Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Previously, I wrote about a car that went around one day announcing something over a loudspeaker. It so happens that that day was the first day after daylight saving time, and that we were supposed to turn our clocks back. I hazarded a guess that the announcement might have been a reminder to be sure our clocks were changed. In tonight's American Corner conversation group, I was informed that this was not the case. Thanks to one reader of this blog who was present at the conversation group, I learned that, as in the US, the beginning and end of daylight saving time are announced in Serbian TV and newspapers, but that cars with loudspeakers are usually used to advertise some political candidate or upcoming nightclub party.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Odds and ends from my last month of not blogging

  • As a foreigner in a place like Kragujevac, which has relatively few foreigners, it's amazingly easy to meet interesting people. Within the same week, we went out with one of my colleagues, who's on his way to becoming a professor of Slavic historical linguistics; a prominent American law professor/death penalty activist who's working to reform the Serbian court system and guest lecturing in about four law schools here; and the former Pakistani ambassador to Nigeria. This last guy is particularly interesting; he moved here with his wife, who is from here, so that their 2-year-old twins could be close to her family. As a result, he seems starved for English-speaking contact, so while the kids played with their Serbian nanny and his Macedonian cook prepared a Pakistani meal, he picked my brain about the US political scene.
  • One of the common questions I get from Serbians is "What do you think of our music?" Usually they're thinking of the turbo-folk music I wrote about last time, but I've been educating myself on Serbian music so I can tell them about what I do like. In addition to the folk music from the kafana, I've heard some Serbian techno and Gypsy brass music, both of which I like a lot. Plus, last night Meaghan and I went to a performance of traditional music and dancing. It was just what we couldn't find when we looked for flamenco in Seville: local people performing their own traditional music for each other, not for tourists. It was a series of ten or eleven troupes, some of which danced like wedding guests, while others did very athletic performances with spinning and leaping, and still others seemed to be reenacting fairy tales. The costumes were great; we especially liked the guys wearing hats that looked like shaggy sheep skins.
  • I heard a great joke from one of my students: An Englishman, a German, and a Serb are stranded on a desert island when a magic fish comes by and says to them, "I will grant each of you one wish." "OK," says the Englishman, "send me home to England." And he disappears. "And send me home to Germany," says the German. He, likewise, disappears. Some time passes. Then, the Serb says to the fish, "I'm bored - bring those two guys back here."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Student Q&A

I have more new classes starting soon, and in preparation I’ve been meeting a lot of Serbian college kids.  Here are a few of the questions they’ve asked me – this should give you some sense of what first interests them when they meet me.  I’m going to bypass some of the basics like “Why did you come here?” because I’ve dealt with them elsewhere, and move on to:

Have you been to any bars or clubs?

Yes, I’ve been to a few places.  I went to one bar that’s in the basement of a shopping mall, and a place called Caffe Club Casino that has a loud, dark, glittery, Jagermeistery Eurotrash feel to it, and a club called Vremeplov, or “Time Machine,” where they play techno versions of Serbian folk music and college kids get trashed.  My favorite kind of place, though, is a kafana or konoba with live music, good wine, and maybe a fireplace.  Meaghan wrote about one such place we visited in Novi Sad, and last week Andreja took us to Pevac, which is a few minutes’ drive out of Kragujevac.  I had a great time, drank about a whole bottle of wine, and pooped out at 2 AM while the rest of our party was still going strong.  I was in class at 8:30 the next morning, wondering if my students could guess why my voice sounded a little weak.

What do you think of our buses?

When I get this question, the asker usually looks as if they’re flinching in advance of violent criticism.  They’re inevitably surprised to hear that I find the buses comfortable and convenient.  I can get to Belgrade in two hours, the first buses run before 7 AM, and there are about twenty every day, so I just catch a ride to the station and buy a ticket on the spot.  A one-way ticket is about 400 dinars, or $6 US, very cheap by American standards.  (I don’t know if this is affordable for average Serbs, but I’m thinking of the four-hour ride from Boston to New York, which costs anywhere from $20 on the Fung Wah Chinatown express to $100 on Amtrak at peak times.  That’s 7000 dinars.)

My only problem on the bus is that a lot of the drivers play those techno versions of Serbian folk songs for everyone to hear over the radio.  This style of music, which is called “turbo-folk,” has a strong association to the Milosevic era: its lyrics deal exclusively with cheesy love stories, and the dictator supported it because it was so Serbian and so non-political.  Apparently, he didn’t mind that it sucks.  The techno beats are so intense that I’ll start unconsciously nodding my head in time to the music, and not realize it for ten minutes or more.

Have you traveled around the country at all?  What city do you prefer?

