Saturday, April 30, 2011

Glimpses of traditional Serbian culture

The differences between the cities and villages in Serbia is quite astonishing, but beautifully so. Most people in the villages appreciate life at a slower pace, are more strictly religious, rely on agriculture for an income, and live in chosen simpler fashion. Nis, Novi Sad, and Belgrade are the main industrial centers of Serbia. Towns, villages, and countryside make up the rest of Serbia's composition so many people still partially live in this traditional style. However this number is dwindling and people are deserting villages and moving to the cities for education and employment opportunities though they are often disappointed with what they find because in the terms of jobs because the unemployment rate is 20% and on the rise. But now onto customary Serbia...

My Novi Sad host grandparents who lived in a farmhouse in Čerević raised their own animals for food and profit: a goat, cow, and a few chickens. This is still very common in villages in Serbia and it mirrors the traditional way of living.

This guy was our tour guide for the museum about traditional Serbia and Romuliana and when we showed an interest in a certain flute on display, he came out with a similar one and began tooting away.

Kitchen set-up

Jewelry of the affluent



Southern Serbian traditional garments with Turkish influence

Often waiters and waitresses at kafanas will be dressed in traditional garments. This Belgrade kafana, which our group fondly refers to as "red roof" because of its, well, red roof, serves delicious food with a traditional interior and exterior.

Earthenware! This was taken in Macedonia. These clay pots for cooking and serving food are found throughout the Balkans.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

So many posts! An explanation

Dobro jutro ~ good morning! I got an email commenting on the number of entries recently posted so I thought I'd briefly explain why I'm doing so. For fifteen days in May while were in Montenegro we will not have internet. Then for the following eight days in Croatia I'm not sure what our living situation will be. We'll have internet and I'll definitely post stories and pictures from Croatia and Montenegro but I wanted to use my last couple of weeks with internet in Serbia compensating for those two weeks and maybe more that there'll be no posts whatsoever. If you're interested, during that time you can look to entries that you perhaps missed during this posting spree. Plus I have a list of "to posts" that I've accumulated through the year and I want to finish that list off before May 8th when we leave for Montenegro.

Today my service placement organized an intercultural day in a village in central Serbia with the youth from our organization and around Serbia. Since I know the youth who volunteer at this organization are kind and open-minded and the workshops and activities are all planned around intercultural sensitivity and exposure, I suggested that we include some of my oldest Roma students from the settlement in Nis. Otvoreni Klub (service placement) liked this idea so ten of my oldest students age fifteen to eighteen are joining us and I'm really excited to hang out with them outside of the classroom. I'll let you know how it goes!

Prijatan dan ~ have a good day!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Serbian phrases, expressions, and oddities

Maybe they're not as entertaining as idioms, but they are more frequent and useful in everyday speech.

Nema problema = no problem, the assonance of this phrase makes it one of my favorites
Nemam pojma = I have no idea

Side: perhaps you noticed that neither of these has a subject, in fact unless used for emphasis pronouns aren't included so you must listen to the verb ending to know who the speaker is referring to. Another Serbian-English difference shown in the first example is that there are no articles in Serbian. Hasn't problem would be the direct translation of this one. This is the most common mistake of Serbians who speak English because they leave out "a" or "the."

Izvoli/Izvolite = literally: here you are, but it's also what vendors say when you approach any shop or food stand, what a host says as they welcome you into their home, what people say to formally answer the phone, and what waiters say as they begin to take your order. The first is informal and the te is formal and plural.

Prijatno = enjoy. This is always said before a meal and whenever you see someone else eating, whether you know the person or not. The first thing our group thought of as a translation was bon appetit, hardly English. It's a pity we don't have a natural, exercised expression for "enjoy your meal." The meal is more enjoyable when a stranger casually blesses it for you. Prijatno is also use when you leave a shop, stand or restaurant, when guests leave your house, and when you leave to go out.

Sve najbolje = all the best, this is said all year but especially on New Years

Kako/što da ne = literal: how/why yes no. Basically it's used as a sarcastic, "duh" sort of remark. Apparently "how yes no" is a Spanish expression as well. The two languages are vastly different so it's interesting that identical expressions have emerged through time. The usage of kako (how) is also interesting. When we would normally use "what" in English, Serbian uses kako. If you don't hear something properly: kako?. If you don't agree with what you hear: kako?!. This is true for French as well (comment) so I have a feeling English is the oddity.

