Saturday, February 26, 2011

the same dough: reflections on visiting Vukovar

We just returned from a two day (one night) excursion to Vukovar--a city formerly known for it's beauty, prosperity and well integrated Croat and Serb communities. During (and after) the war, Vukovar gained a different, less joyful reputation: as a besieged (and later totally destroyed) city, and now a strongly divided community.
Visiting Vukovar was our first time, as a group, experiencing physical remnants of war. The plaster of buildings driving into Vukovar was chipped off in bullet sized chunks, some buildings had been completely refurbished, some were in the process, and for some the process hadn't yet begun. Many buildings had trees growing in them--homes where the family hadn't returned, or didn't have the resources to begin reconstructing. Even on the main street buildings were fenced off, billboarded over, or just left. Some buildings, such as the one next to the hotel where we stayed, still had scorch marks on the bricks from the fires that must have raged there. Belgrade, while experiencing violence during the 1999 bombing by NATO, doesn't have the feel of a place totally consumed by war. Vukovar, on the other hand, feels very much that way.

We visited the cemetery erected for those who fought in the "defense" (for some they were defending Vukovar, for others they were rebels) of Vukovar in the 3 months it was under siege from the JNA and paramilitary groups. We visited in the middle of an extensive snow falling--giving the cemetery a graveness, silence and solemness. The cemetery consists rows and rows of graves--each giving the name of the individual, a religious symbol or picture, if they desired, the date they died and the words "Defender of Croatia." This collective identity of the dead is really interesting to me, especially as we've spent a lot of time talking about essentalized narratives, and the narrowing of the gap of identities available to individuals during the war (and post-war). Even in death somehow these identities are still narrow. At the center of the graveyard was a huge teal cross/cross made out of negative space (there's a picture of it somewhere), a cross of absence in a way. Below the teal cross that is not a cross, is a white cross representing each of the dead. There's a power to these physical representations of numbers.

Photos of Vukovar (and other adventures here) found here:

On day two, we went out to Ovčara--site of a mass grave of individuals killed after Vukovar became under JNA/paramilitary (Serb) control. I'm having a lot of difficulty writing about historical events because events are so politically/socially charged--even the words we use proclaim sympathy with one side or the other.

The floor of the memorial/agricultural shed where the prisoners were held before being executed was poured concrete with bullet shells scattered on top. It was the first thing I noticed walking in. It left me feeling really unsettled. The memorial consisted of pictures of the dead and then artifacts, either found at the site (or things that were left behind before they were killed) or things donated by their families in their remembrance. One guy (most of the people killed were male) had a knitted square--it looked like part of a sock--something someone had knitted for him. More than the portraits on the walls, that made the victims human.

Thankfully visiting Vukovar wasn't only about looking back--at past atrocities and examining past grievances--but meeting with individuals who are looking forward.
On the first day, we met with a young guy--probably in his late twenties, early thirties, who had returned to Vukovar after the war (he had grown up there but left during the war) and did ethnographic research on how the war was memorialized/remembered. Vukovar at that time (and still now) is considered a divided city--Serbs go to Serb cafes, Croats go to Croat cafes. The other minorities who used to live in Vukovar have, for the most part, not returned. His article was fascinating (for anyone interested [Mom--this most likely means you]: Remember Vukovar: Memory, Sense of Place and the National Tradition in Croatia), and he shared a lot of stories with us of his time doing research--exciting and intimidating for us as we begin to think of our own research beginning in a few short months, and the role of official narratives/how those narratives are memorialized.  I'm really curious about what that means for the future development of a city/town/region/county/person if their primary identity becomes something rooted in the past--how does one look forward?
The following day we met with another Vukovarian who works in an NGO which is trying to dismantle the divided school system (one school for Serb students, another for Croat) and create one unified school. He didn't really answer my question about how this new school would treat the sensitive issues of history/cultural education, but it's an issue I'm intrigued by and would like to understand deeper. One of the things which he said which struck me most was that "we're not raising human beings, we're raising Croats and Serbs." when really we're all made from the same dough (thanks Nino!)
[Nino was a woman Mom befriended in Tbilisi who, one night lamenting problems with men, said "oh men, they're all made from the same dough!"].
Our final visit was with the Mayor of Vukovar--his party is a non-ethnically affiliated party (the two other main parties are ethnic parties, who, it seems, gain a lot of their political power through exploiting the past and memories of the past). He made a point of meeting with Croat constituents in a Serb cafe, and Serbs in Croat cafes--trying piece by piece, person by person, to break down some of the barriers erected through the war/reintegration (not reconciliation) process.

