Strawberryville (Jagodina) Encourages Hookups on Free Vacation to Greece

Known as a politically incorrect mover and shaker,  Dragan Markovic is the long-standing mayor of Jagodina (Strawberryville).  He’s never been known for his sophistication or class, but he has been known to get things done.

The Serbian population is declining, and this mayor of Strawberryville wants to do something about it. With a fertility rate of only 1.4 children per woman, Serbia faces a major population crisis: if nothing changes, the Serbian population will eventually die out, falling victim to an ever-increasing worldwide trend: lowering birthrates contributing to an aging and decreasing population. Serbia ranks 198 on a list of 222 countries ordered by fertility rate.  Though many would blame a poor economy for this birth rate problem, (how can you afford children without a decent paycheck), I would argue otherwise.  Declining birthrates are typically the problem of developed, prosperous countries, not their struggling counterparts. Poverty generally leads to larger families, not smaller ones.

Mayor Dragan Markovic made an attempt to reverse this trend by sending 300 singles over the age of 38 on a free romantic Greek vacation in hopes that sparks will fly. On the kickoff romantic dinner for these lucky singles, roses and flickering candles set the scene. Mayor Markovic stands up and announces to his crowd, “Each year, a town the size of 25,000 people is wiped out in Serbia.”  Ziveli! Now that’s a romantic pick up line if I ever heard one.

Not only are the villages getting smaller as young people leave towns and move to larger cities like Belgrade, but people are also continuing to emigrate out of the country altogether for a better life elsewhere.  Combine these two factors with a declining birthrate of Serbian citizens and you have a recipe for extinction. This disturbing trend is seen throughout many other parts of the world.  Even in the United States, we are barely able to maintain a constant population rate and this is achieved thanks to immigration.

Though I admire the mayor’s unconventional tactics, they are flawed. Gathering these singles for a free romantic vacation is highly unlikely to lead to any births 9 months later. The flaw here, besides the obvious fact that this is a forced, awkward, situation, is that all the singles participating are over the age of 38. With fertility decreasing significantly as age increases, it seems like a futile attempt on the mayor’s part. In addition to having difficult conceiving, women of this age are also significantly more likely than their younger counterparts to have ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and have babies with downs syndrome and other birth defects.  Perhaps Markovic would have more success with a much lower minimum age for these participants.

Though I admire the mayor’s bold attempt in reversing this disturbing trend, I doubt its effectiveness. Catching these people at such a later stage in singlehood seems like a last-ditch effort to reap the harvest of a crop when it’s past growing season. He’ d be better off conditioning high school students on the values of family building or trying to encourage families with at least one child to have an additional baby with tax credits and incentives.  Nevertheless, at least some people in Strawberryville are having a good time.  A free vacation may be just the ticket to creating a fresh perspective, a positive spin on putting roots down in small town Strawberryville.

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Tito and Me – A Yugoslavian Classic as Viewed by a Foreigner


Tito and Me (1993)

I hate to call a film like this overrated, since it is certainly far from a household name or blockbuster hit, but I will. Apart from a few moments of real comedy, this film is more like a self-deprecating psychoanalysis – By Serbia, For Serbia. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but views more like a documentary, especially for those unfamiliar with Yugoslavian history. Though I was a little disappointed (I had really high expectations), I would still recommend it. It’s a movie every Serb knows.

Tito and Me (Tito i Ja) is set in the former Yugoslavia in the 1950s, the height of Tito’s reign.  The main character, Zoran, is an awkward, chubby, little boy who lives in a cramped, old, apartment with his extended family. Always picked on by his family and fellow classmates for his weird behavior, he is disturbed by the constant chaos of his dysfunctional home life.  Zoran soon starts exhibiting even more idiosyncratic behavior than ever such as secretly eating holes in the plaster walls at his home. His dramatic, artist parents (Anti- Tito) fight with his aunt and uncle (Pro-Tito) incessantly, and his old grandma (old regime – still retains private property rights) who supports the whole family, but lives in the hallway witnesses it all.

Though only a mediocre student, Zoran wins a nation-wide writing competition entitled “Do You Love Tito and Why?” when he writes a poem in which he claims to love the national leader, Marshall Tito, more than his own parents. His obsession with Tito is fueled by propaganda in the theaters and brainwashing at school. The prize for the winning student is a place on the children’s team that will complete a “March to Tito’s Homeland”, in which his crush, a little girl orphan, will be participating.

