Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Internet and Cell Phone Use in Serbia

Cell Phones in Serbia
For the first seven months I was in Serbia, I resisted getting a cell phone. I didn't see it as a "must-have" and certainly did not base my self-worth or importance on having one. Finally I succumbed and bought one. Once the phone itself was paid for, I found that costs were quite low. There were no monthly fees and a $15 card lasted my text messaging (I had to learn how to do that on a phone) and calls for about 3 months. Try to do that in the US! The phone card minutes method also ensures that you cannot go over your purchased amount, hence no huge cost surprises from chatty teens’ phones. You can even send a text message to the parking service, taking money off your phone card instead of plugging a meter. The reasonable rates and ease of adding minutes, and capped spending amounts make owning a phone commonplace.
Everyone from gradeschoolers to grannies in villages seems to have one. In the congested busses where you barely have room to stand, people still manage to answer a call or send the ubiquitous text message. As soon as the plane lands, everyone whips out their phones and makes a call – as if it’s a mandatory thing. According to a recent newspaper article, Serbia has 5.2 million mobile phone users out of a population of 7.5 million.

Internet Usage
Contrast that to Internet usage. According to 2006 statistics, only 24% of Serbians use the Internet – or about 1.5 million people. This rate is below former Yugoslav republics such as Slovenia (55.6%), Croatia (32%), and Macedonia (27%). It is ahead of Bosnia (20%), Montenegro (16%), and Albania (3%). Compare that to Sweden and Portugal, where about 75% of citizens use the Internet. Connectivity in rural areas is rare (about 12%) and only 17% of women use the Internet. Of those connected, about 77% are still using a dial-up connection. Even here in Belgrade, there are areas of the city where dial-up is the only option. Thankfully I have a cable modem connection, although its speeds are nothing to brag about. Proposed solutions include liberalizing the telecommunications market, government reaching out to threatened social groups, and an improved legislative framework that will encourage Internet usage through various measures. A healthy dose of competition would certainly help – that and some training in western customer service standards/expectations.

I also found the types of Internet usage interesting. Top three types of sites accessed include: music, education, and science. Religion, pornography, and politics nearly tied for the lowest rank.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Slava - More than a Party

Here in Serbia, the season of Slavas is beginning. In the next month or so, most Serbs will attend some one else's Slava or their own, based on the birthday of their family's patron saint. This article was written by a friend of mine, Pat Andjelkovic, an American living in Serbia for many years.

