Thursday, December 4, 2008

Novi Sad

This fall I've made two different trips, with other American volunteers, to a Serbian city called Novi Sad. It's in an area of Serbia called Vojvodina, which has always been a very multicultural place as it has a Hungarian minority as well as Serbs and Croats. We felt an air of cosmopolitanism and diversity which are lacking in Bosnian cities and this interesting graffiti is one sign of this.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pearly whites

My last semester of college I took a class called "sociology of medicine", which included a brief section on international/comparative approaches to medicine. One thing we learned is that American doctors are socialized to turn to surgery first, seeing the body more as a machine to be fixed, in contrast to many European and Asian doctors, who would first turn to more holistic, gentle approaches.

I had a firsthand experience with this last week in a Bosnian dentist's office. The last time I was at a dentist in the US, they commented that the level of my gum line was low and that I might need a skin graft in the future, and of course the dental hygienist said I had a lot of plaque and needed to floss more, etc.

Tender gums compelled me to reluctantly visit a dentist here in Bosnia. I was apprehensively anticipating being subjected to a Bosnian style skin graft. Instead, the dentist simply said that I didn't have any plaque, that my teeth were perfect and I just needed to swish with a certain kind of tea. There was not a dental hygienist in sight.

And it worked! I swished with the tea for a few days, and low and behold, my gums felt great. Tea is definitely preferable to surgery.

On the other hand, in my travels around the world, I have definitely noticed that Americans have the best teeth in the world, something my sociology class failed to mention. Coincidence? Perhaps not. Bring on the scalpel. And a cup of tea while you're at it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

My Hero

An American NGO called "My Hero" works to "celebrate the best of humanity" through videos, stories and pictures. They have a Hero website where people are encouraged to share their hero stories with others. Video professionals who work with My Hero have come twice to Mostar to lead video workshops in Abrasevic Youth Cultural Center (where I work), leaving behind cameras and Mac computers so that workshop participants can continue to use their knowledge and produce short videos.

I took part in a workshop they led in April and made a video about the place where I work, over the course of 4 days. The video has been entered in the annual My Hero Film Festival and can be viewed at the link below, along with other videos from the Balkans and around the world.

My video is called: OKC Abrasevic. Also recommended is the video about Valentina Mindoljevic, a teacher in Mostar. Awadi and Breakdancers of Konik City are great videos as well. (Tradition, Diver and the Bridge, and Flying Man were also shot in Mostar, if you want to see more about the city where I live!)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Work is not a rabbit

A British girl needed a Bosnian guy to finish a particular task before she could continue her own work. But he was leaving for coffee, so she protested, "What about the thing I needed you to do?"He replied, "Posao nije zec." [Work is not a rabbit.] Meaning, work will not run away from you. When you come back from coffee, it's still there, waiting for you.

There's a combination post-communist apathy towards work, combined with a natural tendency in Mediterranean cultures to be relaxed and relationship-oriented, rather than task-oriented. There's a joke about two Montenegrins (allegedly the laziest Yugoslavians), standing by a river watching a woman drown. The first one says, "This is terrible! we are just standing here watching this woman drown!" The second replies, "You're right, it is terrible to stand here. Let's sit."

The Chinese have a proverb about a rabbit, related to work, but with the exact opposite message. "A farmer walks by a stump, when suddenly a rabbit runs into the stump and is killed. The lucky farmer picks up the rabbit for his dinner. However, every day from then on, he no longer works in his fields, but simply stands by the stump, waiting for another rabbit to run into the stump." Of course, in a Bosnian version of this proverb, the farmer would not foolishly stand by the stump, but rather sit down on the stump to take coffee and a cigarette.

I was telling a friend that I've started reading Moby Dick to pass the time while waiting for people. She laughed, thinking that meant I read 10 minutes a day, until I explained that that morning already I'd been reading for an hour!

I've found the Chinese proverb to not be entirely accurate in Bosnian life. Working here this past year and looking forward to another year here, I've found that "Good things come to those who wait"-- that life isn't a thrilling sequence of successful minutes, but episodes with commercials in between. Americans have perfected the art of using commercials to fetch chips and a diet coke, so that they won't be bored during their favorite shows. (Although given the American waistline, commercials would be better spent with pushups and crunches!) Would we miss out on the show because we dislike the commercials? Or maybe we'd just get Tivo to fastforward through the commercials. But the commercials in fact pay for the shows. The commercials are boring but they finance the shows we watch. Which could lead to a discussion about public television. But I really need to stop blogging and get back to work.

Is, or is not, work, in fact, a rabbit?

What is art?

Since I work for an artistic-cultural center and help to teach an art class, I was very interested to run across this quote by Vlatko Filipovic, a Bosnian filmmaker."God is the greatest director in the world. Whoever succeeds in catching, in writing down what happens before our eyes, that is real art." ["Bog je najboli reditelj na svijetu. Ko uspije uhvatiti, zabiljeziti, ono sto se dogadja pred nasim ocima, to je prava umjetnost."]

And while I am thinking about art, I wanted to include my favorite quote on the topic, from Tolstoy's "What is art?"

"The hero is no longer Dives by Lazarus the beggar; not Mary Magdalene in the day of her beauty, but in the day of her repentance; not those who acquire wealth but those who have abandoned it; not those who dwell in palaces, but those who dwell in catacombs and huts; not those who rule over others, but those who acknowledge no authority but God's. And the greatest work of art is no longer a cathedral of victory with statues of conquerors but the representation of a human soul so transformed by love, that a man who is tormented and murdered still pities and loves his persecutors."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Local elections

Elections are a time of frustration for most Bosnians, who see a political landscape dominated by nationalist parties and littered with unkept promises of change. However, in spite of everything, they never lose their sense of humor.
These are campaign posters of the two main nationalist parties, complete with graffitied commentary. The first says, "Let's finish what we started", but it's been altered to say, "Let's finish the ethnic cleansing!" (This poster is for the main Croat party, HDZ, connected to the attempted ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks from east Mostar in 1993-4.)
The second poster is for the Bosniak party, SDA, with a photo of Mostar's old bridge and the words, "Transparents and effective administration"; the graffiti says, "You're a disgrace/embarrassment to us!" (Presumably a reference to SDA's alleged "selling out" of east Mostar to the Croats.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Public Transportation

When taking the night train (to catch a flight to Berlin) proved to be more eventful than I expected. Especially around Zenica. And provided food for thought about Bosnian society.

The train was packed, first of all. My first mistake was moving into a smoking compartment because it had fewer people, rather than forcing myself into a compartment with other European backpackers. There were always at least two people chainsmoking in said compartment from then on, but I was too lazy to move, mistake #2.

One man in the compartment was deaf and had only one eye. He was selling keychains and squeaky toys out of a duffel. When the conductor came to look at our tickets, he offered him 5 marks in lieu of a ticket (which would cost much more). The conductor pretended to be a bit miffed, but a father with two kids in the compartment chimed in support of the bribe-offerer and that was that. "hey, better for you,better for him," the father commented afterwards. "Don't forget you got support from me!" The first man responded by giving him a free key chain. The father bought squeaky toys for the kids.

The father and kids left and another man sat in the compartment and chatted with us. After he left, the deaf man said, "hey, he lives in Zenica. He's probably Mafia. But what is really important is a person's soul and heart, not how powerful they are."The conversation continued: "My family is so poor, we don't have food or clothes...Are you a student? ah, you went to college, you must be rich. hey, can I see your sunglasses? Here, you can have this keychain! No no, it's a gift!" etc.

Finally I told him I want to sleep. He helpfully suggested my putting my purse at my feet, but I decided to keep it by my side. I fell asleep... Whereupon he closed the curtains of the compartment and picked my purse, which I slept through and didn't notice until he had left. The bribe-taking conductor was sympathetic, but said this happens a lot, "especially around Zenica," and there was nothing the police could do.

Someone was obviously watching over me-- the one-eyed deaf man took only my cash, which wasn't a huge amount, and left my passport, cell phone and debit cards. (Also, he left me the key chain which he had "given" me.) Many thanks also to my BVS coordinator, who gave me some cash she had in marks and kuna, when I got to Berlin. (On the return train ride I had a friend with me--I have learned something about traveling on trains in the Balkans!!) How I miss living in a police state. I rode night trains often in China and nothing was ever stolen-- uniformed officers stroll the corridors constantly. The system there is set up in such a way that it would be impossible to bribe someone rather than paying for your seat, although I'm sure that the trains always selling out every seat (yay, population density!) is another factor.

A quote by an ethnographer I'm reading now -- "People do one thing, say another, and think a third." Clearly, this man had been planning to pick my purse the whole time (evaluating my possessions, trying to get me to put my purse closer to him) but, sleepy and lazy, I didn't bother to consider what he might be thinking or what he might do as a result.

While in Berlin I had another experience of Bosnian (?) poverty. A young Roma boy came up askingfor money, with a little sign in English that said, "I am from Bosnia-Hercegovina. I have 4children and need money for food.." etc. Obviously, this little kid didn't have 4 kids of his own! But we thought he might be from Bosnia and tried talking to him in Bosnian, which it turned out that he didn't speak at all. I assumed that meant that everything in the note was thus untrue, until talking to a friend here, who told me some of the Bosnian Roma who went to Germany as refugees only speak Roma and not Bosnian. So the little boy's parents could have been from Bosnia even though he couldn't speak any Bosnian...

I really want to go to social work school, to have an academic/professional framework by which to consider all of these issues...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Which country am I in?

Yesterday I went to watch a soccer game between Croatia and Germany. I live on the east Bosniak) side of the city, where everything was completely quiet and normal, and crossed over the former front line to the west (Croat) side of the city, which had gone wild. People dressed in red and white checkered shirts (from pattern on the Croatian herald) were packing the cafes to watch the game together. Whenever Croatia scored a point, everyone chanted,"Auf Wiedersehen, Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland, Deutschland, Auf Wiedersehen!" ("Goodbye, Germany"). It's kind of a poignant thing-- people from the Balkans went to Germany as refugees during the war and before and after the war as "Gasterbeiters" (guest workers), and now these Bosnian Croats are enjoying having a kind of superiority (in sports if nothing else) over a powerful country like Germany. Although, in fact, Germany has also been a huge source of aid to this region-- the reconstruction of the room next to me now as I type, in the cultural center where I work, was financed by the German government.

At the same time-- we are not living in Croatia! We are living in Bosnia-Hercegovina. People in the cafe-bars were also singing songs about "Herceg-Bosna", the Croat para-state that was formed during the war. So many people died to keep Mostar as a part of Bosnia-Hercegovina so that it wouldn't become an ethnically clean Croatian para-state, and here are people celebrating that (basically genocidal) concept.

My friends were cheering "Hrvatska" (Croatia) and then I cheered "Bosnia-Hercegovina" and they also cheered at that, but then another girl immediately chimed in, "Herceg-Bosna!" A discussion followed about a mutual (Croat) friend, how a Bosniak in the old city asked him,"Don't you feel afraid to be here as a Croat?" (because the Croats destroyed the old city during the war) and how unfair it was for him to say that. When we walked back through the old city on our way home, my friends put on jackets to hide their Croatian soccer jerseys. It reminded me of my time working with kids in Belfast, when we went to a swimming pool in a Protestant part of town, the kids had to hide their Celtics jersey (the Celtics are a Catholic team in Glasgow, Scotland.)
Even the very name of the sport is politicized here-- in Bosnian, they use the word "fudbal" but in Croatian, it's "nogomet". Athletic competition has a beautiful simplicity to it, but it's not pure.(Cf. also: Protests in China over the upcoming Olympic Games and human rights abuses.)
If only they had been chanting, "Nationalism, Genocide, Hatred, Auf Wiedersehen"!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

When in (a) Roma (community)...

In addition to meeting Bosniak, Serbs and Croats in my daily life in Mostar, I've also had the opportunity to meet some people from a local Roma community. The Roma/Romany people are a distinct ethnic group (with their own language, which I've heard is related to Hindi) that can be found in most countries in Europe. They are also known in popular imagination as "gypsies", and in Ireland were once called "tinkers" and are now called "travelers". Their culture emphasizes family ties and traditional culture-- most marry as teenagers and their traditional music, played at weddings and other functions, is very popular here in the Balkans, in spite of the discrimination and prejudice that Roma people face. Because of difficulties in relating to those outside their culture, few attend school and thus most people from these communities turn either to "secondary materials processing" (ie, collecting re-usable trash like aluminum cans and selling it) or begging. Some of my friends from church have been visiting this particular Roma community for several years and this past fall they also started a "mobile school" to teach basic math and literacy skills to this group of kids. They are also starting a sponsorship program for sending selected youngsters to regular school. (You can read about their work with the kids at I go on Sundays with them to plays games and do crafts with the kids. This is a photo of me with two of the girls (plus a baby brother) squinting into the sun during a birthday party.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Thirteen Years Later...

Once a popular cafe. Chess games still occur here on a regular basis.

Sarajevska Bank

Hotel Neretva, formerly the classiest hotel in Mostar.

Formerly the elegant building of the third elementary school in Mostar.

A Poetic Coincidence

The cultural center where I work is on a street named after a poet, Aleksa Santica Street.

The building where I attend church, I discovered recently, is the birth house of this same poet.

Thus the two places where I spend the most time in Mostar are connected by this same thread...

Plaque (note war damage) indicating that this building is the poet's birthplace...

Old photos of the poet (inside the building) on either side of a painting of the Old Bridge in Mostar.
Aleksa Santica (1868-1924) is a much-beloved poet from Mostar, whose most famous love poem, "Emina",became the lyrics of a popular song in the sevdalinka style, which is still sung wherever and whenever homemade brandy is consumed. The poem describes his love for the beautiful Emina, as he watched her watering the flowers in her garden. They were from different religious traditions-- she was Muslim and he Serbian Orthodox--and the love affair never blossomed.

Sretan Uskrs! (Happy Easter)

The traditional way to color eggs for Easter here is to press celery leaves to them with a nylon stocking and then boil the eggs in red onion skins, resulting in a deep red color, interspersed with lacy leaf patterns. An eggcellent idea.

Wednesday, January 23, 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).