24 January 2008

20 Things I Miss about Serbia

Katie, my replacement in Serbia, recently suggested that we make lists for each other about the things that we like about the places that we just left. Here is my list:

Some Things I Love about Serbia

1. blueberry juice
2. cafes that serve every beverage imaginable, so one person can have juice, one coffee, and one beer
3. the ‘Olympic-level’ people watching
4. parks that turn into everyone’s living room in the summer
5. my friends
6. Women in Black—Belgrade isn’t gender exclusive, unlike Women in Black—Seattle
7. movies are so cheap that it doesn’t feel too extravagant to go to the theater to see movies that aren’t very good.
8. FEST, the film festival, which might be my favorite week in Belgrade
9. fresh fruit in the summer
10. wandering pijacas
11. being able to pick and choose which parts of Serbian culture I adopt and engage in, which I can’t really do here
12. kajmak
13. ajvar
14. fried pepper and cheese sandwiches from Toma Pekara
15. palańćinke
16. being an expat – meeting so many people from all over the world
17. going to Ada Ciganlija in the summer
18. hospitality
19. the tradition of bringing small gifts whenever you go to someone’s home
20. single use bus tickets (They do not exist here, so I end up carrying pocketfuls of quarters with me everywhere.)

23 January 2008

Music and the Universal Language

Music is truly the universal language... but when sung, it usually requires a spoken language as well. One of the things I am realizing is that America has exported culture like there's no tomorrow. It's inescapable.

I was surprised when I went to a live jazz/rock concert at a local cafe-bar, only to realize that all the songs were being sung in English. Literally, all the songs were American hit songs. It was even more jarring when the singer would finish a song and then immediately lean into the mike and say, "hvala lijepo" (thanks a lot). The worst part was that most of the Hercegovinians in the bar knew more of the words to the songs than I did!!

So a lot of bands like to cover American classics. okay, I get it. But then last night I met a musician from Belgium who played me some songs by his band-- and they are all in English!! Not covers of English songs, but original songs, written in English. Apparently this is common in Belgium-- "I know only a few good bands who sing in Flemish," he explained. "And we're very influenced by Bob Dylan, so it just seemed natural."

Mr. Tamborine Man, play a song for me-- ali na bosanskom, molim (but in Bosnian, please).

21 January 2008

Defending the faith?

Beth M in Brethrenville asked me to write something for the BVS newsletter. This is what I came up with in my few spare moments. I posted it on my blog and Rachel requested it be posted on this blog. I would be interested to hear if anyone else has had similiar experiences thus far at their sites.

I walked away from work yesterday with two big questions running through my mind: How does one stand up and defend a faith that has been all too malicious and destructive in the past? Even more importantly, now does one talk about your personal faith when your own understanding of faith is in constant flux? Yesterday, I spent the afternoon interviewing Marija, a colleague of mine. Another NGO had sent us a survey to fill out on fundamentalism, and I wanted her assistance in answering the questions. I spent almost two hours asking her questions about the current relationship between religion and the Serbian government. Serbia suffers from a lack of religious diversity. The main church is the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC); this church is closely associated with the nationalist government. It also had a very controversial role in the Balkan wars; many soldiers were blessed by the SPC before being sent out to commit genocide. It’s not exactly the model of Christian love. Therefore, most of the activists in the Women in Black office have a very negative view of religion. Most of the activists are adamant atheists.

Towards the end of the survey the questions asked what we thought would be the perfect relationship between a state and the religious communities. Marija’s answer was that she couldn’t accurately answer that question because she was a radical Marxist and wishes religion didn’t exist. She believes that the belief in a higher power denies one the ability to have true ethical morals. In her mind, there can’t be true freedom while you believe in a higher power; a belief in a higher power means that all of one’s actions are motivated by a notion of that higher power’s ethical morals, and by feelings guilt. Marija talked about in how in her experience she had encountered two types of Christians. The first type used their religion as a motivator for oppression and violence. The second type found their hope in the knowledge that a better world is coming (the afterlife), but this hope allowed them to sit idly by as injustice, poverty, and suffering occurred. These Christians may be pacifists and believe in justice, but they are not activists.

