Honking

I’m sitting in the backseat of a car, taking in the street views of the quiet town of Šid.

The three other women in the car are chatting in Slovak, I’m not really sure about what; I didn’t manage to pick up any useful Slovak this year while in my Serbian-Slovak church communities.

The windows are rolled down, my leather jacket bunched up in my lap. Damp perspiration lingers along my hairline from being in the direct sunshine too long a few moments earlier.

I’m lost in thought, reflecting on the surprising turn of events that led me to be in Šid today– always expect the unexpected as a YAGM volunteer– when suddenly loud, jubilant yelling and a cacophony of blaring car horns causes me to startle and I crane my neck to see out the front windshield. Was there an accident?

Pastor Anna chuckles under her breath, joined in by Nataša, our driver, and Zuzka, who is sitting on my right.

A parade of cars, a procession of maybe ten, comes into view. The first car has three people sitting out of the open windows, the front passenger holding a large Serbian flag that is rippling in the wind. Every vehicle is laying on the horn, honking like crazy, making a ruckus that pulls the attention of every driver and pedestrian on the street.

“Welcome to Serbia! Another tradition from Orthodox weddings,” Nataša informs me.

The procession has passed out of our sight, but the honking sounds are still ringing in the air. Soon another procession rounds the corner, trailing behind the first. Horns are still sounding, and even Nataša joins in, blaring her own horn to join in the celebration. Out of another open window someone fires gun shots straight up into the air, making even more noise to signal the celebration.

“So are they on their way to the wedding or is this something they do after?” I ask in an attempt to make sense of this extremely thrilling sounding practice. It would be so fun to share with the whole town the celebration of a wedding.

“Both!” Pastor Anna laughs. “We always have weird adventures when you’re with me!”

I laugh; everything about this year has been a weird, and unexpected, adventure. I’m glad I’ve met so many great people who are willing to help me find those adventures.

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Trains

“I’ve got to hurry,” Ana said, “if I am to catch a train.”

A train? I brush that comment aside. There aren’t trains in Belgrade. She must have meant a bus.

“Have you caught a train before?” She inquires of me.

“Uhm, do you mean a bus?”

“No, a train.”

… “There are trains in Belgrade?”

You see, very early on in my year, I had been informed that all train and railway tracks were going under repairs for approximately the next three years. Meaning, no trains in Belgrade and no trains leading to the surrounding cities, such as Novi Sad and Niš.

Imagine my surprise when my coworker began to explain to me that, yes, that is true, however a small bit of the track that runs through Belgrade will remain functioning, with a train running in each direction only once within an hour’s time. It runs on a limited schedule, but you can still use it to get to various parts of the city.

“I just recently learned about it, about how frequently it runs, and so now I take it most days to get to work,” Ana explained. “You can take it Vukov Spomenik. You are near there, right?”

Color me shocked over this revelation.

I think learning about this optional mode of transport to take to and from work every day was startling for two main reasons.

One: Using the train to shuttle to and from work offers me a faster commute. Typically I take a bus or two for an average of 45 minutes (on a good day it can be more like 35 minutes, on a bad day it can be more like 90+ minutes) but with the train I can arrive to the DIC svratište in about 30 minutes.

Two: How did I manage to live in a place for nearly 10 months and I am just learning about this new thing? And not even a small, fun thing, but a big major thing like that fact that trains still run and the tracks are not all shut down for repairs as I had thought.

Two bonus features about taking the train instead of a bus: it’s free while under repairs and it is MUCH less crowded than the city buses. The lack of crowds alone makes this new discovery very exciting.

This revelation gave me a high mood for the rest of the week as I learned how to use it on my own, traveling on it like a regular pro after a few consecutive days.

While experiencing elation from the new and unexpected, it also made me ruminate on how this city is so full of new things for me to find. I only have a few short weeks left. One month! How am I supposed to say goodbye when I have so much more to do, more to see, more to learn, more to experience?

After nine months of learning Belgrade, I’m still finding new things. I’m sure if I lived here for 29 months or 109 months or for the rest of my life, I would still be finding new things. It was a weird revelation to have, but kind of a comforting one.

There will never be enough time, no matter how long I may stay in Beograd. I think I need to just embrace what little time I have left, take it day by day, and look for new things to learn in each one.

 

Transportation

As long as I’ve been in Belgrade, public transportation– city buses, trams, and trolley buses– has been my main source for scurrying about the city, if walking was not a viable option.

As time passed and I hopped on buses with nearly daily usage for months, I began to collect mental tips for myself in how to best manage on public transit.

Here are my 20 Tips for Riding Public Transit in Belgrade, based entirely on some of my personal experiences.

