Sunday, November 8, 2009

I have this weekend spoken to my mother and one of my closest friends.  Due to the current circumstances of my life (ie. no landline, no home internet, moving frequently) I had not spoken to either of them in three months or longer and had, almost, forgotten how important these conversations are for re-centering myself.  (Enter new-age therapy jokes here).  As Sarajevo cannot decide between winter and fall, rain snow rain snow, I find my brain similarly conflicted.  Upon arriving in Sarajevo, devastated by what I saw as my own failure and my former 'boss' parting words, I was determined to prove to myself that I was not the inadequate human being and to not be a 'quitter'.  As we all know quitters never win... but what is quitting anyway?  This is not a basketball game where one can merely walk off the court.
I have been working for the last two to three months for a local ngo in Sarajevo that has done some interesting work in the country, work to record stories, increase universal access to the 'facts' of the war in Bosnia, they speak about 'democratizing information' and hindering the increase of nationalism through knowledge.  They are, in short, an organization which carries on a mission I truly believe in.  However, they are also an organization that is going through a bit of reorganization at the moment.  Tomorrow I am going to be meeting with my contact person to find out if there is a continuing role for me with in the ngo... the truth is, though, that I have done little for them since my arrival.  Mostly I read books... a lot of books.  I am supposed to be reading these books to help with methodological information about collecting and publishing oral histories, and, I was told, to help with the writing of a literature review.  I read, took notes, organized information, and sent out my thoughts.  They are keeping it on file because it is "very helpful".  But at the end of the day I don't need to be in Bosnia to read books and email my thoughts.  
I came to the Balkans over a year ago to do "good works" whatever that turned out to mean, and was prepared for a certain amount of boredom, my share of overwhelming experiences, and lows of self doubt.  Tonight my dear friend asked me if, so far, I had gotten out of the experience what I thought I would... well no.
I have gotten entirely different "things" out of the experience.  I have learned a great deal of what I am and am not capable of and what I will and will not let others demand of me.  But I have done no "good works".  There are other foreigners in the region, including K. in Mostar, who are doing good, productive, and meaningful work here; through starts and miss-starts they have found a place for themselves and a directed focus for their passions.  I am not entirely sure what I am doing here at this point.
I came to Belgrade to work with a feminist pacifist women's organization because I believe through my toes in pacifism and am fascinated by women's groups... I learned from these women and this experience and in the end I had to leave.  Now I am sitting on my hands.  
What did I intend to get out of this experience?  The answer to this question has to change over time as I experience new places, people, and things but it is a question that I must continue to ask myself.  If I wanted to go out into the world to be of some use and I am failing to accomplish this simple goal it is perhaps time to reassess. 

Friday, November 6, 2009


Living in a region of the world where the motto seems to be always “polako polako” (slowly slowly) one finds that deadlines are not met, household items are not fixed, and meetings rarely begin or end at their appointed time.  During my frist few months in Serbia I attempted, nearly successfully, to step into this slow moving... we are talking molassas in January... river of time and float.  But even I have my limits, there is a point when one... yeah one meaning me, but “one” just sounds better doesn’t it?... goes from saying “okay polako polako” to “wait am I just being lied too?!”  Oh yes, see things may move slowly here in the Balkans, but they may also just never come at all.  Like anywhere in the world there are good people, bad people, honest people, liars, and the ever unreliable humanbeings.  For me unreliable is the most frustrating, because unreliable people are not bad people, maybe they don’t even intend to lie, but they do lie and lie and lie.  At first the lie is for their convienence because they intend to accomplish the promised thing, but at their own, not your, pace; but then they lie to save face, and then they lie because being honest seems a nearly impossible thing to do.  I am not a fan of unreliable people.  We have all failed someone at some point in our lives, we have all lied, but continual, regular, repeated behavior this is the diference between being temporarily unreliable and being an unreliable person.

In case you have not yet picked up on my oh so subtle narration style; I am currently dealing with an unreliable person.  In Belgrade I worked with a few unreliable people, I lived with one, and while they annoyed me I learned to work around them... for the most part.  But my current Sarajevo unreliable person is my landlord, and after two months of what I now feel was blatant lying I realize that I have to move.  My landlords are not bad people, they are simply unreliable.  

