Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Alone, not lonely

Today I was given a gift. It came in the form of visnja pita (tart cherry pie). After I had asked for but before I had been given the receipt at a kafana (Serbian tavern), the manager placed this tasty treat in front of me and said, “Opet si ovde” (you’re here again). Simply by showing solidarity to this family-run kafana I received a treat. Taken aback by this kind gesture, I cut into the decadent dessert and thought about how lucky I was in that very moment. Eating alone, as I often do here, I am left to reflect and observe others during meals instead of converse, which is surprisingly meditative and refreshing. Before leaving the kafana I told him that I would bring my parents soon when they visit Belgrade. “Divno” (wonderful), he said. “Vidimo se” (see you again), we exchanged.

This instance of uncommon kindness fills me up like a cup of tea poured to the lip. These exchanges, though brief and uninvolved, add just enough human interaction to my otherwise mostly solitary existence in Belgrade. Recently I’ve been asked some iteration of “How are you?” by a number of caring friends back in the states who are curious about their friend who chose to spend yet another year far from everyone she loves most. “I’m alone, but not lonely,” I’ve found myself writing. One friend seemed concerned by this response, so I’m partially writing this to soothe her worried soul, but mostly to expound on some perks of solitude.

It seems to me that we can only find ourselves – if such a task is possible – by detaching ourselves from the external stimuli that determine so much of our lives so much of the time. I realize that “finding oneself” is a flawed phrase since we are ever-evolving beings, so to clarify I mean being in touch with who one is right now, feeling in control of one’s thoughts and actions, and living purposefully in the present. Far easier typed than done.

Though I’ve only been here for only twelve days, I feel more directed in this search for me than I have in a long while. In fact, the last time I felt this way was last summer in Japan, and the time before that was also in Serbia during Bridge Year. During each of these experiences I had the opportunity to ground myself in a new place, and I had time, glorious time, to breathe, to get lost, to wander, to read, to write, to create that self-contained world. Stillness, a serene solitude, let me open and close each day having felt like I was fully immersed in it. Rarely did virtual spaces or far-off lands receive my attention. This remains the case in Belgrade save the half and hour or so I spend reading English news online each day (and more and more my attention has been drawn to the refugee crisis which isn’t so far-off). The kind kafana manager, elderly lady with whom I ride the lift, the library clerk who leads me to the English section, the baker who sells me my favorite cheese pastry, the stray dogs who follow me hoping for cheese pastry crumbs, these are the people (and pups) to whom my attention has been devoted today. And these interactions, like the one involving cherry pie, are pure, they are unencumbered, they are here and now.

Each is fleeting, but in itself, it is enough. Each is a spring that knows no summer, fall, or winter will follow. Each is like the first moment in a friendship when two people fall into their own self-enclosed world without the weight of the actual world. Naturally, none is lasting.

These are only moments, and, as Sondheim wisely wrote, “If life were only moments, then you’d never know you had one.” When you only interact with someone as you mutually smile, noticing the other noticing you while you both wait to cross the street, you never leave that placid purity. It’s as if these moments just hang in space like a seagull suspended in the air. And the trouble is you never want to leave them. You want the bud before it blooms and bears fruit because the bud is immaculate and full of every possibility whereas the fruit may ripen but it also may rot.

The desire to hold onto a perpetual spring is valid, but summer will inevitably follow. The world is ever-changing; if you can count on anything it’s life’s impermanence. These moments are as limited and exclusive as they are pure and effortless. Just beyond them waits the world, and though its weight may complicate, it also strengthens, extends, and enriches these moments by turning continued connections into relationships and families.

When the world buzzes around you like a pesky bee trying to pollinate a weatherworn flower, you crave that solitary stillness. Those simple exchanges, be they glances or gifts, leave you feeling full and aware of your present gratitude. But the duration of a moment doesn’t invalidate its importance. I’m reminded of a line from T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: “And what is actual is actual only for one time / And only for one place.” Our lives are the accumulation of “actuals”, of moments that refresh the spirit and refurbish the soul. In these moments, we lose and, paradoxically, find ourselves.

