july 2001: serbia

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This is to certify that PARTICIPANT’S NAME is a participant in the summer school in generative linguistics organized in Nis from 10 July to 10 August 2001.  This school is the first international vocational student meeting in our city in the last 15 years, and it’s of great importance for the Student Union, the University of Nis, and the city of Nis.  The letter is designed to help participants get visas to enter FR Yugoslavia and stay here during the school.  Many participants have no Yugoslav Consulate or Embassy in their country and some of them come to Nis directly from another trip, so we kindly ask you to help them get visas in the shortest possible period of time.  I emphasize that the school is organized in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Sport and you can get the confirmation from Mr. Zarko Mihajlovic, deputy minister of education, in charge of this event, as well as from Mr. Vigor Majic, deputy minister of education and Mr. Dragan Zunic, the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy in Nis. 
— With gratitude, Student Union of the Faculty of Philosophy in Nis, B– A–, coordinator

When I moved to Finland in 1994 I was trying to write a thriller set in an unidentified Eastern European country in the early ’90s.  The action would take place in that free-falling vacuum where all the old Communist structures were still lying around and the new order of mobile phones and Internet terminals and American brands and winners/loser culture had not yet arrived to replace them.  The first line was: In the city there was one bookstore that sold foreign books.  The whole thing was inspired by the superficial observations of a 1993 day trip to Tallinn, followed by several weeks in Russia.  Tallinn has now been tarted up beyond recognition, and I keep traveling further and further south trying to recapture the mood of that novel, which I still haven’t been able to work out a complete plot for.

Nis, the third largest city in Serbia and in Yugoslavia [1], is definitely in some kind of vacuum at the moment, the kind of time warp you would expect in a country that has been closed for ten or more years, such as Albania.  All of Serbia has been wiped from the latest edition of the Let’s Go guidebooks, and Nis is not listed in the few Yugoslavia pages of the other popular Eastern Europe guides.  This could be because it’s on the way to Kosovo and Macedonia, not a direction tourists usually travel.  There are no Serbian-language city guides available in Nis, even, and only one map.  Nis is not on the ATM network or the traveler’s check network. [2]  Organizers tried valiantly to provide us with some information before we got there, but we really knew nothing about it.

The Russian comic novel The Twelve Chairs begins in a city filled with “so many hairdressing establishments and funeral homes that the inhabitants seemed to be born merely in order to have a shave, get their hair cut, freshen up their heads with toilet water and then die.”  Nis is a city of shoe stores – easily one storefront in every three or four is selling shoes, local brands, Bata shoes from Czech, designer running shoes from Germany and America. Second place would go to the number of bakeries, some of which are open all night, or the number of bars, both dark mirrored men’s clubs on side streets and open café-style ones on the main street, open till 4 am as well.

In The Impossible Country, Brian Hall identifies the tourist attractions of Nis as follows: Nis had all the elements of a typical Serbian city: a few bare outlines of Roman remains, a solid Turkish fortress, a preserved concentration camp in which German Nazis and Bulgarians had held about 30,000 hostages, a pleasant flowery meadow up on a hill where about ten thousand of those hostages had been shot, and a lot of post-war buildings, since the Allies had bombed Nis 32 times.  It also had a Turkish tower built out of Serb skulls.

When classes ended in the evening, people tended to gravitate to the fortress, which had several bars and cafes, a carnival with bumper cars, and a great view of the city.  I never had any idea that there was a concentration camp or a killing field in the area (I reread Brian Hall after getting back), but my Hungarian roommate found the tower built out of Serb skulls.  She said it was a long way out of town on the bus and much smaller than she expected.  There was also a museum, which was tucked away on a side street; I noticed it only on the last day, as it was closing.  In the front hall an epic battle painting and a Roman column were visible.

