Yet another fool in the Balkans

13 Sep

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It’s the mid-semester holidays and since the weather’s still pretty cold most days, I’ve been reading a fair bit lately.  (That is, I always read a lot, but finally I’m not talking about textbooks for uni.)  I’m currently reading “Gitanjali” by Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Lagore for a book club I’ve just become a part of, and am loving it, but next to that I’m also guiltfully reading “Another Fool in the Balkans” by British writer Tony White.*

AFiTB (for short) is a really excellent book.  White originally became interested in the Balkans as a teenager in the ’80s after he traveled through what was then Yugoslavia with a bunch of friends after high school.  After the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 90s, White’s interest in the region piqued again when he helped to organise a piece of performance art by young Yugoslav artist Gordana Stanišić in the gallery where he worked in London.  In the years that followed (and with the backdrop of the Balkan Wars on the news every night), White began to read about the history and culture of the region, and stumbled onto a travelogue** from the 1940s, written by Britishwoman Rebecca West.

Impressed and intrigued by West’s log, and becoming increasingly enthralled with the Balkans, White decided to follow in the footsteps of his countrywoman and travel through the Balkans to find out more.  The result is AFiTB, and I’ll tell you what, it’s much more than a travelogue.  It’s a nuanced, extremely well-researched and politically impartial look at the continuing transition of the ex-Yu countries into what they are (or are still becoming) today.  (And being impartial, omg, that’s like an impossibility in the Balkans.  White mentions that himself several times, as well as identifying the improbability of he himself being partial, reflecting on biased news-reporting practices all over the Western world.  In short it’s a very careful, reflective book and that itself is an achievement when it comes to literature on ex-Yugoslavia.)

Anyway, so the book is great.  But more importantly than that… shit man, it’s frustrating!  And d’you know why?  Because it’s making me want to go back, again.  As friends and followers of my previous blog would know, I spent seven months in Serbia last year.  I’m from there.  I love the whole region.  I love the people, the food, the customs, the trees, and everything else.  But last year was meant to, like, get all of that out of my system.  And now a Britishman’s look at the Balkans is getting me back into it!  Ergh!

Okay, so, being honest, I’m not going to go back there.  I mean, not to live, and even if I do, it’s not going to be in the near future at all.  And even if I did go, in the far future, it probably wouldn’t be forever.  I love Australia and I love living in Canberra and my life is here.  I’m approaching the start of my career and I’m actually really excited about that!  But just like *that* crush you’ve always had but have never acted on, the Balkans are always going to be there, calling to me, holding a part of my heart.  I guess it’s going to be a lifelong process of… well, processing that.  It’s the lot of the migrant, I guess.

Sigh.

Anyway, so that notwithstanding, AFiTB brings me back to my life last year.  When White mentions Birčaninova street or Srpskih Vladara street, I remember that time when I was going on a walk and realised where these streets were ’cause I was walking on them.  Then I think about how I would just stroll around the streets all weekend long and stop in at random cafes and bakeries along the way, eating poppy seed plaits and drinking americanos (long blacks), and, occasionally, some Dunjevača (quince brandy; quince being my namesake fruit).  And then I remember showing Belgrade to my friends when they’d come to visit, and being excited about showing a bit of the Balkans to the world!

What an awesome seven months that was!

Aaanywho, that’s enough reminiscing for this morning.  Things to take out of this post:
1.  read AFiTB (seriously, do it).

That’s all.

Now to get back to my readings.  I guess that’s the lot of the student.  (Can someone tell me when all these lots are going to end?  Or are endless lots just the lot of human beings?)

Love y’all.  x

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* I say guiltfully because, when you’re a student, everything you do that isn’t related to uni creates a sort of gnawing, haunting feeling in your left ear, like “Duuuuuuunja, you should be reeeeeeading!”  (Think one of the ghosts from Scooby-Doo when reading that.)

