Monday, February 28, 2011

Interesting Serbian fact of the day

The only English word with Serbian etymology is vampire. Recently those bloodsuckers have wooed the hearts of teenagers everywhere so Serbs are proud of this popular word in its heyday. It's pronounced much differently, though. The easiest part of the Slavic languages is that words are pronounced exactly as written. Each character has one and only one sound which is always articulated. So vampire is vamp eee ray.

Happy last day of February!


As fate would have it all three of the BYSerbia ladies celebrate our natal anniversaries in the second half of August. Since we began this year shortly after that we were denied the possible fun which would emerge through a Serbian celebration. Instead of letting this fun pass us by we gathered up our pals and collectively celebrated our 18 and a half birthday.

To put this in context, I have celebrated, or at least recognized, my half-birthday since I realized such a dichotomous exists. I love festivities and fun and sprinkles and each holiday, however insignificant, gives reason to have fun with friends and dress fun in particular colors so I take pride in conducting utmost celebration. For me this date falls directly after Hallmark's largest grossing holiday (I'd imagine), the salute to St. Valentine. As such my mom, being a contender for the best in the world, humored me and we'd bake – meaning she'd baked and I'd guinea pig – some delicious treat in celebration of the neighboring occasions. Once I wasn't privy to her baking and she only showed me half a cake insisting that she was able to shape and bake a semi-circled cake (oh it rhymes!). At the age when gullible isn't in the dictionary one chooses to be mystified by the how rather than doubting the woman who just made you a cake, or half of one. My mom made each Valentine's day~half-birthday unique and even in Serbia I received a pink Princeton shirt and crooning card wishing the merriest of merriest on my 18.5 day. Yup she's pretty fantastic.

Anyway after minor poking of fun my group members signed on to this folly and this past Sunday we had a three way half-birthday zurka (party) with our group and host siblings. I often write about palacinke (crepes); I expect to miss them the most upon reemergence into the society of thick pancakes and at least once a week our group meets before work or class to treat ourselves to palacinke. Since we've grown so fond of them we themed the party around them and provided an array of slane i slatke (sweet and savory) toppings. We also baked two desserts: a pumpkin pie from a can of Libby's and Betty Crocker just add water crust that Jill's sister sent for Thanksgiving but thanks to the ever-reliable Serbian postal service didn't arrive until late December & a plazma cake, made from Serbia's proud proprietary Plazma.

It was a glorious evening and without this perhaps inane midpoint-recognizing ritual that fun would have been lost so here's to the half-birthday because really, why not celebrate being ~183 days older?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Life in Niš: Work

My service placement could not have turned out better. I'm volunteering for an NGO called Otvoreni Klub (Open Club) which carries the full title of the "Association for protection & promotion of mental health in children and youth." It was founded in 1996 and while that doesn't seem too long ago it was the first NGO in Niš which played a large role in starting the volunteering movement in Southern Serbia. It has a specified purpose, a large youth group who create actions and attend trainings related to that purpose, and stable departments for Roma youth and youth with disabilities. I came in hoping to involve myself with their Roma work and they were more than willing to let me take charge in that setting.

Their Roma center is located in the heart of the largest Roma settlement in Niš and it's a small house with one main room set up as a classroom. It's designed for additional tutoring and basic classes and workshops for the Roma youth. The teachers (except for me) are of that Roma community (called Crvena Zvezda ~ Red Star, a popular Serbian sports team). There is math, science, and Serbian tutoring and sometimes one of them will organize some sort of creative workshop but there wasn't any English class so I figured that'd be the most useful for the kiddies. There was a preexisting daily two-hour Serbian lesson for three-five year olds who aren't in school yet (Serbian isn't the native tongue for Roma people, it's actually a language called Romani, but in school they are taught in Serbian and no one speaks Romani except the Roma so it's necessary for them to learn Serbian this is a long parentheses.) I started with this class and we split the two hours of Serbian daily into one hour of Serbian and one English but this confused the little ones so now I have two full (2-hour) classes weekly to work with them and the other three are Serbian lessons. Then I have three older groups, one ages 8-10, one that was supposed to be 10-13 but older students wanted to take classes as well and I would never deny them that so now there's another class for ages 14 and up (basically through 18). Each of these three classes meets for 1.5 hours weekly.

