Thursday, April 15, 2010

A prayer in pictures.

I re-read St. Theresa's prayer in the bathroom at my old house in Baltimore, and wanted to illustrate it.

May today there be peace within.

May you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be.

May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others.

May you use the gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.

May you be content with yourself just the way you are.

Let this knowlege settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.

It is there for each and every one of us.


Monday, January 11, 2010


So, this is awkward.

I meant to write this before I left Serbia, but you know how it goes when you decide to end an assignment early and have only two weeks to say goodbye to your friends and pack all your belongings into two 23 kilo bags (and only ONE carry on, thanks a lot, Austrian air…). There wasn’t time to write it there, so I’ll explain now.

So, yes, I’m leaving early. Have left, actually. It isn’t that anything specific happened (other than, you know, my father dying), or that things were really so bad, or that I couldn’t deal with life in Belgrade. Belgrade is an incredible city full of beauty and passion and depth and surprises, my job was amazing, and I was starting to make some genuine friendships. I adored the other service workers with MCC in the region, and I was FINALLY becoming conversational in Serbian. So, why bail?

Good question. To be honest, I was really cold. The weekend I made the decision was the coldest we had had this winter and the heat in my apartment wasn’t working. Of course, it is more than that, but in the interest of full disclosure, you need to know that fear of frostbite was a factor in the decision. Of course, there is more than that, too.

After the funeral, when I decided to come back to Serbia, lots of people told me they were proud of me. Lots of people told me my dad would be proud of me. People told me I was being brave and selfless, but here’s the secret: I am much more scared of going home than I was of going back to Serbia. I think, on some level, being in Serbia the past few months protected me from certain parts of the grieving process. There was so much to do and see and think about I didn’t have TIME to fall apart. In some ways, I was hiding in the Balkans… hiding from my grief, from my past, and from my family.

Now I’m going home, because it’s time. I have always wanted to travel, to see what there is to see, to forge a new path, to be on my own, and I’ve been lucky to be able to do a decent amount of that through international travel the past few years. It took the death of a parent, but now I think I am starting to see the value of having both wings AND roots, the value of family, the value of home. It sounds cliché and naive, I know, but I do think part of the reason I wanted to live abroad was to, in some sense, “find myself”. I did a lot of things the past few months… I lived alone for the first time in my life, I learned Serbian (and Bosnian and Croatian!), I learned to trust myself, and I grew up a lot. The thing I am realizing now, however, is that maybe “finding myself” doesn’t need to take place in the Balkans, or Central America, or East Africa. Maybe those are silly places to look. Maybe I can- and should- “find” myself at the source of myself: at home.

Travel does do a lot for a person, though, I will be honest about that. Traveling has taught me some new things, changed some of my values, and showed me some of my values that I am not willing to change. I have realized I am, in fact, more American than I thought (and perhaps more American than I’d like to admit). I’m coming home wearing a scarf from Kosovo and jewelry from Bosnia, reading Winnie the Pooh in Serbian (in Cyrillic!), but I am not nor will I ever be from any of those places. You can go anywhere in the world, you can make your own journey, and you can try to even aim at a certain kind of ending, but you only get one beginning, the same way you only get one father. Now I see that, and staying in Belgrade, even if it is to work for a humanitarian aid organization, seems both frivolous and selfish.

My favorite Serbian proverb is “Svuda pođi, kući dođi.” It means “Go everywhere, come home.” There are two interpretations I’ve heard. One is that you can go anywhere and everywhere in the world and be at home there, and that’s the meaning I originally fell in love with. The other meaning is that you can go anywhere in the world, but you should always return home, to your roots, to your people, and that’s the meaning I’ve got tucked in my back pocket now.

I probably won’t write here anymore. After all, “Today I went to the grocery store, asked for something in my native language, and got exactly what I expected!” is simply not a compelling story. If you’re so interested and invested in me that that kind of story would be compelling for you, we’re probably close enough for you to call me and ask me those kind of questions… or else you’re stalking me, which is creepy, so stop.

This whole entry runs the risk of being overly sweet and sentimental, so I might as well push it over the edge with some song lyrics I loved as a 12- year- old. It makes me feel silly, but I do think Dar Williams’ words apply here. She writes:

Here’s something I finally faced, I finally think I come from someplace, and this is not a romance with the road.