In one’s own culture where one knows the approved cultural cues, approved social and cultural behavior... the behavior spectrum, one feels more confident making decisions (read judgements) and more quickly able to make said decisions about the people with whom one interacts.  But here, in a new place, a new culture, I find myself tiptoeing around what I see as my own ignorance.  Maybe I feel slighted, injured, lied too, but am I being culturally insensitive, am I being too demanding?  An aquaintance of mine in Sarajevo once said to me “I hate when people blame everything on cutural differences... sometimes the person you are dealing with seems like a bitch because she is a bitch.”

I hate moving.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Word of the Day

Here are a few of my favorite words:

zabrobiti: to enthrall
o┼żeniti: to take a wife
upitati se: to ask oneself
rusvaj: chaos
potucati se: to wander; to live a vagabond's life
rospija: harpy
vila: nymph
polaznik: the first visitor on Christmas day
nestati: to fade away

These may not be words I find myself able to use daily, or in some cases ever, but they currently hold a special space in my language learning heart.

Ramen and Wine

Last night I went to “internationals” game night at the apartment of a man who works for the US Embassy.  Normally, this game night is held at the modest apartment of my friend L, who works for the prosecution of the international court in Sarajevo, but due to the failure of her heating system to actually heat her apartment Embassy man (as I will call him for the purpose of this post) agreed to have us over.  Embassy man and I have met on several occasions since my arrival in Sarajevo and are fairly, mutually, ambivalent towards each other.  There are no ill feelings, but no love lost between us.  However, his apartment is INSANE.  My apartment could fit five times over into his apartment.  Now, admittedly my apartment is rather small, but for one person on a temporary assignment, it suffices.  Embassy man’s apartment is nicer than any apartment I will ever live it.  Large formal dinning room, large flat screen tv, an entire wall of floor to ceiling windows.  He has a housekeeper who comes in to clean his place.  He lives alone and is only a few years older than I am.  

“I like big things” he said last night in response to some comment or other.  

This would explain his giant television, giant coffee table books, masks and tables from his time on assignment in Africa.  

“I am a spoiled trust fund kid all grown up,” 

“Umm, well that’s okay” I replied

In truth it is okay, he is a nice guy, the embassy pays for the apartment.  Does he live in a style completely unattainable to the majority of people in the country where he lives, yes, but that is the life style the US Embassy sets up and perpetuates, the fact that Embassy man benefits from this is, I suppose, a side note.  

Though, while the idea of someone giving me a nice apartment in which to live upon arrival in a foreign country sounds lovely, I find this overly luxurious and characterless apartment slightly creepy.  It is too large for one person.  However, I covet his kitchen. (though not the bizarre and massive supply of ramen and french wines).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Killer and the Shadow

Laid in one night, six pm with the sun long gone from the mountain side, the sound of cats and dogs pinned in to tightly together serenades me over head.  My landlords, a kindly elderly couple, have an impressive collection of ugly mutts and stray cats.  The rain is near frozen outside tonight, but the air smells comforting, a combination of water, cold, stove fires, and collective cooking.  The neighborhood, where I live, is a labyrinth of homes cut into smaller homes, courtyards built off courtyards.  From the streets one sees double doors (some elaborately carved, some of fine straight wood, and some corrugated metal), high walls, and balconies with laundry, but behind the doors are twists and turns from homes extended and apartments carved out, new homes inside old ones and vice versa.  The cats live in the gaps between, with the roses and the spiders.  On misty nights the smell of garlic, peppers, and hot bread mingles with the mist, the call to prayer and the church bells.  When I was a kid I remember night bringing the sounds of yelling, sirens, car alarms, and passing bass.  No one yells here, or at least rarely. 

Once you pass through my courtyard’s metal doors, Killer (the name I have given the long haired raggedy dog who guards our homes) greets you with either a friendly wag of his tail and his head to pat, or a half interested glance from inside his dog house.  His food bowl is generally full, with old bread, cut up hot dogs, and butter cookies.  Poor Killer.  You then step down, ducking your head beneath overhanging vines, into the cement yard, which is always dotted with pools of shallow water, the landlords cloths line is generally holding up one sweater and a kitchen towel (a different set every day or two).  This fall, before the snow arrived on 12 October, my landlord was pressing barrels of small apples, cooking them with “mountain plants” and preparing something to be consumed to cure fevers.  Today the yard holds my stove.

