On June 17th I received a phone call inviting me to teach English in Montenegro. Two days later, after quick packing and locating Montenegro on Google Maps, I flew off to the Balkan country. These are some reflections, stories and photos from those two months.
Today marks three weeks since our departure, Laura’s and my meeting, and our last blog post. Perhaps it is time to brief you all on our time here.
The Monday after our arrival, way back in the days of June, we loaded onto buses headed for the coast and a week long camp. The camp was put on by the local Brethren church but half the students were from the Roma and Ashkali community we are working with this summer. At the camp we led small groups through translators but primarily we were there in relational capacities. People from the church ran the camp while we were set free to play games, exchange butchered Serbian and English and get accidentally engaged. All three of those have remained fixtures in the two weeks since. The camp proved an easy and expedient way to forge through alienating difference and forge friendships with the Roma youth.
The day before we left for the coast we attended church in the Roma camp; while we did not necessarily feel uncomfortable, all three of us certainly felt that we did not belong. Surely, we did not: we did not know anyone there, besides Sinisa, the pastor, whom we had met two days before, and we spoke none of the three languages present. We were highly conspicuous observers, and deaf ones at that. That experience contrasts polarly with the one a week later when we had returned from camp, with newly made friends and acquired jokes. (To think a month of friendship can be founded on repeated giggly accusations of who you like is baffling, but then perhaps also not that different than the rest of adolescent life.)
Besides hour long walks to the river, bridge jumps into the river, and frenzied and frigid swimming in the river, we have also begun English lessons with our new Roma friends, most of whom are Sinisa’s church. These lessons have been our first activities that are not strictly relational, but even here the goal is to develop friendships with the additional bonus of a little language acquisition. In the fall two other volunteers are coming with a more serious task of English instruction. We are still determining just how serious and formal to each night’s class, but are encouraged by the definite enthusiasm everyone has to learn English. It is not at all Ms. Coats’ seventh grade introductory Spanish–and that is not at all to our credit for Ms. Coats was far more exciting than our certainly boring lessons.
Tomorrow another two Americans arrive, from a Baptist church in Virginia that provides nearly all of the funding for Sinisa’s ministry with the Roma. They, and a couple of Russians who arrive later in the week, are putting on a vacation Bible school (a wee-bee-ess in the local pronunciation of English, which seems to universally hypercorrect their v’s) with the younger children in the Roma camp. We will again be taking supportive roles as we assist in the activities the other Americans have planned.
As we not quite yet approach half way we are looking forward to continuing friendships, developing our English teaching, and receiving Nigel on the 15th. Nigel, I’m looking forward to meeting you.
Today we are in Cavtat, a grape garlanded and stonebuilt hilltown across the bay from Dubrovnik. When we first arrived we skirted the peninsula to adore the yachts and scout places to swim. While skirting, we passed two dog owners greeting each other. “Do you speak Croat–or Serbski?” one asked the other? The other responded no. The first, slightly disappointed, continued in English, “Then where are you from? And how often do you come to Cavtat?” Belgium and often was the reply. The two men continued speaking and the two dogs continued sniffing while we continued walking.
I found the moment mundanely incredible. Interactions like it happen all the time but isn’t it tremendously fun that a Belgian and a Croat can speak to each other? The Croat knows no Belgian and the Belgian only knows the few pickings he has gathered in cafes and on beaches when he yachts in the country, yet still they can communicate. A lingua franca is nothing new, especially along the Mediterranean, nor is English’s berth as the most recent. I cannot say that the interaction surprised me, yet certainly it amazed me.
Even more incredible, though, has been our ability to communicate without a common language–sometimes through translators, but often through miming and body language. Sudahan and I spent the entire week without exchanging a single word, yet my friendship with him was one of my strongest here. Instead of speaking, we mimed: opening and drinking bottles of water, fixing our hands with bolts, sawing off our legs, cranking open our jaws. We were not communicating really; we were simply interacting. Similarly when we, everyone at camp, played volleyball, traded massages, danced, swam, etc. we were not truly communicating, we were not expressing any ideas. We were relating. This time in Montenegro has destabilized my conception of friendship and impressed on me that language is not fundamental to relationship. I have assumed that words provide the basis of knowing a person but today I can say that I know these people without having exchanged more than a handful of words. We rely on language but, while it facilitates, it is not necessary. Certainly life is much easier with it but, amazingly, relationship is even more basic.
English lessons meet in the church barracks. Sinisa almost always calls it that, the barracks. Maybe it is his linguistic reminder that the church is the people. Like most of the buildings–structures would be more apt–in the two Roma camps it is a converted shipping container. A few years ago a fire feasted on the slum conditions of the camps and, since, the refuse-sourced shacks have been replaced with these less fire prone repurposed containers. Inside, blanket covered couches surround a parti-carpeted floor. A trio of fans attempt to substitute the airconditioner disconnected to any power source. Like the rest of the camp, the church draws power from the school at the camp’s center and the energy is insufficient for the gluttonous airconditioner. A few Jesus prints decorate the blue walls, and just below the ceiling hangs a garland of pipe cleaners and cotton balls, ambiguously shaped as either sheep or spiderghosts.