I've now had four relatively successful weeks like this (though they certainly didn't all feel like successes at the time) and I've gone through numbers, colors, body parts, and shapes with the younger ones and we've begun with basic pronouns, verbs, and parts of speech with the older crew. When I expressed an interest in learning their Romani language each group was more thrilled than I could have imagined so I've begun to learn some basics in their mother tongue as well. The four and five year olds knew not a single English word and this was the easiest to combat since they were at the same level. In just four weeks this has changed naturally where some have emerged as quicker learners and others retain less. But in the three older classes there was much variance to begin with creating more difficulty when planning the lessons so that it was challenging but doable for all.

The Roma students are 'officially' allowed to attend the schools with other Serbian youth but I've been told that those students and teachers tend to discriminate them and so the Roma youth either go to the poor, decrepit school on the settlement or (and eventually) they drop out. Though they are all 'taught' English in their school from age six, the English teachers hardly know the language and they practice abusive rote learning which is both harmful and disconcerting. This Roma settlement is very fortunate to have a safe learning environment for the children to come to but this is a rarity.

Now before I continue I'd like to thank thank THANK all teachers or educators who are reading this. Your job is infinitely more difficult than I imagined. Kids can be so rowdy and uncontrollable and they can be angels. Usually it's the former but I had one particularly rewarding moment when three girls from the 8-10 year old class took on the latter disposition and asked if I could work extra with them after class and go over more advanced English. For two weeks now I've had this extra hour and I've realized how much more fun and fulfilling it is to teach those who want to learn. All of my students are there voluntarily so they do all want to learn they just don't show it too often. And since it is voluntarily I haven't had a single class with exactly the same students as the week prior. It evened out the most in the past two weeks and I think the classes will keep roughly the way they are. Approximately there are 14 munchkins in the baby class who I see the most, 20 eight to ten-year olds, 17 ten to thirteen year olds, and 16 fourteen and up. This continues to be an overwhelming amount but I've enlisted some help from other youth volunteers at Otvoreni Klub and it's providing a well-appreciated challenge for this semester.

The pictures throughout this post are from the smallest-most manageable-most peaceful class I've had yet with the eight to ten-year olds.

All of what I just wrote constitutes half my job with Otvoreni Klub and the other half is spent in their main office translating documents for their website and records and planning actions and attending/organizing workshops and trainings with their youth group. This is a much more mellow position and I enjoy it oh so much because both my office-mates and the youth group are comprised of great, fun, encouraging, and kind people who make the whole going to work thing a lot more of a privilege than a chore. Recently there was a weekend camp/training in a beautiful, picturesque village 30 km from Niš where we created a series of workshops around integration of disabled and Roma youth into society for middle-schoolers which we'll implement from March - May so I'll help conduct them.

There's probably more I'm forgetting but I'll be sure to keep you posted as the semester progresses. There's so much to say about my students and working in the settlement with the Roma so I'll definitely be returning to this again. All questions and counsel are welcome as always.

Prijatan dan ~ have a good day!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Life in Niš: Family

We arrived in Niš about a month and a half ago so by now our schedules are set in their ways. We've established relationships at home and work, found shortcuts through the city, developed a weekly routine, and located our favorite palacinka parlors.

Frankly I prefer the city of Niš to that of Novi Sad because: it's not flat, the buildings are fewer, smaller, and more modest, poverty is more visible so there's a stronger feeling of need making me feel more purposeful, English-speakers are more anomalous and those who do speak English let me practice my Serbian more than in Novi Sad, my direct neighborhood bears the feeling of a village, there's more of an Eastern and less of a Western influence in the food and architecture, people have a friendlier, more down-to-earth disposition, there's more but this is what's come to mind.

I have landed another great family, the Manić-es. I'm playing the more familiar role as the younger sister but now I'm the youngest of three ladies and being the youngest girl out of all girls is quite different than being harassed by an older brother. Just kidding. Usually the inverse carried more truth. However there exists a degree of imposed geniality between these ladies and me that emerges less frequently in the Clifton household. My eldest sister, Jelena, is 28 I believe and she actually lives in Belgrade studying law so unfortunately my time with her is limited. The middle sis, Milena, shares the same birthday as my brother back home (what a coinkidink!) and recently turned 24. She studies English language and literature in Niš so we have little difficulty communicating. My host mother, Draginja, works as a doctor in the hitni pomoč(emergency room) of the hospital in Niš although she hasn't been working since he injured her shoulder the first week I arrived. She took great care of me last week when I was under the weather and I'm so lucky to have a healer at home. My host father, Miodrag nickname Miki (like the Mouse), used to work for the Mayor's office and now teaches at the Mechanical Engineering faculty. There are also two canine members who both reside outside so my interaction with them is limited. Come spring we'll be buds playing in the sun together. Ahhh sun I cannot wait for your return!

