Monday, November 20, 2006

We've moved!

Meaghan and I have moved out of her mom's house and into the city of Boston. My commute to work is now 15 minutes shorter, and we're starting to take our cool furniture and stuff out of storage. Friends are welcome to email me for our new address.

This is pretty much the last stage of our readjustment from our year in Serbia. Most young couples here have their own place, so moving back to the city is like rejoining society, in a way.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

New blog

Hey -

Since I started my new job I've been busy and not much inclined to blogging. We have done some cool stuff - we saw Jon Stewart live, we celebrated our third wedding anniversary with a trip to Vermont, we spent a weekend in New York with my family - but I haven't had the motivation to write about it here. (Sorry.) And of course I've had lots of work stories, but I didn't feel comfortable putting them on the internet.

One thing about my new job, though - I've got like an hour commute each way. This gives me lots of time for reading. And while I've always been a big reader, I realized how sad it is that I eventually forget most of what I read.

Well, no longer. I've started a new blog to keep track of what I'm reading. Mostly I am my own intended audience, but if you're interested in what I'm reading please check it out. It's called All The Things I've Lost.

Enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I got a job!

As of yesterday, I'm the new full-time ESL teacher at a public high school near Boston. I'm teaching two classes of ESL 1, one class of ESL 3, and two study skills classes, each of which meet daily. The students are all immigrants to the US, from a variety of different countries. (No Yugoslavs though - немам шансе да вежбам мој српски :( )

So far, my impressions are generally positive. (In fact, I'd like to go on record as saying so now, so that I can look back on this in case I change my mind later.) The students seem sweet, my colleagues have been very supportive, and I'm looking forward to really getting started.

American high schools are a strange institution. There's a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork; I'm responsible for filling out a variety of grades, record books, report cards, attendance forms, and such. I've never really had a teaching job where I had to grade my students, so this will change everything in a way.

Despite all that, though, the most difficult thing for me is waking up in the morning. You may know that I am a "night person" by temperament; well, high school teachers are required to arrive at school before 7:30 in the morning. (This must have something to do with the "old days," when Americans were all farmers.) As a result, I have to wake up well before six. I have a feeling that in the days to come, coffee will be my new best friend.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sweet memories

Meaghan's school made her do a "technology orientation requirement" that involved a bunch of simple tests in computer and internet literacy. The final piece was to write a simple web page in html, including two web links, one photo, and a link to a .pdf version of a 3-slide powerpoint.

The choice of topic was free, so Meaghan decided to post this love letter to Srce, one of our favorite KG hangouts.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Montana wedding

Nothing much going on. I'm at yet another temp job, and at this particular moment I have no work to do. It's the perfect opportunity to take care of some old business, and I owe you a story about the wedding I attended in Montana. This was the story so far. Now, here's what I meant by scenery:

This is Flathead Lake viewed from the wedding site. When I took this picture, I was standing on the wooden deck around the lodge building, looking out over the lake at around 9:00 in the morning. The lake is one of the most strikingly beautiful things I've ever seen.

While Serbian wedding ceremonies take place in the city hall and the Orthodox church, officiants in the US are free to conduct weddings pretty much anywhere, and many couples choose outdoor locations. (I myself was married in the Public Garden in Boston.) This trend explains why The Simpsons' Reverend Lovejoy lamented that more people don't get married "inside the church with God, instead of out here in the cheap showiness of nature."

In this case, the choice of location was also one way that the couple adapted the wedding ceremony to reflect themselves and their personality: the groom, A., grew up in nearby Kalispell, Montana. Naturally, he became an avid hiker, skier, and all-around mountain man; in addition to being convenient for his family and beautiful to look at, the Flathead Valley has an important meaning in his life. In a way, I felt that I got to know him better by just being there.

Aside from the setting, an original poem written and read by a friend, and the choice of music - during the ceremony, a string quartet played, among other things, familiar melodies from The Beatles and Radiohead - the wedding was pretty traditional. A. had his best man and three groomsmen in tuxedoes; K., the bride, had her maid of honor and three bridesmaids in matching red dresses; K.'s father walked her down the aisle; they read the traditional vows from the prayer book.

It was the first time I'd been to see friends of mine get married. The last wedding I attended was my own, nearly three years ago, and it was much less traditional. We invited only fifteen people, read silly love poetry, signed a Jewish marriage contract, and were married by a justice of the peace (not clergy) who did not mention God or use the phrase "till death do you part." It was a perfect wedding for Meaghan and me, and I've been very snobby about our decisions since then, assuming that people who had "big" weddings were sacrificing their own best interests for the sake of family pressure and tradition.

Attending A. and K.'s wedding helped me to understand why someone might actually want a big wedding. During the rehearsal dinner, which is a smaller gathering held the night before the wedding, they distributed lists of phrases describing guests who were present, such as "once transported horses across the Atlantic" or "lived on a farm in Taiwan." (Mine was "knows how to dance Argentine tango.") We were instructed to match our fellow guests to the descriptions, just like on the first day of a language class. Of course, his relatives received descriptions of her family, and vice versa.

During this activity (and in between conversations with random North Dakotan relatives) I spoke briefly to A. and K. They were taking in the spectacle of all these people meeting - their parents, cousins, friends from high school and college, everyone they care about. It was like seeing their whole life in one place. What better way to celebrate the symbolic joining of their two lives, than by physically bringing all the important people together in one place?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Overheard at Boston Language Institute

Spanish Teacher: Nice to meet you.
Daniel: Mucho gusto.
ST: Ah, ¡hablas español!
D: Sí, malo znam ...
ST: ¿¿¿???

Friday, September 01, 2006

I'm writing this from "work"

Today's temp assignment is to sit at a desk and answer the phones in an office that shall remain nameless. Today is the Friday before a three-day weekend (Monday being Labor Day in the US), so it's slow. Really slow. I'll get two calls in a row, then sit and surf the web for fifteen minutes. Once every couple of hours I'll screw something up with the phone system, but that has provided all my excitement for the day.

Almost all, that is. I did get one caller who provided a minimum level of excitement. The exchange went something like this:


  - Can I talk to _____?
I check my list of extensions. The caller has asked for a name that's not on my list.
  - Could you spell that for me, please?
  - (Spells the name.)
I check again. Still not there.
  - I'm sorry, I'm not seeing it.
  - What do you mean, not seeing it? Check again. She's worked there since before you were born.
  - (I spell the name back to her)?
  - Yes. _____. This has been her number for the last twelve years. I don't know what the problem is.
  - I don't know what I can do for you. I'm just covering the phones.
  - Well, I don't know either. I mean, if you won't --
  - Let's try this. Hold please.
I push a promising-looking button on the phone that will at least get rid of the call.


I assume I did something right, because I never heard back from this person. But what the hell? Who talks to people that way? Did she honestly think I was twelve years old?

