Saturday, December 20, 2008

Diary of a Snaika in Serbia

Over the past year I have written, as many do, of my accounts (of stereotypes) from the Middle East, more specifically Iran. Now that I've spent a substantial amount of time in Serbia, I feel I should summarize a few of the generalizations I've come up with about this area. As most of my writings, this is also about me - Neenee - and my perspective, standing on a point among a whirlwind of complicated issues and cross-hatching facets of life’s space and time. Ultimately, I think we should all come to our own perspectives (however confusing and multitudinous they may be), try to be comfortable with them, while acknowledging that that is all they are, hairy little things.

The first time I came to Serbia, a few years ago, someone asked me if it looks more like Europe or the Middle East. I said Middle East. I had just spent an excruciating train journey from Western Europe, across to Eastern Europe, getting slower and slower as we trickled down into Serbia. I had also been living in the Middle East for a time before this, and somehow a similar feeling struck me. My father often refers to Iran as "the old country." This was also an "old country."

Serbia, and probably the Balkan region in general, lies on a point between north, south, east and west - physically, historically and culturally. Maybe that's why no one here uses those directing points. You never hear someone say "it's north of so and so", or "the south-west corner of..." They are just way too confused direction-wise, being right in the thick of it, in the eye of the storm.

bananas 4 Serbia

From the north-west, a European facade, still in the making, glosses over the rampant corruption and bureaucracy. From the south-east (the 'Near-East' or 'Middle-East' as some like to call it), deeper cultural traits and habits have merged into local culture and identity. From the east Russia, who most people see as Serbia’s only 'friend', fights against those who desire swift transition into Europe. And straight from the blood of the soil, building further into the identity-under-construction, a rural, tradition-infused Serb dances the Kolo. Depending on which part of the country or in which room you find yourself in, these influences factor in more or less.

In the 'heart' of Serbia

on the way to EU!

Other apparent contradictions contribute to this stormy feeling.

A gypsy shanty town reflects off the polished glass walls of a developing high rise. The biggest Roma camp lies just across the river, minutes from the heart of Belgrade. Supermarket Vero's giant red white and blue banner beams just across the road from the sprawling trash heaps of the black market beneath the decrepit train station which has no time-tables, just a grumpy old woman who tells you from behind the sharp hairs in her protruding mole that the train comes once every hour, and it's your lucky guess to find out which part of the hour that might be. Okay, I think it's safe to just ignore the trains.

As for the tramway, I won't even go there, it would take pages of frustration. But I will say I was pleasantly surprised when I found a used ticket for the tram sitting quietly in the ticket-punching slot, for the next lucky passenger to reuse.

Belgrade Trolley

The smells of Turkish cuisine billow up the commanding corridors of Socialist building blocks. Turkish coffee (or Serbian coffee as some like to call it), stuffed cabbage leaves, baked pies stuffed with meat and cheese, and 'Vegeta' (THE all-purpose seasoning of vegetable stock powder used in every recipe). Other olfactory delicacies include the burning rubbery fume of the city's central heating plant - which is turned on to automatic in the winters – blasting from early morning to late night. Residents like their heating extra hot and there is one round of complaining to the city to turn up the heat - some people's homes feel like a sauna. The burning rubbery mixes with the smell of burning red bell-peppers, which are being roasted in bulk for winter supply. The air is cooling and the leaves are yellowing. And giant buckets of souring cabbage marinate on utilitarian balconies.

Old men with weathered faces sit on park benches in soft hats, fondling their fists behind their backs or a tall beer. Young girls with chiseled faces pace around the city's catwalks with towering legs tucked into short outfits. Men wear purses under their arms, a remnant from the chaotic 90s, and its rampant inflation, when everyone carried around wads of cash.

The sky is grim as winter nears, but beautiful, above the crossing of two of the world’s epic rivers, Sava and Danube.

Women color their hair white-blond, jet-black or red - they could be German, Greek, Iranian, or Russian.

Hospitality is reminiscent of the tradition infused eastern neighbors, combined with a frankness more similar to the west, and a brutally sarcastic sense of humor like the Russians.

Superstitions - of the east, along with the more local ones - amount to more than I have ever witnessed.

They eat their soup tepid.

Kebabs are made with pork. Yogurt is consumed by the liter.

Old fountain

Belgrade is famous for its vibrant party scene, although I always went home too early and the party always got good soon after I left. Rakia, the national, often home-made spirit, helps get you dancing all night. Days spent snoozing in cafes or browsing one of the various winter film festivals...

At various glances the city looks very European with flourishes and even entire neighborhoods of Central European architecture especially toward the north (where Serbians escaped Turkish rule, towards Austria-Hungary), a variety of Ottoman relics (the region was under Turkish rule for nearly 500 years) present an Oriental flavor, elephantine Serbian Orthodox churches link to the Christian east, while the modernist Socialist monuments and blocks of a ‘better’ time dominate the urban cityscapes. They all remind you of the mixed history of this place.