I arrived in Serbia from Budapest by train, with a group of Americans, Hungarians, Western Europeans, and one Irish woman, an extremely mild-mannered phonologist named Jill, whom I would end up traveling back with. One of the Americans, Sasha, had a Serbian friend named Monika who met us at the border, ushered us into three or four red Yugos driven by her family, and took us to her apartment for a snack and a rest before we all got the bus to Nis.  This was my only view of the inside of a Serbian apartment, and frankly, it was almost indistinguishable from the same thing in Toronto.  I don’t know if the interior was typical, but it became clear during the trip that, before the breakup of their republic, the Yugoslavians had managed to build some very solid-looking buildings, with little of the spalling concrete and rusty ironwork that plagues other apartment houses in the Balkans.  There was even one house in downtown Nis that had the only fire escape I have seen in southeastern Europe:

Near the end of the trip, we non-Balkanites were asked if we saw any difference between the Bulgarian culture from last year and Serbia this year.  “Serbia seems warmer,” said Sasha. “It’s partly because of Monika personally, but I was expecting to hear ‘Yankee go home’ and nobody has really said anything about Americans or reacted badly, so it seems friendlier because of the contrast with expectations.”

Indeed, because the United States had bombed Nis in the process of bombing Belgrade, southern Serbia and (unintentionally) a little bit of Bulgaria.  There was a monument to war dead [3] near the fortress, a vaguely mosque-shaped enclosure of blue glass around a six-sided marble column.  The names started with 1991 and ended with lots of people who got killed in the bombing (and some in Kosovo). As often happens with memorials, there was some space left blank for next time.

The bombs had been intended for a vehicle factory, but most of them hit smaller buildings like this: [4]

Although the wars were nominally over, and the opposition party was in power, Nis was still in something of a state of alert.  Helicopters roared overhead for a day or two, heading for Macedonia; Nis was a big military staging point.  I have never seen so many soldiers in a city, or so many police.  I was offered marijuana for only the third time in my life during an evening at an outdoor bar, and I did not dare try it because we were only a few blocks from the police station, sitting out in the open.  (And the first two times, there were other reasons, like I had a test in an hour, or I couldn’t stand the people who were offering it to me and feared that if I smoked it they would turn into demons and start flying around the room. I seem fated to remain drug free despite my best efforts.)  Being arrested for smoking pot in Yugoslavia would certainly have made a great journal entry, but then this has never been that kind of journal.

The police didn’t notice us that evening, though we saw enough of them at other times.  The dormitory had almost no common space – there was a TV room in the basement, but it was locked, and you could see through the glass that everything was covered with a grey fur of dust, and the entire basement stank of urine. Also, the TV appeared to be missing.  So people gathered on the benches outside to talk and sing, and until police broke it up.  Then the evening gatherings moved across town to the fortress, where nobody cared about noise.  We had a party on the last night at a minuscule bar, and the police turned up and arrested the owner, the guy standing next to the owner, and, in a particularly creative touch, the stereo speakers.  All of them went into the back of the police van and the rest of us decided to head for the fort.

“This is normal here,” said one of the Serbian students.  “They’ll be out in a few hours and the owner will have to pay a fine of a few hundred dollars and they won’t release the speakers until tomorrow.  It happens all the time.”  Huge fines, for playing loud music, in a bar, in a mostly commercial zone? I never did figure out the exact political climate.  Some people said Nis was a town where anti-Milosevic protests had occurred, and it was well known that B., the organizer of the school, had lost his job in Belgrade for organizing a protest there and had spent several years in exile in Bulgaria.  There were “anti-criminal,” apparently reform political posters all over the place.  But the police were still clearly in charge.

I normally avoid McDonald’s, because I really detest the smell of the sauces they use, but in Nis I was a regular.  Here’s why:

Those were the bathrooms at the university.  There seemed to be a lot more old-fashioned squat toilets in Nis than in other Balkan towns I’ve visited, and it requires more practice than I’ve had to avoid pissing on your shoes while using one.  McDonald’s also had the only coffee in town that wasn’t a tiny, sour cup of instant espresso; coffee culture is very big in ex Yugoslavia but primarily as something you do at home, with fresh beans and one of those pots with a waist, so you know it’s done right.  I’ve heard that if refugees from the former Yugoslavia could take one thing from home, it was the coffeepot, because if you could serve coffee then you had the basis for a social existence.