This was another fascinating aspect of Vukovar: the peace agreement signed mandated reintegration of the two communities (Vukovar had been under Serb control and control was being transferred to Croat--with that entailed the return of Croat citizens who had fled/been kicked out after Serbs took control of the town). Reconciliation wasn't part of the ticket. From talking to the Mayor (and his staff) on the one hand that seems like a good thing--perhaps people don't want to reconcile, but I guess I'm still having a hard time piecing together in my mind how reintegration can be conceptualized without a reconciliation component: or if structured reconciliation is necessary in a structured reintegration process.

I need to get on with my day, thankfully the snow has stopped--but Dejana mentioned over breakfast that there was supposed to be snow until April--so I need to make use of it while I can.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cultural Blunder #1: Folk is not the Folk you think it is

Well, it probably isn't my first cultural blunder (I tried to leave the apartment with wet hair, and even didn't wear socks with my slippers around the house. Both serious offenses), but certainly this one takes the cake thus far.
I introduced myself to a group of students at the Singidunum University (the private university in whose building we have our classrooms) as being interested in "folk" music. Not realizing that "folk" music means something completely different in this context. I later found out from my host sister Dejana that folk music means modern turbo-folk: about as far away from the kind of music I had in mind as I can get. Folk music here, she informed me, is called ethno or old national music. I certainly got some strange looks from the students--turbo-folk isn't considered high-brow from what I've gathered and is popular among certain sectors of society (and subsequently not popular among others)--especially when I explained how Mary Cay had been here in the 70's studying "folk" music. One student commented, but folk music in the 70's is different than folk music now. I guess I didn't really register how differently the traditions are labeled. whoops. oh well.

So now I know.
Dejana then spent almost an hour illustrating the difference between folk and village music with me--and, well, I think I've got it now. But now I feel like I've inadvertently presented myself to these students as something entirely different from what I am. oh well. Some clarification will be necessary. This probably also helps explain why I've had such a hard time finding the music I was looking for.
Mary Cay has also put me on the track of finding some folk dance--something I was having difficulty finding on my own.

I'm also finding that my village music background has equipped me with quite a strange vocabulary--do I know how to say "where is this bus going?'--well not really. but can I say "my sweet fawn, where are you" or "two quinces" (what the hell is a quince anyways?)--actually yes. perhaps not exactly the most practical vocabulary, but it's vocabulary none-the-less.

Aside from this, things have been going really well.
This week was our first full week of classes, next week we are heading out to Vukovar, and I think this will really start to make some of the things we're learning about clear(er). It's been a lot of theoretical discussion about identity, memory, nationalism. Yugoslav history. We're starting to get into discussing how we should start conceptualizing our Independent Study Project (from here on out the ISP). Thinking about the ISP is getting really exciting because there's a plethora of things I would love to study while I'm here.

We visited the Museum of Yugoslav History, which, oddly enough, doesn't really have anything to do with Yugoslav history (or at least not yet, they're still trying to define themselves as an institution, and more importantly add to their collections). The fame of the museum is that they house the House of Flowers--formerly part of Tito's compound where he met with his mistresses and where he is buried. They also have his entire collection of gifts, from both domestic and international communities. The workmanship on the gifts was remarkable, and to me, spoke of the degree to which Tito was revered by people within Yugoslavia. It was also really interesting to me that Yugoslav history--or at least where the museum is right now--really revolves around Tito. He is the history. I hadn't quite understood the scale of Tito before visiting the museum, and now it's starting to make sense. Or at least I'm getting it better. One of my first nights, my host sister pulled out a book ("It was honest to live with Tito"), and told me it was my host mother's graduation present when she (my host mother, not my sister) graduated. And Marica added, but it was so honest to live with Tito.

 Our entrance
 there's a school in the middle of the Block: it's set up in a rectangle, you can see the gymnasium in white, directly in front of our building.

Sorry for the bulky inclusion of pictures: this is my neighborhood: Block 23. The first picture is of my entrance, but as you can see, it really could be anywhere in this complex. A few days ago, I thought, for just a moment, that I might have entered the wrong entrance--I was in a hurry and someone was going out as I was coming in so I didn't have to unlock the front door--and as I was walking up the stairs I was trying to figure out-do I recognize this place? It turns out it was my building, but for a moment I wasn't so sure. 