CorD December Column
Pat Andjelkovic Notes from the Big Plum


A slava, (and I’ll add an “s” on occasion hereafter to make it plural) or celebration of a family's saint's day, is a major religious holiday for Orthodox Serbs. Slavas occur all year long, but many take place in the winter months. Although some families invite only guests whose slavas they themselves attend, someone may invite you, so it’s good to know a little something. First of all, how did they come to be?
Centuries ago every Serbian clan had its own household god. As Christianity spread, several attempts were made to convert the Serbs. It was only in the thirteenth century that Rastko Nemanjić, later canonized as Saint Sava, created the Serbian Orthodox Church. He sent out messengers to replace each family's household god with major Christian saints. In the fourteenth century the Turks conquered Serbia, taking complete control for 500 years. Many Serbs converted to Islam to save their lives or to ascend social or political ranks. Orthodox Serbs secretly carried on their Christian customs. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Serbs celebrated their slavas freely for a short while until communism again discouraged religion. As under the Turkish occupation, many continued to observe their personal slava. Nowadays there are no more restrictions.
But just how is a slava celebrated? Although there are differences from family to family, what follows is a traditional explanation.
Slavas are celebrated for three days and families must be ready to welcome guests on all three days, since during slava, an Orthodox home is considered a church, and no one should be turned away. In earlier times, everyone in a particular village knew whose slava fell on which day and automatically came for the celebration. Nowadays it is customary for a family member to extend verbal invitations usually only once and simply remind guests from year to year. If there has been a death in the family during the year, slava must still be observed, but usually only by family members. Because slavas are religious occasions, traditionally no music is played.
Customarily a slava takes place in the father's home or in the grandfather's if he is still alive. Nowadays if there is more than one grown son in a family having a separate household, each son may celebrate in his own home. Slavas are passed from father to son. When a woman marries, she adopts the slava of her husband. (Feminists may think that a woman shouldn't have to adopt her husband's slava, but most women here feel that they have two slavas to their husband's one!)
During the days before slava, housewives prepare great quantities of food, sparing no expense, whereas other families may choose to prepare lighter fare. Some slavas are “lean” slavas and no dairy products or meat are served. Two foods are traditional. The first is the slavski kolač or slava cake, a large, brioche-type bread decorated with salt and flour Orthodox crosses. The other is žito, a confection made of wheat berry, cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. But don't look for žito at every slava. There are certain saints' days where no žito is served, because some saints are still considered to be alive. In this instance, slatko, cooked, whole fruit like cherries or strawberries in thick syrup is served in place of žito to welcome guests.
On the first day of slava, family members greet each other with 'Srećna slava' or 'Happy Saint's Day'. No unnecessary work such as laundry, sewing, or ironing is done that day. The head of the family lights a tall beeswax candle, taking great care that the flame not be extinguished until they go to bed that evening. Beside the candle are the slavski kolač, žito or slatko, and a glass of red wine.
Then they wait for the priest to come to perform the slava ritual and bless the house. When the priest arrives, the family gathers in front of the candle for the priest to perform a small ceremony and cut the slavski kolač. (Families may take their slavski kolač to the church instead to be cut if they so wish.) Afterwards, he proceeds to bless the house by walking through its rooms swinging his brass censer of fragrant incense.
Guests usually arrive around seven in the evening, bringing flowers or wine, the only true slava gifts, and greet the family with "Srećna slava". Then the lady of the house or eldest daughter offers a tray of žito or slatko. Each guest must partake of the žito or slatko. Some families serve food buffet style while others choose to have a sit-down dinner. Guests may stay all evening or excuse themselves after an hour or so. If you choose the latter, make sure you tell your host you are going to another slava, otherwise it wouldn’t be polite to leave so soon. In former times on more popular saints' days, streets were filled with people traveling from one slava to another, especially on Sveti (Saint) Nikola, December 19th. People joke that half of Belgrade has a Sveti Nikola slava and the other half attends!
Remember: A slava is not just another party. In fact, it is not a party at all, but rather the observation of a religious tradition and it’s an honor to have been invited to someone’s slava. It shows that your host has accepted you and wishes to share with you the customs of this significant holiday.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sirogojno - October 2006

For breakfast, we were treated with a large spread of traditional local cuisine. Homemade yogurt came in cute little ceramic round pots. Fresh bread, kajmak (spreadable slightly salty rich cream), local white cheese, and užika pršut (hard, smoked beef slices) were enough to satisfy all. We then went and began taking photos and touring the ethno museum grounds. Since I was the only one who had been there before, I became the tour guide.

Sweater shopping was the next item on the agenda. We started by going to the local ladies who had booths at the edge of the museum grounds. Pat commented that the quality seemed to have improved, but said she already had two sweaters. We then walked down to the Sirogojno sweater shop where they sell sweaters/jackets made locally but with Icelandic wool. The quality of the wool is much better and the knitting is more sophisticated as well – as is the price. I spotted the color and style I had eyed previously and decided it was time to buy. Nancy and Olja also found ones to suit their personalities. After buying a few accessories back at the local ladies booths (souvenir shajkaca hats, woven hats & mittens), we then put our purchases in the car trunk.

At the local church, a wedding celebration was in process. Outside, a brass band boldly played their upbeat tunes. A decorated horse-drawn carriage was waiting, presumably for the bride and groom. The carriage driver had a bottle of rakija, which he was sharing with some older men wearing shajkacas (traditional hats of the region). All seemed to be having a fun time. The wedding celebration continued late into the night at the local hall, playing live music. Pat explained that sometimes village weddings last several days.

For lunch we met up with Pat’s son and girlfriend who were vacationing in nearby Zlatibor. She also bought a sweater – what a good morning the shop had! Initially the place was quite crowded (some school groups who had toured the ethno museum were also eating) but we managed to set up two tables to accommodate all of us. I left a bit early in hopes of meeting Zorica so we could make plans for my upcoming exhibition at the ethno museum. At the church, a memorial service was being held. That’s quite a bit in one day for such a little church and village!