The bathroom picture points up the fact that even if private buildings are holding together (which they aren’t always), public facilities in post-Communist countries are generally rotting away except for some tourist showplaces and capital city institutions.  There’s just no money to fix them, any more than there’s money to pay regular salaries and cost of living increases to public employees.  The dormitory was fairly horrifying even to someone with my long experience of ratty student living conditions and in particular of dormitories in southeastern Europe.  It was a dormitory for male law students, three to a room, and it had not been cleaned by anyone in a very long time.  There was a private bathroom for each room, with a proper toilet, but the plumbing was falling apart.  The shower fixture in our room was just a hole in the (very high) ceiling.  

The Westerners generally were in shock, muttering “We’re roughing it,” silently counting the days to departure, trying not to complain.  Because the dormitories were the best the university had to offer, they were free, and B., the organizer, had worked very hard to get them for free (the Ministry of Education was picking up the bill).  It would have been churlish to say anything.  Meanwhile it was the locals who did the complaining on everyone’s behalf.  “Thank god I brought a hairdryer!” said Monika, my other roommate.  “Thank god I brought an iron!  Thank god I brought Raid for the cockroaches!  We need some bleach!”  Her foot-tall, totemic can of Raid was soon joined by an equally totemic bottle of bleach we had agreed to buy but couldn’t stand to use, because that would mean actually spending more time in the bathroom.

After we’d been there a week, the lights in the bathroom flickered and went out for good.  Monika was outraged.  “I can’t see to use the mirror!  It’s a good thing we’re going home soon.”

If you’re trying to imagine Monika, she looked exactly like a smaller, thinner, blondish version of Alanis Morisette.

We had to register on arrival, of course, once at the border in lieu of a visa, and a second time in Nis.  The organizers in Nis handled the local registration so that we didn’t have to go to the police individually.  At their suggestion, we left our passports in the summer school office and carried only temporary identification cards that did not give our country of origin.  I mostly spoke Serbian in shops, or rather a pidgin made up of remembered Bulgarian, fragments of a Croatian course I dropped out of, and expressions from the Kauderwelsch [5] Serbian phrasebook.  My most useful phrase was “Samo pogledam”  (just looking) delivered with a slight palatalization and a smile to friendly shop assistants, who would then say some nice thing I couldn’t understand.  I was asked at various times if I were Hungarian, if I were Yugoslavian (by a Hungarian), if I were Greek, if I were Romany.  If someone asked where I was from, I said Finland, wary of the response the real answer might receive.

But most people would have been unable to guess where I was from anyway, because it was a long time since anyone had heard native English speakers.  “Please excuse my English,” said one of the students from the Student Union.  “It has been ten years since I talked to a foreigner.”  The Student Union officers, most of whom were not linguistics students, organized everything and did all the scutwork of the school, including keeping an open house twelve hours a day for emergencies, and photocopying any article anyone wanted photocopied on a copier provided by the government or the Soros Foundation.  (It was usual for the teachers to bring masses of copyable material to the school in an effort to physically transfer knowledge to students whose libraries were decades out of date.)  They were not paid.  They did this because they believed it was necessary for the country to start hosting international meetings again so that the universities could make foreign contacts and start to get up to date.  Also, I suspect there was not much else to do, and in the absence of paid jobs, unpaid ones were at least a way to get experience.


“Sorry, we’re open” sign at the Oxford Learning Centar (Serbian spelling), 
an English school in Nis.

You would have looked in vain for the face of the demon Serb, or for the face of the professional victim as described in recent popular histories of the area.  Everyone was so normal.  Visually, though, the people were quite different from the laid-back Bulgarian population surrounding the last two schools.  Men tended to have crewcuts or shaved bullet heads, and wear name-brand athletic clothes of the sort favored by American youth gang members.  Women wore slacks and high-collared tops in the 30+ degree heat, usually in tight-fitting synthetics that, although transparently thin, looked very uncomfortable.  It’s a sad day or a dangerous place when the shortest skirt in town is being worn by me.