Bre = *exaggeration,* used only in Southern Serbia but used a lot a lot. People will just throw it into sentences to stress their point. It's basically hyperbole in a word.

Lele = *gasp* or "oh dear", another only Southern expression. If you drop something: lele. If you're late: lele. My favorite part about this expression is the variation in how it's said. Some will draw out each syllable (le pronounced lay), others will make it short and quick. Timbre varies as well.

Overi ga tebra = stamp it, brother. Another colloquial phrase that's used more in the south than north. It's accompanied with a fist pound so it's the equivalent to the English slang "pound it." The second part of this phrase is equally interesting. Tebra is the inverse brate which means brother, but in slang people use the former more than the latter and brother isn't literal, it just refers to a pal.

Gde si? = literally: where are you, in our vernacular it would be "what's up"

Merak nema cenu = merak is the ultimate, irrepressible, bona fide, undisputed desire of an individual. It can be a material item that you must possess, a person that you must have, or an activity that you must do no matter the cost, which is the rest of the phrase. Merak has no price. All Serbs know and live by this concept of merak and if you introduce something as your merak it remains unquestioned because it's a desire that you know when you have it and it needs no explanation. Even if it sounds completely insane as long as you mention merak it's clear to all. My host sister, Milena, explained this concept and she said that her merak happened (that's what she said: happened, like it's takes place as you grow up) when she was 17. She and her father were walking along a boardwalk in Macedonia and she saw people bungee jumping for the first time and told her father she had to do it. When she found out how expensive it was she started to doubt whether her dad would pay for it but he told her, "Merak nema cenu" and she merrily jumped away. She tried to connect my first time skiing with merak because I have wanted to ski since I was nine but never had the chance. Though I truly did want to ski I'm not sure if I can relate to the almost compulsive nature of merak. Still it's a fascinating concept and I've heard people bring it up in conversation after which any doubts seemingly fade from the minds of those not experiencing the merak because they know and maybe have experienced the power behind it.

Verovatno = probably
Neverovatno = incredible
The reason for including these two is that just earlier this month I found out that I had been using neverovatno wrong for months as I thought it meant probably not, which is actually verovatno ne. Since the people know that I'm a foreigner I hope they understood my mix up and didn't actually think I was dubiously uttering "incredible."

Another peculiarity is that there are different words for Aunt and Uncle depending on your relation to them:
Father's brother and his wife -- stric & strina
Mother's brother and his wife -- ujak & ujna
Mother/father's sister and her husband -- tetka & teča
Ironically, even with all these distinctions there is no word for cousin, they are simply referred to as siblings: sestra i brat (sister and brother). This caused confusion in Novi Sad when my little host sister told me all about her three sisters and two brothers. I thought she was going through an imaginary friend stage.

Hopefully this look into Serbian language is interesting. Sve najbolje!

Serbian Idioms!

Do I need to explain? Idioms are such an interesting way to look into a culture or at least a language and often they're entertaining to non-native speakers, so here are a bunch of Serbian idioms:

Poznavati nešto kao svoj dzep -- to know something like your pocket = back of your hand
Zaprziti čorbu -- thicken the stew = stir the pot, mess in business not your own
Izmisliti toplu vodu -- reinvent hot water = don't or you cannot reinvent the wheel
Progledati nekome kroz prste --to look at someone through fingers = turn a blind eye
S neba pa u rebra -- from sky to ribs = out of the blue/suddenly
Propasti u zemlju -- fall into the earth = fall off the face of the earth
Mlad i zelen -- young and green = inexperienced
Bled kao krpa -- pale as a rag = white as a ghost
Nisam ja od juče -- I'm not from yesterday = I wasn't born yesterday
Nisam pao s kruške -- I didn't fall from a pear tree, same as previous
Dok trepneš okom -- in the blink of an eye
Dok kazeš piksla/keks -- until you (before you can) say ashtray/biscuits, same as previous
Ugasiti -- turn off the light = you're finished
Nosom para oblake -- one rips the clouds with one's nose = he/she is conceited
Zategnuti kaiš -- tighten one's belt
Španska sela -- Spanish village = indicates ignorance or obscurity, it's all Greek to me
Kad na vrbi rodi grožđe -- when grapes grow on willows, when pigs fly
Ravno do Kosova -- flat/equal as Kosovo = something that doesn't or no longer concerns you, getting a little political here...
Baciti se na knigu -- throw oneself on books = need to study
Zagrejati stolicu -- warm one's seat, same as the previous *I especially like this one, both parents and teachers use this to tell students to study
Visiti o koncu -- hanging by a thread
Pasti s nogu -- fall off one's legs = there's so much to do
Biti jednom nogom u grobu -- have one leg in the grave = foot for leg
U četiri oko -- in four eyes = in confidence, only you and I

