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.
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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?
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У сваком случају, мени се свиђа. И тако је лако рачунаром! Пишем брже него што могу да читам!