Out and about in Belgrade

IMG_0414 IMG_0403 IMG_0409 IMG_0413So far we are off to a running start! Yesterday after we arrived, we were picked up by a few lovely relatives and dropped off at a little family apartment which is modern, clean, and comfortable. We are so lucky and grateful to have this. We went to the in laws house for dinner, which was started off shot of rakija and ended with me playing Tata LJ’s ancient violin.  This is the first time my muz and I have been here together as I was on my own last time. It definitely helps having him here as a social lubricant, shall we say. Especially since his parents don’t really speak English.

The old house shows its age, but you can tell how grand it must have been back in its prime. It reminds me of my grandparents’ house in a way. It hasn’t been updated in decades, and it seems so ancient and foreign, like an abandoned, crumbling, museum in a faraway place, except two people actually live there. After dinner we returned home and woke up early this morning to orient ourselves in the city. How much nicer it feels to be here not as a brand new solo traveler, but a return visitor. I even found several cafes I discovered last time I was here, and we visited them together. He showed me his old elementary school, his old high school, and his music school. We even met a really nice man at the music school who gave us a little tour and a brochure and they played the name game until they happened upon a connection. It still amazes me that there is a public run free music school, available to talented children who choose to learn music. What a gift this city gives to its young. At his high school, an aviation high school, we entered the grounds and saw the airplanes mounted outside, and I could imagine him there as a teenager, joking around with his friends, eating lunch at the nearby pekara, studying the basics of aviation. We visited Kalemegdan Park and the fortress, and ran into an old friend of his who is works there, an architect who works on restoration of historical monuments. We walked Knez Mihailova and went by the parliament buildings and The Horse, and saw many familiar sights. Strolling through Kalemegdan, I realized how it was a microcosm of Serbia. In Kalemegdan, everything is there. The old and the new, Their you can find history, remnants of war, museums, churches, cafes, souvenir kiosks, and even a nightclub nestled in its stony walls. You will see old men playing chess and young couples kissing on benches. You will see tour groups and families and a beautiful view of the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, an extremely important geographical feature that has made Belgrade both prosperous and a victim. Yes, Kalemegdan is an amazing piece of the Serbian pie, and you can taste almost everything here.
I hope we can go back before I leave.

That night we strolled through the Vracar neighborhood looking for a place to eat. We stopped at a cool café, and as we were ordering, my muz noticed the man sitting behind our table, it was his old colleague – a friend who he had flown with when he was hired by Yugoslav airlines, before the sanctions, before the country fell apart. They embraced and we joined them for dinner. They talked about old times and what was happening now and how far they had both came. This guy was still flying, as was my muz, but it was amazing to see how far their life paths had diverged. This friend had stayed in Belgrade while my Muz immigrated to America. How instrumental this decision has been in changing the course of his life.

Friends, family, lots of beautiful Belgrade sights exploring the city, great language practice, and quality time seeing some of my husband’s childhood stomping ground. It couldn’t get much better than this. Tomorrow morning we will leave for Montenegro to visit the beautiful Adriatic coast. Yet another adventure begins!



Talking with Tata

Tonight, after dinner with my muz’s parents at his childhood home, he left me alone in the apartment while he went with his mom on an errand. Only his dad and I were there. This would be the first time I was alone with my father in law, and I was eager to practice my Serbian. He speaks only a few words in English. To my surprise – we spoke wonderfully. I spoke slowly and halted, but I somehow reached into the depths of my mind and pulled out vocabulary and grammar construction I hadn’t used since I was here last. We talked about many things, and we really understood each other! I was so encouraged by this conversation with him, that I am motivated to keep going with my Serbian. I really had an entire conversation with him. It was simple of course, but we communicated. We connected, without a translator. This is huge for me. This is the kind of moment that makes it all worth it. He is old and won’t be around forever, but now we have this connection, and that means so much.

Belgrade, You Can Do Better

After months of anticipation, we were finally on our big vacation. We were enroute to Belgrade, and after a day or so there, we would go down to the Adriatic coast for a road trip and some island hopping before returning to the white city for our last week. I remembered nearly every detail about my last Belgrade adventure, and I couldn’t wait to get to know the city a little better. Within minutes of touching down at the Nikola Tesla Airport, I had my first reality check. I visited the ladies room and realized realized the toilet wouldn’t flush. I was not surprised, but I was disappointed. I remembered all the bad experiences I had had with hygiene he last time I was here. http://wp.me/p1kd9o-1Z This time around, I was equally annoyed. We had just paid thousands of dollars to get to this city from Los Angeles. We had carefully saved up vacation time and planned the trip and bought tickets, and when we arrived, what were we greeted with what? Facilities that were dingy, dirty, bleak, and non-functioning. Attention Belgrade: If you want to win the admiration, no, not even admiration, but the respect of other citizens of this world, you need to roll up your sleeves, and put a little elbow grease into its appearance, because unfortunately, most people Do judge a book by its cover.  Take some pride in this great city. It has so much potential. It has art and history and music and culture. It has beautiful rivers, and lovely green parks, and creative cafes and unique bars, and welcoming restaurants and good schools and buzzing pedestrian zones and even decent public transportation. It has so much to offer, but many visitors can’t see past the grime. They can’t see past the dirty bathrooms, the trash in the parks, the graffiti on ancient fortress walls.  Clean up the senseless graffiti (not all of it, not the art, or the political messages, but the scribbles), make sure your bathrooms are clean and well stocked, and get rid of the piles of cigarette butts drowning in the puddles in Kalemegdan fortress. Please, do yourself a favor. Everyone will love you for it. Or at least, they will begin to see you.