 A man from work told me I live in the “shadow”.  In old Sarajevo, or before Sarajevo existed, there were two towns on opposite sides of the river.  Mine was known as the shadow because this mountain gets less sun then the other mountain.  “Men in your community are smaller, weaker, because they didn’t play in the sun as boys”. 

After another full day of snow, rain, and sleet storms spent in the library discussing the ideal construction of a book of oral histories from rural Bosnia with a colleague at work, I found that my stove had migrated from the courtyard to in front of my door. 

“How goes it?” asked my landlord.

“Fine, how are you?” 

“Good, I was looking for you” she said. “We have the stove for you and a television... do you watch television?”

“Well, I don’t really need the television, but thanks a lot for the stove.”

“Yeah my sons will come by later to bring it in.”


And then the wait began.  What exactly “later” means in Bosnia is yet unclear to me.  Later can mean hours, days, weeks, or seemingly even months.  I had assumed, incorrectly, that since the stove was already by my door, it was raining out, and the sons live in the apartment above mine that later would mean a few hours.  Five hours later, long after dark and civilized visiting hours, the sons had yet to materialize.  I sat there in my one room apartment growing increasingly annoyed.  Annoyed that my stove was sitting out in the rain, annoyed that was not drinking mint tea to warm my hands, annoyed that I was annoyed and that I was spending so much time thinking about the stove sitting just outside my doorway.  And then I remembered something.  I am my mother’s daughter.  So simple a thing, but Kennedy women carry their own luggage, chop down trees, build houses, and birth 11 lb babies (note to reader I was not 11 lbs)... Kennedy women can certainly move a stove... well two stoves, the old one had to go outside so the new one could come in.  So, in the strength of this recently remembered, and hopefully true, genetic legacy I got off the couch, pulled on my boots and swung open my front door to be hit fully in the face by a wall of icy wind and driving rain.  Much to, I assume, the amusement of my neighbors across the courtyard I spent the next twenty minutes pushing, pulling, adjusting and readjusting.  But in the end I, and the female Kennedy legacy, triumphed.  Perhaps my sense of accomplishment is overblown, and slightly pathetic, but as I not so slowly approach 30 I seem to still need reminding that I am invincible... oh wait no that wasn’t the lesson.  I seem to be continuously reminded that I am strong and fully capable.  This does not mean that I never need help, or that I would not like help if it were available, but much like my much beloved Paper Bag Princesses, I cannot and will not eternally sit around waiting for someone’s son to help me. 

Especially as, having been raised in the Shadow, I am most likely stronger than them anyway. 

Friday, October 16, 2009

"You eat small bread?"

"You eat small bread?" A. asked me today.

"Well, I eat less bread."
"Yes," she responded "you eat... small bread."

We did not eat a lot of bread in my house growing up.  There was bread in the house, usually a loaf of dark, whole wheat bread that my dad would use to make lunches for my sister and I, but we were not a family that ate bread with every meal.  On television I would see families sitting around the table with a "bread plate" where a roll or a couple slices of white bread would be placed.  My family was not a bread plate family.  In addition to the loaf of wheat bread, which often went moldy before my family of four could finish it, there was the occasional loaf of garlic bread for special occasions, or the cinnamon rolls on a sunday morning when my older sister learned about Pillsbury dough rolls.

In Serbia and Bosnia, where there is a bakery every fifteen feet and where bread is eaten at every meal... not infrequently is the only food item in at least one meal per day.... the idea that I do not eat bread is unfathomable.  I do, in fact, eat bread.  Occasionally I crave a pain au chocolate or a grilled cheese sandwich.  I love corn bread and banana bread.  But I will go for days, a week or more, without eating bread.  This makes me an oddity here.  

When I first arrived in the region I tried to adjust, recognizing that food is central to culture and to cross cultural understanding.  To learn about my new home, to form ties, I must sit down to meals and adopt new eating habits.  I traded my rice for bread.  But there are things the body refuses to learn.  My body simply does not like, want, or accept a daily intake of bread. 