  1. Stand surfer style in a power stance, knees slightly bent so as to best shift your weight with the motion of the bus. You might still knock into people, but that can’t be helped.
  2. Don’t sit backwards on a bus if you ever experience motion sickness. It’s just a cruel torture. Instead, keep standing! (use the aforementioned tip for when standing!)
  3. Try to minimize letting go of a handle — you’ll be caught unawares and thrown backwards into some friendly, unsuspecting Serbians. At least they tend to be pretty nice about it.
  4. When standing by the doors, make sure you leave a space for the doors to open inward, so that when they do open they don’t knock you sideways and into more unsuspecting Serbians.
  5. Always tap your card as you enter a bus or run the risk of a ticket checker coming along and giving you a 2000 Dinar ticket. (Oops?)
  6. Learn to get over wanting personal space. Think livestock being herded into a small pen?
  7. Learn to not be “on time”, who knows when a bus or a tram will show up. Adapt an “around this time” mentality.
  8. Learn that sometimes they (I’m not sure entirely who “they” is, but there must be someone important out there making these decisions) completely cancel a bus line because of something happening in the city, but you won’t know that so you’ll miss church entirely. For example, there is a city marathon today? “Oh yeah, no buses. Didn’t you hear?”
  9. Learn that riding public transit can be a fun way to see the city, discover a new shop you’re interested in visiting, or to find a beautiful park to visit. Gawk at your surroundings, but maybe discretely so you’re not taken for the visitor that you are.
  10. Avoid standing by people that are a head taller than you. You’re placed at face level to their armpit, so when they reach upward to grab a bar for balance, your face is in an awkward place on a Serbian’s anatomy— for example, an armpit that may or may not be sweaty. Yum?
  11. When hustling to get on transportation, watch out for the little old ladies who are gunning for a seat. They are not afraid to use elbows. And better yet, always give up your seat for those little old ladies. They’ve lived long enough to deserve preferential treatment.
  12. If you need to get on a bus but the doors are shut, a friendly smile through the front windshield to the driver can do the trick to open the doors.
  13. If a swarm of tiny school children are getting on board, enjoy the adorable sight of them climbing on all fours up the tall steps, and lend a hand to a couple of the ones closest to you.
  14. If the doors of the bus ever get stuck open, just sit back and wait for the driver to come check it out, give it a nice firm kick, and then watch the doors magically close.
  15. If the tire blows while you’re riding a bus, just calmly get off when the driver pulls over and walk the few blocks to the next bus stop, hoping to catch a different one to your final destination.
  16. If there is a decent amount of fresh snow on the ground, don’t hold your breath that your tram will show up.
  17. Sometimes you’ll be riding along, no worries, and then the bus deviates and goes and parks in a parking lot and you had no idea why. So just sit tight unless told otherwise until the bus driver decides to go again. Then later find out you got on the completely wrong bus. (Oops again?)
  18. If your tram is at the stop and you’re not quite there yet, get in the line-of-sight of the driver’s side-view mirrors and start running— 9 times out of 10, those lovely humans will notice your hurrying efforts and will wait for you to get on the tram! Plus you get a bit of extra cardio in your day.
  19. The mobile app called Moovit is a complete lifesaver. I would be wandering around lost for a month’s worth of time if I hadn’t had this nifty tool to help me route my way around the city.
  20. Embrace using public transit in all of its wonderful glory– the good moments, the bad moments, the dull moments, the scary, exciting, and mundane moments. And if you find yourself thinking, “I am so sick of public transit,” chase that thought away with, “Well, you could have walked to work for 2 hours, one-way, and in the snow this morning instead of riding a warm bus for 45 minutes.” Count your blessings.

Prijatno!

#YAGMphotochallenge

Throughout the month of March I participated in a YAGM photo challenge on Facebook. I posted pictures following daily prompts but I decided to consolidate all of them here, into one blog post.

I did this challenge because it sounded like a fun and new way to keep sharing my YAGM experience with my sending community, but also because I am finding that it can be very easy to fall into a comfortable routine seven months in. Doing this challenge was a way to make sure I keep stepping out of my bounds, thinking more on topics I maybe haven’t given a second thought to, and to keep forcing me to capture the small, important moments of this year.

Day 1: Your home. 

My home is a ground floor flat (apartment) in the city of Belgrade. I live a with another YAGM volunteer (the barred window above the black car is her bedroom) and this place is just the perfect amount of cozy for the two of us.

Day 2: Your primary placement.

day-2-d-2.jpg

My work placement is with a non-profit organization called Center for Youth Integration (CYI). I work in one of the two drop-in centers (DICs) they have in Belgrade that functions as a place to meet the basic needs for kids 5-15 who live on the streets and in Roma settlements. At the DIC, kids can come to shower, get clean clothing, and eat hot meals as well as get help with school work, play games, color, do various craft activities, watch some cartoons, play soccer, check out some YouTube videos, get a hair trim and styled in some fun braids, grab some snacks for home, and many other things.

I get to hang out, share meals, play games, trim fingernails, style hair, color and make crafts, help teach English vocabulary, learn Serbian vocabulary, and help with math and English homework. All in all, a fun, energy filled environment built around the core of building a caring community.

„ДОБРО ДОШЛИ у СВРАТИШТЕ” roughly translates to “Welcome to the Center!” (СВРАТИШТЕ is the Serbian word for the DICs, but google translate says it means “inn” which is not quite accurate, but it tried.)

Day 3: Your cohort.

Day 3

YAGM uses the word “cohort” to encompass the other volunteers who are also serving in the same region of the world as you and have the same coordinator watching out for you.

My Central Europe cohort has 10 volunteers total, serving throughout Hungary (7) and Serbia (3).

This was the first photo taken of us all as a group. We were in Chicago and had to embark on our first group activity as a cohort— follow the clues to where you will be eating supper together!

Since this was taken we have changed from being strangers to becoming friends and confidants in one another. I’m blessed to be a part of such a fantastic group of servants.

Day 4: Your first friend in your site placement.

Day 4

I met Anđela on my first day volunteering on my own and it was also her first day volunteering on her own.

After we were both done working with kids at the DIC, we walked to get a coffee and we haven’t stopped going out and catching up since.

About once a week, Angie (as I so lovingly call her in a very American rendition of her name) messages me asking if I want to go check out a free museum exhibit, go hang out at a coffee bar, or even go for a nice walk in the beautiful sunshine. 

I am very grateful for her continued efforts to show me her city and pull me out of my homebody tendencies. ❤️

(This is the first photo I took of her, while we were visiting a modern art exhibit in the Belgrade City Museum.)

Day 5: Your place of worship.

I worship in two church communities with regularity— a Slovak lutheran church in Belgrade and a Slovak lutheran church in a small village called Šid.

Pictured is the outside of my church in Belgrade and it’s interior (featuring Pastor Anna, who serves both congregations). And the third picture is a painting of my church in Šid, created by Jan, one of the members of the church!

Day 6: Your favorite place in your placement city.