** “Travelogue” is an understatement – West’s book was more of a PhD thesis, weighing in at some 1,100 pages.

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Meditation for Beginners: The Bird

18 Jul

When most people think of meditation, they think of a scene like the one above.  If not a sunset, then they think of a yoga class, or of some shirtless elderly Indian man in full-lotus pose wearing a turban and repeating “ommmm” non-stop every day of his life.  I guess I’m one of them – or used to be – and for that reason, I’ve always felt a distance between myself and meditation.  While I’ve always wanted to be able to meditate, I’ve just never felt able to “centre” myself to the extent that Mr Ommm does; never been able to shut out the world completely and “focus on the breath” (at least not for more than a few seconds, and even then, it’s usually been while I’ve been choking).

I’ve tried.  Meditation is said to bring about countless health benefits – both physical and mental – and having a healthier blood pressure, stressing less, and helping my body regenerate torn muscles and ligaments (or whatever) is definitely something I’d be happy to get in on.

Yet, up until very recently, I had had no luck.  Try as I might, I’d always end up noticing that annoying crack in the ceiling at my yoga studio, or realising that I was daydreaming about that hot dude from J-Lo’s clip for “I’m Into You” when I was supposed to be clearing my mind.  So, for a while, I gave up.  I haven’t done yoga since December, and I still only think about my breath when I eat my Doritos too quickly.

But then, just a few weeks ago, I realised something.  I realised that I was going about the whole thing the wrong way.  Sure, if you’ve been meditating for a while, you get good at it, and clearing your mind isn’t too much of a hassle.  But for someone like me – a total beginner still, despite years of trying – my approach was way too advanced.  The problem was (I think) that I would always try to meditate when I already felt serene.  I’d attempt it at a yoga class – where I was already feeling relaxed – or while I was sitting by myself in the sun somewhere – again, already relaxed.  I realised that, actually, maybe I needed to try to centre myself in a moment of craziness.  Just as it’s easier to lose the first five kilos than the last five kilos when you’re on a diet, in the same way, maybe it’s easier to gain a little peace from a situation of chaos than from a situation of serenity.  Maybe?

Okay so I realise that this sounds a little confused.  Like, maybe I don’t really get it, and maybe I’m just unaware of the universal truth that “actually Dunja, only a truly advanced meditator can achieve peace when it’s crazy all around them”.  But I don’t know that I agree.

The moment I realised that it was easier my way (for me, at least) was in rush hour in my car on the way home a few weeks ago.  I achieved a little peace in a situation which would otherwise have set me off on a swearing rampage (yeh, I’m a road rager… but only when they really deserve it, you know).  I can’t even remember what happened, really – I think someone cut me off, or changed lanes without indicating, and since I was already feeling kind of angry for some reason, it just made these little things worse – but it was then that I found my meditation weapon.  My first little tool which led me to my first little meditation success!  So what was it?

Strangely enough, it was my third finger.  Yup.  My key to the world of meditation – momentary meditation, but meditation nonetheless – was the ol’ Bird.  Now, before you shriek in disgust at me, know that I didn’t actually do it to the driver.  I would never do that.  I’ve been on the receiving end of the Bird enough times to know that it’s crude and mean and not at all nice.  But right there, in that moment of extreme annoyance, my left-hand middle digit helped me.  I didn’t really even mean to do it.  My other fingers kind of curled away from it spontaneously.  But I did it (pointing it down towards the clutch area) and right away, a wave of peace rushed over me.  Right away, I felt better.  Like a deep breath, it cleared my brain of the negative thoughts and cut off the negative energy.  And since then, I’ve felt Mr Bird work his magic on several other occasions, both on the road and elsewhere.

Now, I know that that is so strange.  I know it is.  Giving someone the finger is the rudest hand gesture you can give them, so naturally it’s associated with angry, rude, horrible emotions.  But in this fine little moment, it solved my problems.  It took me out of the situation, closer to myself, and back into a positive frame of mind.  I don’t know why, and I don’t think I even want to try to understand it.  As a beginner meditator, I have to take what I can get.  I have to embrace any little thing which helps me centre my thoughts, or at least gets me thinking about it more often.  The fact that it just happened to be old Middle-boy shouldn’t matter, right?