The airport toilet incident was a stark reminder of the problems that Belgrade faces. It, like many in Belgrade was dingy and barely functional. This is much like Belgrade itself. It has almost everything you need, but it’s a little worse for the wear. I knew that the beauty and charm of Belgrade would still be there waiting for me, just outside the airport doors, but this time, I’m a few years older, maybe a little less forgiving, a little more critical, a little less patient. This time I wanted to just say, “Come on Belgrade, get it together. You can do better than this.”

Nevertheless, I was determined not to let this less than welcoming first impression color my attitude for the trip. I am back to Belgrade and I can’t believe I am finally here. I had such a wonderful time last time, and I am hoping that this time, it will be as good.

Why Serbian?

Why Serbian?

Two and a half years ago, I was in Belgrade at a little store trying to buy batteries for my camera. I had been in Belgrade for two weeks at that point, I had traveled there on my own, and was halfway through my intensive language course. I was deep into the cases and the grammar drills were enough to make my head spin. Still, I insisted on speaking Serbian every chance I got, and was grateful for every time I could do so. I treated every opportunity like my own personal language mission. Tuesday Afternoon: Purchase batteries using my limited 2 week knowledge of the language. Use one new word, one new grammar construction, and at all costs – do not resort to English! I perused the store, mustering up the courage to approach the guy at the counter, while formulating my simple question in my head. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, he stopped me. “I speak English, its ok!” “No. I know. I speak Serbian”. “No, you don’t, but its ok, I speak English”. “No, I want to try speaking Serbian” “Why would you do such a thing?” He was puzzled and laughing at my attempts, at my earnest determination. He laughed at my coarse, faltering, miserable attempt at Serbian, with my childish vocabulary, my caveman grammar, my speed like a dementia patient. This was a common reaction when I tried my Serbian. I got so frustrated at people responding in English when I attempted Serbian, that I finally came up with a good response. “Ne hablo Engles” Ha! That will stop them!

A year before that, it was my wedding weekend. I was in California, surrounded with all my closest friends and family, and by everyone that loved me, and in addition to that – all the Serbs were there. So was my Grandma, the wise old owl of the family, the sage. It was to her that I listened the most, it was her that I tried so hard to sear the memory of her words into my brain so that I could carry them for all my life, and that I could channel her soul so to speak, to help me throughout the challenges that life would undoubtedly bring. She had always been my sounding board. Calm, courageous, daring, graceful, elegant, classy, sophisticated, and yet grounded. She was grandma. And so I listened to her. So as it was, it was a perfect Sunday afternoon, and were lounging on a beautiful yacht, drinking champagne and basking in the festive glow that surrounds wedding festivities. We were also surrounded with all the Serbs and a few of my loved ones. At that moment, my grandma, usually the belle of the ball, was suddenly swept into my world. I saw the transformation. She, usually at ease in her surroundings, confident, poised, and put together, began to look a little bewildered. She found herself in a sea of Serbian. The language swirling around her, the waves of foreign conversation sweeping her off her feet  as she lost her footing, grasping for a word, a life raft, on which to hold on to. She followed the conversation, smiling at the right times, laughing at the right times, but she was lost. She was me. It was at this moment that she turned her beautiful silver head towards mine, her granddaughter bride, and discreetly whispered to me in that wise old voice that spoke only the truth and said “You really must learn this language”. “I know Grandma, I know.”

Up until this point, I had tried, desparately and unsuccessfully to learn as much as I could. I took a “Serbo-Croatian” course at the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute, I practiced counting and basic phrases with my muz while hiking the Santa Monica hills, I watched DVDs in English that were subtitled in Serbian, I did what I could do. But I barely scratched the surface.

Luckily for me, I grew up in an incredible garden of international awareness. My family, Midwesterners true and true, were citizens of the world at heart. My great uncle was writing a book in Russian at his 96th year on his deathbed. I look at my brothers- one did his Masters’ degree in Japan, another brother speaks Arabic, and the other recently came back from a language emersion program in Mexico. My sister majored in French, and my parents always encouraged language, travel, understanding of the world. So here is me: As per the school curriculum, I studied basic French and Spanish in elementary school and Latin in middle school. In high school and college, thanks to the prodding of my progressive older brother, I took on Mandarin Chinese. Because even in the late 90s, as a high school senior, my forward thinking brother told me “this will be the language of the world soon, you better learn it now” So I trusted him, and I enrolled in Mandarin classes at my school as a 13 year old freshman in high school.

