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.


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.

Apologies, from, Yours Truly, the Comma Freak,

So many of you have probably noticed, grammar is not my forte in any language. I admit, I tend to add a few more commas than are necessary to many of my posts, and for this I apologize! Hopefully none of you are grammar freaks (like an unnnamed teacher at my Serbian school – Sorry! – you know who you are). So I hope I don’t offend anyone by my, excessive, use, of commas. Ok now that was just for show. Luckily I have spell check, but a for some reason, those pesky green lines on grammar check seem to avoid my little problem! Also, most of my posts that I wrote in Belgrade were written furiously in about 5 minutes standing up at my hostel computer between rushing home from school and rushing off to do homework or go exploring. I really didn’t edit them, I just typed like a maniac and hit post, I had more important things to do than waste precious minutes editing! So you’ll have to excuse the errors. From now on, I’ll try to do better.
Thanks for Reading! 🙂

Say Something in Serbian!

So after 1 month in Belgrade struggling through my very intensive accelerated language course, I’m back home, (Thank God! Clean Bathrooms!) And I know that all too soon, I will be reunited with the Serbian community and they will want to know what I learned. What did you learn? They will ask. Say something! They will demand. Or perhaps, they will just test me by speaking Serbian to me and gauging my response. I fear this will be a problem, because many Serbs (actually many people from all over the world), don’t know how to speak to someone who is just starting to learn their language.
For example: One day, I was exploring Belgrade and trying to figure out where I was. I had been practicing my Serbian on tons of unwilling locals already that day, and currently I was trying to figure out if the place I was located at was called Ada. So I approached the youngest, most educated looking Serb at the bus stop, and said

“Izvini, molim vas, da li znate ako ovde je Ada?”
(excuse me, do you know if this here is Ada?)

And she looked at me and said something rapidly in Serbian, which I assumed to be something like this:

“Oh, wow, ok, I’m not really sure if I can help you. You see, I don’t speak English, however, this is actually part of Ada technically, but if you want to see what people actually refer to as Ada, from Ada Ciganlija, then you should cross the river back to Old Town and then find the lake area, either by bus, cab, or foot. ”

Umm…..hello? Do I sound fluent to you?
Maybe I should have repeated my question and then said simply…

“Da? Ili Ne?”
(Yes, or no?)

Then she could have said simply, “Ne”.

And then I would have responded “Gde je Ada?” (Where is Ada?)
And then we could go from there, instead, I had no clue what she said in her response, and I just said Hvala and walked away.

She could have said something like this slowly in Serbian, and I would have understood:

“Ada is not here. Ada is over there. Go on bus #73. Go 5 stops. There is Ada. Understand?”

This would have been a much better way to talk to someone new to the language.

Now that I’m back, I’m afraid the Serbs will say, “What did you learn?” And I will pause, concentrate hard, and then say something so simple like, “I came to California on Saturday. I’m happy. Yesterday I had dinner, today I will buy milk.” And they will laugh at me and correct my endings before proceeding to speak quickly in Serbian and pretty soon I will be as lost and isolated as I was before I left here….

Oh, and another thing. Correcting my endings is pretty much useless unless you can explain why the ending should be like that. If you can say, oh, it has to have a “u” at the ending of this word because it’s a plural, masculine, possessive pronoun, therefore changed as an adjective in the akusativ case because of the verb type, and you have to add this extra letter first because of the hard consonant grouping and the multi-syllabic word, then Fine! By all means, correct me. But if you can’t tell me why other than “it sounds right to me”. Well, that doesn’t help me except to make me realize that you have no idea of the complexity of your language and how extremely difficult it is, and how many hundred hours I have already spent studying, practicing, and speaking, and yet my level is still extremely basic.

I found this on another American’s blog, a woman who is living in Serbia. This was an anonymous comment posted in response to a post about the struggles of the language barrier.

“My message to all the native speakers – please be encouraging and praising when you come across someone who’s putting effort to learn this difficult language. Don’t embarrass them and hurt their feelings with your critiques and pronunciation corrections. Let them be proud of their accomplishments.
In my mind – it is better to speak broken Serbian then no Serbian at all.”

Pre nego sto sam dosla u Srbiju, znala sam samo nekoliko srpskih reci, i to je predstavljalo problem za mene, jer moj suprug je iz Srbije i njegovi prijatelji u Americi su pretezno srbi i ja nisam mogla da ih razumem. Sada, nakon mesec dana, znam mnogo vise. Nadam se da ce mi to pomaci u buducnosti.

Now its time to practice my new skills before they start to inevitably deteriorate.
Ja Sam Ovde! Back in California! 🙂

Don’t make me leave Belgrade!