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter weekend part two

My host mom works in the emergency center of the hospital in Nis and she was required to work on Easter. My host dad, quite the zealous outdoors-man, decided that it was time for me to come with him kroz planine (through the mountain). I've hiked many times in Hawaii but in the past when my host dad left for what he refers to as planinarenje (mountain climbing--not hiking mind you, mountain climbing), he wouldn't return until dark so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

On Easter Sunday at 8:30am we headed out with his brother and a friend to a mountain about 30 minutes from Nis then the path got fun and bumpy as we charged up this mountain in a tiny Yugo (a common car around Serbia) for another 20 minutes. Finally we disembarked and set off kroz planine.

My host dad, his brother, and their friend are all a few decades older than me but their slightly puerile sense of humor and agility kept me very entertained and challenged the entire hike. They have a handshake and matching hiking caps and sticks, and at least twice a month they take to the mountain together, even in the winter.

My host dad said after he saw me fair well on Kopaonik, he wanted to take me on his favorite trail that provides a great view of Serbia by winding through four mountains. As we were just starting out he warned that my legs would most likely feel limp the next day. It's been a day and a half and so far my legs seem to be holding up splendidly but during the hike there was one moment of doubt when we were literally trekking up a narrow path on the peak of one mountain, forceful winds badgering the balance and steep cliffs on either side messing with the mind. However I really enjoyed every other moment, even when we faced that same narrow stretch going down.

The trail was 17 kilometers (around 10 miles), from the first mountain to the peak of the fourth and back. After three hours of hiking and water breaks we reached the peak we took a super long break for lunch.

Since it was Easter we all brought dyed eggs and we played an egg-cracking game where you try to crack someone else's egg by hitting it against your own while saying "koots koots," the Serbian interpretation of the sound a hen makes.

Somehow through our good conversation, relaxation, and fire-making and sustaining, nearly three hours went by. I'm still amazed at how quickly time deceived us. I'd never made a fire in the midst of a hike before because I never needed to, but it was pretty chilly especially with the wind so it was much appreciated during our extended break.

We gathered our things, put out the fire, and retraced our steps to embark on the second half of our hike. During this half my favorite part of the day came to pass.

On our way up we saw a cabin and we waved to a few people standing outside the house. On our way down we met them.

Initially I thought the hiking crew knew them since they've done this trail before but they were actually complete strangers. The beautiful part was that it didn't matter. We just walked up to them and introduced ourselves, and they insisted we come inside for some food and drinks. We were greeted by more people when we got inside and immediately conversation arose and the two groups were friends. More rounds of the "koots koots" game were played and we were offered everything on their table. In a typical Serbian way the offerers seemed slightly taken aback by refusal, continuing to offer more and more while conversing. My host dad taught us all the handshake he, his brother, and his friend often break out and it was quite amusing practicing this handshake with ten people who I'd just met. Unsurprisingly they were curious about what the Hawaii girl was doing in some little-known trail in Serbia, so I (hopefully) answered their questions and we discussed the differences between America, Serbia, and Europe. Again time performed some beguiling tricks and 45 minutes went by unnoticed. As we packed up again they loaded us with dyed eggs and sweets, and one woman gave me a handkerchief she'd embroidered that I had complimented.

While saying goodbye I was struck with how nice it was that people would just open their doors for passerbys on Easter, but my host dad corrected this thought explaining that it need not be Easter for this to occur. It's just people being trusting and friendly without reservation.

Unfortunately it was getting darker so we had to finish the last quarter of the trail and we sped right through it in half an hour.

My host mom had returned from work by the time we got back around 8pm and she surprised us with these delicious mini sandwich cakes that she makes. A wonderful way to end a wonderful day!

Easter weekend part one

Easter weekend my Serbian Orthodox family and most others means visiting relatives in villages, lighting candles for the health of loved ones and the peace of those deceased, attending Velik Petak (Good, literally big, Friday) service, rusticating in weekend houses, dyeing many eggs, and spending quality time with friends and family. It was a wonderful weekend mostly spent outside enjoying a warm spring in the 60s and 70s.