My parents in Novi Sad are a generation younger than my parents here and I'm grateful for this change because now I can feel the difference. The most obvious difference is that of language; Miki and Draginja were taught Russian through school, not English, so their speech is much more limited though they are eager to learn from me. There is more importance place on food and its preparation in my Niš family; they prepare food more traditionally and they get produce, meat, and dairy products from nearby villages. Tea is also a thrice daily routine for this family and often they will have friends and family over for čaj (tea). This goes hand in hand with the tea-trait but the polako live life slower mentality is a lot more evident with these host parents and their friends of the same generation. Milena (middle child Jan) is always in a rush and doesn't like her parent's insistence on sipping tea and letting time be which is more characteristic of Serbia's youth.

Alright well tomorrow I'll write about my Niš work placement but that's a summary of my home-life. A bothersome gmail ad claimed that it's International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day today and after a mindless google search it appears this is true. It's a day for the dogs so give the pooch in your family (if one exists) a treat and let him/her do the appreciating!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Substance as promised

My mid-year reflection for the Bridge Year Program

Four More Months, Još četiri meseca

I had the privilege of spending many weekends in my host grandparents’ village. In this village situated twenty-five kilometers from Novi Sad, a village not plotted on every map, without any mention on wikipedia, with only one school that ends at grade eight and one doctor who doesn’t believe in pagers live genuinely good people who seem to revel in the simplicity and anonymity of their life. We celebrated Sveti Nikola, the most common Orthodox patriarchal Slava or Saint, at my host grandparents’ farmhouse during which I became acquainted with what felt like half the village. Even in this unfamiliar celebration by listening to the stories these warmhearted individuals, falling over each other during the traditional Kolo dance, and taking part in the customary bread-breaking and prayer recitation I realized how human similarities dominate cultural differences.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t differences between cultures. In fact many of these inherent differences were difficult to accept. In Novi Sad I was frustrated by inefficiencies within my service placement, but through this work I learned the value of not simply having good intentions but following through to producing equally good results. This applies to multiple facets of life, but it is primarily known to be one of the traps of non-profit work.

These frustrations weren’t aided by my initial unreasonable expectations of the kind of help I could provide. However while adjusting my expectations to fit how I could best help the needs at hand I discovered other ways to make a difference, primarily by informing others about America. Though I didn’t expect to come to Eastern Europe and find people who simply were interested in how I spent my life, by helping Serbian teenagers apply to college in America, answering questions about daily life in Hawaii, and discussing American culture with curious Serbs I was able to spread information which I’ve discovered to be a valuable form of service.

The inefficiencies I discovered in my service work stems from the Serbian polako mentality which embodies ima vremena (there is time). Time to live moment-by-moment and time not spent worrying about the future. This outlook is difficult to understand coming from a country with a faster pace of life but it’s opened my eyes to the variants in flexibility. By the end of my time in Novi Sad I learned to appreciate a leisurely walk along the Dunav or an invitation for a cup of tea and in Nis I will continue to emulate this deep-rooted practice.

Though cultural differences exist, through living in, not simply with, this culture I’ve found an unassailable truth: people are universal. It sounds simple, it sounds strange, but that may very well be the most influential lesson I learn during these nine months. I have seen my mother’s smile in a Roma girl running the streets. I have been surrounded by thirty high schoolers each of whom has at least one quality parallel to a member of my graduating high school class. I have been frustrated by the inat of others, an untranslatable form of stubbornness that I myself possess. I have heard conversations in Serbian that could have taken place anywhere and that have taken place everywhere. I guess what this all boils down to is the grand and immense realization that we’re really not all that different. We label each other as foreigners with different languages, religions, and customs which makes it easy to think of them as them, a separate people. But living with them on the ground level and relating to them as people not simply as foreigners have changed my sense of what it means to be foreign.

I probably won’t ever again see that beautiful village in Northern Serbia which I had grown so fond of it. The fact that this scares me a bit reaffirms how grateful I am that this is simply a mid-way reflection. It’s not the end. I have four more months to discover new hideaways, form new relationships, find my footing in a new city, help a new people, learn new truths, love a new family. I have four more months to grow.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I'm not too good at it if you haven't yet noticed.