Day 6

I wrestled with this day’s photo challenge because I couldn’t decide which place to talk about.

The coffeeshop I visit semi-regularly? The fortress in the city? My bedroom? Too many viable options that have all brought me some of my favorite memories of Belgrade.

I settled on this photo that I took last October, when autumn was in the air and the colors in this park were gorgeous. The empty bench in this photo was where is sat and felt an amazing, incredible moment of peace as I enjoyed my favorite season.

This has become a park I favor because of that one fall day, and whenever I go back for a visit, I am never disappointed.

Day 7: Your local currency.

day-7.jpg

The currency in Serbia is the Republic of Serbia Dinar (RSD). Roughly, 100 Dinar is 1 US dollar, so doing the mental math of worth is easy for me to do on the fly.

The bills are all beautifully colored and as the value of the bill decreases, the size decreases too! I think that’s kind of cool.

Day 8: Your breakfast.

Day 8

My breakfasts vary, depending on what kind of mood I am in and how long ago I went grocery shopping.

Lately, my breakfast has been plain, drinkable yogurt (a Serbian staple) topped with some type of granola and honey.

Prijatno! Enjoy your meal!

Day 9: Your fall retreat.

Day 9

The CE cohort fall retreat happened in the beginning of last November. We all gathered at a vineyard farmhouse in Szálka, Hungary.

The fall retreat was a period of relaxation and rejuvenation for me. We processed our cross-cultural experiences together, we worshiped together, we played games together and communed together. We decorated cookies and made vision boards. We cuddled cats and sat in hammocks. We wrote out affirmations for one another and ate some of the best breakfast foods I have ever had (and still dream about).

It was beautiful and everything I didn’t know I needed at the time, but it truly bolstered me when I was running out of energy for this year abroad.

I spent many moments in this hammock chair, taking in the scenic views, journaling, reading. It was glorious.

Day 10: The thing you miss most from home.

Day 10

Finding a photo that covers this category was really difficult for me, because the thing I miss most from home isn’t a singular item or a food or a place. It’s all my people.

It’s my people from church and my schools and my home town. It’s my family and friends.

I miss their hugs and the familiarity that comes with being home, from being around people who have spent a lifetime becoming important and significant to me.

I don’t have a picture that encompasses that missing. I don’t have a way to show every single person I love that I miss them and think about them and want to see them again very, very soon.

So I settled on a picture of Jackie, my now passed away puppy, sitting amidst the sunshine and grass and bugs and wind at my farm, waiting for me.

This is my home, and this is what I miss. The people and beloved beings that are waiting for me to journey back home.

Day 11: What you do in your free time.

Day 11

In my free time, the two things I do most are read and sleep. But I also make time for journaling and playing guitar too.

This makes for a much more interesting picture than my bed at least.

Day 12: Your favorite food(s) in country.

Day 12

There have been many new and interesting foods brought into my life in the past few months, but one that is standing out most in my mind was this delicious meal of burek.

Burek is a baked filled pastry made from a thin flakey dough. Often they are a savory dish, stuffed with meat or cheese or spinach, but you can also find sweet burek filled with fruits, such as with a cherry filling.

In Serbia, this common Balkan dish is regularly paired with plain drinkable yogurt, which in this image has been poured over the top of my chicken-filled burek.

This was my first time having the yogurt poured directly over the top, which I think has been my favorite way to consume burek. When I have purchased burek and yogurt before, I would just drink the yogurt on the side, directly from the bottle.

Day 13: Something/someone who has challenged you.

Day 13

Challenges abound as I attempt to live and work and grow in Belgrade, and my daily life includes trying to communicate and build community with children who do not come from the same cultural background as me, nor do we know each other’s language.

This was a task that floored me just mere months ago, a challenge that seemed hopeless from the beginning and felt like something I wasn’t sure I would ever accomplish with any success.

But these resilient, strong and smart kids met that challenge head on, and in doing so, helped me find the courage to do so as well.

They daily challenge me to learn more Serbian, to play and create new games, to learn the realities of their lives and to keep pushing for better, to find joy in the smallest moments of fun.

I have felt so challenged by all the kids I have worked with and will meet in the coming months. They are why I have discovered that you can build community despite a language barrier, despite a cultural barrier, and despite socioeconomic statuses.

Day 14: Your country’s flag/crest.

The current Serbian flag, adopted in 2010, consists of three horizontal stripes red (top), blue (middle), white (bottom) with a crest placed slightly off center. These three colors are used to represent the revolutionary ideas of sovereignty. Red signifies bloodshed during the struggle for freedom, blue denotes the clear sky, and white signifies dazzling bright light.

The Serbian coat of arms represents the Serbian state, displaying a two-headed to white eagle and fleur-de-lis beside each talon, which are considered historic dynastic symbols.

The small red shield on the eagle represents the nation of Serbia and is divided into four equal quarters by a white cross, with a Cyrillic “C” in each corner. The four C’s on the main shield mean Samo Sloga Serbina Spasava (“Only Unity will Save the Serbs”). A real crown is a part of the head of the eagle, which was inspired by the crown of the stars of Serbia.

*all this information came from www.worldatlas.com! Not from my brain.

Day 15: Something that brings you joy in your placement.

Day 15

I really love to play card and board games, and outside of some awesome cousins and an aunt back home, I don’t ever really get to play games.

At the DIC, a deck of cards showed up and managed to stick around, largely intact. I now have a regular card game of Uno set up to play one on one with a young girl named Zaza because she just learned the rules to the game and loves to play too.

Additionally, a lot of the kids did not know how to shuffle cards, so I have been working to teach them how to shuffle! They have worked so hard to practice and everyday a couple of kids want to show me their growing shuffling skills.

Getting to play cards and share in this community building experience has been one of my favorite continuous moments of joy thus far.

 

Day 16: Something you are proud of.

