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.



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