13 May 2009

Jen in Belgrade

I am alone in the office at the moment and so am taking the time to fulfill a promise to Katie H and actually write something for the BVS blog.

In many ways this blog is probably a reaction to the BVS newsletter, which I have finally read. I have over the last month or so spent a great deal of time, once again, thinking 'What am I doing here?!' This may have been a reaction to my six month point, to the notorious leader of WiB, to my own feelings of inadequacy, to stalking friends on facebook. I often feel like a mascot to be brought out at parties and special events, "solidarity doll" coming soon to a store near you, and have to search for any real reason I should be here. I no longer read or correct other peoples English, I write grants, and a monthly news bulletin, I research for publications, I translate, I stand, I make coffee. I actually enjoy my work (though sometimes not the amount or pace of my work), but realize that there are people here who could translate better and more quickly then me, no one reads the monthly bulletin, there are people here who could write grants as well if not better then me, and no matter how strong my father makes his coffee, the image of an American woman making coffee for Serbian people is still amusing to me. Rarely is what I do intellectually stimulating, and daily I have to remind myself to 'think small', advice a former BVSer gave about this position. What I write has nothing to do with me, with what I think, or what I want. I am here to help fulfill other people's missions, ideas, hopes, plans. If I take pride in my work I get my feelings hurt when it is not used or when S. puts me in my place for going off message. For a while I tried to stop thinking, stop analyzing, stop questioning because it brought me nowhere, but to the question "do I believe in the message I am spouting?" "am I doing any good?".

Last week during a particularly difficult period, I was talking to a friend about this feeling I sometimes have that I, as an individual, do not matter here. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I knew coming into BVS, into WiB, that humility would be central to my mental survival, but no matter how you prepare yourself, as an American, maybe as a person, I have found that not mattering wears on you. One of the nice things about "solidarity dolls", apart from showing them off to impress all your friends, is that they are interchangable. Rachel, Katie, Dana, Jenni... the name on the box may change, but you can comfort yourself with knowing that they are really all the same.

Okay, okay, obviously I do not believe that we are all the same person. However, this idea of our 'sameness' or 'interchangability' (the idea that you can exchange us if need be) which I found when I first arrived, has lingered. When I go in two years I know that someone new will come and everything will go on as it did before, the women will call her Janet, Katie, Rachel, Jenni; and in the end nothing I have done will matter in the slightest.

I recognize this sounds all doom and gloom, but I actually love Belgrade. I love my friends, the city, and nearly all of the women I work with. They are affectionate and kind. They call me love and drink my truly terrible coffee, they tell me that I am beautiful (well some of them do, others tell me "If you lost 8 kilos we could both fit into the kitchen at the same time"). Being small, being unimportant, letting go of the importance of being an individual is not necessarily a bad thing. I think that thinking small, thinking communally, this is all part of an important life lesson. Individualism can be unhealthy for both the community and the individual. Who I am, what I think, and what I want are not important; the group is important.

This may not always be an easy lesson for me to learn, but I think it will be the most important lesson of my time here.

11 May 2009

Suddenly Spring

The weather in Sarajevo took a long time to warm up... and to be honest so did my work for Musicians without Borders. Suddenly though both of these have swung into action with alacrity. In April, the snow finally stopped and the sun actually chose to shine- and May has been even more amazing, with one dizzingly gorgeous day after another. It's always hard to believe weather like this actually exists on a consistent basis, unless you're experiencing it first-hand. If I sound a bit giddy and manic right now, it's because I am.

And not only is the weather amazing just now- but work seems to be going well too. This is a departure from what I have come to expect to be the norm here because getting general information from some of my co-workers (ahem, my Bosnian male co-workers) is like pulling teeth. However, the month of April alone brought Winds of Change concerts (my last! hooray!), planning for a new Women's Singing Project in Srebrenica, and planning for additional activities in Srebrenica with the support of a UK theater (errr, theatre) company. I've been encouraged because of these last two developments to spend more time in Srebrenica, which so far has been a very exciting change of scenery and also an opportunity for me to work on my language skills a little more seriously. Unfortunately, it is telling that all of this work-related excitement is in conjunction with internationally catalyzed projects. The singing project is being primarily developed by Musicians without Borders International, and the other activities (as mentioned) are coming from the UK.

It seems without outside support and encouragement, most projects here either a) never get off the ground, or b) move slower than molasses in January. Visits from international guests seem to provide brief injections of energy and excitement, but all too often big plans are dreamed up without any follow-through; simple castles in the clouds. Some would tell you this because of the post-conflict environment, others would it's post-communist or a collective society. And sadly, it seems it's not just the projects of Musicians without Borders BiH and other NGOs which suffer from these maladies. The entire country in fact is in a state of paralysis- Mostar has no mayor and therefore no budget, the number of laws passed by parliament in the last year is laughable, and agreements which would make more EU money available to the country are going unsigned. Over and over this last year and these last weeks I find myself having the same conversations- whether with locals, internationals, residents or visitors. What is the solution? How do we fix this country, this government, how do we MOVE? Unfortunately, like the cultural projects of MwB which take place on a small scale and benefit from outside attention, the government of BiH is in need of increased international attention. Not that it isn't already getting this- but it needs to be intensified, amplified and sustained. No one would expect a band-aid to heal a gaping head wound. I'm all for taking responsiblity for oneself (or one's own country as it were), but when one realizes how invasive the lethargy is here, I think it doesn't take a genius to see that leaving the country more or less to it's own devices is not the answer. That was what Europe and the west seemed to think the answer was in 1992...

Oh wait, remeber when I said I was manic? Well, apparently there's a depressive side to that too... which is all the more strange when I resurface again to look out the window and see the idyllic beauty of spring. And the great thing about the culturally-based work I am doing is that to succeed, we don't have to solve all the sweeping issues of a post-conflict society in one fell swoop. Finding funding for theater costumes, bringing a local celebrity to Srebrenica, or just writing a simple report so one more person can learn what's going on - these are the small victories in which I am now taking pleasure. And in the meantime, I'll be sure to spend plenty of time outdoors...

02 May 2009

Dutchland and Deutschland

Last week I visited Stan Morris at the IFOR office in Alkmaar, and Solomon Fenton-Miller at the Brot und Rosen community in Hamburg... Here's an attempt to upload photos from those visits. Hope you can tell which are Stan and Solomon!