It's an ad, ad world

Apparently some other people are also fed up with the flashiness of marketing everywhere. There's a new TV commercial that takes a distinctly low-flash approach.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Nedostajete mi

As time passes since my months in Serbia, I miss different things. Well, some of the same things, and some different things. For instance:

  • Juice is still a big one. I was in the supermarket yesterday and the only reasonably priced juices are like 25% actual juice. The rest is water, corn syrup, dyes, and fillers. To get good juice, you pay something in the $3.50-4.00 range. I had to walk right by the tempting bottles of blueberry and pomegranate and settle for cranberry, as usual.
  • I wrote to one Serbian friend about this: recently, I was walking by a restaurant on a beautiful day, and there were no tables outside. Something about this just seemed wrong to me. The next week, Meaghan and I were out to dinner and she was getting nostalgic for Serbia, although it hadn't come up in any way. When she thought about it, she realized that this was because we were sitting outside.
  • When Meaghan and I go out with our friends here, there's always a process of planning that happens first. There's a lag time, somewhere between a day and a week, to make sure they're free, we're free, when we're meeting, what we're doing, and so on. In Serbia, when I wanted to go out (at 10 PM, whatever) I would call someone up and we'd go out.
While I'm on the subject, I should mention this: on my current temp assignment, I work for a guy who makes coffee in the office a couple of times a day. Whenever he makes coffee, there's a pause of ten minutes or so before any work gets done. I wouldn't say this is Serbian style - he would need to take at least a half hour, and he doesn't smoke - but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Time wasters

What keeps me occupied when I'm not working or wandering around.


  • Epilepsy, David B
  • Uncommon Carriers, John McFee
  • Iron Council, China Mieville
  • A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson


  • Reruns of The District
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD
  • The Daily Show and The Colbert Report
  • Red Sox baseball games
  • Whatever's on*
* At this point, I should reiterate my belief that the downfall of Western civilization may be linked to our habit of watching "whatever's on."

Video games

  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (I know, corruptor of our nation's youth)
  • Minesweeper (a sure sign of desperation)

While I am walking around, I listen to music. Out of thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of iPods in Boston, I wouldn't be surprised if mine were the only one to feature Haustor and Deca Loših Muzičara (hvala, Dončiće).


In case you didn't know about it, Pustolovina: Adventure in Serbian is a very cool expat-in-Belgrade blog, and its writer is so cool that I just had to try this too. Feel free to check the results yourself.

I'm sure I'd get more traffic if I posted more often .. Anyway, we'll see what happens.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Work work work

Despite a couple of strong possibilities, I still have no firm teaching job for the fall. To make a little money while filling my days with something better than video games, I've been taking small jobs here and there. I believe some of my Serbian friends know this situation well: the jobs that you have to take while you're waiting for the job that you want.

The main way I'm looking for small jobs is through a temporary employment agency. The first time I worked for them, I went into a central office where I took tests to prove that I'm skilled with Microsoft Office and can type fast. Since then, they've had my name on file, and I call and tell them when I'm available to work. Other companies will call in to ask them for short-term office help - my jobs have ranged from a day to a week, but some can go longer - and when their needs meet my skills and availability, I get a day's work.

I had one such job last Thursday at an office in Boston's Financial District. I spent the morning sorting old newspapers (getting black ink stains on my suit) and the afternoon typing names and telephone numbers into a computer spreadsheet. This sort of work, I realized, is an exercise in humility. When I go into the classroom, I carry a great deal of pride and confidence, and I expect to be given interesting, challenging work. My temp employers, on the other hand, were not looking for me in particular, but for some filing help for Thursday. They have to offer jobs that anyone could do. This makes them easy assignments that carry very little responsibility or interest; mostly I keep quiet and work fast.

Saturday's job was a little different: I went to work at the retirement community run by my father-in-law. I've worked for him in the past, so he knows me better and tends to assign me jobs that require thinking and writing, not just typing and knowing the alphabet. I spent the day writing letters to residents and their families addressing various social issues. I enjoy working on the best language to address these delicate situations: how to tell an 80-year-old to stop complaining about the neighbors? How to inform a child of their parent's progressing dementia?

This week, I have no temp assignments yet, so I may have to continue with my daily video games. In any case, this is the time of year when they hire teachers, so I expect to have a real job soon.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


A wedding report is in the works, just as soon as I get my photos in order.

Montana was great and I spent a nice week with my family afterward, but since then I've been pretty bored. To make matters worse (for me), Meaghan started work this week, leaving me with very little to do while I'm waiting for some resolution on the six or seven jobs I've applied for. Since she spent nine months in Serbia with no particular job, Meaghan sympathizes with me, but doesn't exactly feel sorry, if you know what I mean.

To fill my time, I've taken to walking around the city. Yesterday I spent about two hours walking around Boston (in blistering heat), rode the train back to Quincy, and then walked around Quincy for an hour, before returning home to watch television for a while.

Swimming through the humid summer fug made me thirsty, and being thirsty in the city really made me miss Serbia. You see, in Boston there is nowhere you can just sit down and order a drink. Belgrade has a great cafe culture and even a provincial town like Kragujevac has dozens of sidewalk cafes where you can stop for coffee, juice, lemonade, water, or whatever you want. Boston, on the other hand, has cheap restaurants and expensive restaurants. It's possible, but unusual, to sit down in a restaurant and order a drink, unless you're planning on eating. Remember the way I used to fantasize about ethnic restaurants? Well, on yesterday's walk, dying of thirst, I walked past a Mexican restaurant, Thai restaurant, sushi bar, Middle Eastern grill, and two or three American grills, all of which I found totally uninteresting.

Eventually I found a convenience store, something like a miniature supermarket that sells newspapers, snacks, cigarettes, and prefabricated sandwiches. In my wildest dreams, I was hoping for a real lemonade, containing only water, sugar, and lemon juice. Any drink made primarily out of fruit juice would have been acceptable. Sadly, this convenience store was poorly stocked and offered mostly Coca-Cola and such.

I continued down the street to the next convenience store, which had a wider selection. When I looked closer, though, it turned out to be a wide selection of crap. First came the soda drinks, which ranged from the familiar Coke, Pepsi, and 7-Up to the exotic chemical concoctions of caffeine-enhanced Sierra Mist and - I am not making this up - strawberries and cream flavored Diet Pepsi. Next came the masterpieces of chemical engineering known as energy drinks: Red Bull and its various clones. Then, "upscale" drinks like iced white tea, which include massive portions of corn syrup along with the snob appeal, making them so sweet as to be almost undrinkable. There was a selection of bottled water, which I avoided because I wanted something with electrolytes and flavor, and also because earlier in the week I bought something I thought was lemon water until it turned out to be essentially diet Sprite.

At the end of this marketing parade came a selection of drinks claiming to be juice. I chose one called "Dole 100% Juice Ruby Red Grapefruit," took it to the register, purchased it, and consumed all 15.4 ounces (45.5 cl) in two gulps. It tasted fruity enough, but when I looked at the label, I saw that despite its name, it contained a selection of artificial sugars and stabilizers, and more grape juice than grapefruit.