Day 16

For me, one of the scarier parts of moving to Serbia for a year was knowing that I would be living in a culture that does not speak English as its primary language.

I always held this internal belief that I do not have a gift for languages. That learning another language would be extremely difficult for me to do with any kind of success and so I scared myself off from ever really trying.

Don’t get me wrong, I am far far far away from ever being fluent in Serbian, but I’ve learned that language barriers are not insurmountable, that I definitely do have the ability to learn a language. It just requires time, and effort, and practice.

So, I am proud of myself for learning something new about myself, for not letting the fear of living in a non-English speaking culture stop me from living abroad, and I am proud that many, very generous Serbians have commented that I am doing excellently in learning their mother tongue.

Day 17: Something considered good/ bad luck.

Day 17

I asked two friends to tell me superstitious beliefs for the area, and they shared lots of cool folklore, lucky and unlucky things, etc.

They rattled off a bunch of fun things, but there was one I enjoyed more than the others— it was thought that if you sleep with a book under your pillow you would gain knowledge (osmosis is a thing, maybe this could be plausible too?)

So I jokingly asked them, “Did you guys ever sleep with books under your pillows?”

They look at each other.

They look at me.

… “Yeah but it was in middle school! And normally before exams.”

😂

Some other fun things they shared:

– Always sort your shoes properly in their pairs or you will be in a car accident.

– if your left foot is itchy you will be traveling somewhere, but if your right foot is itchy you will NOT be traveling!

– if you spill coffee you will be getting guests.

– have someone spill water behind you as you leave for good luck, but you can’t turn back or your luck will be broken.

 

Day 18: Your sending community from the states.

What an impossible task, to even try and gather pictures of all the beautiful humans in my life who support me and are with me through this experience.

I settled for three photographs, trying to symbolize my closest extended family, but it is not enough.

To everyone not pictured, to those who have sent letters, emails, social media messages and well-wishes, who have been checking out my blogs and newsletters, who have even had a passing thought to my wellbeing— you are my sending community.

You’re the support that carries me through the harder days and cheers with me on my successful days.

I cannot find a sufficient thank you to show just how much you all mean to me.

 

Day 19: Your favorite holiday celebration so far.

Day 19

My favorite holiday celebration so far was getting to celebrate Christmas Eve.

It was a celebration of community and I felt so welcomed. I was invited into Pr. Anna’s home and was fed delicious food and learned Slovak cultural traditions.

It was a fantastic evening. And you can read more about it here if you are so interested.

 

Day 20: Someone/something that you are thankful for.

Day 20

I am thankful for Br2 – Ceramic Studio!

I needed a space in Belgrade to spend time and relax and to get me out of my flat. I needed something to help me create and feel energized in my spare time.

I found that at Br2 along with so much more— I am so beyond thankful!

Day 21: Local flora/plant life.

Day 21

This question came just in time because flowers are blooming, the grasses are greening, and the sun has been shining— spring is arriving in Belgrade!

This flower was picked from the backyard of the Šid church by the man in the background, Janko, and he handed it to me saying, Happy March 8th!, meaning, Happy Women’s Day!

This is a type of wild violet called Viola alba and they are native to this European region. I only know this thanks to Taylor Walker, who is a plant wizard.

Day 22: What Accompaniment looks like.

Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 11.47.06 AM

Accompaniment is the catch-all phrase for the work of a YAGM volunteer.

Accompaniment, at its simplest, is walking together.

As we walk together we share gifts, we share resources, we share experiences and advice and all the basics of life with one another.

It is based on mutuality and interdependence.

Through this work, through living together and walking together, that is how I am living out God’s mission. My presence and being is enough; my gifts and skill sets are enough; my showing up, even when it isn’t easy, is enough.

Accompaniment can look like many things– getting a coffee, walking to church, arranging flowers, serving a meal, sitting silently on a bus, playing a game, and even eating pretzels together.

Day 23: A goal you have before you leave.

A goal you have before you leave.

As the winter disappears and the sunshine makes the city come to life, I have a goal to explore more of this city. 

I want to visit more places; I want to discover the best cup of coffee; I want to walk down the hidden streets; I want to spend a sunny day by the river.

I go on regular walks down new streets in new directions, getting “lost” (but actually, I always make sure I know which direction leads me back to the main street) and taking pictures of the fun things I see along the way.

I hung this pretty and fun “I Spy” map of Belgrade on my wall as a means of encouragement and as a reminder that my exploration is never over.

Day 24: How you greet people.

Day 24

The common greeting between you and a friend/someone you are close with is done with a kiss to the right cheek as you come in for a hug. While doing moving in for the kiss/hug, you say, “Ćao!”.

Featured with me in this image is the lovely Ivana, a friend from Zemun church who is an amazing musician. She plays the keyboard for all of our services, and she was willing to record our regular greeting for each other.

I love greeting people here. It’s when I speak my best Serbian, I get to hug people and I learned the technique and grace needed when moving in for a kiss on the cheek.

I’m fully prepared to kiss everyone’s cheek in greeting back home, so be ready! 😚

 

Day 25: Where you see God.

Day 25

I see God in many places and ideas and people. But I think the place that humbled me the most is in the people I have met along this journey.

I have been so welcomed, so loved, and so whole heartedly accepted, I almost can’t understand it. People have opened their homes for me, given me small tokens of appreciation, fed me, hugged me.

I feel so blessed by the communities here that have received me.

This photograph is the mother of Pr. Anna. One really long day of multiple worship services and meeting new people ended at her home. We came with Pr. Anna and were told right away to sit down, relax, eat, drink, and just be. At this point I knew very little Serbian and she knows no English, but she sat with us, she spoke slowly and simply, she fed us snacks and fruit and it was a beautiful moment of being so humbled by this woman who doesn’t know me and probably will never see me again.

I see God in that moment.

