It’s summer in Belgrade, and this is a very good thing.
I’ve always felt summer improves everything: moods, physiques, food. But perhaps a place has never been improved by sunshine and rising temperatures more than my beloved Belgrade. And trust me, I liked it well enough before—even in the deep doldrums of dreary February when I first arrived.
It’s in the winter you can really digest the landscape; it’s a hodgepodge of eras and architectures. For some reason I really took a liking to the newer, Communist style side of the city across the river from the old city center called Novi Beograd (New Belgrade).
It’s not that I’m yugo-nostalgic, but it could be my natural predilection for utilitarian type organization and predictable gridded street systems (no winding European-style streets here, although yes those are charming). Maybe my attraction to such (what some would say) characterless blocks of apartment buildings and monuments is perverse. Either way I’m quite attached to my tastes, thank you.
Then again, wherever you are in the world, everything looks a little more Communist in the winter. The season slows our pace for an interim, things look a little lifeless….but sometimes it’s still beautiful.
About the only thing the cold didn’t stop in Belgrade was the lovers (who insisted on walking about or sitting in frigid parks and the old city fortress despite the plummeting temperature) and the nightlife. And the pijacas (open air markets). Serbians have to love, they have to party, and they have to eat.
But it’s in the summer (and spring) when the kids come out to play in the parks, when the rose bushes bloom and the windowsills are full of flowers, when the moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas tootle around hand in hand, when the river splavs (floating clubs and cafes) open for business and shake the river banks all night with the DJ’s beat.
Everything just has a little bit more character in Belgrade; This is the place they call magija (magic)….magija beograda. I would attribute the magic to the river, which both divides and unites the city and its people.
It’s funny…this is my second time back in Belgrade, and I miss home much more this time, despite the magic. But this trip was a little more independent, a little more potent. I happened to pass through the city over the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide (some contest the use of the “G-word”, especially in Serbia. Is it genocide or just a grave crime?).
But Srebrenica is beside the point. What I mean to illustrate is how I so often find myself in such precarious situations as a guest in this region. I’m an American after all, a Westerner; my affiliations of nationality prove to be controversial one way or another wherever I go. And as I analyze and contemplate my daily experiences, like in those surrounding the days around this particular anniversary, it’s hard not to quantify everything based on what I know from back home and exclude the viewpoints right here around me.
Can it be helped? I remember what a colleague from the Balkanist spoke about once, she called it “helicoptering in.” You know, going some place and pointing out all the problems and issues, drumming up attention, etc. Especially in my chosen study program and possible career, journalism, I often think about it.
It’s one of the easiest tourist traps of all, I think, to be tempted to go around in an egocentric manner; a culture war. But I was never inclined to be just a tourist. So what am I doing here anyway; why did I come in the first place? It’s food for thought, I suppose.
And it’s so nice out I think I’ll take a break from all of this thinking and just go enjoy the sweet Balkan sun for a bit.
Summer has never looked better.
All together, my trip from Jersey’s suburbs to St. Petersburg, Russia amounted to approximately 15 hours of travel. Partially the function of my seemingly perpetual jetlag, my first few days in Petersburg were almost inexpressibly overwhelming. I arrived with over two years of language study and relative confidence in my ability to hold everyday conversations in Russian. I quickly realized, however, that, with Russian, there is a huge difference between understanding language and producing intelligent responses. For example, on my first night, I managed through dinner with my host family using only the most curt, short responses. I was frustrated with my inability to express nuances and connect with my host family — an older couple who have lived in the city their entire lives — at a more profound level.
The next day, I sleepily followed my хозяйка (Russian for host) to the institute where I am now taking my language and literature classes. Speaking quickly in Russian, my хозяйка pointed out how easily Soviet architecture in Petersburg can be differentiated from buildings erected prior to the 1917 revolution.
While I was not able to contribute anything to the conversation, I was quickly drawn into the history and was able to forget my language insecurities until we arrived at the institute. I’ve now realized that following and listening are the most valuable skills you can possess while abroad. Purely through paying attention to my хозяйка’s multiple monologues on the beauty of Petersburg during that first week, I was able to pick up numerous new constructions that I then attempted to store away in the Russian side of my brain. I realize now that, in the U.S., I tend to dominate conversation and constantly seek to share opinions, insight, and ideas.
So while I was initially frustrated by my inability to simulate these tendencies in Russian conversation, my experience in Russia became much easier once I realized that, at least for now, listening is more important speaking.
I’ve realized how lucky I am to have all of these new figures in my life guiding me through this language journey. In fact, one of the most positive experiences I’ve had with the language thus far is working with my native, Russian language teacher. In an attempt to simulate the intensity of a full year course, my language class meets for three hours a day, four days a week. The largest difficulty is not necessary the length of the sessions, however. In fact, it’s the size of the course — only three other students are in my level. Luckily, our instructor works really well with us and we are able to keep the classes light though simultaneously productive. So far, we’ve been reading the daily St. Petersburg papers, watching popular movies, and, of course, finding time for grammar review, as well.
While I can’t yet count myself fluent, I’m seeing slow and steady progress in my Russian, while simultaneously experiencing one of the greatest cities of the world. Yes, the first week was tough but I’m slowly regaining confidence and attempting to take advantage of everything Petersburg has to offer.