I'm frustrated with what I see as an American tendency to complicate everything for marketing purposes. The drinks aisle includes more chemistry than juice, and more gimmicks than anything, so companies like Coke and Pepsi can deny that they're producing the same thing. The snack aisle is even worse: one flavor of Doritos corn chips after another, each with aggressively garish packaging featuring at least one exclamation point. The overwhelming chemical-spice taste of the chips completes the sensory overload.

Probably being out of work leaves me with too much time to think about these things. Just the same, I'm reminded of a friend from Novi Sad who spent a year here in the U.S., and how frustrated she was with the scarcity of opportunities when she got home. She wasn't only talking about consumer choices - believe me, I'm grateful that I had six or seven relatively interesting job opportunities to apply for - but consumer choices were definitely part of it. In response, I'd point out that more choice isn't necessarily a good thing, and that the most satisfying thing is the availability of the one choice you really want.

I'll take a glass of cherry juice, please.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Who cares about sports:

There's an interesting thread on Crooked Timber about soccer and nationalism. Of course, it's often observed that the World Cup is a more civilized alternative to total war, but I do get tired of some writers drawing unwarranted parallels between countries and their soccer teams.

One commenter on Crooked Timber notes:

On a stop-over at Aukland airport I was amused to find the tourist shops selling t-shirts that read, “I support New Zealand and anyone who is playing Australia.”

I wonder if there's a geopolitical explanation for this.


The Native Speaker comes to you today from the Broadway Inn motel in Missoula, Montana. I wish I could tell you a typical July 4th celebration story, but I spent all of yesterday on the road.

Here's where I was yesterday morning at 5:15 -

outside 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. That building on the left was completed since last time I was in Philly, and it makes an interesting architectural contrast with the old station building - something like Copley Square in Boston.

Montana has beautiful natural scenery. Yesterday I drove here from Spokane, WA, through the mountains and past Lake Coeur D'Alene in Idaho. The view is very much like Brokeback Mountain - I'm sorry I didn't take any pictures for you while I was driving. (Watch this space in the next few days.) The local radio stations, on the other hand, are not so great. Your choices are Christian devotional, country, or hardcore metal. (One friend who is from here told me about a radio station that plays hardcore metal and Rush Limbaugh.)

While I missed the Independence Day barbecues, parties, and even the stand-up comic in the hotel bar, I did get to see some fireworks. All the small towns in the area have their own fireworks display, and you can see them all going off at once, up and down the valley. I just pulled my car over on the side of the highway to watch. You can see five or six flashes of colored light very small and close to the horizon, and the mountains looming in the background. I guess everything is bigger out here.

Friday, June 30, 2006

On a walk around Boston

Here are a couple of things that caught my attention:

This is Beacon Street in Brookline. Notice that there are separate areas reserved for walking, parking, and driving. With no cars parking on the sidewalk, Serbian-style, there is plenty of room to stroll. To provide this amount of space to pedestrians in a city like Kragujevac or Belgrade, the city authorities need to install metal posts along the curb.

Notice also the meter next to each parking space. You put coins into a slot, and a little clock tells how much time you've paid for. In Kragujevac, on the other hand, an attendant in a day-glo vest collects parking fees and tickets violators. In a post-socialist country like Serbia, the first solution to a problem is to create a government job; in the US, we prefer to invent a machine. Of course, someone has to read the meters, but the process as a whole is less labor-intensive.

I spotted this cement mixer on the campus of Simmons College. I had never before seen a piece of construction equipment painted with the lyrics to a patriotic song. If you're not familiar with the song, here's the whole text.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Confusion in any language

Since the incident I wrote about earlier in which I wanted to speak Serbian to a restaurant seating hostess, the Serbian language has continued to try to assert itself in my everyday speech.

With no internet at home, I've been frequenting a local cafe with free wireless access for my laptop (free plug: Java Jo's in East Milton Square). Last time I was here, when I got up to use the bathroom and the barista looked my way, I was a split-second from asking, "Mogu u WC?" Another time, someone bumped into me and apologized, and I replied, "Nothing." (I'm not even sure if that's good Serbian; is ništa an appropriate response to izvini?) And all this is nothing next to the effect Serbian has had on my other foreign languages, such as my frustrating tendency, when speaking Italian, to say da instead of .

Worst of all, though, my English seems to have acquired the feature of Serbian English (srpsko-engleski?) that I found most frustrating on my arrival in Serbia: the use of the phrase "I know." When Serbs say "I know" (znam) it can mean something like "I understand, I follow what you're saying, I'm familiar with that." To an American (at least to me), the meaning is more like "You didn't need to describe that in such detail, I was already familiar with it, you're wasting my time." To make matters worse, Serbs tend to repeat this sort of brief utterance twice, so "Yes, that's acceptable" becomes može, može; "I will do that" is hoću, hoću; and "Yes, I understand" is znam, znam. In Serbian English, this gets retranslated as "I know, I know," which to an American is the expression of someone who's just barely restraining their impatience with your intolerable denseness.

Once I worked out the hidden meaning of "I know, I know," I felt an immediate sense of reassurance: the Serbs don't all think I'm a moron after all! My second response was amusement at this sociolinguistic glitch, and "znam, znam" became something of a humorous catchphrase between Meaghan and me. But then, like the kid who makes one funny face too many, my language began to stick that way. It got to the point where Meaghan had to give me a stern talking-to. You know you've crossed over to the dark side when what used to frustrate you in others becomes a bad habit of your own.

Now I'm monitoring myself carefully, trying to go cold turkey on "I know" until I can use the phrase as a native speaker would(!). If you're talking to me and get the impression I'm frustrated with you, now you know why.

If I really am frustrated with you, I'll try to be extra clear about it.

Who knew?

For really intense moments of nostalgia ...

It turns out you can buy kajmak online.

ps. Some of you might not know what kajmak is. I heard from many people that it's only available in Serbia, and from one person that it's only available in Serbia and Iran, but Wikipedia says different.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Serbian habits (možeš da veruješ??)

Here are some things I've caught myself doing recently, showing the clear influence of my time in Serbia:

  • As many of you know, ethnic foods are one of the things we missed the most during our stay in Serbia. Naturally, when my mother-in-law, Evelyn, picked us up at the airport (in her Pontiac Bonneville, which has a passenger area big enough to fit a Fića inside), she drove us straight to a Mexican restaurant. The seating hostess came out to greet us, and I started formulating Serbian sentences in my head. I had a moment of shock when she said, "Hi."
  • I got a photocopy made at a local copy shop. Copies are something like ten cents each, so my total bill was about thirty cents. I took my receipt with me to throw it away later, because in Serbia, you have to take your receipt for everything so the tax authorities can audit official receipts. I guess all those months of official signs reminding me to УЗМИТЕ РАЧУН!!! got into my subconscious.
  • The selection of items available in stores surprises me. I was in a video rental club, which like most stores here has immensely high ceilings and shelves crammed with merchandise. (Students from my second-year classes will remember the Best Buy photos.) Browsing the new releases, 2-for-$30 DVDs, and 3-for-$15 pre-viewed VHS tapes, I wondered how many of these films were available on DivX.
  • Making breakfast for Meaghan and Evelyn this morning, I realized that the eggs here have thinner shells and the bacon has more fat. Also, as I expected, the juice is clearly inferior. We've been drinking Cranberry-Grape, which has a rather generic fruity-sugary taste, and missing our cherry nectar. At least we have our domaća šljivovica (homemade plum brandy) for moments of nostalgia.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Mission statement