 

Day 26: Your primary mode of transportation.

transport

My primary mode of transportation is tied between the public transit system and my very own feet.

Daily I use the buses and city trams to travel to work, but other than that I walk. Once in a while I am lucky to catch a quick car ride from people in my community!

The transit system was definitely a huge insecurity I felt when entering into Belgrade, which was not helped by the fact that the transit system is one giant mystery with very little public resources to help you figure it out, so I relied heavily on my community to give me guidance and advice until I was able to figure bits and pieces out on my own.

Plus, an app called Moovit totally saved my life, as it routes what transit I need to take to get from point A to point B. Thank goodness for modern technology!

 

Day 27: Selfie with the first person you interact with today.

Day 27

The first interaction I had today was with a small 5 year old girl who has the biggest smile and gives the best hugs.

As I opened the door to the Drop-in Center, she spotted me and immediately yelled, “DUNA!” (her nickname for me). Before my second step across the threshold, she rushed to give me a huge hug and, I’m not going to lie, that is the absolute best way to start a day of work.

 

Day 28: Your favorite drink in country.

Day 28

My favorite drink, outside of my two favorite coffee drinks that I could totally get in the U.S., is definitely medovača.

Medovača is honey rakija— Rakija is a fruit brandy, often made from plums, and it is beloved by all in this region. Two things I enjoy about this drink is that it is sipped, and medovača specifically is a very sweet drink.

I’ve only had it a couple times, but it’s always a nice little drink to share with friends in the evening. The last time I had medovača was with a good friend on my birthday, and we toasted to me turning 23.

Živali! Cheers!

Day 29: A daily ritual.

Day 29

While the physical writing doesn’t happen daily, I at least open and touch and carry my journal every day.

I found journaling my junior year of college and have stuck with this practice in some form or another ever since.

It’s a place to process, to document, and to preserve me, my experiences, and my thoughts.

Sometimes it looks like a daily journal.

Sometimes it looks like a scrapbook. 

Sometimes it looks like a planner.

It changes as I change.

And I love it to pieces.

 

Day 30: Something you will miss most from your placement.

My friends. My community that I have spent months building and growing with. The people I have met and gotten to know this year are the reason my time in Belgrade has been so exceptional.

Trying to name everyone that should be on this list would be exhaustive. But they’re all there, nestled in my heart, and it will be so hard to say goodbye in three months.

Day 31: What makes up your community.

Day 31.jpg

My community is made up by buildings and streets and trees and the people who live in those buildings and travel those streets and sit in the shade of the trees.

It is made up of two rivers that find their meeting ground, and made up of the city that grew and changed around the flowing water. My community is made up of the convergence of culture and history and people who carry differences and similarities and make this place Belgrade.

My community is made up of kindness and hospitality, good food and generous spirits. It is made up of forgiveness and language barriers and lots of honking car horns.

Most importantly, my community is made up of people that welcomed me wholeheartedly and helped me to find a home here.

 

New Year

I am a homebody.

Gladly, I will regularly choose to stay home, in comfy clothes, chilling in my personal space rather than going out to experience night life and socializing. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy socializing and getting to spend time with other people. It just takes a lot of energy on my behalf to participate in those activities, so it is not hard to make the choice to stay home and save my energy.

No matter how much my heart wanted to celebrate the arrival of 2019 by being in my jammies and hopefully asleep by the strike of midnight, I knew my brain wouldn’t forgive me if I did not seize the opportunity to partake in the city-wide celebration with over a million people.

So I layered my clothing, washed my hair, and put on my red lipstick. Then I ventured out to brave the city of Belgrade on New Year’s Eve. Ultimately, I did not go to any major party locations in the clubs, but I enjoyed a drink at Café 16, the coffee-bar owned by the non-profit I volunteer for. Then I meandered around, eventually making it to Trg Republike, the city center. I grabbed a cup of mulled wine, took some pictures with the light displays, and noticed a huge crowd movement to an unknown location– so I followed!

I found myself in front of the National Assembly where there was a huge stage set up,  live music playing for all to hear, and then at the stroke of midnight, six minutes of non-stop fireworks began all around me.

I was in the midst of this massive crowd, the sky was lit up with all sorts of beautiful lights and my ears were filled with music, laughter and conversation, and the percussion of fireworks.

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The National Assembly and the large stage that held live music for the new year celebration, featuring me siting on top of a cold cement wall. 

It was such an awesome moment, getting to celebrate the same big event amongst so many Serbians and other visitors to the city.

(And much more memorable than sleeping through it.)

But, I wasn’t done celebrating the arrival of 2019.

January 1st, New Years Day, also held a really awesome event I was able to participate in. Pastor Anna and her husband Dragan invited me to join them in attending an annual event that has happened for the last 50 years in Belgrade– Open Heart Street. 

Belgrade begins every new year with an event that works to support a humanitarian effort; this year Open Heart Street was dedicated to the Doctor Clown project— an organized group of people who daily visit children in hospitals to bring cheer and fun to their hospital stay. To support this cause you could purchase a red clown nose to wear, and the money would be given to support Doktor Klovn.

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Pastor Anna, Dragan and I sporting our red clown noses at the end of Svetogorska Street, the Street of Open Hearts. 

The street is also filled with vendors of all kinds selling roasted chestnuts, mulled wine, traditional candies, cotton candy, clothing items, collectables, toys, balloons, hats and mittens, and so much more. As you move along the street you encounter multiple stages featuring live music performances and fun holiday decorations.

It was an amazing experience to see everyone gathered together to begin the new year by supporting a charitable cause.

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Pastor Anna and Dragan treated me to some delicious mulled wine and roasted chestnuts, which I had never tried before. 

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One of the stages along Svetogorska Street. This was placed in front of Radio Belgrade 202 building, one of the initiators of Open Heart Street. Performing on the stage is Ljuba Ninković, a member of S veemena na vreme, one of the pioneer groups of the Yugoslav rock music scene! (Info provided by Pr. Anna and Wiki.)