Yes, I’ve traveled out of Kragujevac to Belgrade and Novi Sad.  I thought Novi Sad was a great place to relax.  It has a long, wide pedestrian street with beautiful old buildings, where I could happily spend a day sitting and drinking coffee.  Belgrade is exciting, so busy and full of people.  Kragujevac, on the other hand, is where I live and where I can see the people I know, and my experiences with Serbian people have been great.  When I get to know people here, I feel that they really care about me.

(I was very proud of this most diplomatic answer.  Don’t worry – it’s all true.  It would be too hard to choose one city as my favorite.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

This has been a test of the emergency broadcast system

On Sunday morning, we were awakened by a guy driving around the neighborhood announcing something over a loudspeaker. Obviously, we had no idea what it was, although the thought occurred to us that it might be someone running for office. We assumed that we would have heard from the US Embassy if it was anything dangerous, so we rolled over and went back to sleep. Sunday was also the end of daylight saving time in Serbia, as in the US. We didn't know if it would change on the same day, but when we got up we checked our clocks against the TV, and they were off by one hour. Our guess is that the loudspeaker was a public service announcement to remind everyone to set their clocks back. I wonder who offers such a service. Given that we're living in a former Communist country, it's almost certain to be a government employee, but that doesn't stop us speculating. My favorite theory is that there's some guy in the neighborhood who always forgets to change his clock, and that the man with the loudspeaker was his boss. "Please be aware that daylight saving time is over, and you should set your clocks back an hour. Boris Jovanovic, this means you."

Friday, October 14, 2005

Football match, I mean soccer game

I know I promised to write all about the Bosnia-Serbia qualifier, but Meaghan did it first, and much better. I'll just say two things: A lot of the time, when I learn about something new in a foreign culture, I try to compare it to something I know already. The "Serbian very special Serbian style beans" that our landlady made us? They're just like Mexican refried beans (tasty though). Serbians sitting in a konoba listening to sad songs and getting emotional? Just like Country & Western. But what I saw on Wednesday night was totally new. The emotion that European fans give to every soccer match is beyond anything I've seen in the states, and the fact that you're cheering for your country, not just your team, seems to add depth to the fans' commitment. Also, in typical language nerd fashion, I really enjoyed cheering in a language where "R" can be the nucleus of a syllable. Imagine 60,000 people all yelling "Srrrrrrr-bija!"

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Beginning to get started?

Things are taking forever to start up. We've been here three weeks now, and everyone in my department has been completely swamped with exams from last year. (I don't yet understand how the exam system works.) It's one of those situations where, the more work there is for everyone else, the less there is for me. So Meaghan and I spent most of last week killing time. You know you need a change when you start running your life around when Mythbusters is on. To break out of this funk (and to celebrate our second wedding anniversary), we spent the weekend in Novi Sad, a town in northern Serbia. It's a very different place from Kragujevac, geographically and architecturally closer to Hungary. Where the buildings of Kragujevac look geometric and industrial, Novi Sad's city center features a broad pedestrian avenue that leads you from the Orthodox bishop's house with its well-tended gardens, past shops, cafes, and popcorn vendors, and leaves you facing the grand Classical facade of the town hall. We explored, shopped, visited friends, and listened to music. Back in K. on Tuesday, we spent the morning hanging out, and Meaghan baked some chocolate chip cookies. The ingredients here are a little different - vanilla extract and chocolate chips are not available - but we found passable substitutes, and the final product was almost, but not quite, a taste of home. That afternoon, we had the first official event of my fellowship: an English conversation practice hour at the American Corner. We hadn't done a lot of publicity, so we were surprised and encouraged to see twenty people show up for it! The session went very well, and it was really energizing to do something. We met more young people later in the evening, as our landlady's son, visiting from Belgrade, took us out for drinks with some of his friends. He somehow got us tickets for tonight's World Cup qualifier match between Serbia and Bosnia, in the standing room (i.e. "crazy fans") section of the stadium. I'll be sure to tell you how that goes ..

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A universal sentiment

The Serbian national basketball team recently disappointed the country with their poor showing in the European basketball championship, being eliminated before the quarterfinals. It was sad for me to watch how poorly they played in the elimination game, but then I remembered - haven't they won this championship the last three times running? Maybe this is how it feels, I thought, to be a Yankees fan .. At any rate, we saw this huge poster in Republic Square in Belgrade. "Sutra je novi dan" means "Tomorrow is a new day," or as I would put it, "Wait 'til next year."

Friday, September 30, 2005

This blog does not represent the official policy of the United States

Yesterday's Slate features an article by Fred Kaplan on public diplomacy. He writes about the ongoing Mideast trip of Karen Hughes, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and questions how effective she can be. Among a lot of interesting points, he raises this question:

It's hard to say what kinds of programs—which cultural messengers or emblems of freedom—might effectively counter the hatred and suspicions of today's foes.