I started writing this blog to tell people in the US about my adventures in Serbia. As I wrote, it became apparent that other people were interested, particularly Serbs who wanted to know about my foreigner's view of their country. As of today, I no longer live in Serbia. At 20:00 EST last night, my plane landed at Logan International Airport in Boston. I'm looking for a job teaching English, preferably in a university setting, and Meaghan starts graduate school in September. With my new circumstances in life, my blog requires a new purpose. So here's the focus for The Native Speaker v2.0:
  1. Stories from Serbia that I didn't have time to write when I was there;
  2. Stories of my readjustment to American life, giving my insider/outsider view and reverse culture shock adventures;
  3. Answering questions you may have about life in the US.
Point three, inspired by Belgrade Blog, seems like a natural way to respond to all the questions my Serbian friends, students, and acquaintances asked about the US. Now that I'm back here, I can answer your questions as an on-the-spot reporter. I'm not sure if this'll work out; it depends on you! Send me interesting questions and I'll do my best.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Visualize World Cup

Viktor of Belgrade Blog posted today about today's World Cup match between Serbia-Montenegro and Argentina, promising photos of Belgrade cafes during the match.

Here's how it was in Kragujevac:

a bunch of people sitting around watching TV and groaning when their team got scored on. There was surprisingly little excitement, even at the beginning of the game before the horrors began, and surprisingly little outrage at each successive Argentina goal. Meaghan and I were the only people in this particular cafe wearing team colors: me in my Red Star Belgrade jersey, and her in a T-shirt reading SCG Цела Нација Репрезентација.

So where are the fans? The two locals I asked said that they prefer to watch the game at home. One of them elaborated: you can yell whatever you want at the TV without having to listen to the other 25 guys who think they'd do better than the coach/striker/whole team combined.

So SCG is pretty much done now, the end of the road for the only team representing a country that doesn't exist. Time to switch to my back-up team, which, for the record, is Netherlands, not Brazil - a Red Sox fan can't switch to the total frontrunner.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Don't worry, I still exist

Between traveling, finishing up the school year, and seeing friends as much as possible during my last few weeks in Serbia, I haven't had time to write. If you're missing "The Native Speaker," here's a picture of a baby to keep you occupied.   Ladies and gentlemen: The lovely Ms Ljubica Nikolic. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Quick update

Today is the "hump day" of the busiest three weeks since I graduated from school. It began last week, when I had class every day of the week because of classes I had to reschedule. Then on Friday I went to the English Language Teachers Association (ELTA) conference in Belgrade. I gave my presentation on teaching American culture through media - it went pretty well. The high point of the conference was when I was manning the U.S. Embassy booth together with one embassy staffer. Our booth featured materials for English teachers published by the U.S. Government and TESOL. The two of us stepped away to get a coffee. When we came back, the booth had been totally ransacked. Almost all of our books, brochures, and CDs had been taken by random strangers unaffiliated with the conference. Half a dozen elderly Serbs were clustered around, searching under the table where our personal possessions were, asking if they could take copies of various books even though they didn't speak, much less teach, English. One man insisted on his right to a book with pictures of the Statue of Liberty, on the grounds that he went there once. Back from ELTA to another week chock-full of classes. Then this afternoon Meaghan and I gave a presentation at the university to a group of (mostly) primary-school teachers. We spoke about ways of motivating kids to learn to read and write. It was great fun and involved storytelling and artwork. Tomorrow I'm off to Lithuania to speak at another conference. I'll be there until Monday, arrive in Belgrade at 8 Monday night, in Kragujevac probably around 11, and then leave Kragujevac at 5:45 Tuesday morning for a trip to south Serbia. I'm speaking at the American Corners in Vranje and Bujanovac, and the Bujanovac staff has offered to show me the Serbian high school and the Albanian high school, and introduce me to the mayor. I hope I'm awake enough at that point to shake his hand. I'll fill you in on everything when I get back. Look for an explanation of why academic egos are like the wild dogs of Kragujevac.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Istanbul, Part II

Before you read this, check out Meaghan's account of our trip to Istanbul. During our five days in Istanbul, we stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, location of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Four Seasons Hotel. Our hotel was located on the old Byzantine hippodrome, directly across from the Blue Mosque. Here's the view from the terrace restaurant where we ate breakfast every day: Sultanahmet is probably the most touristy place I've been since the Upper City of Quebec - or perhaps Disney World. Walking out of our hotel every day, we would hear French, Italian, and English as much as Turkish, and pass enormous white tour buses with Korean signs in the window. This presented an unrivaled opportunity for international people-watching. Take clothes, for instance. To look like an authentic Turkish man, dress in the following costume: stylish but poorly tailored gray pinstripe suit, white dress shirt, light brown loafers, hair gel. Sunglasses and bright green tie are optional. Italian men, on the other hand, can be recognized at fifty paces by their dark sweaters over check dress shirts and their square spectacle frames of thick black plastic. Whatever they're wearing, women who visit mosques are usually requested to cover their heads. Non-Muslim women, unused to wearing headscarves, come up with a number of solutions. Meaghan bought a scarf in the Grand Bazaar and did a reasonable approximation of the Turkish style, although without that lower layer she did have some hair peeking out. Other solutions were less elegant, ranging from the knot-under-the-chin toothache look, to the one girl who actually tied the arms of her sweatshirt around her head, to a few who chose not to cover their heads at all. Having been to Morocco, where non-Muslims are not even allowed to enter any mosques except this one, we found their disrespect pretty classless. Our guidebook had its own suggestion of how we should show respect to our Turkish hosts:
At all times show respect for Ataturk, whose picture you will see in offices, shops, and public places.
In fact, you do see pictures of the founder of the Turkish Republic, a snappy dresser with piercing eyes, everywhere you go. When you step off the train, you see a three-foot-high bronze image of his face emerging from a marble wall. Our favorite restaurant, whose walls were covered with pictures of every sort, reserved one wall for Ataturk alone. Every denomination of the Turkish lira bears his picture. Now, it never would have occurred to Meaghan and me to make fun of these pictures. We're live-and-let-live sorts; every country shows its patriotism in its own way; and besides, he's a handsome fellow. But having read this advice in our guidebook put the idea in our heads, and much like Tolstoy and his white bear, we couldn't stop thinking about it. Every time we saw a picture of Ataturk, it made us want to laugh - at our guidebook! We were lucky not to embarrass ourselves. Istanbul is a great vacation destination that I would recommend to just about anyone. Its tourist hordes and hard-sell shopkeepers are overwhelming at times, but the locals know how to help you get what you want; it doesn't seem quite so foreign as Morocco does. Our book said that "nothing can prepare you for the Grand Bazaar," but compared to the sensory onslaught of Marrakech's Djemaa el Fna, we felt practically at home. We read one tourist brochure that described Istanbul as "the capital of three empires;" its most famous sights outline the history of civilization. There's one moment when you're walking into the Hagia Sophia and you see above the arch an Orthodox Christian mosaic of St. Michael; as you look down, the arch frames a giant wooden circle bearing the name of one of Muhammad's relatives in Arabic calligraphy. In that moment, you sense a coming together of east and west, past and present, and the historic weight of our ancestors' actions.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The amazing brain

Maybe that's what's wrong with me.

