Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ja sam Pipi Duga Čarapa

Yesterday I woke up with a fever for the second time this year and also in the past three weeks. I swear I've been keeping hydrated and eating healthily but whatever bug I caught around mid-February hadn't quite bit the dust and reemerged with all its grotesque glory on the second of March. For the past two weeks an ugly cough persisted which I suppose should have been evidence enough to prove it was in for the long haul.

Winter hasn't left us yet in Serbia, in fact there's a few inches of fresh snow on the rooftops below my homestay, and so we haven't been provided optimum conditions for recovery. I say 'we' because another member of my group has been intermittently unwell since late December. In Novi Sad we all had bouts of runny noses and coughing but there's been a tremendous amount of tissue-usage by our group in Nis, more than there ever was in Novi Sad. I'm fairly certain that my teaching the Roma kids is what's done it for me. In the baby class which I meet with the most there is always at least three coughers or sneezers and usually one or two of the older kids are fighting their own internal battle with bacteria. They climb on me, we share pencils, pens, and chalk, we high-five, it's easy to see how germs can be spread. But I can't stop teaching them to allow myself time to recover, I mean I can and I will if I'm contagious, but already today I feel nearly normal and in just 10 days time we'll be leaving for our Macedonia excursion and we'll be gone for seven days which means my kids will miss out on a whole week of English exposure. Teachers must have impenetrable immune systems.

Those past two paragraphs set up the story which elucidate the bizarre title. (*Requires some knowledge of Pippi Longstocking)

I was never Pippi Longstocking for Halloween, my friend Megan was once and I dressed up as a dog. Not a cutesy dog with headband ears and face-paint but full-body, wooly-coated, giant Shih Tzu. To add some flavor I accessorized with red sunglasses and a ruby-sequined faux mic to create the rockstar breed, it's what all the cool kids were doing in 2001. I was nine and in my defense I think Pippi would have been a lot more likely to sport the bold dog ensemble than the dainty Oshkosh overalls and non-perpendicular braids which Megan adorned. Pippi didn't play much of a role in my upbringing; I preferred the American Girl series to any of her tales of riding into town on a horse. There was an episode of one of my favorite television shows "Gilmore Girls" in which the protagonists sing along to her theme song and because of this reference by my favorite characters I gained respect for Pippi. Still we were at odds since I hadn't invested any time watching her various remakes or reading her stories. Until yesterday.

Feeling sick stinks wherever you are, being sick in a foreign country is no more glamorous and in fact it's significantly less so because you can count the number of people in your direct support group on your toes. Draginja, my host mom, has been a mom for thirty years and a doctor for more than that so she has the sick child routine down to a tee, and, as a matter of fact, it includes a lot of tea. It also includes wrapping scarves around your head, drinking Tahitian Noni, and watching Pippi Longstocking.

Two weeks ago we didn't get to this last requisite because I insisted on sleeping through the days and she didn't want to suggest something seemingly inane while my temperature was unabating. This time, however, she related that her favorite part of having a child home sick was watching a movie about a girl who had a killer immune system and as I didn't want her to miss out on the fun I agreed to watch it with her. From the opening scene of a girl and her horse and the familiar "freckles on her nose doodleloodle" tune I determined chimerical Pippi Longstocking was my host mom's choice get better flick. The next ninety minutes were spent absorbing the madness that manifests combining Pippi and surrealism and Serbian subtitles only contributed to the mix.

About an hour through the film Draginja suspiciously surveyed my hair and asked "hoces da igledas kao Pipi?" (want to look like Pipi). She insisted that my hair is prirodna i duga (natural and long) like Pippi's so as Pippi and her pals pilot a hot-air balloon my hair was being divided in six. She didn't go as far as to make the braids perpendicular to my scalp but my 'natural,' uncombed hair added Pippi's necessary scruff and Draginja beamed with pride when the finishing touches were complete. As the film continued I developed my own sense of pride for resembling this girl, even if only in the most miniscule and superficial sense. I mean she's become a homeowner before puberty, she can convince people to give her things in exchange for her fruitless gold coin currency, she has a pet monkey, horse, and a friend named Annika (quite a cool name), her smile never fades, she makes friends with everyone she meets, she has to and manages to take care of herself since her parents aren't around, and come on she can lift a horse! Obviously there's an element of fiction in, well, this fictional film but when you're sick she does the trick to empower you into wanting to get better so you can attempt to carry the next stallion that canters by.

I'll admit initially I was a doubter; I doubted the ability of a crazed adolescent to heal my swollen lymph nodes. Never again. I'll admit this is no great film, hardly a cult classic, but it's fun! She didn't heal my sore throat per se but she made me forget about it and distraction is often the best thing when you're under the weather. For the rest of the afternoon I gladly wore my pigtails and Draginja noted that Pippi worked on me just like it did on her daughters when they were home sick. "Ona je nešto posebno," (she is something special) she murmured while playing with my hair. When Miki, my host father, came home from work he stumbled into me and Draginja mid-Pippi theme song, took off his coat, and joined right in. None of us knew the proper words, they warbled oddly translated Serbian lyrics and I knew tidbits of the equally strange English song, but we had fun with it adding a couple of dance steps and finding common ground in a story that has no cultural barrier. This film holds a special place in their family, and Miki who enjoys using short English phrases proclaimed, "She worked you" to which I replied, "Pippi uvek radi!" (Pippi always works). Just then he noticed my braids and declared, "Ti si Pipi Duga Čarapa" (you are Pippi Long Socks--direct translation). "Ja sam Pipi Duga Čarapa," I asserted.

If only for that moment, that hour, that day, I was emboldened by a fictional character who made no distinctions between people and who plays a great influence on all the members of the Manic clan of Serbia. I might not have been Pippi Longstocking for Halloween, I never really took the Halloween role seriously anyway, but I felt like Pippi yesterday or at least I felt inspired to feel better thanks to her. The pills Draginja gave me might perhaps have played a part in that as well but I'd like to attribute as much as I can to Pippi. As her song says, "she's quite a girl'.

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