Walk in the Village
Later on, we went for a walk in the main village of Sirogojno. Since it’s very small, getting lost is not a problem. Spotting some apples on the grass next to the road, we picked up a few to eat – small and crunchy, and definitely natural. Shortly thereafter, the elderly woman who lived there came out, picking some off the tree and offering us some. Nancy was surprised at the woman’s generosity, presuming instead that the lady might have shooed us away for picking the apples that had fallen by the road. Another example of local kindness. We headed towards the home of the couple that I had met my first time in the area. In April I returned, giving the wife a printout of the painting I made of her. I hoped they would be around so I could say hi. The husband was outside and recognized me, welcoming us and insisting that we come in for a bit. He proudly showed Nancy how he made rakija, even though the plum crop this year was too poor to make any of the beloved drink. Back inside the house, the wife pulled out the print I had made for her and warmly welcomed me as if I was a relative. It was gratifying to see how such a small gift as the print was appreciated. She then proceeded to make the Turkish coffee and bring the honey, spoons, and water glasses. The husband brought some 7-yr old rakija for us to try. As none of us are real drinkers, we were a bit hesitant, but you really can’t refuse. To everyone’s surprise, the rakija was very smooth and not that strong. As soon as the tiny glass was finished, he proceeded to fill it up again. We then had the spoonful of honey, followed by a drink of water. Turkish coffee topped it off. Thanking them for their hospitality, we headed back to our cabin. I’m so glad that Nancy was able to experience local people and their genuineness.

Serious Card-Playing
With the ethno restaurant closed and the only store in town closed, we decided to head down to the town restaurant, buy a bottle of wine, and play some mean cards – UNO. We had a lot of laughs and turned a simple kid’s game into one of competition. I wonder what the waiter thought. When it was time for closing, we headed back to the cottage, at which time Nancy and Pat did their beauty treatment. It was fun watching them.

Sunday - Last Day :(
Early the next morning, Pat and I went for a walk and took some photos. The early morning light was beautiful – casting warm tones over the fall hued landscape. We also experimented with the placement of a goat skull we found for some still-life shots. After breakfast, we modeled our sweaters, first in front of the cabin and then by the museum buildings, much like they did in the Sirogojno sweater catalog. It was fun. Nancy and I met Zorica, who gave Nancy a copy of the book she wrote about the local church and gave her a list of some other sources of Serbian art and architecture. We then decided that my art exhibition would occur in June when my parents come, so we’ll have some planning and work to do on that. I’m glad my parents will be able to see the exhibition.

With the rental car due back in Belgrade, we reluctantly had to leave. Between the wonderful company, beautiful sights (natural and man-made), and gorgeous weather, it was a perfect 4-day weekend.

October Trip to Northern Serbia

As I begin writing this, I look outside the patio door of my apartment. It is a dismal, grey, day with intermittent rain. The temperature is a bit warmer than Friday (when it snowed for the school’s annual Halloween event), but cool enough to want to stay inside. What a huge difference a week made! During much of our journey to northern Serbia and down to the western mountain village of Sirogojno, we wore lighter layers – and sometimes no jacket at all!

Having secured a rental car, things would be much easier and faster to reach our destinations. This would also give us flexibility, spending as much time as we cared for a particular town. On the bright October morning of Thursday the 26th, we headed northward to the region known as Vojvodina. Driving was Pat, a retired teacher of ISB, an American who married a Serbian and has lived here for around 30 years. Olja, a Serbian teacher at school and a common traveling partner of mine, was eager to join us. Nancy Lamers, a former art education professor (and elementary art teacher) of mine came to visit me, and she was also eager to see areas of Serbia outside the city of Belgrade.

As we headed out of Belgrade, the land became flatter and predominantly rural. All the farmers seemed out in their fields, harvesting corn, tying up stalks, or plowing the dark earth. Small tractors hauled wooden wagons filled with field corn, glowing even more yellow in the bright fall sun. Along the banks and sometimes in the field, controlled fires were lit, burning brush and presumably unwanted remnants of cornstalks.

Krušedol Monastery
Our first stop was the monastery of Krušedol, located in the Fruška Gora region south of Sremsi Karlovci. Although originally built in 1509, the current Baroque style dates back to the early 18th century after Turks seriously damaged the structure in 1716. The large white church dominated the center of the rather small grounds. In one corner men were working on a construction project, with even the bearded monk in his black robes carrying 2x4’s to the site. Amongst the religious jewelry, icon reproductions, and candles, Nancy spotted some bottles of rakija produced by the monastery and decided to purchase a bottle of the “holy” alcohol as souvenir.

As we entered the church, I saw some older-looking frescoes in the arched entryway. A few frescoes remain from the 16th century, but most date back to the 18th century. Light from narrow windows streamed in, illuminating portions of the frescoes covering the walls and some of the iconostasis on wood paneling. A beautiful wooden carved casket-like box caught my eye, perhaps containing the remains of Branković founding family member. Much of the treasury of once in the church was plundered by the Croatian Nazis in WWII, with the remains now in Belgrade.