Zoran Wins by Writing - "I Love Tito More Than Mom and Dad"

The March is basically a camping trip for a lucky group of chosen students, in which they are led through the Croatian wilderness by a fanatical, tyrannical leader, who likens the students to a youth army, and conditions them with military-like tirades and pro Tito group songs. Disheartened by the conditions on the trip and irritated by a pesky rash, Zoran drops behind the group and is later found by his angry leader in an abandoned shed in the middle of a rain storm.

When Zoran is chosen to read his poem about Tito in a public broadcast, he surprises everyone by instead improvising a statement in which he denounces Tito and claims that he does indeed, love his family and friends more than Tito, the ever celebrated leader. He even claims to love his neighborhood street lunatic more than Tito. The humiliated group leader ousts Zoran from the kid’s march, but not before a very symbolic mutiny against him occurs inside the children’s group.  Later, the leader commits suicide while in prison, after being taken away in handcuffs by Tito’s secret police, showing the full-blown indoctrination of this man into Tito’s all-encompassing control.

Later, in a reception hosted by Marshal Tito himself, the children are subjected to invasive security pat downs before being allowed to rush jubilantly into the arms of Tito. Tito’s perverted tendencies are shown, as he pays extra attention to an innocent young female student. Much to his parents’ relief, Zoran’s “Tito obsession” has by this time deflated into apathy, and he actually seems more interested in the grand spread of food than in Tito himself.

I wonder if the “Ja” in “Tito I Ja” is a metaphor for Yugoslavia. In other words, Zoran is a symbol of Yugoslavia: quirky, misunderstood, and caught in the middle of constant family (neighboring country/state) conflict. He’s obsessed with Tito, but who wasn’t? Then he later emerges after his disillusionment, realizing what a farce the leader really was. Zoran experiences an awakening, as the rest of Yugoslavia did later, when he seemed to ask himself: Why live a fantasy life glorifying a distant, cruel, leader, when your own life is meaningful, significant, and real?

Notes on Famous Slavs

Though the history of the Balkans is full of colorful and important figures, a few standouts remain relevant and present in the collective consciousness today. In order to carry on an intelligent conversation with a Serb, you may want to familiarize yourself with a few of these or else risk sounding ignorant. Though volumes have been written about these significant people, I’ll contribute only a small blurb as a jumping off point; you can take it from there. A little homework on these famous individuals will go a long way when conversing with locals.

Nikola Tesla – Scientist, Inventor
Unfortunately, this eccentric genius sometimes is forgotten and seen as the underdog in comparison to his colleague, Thomas Edison. Tesla’s brilliant contributions to science are incredibly noteworthy and include the alternating current, wireless technology, hydroelectric power plants and even the radio among various other advancements in the field. Recently, the Serbs gave a respectful nod to this important figure by renaming their airport the “Belgrade Nikola Tesla” Airport. Belgrade also maintains an excellent Tesla museum complete with interactive electrical experiments, a guided tour in various languages, and a videography of his life.

Nikola Tesla

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić – Linguist
Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic is known as the father of the Serbian Lanuage. His main claim to fame is the standardization of the the Cyrillic Alphabet which is still used today. He also published the 1st Serbian dictionary and is credited with documenting hundreds of folk songs and stories that were previously perserved by oral tradition only.

Vuk Karadzic (knowledgerush.com)

Josip Broz Tito – Revolutionary, Statesman, Dictator
Also known as Marshal Tito or just plain Tito, this former Yugoslavian Communist Dictator was a supreme figure in Yugoslavians lives and held political power from 1943 until his death in 1980. He was a revolutionary, practicing a type of Marxism/Stalinism with emphasis on unifying the ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia. He was known for his open borders in the country of Yugoslavia and for maintaining relatively friendly relations with the US, Western Europe, and a few 3rd world countries. He achieved worldwide popularity or notoriety depending on your perspective. This excerpt is from New York Times article commenting on his death. “Tito sought to improve life. Unlike others who rose to power on the communist wave after World War II, Tito did not long demand that his people suffer for a distant vision of a better life. After an initial Soviet-influenced bleak period, Tito moved toward radical improvement of life in the country. Yugoslavia gradually became a bright spot amid the general grayness of Eastern Europe.”