Walking back home from the kafana, I passed a woman with a bag that read: “Tvoj život je sada. Tvoj život je ovde.” (Your life is now. Your life is here.) Reading this felt like my burgeoning reflections echoed back at me, and in Serbian no less! Whether we are together or alone, we can augment these nourishing moments by remembering that our lives are not happening elsewhere.

As fulfilling as alone-time can be, loneliness is no fun and it often disengages us from our here and now. Fortunately I haven’t felt lonely since I arrived, thanks to these moments, and I certainly won’t be feeling lonely for the next nine days because my parents are visiting! This is particularly special because they’ve never been to the Balkans so I get to introduce them beginning tomorrow in Subotica, a town near the Hungarian border. I haven’t been taking many photos so far, but as I tour them around I’ll be sure to bring my camera and post some shots of the places we visit. For now I’ll just close this unusually introspective post with this blossoming beauty outside my apartment building:

Monday, September 28, 2015


Belgrade’s International Theatre Festival (BITEF) fortuitously coincided with my first full week here, which meant that every day last week was spent at a theatre and/or cinema. I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to this new home. Not only did it give me a chance to scope out the major theatres, it led me to meet actors, writers, producers, and directors from Belgrade to Brussels to Berlin.  In the beginning of these conversations, people inevitably asked some variation of “What are you doing here?” This forced me to practice explaining my project both in English and Serbian and to hear initial feedback from European theatre-artists who are much closer to this issue than people I’ve spoken with about it in the states. And, owing to the current crisis, how/when/if to accept and integrate migrants are questions on everyone’s minds. These conversations led me to realize the exemplarity of the state of the European migrant right now. It is undeniably a unique time is to be at the center of it all, and I think my project should capture elements of this unusual, if unfortunate, situation.

Back to Bitef. As one of oldest theatre festivals in Europe and the foremost theatre festival in the Balkans, Bitef brings in theatre companies from across Europe, and international audiences follow. The shows I attended came from the Croatian National Theatre, Amsterdam’s DasArts, Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater, and Moscow’s Gogol Centre. The films included Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring and Café Müeller, and a documentary about the elderly community in Croatia. I was delighted by the wide range of selection and I was lucky to have snatched some of the last tickets left for most of the stage shows. The absolute best production, in my mind, was devised by Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater and entitled Common Ground. I first learned about this production when I visited Berlin in June, but unfortunately my itinerary didn’t overlap with the performances. Needless to say I was thrilled when I realized the company brought it to Belgrade.

As the title suggests, the show explores the common ground among former Yugoslavians. The ensemble was comprised of seven actors whose lives were directly impacted by the Yugoslav Wars of the ‘90s all of whom ended up in Berlin. As the actors explained in a talk-back, this devised piece took many months, many arguments, and many tears to create since, while scripted, the actors told their own incredibly personal narratives. And because the ‘90s was such a confusing, absurd, and violent decade in the Balkans, the actors remember opposing truths on which they would swear their lives.

I felt fortunate to see this particular production because it was the company’s first time performing it in the area of the world that motivated it all. After opening in Berlin and touring to France, the company brought it to the Balkans. During the talk-back, one of the actors tried to describe the difference between this performance and the previous ones on an emotional level and an intellectual level. Emotionally, many actors claimed to feel more deeply all of the typical emotions that come out in the course of the show, including sorrow, guilt, shame, and confusion. Intellectually, the actor pointed out this show’s intention was finally realized; it attempts to capture artistically the hurt and absurdity they felt rather than explain it. The audience I was part of did not register the play as a history lesson, as it was received elsewhere. Instead, this Belgradian audience saw it as an interpretation of what they knew all too well.

The Yugoslav Wars were central to most everyone’s collective memory in that audience. This production demonstrated how we all see war through our own personal story, which creates several truths. As one of the characters says in the play, the war never left; it moved from the streets to their heads. This performance clarified so much for me, someone who only knows about the wars mostly from anecdotes written decades after. Representing all parties involved in the Yugoslav wars, the actors were united in tragedy and divided by "truth."

In one particularly moving moment, a woman stormed off-stage after she and her friend had an argument about their contrary accounts of the wars. Wracked with equal parts guilt, confusion, and frustration the friend asked the audience, “Was I wrong?” No, she wasn’t. And neither was her friend, the scene implied. The Yugoslav Wars were as chaotic and absurd from the inside as they were from the outside. Layered with nostalgia for Tito and ex-Yugoslavia, the collective memory of those wars continues to impact the lives, thoughts, and hopes of people in the Balkans.