I talked to her about the third type of Christians that I know, the ones who maintain a belief in God and are also activists. She conceded that there were many Christians in the United States who lived lives of activism, but it was a type of activism she couldn’t support. Activists who would deny her friends rights based upon their sexual orientation or their reproductive choices. They were activists fighting against the very values of Women in Black – human rights and women’s rights. I responded that among the third type of Christians that I know there are those who actively work for peace and justice here and now. She said that Rachel, the previous BVSer, was the first Christian she had met (or even heard of) that was an activist of this type. She pointed out that Rachel’s church is very small. At this point, I couldn’t really argue with her; the number of Christians in the United States subscribing to a life of peace and justice activism does seem small. I didn’t know how to defend Christians for being so apathetic and so myopic. As I sat there thinking about how I could respond to her comments, I realized that I don’t know. I don’t have an adequate response. As much as I wish it were different, I doubt the next two years will bring the answers to those questions, or the many other doubts and questions I have regarding Christianity. The one thing I am sure of is that my understanding of faith will continue to be challenged and changed. And for now, I’m okay with that.

20 January 2008

anecdotes of BiH

I just spent the weekend in Mostar with fellow BVSer Katie Hampton and we have both agreed that these two stories had to be contributed to the group blog. The first is an entertaining example of the tricks foreign languages can play, and the second is a classic instance of the cultural west vs. east (catholic vs. muslim, etc.) rhetoric particularly prevalent in Mostar.

My roommate, Lauren, and her mother were in Mostar for Christmas. They were with a guy from Mostar and began to discuss the local language- Bosnian, Srpski, Croatian, whatever you would like to call it. Lauren's mother proudly exclaimed, "I know a word! I know a word! 'hvala' it means 'garabage'!" In actuality, "hvala" means thank-you. So where might she have gotten this mixed-up notion about garbage? The word hvala is written on all the trashcans throughout the Old Town in Mostar. Apparently Lauren's mom thought they were labeling their trashcans- you know, just in case someone thought they might be for something else. I think it's safe to say Katie, Katie Mahuron and I have all at least advanced beyond getting confused about the basics like "please" and "thank-you" in our quest to learn the language here but tackling a new language continues to be a tricky thing. There are many instances where exceptions to rules, slang, and accents throw us curveballs we are not expecting. And then there is also the fact that everyone would prefer not to humor us in our fumbling speaking attempts, and to just speak English with us instead. Last night we were with 2 Belgians, 2 Spaniards, a Croat, a Slovene and a German- the entire time everyone spoke in English because it was the one language that everyone understood.

Story #2: Today I was discussing living in Sarajevo with a friend of Katie's and mine who is a Croatian from the west side of Mostar. We were discussing the difference in the feel of the 2 cities and what people prefer. Obviously, as a loyal citizen of Mostar he prefers his hometown. He also emphasized the more Mediterranean feel of Mostar, which would be particularly important to people on the West side of the city who have ties to Croatia and the Adriatic. To further emphasize the difference from Sarajevo, he said, "Actually, we have a nickname here in Mostar for Sarajevo- Tehran." Katie and I found this highly entertaining- to a Croat, the greater presence of Turkish and Islamic culture which one observes in Sarajevo is NOT something to be celebrated. But then some Sarajevans might have some critical words to offer on Mostar if given the chance. There are plenty of rivalries here, some good-natured and some a bit tense. I think we're learning how to navigate them though as we meet more people here and begin to understand how to put comments like these into context. Perhaps Katie M. and Katie H. have some thoughts on this as well...

17 January 2008

Welcome to our BVS Europe blog!

Hello out there and welcome to our unofficial “BVS in Europe” blog. In case you are unfamiliar with the organization, you can look at the official Brethren Volunteer Service website (posted on the left) and see what it’s all about. The volunteer placements in Europe are concentrated in a few areas like Northern Ireland, Ireland, and some of the Balkan countries, but also in Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, and France. We have connected to about 25 organizations working on peace and reconciliation and justice issues, community relations, working with young people, children, people with disabilities, the homeless and refugees. Some of the organizations are faith-based, some are not. Some of the volunteers work in offices, others in centers; some live in communities or on-site. The volunteers – all are from North America - stay for one or two years.

I coordinate the program in Europe and am based in Geneva, Switzerland. If anyone wants more information, you can contact me at

The blog will be a way for the current volunteers to share stories about their project work and locations and whatever else they want to talk about! Happy reading…