The ABCs of Cultural Exchange

“I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring…. an apple, a backpack, a cherry soda.” This children’s game was popular on road trips and at campfires, each kid repeating the line, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring… ” and then they would each add an item that began with the first letter of the alphabet (A for apple, B for boat, C for Catamaran etc.) and went all the way to the end of the alphabet till you reached an item that started with the letter Z . We would vary the game and say “I’m going to the moon and I’m going to bring…an Astronaut suit”, or “I’m going on an adventure and I’m going to bring an Atlas…” It was a fun way to pass the time.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the exchange of items between Serbia and the US between friends and family members. By now I know the drill –  leave plenty of room in my suitcase for last-minute items to bring both to and from Serbia. Every time someone in the community goes back, they are asked to bring with them a smorgasboard of items. The last time my muž took a trip back to Belgrade from Los Angeles, and he was inundated with the usual requests. Most times, its electronics and drug store items such as hair color and vitamins, but one time the list seemed even more colorful than normal. “Could you get me an iPad for my cousin’s husband?” “Return the TV remote control to my little brother’s house that he left here in LA on the couch” “Get some St. John’s Wort (a mood enhancer) from your local vitamin store”, and even, “2 electric fly swatters – they look like tennis rackets!”. The list seemed endless and took up half his suitcase, but like always, he obliged, because that’s really the only sensible thing to do.

In preparation for our upcoming trip, I’ve even come up with my own mental list of personal conveniences to bring to Belgrade just to try to narrow the “creature comfort” gap. A box of energy bars for hunger emergencies, hand sanitizer, and a collapsible clothes drying rack. Still can’t believe there are no clothes driers! And of course, I wouldn’t go travel anywhere anymore without bringing my trusted pack towel light! Of course, on the way back home, we’ll be explaining to the customs officer that our tub of Kajmak (stinky dairy spread) is actually the latest European face cream.

I’m reminded by my muž, that it seems a little callous to assume that Belgrade, with its relative small consumer base compared to the US should be expected to have all the same conveniences that we have here, and at such low costs. But for what we Americans can boast in cheap, modern, conveniences, Serbians offer up in soul. Human nature makes us all want what we don’t have, whether that be something to make your life easier, or something to make it richer. I can just imagine packing up to return home from Belgrade and wanting to bring back a taste of Serbia saying, “We’re going to America and we’re bringing….a homemade jar of Ajvar, a clear and potent Bottle of Slivovitz, and a CD of Gypsy Trumpet music”. What we bring back each time, besides all the memories and maybe a few crosswords puzzles in cyrillic, is a a fresh perspective on life, a few little items to help us savor every day, slow down, and enjoy the ride.



Survival Serbian


photo(11)Two and a half years since I returned from my Serbian trip, we’re finally planning a trip back together for the first time. The last time I was there, I was on my own and what an adventure I had. This time, it will be different. This time, it’s not really a “choose your own adventure” type of trip, but a couples trip, which I’m sure will be full of different challenges and different joys. My idea of a great vacation would be a fun packed adventure type, and would include stuff like kayaking and bicycling and sightseeing and getting lost in nearby villages. I’d visit museums and nightclubs and meet strangers on the bus and join them for dinner. For him, it’s all about relaxing. His ideal vacation would probably be lazy leisurely days sunning himself at the beach, with a few breaks here and there to swim in calm, clear waters. So the challenge will be to marry these two ideas into one satisfying trip. We plan on over a week in Belgrade, but first, we will go to Montenegro and Croatia for a little island hopping excursion. Let the planning begin!

I’ve been hoarding my slowly accruing “annual leave” for a year and a half so we can go on this trip together, and I’ll deplete every last day I have saved. I’ve seen Belgrade through my own eyes, this time I will see it through his. This time it will be his friends, his family, his childhood memories that we will seek. We will visit his old schools and favorite places and he will show me all the things that make this place his home. It will be a chance to reconnect with his roots, and a chance for us to get away to a place that we both love, for different reasons.

In preparation for this trip, I’ve finally dug out my notes from my Srpski Jezik Radionica from when I was there last, cramming away at the little school on Simina street, sitting on my cozy little bed at hostel Kapetan, or sipping coffee while going over flashcards in a cafe on Knez Mihailova. I’m ashamed to say I have not kept up my Serbian like I wanted to.  All the big and little things that make up life have gotten in the way, and most days, “study a foreign language” somehow kept getting pushed to the bottom of my “to-do” list. Somehow, starting a new career, buying a home, and even just doing laundry have taken precedence. So as the big trip approaches, I’ve gotten frantic, realizing that I don’t want to start from scratch with the language when I get back there. I spent so many hours studying it that it seems a shame to have to pay someone to teach me what they taught me 2 years ago. So here I go. Grammar, Vocabulary, Futile attempts at conversation with the muž. Oh the Padež! Damn the Padež! Why is it so complicated! The Genders! Why must a table be a he or she? The same infuriating questions that plagued me back then will plague me again, I can see it happening already. Why must I memorize a thousand rules just to say a single sentence? Why must I know that if I make something plural, only if it’s a masculine, monosyllabic, noun, that I must add ovi, but only if it ends in a hard consonant? The madness! But no. I will not go down this path again, I will not be overwhelmed. I will be methodical and open-minded and enthusiastic. I will try a little every day. I will accept the absurdity of verb exceptions, feminine nouns that pose as masculine, and old words that have alternate endings, and that G + I becomes ZI in the locative, and I will try not to forget about the mobile “A”s. Damn those mobile As. But I will accept these oddities and embrace them. And if I forget them all, which I expect I will do, I will not care that I sound like a caveman but I will keep speaking and learning and forego pride for progress.

So in the midst of all this new-found ambition, I reached out to a friend who is an English language professor, but who grew up in Belgrade. A perfect choice I thought, one who knows the language, but also knows how to teach someone grammar and conversation, and so today we met over lunch. She decided it would be best to start with useful phrases, you know, stuff I could use with the in-laws and in making small talk. She made me realize that I have to stop focusing on grammar and perfection and just make an effort to speak more to build up my confidence with the language, and not to worry too much about if its correct. This is something I need to take to heart – Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. So we focused on the practical, or what I started calling “Survival Serbian”. I couldn’t help but laugh when she had me write down things like,

“Ne, stvarno ne mogu više” – I really can’t take any more! (We imagined this would be in response to all the incessant food offerings around the table)

“Izvini, malo sporije” – Please, a little slower (For when they talk at hyper-speed)

“”Divna Vam Je Supa” – Your Soup is Splendid! (For when Mama Zlata cooks for us)

These are the kinds of phrases that I’m sure I’ll get a plenty of mileage out of, and will probably be infinitely more useful than remembering possessive plural pronouns or the locativ case. So after nearly 3 hours of Survival Serbian, I leave and suddenly realize I am completely drained. I drive home, exhausted, and wonder how I will ever make progress and start to remember just how intense my “intensive Serbian language course” really was that first time in Belgrade. Suddenly I’m not so opposed to a few lazy days sunning and swimming at the beach, it might be just exactly what I need.