On Friday my host parents and I went to a Velik Petak service and lit candles. Aesthetically, the main difference between a Catholic or Protestant church and an Orthodox one is the decoration of icons (holy images). Icons adorn the walls of Orthodox churches with their name written in an ancient form of cyrillic. Each Orthodox family honors a saint and often in their homes they have an icon corner with a picture of their saint, Christ, and Mary. Another difference between the churches is that there are no pews in the Orthodox church so through all services people stand.

This church is located in my neighborhood, Trošarina. Even though it's just a ten minute bus ride to the city center, it really looks and feels like a suburb and a separate community from the rest of Niš.

Sokobanja i Aleksinac
On Saturday my host parents took me to a few of their favorite spots around Southern Serbia. They share a quaint weekend house with their extended family along Bovansko jezero (lake Bovan), a man-made lake situated between two Serbian towns Aleksinac and Sokobanja. First we walked through the center of Aleksinac and then we checked in on this house while, of course, relaxing with some tea and coffee.

On the road, some snapshots of Serbian countryside

This was the beginning of a field of yellow flowers, my favorite kind.

I've seen so much of Serbia this year through the program excursions and generous host families, and most of that has been from the seat of a bus, van, or car. It's been beautiful in fall, winter, and spring and a lot of times I look forward to visiting other parts of Serbia for the drive itself. Nearly all the drives through Serbia consist of seemingly endless countryside, mountain ranges, and untouched nature. Not that Serbia's land is especially desirable, but I wonder how long it will stay unindustrialized.

Bovansko jezero

Next we drove a bit further to another town called Sokobanja (direct translation: falcon's spa). I think the city center of Sokobanja is my favorite one yet. All towns and cities in Serbia and, if I'm not mistaken, the better part of Europe as well have city centers free from exhaust and automobiles where pedestrians rome freely. The favorable weather shed nice light on my opinion of this city center but I think regardless it would be a favorite. As we walked through I noticed again how Serbians in the south flock to the city center on weekends, opposed to those from the north who tend to stay inside or visit relatives in villages.

Turkish bath, the old and the new


After late-lunching at a kafana (typical Serbian tavern-like restaurant), we visited Sokograd, the fortress in Sokobanja. This fortress was stunning, and unlike most of the other fortresses I've seen which are located in cities, this one was in a forrest setting bordering a small town.

A little rhyme my host mom told me:
Sokobanja, Sokograd
Dođeš star, odeš mlad

The air in Sokobanja is supposed to be especially clean which justifies the second line's claim: come old, go young.

Twas a blissful two days and next I'll write about Easter Sunday!

Food, Glorious Food: Dessert

Happy belated Easter!
In reviewing posts from the past eight months I realized there's not a good overview of food and hardly any pictures so over the next couple of days I'll post whatever pictures I've taken on food starting with the best course of all: dessert!

Gomboce: plum filled dumpling coated in cinnamon sugar

Palacinka so so good
Palacinka, I've raved about these enough, probably I'll miss them the most

Domaci sitni kolaci, I have a post about these here

Best palacinka place, Don Pepe, across the street from where Jill lived in Novi Sad

Tulumbe: a fried or baked dough soaked overnight in a super sweet syrup. People disagree whether this is Serbian or Croatian so most just say "balkan"

Sladoled ice cream is back! One of the many perks of spring.

The best baklava in the world! Dukat in Belgrade. I always thought baklava was greek, not turkish, because the first time I had it was at a greek restaurant but people here set me straight.

Lednja pita, literally lazy pie, they have 'pies' here but they are not at all like ones in the States. They are, however, equally delicious. This one has pumpkin, I've had pita sa visnjom (cherry) and jabukom (apple) as well. And pita sa sirom (with cheese, savory not sweet) is always around in my homestay, when you got to a friends house, at every bakery.

Can't get enough of those palacinke! This is at a sit-down palacinka restaurant, a palacinkerie if you will, and it's a bit more elaborate than the over-the-counter joints but I actually prefer eating it out of a sleeve.

Tufahije: apples soaked in sugar (poached apples?) filled with candied walnuts and topped with cream

And on six occasions I've baked or attempted familiar sweets: 3 times chocolate chips cookies (twice they turned out great, this first time shown below, not so much), once a pumpkin pie, and 2 times some basic delicious butter cookies. There are plenty of sweets in Serbia but cookies aren't a thing here, neither are pies or brownies or caramel cuts or bread pudding or cupcakes or fudge. My mouth is watering BUT as the pictures above show there are a ton of delicious Serbian/Balkan desserts that will be missed when all those familiar treats are available in just a few weeks.

