Friday, April 28, 2017

Learning to slow down...

New York, New York. July 2016.

 Last week I stumbled upon an article, recommended to me by Facebook, that rendered me speechless for a few moments as I processed the startlingly simple first line which stated bluntly something that I’ve been struggling to communicate for several months: “No city makes you feel more like a New Yorker than Belgrade.”

While this stunning introduction has little to do with the rest of the piece, a travel guide of sorts, it is my single favorite thing I have read about the city if only because it lends words to what I’ve been feeling since I moved here.

To say the least, the Belgrade lifestyle has been an enormous adjustment. As the aforementioned article states, “in Belgrade, people don’t walk, they amble; lunch spans the course of 3 or 4 hours; and drinks are sipped, never knocked back,” a sharp pivot from the undercurrent of urgency that runs beneath nearly everything one does in New York City.

Street Art in Belgrade, Serbia. March 2017.

Northeastern prepares students well for culture shocks and ensures that students do their research before moving to a foreign country. I was ready for being surrounded by the Cyrillic alphabet and not being able to speak the language and while most would think those the most difficult adjustments, what I've found most significant is the difference in lifestyle. 

I grew up just outside manhattan and was raised in a very competitive, fast-paced environment. Once I began interning in NYC while home over breaks this effect was only heightened. 

Everything in New York is done with a sense of urgency whereas in Belgrade, even urgent matters rarely receive that kind of attention. 

Even walking is different: unless I’m paying attention I walk everywhere as though I’m schlepping across town late for a meeting, though I never noticed this difference in Boston (admittedly this might have something to do with my barrage of tall, long legged friends who manage to keep up with me effortlessly). In Belgrade, though, the average height seems to be at least 6’0 and yet I’m constantly stopping short to avoid running into backs on the sidewalk. Serbs like to amble, savoring everything around them- a trait that echoes through everything they do.
A stroll through Vračar March 2017.

Over the past few months here I've come to enjoy ambling through the cities on my days off; Belgrade is by no means a conventional form of beautiful, but has its charms nonetheless and a sense of character that I will miss dearly.
The Belgrade waterfront by night. April 2017. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Serbian Cuisine

Given my love of cooking, one of my favorite parts of living in a new culture is learning about the local cuisine. In Serbia, it mostly boils down to meat and cheese, though it's not quite that simple.

Kaymack, a cornerstone of most Serbian meals, is a cream cheese-esque spread that melts like butter and adds the perfect flavor to just about everything. From meats, to bread, or even crepes, everything tastes better with kaymack.

My roommates and I have been on something of a culinary tour while here since eating out is genuinely affordable. Some of our favorites have included Zavičaj, which is home to my favorite plijescavica and breakfast bowl, and Sesir Moj (This Hat of Mine) which we discovered today.

Sesir Moj  is located in Skadarlija, one of Belgrade's oldest neighborhoods. With its cobblestone streets, charmingly-odd street signs, and abundance of flowers, it is also one of the most charming.

Note: vertical sign reads "moon"

The food was unbelievable- while the menu gave away little regarding what we were actually ordering, we were not disappointed (though to be fair we rarely are here). 

I ordered a roast pork knuckle that came with "domestic cream cheese" which is how kaymack is often translated. The dish was relatively simple, a pork knuckle roasted atop potatoes seasoned with paprika and topped with kaymack, but in this case, simple was exactly what it needed to be- it is the single most flavorful pork dish I have ever eaten. 

My two roommates ordered a dish that they were warned would be spicy, though we've come to learn that Serbs find bell peppers spicy so we take that warning with a grain of salt nowadays. Surprise, surprise, their dish featured sautéed bell peppers and onions, mixed with roast pork and a light sauce, topped with- you guessed it- kaymack. 

We also split a Serbian salad- tomatoes (paradajz, pronounced "paradise" in Serbian), cucumbers, sweet onions, and usually topped with cheese. Admittedly this is fairly ambiguous to the region, but it brings me a certain sense of comfort as it reminds me of all the various "tomato and ______" salads I ate growing up in an Italian family. 
For dessert we did our usual, choosing an item at random to see what we ended up with as english translations of desserts are rarely accurate- the Serbian names are no more helpful: in Serbian crepes are called palachinke, or pancakes, because they chose the wrong word to translate (fun fact this was one of the first pieces of food advice I received in Belgrade). 

We ended up with an "apple pie" which was more akin to baklava, but delicious nonetheless. 
Exploring Serbian food has been one of my favorite weekend pastimes these past few months, but I've also enjoyed experiencing food from other cultures- Spain, Italy, and so on- in Belgrade. The mostly-joking rule of thumb in this city is that everything is about 85% what you expect it to be- the rain is mostly on time, though may be an hour late one day, or you order an iced coffee and get served three scoops of ice cream in a latte. I was recommended a "diner" by a coworker and as a New Yorker am desperate to try it and see what Serbia thinks a diner should be like. Updates to come! 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Consistency of the "Serbian Personality"

One of my favorite things about Serbia is the consistency of personality amongst Serbs; despite each being unique individuals with distinct backgrounds there remains a set of characteristics that I’ve noticed in almost every Serb I’ve come to know.