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One of the many traditional sweets vendors along the Open Heart Street. There are so many options and it is all so colorful! 

Read a little more about Open Heart Street here! (In English of course.)

And that was how my 2019 began– fun events and celebrations aplenty. Me stepping out of my homebody self to find adventure and energy in this bustling city of Beograd.

Plus, I know clowns can be a little scary, but I think I rocked the look pretty well. Maybe 2019 will start a trend of wearing bright red noses.

Srećna Nova Godina! Happy New Year!

Christmas

Outside of traveling around from home to home in order to see family and friends, Christmas has typically been a time of rest and rejuvenation, in addition to being a time of celebration.

Christmas was a break from school work and the stress of finals. I got to see family, eat lots of delicious Christmas treats, give and receive gifts, and just take a really big deep breath in before letting it out along with stress. Commence sitting at home with dad, reading some new books, and watching Home Alone (my dad’s favorite Christmas must-watch).

This year, I was not struggling with the stress of school finals (college grad, woo-hoo). I did not get to spend time with family, outside of a few stolen moments on FaceTime. And I did not get to take a load off and relax my holidays away. I had a fantastic Christmas Eve (read about it here!) but it was crazy busy, as was my Christmas Day.

December 25, 2018 began with my guitar playing debut. I had played a bit for my Central Europe volunteer cohort, but they’re basically family so that doesn’t count. Christmas morning I played Silent Night, Joy to the World, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen for my church congregation while Ivana, Jessie and I sang along.

I wasn’t awesome, but I wasn’t terrible either. Nervousness caused me to almost drop my guitar pick twice in the middle of Joy to the World, but who really noticed, right? (That’s what I am telling myself at least.)

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Jessie, Ivana and myself singing Christmas carols following the Christmas Day worship service.

Following each piece we were applauded by the congregation, which Pastor Anna shared as a huge surprise to her because clapping is not a regular occurrence in church (preaching to the small town congregations of my home). Pr. Anna said they all really loved it if they felt moved to clap, which was a huge motivation booster to make sure we share special music again soon.

Following church, Pastor Anna issued a surprise invite for a Christmas lunch, which consisted of chicken noodle soup, a sausage, pork, and potato cooked dish that tasted so much like a slow cooker pot roast, I almost cried in mid-west joy.

And then Pastor Anna brought out these beautifully made and decorated Christmas cookies. I was so beyond full (if I am honest, I was still trying to digest my Christmas Eve meal) that I only managed to try one of the cookies, but seeing a Christmas cookie platter when I had assumed that excess Christmas baking wasn’t a tradition in this part of the world was a true cherry on top of my day.

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I have no idea what this dish was called, but it was a flat baking sheet layered with pieces of pork and sausages, covered in potatoes. It baked in the oven while covered in tinfoil and you open it up right before it is time to eat. Like a nice Christmas meal surprise!

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Pastor Anna made a variety of cookie and Christmas treats to share with us. She even hand decorated those beautiful gingerbread cookies– so amazing! 

Lunch had to be cut short because today also featured a massive gift giving event for all the children at the drop-in centers (DICs). Centar za Integraciju Mladih (CIM) or in English, the Center for Youth Integration (CYI), hosts a children’s Christmas play at the children’s center and gives a gift to all the kids as they walk across the stage to meet Santa Clause.

This event takes lots of preparation from reserving and scheduling the venue, shuttling all the kids to and from the two DICs, having volunteers and workers to make sure they all arrive safely, gathering donations and gifts, and then packaging said gifts (done largely in part by yours truly).

It is crazy and amazing what this organization is able to do to bring some Christmas celebration to all the kids they work with. It takes tremendous amounts of time and dedication from everyone involved, and I was so humbled to get to be a small piece in the process.

It allowed me to celebrate my Christmas Day with nearly 200 kids. How cool is that?

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Some of the children in their seats, waiting for the show to begin! 

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While entirely in Serbian, I managed to pick up that the play was a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood but it featured a Santa Clause that came in and saved the day by helping the Hunter in the woods save Red and Granny from the Wolf that consumed them. Or something like that.

After talking with my fellow coworkers at the DICs, hanging out with some of the awesome kids I get to work with, watching them all get presents and then load the buses to head home, I  managed to find my way to my comfy little flat where I talked with both sides of my family over FaceTime, and opened some Christmas cards and gifts I had received from both home and my Belgrade community.

Oh, and I forgot to mention. I got in some serious cuddle time with Teo the cat before lunch. He hadn’t gotten any attention all morning, so I was more than willing to offer my love.

All in all, I had a great Christmas.

Blessings to you and yours!

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Teo the cat is kind of the embodiment of my soul. He may come across as grumpy and a loner, but he truly just wants some love and attention. 

Christmas Eve

Being away from home and the familiar can be a really trying experience during the Christmas season.

For me, Christmas is one of the few times of traditions in my life. I always go to Grandma Linda’s for a celebration with the Geistfeld family and we always have the same main dinner options. I always celebrate Christmas Day with my Sangren family. I get to see people I rarely see and eat foods I love but only consume twice a year.

But these constants in my life aren’t happening this year. And I think without that planning and anticipation, the excitement and joy of this Christmas season hasn’t really been with me.

It didn’t feel like Christmas.

The night of the 23rd there was an advent concert at my church, and it think it was there that I thought to myself for the first time, “It’s Christmas!”.

It was beautiful.

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The Merry Gospel choir performed all types of gospel Christmas music from classic hymns with a twist to fun new pieces. The majority of their performance was in English, which prompted a member of my congregation to ask me if it felt like a piece of home, to which I responded, “Da!” (“Yes!”)