Tito & Kennedy

Ivo Andric – Poet, Writer
The name “Ivo Andric” came up several times during my recent month long stay in Belgrade, and each time I was told, “Andric was the only Serb to ever receive the Nobel Prize, you know”. Yes, I do know! Andric was an influential poet and novelist, his most well known book being “The Bridge On the Drina”, a book of historical fiction explaining the complexities of war in the region over a period of several hundred years. This seems to be one of those books that every Serb must read in school, and I’m currently struggling through it myself. Not at all a light read, this novel is incredibly intricate and sheds light on a region that has experienced generation upon generation of suffering.

Ivo Andric

Novak Djokovic – Tennis Champion
Novak Djokovic has emerged recently as one of the top contenders on the tennis scene and is now accepted as the #2 competitor in the world. He boasts 2 grand slam titles and was a bronze medalist at the 2008 Olympic Games along with holding various other titles and championships. Lately he seems to be gaining momentum and his winning streak is a source of national pride for Serbs. Not only is he a stellar athlete, but he also has been named by a French organization as a “Champion for Peace” and seems to really believe in promoting a new positive image of his homeland.

Novak Djokovic

Momo Kapor – Painter, Novelist
Momo Kapor is a very well known Serbian novelist. Though he was a painter by trade, he went on to write dozens of short stories, essays, and novels. His fame allowed his books to be translated into many different languages. One that is quite easy to get a hold of is his delightful collection of essays entitled, “The Guide to the Serbian Mentality”, which illuminates Serbian lifestyle, traditions, culture, food, and society.

Momo Kapor (Vreme)

If you know only what you read here, you’ll still be ahead of many tourists visiting Serbia. Even a basic knowledge of these famous figures will serve to open the conversational door to even more interesting facts, stories, and tidbits about Serbia and the former Yugoslavia during conversation. Use this brief guide as a starting point in discovering the rich tapestry of Slavic artists, writers, politicians, heroes, and visionaries.

Sources:
http://badassoftheweek.com/tesla.html
http://glassrbije.org/E/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10177&Itemid=29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vuk_Stefanovi%C4%87_Karad%C5%BEi%C4%87
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josip_Broz_Tito
http://badassoftheweek.com/tesla.html
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1961/andric-bio.html
http://www.novakdjokovic.rs/index.php?jezik=2

A Glimpse into Communist History

Tito's Presidential Car

One of the many items on my “to see” list for Belgrade is Tito’s tomb, otherwise known as the “House of Flowers”. Previously I had only a cursory knowledge of Tito, and even less of Milosevic, and to be quite honest, Yugoslavian politics and history has always confused me, even though I’ve been hearing about it for years, and listening for hours and hours to my husband talk about it. He is a history buff. So one afternoon after class I hopped on the bus with my friend Christophe, from Grenoble, France, and we found our way to the House of Flowers. “Kucha Svecha”. The grounds are open every day except Monday and have normal working hours. Contrary to Wikipedia information, the entrance is not free. I was charged 300 Dinars to visit.
Tito was the communist dictator of the former Yugoslavia, and remained in power until his death in 1980. Yugoslavia continued to exist as a country for at least a decade before it began to disintegrate into the separate nation states as we know today. Many locals, especially older ones, may not gain much from visiting, since they may have experienced Tito’s presence first hand. But for a foreigner, this is a place I would highly recommend visiting, in order to get a general impression of the “Tito Years”

Youth Day Photos and Memorabilia

The Yugoslavia museum that is located there was currently closed, which is quite a shame, especially considering that the National Museum located by Trg Republic is also currently closed for renovations. The trip is still worth it however, because a visitor can view both the House of Flowers, which includes both an elaborate display and the burial site of Tito. Also, there is the “Old Museum”, which housed a varied display of Yugoslavian artifacts including traditional clothing, musical instruments, and weaponry, along with hundreds of gifts that various countries (both from the former Yugoslavia and beyond) had given Tito.

The most interesting part of the visit was the display of Batons given to Tito every year on his birthday. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of batons on display from countries all over the former Yugoslavia. These batons were brought to Tito as a part of a relay race in which the youth of the nation participated in. The hand-made batons were intricately decorated and made of various materials such as wood, metal and stone, and were carefully inscribed, usually with something like, “To Our Dear Tito” “From, the Yugoslavian Communist Youth”, or perhaps, from The Albanian Music Organization, or even, the Athletic group of Southern Croatia, or the People of Slovenia. There were pictures of children sprinting all over the map with the batons, eagerly handing them off to the next runner, and finally, presenting them to Tito himself. This was quite an eye-opening display of the broad range of Tito’s presence.