This is the dough for the failed cookies above. Though the cookies themselves weren't great, the dough was beyond amazing and so we decided to feast on that for comfort instead.

There's so much more that I haven't photographed so one day this week I'll go to a few bakeries and slatkise (confectioneries) and describe those wonders as well. Now I'm off to meet with my group members for a palacinka!

Friday, April 22, 2011


I touched on inat in the previous post but it's such an integral part of the culture here that I feel it deserves a deeper explanation.

Inat, pronounced ee-naught, is defined as malice, spite or grudge in my pocket dictionary, but it's more than that. Serbs have described it as the strongest and proudest defiance, stubbornness, and self-preservation -- sometimes at another's expense. Parents chastise their children for it but silently couple that with a bit of pride.

Looking at their history one can sort of trace its origins. Serbs constantly had to fight to defend their land, their beliefs, their religion, and their culture. Under the Ottoman empire Serbs were given the ultimatum of changing their religion or dying and many chose execution. Serbs alive today have also been through a lot. In the '90s they fought a cruel wars with Croatia and Bosnia, 12 years ago Serbia faced 24 days of NATO bombing raids, until 2001 they were ruled by a vicious dictator, and even today Serbs, Kosovars, Bosniaks, and Croats are being tried for ruthless war crimes against each other committed in the last two decades. Sometimes you need some inat and dark humor -- another Serbian coping mechanism -- to get up in the morning.

There's a Serbian saying nadam se da komšijina krava umire, I hope that the neighbor's cow dies. The neighbor is a fellow Serb, but the saying postulates that within the past 100 years his family wronged or offended your family and still today you hold the grudge against them.

Obviously this complicates the relationship Serbs have with their neighbors and any people or country which wronged them because Serbs will not be the first to forgive or forget at all. At the same time it holds the country together when the opposing force is another nation and every citizen has been wronged by it.

There are a few idioms and sayings that I've jotted down to share so this is just the first of such posts!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The hunger strike

Tomislav Nikolic, is the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party whom I previously wrote about in this politics post. Surprisingly enough he held true to his promise to protest again if the president –- a member of the Democratic Party -- did not announce early elections by mid-April. The next general elections are due in May of 2012, and the current president, Boris Tadic, and his crew have said they refuse to call early elections before Serbia receives EU candidate status, which is hoped to occur near the end of this year if all goes well.

When we were in the US Embassy in Belgrade, the officers voiced contentment with Tadic being in power and a democracy being tried. They were the first to say that Tadic hasn't held his promises with everything but apparently he's sufficiently cooperated with the EU and US and so I have a feeling that this refusal involves the inner-workings of the EU. If early elections come about from a people's revolt or submissive force then Serbia will be seen as an even less stable country which is not in the interest of their EU accession.

So what did Nikolic do exactly? He organized another rally on April 16th during which he declared he would go on a hunger and thirst strike until early elections were called. Can you imagine that? Absolutely no food or even water? After three days an IV was forced in him and his people accepted medical care on his behalf since he wasn't lucid enough to do so. After regaining strength and sanity, he announced yesterday from the hospital that he would end his thirst strike but continue his hunger strike.

It's been six days and his doctor has said he's lost more that 10 pounds. Hunger strikes have been tried before and they certainly show dedication but this seems to consort with insanity.

Why does he claim Serbia needs early elections? Because of the deepening economic crisis and widespread corruption in the current government. The thing is Nikolic is hardly some doe-eyed philanthropist looking to promote peace and democracy. In fact, in 2003 he ran for president as the SRS (Serbian Radical Party acronym) candidate, the nationalist, pro-Slobodan Milosevic (Serbian dictator of the '90s) party! The leader of the SRS before Nikolic, Vojislav Seselj, has been in the Hague awaiting trial for gruesome war crimes. Basically Nikolic comes from a party with an extremely bloodied past. Nikolic became the leader of the SRS and then resigned in 2008 to start the Progressive Party, but just because his connection to Milosevic and the Radical Party is now less obvious it doesn't mean that his ethics or political views have shifted.