First is their sense of humor: Somehow dark and goofy at the same time, Serbian humor is nothing short of a gift and I continue to be caught off guard by it. Nothing is off limits and jokes are often made at Serbia’s expense, which can make for a surprise when your boss slips in some crude irony as you’re saying goodbye for the day. Regardless, its blunt nature only makes it all the more endearing. You can read a longer description here.

Next, I’ve noticed that Serbs love to laugh. They do so unabashedly and with gusto, unafraid to disrupt a restaurant or phone conversation, mostly because a cacophony of chuckles and roars rarely turns heads here. Much like Italians, Serbs seem to cherish their laughter, and endeavor to enjoy laughing with friends as a pastime; the european lifestyle of three-hour coffee dates is alive and well.

Along with the laughter, naturally, comes an overwhelming friendliness. There isn’t one concrete stereotype regarding Serbs (something I believe comes from a general ignorance of Serbian culture in the rest of the world- if you asked I’m not certain any of my friends could point to it on a map), but they are often assumed to be reserved or even cold in demeanor. In my experience, most Serbs are almost the complete opposite: the second you crack a smile they will too.

As a young woman living in a strange place I am endlessly grateful for Serbian hospitality; just about everybody gets greeted with three kisses to the cheeks, a wide smile, and an Italian-grandmother-esque offer of food (as I was in Požega last weekend).

The last trait I will attempt to describe, though there are many more, is the hierarchy of respect and natural chivalry exhibited by Serbian men. Another favorite “Serbianism”, if you will, is the unwavering, automatic instinct to offer assistance if it appears that someone needs it. On the trolley cars at least four or five people jump up from their seats if an older woman steps on; in New York everyone attempts to avoid standing by examining the floor as soon as someone who needs a seet steps on the train. A seat is only ever given up by the poor soul who failed to keep his eyes downcast long enough to be overlooked.

This kindness extends even further: A Serbian friend told me he often helps people carry their bags when he passes by the bus station, but since the station still uses bus tokens to get into the loading area he has had to pay the token fee on several occasions just to help people load their bags.

As someone born and raised in New York, with its special breed of manners, this is particularly strange and also incredibly refreshing.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Day in Požega, Serbia

When I decided to accept a co-op in Serbia, one of the biggest comforts was that I had been there before, though that provided me little tangible knowledge of how to live there. My saving grace in this respect came in the form of lunch on Columbus Avenue in Boston last November; a member of Northeastern's development team who I have built a relationship with after crossing paths at several university events introduced me to a friend of hers who had family in Serbia, a connection that would prove invaluable in finding an apartment and navigating public transportation for the first few days. 

It is this same connection that also led me to perhaps the most strange/wondrous/enthralling experiences I have ever had. 

This past Friday I, and the other two co-ops, traveled to the city of Požega in western Serbia to visit my Northeastern connection's nephew who has become our friend over various dinners and tour guide sessions. 

To preface: our friend is a theology student and was spending the weekend at home to attend services with his hometown priest, whom would be joining us along with a friend of his from university. 

We arrived without issue and were herded to a traditional Serbian breakfast where we all got acquainted. While I and the other co-ops were served a traditional plate of meet, cheese, and bread, the Serbs were given gargantuan salads topped with fillets of fish; Orthodox easter is approaching and Serbs fast (refuse to eat meat) for the duration of lent. 

As we ate, we learned that over the course of the day we would be visiting churches, seeing monasteries, eating lots of Serbian specialities, and even attending a baptism (with the family's permission, of course). 

After scrambling around town in something of a clown car, popping in to various historical monuments in the city, we eventually found ourselves at Temple Sveta Tri Jerarha, the city's largest church. The church's pristine exterior was immaculate in the warm weather, but failed to inform that the church is still under construction- and likely will be for decades to come. 

A few hours later we found ourselves at a mountainside monastery where we would be attending a baptism inside a church that was centuries old. I refrained from taking photos in deference to the ceremony, but the church itself was in exceptional condition. While small and seemingly run down from the outside, its interior still boasts the original vibrant colors of its iconostasis, which is placed behind the altar and contains paintings of various region-specific saints.

Upon conclusion of the ceremony we were introduced to a woman who was born in Serbia but now lives in Dallas, TX. As was her family, she was ecstatic to see us experiencing Serbia- each time I get asked if I like it here my answer of "yes, I love it!" seems to be a complete surprise. 

After a few more adventures including a minuscule, wooden, nail-free church that was moved several times to keep it hidden from the Ottomans and a visit to the highest cave opening in the region, we ended our visit with a traditional meal in Požega: grilled trout. 

Another co-op, who stands at 5'4

Now, as someone who actively avoids seafood I was skeptical, but found it quite enjoyable. The dish itself was very simple- a fish, cleaned, seasoned, and then grilled, served with roasted potatoes and a fresh Serbian salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, and loads of shredded cheese). The restaurant, one of three that sit below the opening to the cave, has several in-floor windows where you can view the fish swimming through the river than runs beneath the building. It was surreal. 

What really made the trip, though, was our company. The priest who so kindly volunteered his time to welcome us to the city is perhaps the most eclectic man I have ever met. And I was delighted to see that the distinctly Serbian character traits I have observed in Belgrade were echoed consistently in those we met in Požega. 

With Serbian Orthodox easter approaching quickly I am excited to see what else I can learn about their traditions.