The Merry Gospel choir performed and the majority of the music was in English and I got to bask in my love of Christmas music and choral performances. I got to hear one of my favorite pieces, Mary Did You Know, as well as getting to sing along to Silent Night in both English and Serbian.

But Christmas Eve was truly the moment where I got to celebrate Christmas this year.

In the end of October, Pastor Anna had extended an invitation to join her and her family of five (six if you include Teo the cat) for Christmas Eve dinner, and so following a worship service in Šid we journeyed to her apartment and celebrated together.

Traditionally, Christmas Eve dinner is the big celebration for Christmas. The advent season used to be marked by a fasting period that was broken on Christmas Day. At every step along the way of the meal, Pastor Anna explained the history and the reasoning of why we were eating each part of the meal.

Before we joined at the table and began the meal, like good Serbians we enjoyed a bit of liquor to kick off the evening. Typically this is done with rakija, a plum (fruit) brandy that is well loved across the land, but I toasted the evening with a strawberry liquor that was amazingly sweet and delicious that may or may not have been a type of rakija.

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The true meal around the table begins with a fresh apple. One apple is cut in half horizontally and then shared among everyone. When cut horizontally, the core of the Apple creates a star shape, reminiscent of the Star of David.

Apples were typically the fresh fruit available at Christmas time, but following the sharing of a single apple, you begin the meal with something sweet. There are dried fruits such as apricots, dates, figs and plums. Walnuts are always served as well as honey, a classic piece of the Christmas Eve meal.

Our first course included an item called oplatki, a sweet and crunchy treat reminiscent of a waffle with a thin layer of caramel inside (think stroop waffle). You can eat it as is, or drizzle some honey on top to make it sweeter.

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Oplatki is delicious, and is featured here along with dried fruits, walnuts, and honey which served as our opening course.

The second course was a sauerkraut soup made with dried mushrooms and dried plums called kapustnica, and following the tradition of this meal occurring during a time of fasting, it is a relatively simple soup with no meat. Paired with this was a cooked bread called knedlik that Pastor Anna’s eldest daughter made for the first time this year! It was delicious and doughy soft and went well with the slightly sour and salty soup. I was nervous about the soup, sauerkraut is not on the top of my food choices and neither are plums or mushrooms, but it was delicious! And I definitely had two helpings which was a bad choice seeing as this was only the second course.

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Kapustnica is sauerkraut soup made with dried plums and dried mushrooms. If that does not sound like your cup of tea, at least give it a try. It was delicious and filling!

 

The third course was battered and fried fish and a chilled potato salad. I squeezed fresh lemon juice over the hot fish and the potato salad was simply cooked potatoes, salt, chopped onions and lemon juice mixed and served cold.

Honestly, it was not all that different from a meal I would have back home. Easily this could have been something I ate at the cabin lakeside, Uncle John having caught and fried some fresh fish for everyone, a classic potato salad on the side. This thought train hit me really powerfully right after I took my first bite and the weirdest sense of happiness settled over me and my already very full stomach.

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This was captured after almost consuming my entire plate, but the fish and potato salad were both lemon-y and reminiscent of meals from home. At the top of my plate is a piece of the knedlik cooked bread that I carried over to this course because it was too good to not continue eating.

The final course was a dessert called opakance. This was a bread that was baked until it was very hard but was re-softened with water and covered in poppy seeds. Because of this process of hardened and softened, not every piece is the same consistency. Some were really firm and others were as soft as fresh baked bread. You can also drizzle honey on top of the bread pieces to make the dish even sweeter (of course I added more honey).

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Bite sized pieces of poppy seed opakance, drizzled with honey! After an entire meal of delicious foods, this final course did not disappoint.

Alternatively, for poorer families, this opakance bread could also serve as the main course dish, but it would then be topped with cheese, rather than poppy seeds.

And that concluded my Christmas eve meal! I was full to the brim and could not even think about eating or drinking another morsel. I was full up on food and new cultural learnings and getting to spend time with this fun and centered family. We spent the rest of the night (and into Christmas morning) listening to various types of Christmas and Serbian music, talking, cuddling with Teo the cat (who was not really in the mood to be cuddled) and celebrating together.

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A Christmas tree, various bottles of rakija and Teo the cat. Srećan Božić! Happy Christmas (Eve)!

Bonus information! Outside of the traditions behind what we were consuming at the dinner table, there are other habitual traditions I learned about.

  • It used to be practiced that the grains to feed your livestock were brought inside during the Christmas Eve meal and kept underneath the table so as to bless the foods for your animals that they too will have a prosperous year and will bless the family.
  • Two weeks before Christmas, green grains were planted and grown up until the holiday. I can’t confirm for sure what this tradition was for, but I believe it was to reflect on the prosperity the new year will bring you and your family. Pastor Anna did follow this and had the table set with a cup of green grain growing!IMG_1732.jpg

Srećan Božić! Happy Christmas Eve everyone!

 

Thanksgiving

Today was the most productive day of my entire life. (That is probably not true, but it feels good to think it anyway.)

I have never had to spend so much of Thanksgiving day alone, but it was still really excellent despite being half a world away from my family.

I did not have any plans for how to spend today. The idea of inviting Serbians over to my flat for a meal toyed with my mind, but it never came to fruition. I think this is where I admit that I forgot this was Thanksgiving week until yesterday afternoon. Plus, I think the idea of inviting others over scared me in a way of knowing that I was not equipped or prepared to host others in the way I would have liked to.

So today arrived amid little fanfare and no plans. It was some how decided that today was the exactly right day to clean, sweep and mop the entire flat, venture out to buy fresh pomegranates and oranges at the open air market, buy dinner rolls and fruit pastries at a pekara (bakery), withdraw the dinars needed to pay my utilities, and pick up the drying rack I’ve been needing since it is now too cold to dry my clothes outside on the line.