She’s right, you know. You can love the road and enjoy the journey, and maybe one day I’ll court these kind of adventures again, but for now, I finally think I come from someplace, and that’s enough. Dosta. Enough.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Some language and photo highlights

I promised you my molasses story. I have heard from some people (one person commenting here, and from friends in Sarajevo) that it is possible to find molasses in the region. Maybe that's true, maybe they were just teasing me, but this is what happened when I tried to buy it.

Maggie, having already invited several Serbian friends over for a gingerbread house making party, needs to find molasses to make said gingerbread. She goes to the biggest grocery store she knows, the one where she can find fresh ginger and mangoes, and has this conversation (in Serbian):
Maggie: Hello, I have a question.
Store clerk: OK, go ahead.
M: OK. I need to buy something, but I don't know if you have it, and I don't know how to say it in Serbian.
SC: OK... well, what is it?
M: I don't know. In English we call it molasses.
SC: I don't know what that is. What's it like?
M: It's like honey, but it's black.
SC: Black honey? We have that.
M: No, it's not honey. But it's LIKE honey. But it's not honey. It's black and sweet and... like honey. You cook with it. You can't eat it. I mean, you can eat it, but you can't eat it alone. I mean, you can, but that is gross.
SC: ...OK. Follow me. (Shows Maggie to the honey shelf. Hands her a jar of black honey).
M: This is honey.
SC: Yes, this is black honey.
M: No, what I want is not honey. But it is like honey (wishes desperately that she knew the word for "sticky" or "thick").
SC: I don't think we have what you want.
M: OK. Thanks anyway. (walks away, and accepts defeat).

Not all is lost, however. I free-hand cut house pieces from sugar cookie dough, baked those, and we put them together with homemade butter cream frosting. It worked pretty well!

The materials....

The process...

The finished products!

My friends had never made cookie houses before and were eager to try. They kept asking at what point we eat them... I think the concept of cookies just for decoration is pretty American (both showy AND wasteful! Yay!)

Otherwise, though, the winter has been progressing nicely, and by "nicely" I mean with a shit ton of snow, and then a warm front to melt it all. We did have fun with the kids at work in the snow, though, while it was here.

In conclusion, here are a few more examples of me making an ass out of myself in a foreign language (since apparently these are popular).

Buying cheese in the market:
Cheese guy: Would you like to buy some of this cheese, too? It's very good.
Maggie: No thanks, it's my first time.
Cheese guy: (concerned face) OK... well... enjoy....
(I mixed up "first time" and "another time". Earlier that day I had told someone that it was my first time in Europe, and apparently I can only use one phrase a day.)

While sitting (alone) at a bus station waiting to be picked up by friends for the weekend:
Stranger: Miss, do you need some help?
Maggie: No, thanks, I'm waiting with friends.
Stranger: (looks around deserted bus station) OK....
(za prijatelje (for friends) vs. sa prijateljima (with friends)... I guess I need to study the cases again).

At home, listening to music:
Friend: Is this on youtube or do you have it on your computer?
Maggie: It's mine. I bought this song because I love you.
*crickets chirping*
Maggie: OH! OH! I mean, I bought this song because I love IT! I mean, I like you, but, this song... I.... um....

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's beginning to look a [little] like [something sort of resembling] Christmas...

Everyone has problems. The secret is not looking for a life without problems, but finding creative ways to meet your problems; notice I said meet... not necessarily solve. Thus, I give you:

The Lone American Volunteer in Serbia's Guide to Christmas

PROBLEM: You are a protestant living in an Orthodox country. What you have always celebrated as Christmas (December 25th) is not a holiday where you live.

SOLUTION: Make work special that day. Make your students balloon animals and give them candy canes sent from the US. Invite orthodox friends over for a special dinner; after all, it's not like they're doing anything that night!

PROBLEM: Nativity scenes are a big part of the holiday season for you, both because you're a Christian, and because they are a family/cultural tradition. You miss the nativity sets in your parents' house: the one your grandpa carved by hand from wood, the ceramic one you spent hours playing with as a child, the one your sister brought back from Ghana.

