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.