We then took a quick tour of the grounds. While taking photos of the outer part of the church and monastery buildings we could see the head of a nun pop her head out once in a while. In one open room we could see empty cobs of corn with a large woven basket outside the door. The bottom portion of a wooden wagon was also intriguing, its wooden wheels casting long shadows underneath the arches. Just as we got into the car, a large tour bus pulled up, a good signal that we should be on our way.

Sremski Karlovci
Just 11 km from our lunchtime destination, we decided to stop at Sremski Karlovci, an attractive town with an array of buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries with a 1770 marble fountain as its centerpiece. We peeked inside the baroque Orthodox cathedral, but its flooring was undergoing renovation and so we were unable to enter. In the center of the square, children and adults climbed up the stairs to get water pouring from the spouts of the four lions on the fountain. After taking some photos of the high school (1791) with its combination of traditional Serbian and Secessionist styles, we found some poppyseed pastry for a snack and headed onward.

Novi Sad
Our first stop in Novi Sad was the Petrovaradin Fortress. Little remains of the original fortress and much of what is seen dates back from the early 18th century. Walking towards the famous clocktower, we were greeted by tacky red stuffed heart pillows and shocking pink poodle stuffed animals. What an untapped market these places could have! Sadly, most of the buildings and galleries above the fortress were closed for renovation. Since it was nice out, we enjoyed a stroll around the outer perimeter overlooking the Danube River.

Finding a parking space in the main part of Novi Sad, Pat used her cell phone to fill up the “meter” – a very convenient, modern method. Already hungry, we didn’t spend too much time looking around. Pat pointed out a sign in front of a tattoo parlor she had seen a week earlier – “House of Pain”. I’m not sure if I would have named my business that phrase! With most of the cafes only serving drinks and/or full of customers, we settled on a small place and ordered pljeskavica, sort of like a hamburger made from a mixture of pork, beef and lamb, sprinkled with spices and grilled with onion.


Prior to reaching our final destination for the day, we made a short stop at Lake Palić. Pat explained that teachers and students from ISB would make an annual trip up to here as a way of bonding and relaxing. The area started as a spa in the mid 19th century and then developed into a popular health resort and vacation spot. As we walked along the park sidewalk, we saw people rollerblading, riding bikes, lazily strolling along, and of course – talking on their cell phones. Sports equipment and boats, including paddleboats could be rented. Set back from the lake one could see a series of small, but attractive hotels and restaurants – making it an attractive relaxation spot. The autumn sunset cast a warm glow over the still-beautiful flowers and changing leaves. After Nancy’s first Turkish coffee at a restaurant, the sun disappeared over the water, signaling it was time to leave for Subotica.

Now just a short distance from the Hungarian border, we were at our nighttime destination. We decided to stay at Hotel Patria, not so much for its accommodations (like many Serbian hotels, it had that “depressed in-need-of-rennovation-and-attention” look), but because it had parking and was centrally located. Following recommendations of the receptionist, we walked past the McDonalds and up some stairs to a cozy authentic restaurant. It was well after 7pm and still no one else was there. They gave us some menus that had English translations, some of which were quite amusing, such as horse d’ouvres. While eating, a pianist and violinist provided wonderful ambiance. After around 9pm more people began filling the tables. Taking advantage of the unseasonably warm evening, we strolled around the main city section before heading back to the hotel for the night.

I was looking forward to our next morning – taking a tour of all the beautiful Art Nouveau and Secessionist architecture. Once again, the weather was beautiful. Most signage was in both Serbian and Hungarian, a strong indication of its proximity to current Hungary and long domination by Hungarian rulers. Immediately apparent was the number of people – both young and old – riding bicycles. The extremely flatness of the city made it a perfect method of transportation, lazily meandering through the narrow streets. The pace here felt much slower than in Belgrade. What a beautiful place to stop and read the newspaper or plop down your sack of potatoes and gossip with the neighbors!