SOLUTION: Buy a nativity set in Serbia.

PROBLEM: You can't find a nativity set that costs less than $30, which is half your monthly income.

SOLUTION: Make your own nativity set out of salt dough.

PROBLEM: You had to bake your nativity set figures on their backs because the salt dough wouldn't allow them to stand up on the cookie sheet. Now Mary, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherd, and the angel can't stand up at all. Only Jesus in the manger and the sheep, who is lying down, look normal.

SOLUTION: Throw everyone but Jesus and the sheep away. Paint them, put them on display, and claim it is a visual reference to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

PROBLEM: Almost all Christmas songs with any sort of deep or personal meaning make you burst into tears, especially ones involving the words "family", "friends", or "home".

SOLUTION: Listen to Santa Baby and Baby It's Cold Outside on repeat. Sing along. Declare "Serbian Sexy" as the theme for this year's Christmas.

PROBLEM: Making gingerbread houses from scratch with the mold your grandmother gave you is a tradition, but that mold is now in Virginia and your mother refuses to spend the $80 to ship it to you.

SOLUTION: Throw a gingerbread house making party for your Serbian friends, using hand cut gingerbread pieces instead of the mold. They won't really know what you're talking about, but will be interested. It helps if you claim it will be like the house in Hansel and Gretel and tell them they can eat the candy.

PROBLEM: There is no molasses in Serbia [see future post for Maggie Makes an Idiot of Herself While Trying to Buy Molasses story] and you can't make gingerbread without molasses.

SOLUTION: Make sugar cookie houses. Decorate with (homemade) colored frosting, sprinkles, gummi bears and gummi dinosaurs.

PROBLEM: Everyone you love and everyone who loves you live on another continent.

SOLUTION: Skype with family and friends. Use your time to work on new relationships where you are. Count your blessings. After all, the first Christmas took place when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were away from home, too. At least you're not in a barn.

"[Maybe next year] we all will be together,
If the fates allow,
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow...
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

"but WHERE is the MONKEY??"

Language differences continue to be both the most difficult and most amusing part of my time in Serbia.

It almost feels like I am making more mistakes the more I learn, because now I understand just enough of what people are saying to THINK I understand what they mean. A popular one to mention with my friends here is kofa vs. kafa. Kofa is a bucket, and kafa is coffee. A few weeks ago a girl was in our apartment and feeling sick. She put her head between her knees... and then threw up between her knees, onto the floor. Repeatedly. We all jumped into action, and I, of course, wanted to be as helpful as possible. I understood that one person was saying (in Sebian) "Go get the kofa! Bring the kofa!" I didn't know the word 'kofa', so I heard it as 'kafa' (a word I know and love). I thought it was a bit odd that they wanted to give the puking girl coffee, but Serbs LOVE coffee, and also have many "home remedies" for ailments that I find perplexing. They want coffee, I thought. Great. I can do that. So I made coffee, and I got some REALLY funny looks when I brought it into the room.

The language barrier really goes both ways, though. Like I've said before, people in Belgrade, especially people my age, tend to speak excellent English. That being said, some things just don't translate. My first gut-busting laughter since coming back from the funeral was shared with my roommate in our kitchen. I was washing dishes, and she was using a laptop I had borrowed from work at the kitchen table. She went to log in to facebook and couldn't find the "@" symbol, since international keyboards vary. She looked up and, with all seriousness, asked me in English, "Where is the monkey?". We hadn't been living together very long at this point, so I didn't want to freak her out or accuse her of smoking crack, so I did my best to maintain a straight face and said, "Milana, we don't HAVE a monkey." After several "what?"s, "WHAT??"s, and "What do you MEAN??"s, we figured it out. In Serbian, the "@" is called "majmunce", or "the little monkey". Since it doesn't make sense, she assumed it was a term they had borrowed from English. Needless to say to the native English speakers reading this blog... it's not.