Because of the awareness of soldiers and police, together with the grunginess of the dorm, I spent an increasing amount of the time outside class and parties with my head in a book so that I would not attract attention and would not have to look around.  There were certain places that felt like refuges: the fortress, the movies [6], McDonald’s.  I arranged with Jill to go back up to Budapest on the last day of classes (which we would miss, but it was inevitable since we had early flights the next day).  Our Serbian classmates insisted on driving us to the station and arranging a friend to meet us for coffee and handle the bus-to-train transfer in Belgrade.  They would not hear of us taking taxis and figuring things out for ourselves.

“Everyone was talking together at the school,” said Jill on the train.  “Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Slovenians.  Even about the wars.  Monika said, ‘It’s just our way to be direct with each other.'”  

“Yeah, exactly,” I said.  “So why couldn’t they get along?” In the silence that followed, I realized this was not the most tactful question to put to someone from Belfast.

“It’s been so much better since the peace process,” she said.  “Before, your bag was searched before you went into a shop.  There were roadblocks all the time.  Long waits at the border – and people go back and forth all the time, it is one country, you know, it was a great mistake to partition it.  If you went to a pub, you didn’t sit near the door because there were too many incidents where someone came in shooting.  All because of a few stupid people.  All that’s gone.”

She also said she was aware that the superneutral way she talked, with many platitudes like, “Well we just have to hope for the best, don’t we,”  was a result of growing up in Belfast, and she knew the indirectness could be irritating.  And now that I’m finishing this entry several weeks after September 11, it occurs to me that that’s one of my great fears about this conflict: that John Scalzi and the Boston Phoenix and Salon are right and we’re going to lose our sense of humor and irony, start talking about “the troubles” and “the recent unpleasantness” in dead earnest, become a euphemized society where people are afraid of sarcasm.  I do hope not, and I take comfort in the web journaler who said, “What about the Russians?  What about the Eastern Europeans?  What about the Jews?”  You can go through all kinds of terrible things, and not necessarily lose your sense of humor. [8]

[1] Approximately 175,000 inhabitants.  Novi Sad, the second largest, is only slightly bigger.  I could not find any data more recent than 1991.

[2] Furthermore, my passport, issued in 1995, lists Serbia as one of the places Americans must not import goods from.  Yugoslavia was readmitted to the UN in November 2000.

[3] Actually there were two monuments, one put up by Milosevic’s party and one by his opponents, across the road from each other.  I believe I’m describing the one put up by the opponents.

[4] Note Balkan horse drawn wagon, regularly seen even in cities.

[5] Could I just say here how very very wonderful Kauderwelsch phrasebooks are? They have grammar explanations and morphological glosses as well as long lists of colloquial expressions and obscenities.   They are the O’Reilly books of phrasebooks.  Anyone who is serious about languages should make sure to learn German just in order to be able to take advantage of the series.  I have about 20 of them, including Mongolian, Armenian, Irish Gaelic, Yiddish, and “Hochchinesisch.” The Finnish one was the single most useful Finnish learning aid in my first year here.

[6] I saw four movies.  I saw Phantom of the Louvre with Sophie Marceau, which was truly the stupidest movie in the world, just Sophie making big eyes and a lot of bad Disney-ghost special effects flying around.  I saw Evolution, which seemed idiotic at the time, but not so bad after Phantom of the Louvre.  I saw The Mexican, which was not brilliant, but seemed pretty terrific after I saw the other two.  And I saw a Korean Cold War [7] thriller called Shiri that was really really good, though you can guess how much of the dialogue I understood in a Korean movie with Serbian subtitles.

[7] It is still the Cold War in Korea.  Brave democrats still battle godless, suicidal, stone cold killer Communists in the movies, or in this one anyway.

[8] Of course a sense of humor, irony and sarcasm are not all equivalent, but in my case they nearly are, so I’m going to leave the nuances of this argument as an exercise for the reader.

Texts from SAS flight

On the plane itself: There are three ways to travel: in an armchair, in your imagination. Welcome to the third.

Meal tray lid: A taste. A sigh. A feeling of satisfaction.

Salt packet: The color of snow. The taste of tears.  The enormity of oceans.

Pepper packet: Pepper has been called “the gift of the East”; though “gift” means poison in Swedish, don’t let that put you off.

Sugar packet: As sugar dissolves, it spreads happiness.

Wetwipe packet: Wetwipe