The foreign service exam

Got good and drunk the night before, so I looked and felt my best when I went in that morning. 'Cause I wanted to look like the all-American kid ...
- Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree"
I've never been one of those terribly driven people with focused career goals. While some kids begin college (or, in extreme cases, kindergarten) with a future job in mind, I settled on language teaching within three months of my college graduation. That said, public diplomacy is pretty much my dream job. Whenever I've been dissatisfied with my job for some reason, I've always been able to go to the State Department website, daydream a sugar-coated fairy tale of foreign service life, and make myself feel even worse. Well, today I finally did something about it: I took the Foreign Service Written Exam, a five-hour standardized test that is the first requirement for all aspiring diplomats. The exam started at 8:00 this morning, so rather than catch the 5:30 AM bus I stayed over last night with Andreja, Our Man in Belgrade. (You may have already read about him here.) He said he was busy studying for an exam of his own, on international criminal law, but I was welcome to crash in his spare room. So we had a quick dinner and he left me with a cup of coffee and the panorama of cable television to keep me company. I should have known that wouldn't last. Andreja is a party guy. Around 10 PM he came in and said, "I can't study any more. Want to go out for a beer?" Well, one beer turned into two, and then three*, and I got to witness the most impressive pinball playing I've ever seen in my life (on a machine with basically no "tilt" response, so this guy really whacked the hell out of it), and I finally got to sleep around 2. I was up again before my alarm went off at 6, and out of the house with over an hour to take a 20-minute walk to the U.S. Embassy. I took my time, got pastry and coffee, and enjoyed the misty emptiness of Tasmajdan park at 6:45 on a cool Saturday morning. I enjoyed it more knowing it was my final moment to relax in nature before hours and hours of filling in tiny circles with a #2 pencil. As for the test itself, it consists of four parts, and before each of these parts I had to sign a loyalty oath swearing not to reveal its contents. I think I can tell you this much, though: there were seven of us taking the test, including four who work at the Embassy in some non-FSO capacity and one other English teacher. The first part is job knowledge questions (history, politics, geography, economics) that, for me, involved a lot of educated guessing. Second we had to write an essay. I got about 65% into mine when time was called, so I'm hoping that they're grading on clear expression rather than actually completing one's arguments. (I had just finished proving why everyone who disagrees with me about the assigned topic is wrong, and hadn't yet explained why I'm right.) The third part was basically a personality test, and the final section was English grammar (that is, a chance to breathe). I have no idea how I did. Results will be released in late July. * It concerns me that in this blog, I'm presenting a picture of myself as an irresponsible lush. I assure you, I'm really the quiet domestic type. Really. That one night I didn't have anything to drink at all, I was just having a good time. Go back

Thursday, April 06, 2006

We don't have newspapers; we have walls

(My translation of a clever piece of graffiti I saw in New Belgrade the other day. I don't remember the exact wording in Serbian.) A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the photos of Vojislav Seselj that every so often will crop up on the walls of Kragujevac like toadstools on your lawn, and my childish desire to vandalize them. (Sometimes I want to change the words "Seselj Serbian Hero" so they say something obscene; other times I think a handlebar moustache would be sufficient.) Around the third anniversary of the death of Zoran Djindjic, the Democratic Party started its own picture campaign, and as I write this, reproductions of Djindjic's face occupy more territory than Seselj's.
  1. Optimistic interpretation: Honestly, it makes me feel good to see that someone is at least paying lip service to a progressive political vision.
  2. Pessimistic interpretation: Then again, the hard right represents itself with the image of an indicted war criminal, and the left chooses the image of a dead man. These aren't political leaders, they're ikons.
  3. Ironic factoid: Radical Party graffiti are also common in Kragujevac. On Tuesday, I was in Novi Sad, and I saw Democratic Party graffiti for the first time. Novi Sad's city government is run by the Radicals.
With apologies to William Saletan's "Human Nature" column on


Serbs use the Cyrillic and Latin scripts more or less interchangeably. As far as I know, this makes Serbian the only language with two completely redundant writing systems (as opposed to something like Japanese, which has several complementary writing systems that serve different purposes, or Turkish, which abandoned one system in favor of another). I've been told that people tend to stick to one alphabet or the other. For instance, the newspaper Politika is in Cyrillic, while Danas is in Latinica. But that's not strictly the case. I was confused for a while by a grocery store called CBA Наша Радња ("Our Store") because CBA in Cyrillic corresponds to SVA in Latin. I thought the store was called "SVA" until I travelled to Budapest and saw that the Hungarian stores are called CBA as well. Today I even saw one word written in a combination of scripts: an advertisement for an upcoming party called FИTNES (Fitness, I guess). But maybe they were just trying to be cool.
* * *
Estavisti has this to say about the relationship between Cyrillic script and nationalism. I agree with him, I guess, but then I have my misgivings. If Cyrillic is ideally suited for Serbian, then isn't it also ideally suited for Croatian? (Croatian and Serbian are essentially the same language, but Croats use the Roman alphabet exclusively.) So by insisting on Cyrillic, Serbs are creating a further distinction between two different dialects of Serbo-Croatian. Of course a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, and the purpose of separating Serbian and Croatian languages is to insist on the differences between Serbian and Croatian people. In a sense, using Cyrillic is the Serbian counterpart to the Croatian practice of "re-translating" borrowed words like paradajz and lift into Slavic forms like rajčica and dizalica. This results in an increasing number of "Croatian" words that are not commonly used in Serbia. I've heard Serbs tell joking/complaining stories about Croats who pretended not to understand the word kafa (coffee; Croatian kava). Why would it be any different for Serbia to outlaw latinica?
* * *
У сваком случају, мени се свиђа. И тако је лако рачунаром! Пишем брже него што могу да читам!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Your man about town