There have been some fun times with people who are learning English as well. One of my colleagues at the kindergarten told me the day we met that he doesn't speak English. He said it in excellent English, though, which was confusing. I believe his exact words were: "Hi! I'm Kolja. I'm sorry, I don't speak English. I only know some English from watching TV". That boy must have watched a LOT of TV, though, because we have had several long conversations in English. I think what he, and a lot of Serbs, meant by "I don't speak English" was really "my English isn't perfect." That is true. Multiple times now he has asked me, "Maggie, do you want to go to bed with me?". The first time this was especially confusing (and I should mention here that this particular colleague is very handsome, wears funny shirts, is great with kids, and smells like fabric softener [in a good way]). The first time he asked, I think I just looked at him for a while, and then he motioned for me to follow him to the basement. WELL, who am I to argue? I'm a great cross cultural ambassador, I would ever be culturally insensitive and turn down a social invitation, and I love fabric softener, so I followed him to the basement... where we set up the little beds where the younger kids take naps. I should maybe tell him what he is implying with the way he says this, but I enjoy being propositioned too much to correct him.

Finally, there are the different ways Serbian and English are difficult. English grammar, compared to nearly any other language, is ridiculously easy. I laugh, you laugh, (s)he laughs, we laugh, y'all laugh, they laugh. No cases for nouns (with the possible exception of pronouns) and no genders. Serbian grammar is NUTS, with 7 cases for nouns, genders, confusing accents, and letters I can't pronounce. Serbian, however, is completely phonetic. "Write as you speak, and read as it's written" (Thanks, Vuk Karadžić!). Every letter in Serbian has ONE sound, and the sound can't be changed by the order of the surrounding letters. There are no silent letters, no Is before Es except after Cs or when sounding like A as in neighbor or weigh. It is pure, honest, and straightforward, and once you learn the rules, they don't change. This is why I can read books to my students. I usually have no idea what I'm saying, but I can read, and they understand what I'm saying. Thus, the most difficult thing for Serbs learning English is the crazy way things are written and pronounced. One of my friends from work speaks English well, but has never learned to read or write it, so she just writes it like it's Serbian, leading to things like this (actual text message I received): "Ajm lejt bikoz aj vejt bas. Aj bi der for 10min." That's in English... um, kind of. If you read it with Serbian rules of pronunciation (and grammar) it says "I'm late because I wait bus. I be there for 10 min", or, with English grammar, "I'm late because I'm waiting for the bus. I will be there in 10 min." I have this message saved in my phone, and will keep it forever. It is the most endearing text I've ever gotten.

I have a new Serbian teacher now, so I making faster progress on more practical things. I have also gotten over a lot of my anxieties about practicing what little I do know, because I've realized people think my accent and inability to hear the difference between "Č" and "Ć" or say "Lj" is cute, and it's a good way to make friends (and be kissed... somehow it's a fairly common occurance for me to say something in Serbian and for someone to laugh, put thier hands on my head, and kiss my cheek.) Dosta mi je težak, ALI, snalazim se... nekako. :o)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I spent this past weekend in Sarajevo visiting with my region representatives and another service worker in the region. We went on a hike through the mountains near Sarajevo and went to this waterfall, which was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I don't think I even realized how sad I have been until I was standing on this bridge, feeling the spray of the waterfall on my face... it sounds stupid, I'm sure, but there was something healing about it.

"...let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream." Amos 5:24

Ne razumem...

I haven't written anything for a while, and I apologize to those of you who have been waiting on the edge of your seats. I would love to tell you that I have been too busy learning Serbian to write anything, but then you might ask me to say something, and I would have to admit that I still know next to nothing.

In theory I work at the kindergarten from 8 until 1, and then have Serbian lessons from 4- 5:30 during the week. I also have about an hour and a half of homework every day. So, that means I am spending about five hours a day working, and three hours a day learning the language. In truth, however, I learn much more Serbian at the kindergarten than I do in my lessons. At work learn things like "Don't put that in your mouth!" "Sit down!" "Eat your cabbage!" and "Don't open the bunny cage!". In my lessons I learn things like "There is a shift and change of stress in many Class I disyllabic masculine nouns with the short-rising accent on the first, and the length on the second syllable. The accent shifts to the middle syllable and changes into the long rising one in all cases except the vocative singular." Incidentally, I always thought I was good at learning languages before I tried to learn Serbian. It turns out I happen to have studded easy languages.