My "hippie" (as friends have termed my parents, much to my parents' amusement) low meat, low bread, upbringing did not prepare me for the meat, cheese, and bread diet of the western Balkans.  And so I have adopted a compromise.  I will eat the fatty sausages, the flat breads, raised breads, sweet pastries at gatherings or when offered at someone's home, but only in small quantities. 

But at work, I still politely decline the offer of jam slathered rolls.  

"You diet?"
"No, I just do not eat a lot of bread."
"I diet once, eat small bread, lost 8 kilos.  Maybe you lose 8 kilos."

Welcome to the former Yugoslavia. 

*as a note, I am not making fun of others' english when I type it as spoken, you should hear my Bosnian.... boze!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I went to Belgrade this past weekend to see friends, meet with a couple of people from my old job, and pick up the things I had left behind in my last minute run over the border.  The weekend was excellent, relaxing and interesting. Being in my former office made me appreciative of the fact that I do not work there anymore.  Chaos can be lovely, but not 24 hours a day 7 days a week, there is only so long a person can live in crisis mode before it begins to eat away at their body and brain.
Getting to Belgrade was no problem... getting back however...
The bus driver stopped like ten times before we left Serbia... stopped to buy cigarettes, to smoke them, to buy things at the little family produce stands on the side of  the road, to smoke, to let people he knew on, to let them off.... the whole time I have this massive sinus headache and the back half of the bus are foreign girls in there late teens/early twenties speaking loudly in english.  At one stop they came up to me... one recognized me from a party in Sarajevo... and started asking me where I was from and what I am doing here etc... my face was killing me and I just wanted to be left alone, and then they did not believe me when I said I am from CA.  "But where are you FROM?" "California" "but you have an accent" "um, okay" "well where are your parents from?"  I lied.  It seemed like the thing to do at the moment, but upon second thought later, while back on the bus that I was beginning to think would be my new home, I realized that Sarajevo is a very small place and my lie might come back to bite me.  Oh well.  I figure if a group of people are so adamantly unwilling to accept the truth (repeatedly told to them) they deserve the harmless lie I fed to them.

Then we FINALLY get to the border and the guards come through, no problem with me (I am NOT sitting with the young'uns, as a general rule I avoid sitting in the self created international section while crossing borders.  There are benefits to traveling in groups, but they tend to draw unwanted attention from harmless curious onlookers and armed guards) but there is a problem with folks at the back of the bus.  So this group of australians are pulled off the bus and the girls, who were not traveling with the australians are talking loudly about how they are glad it was not them, and start laughing and joking about these YOUNG australians being pulled off by clearly unhappy border guards (the australians do not speak BCS at all).  We sit there, after about 30 minutes the aussi girls come back on, but the guy they were with is still not back.  So one of the non-aussi foreign girls goes up to the bus driver and starts in on him about when are we leaving and they have to get to Sarajevo... the driver is saying "I don't know."  They take the aussi guy's bags off the bus, we wait.  Finally, he and his bags come back and we leave.  We have at least 3 and half hours left till Sarajevo.  Then about thirty minuets into Bosnia we are stopped by the police and the bus and baggage area is searched... then we go on... then the driver stops about six times... smoking, letting locals on and off.

Finally we get to Sarajevo and before we arrive at the station the non-aussi girls want off the bus (so they won't have to take a taxi) and they are telling him in english to let them off... the driver is saying in Bosnian, this is not a stop, they don't understand, so passengers are translating for them, they are complaining in english... loudly...

So we get to the station and they want me to split a taxi with them (even though they are going no where near my place)... there are no taxis, so they are trying to flag down other people's taxis, the drivers are saying 'no, you have to call a taxi'.  At this point I have already phoned and have a taxi coming for me... I see the aussi group standing around looking totally overwhelmed.  They are all sick... which apparently is why the border guards were stressed about them... and they have no KM and no idea how to get to their hostel... which is about a block from my building.  So when the taxi arrives I have them get in with me and just take them and pay for it... the non-aussi girls ran up to me as we are getting into the taxi and say 'I thought WE were all going together".

So I get home at like 2 am... I was supposed to arrive at 10 or 10.30 pm.