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