Fighting the Ottomans

Hungarian tower in Zemun, Belgrade

What did the Turks do for us!? They built bridges.

St. Sava Temple, Serbian Orthodox


In the language you will also find a mixed heritage of words - I find particularly interesting those from the Turkish, which often trace back to Persian or Arabic, and I am always chuffed when we (my partner is Serbian) find shared words in Serbian and Persian. A favorite is “maymoon” which means monkey in Serbian, Turkish and Persian. It's a common insult in Serbia and it always makes me giggle.

The issue of Kosovo is quite mixed up, with divided opinions across and between generations and styles of people. A few young people adamantly defend the right of Kosovo's independence, recognizing the unfairness of the declaration but emphasizing the brutality of treatment by Serbians towards Albanian-Kosovars in the 90s. These people also generally desire a speedy transition into the EU, and see the independence of Kosovo as practical and inevitable. Others are more skeptical about Kosovars, and emphasize the present unfairness in the deal, and backwardness of Albanians in Kosovo. At different levels of fervency, these people regard Kosovo as the heartland of Serbia, the site of the most historical moments in the narrative of Serbian identity, and physically - many important monasteries. The more liberal youth tend to, sometimes rather harshly, write off this religious nationalism, resulting in a widening gap between the ideologies, and a lack of constructive negotiation - a phenomenon I found in Iran also, something which probably happens, to some extent, everywhere.

Northern 'Serbian' Kosovo

Moms are truly "moms" here. They are care-takers, they worry and fuss about. They cry when their kids leave, and wonder if they should have protected them from the education that sent them off abroad exploring the opportunities that their education made them realize. That way they would be ignorant, but still here with them. Most of them just fuss about this, but know deep inside that they made the right decision. There is always something to complain or worry about, perhaps to bring some meaning to their life. This reminds me of a middle-eastern trait. They cook wonderful meals and, no matter what time of day, always ask you if you're hungry. Families often live together, or in the same building. I am known as a “snaika” – name for the wife of a fellow Serb, and they actually call you that. When my mom came to visit, she was called “priya” which is the mother of the snaika.

Mama with snaika-Neenee-in-training

Priya in Belgrade

Serbians adore nicknames, and everyone has at least 3. The first time I visited I was actually confused at what to call my partner, whose name was already weird to me. His name is Slobodan and his nicknames – all of them actively in use – include the following: Slobo, Sloba, Slobs, Bslo (Slob backwards), Boko, Boban, Chicha (which means grandpa). I also gained my present nickname here in Serbia – Neenee, which is how you say my name in one of the grammatical declinations (different endings for or formations of nouns, in different parts of speech).

My last weekend in Belgrade was that of the famous Slava ('Saint Day') of Saint Nikolas. In Orthodox tradition, which is on the rise since the 90s, each family has a Slava. This particular Slava is the biggest because, for some reason, half of Serbian families have St. Nik as their family saint. The Slava families host their friends and relatives for a feast with various traditions taking place. Everyone likes to tell you that on this weekend half of Serbia has Slava and the other half is visiting a Slava. It has therefore become a sort of unofficial holiday.

On this evening I was sitting in the dingy tram with my bottle of wine in its tall gift bag. Everyone on the train, like me, was headed for a Slava feast prepared bearing gifts of wine or flowers, and silently bearing the ride. The windshield wipers were tick-tocking back and forth, even though the rain had slowed down and was barely noticeable, making a sound as irritable as scratching on a chalk board, over and over.

I started going over all the petty little things, adding up that day, that annoyed me, trying to convince myself that my irritated mood was not vain: My toes immediately get wet in the rain in my brand new boots; The zipper of my coat never works the first time and the cloth always gets stuck in it; My umbrella, if I remember to bring it, catches on to my sleeve when I'm opening it; It's too cold outside and too hot inside, and I'm sweating half the time; I ran for the tram, looking like an idiot, once again; My cheeks are starting to sag and I have one tiny wrinkle growing along the right side of my lips; I banged my head on the low ceiling in the kitchen again; I bleed from the uterus every 3 weeks...

Sitting in the bus now, feeling sick to my stomach because I decided to sit facing the back of the feverish bus and too lazy to move, we are headed for the outskirts of Belgrade, but I’m going backwards as if rewinding reality. The windows steamed up and X-mas lights twinkled outside under the rain, swept about like strings of chewed up gum. Turns out it really was raining, and I was just being unfairly grumpy earlier after all. The doors squeaked, the windshield wipers squeaked, brakes squeaked, and bus jerked, over and over.

And the rain outside accelerated in the exhaust in front of a car's headlights, which looked like shining eyes of a frog finding its way through wet blankets of fog... and I was reminded of beauty once again, whatever it is, existing even in this dark dreary rain, and I snapped out of my false misery.

And I remember more blissful moments.

At the rakia factory - in my element

"Slatko" - "sweet" plum preserves

Surrounded by pork

In a quiet place in the country, with my Serb

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Snaika is "Aroos" in Farsi. But there is no word for "Prija" or"Prijo" in Faris.