High school is thankfully, just memories now, but I still don’t speak Chinese. I don’t really speak French or Spanish either, and I certainly don’t speak nearly enough Serbian to really even be called conversational. But I did take something away from all those experiences, even if I can only remember how to say “Ni Hao and Zai Jian”. I learned what is important about language. I learned that syllables and grammar are the building blocks of preserving culture. I learned how to position ones tongue in ones mouth to produce different types of sounds. I learned how alphabets develop differently and how languages spread across continents, diversifying with their environment, and slowly changing to reflect the people that speak it. I also learned that I am verbal. Some people are oral, I am not. Sometimes I struggle expressing myself aloud. I am quiet when I should speak, I am loud when I should be quiet, but I love language. I love the craft of writing, I admire great public speakers, and I take joy in learning about the origins, the history, and all the little insights that language gives away about its people. I learned that you can discover a people by learning a language.  Why do the French call it “an affair”, when Americans call it “cheating?” Why do Chinese have the phrase “to eat bitter?” “Why do Serbs say “—– once you have been bitten by a small snake, you will always be afraid of lizards?” These are the things that delight me.

In America, relatively few people speak Serbian, in Serbia, many of their people speak English, so why even try? I certainly wouldn’t be the first westerner I’ve met who partnered up with a Serbian without giving much thought to breaking down the language barrier. Even Chinese, though my brother did have a point, is arguably obsolete as the world has already decided its international language: English. Some would say I have been lucky enough to be born into the language since I will never really need to try that hard to understand a language other than my own to get by in this world. I choose to disagree. I think I am at a disadvantage. Had I not been born into an English speaking family, I would have by necessity, probably learned another language by now. As it is, I have not, but I am determined to do so. I do however have the luxury of choosing what language I will target as my personal language challenge, and of course, it will be Serbian. Before my muz, I might have continued with Chinese, it certainly makes for good cocktail conversation, or I could have switched to Spanish. Spanish would have been an obvious choice, as nearly everything in America is written in both English and Spanish, and many neighborhoods are predominantly Hispanic. Plus, the grammar is easier. Instead I choose Serbian, because that is what infiltrates my world. Serbian on Friday nights when we go to dinner with friends, Serbian at holidays in LA where all the extended family is present, Serbian, I hear every day when my muz is talking on the phone with his parents in Belgrade, or his brother in Chicago, or most everyone of his friends. Serbian, because even at my own wedding, I could not understand the guests. Serbian, so I can one day speak with my own children, to read them bed time stories in the language of their ancestors, and help preserve and pass on part of their heritage. Serbian, because one day, hopefully, they will speak it better than me.

I need a vacation before my vacation.

On Fridays when I get out of work, I am so exhausted that I can barely drive straight. When I finally get home, I stare at the TV, too tired to even walk the dog or feed myself. I usually sleep at least 10 hours before waking up feeling like I was hit by a truck. When I finally drag myself out of bed, it takes me awhile before I have enough energy to make coffee. Then I make a whole pot and sip it for hours while poring over my weekend to do list. By Monday I am refreshed, but never quite ready to do it all again.

I have been working very hard at a stressful job, painstakingly progressing through an intense training program at a rushed pace. Just as my long-awaited vacation is finally almost here, I find myself so close to finishing a major milestone goal at my work, one I had hoped to complete before I went on this vacation to Serbia. A week or two, and I’d be done, but in just a few short days, I will board a plane to Amsterdam, then Belgrade, then shortly thereafter, Montenegro. Instead of finishing this goal, I will be on what I hope to be, my dream vacation. I will not be able to accomplish this one last big work thing before I go, and this is leaving me feeling a little anxious.

Not only do I not feel ready to leave work, I also feel like I am not ready to actually arrive in Belgrade and begin my vacation. Why am I not ready? I’d like to say that I love lazy days and spontaneity, but really I am a perfectionist and a control freak.  I am in desperate need of a vacation and need to relax, but before I go, there’s just a few things I’d like to get done. See, I’m the type of person who likes to be prepared. I show up to doctor’s appointments with a handwritten notes and questions.  I start researching car safety records a year in advance before I plan on purchasing one, and I never go the grocery store without a list.  The idea of getting onto a plane for a rare and special vacation without so much as a plan except to “have fun” is horrifying.

Its not that I don’t love surprises or going with the flow, its just that really want to get the most out of this trip. If I had more time to prepare, I could…practice my Serbian, learn how to do my hair better, and lose a few pounds so I can look fabulous in pictures, and of course, I’d love to learn how to take better pictures so I can really capture each special moment, and as always I never feel like I am writing as much as I want to. Not only this, but I really want to spend some more time researching all the amazing and wonderful things I hope to do and see while I am over there, so I can come up with a spectacular plan for experiencing the adventure trip of a lifetime.  But my departure date is approaching and with the break neck pace of my work and me being so tired and distracted on my down time because of it, it now seems I won’t get any of these preparations done. Wouldn’t it be nice to check off a few “to-dos” before I go unwind? I really think it would help me relax more and get the most out of my trip! It seems like I’m going to have to let go of tying up the loose ends and just embrace the chaos. Instead of driving the car, I’m going to have to just hang on for the ride.


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! http://wp.me/p1kd9o-U 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.