It's an interesting thought. I've spent much of my young career representing the United States to people from different cultures, and I have to say that even in the absence of "hatred and suspicion," it's hard to know what will reach your audience and influence their perspective on Americans. How could I teach "America" to teenagers from Albania or refugees from El Salvador? And when I was working with those people, I had the added benefit of being in the United States. They had some personal experience of America and Americans outside of their ESL classes. For many students in my classes that begin in the coming weeks, and for many Serbians at large, I'm it. This is a daunting prospect, to be sure. I speak very little Serbian, and all I know of the country's culture and history, I've learned in two months of reading and one week of living here. Nevertheless, I feel that my current attempt at cultural diplomacy promises to have an extremely positive effect, if on a small scale. Let's take this afternoon's American Corner meeting for example. Meaghan and I showed up around 5:00 to discuss October programming with the librarians. The four of us decided to implement a number of programs for children and adults, and next week Meaghan is planning to visit all the local elementary schools to do publicity. So, to answer Mr. Kaplan's question, here's how we are representing ourselves as "cultural messengers":
  • Open to free discussion of ourselves and our culture - in discussion groups; also answering questions from the librarians, e.g. "Do regular Americans dress in Prada and Gucci?" (One of them watches Sex and the City.)
  • Understanding the importance of reaching the younger generation - in story times
  • Knowledgeable in some of the fun, traditional, less-globalized aspects of American culture - in our presentations on postseason baseball and Halloween
  • Young, creative, and eager to work collaboratively with our Serbian hosts - my Serbian counterpart at the university continues to make fun of me for the extraordinarily optimistic and upbeat tone of my pre-departure emails

I agree with Mr. Kaplan that Karen Hughes's trip is a bit ridiculous. What can she be to Turks and Saudis but another official voice whose words may or may not translate into actions? I would argue, however, that the U.S. has important cultural diplomacy to do - and that you don't have to be Vladimir Posner, Mr. Kaplan's impossible paragon of bicultural fluency, to do it.

In addition, as Bill Maher put it, "They hate us because we don't know why they hate us." When one of the American Corner librarians asked Meaghan about the general American view of Serbs, she had to admit that most of us have forgotten about the Balkans since the wars of the 1990s. She went on to say, however, that one part of our job as Americans abroad is to bring home a more educated perspective on our host country. Cultural diplomacy, after all, works two ways; since America is the loudest voice in the room, it's all the more important for us to learn to listen.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

New world man

The other day, for a few hours, we had cable internet but no running water.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The story so far ...

... just like the inside front cover of a comic book, for those of you who may have missed our latest installment. This spring, I applied for and won an English Language Fellowship from the U.S. State Department to teach English language and American culture at the University of Kragujevac, Serbia. Meaghan and I arrived here in "K" last Tuesday and moved into our three-room apartment (plus kitchen) in the backyard of a law professor's house, about ten minutes' walk from the city center. We have spent the last week meeting people and learning our way around. When I tell them about my plans, most people in the States ask me, "Why would you want to go there?" The short answer is that I had little choice; the English Language Fellows program typically offers placement to Fellows on a "take it or leave it" basis, and they offered me Kragujevac. A better answer, though, is that there is useful work to be done. Following the NATO bombing campaign of 1999, a lot of people have an understandably harsh view of the US and of "Americans." That's one of the reasons that the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs decided to send Kragujevac a free English teacher for the year. They've also turned the fourth floor of the National Library into an "American Corner," a library and cultural center that has been built and staffed partially by the US Government. Naturally, under the terms of my fellowship, I am expected to be significantly involved in planning and running programs at the American Corner. When we arrived there to introduce ourselves on Thursday afternoon, they were initially surprised that I wasn't a 60-year-old professor with a PhD. I guess the "English Language Fellow" title confused them. As it turned out, they were glad to have a young person who could talk about music and movies instead of politics and other "boring" things. When it came to specifics, though, they didn't really know what to do with us. They served us Coca-Cola (the drink of Americans, naturally) and asked us, "What would you like to do here?" It seems that their events up to now have been limited to weekly movie screenings, plus one or two general Q&A sessions with random visiting Americans. Since then, Meaghan and I have been brainstorming, drawing on my teaching expertise and her bookstore brilliance, and we've come up with a dozen different things. For October alone, we've discussed events based on Halloween and the World Series, topics that might not ever have occurred to Serbian librarians. They can really use someone who knows American culture. In fact, my job in general, as I see it, is to be the American. Most people here have only seen Americans before in movies, on TV, and piloting the planes that bombed them from thousands of feet above. In the corner cafe and the grocery store as well as the University and the American Corner, I represent a face of America other than the military and Britney Spears. While most Serbs' first thoughts of the US might be those things , I hope that the people I meet will think of me instead, and think kinder thoughts.