Actually though I wanted to apologize for posting nothing this past week. My program director visited us which was a lot of fun (Hi Scott), no really it was tons of fun, it just meant we were busier than usual. And then on Sunday I caught a nasty something so I've been bed-resting it since then.

Interesting article about Serbia's government:

I lost the touch of linking articles articles. Please copy and paste if you're interested.

Soon I will write something of more substance, pinky promise! Until then, cao cao

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I missed the Super Bowl

But I didn't rid my Super Bowl Sunday of all things related. In fact, I watched the best parts: the commercials!

Though you've all probably seen it this was definitely my favorite:

Preslatko ~ so cute!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mulling over politics

I haven’t written about Serbian politics for a few weeks and I apologize because there’s much to be discussed. Serbia is in a pretty poor state right now. Between inflation, corruption, troubled citizens, and the complications added by EU integration, the people aren’t happy one bit and yesterday many of them voiced their discontent at a rally in Belgrade organized by Tomislav Nikolic.

Nikolic is the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and he joined together tens of thousands from all over Serbia to protest the current government and call for earlier elections. The elections are scheduled for next year but Nikolic announced yesterday that if the Democratic party doesn’t meet the requests of Nikolic and the SNS in two months he threatened, “in April you'll find me here sitting on the street." Then he added, “I’ll bring Styrofoam so I don’t get cold. And you take Styrofoam, too, if you want to join me.” I’m not so sure about the impact of a sit-in or the warmth of Styrofoam but Nikolic certainly riled up the crowd yesterday who chanted “Thieves!” and “Changes!” and brought signs bearing messages like “Democratic Party, time to go” and “We are hungry.” Basically I’m not sure about how Nikolic would better the situation but the situation is as dire as ever.

There’s a Serbian phrase pas koji laje ne ujeda, a dog that barks doesn’t bite, much like the English equivalent his bark is bigger than his bite, and even though I just learned of Nikolic he appears to demonstrate this proverb. In an interview last week he said he expected a million at the rally and that he didn’t think President Tadic would show up to work on Monday. I’ve heard figures that say 50,000 to 75,000 people attended the protest, a notable but much more modest sum than Nikolic crowed, and as far as I’m aware President Tadic hasn’t taken a holiday. I am not making light this matter, I just don’t like seeing people’s hopes get lifted by a man who was in the same party as Slobodan Milošević, Serbia’s dictator from the nineties. Nikolic worked for Milosevic’s radical party and since its disbandment in 2000 he’s created the Serbian Progressive Party. Progressive gives me the idea of striving to reform and push forward but it’s actually covered with 90s radical roots. And that certainly isn’t of interest to neither Serbs nor the EU.

Speaking of which, the positive political news in Serbia is that the current government submitted a report with the answers of more than 2,400 questions to move their EU application along. The government did this very efficiently in just forty-five days, but it seems to have neglected societal problems and the people aren’t concerned about their status in the EU when they can no longer support their family.

It’s hard to say how much inflation the dinar (Serbia’s currency) has experienced last year, but Ceca gave us a concrete example of an 100 dinar soap that was only 50 dinars last January. This January the government decided to raise prices on controlled items like oil, sugar, flour, coffee, milk, fuel, meat, heating and public transport, and they did so without raising salaries. At all. People need their salaries to increase proportionally just to get by as they were in 2010 (which wasn’t good, mind you) and now everything costs more and they have no additional income to pay for it. Ceca estimated that teachers in Belgrade are paid around 30,000 dinars each month (~$400) and police officers, hospital staff, and pharmacists are paid around 20,000 (~$260). And in Nis and Novi Sad the salaries are lower. Though nearly everything in Serbia is much cheaper than in the States, a family living in Nis, Belgrade, or Novi Sad can barely scrape by with those salaries, if that. Consequently most of the workers from those named professions are on strike right now.

Having elections a year early might change dramatically the position of Serbia in eyes of the EU and US since both back President Tadic and the current Democratic administration which has been working towards EU integration. Though neither has outright said it installing a new regime would no doubt be a step in the wrong direction for Serbia’s EU status. The thing is the election tool is the only way the people know how to improve the situation. Serbia is being tended by both the US and EU and many decisions have been made with their guidance, so the public sees the US, EU, and Democratic party as one and winds up being displeased by them all. I’ve heard more than one person say how democracy didn’t convince them so the best they can do is give someone else a shot.