I dunno.  I have no idea, really, but that doesn’t matter.  Because what is matter?  Never mind.  And what is mind?  No matter!

Eheheh.  Give it a go!

xx  Dunja

What’s in a surname?

20 May

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Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you called ’em stench blossoms.
Homer: Or crapweeds.

A few weeks ago, my family and I had a big discussion about surnames.  Our surname is Cvjetićanin, and it’s a beautiful surname when it’s pronounced correctly.  When it’s not, though, it becomes a horribly throaty, disjointed sound which has no relation whatsoever to its noble* Balkan origins.  The correct pronunciation is something like “Tsvee-air-TEE-cha-nin”, but inevitably, when spoken by non-Slavic people, it comes out as “Kv-jetty-kenin” or “K-v-djeh.. k-v-djeh… sorry, how do you say that?”

Living, working and studying in Australia, we come up against these incorrect pronunciations almost daily.  But the issue is about more than mere pronunciation.  It’s about respect and acceptance, and about not feeling like an outsider every time someone sees or hears your name.  Happily, I think that Australia is becoming a more and more accepting, multicultural society, and these days, diversity is celebrated more than it is condemned.  The popularity of Canberra’s Multicultural Festival attests to this.  But it wasn’t so long ago that people were discriminated against for differences of the sort.  When we arrived in Australia twenty years ago, my parents, Vesna and Miloš, were almost converted into Vanessa and Michael in one of their earliest social meetings.  I’m proud to be able to say that they insisted on Vesna and Miloš, but I can understand why other migrants at the time decided to change their names.

Still, the topic remains a disputed one.  For me, it’s kinda easy, I suppose.  I love our surname, but at the same time, I won’t necessarily have it for the rest of my life.  I plan on changing it to my husband’s when (if) I marry, and unless I marry an unrelated Cvjetićanin, it’s problem** solved.  For my brother, it’s a little different.  He keeps it for life; keeps enduring mispronunciations and suffering possible subconscious discrimination as a result of it for as long as he lives.  Plus, he passes it on to his wife and children.  But here, another question arises.  Today, less and less women are taking on their husbands’ surnames when they marry.  Women have their own careers and reputations and have worked hard to build their name up in the community, and I can understand why certain women would want to keep them.  Add a difficult surname like Cvjetićanin to the mix, and if you’re marrying my brother in an English-speaking country like Australia, you’ve got one less reason to adopt his surname.  (I wouldn’t respect that, but that’s another complicated, in my case internally-inconsistent issue for another post…  For a contemporary young feminist view on changing names at marriage, see this excellent article by Sonya Krzywoszyja at lip magazine.)

When we were discussing this issue, several different ideas came up.  Removing the “j” was one suggestion.  As one family member commented***, the pronunciation doesn’t change too much, but “Cvetićanin” is a lot easier to decipher than “Cvjetićanin”.  To that, another member responded that it doesn’t just remove a letter; it removes part of our heritage.  The “j” indicates that we’re from the Kordun region of Croatia, which is where my Serbian grandparents grew up.  That region has a specific culture and history, and taking out that “j” is kind of like denying a bit part of our family’s past.

Next, another member noted how my maternal grandmother changed even her first name, the Hungarian “Erzsébet”, to the Serbian “Jelisaveta”, when she started high school in our hometown of Sombor in Serbia (then Yugoslavia).  Hungarians were the minority and I guess she just wanted to fit in more.  As that member reminded us, she was no less my mum’s mother, or our grandmother, for having done so.  Then again, as another responded, how would an outsider then know about her Hungarian origins?  In all the records, she had turned into a Serbian woman, and unless you knew her personally, you’d have no idea.  Obviously that wouldn’t happen to us by changing it our last name to “Cvetićanin” – that’s definitely not an Anglo surname – but exaggerate the situation – change it to “Carter” or “Cavendish” instead – and it’s hard to see the difference.