When does he want elections to be held? December 18th. President Tadic has sited the end of the year as the time Serbia will become an EU candidate -- since 2003 it has been a 'potential candidate' -- and also at this time they will receive a date for the start of compulsory membership talks. Frankly early elections would complicate all of this making Serbia look weak and less attractive to the EU and it doesn't seem to bode well for Nikolic that his ideal date is in the midst of all these previously stated targets.

The majority of Serbia (and Eastern Europe) is Orthodox and they use the Julian calendar, as opposed to Western churches which use the Gregorian calendar. But once in a while Easter falls on the same day in both calendars and this year is one of those years so Easter for both is this Sunday. Because of its proximity, Nikolic has asked the public to "treat my strike as a fast." Then the Serbian Patriarch shot back on the 18th saying that food and water strikes were non-Christian and he told him to end it. The Serbian Parliament, President Tadic, and other political figures have also told him to end this strike so now it just seems sort of foolish and characteristic of the Serbian term, inat. This word has no direct translation but it is a very strong, spiteful stubbornness.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beginning of the end

Everything has turned into a countdown. I have 5 pages left in my Serbian composition book, 4 meetings at work during which the matters at hand happen after we leave, 3 classes teaching each age group, 2 Serbian lessons, 1 week until my bus pass expires.

When we left Novi Sad it didn't feel like an end, it felt like a new beginning. New families, new work, new city. We said goodbye but it wasn't a departure. It divided our 9 months in two, it was merely a continuation.

When we moved to Nis it didn't feel like a half-way point, it felt like a new nine months. New discoveries, new growth, new understandings. Now we're saying goodbye and it is a departure this time.

In two and a half weeks we leave Serbia. Returns will no doubt be in our future –- Serbia is a home, it witnessed transformations -- but we won't ever return as a group or return extensively or with the same purpose. It's not as though I'd like to repeat everything that happened this year; I'm so grateful with what I've learned and how I got to learn it in fact I'd more than adamantly recommend the 'gap year' to everyone, but I don't fancy the idea of being away from friends and family for nine months straight any time soon and frankly I'm really excited for Princeton. But leaving is scary. Moving back is daunting. Saying goodbye is inconceivable.

And yet it must be conceived, in just two and a half weeks. At least our first set of goodbyes.

The Bridge Year Program isn't over in 18 days, it continues until May 31st. We leave Nis in 18 days, on May 8th. The following 15 days we will live in camps, repairing roads, trails, and houses on a mountain and by the sea in Montenegro. And for our absolute final 8 days we will be reflecting, remembering, musing, and relaxing in Split, Croatia.

Those twenty-some days sound absolutely wonderful. We get to be together as a group all the time, we get to explore two more countries, we get to physically challenge ourselves, and we get to reflect. But in just two and a half weeks I'm leaving my students, my work, my host family, my friends, Nis, Serbian language class, Ceasar palacinke, the taxi drivers who bet on driving the Hawaii girl, the 1-3-4-10-13 buses, the sweet woman who sells me fruit, so much more, and Serbia. That last one's the kicker, I'm leaving this country that in just seven months changed from a place I could barely locate to my home.

But May 8th is looming over us. It is no longer a cursory answer to feed the curiosity of the questioner. No, May 8th is a reality, a deadline, a real goodbye. May 8th is less than three weeks away.

I don't have a grand list of to-dos that are hanging over this departure. With the weather continuing to cooperate I'd like to spend as much time enjoying the Nisava river, the fortress, the city center, the hill above my homestay. I'd like to bake with my neighbor, laugh often with my host sister, have a few more teas and hot chocolates with friends, eat uncountable numbers of palacinke and kukuruzna sapica sa sirom (a cheese pastry that makes my taste buds dance), and stop by Pekara Brankovic (my favorite bakery) as much as possible. But really it's a matter of appreciating the two and a half weeks we have and I'll be sure to do that the best I can.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Serbian steps

I haven't talked about Serbian language in a while and since we have a test tomorrow it's been on my mind. Actually it's been on my mind in increasing increments since September. It's funny how a language works itself into your brain and thoughts. Still I haven't talked about Serbian in a while and so izvolite (here you are).

I came into this program with the mission of becoming functionally fluent in Serbian. For the first five months I had a daily routine of spending the hour after class reviewing notes and studying vocab. I've already mentioned how my incredible host family in Novi Sad took me all around Vojvodina (Northern Serbia), and they can account for the fact that the majority of our time on the road was spent testing and discussing vocabulary and grammar and other nuances in the Serbian language.

