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