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.


Bethany said...
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Bethany said...

This was wonderful to read. I'm a former BVS-er at Quaker Cottage in Belfast, Northern Ireland and I struggled with many of the same things. If I am invisible will I cease to matter? Etc. Thanks so much for being HONEST about your experiences!