This point led another member to remark that, in this day and age, why should we change to our socio-racial environments?  Why shouldn’t it be the other way around?  In this time of the increasing celebration of multiculturalism, shouldn’t we be emphasising difference rather than trying to suppress it?

A final consideration was the way in which having a surname that was so different from those around us helped my brother and I get through childhood.  That sounds weird, I know, and believe me, we definitely were the victims of a little schoolyard teasing growing up, but on the whole, having that experience really made us stronger, I think.  We were forced to stand up and be proud of our difference, to bring multiculturalism into our classes, and to represent the histories and stories of our ancestry without even being aware of it.  And today, we’re stronger for it.  Plus, if we’ve already gone this far, why stop now?  Why give up the surname fight if we’ve already been through the worst of it at primary school?  Why give in to the assimilation temptation?

All I know is that I’m not changing my surname.  Not while I’m unmarried, at least.  To tell you the truth, part of me wants to hold onto my surname even when I get married, but my love of the institution and customs of marriage will probably mean that I’ll change it anyway.  (I’m SO internally-consistent on this topic.)  Curiously, in recognition of my own experiences of having a different surname, and of my hope that my brother’s future wife will take on our surname, I almost want to marry a man with a really complicated surname.  You know, just to show that I’m not copping out of it.  But I guess we’ll see how that goes.

For now, I’m a Cvjetićanin and I’m holding tight.  No missing “j”s, no slight alterations, and no concessions.  My friends have learnt to pronounce it correctly, and in time, I have faith that everyone else will, too.

xxx,
Dunja

* Yep, noble.  Did I forget to mention that we’re royalty?

** For want of a better word.

*** I’m not naming names on purpose; it’s a personal topic and I don’t want to publish anyone’s ideas online if they don’t want that.  :))

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An homage to Old Fashion

29 Apr

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A couple of snapshots of what every Wednesday night from January to June last year looked like for me. At Old Fashion club, Milano.

When did I become a white bitch?!

23 Apr

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What the hell am I doing?!

So, I had a massive existential moment on Saturday night.  I was out with my homie Soraya, and we were club-hoppin’ like it was no one’s business, and four clubs in, we hit Monkey Bar.  It’s RnB night.  It’s awesome.  Peeps are grinding, bitches are wearing too much make-up, dudes are playing it coy.  We a-line to the dancefloor and get jiggy with it, and it’s great.  Fifteen minutes in, after working up a dance sweat, I hit the bathroom to make sure I’m still looking respectable out there.  I look in the mirror, and want to scream.

I’m blonde.

WHAT?

When did that happen?

What am I doing, grinding on an RnB dancefloor, blonde?!  Who do I think I am, Cameron Diaz?

We left MB pretty soon after that.  My shame was intense, and my ego just couldn’t take it.  I don’t know when I turned blonde (I mean, it happened on the 4th of January, or thereabouts, but I mean blonde in the sense of a white bitch, in the sense that rappers would use the term).  I used to be halfway respectable, kickin’ it to a bit of hip-hop.  But now?  Try as I might, I just can’t do that as a blonde.  I stick out like a sore thumb.  I stuck out like a sore thumb on Saturday night and for the first time in a long time, I felt isolated, estranged, just wrong amongst my boyz-n-da-hood.  Anyone who knew me before January 4th would attest (I’m sure of it) to my being the most ballin’ bitch out there; half Afro American by nature and character; spittin’ beats wherever I go.  Today, I don’t know what they’d say about me.  In fact, I tremble at the thought of it.

And so.