We headed towards the large Town Hall, a magnificent reddish building in the Hungarian Art Nouveau Style built between 1908-10. Every section – from top to bottom – was oozing with different details. One of the guidebooks described it as “an architectural mishmash of styles that could be said to verge on the tasteless”. Having liked it very much, I would have to disagree. Needless to say, a lot of photos were taken. I especially liked the corner gargoyle-like figures, with curls flowing from its head as in flames. Even the rain gutters and snow stoppers on the roof were decorative. At one corner was the McDonalds, tastefully adopting its window signage and interior decoration to the same style. Curious to see the inside of such a structure, the three photographers (Nancy, Pat, and I) went inside, hoping at least some area was open for viewing. In contrast to the deep red and yellows of the outside, the interior was dominated by cooler hues of green, turquoise and white. Everything looked freshly painted, with stenciled designs and patterns around each column and edge very crisp and colorful. I was glad to see that such a city treasure was receiving the monetary attention towards preservation. True to Art Nouveau tendencies, the stairway was a patterned symphony of curvy wavy metalwork instead of straight bars. In a higher floor I could even smell fresh paint, a sign that some work was really new. We got as far as the top floor, when Pat stopped us saying that there was a forbidden sign on the door, as it was some sort of military function.

Nearby was the central square – Trg Slobode. A large blue fountain constructed of famous Zsolnai ceramics from the Hungarian town of Pecs was a central figure. Pigeons enjoyed the waters, taking baths in the shallow waters. The designer even remembered a handy detail – slightly curved indentations along the edge, just the size for sitting!
Another building attracting our attention was the library, a yellow neo-baroque edifice with rich sculptural decorations, built in 1897. Framing the main entrance were two muscular, slightly monster-like males in white stone, with an eagle spreading its wings in between the figures. On the corner of the building, a sculpted figure folded its arms above its head, as if bracing to hold up the curved balcony above it.

As the morning wore on, the curious collection of large cubes (reminding me of igloo snow blocks) were beginning to be used. Some young teen girls dressed in tight jeans and midriff tops danced syncopated, gyrating moves. On one end a large fan blew leaves, with cameramen moving in and out to capture the commercial. Other blocks were being carried to another decorative building with a balcony. Earlier we had remarked that the young woman peering over the balcony reminded us of Rapunzel. Now a stack of wooden and Styrofoam blocks were erected in a stairway, leading from the concrete below almost up to the balcony. In the floor above the balcony was a gynecological center. A woman in a lab coat peered down, also curious about the happenings below. Video cameras soon arrived here, directing a man when to add another block to almost reach the “Rapunzel”. I hope the filming also captured the gynecology sign ☺

Hungry (of course), we had a snack - žito, a wheat porridge flavored with nuts and raisins and served wit real whipped cream. Enjoying the sunny day, it was the perfect spot to people-watch.

Although there were a lot more beautiful buildings we could have visited, it was time to move on to Sombor. Otherwise we would get to our nighttime destination of Sirogojno too late at night. Like its nearby city Subotica, Sombor was very flat and ideal for bicyclists. We parked the car near the outdoor market where one could buy lots of fresh produce and wooden do-dads. I especially liked the unusually tall straw brooms, circularly arranged around a large tree. The city was very laid back and was heavily shaded by the many trees in the parks. I enjoyed the architecture here as well, but not as much as Subotica’s. In a small hardware shop, Nancy spotted a mousetrap with four holes. The shopkeeper of the cramped shop demonstrated how to bait and set up the almost guillotine-like device. Other fun purchases included what we nicknamed a “Yak purse” and some wax for a beauty treatment (I promised not to reveal what they did with it). While at lunch (meat, of course), we spotted a cute small stray dog. It was very polite and would have made a great pet. Too bad we had a long journey to make. The dog did receive a healthy supply of leftover meat though.

Drive to Sirogojno
After our late lunch we headed towards our next destination – Sirogojno. We knew the narrow road would take longer, but we did not anticipate taking quite that long. Of course it would have helped if signage in NoviSad would have been existent, legible (one sign was so faded you couldn’t read any of the words), accurate arrows, and townsfolk who could provide accurate, helpful directions for visitors. Along this route we saw a lot of people burning in the fields. Others were still gathering harvest. The narrow two-lane highway was quite a challenge, testing one’s patience (as you got behind a slow truck) or one’s defensive driving as people tried to pass when a car was coming from the opposite direction. As we headed southward, the roads got curvier, indicating that we were entering more mountainous and hilly regions. Now dark, it was even more difficult to see the road hazards. In the middle of the road we saw a dog, obviously hit by a previous vehicle but still alive. Pat pulled over and attempted to go and find the dog to move it to the side of the road, but it was too late. Navigating through even more narrow forested roads from Užice to Sirogojno, we finally made it to our destination about 7 hours later. Because a filming for a Serbian sitcom (their equivalent to Mr. Bean) was occurring, the restaurant at the Ethno museum was still open. We didn’t stay up too late, because we had to prepare ourselves for our main task tomorrow – sweater shopping.