There’s also a comparison to Serbia in ‘93 being tossed around. Though I don't know specifically what makes this year like that one, I do know the country was being run by a socialist dictator, Milosevic, so times certainly weren't good. I think the main comparison is to the state of the people because of inflation – prices going up and salaries remaining the same, people losing their jobs and not being able to provide for their families. It’s not necessarily a comparison of leadership styles but just the fact that neither government, through the eyes of the public, was/is doing anything for the people.

Another recent victory from the EU’s standpoint is a massive trial of fourteen hooligans who murdered a Frenchman at a football game last year. The trial lasted nine months which was the fastest trial in the history of Serbia’s courts. Between the fourteen men, 240 years of imprisonment were ordered, the leaders of the group receiving 35 and the others receiving between 15 and 20. Before this trial eight years was the strongest sentence a hooligan had received, even for murder. The EU’s biggest complaint with Serbia was the court system and the government mightily pushed this case forward to prove that Serbia can hold a quick and fair trial.

Ceca ended our discussion mentioning saying Serbia's been in a state of crisis for as long as Serbs can remember. Then the world financial crisis struck as the Democratic party took up power in Serbia which created more pandemonium and made it more difficult for them to produce evidence of public-pleasing change. In fact the last time Serbs seem to remember a state with less chaos was under Tito's communism.

Some other suspect happenings in the news of late: The Minister of Health who held his office for eight years, the longest of any current Ministers, resigned last week without an explanation. To bolster hope for the Serbian medical system, President Tadic flew in a Finish doctor to get his Achilles tendon repaired and the Minister of Health himself went to Germany to have a surgery. Another minister, who also served Milosevic, recently stated 120 kilometers of a train from Hungary to Greece running through Serbia would be completed in three months but in the past six years only 50 kilometers have been laid down. For the Serbs it’s simply another lie on a string of deception coming from a government they don’t trust.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Taste buds are a-changin'

Goodness ever since I wrote about cravings I've been struck by food thoughts. Yesterday Jill came over and brought two packages of this cake/cookie called 'zebra cakes' that she'd received in a package from America. I'd never heard of nor tasted it but she raved about them so I was eager to take a bite out of American consumerism. And you know what? They didn't taste good to me. Why? Because they were too sweet! I couldn't believe it. I haven't had packaged sweets for months now and so this artificial round cake topped and filled with icing didn't appeal to me whatsoever. I've had so so many Serbian baked goods, chocolates, pastries, and also desserts from neighboring countries like Turkish baklava and Bosnian tufahije (poached apples). It's hard to tell what's Serbian and what's been influenced by other countries in Eastern Europe since it was once all Yugoslavia but basically all slatkise (sweets) I've had here vary significantly to those offered in the states. My absolute favorites are the domaci sitni kolaci (literally mini domestic cakes). They are laid out on platters at all celebrations and are an assortment of walnut, hazelnut, almond, dark-milk-white chocolate, vanilla, fruit, coconut, wafer, cream concoctions.

As you can see these are absolutely mouth-watering and my friends and I always wind up huddling around these trays and sampling each one. My favorites are called bajadera. They're the dark brown one with white swirls in the middle. The bottom layer is chocolate, the middle an almond-hazelnut, and the top is a thin layer of hard chocolate. So so so ono (hawaiian word for delicious)!

The point of all this was to show you that it's not as if I'm withdrawn from sugar, but rather it's not processed and wrapped in plastic. The difference between the zebra cake I ate and the lovely sitni kolaci is astounding and I think it will take me some time to get used to living with America's food production.

Also I didn't mention this in the first of these three posts about food but toasters and microwaves are basically foreign to the Balkans. The kitchens I've seen are equipped with ovens, stoves and sinks but no convenient methods for reheating or toasting. My teacher in Novi Sad was shocked that we used microwaves because she swears they're bad for your health. Are they? I remember being told not to stare into the microwave which is exactly what you want to do when your waiting but I don't remember them bearing diseases. They also don't have toaster ovens which is why I said I miss toast. What I wouldn't give for a toasted strawberry or cinnamon-raisin bagel and some peanut butter or cream cheese. What a classic American thing to say. I always would see that as a common breakfast in tv shows and movies and I didn't think anything of it but I remember my host family in Novi Sad asked me what some character was eating in an episode of Friends and after explaining the bagel/cream cheese concept to them I asked what they thought it was and they said a sliced krofna (similar to a donut) with pavlaka (sour cream)! That was a funny culture collision.

Another jumbled post, I apologize. Overall I intended to express minor disdain for America's processed foods and some other slightly-related thoughts came into my mind while writing and I never like to stifle thoughts so I included them.