It’s decided (by the homeboy powers that be).  I’ve bought hair dye, and this weekend, I’m going back to the dark side.  Literally.  Back to black yo (or, in my case, brown).  I hope it helps me find myself.  I hope it makes me more legit on the dancefloor.  But most of all, I hope Weezy, Jeezy, Yeezy and Drizzy will accept me again after so shameful a transformation.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

A Response to “Familial Obligations”

20 Apr

We're a close family.
This is one of those random-piece-of-paper posts I talked about earlier.  I wrote it back in March after reading fellow blogger Zoya Patel’s post and really connecting to it.   Originally, it was just gonna be a comment on her site, but after some thought, I realised that leaving a comment of THIS size would be like forced impregnation, so here it is as a post in its own right.  Now, note: some of the stuff I wrote back then has changed a bit – turns out I 
can’t resist watching random movies with my parents, and, also, who was I kidding?  I haven’t weeded the garden in years – but the rest of it is still pretty true.  Geddonnit!

Zoya’s post is really great.  It so accurately depicts a part of what I call “diasporic-child-of-immigrants-in-Australia-mindfuck-situations” which, hilariously, make up a lot of my life.

Interestingly, I’ve been pondering the same thing about my Serbian family recently. Having spent all of last year away from them in Europe, living independently and, well, rather successfully (in that “I didn’t die” kind of way), I wondered how it would be coming back.  Last year was the first time that my parents lived without their children (my brother was coincidentally in Europe the whole time, too), and it was kind of tough on them – especially at the start. I personally loved living independently. Sure, it was a drag having to pay rent and buy groceries and do my own laundry, but to be honest, I relished in my new ability to be selfish (and not feel guilty about it)!  Finally, I could spend my weekends reading books and going to the movies without having to clean the bathrooms or make dinner first.  Or even STUDYING without having to help in the garden or go with them to X Balkan family friends’ place.  And even though that sometimes meant I left my breakfast dishes unwashed until the evening, guess what? It didn’t kill me!  I was in control of my time and I loved it.

Now I’m back in Canberra and I’m kind of back in the family-obligation zone, but I’m happy. I’m happy to be back with my parents, baking with my mum, weeding on a Saturday morning, and all of it.  But coming back, I’m aware of not getting back into that rut I was in before I went to Europe.  Now, when I need to study, I just refuse to clean the bathrooms.  When I need to relax, I refuse to take the dog for a walk.  When I want to catch up with my friends, I just refuse to watch that film my parents wanted us to all watch together.  A big part of me feels *too* selfish for doing those things at times, but I just realise it’s necessary to for my own sanity.  I still love my parents and want to continue that same close relationship we’ve always had, but on coming back, I’ve just figured out how to make myself the priority, and honestly feel better for it.

Obviously, it’s not like I do *nothing* around the house these days . I still help out, partly ’cause I feel that I should and partly ’cause my mum’s cottoned on that I’m just becoming selfish these days (and wants to keep me in line), but also, in a way, because I realise that this period of our lives – this nuclear, everyone-living-under-the-same-roof thing – is coming to an end.  Soon enough, my brother and I will move out or find a wife and a husband or whatever, and we’ll back look back on these times and be like “damn, I’d love to be back there right now”.  But I guess I shouldn’t be too existential about it anyway.  After all, as my parents have already decided, we’ll be over there with their grandchildren “every weekend, helping out in the garden and baking things together.  Won’t that be fun?”  Haha, yep.

Prepare for re-entry!

20 Apr

Aaaaand so, I’m kinda back on the blogging route.

Last year, I got so much out of my Europe experience by blogging, and since I’ve been back in Australia, I’ve felt a need to express my thoughts somewhere.  For the most part, I’ve been writing random thoughts of random pieces of paper, and sticking them haphazardly amongst the books on the shelf in my bedroom.  I recently came to the realisation that this is probably not the best way to do it, so here’s my new blog.  Dunno what I’ll call it yet… Judging from my random-piece-of-paper entries, it’s gonna be about anything and everything, but since I’m a 22-year-old Serbian-Australian diasporic third-culture-kid law student who loves to go clubbing but also sings in the church choir every Sunday, I guess I’ve got a niche going without even trying.

Enjoy?