Production photos from Common Ground

This play brought out a rich assortment of emotions that had been simmering for more than a decade in both the audience and the actors. This weekend it is playing in Sarajevo, so I suspect as many if not more emotions will surge through the seats in that theatre.

Bitef, founded in 1967 during Yugoslavia’s heyday, brings former Yugoslavians to the theatre to confront their continued political strife amenably (for the most part) on the stage. The theatre companies that produced shows at the festival recognized the need for catharsis to relieve the audience of the burden and tension that would build over the course of a production. Talk-backs after each show provided an outlet for audiences to air their grievances. If you’ve met people from the Balkans, you know that they are – generally speaking – not afraid to speak their mind. Both strong and strong-willed, audience members made these talk-backs the most contentious I’d ever witnessed, which was brilliant! Theatre incited visceral responses, sparked dialogue, and – after much discussion – led some people to appreciate their differences! Huzzah! These reminded me of the importance of incorporating catharsis and reflection in plays especially when dealing with controversial topics as I will be doing in my project. Now that I know more about Belgrade’s theatre scene, I look forward to being an active spectator and, eventually, a participant!

Friday, September 25, 2015

The refugee crisis: recent facts and initial feelings

The governments of Croatia and Serbia have been slinging insults at each other in the midst of the refugee crisis. Demonstrating how easy it is to pick the scab off old wounds, these neighbors have begun blaming each other for what is happening.

Last week Hungary sealed its border with Serbia, prompting Croatia to broadcast a warm welcome to those who wanted to enter a different EU member state. Then, predictably, Croatia was overwhelmed by the number of migrants and shut down all but one of its border crossings with Serbia. Croatia’s foreign minister accused Serbia of making a deal with Hungary to send migrants towards Croatia when more than 40,000 refugees entered Croatia from Serbia. On Wednesday night, Croatia responded by closing the border with Serbia and banning Serbian citizens from entering the country. Serbia's Prime Minister claimed that Croatia waged “economic aggression against Serbia,” and Serbia’s foreign minister compared Croatia’s actions to those of the fascist movement that ruled Croatia during WWII.

Now Croatia is sending those it cannot accept to Hungary – a record high of 10,000 arrived on Wednesday – which will likely lead Hungary to seal its border with Croatia. Hungary has laid razor-wire barriers along its border with Serbia and along part of the border with Croatia, and now it has begun building a barrier on its border with Slovenia. Though Croatia is part of the EU, it is not within the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone, but Slovenia is, making this new barrier the first obstruction within the Schengen zone.

Many of these refugees would have been ordinarily celebrating the major Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, with their families and communities this week. I wonder how they celebrated this year, if there was any time or energy to spare. Yesterday the EU decided to give $1 billion to countries overwhelmed by refugees. That’s something worth celebrating.

With each passing day, more and more refugees make their way on this treacherous path. 500,000 refugees have entered Europe. An estimated 4 million refugees are camped on Syria’s borders. There is no end in sight, and yet there is no sign of them in Belgrade or in Budapest when I was there a week and a half ago.

I guess that’s to be expected as these capitals are not on the borders of their respective countries. However, it is strange and unsettling to me that all of this chaos is just two hundred kilometers north of me yet I have no sense of it except through what I learn in conversations with my hosts and the American and Serbian media. The entire city of Belgrade appears unfazed; the refugees aren’t trying to stay here, Serbia is merely a layover for them, and the Serbians I’ve spoken to don’t feel invested in the situation.

While it's true that great suffering has always existed somewhere and those not directly involved find it difficult to fathom, this situation is different for me. I have never lived so geographically close to such a continuously devastating scene, and it's developing in me a need to act, rather than a desire that has motivated previous social activism work. Some of the Roma-sympathetic NGOs with which I will be meeting and working have launched initiatives to gather supplies for the refugees and find places to house them, and I plan to get involved in these and other projects. It’s just a start, and I fear an insufficient one, but it might begin to dissolve the two hundred kilometers that render this crisis unfathomable.