I leave Belgrade tomorrow and I am so sad.
I really don’t want to leave this place, stvarno. But I have to go. I wish I could stay at least a few more weeks, at least a month, at least 6 months more. Everytime I talk about it, my time frame gets a little longer.
So I wanted to take this moment to say thank you to all the people here who made my stay really significant, enlightening, more comfortable, more enjoyable, or who just made me smile.
For all the people at Captain hostel, Mirana, Dixie, Dusan, and Severin…thanks for helping me with my Serbian homework and making me feel at home!
For all my teachers at my Serbian school, Neda, Katarina, Predrag, and Zeljiko, you guys are a great team! Thanks Katarina, for dealing with my meltdown so gracefully, and to Neda, you are amazing!! Class with you was always a pleasure!
To my other classmates, Natalia, Christophe, and Carolina, what fun we had!! And also to my friend Marta, from Poland, it was great going to concerts with you! Natasha, you were such a great classmate to get through those last few weeks with! And we had so much fun, too! 🙂 Hope to see you all in your own parts of the world at some point, lets keep in touch!
To all the random strangers who offered to help me find my way in Belgrade when I was lost, or offered to help translate for me, or give me a hand in some way, or even recommend a place to go out to. You are good people, Ja volim Serbi. To the guy at the post office who gave me the book, Aleksandar that I met on the street that first weekend, the people at the Kafana by my hostel whom I befriended, the girl from the Grad Ctr who is also a blogger, to the guy who said the Serbs would give me their kidney if I needed it, you guys are awesome and I wish I could stay and foster friendships with you all!!!! And of course, it was great to meet both fellow bloggers I met in Belgrade that are Americans living a Serbian experience, just like me! I can’t believe I’m not alone in this. Wish both of you the best of luck with the rest of your stay here. Thanks for meeting with me!! And keep blogging! 🙂
And to Sonja and Rade, my cousins, thank you for welcoming me with such open arms when we hadn’t even met before. Thanks for your generosity. You are great people and I am so glad I got to get to know you more. You made my stay so much better. Rade, you hooked me up with my DVDs with subtitles, and were so nice to escort me to and from home those few times. And Sonja, you are my favorite Serb here in Belgrade! You have dismantled all the negative impressions I ever had about Serbian women, thanks to a few unfortunate experiences back home, You are classy and beautiful, and I’m glad we are cousins. Thanks for all the endless translations and for being so excited about my visit! 🙂
Also, I must take a minute to apologize to all the people I didn’t get to see, all the friends of family, friends of friends, and others that I wanted to get together with or see more. I wish I could stay 6 months and see everyone! But know that Belgrade welcomed me fantastically! And I really love your city! 🙂 I’ll be back, for sure.
I know I will be back here soon, but it just won’t be the same. Next time, it won’t be as new. Next time I won’t be alone, I won’t live alone, and it won’t be my own adventure. But Belgrade will still be the same. Can’t wait till I return.
Thanks to everyone who finds my ramblings interesting enough to read. Please keep reading! I have tons more material to blog about that I just didn’t have time yet to type up, I was too busy exploring this great city and making every day a day to remember! So please keep on reading, there’s much more ahead…
See you next time, from California! 🙂

Ljubavno Pismo

Ovo je ljubovno pismo za tebe. Nedostajes mi u Beogradu. Nedostajes mi da igramo “Bananagrams” sa tebom. Takodje nedostajes mi da pijem vino zajedno i pricamo za vecerom. Mi smo plesali salsu svake noc, kod kuce. Secas li se? Sada ti letis u Americi i ja studiram u Srbiji. Uskoro mi cemo videte jedno drugo. Tada mi cemo biti najscrecniji ljudi na svetu. Mi smo jedno srce. Ti si ljubav mog zivota! 🙂

Govorim Srpski Bre!! I Speak Serbian, oh yeah!!

It looks simple, right? Only 2 words. Actually this phrase uses present tense verb conjugation, the akusativ case, and handwritten cyrillics. Simple, yes, but still complex.

Ok, so maybe this is an exageration, and maybe I speak samo malo, but seriously, I SPEAK SERBIAN!!! I’m not kidding! Ok, so I’m just glowing from my experiences today speaking the language!!! Yes, I’m proud as a peacock!

I’ve been pretty much taking the bus or walking everywhere in Belgrade, and by doing this, I familiarized myself with public transport, however in the meanwhile, I was actually unknowingly missing out on a goldmine of language exercises: Cab Rides! 🙂

I took 2 cab rides today, to and from Ada, to save my precious, diminishing time here. And on the way over, I struck up a conversation with the nice Serbian cabby. Our conversation was simple, however it demonstrated to me that I really have reached a new level in Serbian. Yes, I am still at a very basic level, but I really am mildly conversational.

So on the way over, I asked the driver where he was from, I asked if it was ok if I ate my snack in his car. I told him I was a language student here in Belgrade. That I studied at a small school to learn the Serbian language. I told him we had 5 students and I said where we were all from. I explained that my teachers were strict, but that I was learning fast and wanted to practice everyday. I asked him if he had seen the new Serbian film, Montevideo. He replied to all of this and we really understood each other quite well. At the end of the ride, he told me that my Serbian was better than his English. Ne, ista. I replied, No, its the same. Haha! All in all a really enlightening experience.

Once I arrived at Ada, which is basically a man made lake with a walk/bike path encircling it that stretches about 5 miles, I was so empowered by my conversation that I decided to rent a bike. So I confidently rented the bike in Serbian and proceded to ride around the Lake, basking in my new success.

Ada Ciganlija

On the return ride, I got another nice driver, this time he spoke no English at all, not 1 word. However we still managed to have a very decent conversation. Actually, I even understood him when he told me that many people he drives come from other countries, from Poland or Germany perhaps. They have been here maybe 10 years or so, maybe they are directors of big companies, and they don’t really speak Serbian. Yes, he said my serbian is better than theirs! He consoled me about the verbs and padez, “Ahhh….glagol!!!!….Teshko!!…Ja razumem”….or something like that. Which is like, “ohhh yes… the verbs, the cases…it’s so difficult!…I understand”

He was really pleased with my progress and I explained all about my husband coming from Belgrade but living in California, and how I really wanted to learn the language to speak with his family and friends, and so that I could learn more about his roots. All spoken in my broken, but drastically improving Serbian. Overall, a fantastic exercise in Serbian conversation! Yes, I can do it!!

So if you’re ever trying to learn the language in a foreign country, take a cab. This is the ideal scenario for practicing. You have one local’s undivided attention for about 10-15 minutes, and neither of you can get away. They usually don’t speak much, if any English, and they aren’t sticklers for grammar, so they won’t kill the conversation by correcting you constantly. It’s perfect!