People in Belgrade tend to speak very good English. In fact, the only people I have met who ACTUALLY don't speak English are either elderly or under 10. Many people between those two groups will claim they don't speak English, but they usually do and are just being modest (or don't want to talk to me). There seems to be an attitude here that everyone *should* know English, and when people think their English isn't very good, they're embarrassed. I have even been asked by more than one person why I am trying to learn Serbian, because it is "such a small language", and "only relevant here." I hardly know what to say to those people. I am learning Serbian because I LIVE here, because I look like an idiot in the grocery store, because I can't talk to my students, because I respect you enough to try to address you in your native tongue... the list for THAT goes on and on.

Despite my genuine efforts to progress, I still fail at most things most days with this language. Some fun examples:

(At work):
Kindergartner: Maggie, you are American?
Maggie: Yes I am.
Kindergartner: Do you LIVE in America??
Maggie: (confusing the verb "to live" with the verb "to come from") Yes, I do!
Kindergartner: WHOAAAAA!!!!!!
(Several hours later)
Maggie: (to self) Why was she so shocked that I am from the US?? OH CRAP she asked if I lived there NOW... she thinks I am commuting every day to Belgrade from DC... oh dear.

(With friends)
Friend: (sneezes)
Maggie: (literal translation) Shhh, kitty!
Maggie: What!? Isn't that what you say when someone sneezes??
Friend: That is what you say when you are 6 and someone sneezes.
(guess where I learned it?)

(At the grocery store)
Maggie: (struggles to figure out how to get the little scale to print the sticker so she can buy her lemons. Motions to the clerk for help).
Clerk: (points at lemons) Lemons?
Maggie: (conditioned response) I don't speak Serbian.

(At home)
Doorbell rings. Maggie is home alone and answers it. A large, very scary looking man is standing there.
Man: Hello.
Maggie: Hello.
Man: Is your TV working?
Maggie: (WTF? Did Milana call someone to fix the TV? Shouldn't he have some kind of uniform on if he works for the TV company? Maybe they don't have uniforms for TV guys in Serbia. If I let him in, he will probably kill me, but it might be culturally insensitive to not let him in. It's raining, maybe he wants coffee. Maybe if I make him coffee he won't kill me...)
Man: IS... YOUR... TV.... WORKING?
Maggie: (what the hell) No, it is not working.
Man: OK. (enters house. Messes with TV.) (bunch of stuff in Serbian)
Maggie: (nods)
Man: (bunch of stuff in Serbian), understand?
Maggie: yes.
Man: (bunch of stuff in Serbian) TV not works (something in Serbian) understand?
Maggie: Yes.
Man: (Bunch of stuff in Serbian) understand? (Messes with TV. Bunch of stuff in Serbian that sounds like a question.)
Maggie: Yes?
Man: Yes??
Maggie: No?
Man: Good. (bunch of stuff in Serbian. TV starts working. Bunch more stuff in Serbian.) You speak Serbian well.
Maggie: Thank you. I am learning the language.

So it goes.

Another MCC worker in the region had some really interesting things to say about learning the language. He will be serving in Sanski Most, Bosnia and Herzegovina, but is living in Sarajevo for a few months to study language. You can read his thoughts here: (it isn't letting me put it in as a link and my computer skills are as limited as my language skills, so you can cut and paste. I trust you).

If you can't tell from that post, he knows a LOT more of the language than I do. I bet if asked if he was buying lemons, he would say, yes, I am buying lemons. The he would probably proceed to have a conversation in the local language about Yugoslavian literature. Not that I am bitter. I am learning the language, too... polako, i malo po malo.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cute fuzzy kittens

Yesterday night as I was coming home from a cafe I saw a kitten on the corner of my street. He looked like he was about 6 weeks old and was black and white. It was a very cold night, and he looked so cute, and I have really wanted a cat lately, so I seriously considered picking him up and taking him home. I wasn't sure how my roommate feels about cats, though, and I don't really have enough money to buy cat food, so I left him there.

Today on my way home from work I saw him again a little further up the street. This time he was lying dead on the sidewalk with his throat ripped open. It looked like one of the stray dogs got him.

Some days are harder than others. I guess that's true no matter who and where you are, though.