Sunday, October 29, 2017

Chicana en Serbia: What I've Seen So Far

Perhaps my interest in travel stems from mis papas often taking me to Mexico to visit familia in the summers and mid-year holidays when I was young. I quickly learned how to navigate the various communities where my Mexican cousins, aunts, uncles lived:  Mexico D.F. (as it was known then), Torreon and Gomez Palacio en Coahuila; Chapalita en Guadalajara; Leon en Guanajuato, Morelia en Michoacán. One summer we even took a month-long road trip all the way down to Oaxaca, hitting the lesser known towns.  I remember coming back to Los Angeles, after that trip, feeling mentally burst open--amazed at the world and wanting more. I also witnessed interesting political moments while abroad.  For example, vivid in my memory: sitting with my cousins at their casita en Guadalajara, watching Richard Nixon announcing his resignation.  Or, much later, living and studying in Spain during the signing of the Spanish Democratic Constitution in 1978.  I was always observing how people live in places they call "home"-- from domestic quotidian events to the larger political and social implications affecting an entire nation and beyond. My parents and my Mexican aunts, uncles, cousins were always politically, socially, artistically astute and ready for a discussion. 

Now I write from Novi Sad, Serbia-- a place most would find quite removed from not only the U.S., but Mexico. And yet, connections abound. Then there are the many wars within the Balkan History.  Below is a photographic narrative of some of the experiences/scenes I've encountered so far:

Portrait Art in downtown Novi Sad gallery---- Soon after arriving in Novi Sad, during one of my initial walks through downtown, I came across this gallery which was featuring the work of  ŽIVKA  SUVIĆ  PETROVIĆ, an artist from Novi Sad who is a member of "The Artistic Association of Serbia," (ULUS). She has had 13 independent exhibitions and over 60 group exhibitions. 

At first, her portraits had me thinking about the Balkan Wars. Are these faces illustrating the pain and frustration during or after the wars?  Or maybe the artist(s) are depicting life right now-- young Eastern Europeans who are at a crossroads in their lives.  Should they leave this area that they may feel offers nothing to them, becoming immigrants in order to find what they feel may be better lives?  Or maybe, as in the one portrait with the words "COMPASSION" (see further down)-- these portraits seem to be instructing viewers about themselves. Since I do not read or understand Serbian, I could not ask the gallery attendant (who did not understand Spanish or English) about any possible interpretations from the artist. And so I leave you, La Bloga reader, with these portraits to interpret.  

After viewing these portraits, I headed over to the downtown promenade. I offer my own portrait of a traditional flute musician who gave me permission to photograph him.  I was told that the tune he was playing was an old Balkan wooing melody.  

Food in Serbia continues to surprise me because of its many similarities to Mexican foods.  Below is a photo of what are called "chicharrones" in Mexico.  These are fried pork rinds.  Here in Serbia, they are called "cvarci."  Both words (chicharrón and cvarci) have that same CH sound that mimics what pork rinds sound like when you crunch into them. 

Baked goods are everywhere in Serbia.  There is a "pekara" (bakery) on every corner.  In this photo below, this Serbian-type croissant looks very much like the familiar (to me)  Mexican "CUERNO."  

All kinds of salami and smoked meats (salami/bacon) are typical here.  I took this picture not for the meats but for the garlic.  Garlic is abundant here.  

Serbia is also known for its red peppers-- these large peppers are described as "horned peppers."  They are quite meaty.  Serbians roast them, peel the skin, and cook them with garlic, spices, and roasted eggplant to make their famous "ajvar" (pronounced "AY--VAR").  It is, in my opinion, the Balkan hummus, only better because of the spices. It has become my favorite condiment.  

During a wine festival, they had a public viewing of how ajvar is cooked.  Above, the red peppers roast and below, the skin of the roasted peppers are stirred until they become soft mush.  

Below--looking more like Ajvar!

The University of Novi Sad is my academic home this year.  I am in the English Department which is called "Faculty of Philosophy" here.  This is very much like Spain where I studied under the discipline of literature, called "FILOLOGIA," which is (in my opinion) a much more apt title because it literally translates to the study of literature, the history of literature, linguistics...

And while writing here, what is helping tremendously, is an intensive class on the Serbian language.  I've been learning how to read Serbian in Latin and in Cyrillic-- a real challenge since this is an archaic language.  There are so many exceptions and rules all due to wars, upheavals, whims.  The language was standardized in the nineteenth century (which includes the Cyrillic).  However, since then, there continue to be changes. The Balkan Wars of the 1990s brought yet more transformations to the language.  

Learning a language is opening a door into the heart, soul, and history of a people.  Each word, each nominative form created from joy, from pain, colonization, genocide.  At the most general level, there is also a visceral aspect to this linguistic discovery.  As I study, I notice how the words feel in my body, each sound shaping sentimientos de la historia de esta tierra. I feel I am bowing respectfully by struggling to emit plosives and fricatives I had never attempted before.  Or what happens to my thinking when I hear a Serbian word in class and am directed to write what I hear in cyrillic: I feel the synapses in my head connecting through completely different pathways.  

I don't expect to be fully literate in Serbian by the time I return home.  I believe the attempt is what is important, especially in this historical moment when the policing, strangling, language eviscerated is at its height in so many areas of the world.  In The Balkans, this language took a major hit.  In her novel, The Ministry of Pain, Dubravka Ugresic writes:  

"Not that the language as it was before the divorce -- Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian or Croatian and Serbian -- represented a better, more acceptable linguistic construct that the war had then destroyed.  No, it, too, had performed a political function: it, too had been backed by an army; it, too, had been manipulated, polluted by a heavily ideologized Yugospeak.  But the history of melding the linguistic variants into a single construct involved a much longer and more meaningful process than the overnight divorce, just as the history of building bridges and roads involved a much longer and more meaningful process than their overnight destruction" (36).  

