Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Sunday, December 11, 2005
- 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
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
Friday, October 14, 2005
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Saturday, October 01, 2005
Friday, September 30, 2005
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":
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.
- 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.