Yesterday evening at 8, as my last class was ending, a few students invited me to accompany them to a free movie playing at the Student Cultural Center. I had planned to head home, but I was feeling social, so I went along. After the movie (Raise the Red Lantern; beautiful, thought-provoking, tragic), my students A. and I. invited me to their friend J.'s house for something to eat. Again, I went along and ... well ... there was coffee, dinner (fried potatoes and beans), charades, music, a parade of languages (J.'s roommate doesn't speak English, so I spoke in my bad Serbian, which A. translated into better Serbian), and lots of (како се каже глупости?) interesting conversation. Those of you who know me well, know that nothing grabs my attention better than abstract discussion of big issues I can do nothing about. There was one memorable evening where Meaghan, her father, and I all went out for dinner together, and Bob and I tortured Meaghan for the entire evening with our endless political discussions. As an American in Serbia - often the only American that my students and friends have talked to at length - I regularly get drawn into conversation about politics. Well, last night's subject was worse than politics; it was religion. My students know what an American is, and they definitely have some idea what it means to be Jewish, but I'm not sure if they'd ever met an atheist before. I tried to describe for them my existential, materialist beliefs and to answer their questions to the best of my ability. We touched on the authority of the Bible, the nature of the soul, the structure of scientific thought (all the while with A. trying to convert me to the Serbian Church through the unusually superliminal technique of chanting "Orthodox, Orthodox, Orthodox" in my right ear) ... and before I knew it, it was 4:30 AM. I felt irresponsible to be out so late, as if I were reverting to student status myself. Isn't the professor supposed to be sober and temperate? (Although they did mention that while professors are untouchable, assistant professors are a little more human, and lecturers like myself are practically colleagues, if not friends.) At the same time, though, I consider this to be part of my work: fostering intercultural relations. Plus, they were speaking lots of English, much more than they usually do in class. (You can't really compare a five-hour gabfest to a 45-minute conversation lesson.) I had to go home in time to sleep for an hour, get up, and be in the classroom at 8:30 this morning, leaving certain threads in the conversation unfinished. So, I'm providing some links to follow up: And a special bonus link:

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The big question

I just got this comment on an older post:
will you be honest and say what(or who) makes you really angry here in serbia? be honest... how do you like people here?
I've heard this question dozens of times (seems like thousands), and it's hard for me to answer, partially because there's so much good here in Serbia, partially because I don't want to be an ungrateful guest, and partially because I just don't get "really angry." No matter how many times I duck the question, it keeps coming back; Serbs seem to have this masochistic desire to hear foreigners say horrible things about Serbia. Do they want the chance to defend their country against a foreigner's misunderstandings? Do they hate their country, and want independent confirmation that their own anti-patriotic feelings are warranted? Personally, I believe the key is in that "be honest" that so often accompanies the question: maybe they think that positive comments are flattery, meant to conceal the negative, "honest" truth. So, anonymous commenter, I hope you're not too disappointed to learn that I really do like it here. The people are great - as I've often said, when you make friends with Serbs, you feel that they'd do anything for you. To understand my perspective, keep in mind that I lived in an apartment building in Brookline, Massachusetts with 40 other apartments and I never met my neighbors. Here in Serbia, that kind of social isolation is impossible. When I went a couple of weeks without visiting my landlady for coffee, she stopped by and said, "What's wrong? Are you angry with me? Please have some of this cake!" I've been invited to Christmas and Slava, I've appeared on TV and in the newspaper, and I've met all sorts of interesting people - because they came looking for me. Spending so much time with so many people, I've noticed that Serbs talk about politics all the time. Of course, this is because politics effects people's lives in a very direct way: everything from the NATO bombing to the Eurosong competition bears the mark of Serbian politics, and you have to talk about it because you couldn't ignore it even if you wanted to. Luckily for me, I don't really want to. Some foreigners get frustrated with the nonstop politics, but I sort of enjoy it. (I guess it's in my nature. The other day was my mom's birthday and I called her to wish her a happy day, and we ended up discussing President Bush's newest non-plan for Iraq.) So I'm quite happy to talk politics with Serbs. Here's what does frustrate me, though:
  • I'll never go to Kosovo/Montenegro myself, but Serbia can't exist without it.
  • Albanians/Bosnians/"Turks" are not normal people.
  • Albanians/Bosnians/Muslims are taking over the world.
  • The Hague/Western media/historians are all anti-Serbian.
  • I miss the good old days of Milosevic/Tito/Milos Obrenovic.
  • Europe/America/everyone hates Serbs.
To my mind, this isn't politics; it's a mixture of conspiracy theory and self-victimization. Even if it's true - Western media often do carry an anti-Serbian bias, for instance - this kind of thinking is dangerous when it dominates people's worldview. It's all centered on the troubles of the past, and God knows that Serbia needs to start focusing on the future. What's more important: the borders of Kosovo, or the fact that 27% of Serbs are unemployed? In all fairness, I've met plenty of people in the U.S. whose politics frustrate me just as much. ("We have to support our president in wartime!") In Serbia, though, since politics are so much more immediate, these opinions seem to carry greater significance. If an American believes that Muslims are on the verge of taking over the world, for instance, it really doesn't make any difference, as much as it annoys me; if Serbs feel that way, though, they could realistically vote the Radical Party into power, leading the country in the direction of the militant nationalism that in the 1990s led to the destruction of Yugoslavia and the death of thousands. I guess this comes as close to making me "angry" as anything does; everytime I see posters proclaiming Vojislav Seselj a "Serbian hero," I have a childish urge to vandalize them. So, in my experience, Serbian people are tremendously warm and welcoming, but I see that a few among them also have a capacity for stubborn, chauvinistic nationalism. Usually the stranger among Serbs is treated as family, but in extreme circumstances, he can become a blood enemy. Coming from the cosmopolitan American Northeast, where we view strangers (including our next-door neighbors) with egoistic indifference, I find this duality fascinating. So, anonymous commenter, what were you thinking when you asked that question? Am I seeing your country accurately, or is there something essential that I'm missing? I hope this answer has enough criticism in it to convince you that my deep appreciation for the Serbs is sincere, and I'm interested to hear your side of the story, if that's what you had in mind. Incidentally, are you one of my students? I've often told them that asking "what makes you angry" is a good way to start discussion about something that's important to you. You see, it works on me as well.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Perhaps I should apologize?

What do you know, it seems that shark thing is true. I wonder how the reporting in Kurir compares. Any Serbian speakers are invited to comment and let me know.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

All the news that fits

I've heard it said that the newspaper USA Today has a fifth-grade reading level. I don't know if this is true, but it always seems to have shorter sentences and easier vocabulary than other major newspapers. This difference was never something I gave much attention. When you're studying a foreign language, though, it can make all the difference. I've been annoyed at the difficulty I have understanding the B92 website because the Serbian version has so much more content than the English version. When I went to get my hair cut the other day, though, they had a copy of Kurir in the salon, and I found that it was much easier for me to understand. The only problem? This is the kind of newspaper that publishes articles about the secret US military plan to train shark spies. I guess it's OK, though. Given the real news of what's going on here, Meaghan says she feels safer if we're protected by remote-controlled genetically engineered shark assassins.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

This really needs no explanation:

Thus early one evening the leading Višegrad Turks were sitting on the [bridge], cross-legged in a circle. In the centre was Osman Effendi, a tall thin pale man. Every muscle of his face was unnaturally set, his eyes were feverish and his cheeks marked all over with scars like an epileptic. Before him stood the hodja, reddish in face and small in stature, yet somehow impressive, asking more and more questions in his reedy voice. What forces had they? Where were they to go? With what means? How? What for? What will happen in case of failure? The cold and almost mischievous pedantry with which the hodja treated the matter only served to conceal his own anxiety and bitterness at the Christian superiority and the evident weakness and disorder of the Turks. But the hot-headed and sombre Osman Effendi was not the man to notice or understand such things. Of violent and uncontrolled temper, a fanatic with overstrung nerves, he quickly lost patience and control and attacked the hodja at every sign of doubt or wavering as if he were a Schwabe. This hodja irritated him and he replied to him only with generalities and big words. The main thing was not to allow the foe to enter the country without resistance, and whoever asked too many questions only hindered the good work and aided the enemy. In the end, completely beside himself, he replied with scarcely concealed disdain to every question of the hodja: "The time has come to die", "We will lay down our lives", "We shall all die to the last man". "But," broke in the hodja, "I understood that you wanted to drive the Schwabes out of Bosnia and that was the reason why you were collecting us. If it is only a question of dying, then we too know how to die, Effendi, even without your assistance. There is nothing easier than to die." "Ama, I can see that you will not be one of those who die," broke in Karamanli, harshly. "I can see that you will be one," answered the hodja sarcastically, "only I do not see why you ask for our company in this senseless attempt."
- Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina

Monday, February 27, 2006

New stuff

Meaghan posted our photos. Note the new link in the sidebar. I'll let you know when she puts more cool stuff on Flickr. While you're at it, check out some of my new links over there. I endorse them all.

In which I wax patriotic (believe it or not!)

Brooke at Desperate Serbwife writes an interesting post about the immoralities she sees in US policies abroad. As she puts it,
The rest of the world is paying attention, and the rest of the world is not happy with what they see.
Of course, there's truth in that, but I think it's partially because the rest of the world only sees a limited slice of what's there. America cannot be summed up by the most inconsistent and irresponsible aspects of its foreign policy. Of course, when you're from (or living in) another country, that's what you see; foreign policy is the face that America presents to the world, and I completely agree that lately, it's been an ugly face. I am continually frustrated and dismayed by stories of my country acting as if its neighbors around the world (as well as its own citizens) were imperial subjects to be treated with arbitrary cruelty and no respect for civil liberties or the rule of law. (In this respect, I would argue that the current Bush Administration's actions are categorically different from anything Clinton, Bush 41, Reagan et al. ever did, but that's another issue.) For me, the real question is why people around the world continue to idealize America, despite constant reminders * of our transgressions, past and present. If the US is so horrible, why does everyone want to move there? I would answer that there is another side to the coin: in some sense, as I have written, the US continues to be a land of opportunity. To see the difference (in a positive sense) between the US and the rest of the world, the best place to look is our system of education. As Adam Hochschild wrote (in a very insightful piece worth reading in its entirety),
...if the arrogance of American military and economic power reflects the worst about us, our schools and colleges, at their best, reflect something more hopeful.
It's something I have experienced firsthand here in Serbia: the university students I teach are simply not encouraged to think for themselves. Throughout their secondary and postsecondary education, they are rewarded for listening silently to their professors, consulting other canonical experts, and repeating these "official" views (verbatim if possible) at exam time. It's not important for students of English to understand the character of Hamlet and really think about why he acts the way he does; what's essential is to know the year when Hamlet was written. The US, on the other hand, presents a society that values independence, that requires students to advocate for their own opinions (while grounding them in fact and acknowledging the opinions of experts), that recognizes that any student could be the next Harold Bloom - or the next Shakespeare. Hochschild calls it "the most vibrant civil society on Earth." It's up to us as Americans (especially those of us who live abroad) to embody this human-centered worldview, hoping to counteract the power-centered dynamic that many people around the world have come to view as characteristically American. * For those of you who have never been to Belgrade: These are photos of buildings damaged by the NATO bombing in 1999. Go back

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Professional culture shock begins at home

Just yesterday I was blogging about different cultural orientations to education, and then I read that some university professors in the US consider actually communicating with their students to be a waste of time. Makes me wonder why some people decide to go into teaching in the first place. (Via Pharyngula)

Monday, February 20, 2006

"A" for effort, or, The challenges of professional culture shock

It took me a couple of months to understand that there are really, truly, ultimately no consequences at all if my students decide not to do their homework. Their entire grade for my class comes from the standard exams at the end of the year, so they have the whole year to get ready. If they decide to prepare for our weekly classes, it's out of an idealistic sense of "wanting to learn." Teachers, like Serbs, tend to be cynics, so I'm surprised that my colleagues assign any homework at all. While this system seems odd to American sensibilities, it does make sense according to a certain logic. As long as you can pass the test, it doesn't matter how you get there; if you can teach yourself better than the professors can, then who are they to assign useless tasks? The logic falls apart, though, when you consider that attendance is mandatory. Students are obliged to show up, but it's up to them if they want to listen, participate, or do any work. All of this came up in conversation this evening with my 7:15-8:00 class. Although we've been meeting since November, they picked tonight to ask for details about my personal version of the attendance policy. Specifically, they wanted to know, "Can we still get your signature if we haven't been in class?" A little questioning revealed what the signature is: I'm supposed to sign their official records at the end of the year to certify that they have met the attendance requirement. My answer, then, was "Of course not. If you weren't here, you don't get credit for attendance." The students said that some of their other professors waive the attendance requirement, but recognized my right not to. Understanding that I care about such things, a couple of students started going over my attendance records to point out days when they had been out sick. (This gets them an excused absence.) One of them had even brought doctor's notes. Imagine that - doctor's notes! In college! Since we were off today's class topic anyway, I asked them about homework. "What reason do you have to do your homework?" I asked. "We want to learn," one student answered. I nodded knowingly. "And what happens if I assign something and you don't do it?" "Nothing. We're not in high school any more." Interesting. In my college days, there were certain classes I would only attend on the day the paper was due.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Super Boooooowwwwwwwll!!!!!

.. in the words of Dana, one of the denizens of the Coolidge Corner Clubhouse. I remember him yelling "Super Bowl!" during Red Sox games. I was up until 4 AM to watch the Super Bowl last night. What a disappointment. It was obvious from the end of the third quarter that the fix was in, and 3. Kanal didn't even show the commercials. This post is dedicated to Carlos, a good friend and gifted tanguero, who also happens to be a Seattle native and football fan. As an Eagles fan, I suffered through last year's Super Bowl too, and I can tell you, you get over it. Especially if the next year all your playmakers are injured early on or suffer from terminal big-mouth, and they end up 6-10 for the year ..