Come February I had developed relationships in my Nis family and work, nearly all of which had Serbian as our communication base, so I learned the truth to the common adage that talking and listening are the best ways to pick up a language. In the past I've viewed books as supreme educators but when I began relying on Serbian to communicate I stopped holding my notebook to the highest regard and realized that engaging in and beginning conversations at home and work actually yielded much more noticeable and practical results.

Now I definitely do not regret disciplining myself to learn the vocabulary and proper way of speaking during the first half of the program because a decent vocab does call for some memorization work and those hours definitely helped Serbian's confusing grammar to become more natural when I speak. I'm often a stickler for grammar in English so I wouldn't be as satisfied if I could speak in Serbian but only through thoroughly butchering the seven cases and three genders in the process. However I'm so glad that I've put myself in more out-of-the-classroom learning environments in Nis because I have indeed noticed improvements in what I can articulate and understand.

Oddly enough I felt the zenith of said improvements in March, and after returning to Nis following the two week of travel to Macedonia, Kopaonik, and Vranje I actually thought that my Serbian had gotten worse, or at least had stopped progressing. Even through the first couple of weeks in April I kept questioning why I hadn't been getting better. A few days ago at a family lunch I brought up this concern and my host family and their friends all started laughing. They were all struck by some serious bout of the giggles and nervously I joined in because I've learned that in a foreign country it's best to follow the laughter even if you didn't understand the joke. Finally when the laughs subsided my host mom turned to me and, while wiping away partially-formed tears, said, "In March you spoke like a foreigner but yesterday you told me and my friend a story in Serbian and she thought you were a Serb. You are doing just fine." My host mom was being very very generous but that definitely boosted my confidence in the Serbian skills I thought I'd lost. I suppose it's hard to detect personal progress but I have faith that as long as I keep talking and listening as much as possible my mission of functional fluency is attainable.

Felix Romuliana

Moving past my antipathy for the subject of my last post and onto something of natural beauty: Gamzigrad. What a neat word, with both a's pronounced long and a rolled r it's like gahmzeegrahd.

Our first Eastern Serbia day trip took us to Zaječar, a town with about 60,000 inhabitants 2 hours by car from Nis. Zec (pronounced zehtz) means bunny rabbit in Serbian, and in a dialect mixing Serbian and Bulgarian, Zaječar means the man who watches after the bunnies, so slatko (sweet)! I just imagine this old man with a colony of hoppin' hares in his backyard. Zaječar is the birth city of three Roman emporers: Galerius, Maximinus, and Licinius for you classics scholars.

Zaječar pedestrian zone

Galerius leads us back to that cool word, for Gamzigrad is the archaeological site where Emperor Galerius built his palace: Felix Romuliana. Gamzigrad is a 20 minute drive from Zaječar and though Zaječar is very quaint and not built up, the drive to and Gamzigrad itself were beautifully natural and uninterrupted by man. The landscape, view, peacefulness, and untouched nature of Gamzigrad are all magnificent, but the remains of Felix Romuliana, a huge Roman palace, are the cherries on top.

Galerius was one of the Roman Tetrarchs and he created Felix Romuliana, named after his mother, Romula. Built in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, it was one of the most important late Roman sites. Galerius built two mausoleums and consecrational monuments, one for himself and one for his mother, on a hill near the palace in the shape of tumuli, mounds of earth that looked like ant hills from far away. Before his death Galerius had been raised to the status of Augustus (the guy who established the Roman Empire) which already is a high standing but the expert who talked to us said that upon his death, Galerius had become a god because the consecrational monuments are connected with apotheosis, the symbolic elevation to godly status.

Romuliana was plundered by the Huns in the 5th century and became a settlement of farmers and craftsmen until the arrival of the Slavs in the 7th century. To date there have only been a few excavations and not a single reconstruction of the remains. Most of the original mosaics were taken to the museum about Romuliana in Zajecar that we visited before coming to the actual site. But those that weren't are currently being preserved by a layer of sand, by orders of UNESCO, which our guide wasn't so pleased about.

Relatively recently, in 1953, researches suspected that it was an imperial palace and not a military camp as previously thought, and in 1984 archaeologists discovered a mosaic which confirmed this hypothesis.

It's so neat that since this area has been preserved and sectioned off from development, this view is probably similar to the one all those Romans were looking at centuries ago!

Romuliana's recent claim to fame was being a 2007 cultural site addition to the UNESCO World Heritage list and boy does it deserve to be there!