I meal prepped everything I would need to create my very own thanksgiving meal, practiced guitar, watched too many episodes of Avatar the Last Airbender, filed my nails, drafted this blog post and one other, and by this time it was only 3:00 pm– just in time to start making my thanksgiving feast.

If I had been home, by this time of day I would have been at my grandmother’s house already filled to the brim with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, green bean casserole, monkey bread, and my aunt’s amazing deviled eggs.

It’s weird for me to think on where I could have been, especially since I can imagine it with such clarity. I know where I would have been sitting, who I would be seeing, and what I would be eating. But a year ago, I never could have imagined what I would be doing today.

Despite the weirdness of being gone for this family holiday, I reached a cool milestone today– for the first time, I entirely prepared and made my thanksgiving meal. I made mashed potatoes, candies carrots, and homemade baked lemon pepper chicken strips. I purchased soft dinner rolls and two peach turnovers that sufficed as a pie replacement. I poured a glass of milk and turned on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. And enjoyed my thanksgiving meal.

Thanksgiving Meal 2018

The meal I prepared all by myself with a little help from a pekara (bakery) for a couple of things.

I had some dinner conversation with my roommate and then FaceTimed some family back home, filling them in on my time here and how I have been adjusting.

I never could have imagined where I would have been today, but it was a good day, and I am forever thankful and grateful for all the things that led me to this point.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

 

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Here was location of my thanksgiving triumph! This beautiful little kitchen was absolutely perfect for what I needed to accomplish today.

Smile

It’s not common in Belgrade to have people smile at you as you make eye contact.

For me, it’s a reflex.

I make eye contact with the woman entering the bus or with the older gentleman passing me on the street or the parent and child holding hands on the tram and I smile without a thought. It’s ingrained in me (Minnesota nice?) to smile or show some facial expression to the stranger that passes for the brief seconds that our paths have crossed.

I often get a lingering look in response, the other human being trying to place me or decide for themselves why I’m smiling at them.

More often than that I get nothing in return except the severing of eye contact and a down turned face.

On a rare occasion I get a reflexive smile back.

My favorite response is one I got for the first time yesterday.

Not my reflexive smile, but my real smile. Seeing this, I can imagine for myself that you’ll smile back at me when reading this.

A woman with a navy blue jacket and a faux leather brown purse entered the bus. She was wearing peach lipstick that had faded off in places with the passing of the day and had a beautifully lined face with crows feet and smile lines along her cheeks. She had shoulder length hair that was a very light brown with cork screw curls. She was slight in frame and didn’t stand any higher than my shoulder.

I was facing the doors of bus 65, riding home from volunteering in Novi Beograd as she boarded. We made eye contact as she headed in my direction to stand next to me against the wall and I smiled. She was in the process of looking away as my mouth turned up, but once she processed I was smiling, she did a quick double-take to keep my eye contact and smiled back at me so brilliantly.

It was beautiful to have my reflexive smile returned so genuinely.

Pošta

Going to the post office is a semi-horrifying task for me to complete. Mainly due to me feeling intimidated by the entire process.

In the U.S., my encounters with the post office system have increased with age (big shocker; I feel like my first solo trip to the post office was a defining moment in my big girl life) but they’re always met with dread, every time. I know it is 100% due to me being wholly intimidated by the post office workers that I need to converse with.

TSA workers have a bad rap for being less than pleasant to work with, but in my experience post office workers are just as difficult to work with, if not more frustratingly so.

I don’t deal well with curt behaviors. I will admit that when it comes to me needing to mail off a small surprise to my bestie in North Dakota, or sending back a college textbook, I don’t know the ins and outs of cost and shipping and paying for tracking labels. So I have to ask questions. And when people treat those questions as ridiculous and not worth their time, commence my immediate shut down and panic.

This situation has happened to me many times, more than I am happy to admit to, the worst time happening during my time in Chugiak, AK when I literally was given grunts in response to my questions. LITERALLY non-verbal communication where the woman didn’t even open her mouth. I was a puddle of embarrassment and shame on the floor. And truly, I had no reason to feel either of those emotions.

After hearing this, I’m sure it is easy to imagine that moving me to a foreign country where I am barely competent at the local tongue makes those post office visits a grand ole time for me.

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This beautiful scrap of paper is what I find in my apartment mailbox when I receive a package from home. It never fails to be a huge highlight to my week that someone back home was thinking of me and wanted to send some physical care my way.

I have had 3 solo trips to the post office thus far during my time in Belgrade, and I am not going to lie, I have yet to encounter a post office worker who speaks more than passing English. But I have endeavored, and managed, and even though it began with me needing to walk to three different post office buildings before finding the one my package was actually at, I think I now have it figured it (please bask in the warmth of my triumph with me).

I think the truly amazing part of this story share is that I actually have packages to pick up. Getting a package notification in the mail is such a heartwarming occurrence. I figured I would get one from my mom at Christmas and maybe a second one around my birthday, but already this year I have gotten more than the expected from both friends and family afar.

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This is my post office! 

In addition to boxes that carry a little more weight than the normal postage, I have gotten cards and letters supporting me, wishing me well, and cheering for me to have good experiences while living abroad.

How amazing is my sending community? I’ll fill you in.

They’re beyond amazing.

Truly, this post is all about giving a shout out to those who are thinking of me, and then go so far as to send a little something from an ocean away.

P.S.- the title of this post, pošta, is the Serbian word for the post office. It is pronounced like “post-ah” but instead of an “s” sound, make an “sh” sound, like you’re gently shushing someone– “posht-ah”. In the picture of people standing in line at the pošta, in the upper left corner you can see “пошта”, which is the Cyrillic spelling of the word pošta. Hope you enjoyed today’s lesson of Serbian!

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This was my first package, and I picked it up on Halloween night. It brought me some granola bars, my on-the-go snack of choice. So much love!