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The American dream, seen from afar

Yesterday Meaghan and I were interviewed for television. One of the local Kragujevac channels is starting a show about interior design around the world, and they were curious about what kind of spaces Americans live in. (For those of you in KG, it's on Channel 9, and our episode should air Monday 13 February at 10 PM (22.00).) I always try to avoid speaking on behalf of "Americans," but we did describe the apartment and neighborhood where we lived in Brookline, Mass. before we moved out here. One thing that struck me during the interview was that the presenter asked about the "American dream" of owning real estate. This has always seemed a bit odd to me, as I'm scared to death of owning real estate. Between mortgages, points, prime rates, closings, settlements, and all that mumbo jumbo on one hand, and mowing grass, raking leaves, shoveling snow, buying washing machines, and fixing boilers on the other, my picture of the homeowner's life is pretty nightmarish. Maybe I'm just too young, seeing visions of a "grown-up" life of parenthood and homeownership that limits my conversational possibilities to my (hypothetical) newborn infant's bodily fluids on one hand, and home improvement projects on the other. Enough about my neuroses. The question is, what does the American dream have to do with real estate? Whenever someone mentions the American dream - and it's rarely, if ever, an American - I have to ask them what they picture. The best answer I've heard so far (from Meaghan) is that it's the principle of being able to live your life the way you want, and the idea that anything is within your reach if you work hard enough to get it. I can understand how that would connect with real estate if you come from 17th-century England or communist Eastern Europe, where everyday people were simply not permitted to own land unless they moved away to settle in the New World. Still, America is far too interesting and diverse a place for its guiding principle to be symbolized by a yuppie/Pleasantville scene of 2.4 kids and white picket fences. My own American dream is currently taking place some 6,000 miles from the US. Even as an American expat in Serbia, I recognize that I have certain rights and advantages that are not available to my hosts. I have steady, if short-term, employment from the U.S. government, I can travel to any number of neighboring countries without a visa, and I'm a native speaker of the world's #1 international language. To me, this freedom of movement is as much a part of the American dream as any right to own property. If you think about it, the apartment that I rent now, four small rooms filled with big Serbian furniture, expresses my personal version of the American dream better than any two-car garage.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


... or, it's a small virtual world. When I started my new blog for work, I started playing around with all these cool blog-related sites like technorati. It's basically a set of tools that let you search blogs, register your blog, connect to blogs on topics of your interest, etc. So of course I'm always curious who's blogging in Serbia, other than An American in Belgrade, who we learned about early on because she's a fellow Blogger blogger. I'm browsing the Technorati links pages on Serbia, Belgrade, etc. when I stumbled across this post. For those of you non-Serbo-Croatian speakers, the posting is entitled "Foreigners in Serbia, through the blog-prism." So it's interesting to read the post and see a couple of other expats in former Yugoslavia, but if you scroll down to read the posts at the bottom, you'll see that another blogger, a Serbian expat in Switzerland, gives a shout out to Meaghan and me! I wonder how she heard about us from all the way in Switzerland .. and why she first thought we were in Nis?

Monday, January 30, 2006

New semester, new ideas

I got back yesterday from a conference about information technology, public diplomacy, and English teaching. I didn't get to spend much time visiting Budapest, which was the conference site, but I have come back with a few new ideas for the spring semester. First of all, I've started a new blog called Serbia ELF News. I'll use this site to post upcoming events, workshops, and homework assignments for the American Corner and the Faculty of Philology, so any of my students or AC members who read this blog should check that one regularly. Meanwhile, I'll continue The Native Speaker as a collection of travelogues and personal stories. I'm also hoping to add an online component to some of my university classes. This should make it easier for students to access homework assignments, and expand their chances for class participation beyond our weekly 45-minute session. Look out for more details.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

February 2006 American Corner schedule

Monday, January 16, 2006

Back to Nis, back to reality

This is Dragan, me, Meaghan, and Marko in the fortress in Nis. Dragan, Marko, and Zeka, who took the picture, are students at the Faculty of Electronics. After participating in my talk at the faculty last Friday, they showed us around the town - we got to see the fortress, the Skull Tower, and the giant stage where Ceca was performing that night for Serbian New Year. Zeka also bought us some excellent burek. Thanks, guys. I'll be back to Nis next Monday, January 23. Look for me at the American Center, where I'm presenting the pilot episode of The West Wing at 5 PM.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Local Celebrities

Wednesday we got back from ten days in the U.S., and already several things have happened to me that could only have taken place in Serbia.

On Thursday we had scheduled a holiday open house in the American Corner.  Since we were away, we left most of the planning up to our Serbian counterparts, but we intended to make a big deal of it, so we invited press, the mayor, all my students and colleagues from the university, and anyone else we could think of.  Meanwhile, I needed to get my hair cut, and an event like this provided an obvious deadline.  

Whenever I get my hair cut, I have a chance to practice my Serbian.  Since all of my real business happens in English, I haven’t had any real reason to learn more Serbian than “give me five eggs and a loaf of bread,” “turn left here,” and other obvious survival phrases.  In the barber chair, though, I try to answer all the typical questions (“What do you think of Serbia?” etc.) in Serbian.  Of course, the discussion always comes back to my progress in learning the language.  The barber said that I was doing OK, but they know this guy from South Africa who has only been here a few months and speaks Serbian really well, or at least really fast.

Of course, who should happen by in the next five minutes but the guy from South Africa?  They invited him in and introduced us, and made some comments I didn’t fully understand about what it sounded like when we spoke English together.  This being Serbia, by the time my haircut was done, cigarettes and Turkish coffee had been produced from somewhere and everyone was taking a break.  

It turns out he’s here to visit his grandmother, who lives next door to the barber shop.  He arrived in June or July speaking no Serbian, found a teacher for himself, and now communicates very fluently, though his grammar does have some rough patches.  His extended vacation is coming to an end soon, and he’s looking forward to getting back to Johannesburg and enjoying the hot, hot summer weather.

At this point I was really running late to meet Meaghan and get to the American Corner for our party.  I rushed home and changed, and Meaghan put together a Christmassy music mix and finished the January calendar of events in time to hand it out at the party.  In our hurry, we forgot the snacks and readings we had brought from the US to share with any guests.

In the end, it didn’t matter because exactly five people showed up.  There were three of the regulars who come to every American Corner event, a reporter from the weekly news magazine, and his wife.  We were a little disappointed but not really surprised, because it was two days before Serbian Christmas and all the university students from out of town had gone home for the holiday.  

The reporter wasn’t interested in writing about the party; he had come to schedule a time to interview us for a feature story about what it’s like for foreigners to live in Kragujevac.  We arranged to meet the following day, and he left.  Then we sat around with our three guests for an hour or so, told bad jokes, and talked about music.

Friday we spent the morning cleaning the house, because the reporter was coming here and bringing a photographer with him – they wanted pictures of us at home.  Of course, we live in a furnished house full of other people’s books and knick-knacks, but that didn’t seem to matter.  The photographer had a cup of coffee with us and then took a few pictures.  For some reason he insisted on photographing Meaghan in the kitchen, even when I explained to him that I’m the one who cooks!  We were so startled by this that we went along with it, but the “woman in the kitchen” photo strikes us as uncomfortably sexist, and we’re hoping it doesn’t show up in print.

After the photo shoot, the photographer left for some other engagement, and the reporter stayed to talk to us.  I was hoping for some interesting questions, but as it turned out, he asked us pretty much the same things we hear whenever we meet someone new.  In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing my picture in the paper next week; as far as reading the story, I’ll have to find someone to translate it for me.