggerated "što?" or "why?" but said with such emphasis that it implied "what the heck are you thinking/why are you doing that to yourself?". We heard more times than we can count how people in Niš talk too fast and don't use cases (meaning they don't speak grammatically correct), and while we know stereotypes exist everywhere it was hard not to listen to these remarks and ones more snide as they came from literally everyone. Fortunately our travels through Niš have been very pleasant and I might even go as far as to say I prefer the atmosphere of Niš since it feels more humble and homey.

Nišava reka (river)

Niška tvrđava, Niš fortress

Some fun in the Niš fortress and our instinctual reaction whenever we see play equipment

Anyway, that's all for now. When I get more settled I'll be sure to write about my family, work, and more! Prijatan dan, have a good day!

Monday, January 3, 2011

The brain drain and the paradoxical polako

Way back in our Belgrade November when we met with Minister Djelic, the Minister of Science and Technology, he told us a story of when Vise President Biden posed the question, “What keeps you up at night?” As revealed by the title, Djelic’s response was the brain drain, the most intelligent Serbian youth moving to Western Europe and the States.

Djelic revealed the average age in Serbia is 41 point something which he claimed was the third oldest after Japan and Greece. With this kind of aging population I can see why he’s worried about opportunities presented by more stable countries luring the youth away. I really dislike generalizing but the most intelligent students we’ve met in Serbia have been those dreaming of moving away to be educated and live in the States or other parts of Europe. The apathy I’ve found in nearly everyone under 35 doesn’t represent those who’ve left Serbia for higher education in other parts of Europe or the States, after which the majority of whom create a life for themselves elsewhere. If an increasing percent of capable Serbian youth leave – some of whom have in them the initiative or ability to help Serbia’s current state but who are instead choosing the best education in a westernized society – then it truly is a worrisome matter.

In a report published by Djelic’s ministry, there was a section mentioning this issue and how they are trying to counter it by creating incentives such as increasing pay and adding security. But no matter what they do they really cannot eliminate the true or untrue image the youth have of life in a more westernized society as one of more fortune and opportunities. And another big sector who are immigrating thereby aging the average leave for vocation courses in hairdressing and the like, and this report didn’t seem to cater to the basic needs of those industries.

Djelic was quick to admit that most Serbians don't want to invest too much work into recognizing changes that the government is making, and either that's very true as no one I know speaks kindly of the government's work or the public is right to assess the government as inactive and corrupt. But from Djelic's point of view he sees the public as being "too difficult a crowd to please" while not devoting themselves to the necessary work and compromise that is required to see through the imperative changes that will, over time, make Serbia a more stable and safe country.

And that's the major paradox I see in Serbia's betterment: the inherent Serbian mentality and getting things done efficiently. As I've mentioned before the polako lifestyle of letting things be and not stressing or working too hard has engulfed the Balkans for decades, and it is this exact mindset which prevents efficient progress since how can a glorious democracy be created in an environment where people are taught to not work too hard but instead appreciate moments while not focusing on the future. This might be overstepping my understanding but perhaps those who naturally don't appreciate that mentality but could have the ability to counteract it and instigate worthy societal changes instead choose to have the best education elsewhere and surround themselves by like-minded, non-polako people.

As the story goes Biden responded with “Good. And it should.” But regardless of whether or not he countered discourteously, this issue is one that trumps counting sheep for the most high-ranking Serbian officials more than any other problem the country is facing.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Organ Trafficking

Ah yes, in case you haven’t heard organized crime in the Balkans has reached a new low: trafficking organs.

For years rumors circulated about Serbs who were abducted and killed for their organs after the Kosovo war and now they’re being proven true. The Serb captives were allegedly taken to a “zuta kuca” (yellow house) in central Albania in 1999 and 2000, where their organs were removed and sold. It was one of those cases where the original sources were killed in “unrelated circumstances.” No new evidence had been revealed since 2004 so the story became one of legend. That is until mid-December when rumors started circulating again this time substantiated by a Council of Europe report that goes by “Marty’s”.

Some crazy things about the man/group responsible for this – Prime Minister Hashim Thaci/Kosovo Liberation Army:
1. KLA had just won the most votes in the December 12th elections, the 2nd ever since 2008 when Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia
2. Thaci was a big kahuna in instigating “talks of negotiations” that were agreed upon in August 2010 by Serbia and Kosovo but haven’t happened (yet) which would ideally be the first step in the countries thrashing out their problems in more civilized manners rather than killing each other for their intestines and whatnot
3. Both the man and party were supported fully by the United States among other Westernized nations in this election and the former

However the revenge killings behind this rivalry go both ways: last May a mass grave was found in Southern Serbia of around 250 Albanians killed by Serb forces in Kosovo in 1999.

I totally understand the brutality behind this matter, but I think the worst thing to come out of it isn’t the fact it’s no longer hearsay but the fact that it will greatly slow down the “talks of negotiations” and other developments in Kosovo-Serbian relations and in the bigger picture Serbia EU approval since Kosovo is the sore spot of Serbia’s application. In the past two weeks my host family has gotten together with many of their relatives and friends and at each there was discussion of the “zuta kuca” and other dark matters in Serbian politics. The organ-trafficking makes them all much more wary of the politicians of Serbia and Kosovo and though it’s a completely understandable response, it’s certainly not going to speed up Serbia’s development if the people cannot trust their own government although their distrust goes way past this one incident.

More information: