Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Portrait #85: Snapshots from Serbia

Since there is a certain, understated shall we say, animosity between Kosovo and Serbia - this, of course, assuming that they they are not one and the same, which is naturally a topic that inspires further discomfort... anyway, considering this context, I felt that my stay in Kosovo would not do justice to the world if I didn't put a little bit of effort into acquainting myself with Serbia. So on my last weekend in the Balkans, a friend and I journeyed up to Belgrade.

Belgrade, currently the capital of Serbia, was the capital of Yugoslavia in its day, and is a beautifully developed city with a lovely river and magnificent architecture. It's clean, organised, and sprawling. It looks dignified enough to be the capital of the largest country (federation) of Europe.

The thing is, though, that my experience of Belgrade was full of rather strange people. This was the picture I left with. For example:

- I came across a Western-style coffee shop in a posh mall and was excited by the prospect of an iced coffee. I eagerly ordered an iced coffee with a bit of vanilla flavouring, but instead got a hot latte with two huge scoops of vanilla ice cream in it. I commented on this, and the servers very apologetically prepared me a hot coffee served in a plastic cup. Upon seeing my confusion, ten waiters gathered around me to try to interpret what I meant by "iced coffee" - please note, we're standing inches from McDonalds, Burger King and everything else that's Western. They were so helpful, yet so confused. So I faced a barista who appeared to be in charge and gave him the recipe: lots of ice, a double shot of espresso, a pump of vanilla syrup, and cold milk for the rest. He kind of understood, but still only put a few ice cubes in the cup, producing a not-hot but not-iced, overly syruppy coffee. As I walked away shrugging my shoulders, they all stood staring after me, shrugging their shoulders.

- We heard that there are lots of Chinese in Serbia, and so went on a hunt for some good Chinese food. Upon failing to uncover the real deal, we decided to settle for the fusion Asian restaurant in the Grand Casino. The casino is in the same facility as Hotel Yugoslavia, an imposing building on the riverside which appears to be abandoned, except for its gambling facility. We entered the casino and asked to see the restaurant's menu. The guard at the reception desk informed us that, in order to see the menu we would have to be members of the casino, but that's it's easy to join. So we agreed and grabbed the one-page registration form to fill out. But before we started another guard came up and whispered something in Serbian to our guard, who then informed us - quite apologetically - that there is a dress code at the Casino, and flip-flops are not a part of it. So we couldn't see the menu, much less eat Asian food, because we were wearing flip-flops.

- If you're a girl, you may be familiar with the phenomenon of a car-full of guys pulling over as you are waiting for a taxi or bus on the side of the road. If you're a guy, perhaps you have pulled over for some girls standing on the side of the road. Well, my friend and I were getting tired of waiting for a taxi, so when a car pulled over we actually considered accepting a lift from them and responded to their shouts and waves by asking for directions. The guy in the passenger seat got out and pored over the map with us while the driver shouted out suggestions from his seat. Glancing into the car it appeared that the driver was actually disabled. Eventually, as other cars whizzed by, they pointed out to us exactly how to reach our destination. Then they left. No offer of a lift. My friend and I shrugged as they pulled away, thinking that that's not usually how these encounters go down.

Lovely country nonetheless.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Scenario #26: Alla Verdera

Kosovo has a lot of Albanians. Albania is just about a lake away from Italy. And therefore Kosovo is proud of its Italian food offerings.

So when we went to a restaurant in Peja, near the Montenegro border, and saw two pages of different pasta dishes in the menu, we went ahead and ordered something that looked interesting, slightly exotic, and very Italian. For my friend it was pizza. For me, it was Alla Verdera, which was described as pasta with 'seasonal vegetables', with either cream sauce or tomato sauce. So I asked for an Alla Verdera "me sos krem" - with cream sauce.

The waiter scurried away, and we sat back to look at the photos we'd taken that day. The next time the waiter passed by, I decided to point out that we were running late and in a bit of a rush: "Deshirojne Shpejt" - we want it fast (this was very rustic Albanian, but I thought he got the point).

Ten minutes later, he came back, hands empty. He stared at me a bit with a questioning look. I stared back. Finally, he asked, "Biftek?" Did I order a steak?

"No. Jo." I looked at him a bit confused, jaw gaping. And then I repeated "Alla Verdera me sos krem." He stared at me. So I pointed at the entry in the menu. He nodded and skipped away.

Five minutes later he came back, once again empty-handed. What part of "shpejt" did I pronounce wrong? He asked me if I wanted spaghetti or macaroni noodles. I rolled my eyes as I considered how much I did not care, and asked for macaroni; and I tried to take advantage of this opportunity to remind him of the rush we were in. He wandered back towards the kitchen - or, as I later found out - in the opposite direction away from the kitchen.

Ten full minutes after this, our appetizers appeared. And immediately, before we had time to down our soup, a waiter appeared with my friend's pizza. Still no pasta with veggies. She offered to share her pizza with me, but I said I was happy with my very delicious fish soup.

Just as I was scraping the bottom of my soup bowl, finally a new waiter placed in front of me a plate of macaroni noodles with meat and tomato sauce. I stared at the bowl. Took a bite. It was delicious. But I really wanted the vegetables, wanted something a bit healthier. And I was really craving cream sauce. So when a man who looked like a senior waiter glanced our way, I asked him to come over. I explained that I'd ordered "Alla Verdera me sos krem" and this was quite different from that. In fact, the only thing they'd gotten right was the macaroni noodles. But I was running late so maybe they could just cancel my order. But he apologised and promised it in three minutes, so I agreed to wait. As he was walking away, I called out and asked him to make it "takeaway."

So about ten minutes later, after munching on one of my friend's pieces of pizza and after she'd finished downing the rest, three waiters showed up together, bearing an aluminum foil covered plastic plate of pasta. I glanced in. This time they got the veggies right, but there was still no cream sauce! There was no sauce at all, in fact.

Where did this particular cultural miscommunication break down?

Friday, June 19, 2009

fading away

The Balkans are fading away. I've been gone a week now.

I see a photo of Prishtina on the Internet and it looks oddly familiar. Something written in Cyrillic alphabet evokes vague memories. Emails and skype chats from my friends in Kosovo are so homey yet so distant.

The reality of the problems embodied in NGO work in Kosovo is still stark and real. It will be a lesson that re-teaches itself in new incarnations for years to come.

My co-workers were smart to give me a silver necklace that I can wear everyday to remember Kosovo, because it actually is possible I might forget everything else.

Somehow, being in the Middle East, and the intensity of experiences, sights, smells and emotions that surrounds me here... it almost invalidates the very deep fears and divisions of the Balkans region.

Today I came across a random phrase in my journal: "Crossing the border - no green (plains) to forested". On my last weekend there, as we ventured on the bus from Kosovo into Serbia we crossed from light green fields into dark green forests. This cannot be a sudden shift in the natural geography of the land. It tells about centuries of history that have preserved the forests in Serbia and destroyed their cousin trees in Kosovo, replacing them with unused fields and with farmland. God be with that land, even if it is a world away.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Portrait #84: The Serbian Nuns

Everywhere I go, I now carry with me a most inspiring journal. It's an exquisite hardbound volume that's about the size of the palm of my hand. The maroon-coloured binding has three flowers inscribed along the spine. Most of the cover is a bland burnt-brown colour, but it also has intricate flowers etched into the front corners, and one simple flower on the back. On the front cover, the maroon binding and the brown cover are separated by a thin ribbon and a strip of pale pink lace. The pages are made of thick unbleached parchment paper.

This journal is small and slight, and holding it feels like holding a poem. It whispers urgently to the person holding it that someone put a lot of intimate love and care into its creation.

It was crafted by a nun in a monastery in Gracanica, the largest Serbian town in Kosovo. In this town, the writing on signs is Cyrillic (instead of the Latin script used elsewhere in Kosovo), the prices are all in Serbian Dinar (as opposed to Euros), cars have Serbian tags or no tags at all (except for the occasional visitor's Kosovar tags). It's a ten-minute drive from Kosovo's capital, but entering this town means crossing a symbolic national border.

Right in the heart of Gracanica is a compound which houses a church and monastery. It is surrounded by a tall brick wall, and guarded by a squadron of Finnish soldiers. Only foreigners have the gall to enter this fortress to tour the historical Orthodox building, but local townspeople continue to pray regularly in the church.

Living in the monastery are 19 nuns and 3 priests. We met 2 of the nuns, both of whom were born and raised in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and a six-hour drive from Gracanica. They now serve their God in the heart of an unending political stand-off, between Kosovar Albanian (everything surrounding Gracanica) and Serbian hegemony.

But these women cared nothing for politics. They both had perfectly deep blue eyes, spoke pristine English, and dressed modestly in all black, including headscarves and long skirts. They spoke with big smiles and soft voices. As my friend and I explored their tiny shop full of precious wares, they told us that they felt like rebels in their Orthodox order of nuns because they went against the will of the older nuns to sell their homemade books, as well as honey and needlework and home-brewed wine, to tourists visiting the monastery, to raise money for a soup kitchen in a nearby city.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I've left Kosovo for the foreseeable future! For the last few days I've been stranded in a Lebanese paradise where I got to indulge in beautiful views, Starbucks and friends. I'll take that kind of stranding anytime. And am now back in the place where I always seem to land... Syria.

With Kosovo behind me, I am determined to return to my discipline of blog writing. I've a nice pile of portraits from my last few weeks in the Balkans, and already so many beautiful Middle Eastern images to share.

So... I write this as a promise to myself and to you that tomorrow I will be a blogger once again.