Ugresic's description brings me to Nahuatl and the Codex Mendoza.  The Codex was created 14 years "after" Spanish colonization under the direction of Don Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain.  

This page from The Codex Mendoza describes the required "tax" (paid in animals hides/plants/objects)
that the Aztecs required from other indigenous communities they had conquered.  
Mendoza's intent was to send a record of events to the King of Spain (Charles V).  It is an amazing record but each time I peruse the artwork, trace my finger over the Nahuatl, I wonder what is true, what was forced-- all the "linguistic variants" "manipulated/polluted."  Yet, this is what we have.

During my time studying in Salamanca, Spain-- my favorite thing to do in the afternoons walking to my class on "The Golden Age of Spanish Literature," was to stop at one of the many little stores along the way to pick up a small "Carlos V" chocolate bar.  The chocolate was unlike any I had tasted in Los Angeles. Here I was eating chocolate named after a Spanish King (who was the motivating force behind the Codex Mendoza), chocolate that had originated not from Spain but in what was now called Mexico, a place (Tenochtitlán) where the Aztecs prized the cacao bean, saw it as a gift from Quetzalcoatl. In Spain, "Carlos V" bars were known as "The King's Chocolate" and in 2005 Nestlé took it to the United States. Today the package looks very different describing "swiss style" chocolate  with artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers. Food, language-- all colonized.  

I think of Gloria Anzaldúa who writes:  "Chicanos, after 250 years of Spanish/Anglo colonization have developed significant differences in the Spanish we speak.  We collapse two adjacent vowels into a single syllable and sometimes shift the stress in certain words such as maíz/maiz, cohete/cuete. We leave out certain consonants when they appear between vowels: lado/lao, mojado/mojao . . . We tend to use words that the Spaniards brought over from Medieval Spain . . ." (Borderlands/La Frontera, 79).  

But I digress in my photographic narrative here . . . Below is a picture of my efforts in learning cyrillic and the Serbian language . . . 

Below: One of the main buildings across from the Faculty of Philosophy building. Any visiting prime ministers/diplomats come here to make their presentations/give their speeches. More than once, I've walked by and TV stations are interviewing or reporting outside, at times police are present.  

At the beginning of the semester, students are able to buy used books (below)---

A beautiful fall day on the University of Novi Sad campus!

A photo (below) with Professor Aleksandra Izgarjan while in downtown Novi Sad.  I am teaching Chicanx and Latinx literature with her this semester.  

Amelia M.L. Montes and Aleksandra Izgarjan
And while writiing/studying Serbian, you can find me at either The Frida Kahlo cafe below . . . 

Below--interior of the Frida Kahlo cafe--

Below-- interior of Frida Kahlo cafe (my little writing desk):

You can also find me at Che's Cafe Cubano.  

Che's Cafe Cubano

And after you've had your coffee or tea, you can then get into hiking mode by visiting Fruska Gora, (click here for more info).  Fruska Gora, a mountain above Novi Sad, is known for its many miles of hiking trails.  It also has over 10 monasteries (very old monasteries that are still active and thriving).

 Below:  Fruska Gora

Below-- the Danube and the Petrovaradin Fortress dating back to the 1600s.  Again-- a site of multiple historical events, the latest were the bombings during the Yugoslavian (1990s) war that destroyed all of the bridges in Novi Sad, including the one that connected the city to the Fortress.  Serbians had to take a ferry to the fortress until a new bridge was built.  

Below is what is left of the Armenian Church. During WWII, the Nazi's razed the church.  This is a memorial.  

 Below (two photographs) are the Orthodox Cathedral and the downtown square.

 Downtown Serbia---

The Jewish Synagogue (below). Unlike the Armenian church, the Novi Sad Synagogue was spared during WWII.  However, it's Jewish community was decimated-- another important history.

Just a few days after arriving, I stood silently in front of the synagogue (taking this photograph above).  This Jewish Synagogue, and its neighboring building, houses offices and cultural study spaces.  Before WWII, over 4,000 Jews lived in Novi Sad (80,000 in what is now Serbia).  Roughly 1,000 survived and many fled to Israel.  In addition to thousands being sent to concentration camps, the Danube River also holds their remains.  The Danube crosses through a number of countries in this region, one of which is Budapest where, between 1944 and 1945, "The Fascist Arrow Cross Militiamen" ordered hundreds of Jews to take off their shoes and stand at the bank of the Danube.

While these victims stood on the edge of the Danube, the Militiamen shot them and either threw them into the icy river, or they fell into it.  "The Shoes on the Danube Bank" is a memorial in Budapest, Hungary, honoring the memory of these victims.  Just a year ago (2016), Serbia passed the following law on the restitution of Holocaust victims' assets: over 3,000 buildings expropriated during WWII will be returned to Serbia's main Jewish organization. The Federation of Jewish Municipalities of Serbia will also be given a budget funding of 950,000 Euro per year for a period of 25 years, starting THIS year (2017). They will be using it to finance Jewish research and education, scholarships for students and young talents in Serbia. Serbia is the first country to do this. All of this is paramount to remember and witness in this historical moment we are living in right now.


Unknown said...

I loved reading this - thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts.

johnraible said...

Amelia, I was riveted while reading your account of learning the language and the history. My favorite photos are the memorial to the Armenians, and the Frida Kahlo cafe. Beautiful! I'd love to visit this part of the world someday. Your discussion of the efforts towards "reparations" for Jewish victims gives us much to think about.