Batons ceremonially presented to Tito

The Yugoslavian political history is quite complex, and very hard to follow. This museum offers a glimpse into one main component of this history. Overall, very interesting and educational experiences indeed, if you’re ever in Belgrade, go see it.

“Now You Feel the Real Belgrade!” or “A Snowman Named Tito”

A Snowman named Tito

As most adventures are, it was a chain of events that led me to this moment, me playing the bongo type drums to a techno mix on stage underground in Eastern Europe.
“Now you feel the real Belgrade”, my new Serbian friend Aleksandar shouted, as we were all dancing to the techno electronica music that boomed through the catacomb like club that we had been brought to….20 minutes later, I was up on the DJ stage, playing the drums, yes, thats right, I was playing the drums on the DJ stage with another friend, Pablo. We took an opportunity to become guest stars at The Tube, and underground club in the heart of the city.
That morning, I linked up with some travelers at my hostel, 3 from Quebec, Canada, 1 guy from Slovenia, and 1 from Germany. They had all be studying in Barcelona together and were here for the weekend. After exploring Kalamegdan park again, we made a snowman together in front of the fortress, and named him Tito. Our battleground with snowballs was fought on the battleground of the Belgrade fortress, where many bloody battles had ensued, mostly with the Turks.
Later we got Burek at a street vendor, roasted chestnuts in a paper cone along the main pedestrian zone, and I got 6 postcards for 100 dinars from a seller in the park.

For dinner, the 6 of us were joined by my new Aussie friend who is staying at another hostel. We found a place called “the domestic food of the house”, and ordered 7 plates to share. Sausage, Cevapcici, Potato Baklava, Smoked Turkey, Sarma, and Been soup. And of course, it wouldn’t be a real Serbian meal without lots of bread and lots of Shivovice. Sorry for the mis-spellings here…
All of us sat in a corner of the dark wooden restaurant, in front of a giant, larger than life size poster of President Tito, the infamous communist dictator of the former Yugoslavia.
After dinner we were to meet a girl we had met who told us to join her at some club at the outskirts of old town. After we finally found our way, we were turned away, they were too full. At this point, this was the 3rd time in 2 days I had been turned away because the place was too full. Once at a cafe, once at a bar, and once at a restaurant. This would never happen in the US. They would make a place for you, or put you on a list, or have you sit at the bar until a table opened up, but in Belgrade, when there’s no room, there’s no room for business as well. So we left. We found a few random guys in the street who seemed interesting, and they immediately offered there opinions on the best places to experience the night life. So, we followed them, now a group of 9, and soon we would meet up with 2 more friends of friends, 2 Bosnians. So to sum. 2 Bosnians, 1 Slovenian, 3 Serbs, 1 American, 3 Canadians, 1 German, and 1 Australian. A very interesting crowd, no doubt.
They led us to the Red Room, along the way discussing the media and the impression of Serbs around the world. Aleksandar wanted Belgrade to be seen as welcoming, open, friendly to foreigners, and wanted us very much to like Belgrade. He wanted us to have a good time that night, it was very obvious. It was sweet how he was trying so hard to show us a good time. He talked about being a global citizen of the world, and that even though Muslims had killed 2 of his family members, he still didn’t hate Muslims, because after all, a person is just a person, and not defined by the extremists who also belong to the same group. He talked about the NATO bombing, and how he still like Americans…he was a very interesting guy indeed, couldn’t have been more than 28 years old or so, and he was studying fashion design. He wanted to go to Milan or Paris, to show them that Belgraders are as sophisticated as the rest of Europe.
So after the Red Room, which was a grunge-punk club, we ended up at the Tube, which was really like a big underground maze of hallways and rooms, very cave like and dark in all the corners, with lightbulbs randomly around…barely making it visible. The Techno was crazy loud, and when we left around 0430, the party was going stronger than when we had arrived. And it was packed nearly shoulder to shoulder throughout.
So now the mystery is solved about why Belgraders always talk so loudly amongst themselves…they’ve gone deaf from spending age 18-38 at the techno clubs every night. I’m beginning to yell a little myself.
So All in All… a very interesting evening. Good company, good music, good food, and good entertainment on many levels….More to come later….
Best, from Belgrade.

Can You Feel It?