I'm hoping to meet up with the OTPOR folks--(check out this news story from Foreign Policy if you're interested, I'm feeling really busy here--but not active. if that makes sense. We have class basically all day (although I think the schedule is still being settled into), and while the classes are really interesting, I don't quite yet feel productive. just absorbing life here. I know that'll change once we start moving--and the fact that we travel so much might make volunteering somewhere difficult, but I guess I'm just not used to not being so involved in goings on around me. and I'd like that to change.
Well, cao for now,

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Grey Buildings in the White City

Although classes are held in the faculty of media and communications building of the Singidunum University in Belgrade (Belgrade means white city), a short walk from the center of old city, I'm living across the river Sava in New Belgrade. It's only a few minutes by tram, but crossing from old to New Belgrade is still a bit of a shock to me. The old city was built (and rebuilt) over a long period of time, someone mentioned that Belgrade was destroyed 13 times--and the buildings show that history. Next to an Austro-Hungarian (Belgrade was on the border between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires) will be a building rebuilt in the 1950's--after WWII, or again in the 2000s, after the 1999 bombing. Although, unlike Sarajevo, Belgrade to me at least doesn't have a feel of really having been in the middle of a war. It's fascinating to walk through, with each turn it feels like I've jumped through a few centuries. 10 minutes or so (traveling along the banks of the Sava towards the Danube) from our campus is the Roman/Ottoman fortress of Kalemegdan, right at the convergence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Walking out to Kalemegdan, there's a sense of peace, a bit of removed-ness from the bustle of the city. Much welcome, especially after such peaceful times in Sighnaghi. Although that's probably also influenced by the cold these days which keeps most people (including sometimes me) inside.
We spent our first days in Belgrade staying together at a Hostel just around the corner from our faculty, which I loved because we were encouraged in organized or unorganized manners to explore the city (some of our first classes were basically scavenger hunts in the city). Irregardless, I still feel like my grasp of the city is quite small--which kind of makes the city feel small, just because so much is unknown.

New Belgrade. New Belgrade. I'm living in an apartment block (23, for your information). The blok has over 57 entrances (I'm not quite sure how many, except I know that my entrance is #57). Looking out on it--I'll post pictures later--kind of feels like the entire state of Vermont could be contained in just a few bloks. and the buildings are mostly gray, and especially without green leaves on the trees, the entire city has a kind of gray hue. Along the Sava and Danube on the New Belgrade side is a large park, with biking paths stretching for miles, but in the cold I haven't had much chance to explore those.

My host family is really nice, my host mother is an english teacher/tutor which means that my Serbian has improved minimally in the past few days, because when she speaks Serbian either with her daughter or husband they speak so quickly, I have virtually no idea what is happening. But it also allows us to have deeper debates/discussions about life. Today over breakfast we were discussing if will and ambition is genetic or not. Certainly a conversation I wouldn't be able to have in Serbian at this point (or at any point in the near future). Marica (c makes the ts sound in these parts) teaches english on the first floor of our apartment building, is in her 50's, and has blond hair. She's really nice, and always says "but don't worry"--I can't tell if this is a filler phrase, or if she really thinks that I am worried (about finding the tram, about what is for dinner, about the weather or safety...). Dragan, my host father, used to work in construction, but recently that has dried up so now he works in deconstruction--heading a team. Other than that I'm not quite sure what he does. He speaks less English than Marica--which means that we have some interesting conversations--for example he lent me a book about the interwar period (between WWI and WWII--just to clarify which wars) and then said he had another book written from a different perspective--but I couldn't quite figure out just how different those perspectives would be--nor could I figure out how to effectively communicate that to him.
Dejana--my host sister--is great. I'm really thankful to have another young person (she's 28) around--seeing how her parents interact with her I have a better understanding of how I can interact with them. Not that she is defiant or anything, but it just helps me get a better sense of how they treat their children. She's also just really nice, and really nice to talk to. But she's terribly busy right now, she's working on her PhD in Biology---food sciences--so she works in a lab in the morning and attends classes in the afternoon. But I'm hoping we'll get to explore the city together. I also met her boyfriend Uros(h)--who's in a metal band, which will be an interesting side of Belgrade to get to see. Dejana took me to see a Roma settlement. It was really startling, and I'm not quite sure how to write about that just yet.

Classes have begun. Although I think we're all still settling into this notion of work and class and work and class again. but I think it'll be good.

cao for now,