Tonight was day three of English lessons. We are still determining how full and how formal the lessons should be, and today was a bust. We hoped to teach the verb “to like” and to use it to teach pronouns as well. The students weren’t answering our questions and, if they did, were terribly confused. The lesson seemed basic enough and though it was not necessarily fun it should have been easy. We began to doubt their capacity to learn English and our ability to teach it. So far we had taught set phrases, like “My name is –” and “I am — years old”. Those lessons didn’t demand any understanding, however basic, but relied on strict memory instead.
Desperately I stood up and asked, “U Engleski, kako se kaja ‘ja’?” or “In English how do you say ‘I’?” Immediately everyone answered “I”. I did the same for the rest of the pronouns and then asked a student what he likes–“Sta volis?”–and had him answer in English. I then asked someone else to say what the first person liked, to practice the third person. The answers were not always perfect but often were. The students knew a lot more than was apparent before, when we had been asking similar questions through a translator. Our doubts about our ability to teach could persist but we knew the students’ capacity was there. We must be incredibly grateful for our translator Astrit because much of our teaching would be impossible without him but tonight we also recognized the beauty and efficacy of speaking directly to the students.
About a week ago I wrote of my realization that language is not fundamental to relationship. I still appreciate that realization but there is a definite joy in being able to speak. Our Serbian is still minuscule–I can be proud of moments like tonight until I visit a store and the cashier starts speaking to me–and we have taught very little English. Still, through our ramshackle Serbian and their hodgepodge English we can communicate a lot more than we could a week ago. In part, tonight represented that growth. It demonstrated the deeper connections we will be able to form as our knowledges of each other’s languages increase.
Today I went to Albijan’s for coffee. We sat, drinking the cloying Turkish coffee, watching Turkish music videos. While we watched he told me his story, through English, Serbian and miming. Certain details did not translate–I thought his mom died in the war in Kosovo until I later learned that she lives a few blocks away–but surprisingly many did and I now know Albijan’s general narrative. From Thursday’s English lessons I have been excited about our mutual language gains–the Americans’ of Serbian and the Roma’s of English. Today’s conversation with Albi deepened that excitement as it demonstrated what those gains could mean for relationships here. So far friendships here have depended on interaction rather than knowledge. In some ways that atypical basis has been fun, but it is also difficult. We know all of these kids so superficially and they are all so similar in our minds because we cannot plumb the necessary discerning depths of personality.
We spent last night at Vlaznim’s house. Laura had arranged a sleepover in the church with the girls here, so the guys naturally responded with one of their own, though when the night arrived it appeared no plan had actually formed. Vlaznim, it seemed, had no idea we were staying over and no one else had plans to stay there. We had said yes, but apparently no one had invited.
We had English lessons until nine, played outside for a quick while, then the guys went in to Vlaznim’s house where we watched the Brazil-Netherlands game and wrestled. At midnight Vlaznim returned and told us “the plan for the night” without ever really telling us any plan. He led a prayer service until two, and then we watched Turkish music videos until three thirty. At one point everyone ran outside, yelling for us to follow. They all pointed at the night sky, adamently, though there was nothing in view. Were they pointing at the clouds? The powerline? They started making hideous faces and growling, at us and at each other. When we went back inside, Eldin slowly rose from lying on the floor, with teeth bared, tongue out and eyes crossed. Vlaznim then brought out boiled hot dogs, raw onion, peppers, and cloves of garlic, which they made some fuss about.
Before this vampire pother was the prayer service. Typical of the night as a whole, Jeremy and I spent entire time uncertain of what was going on. Never knowing what was being said, I found myself watching more than praying. More than a particpant, I was an observer incapable of observingt. The night, then, was strangely more anthropoligical than spiritual. I think I have that tendency, to observe rather than partake in spirituality. The prayer time reminded me of my visit to Notre Dame. I walked around the cathedral and sat in the pews very aware of the building’s changed function. It was built, ostensibly at least, to worship God’s greatness. Today it is toured to worship man and his achievement. I remember recognizing this conflict, but also recognizing that I too fell into it. I was not approaching the site in pilgrimage but as a tourist. I experienced it architecturally and anthropologically rather than spiritually. So it was again as I sat on Vlaznim’s carpet, coolly watching as others prayed through tears.
Last night at church Sudahan came to sit next to me and while we were singing he started crying. I began to pray for him because I couldn’t talk to him but immediately recognized that I knew nothing about him or why he was crying, for the same linguistic reason. I’ve spent the last weeks with these people, and yet in many ways don’t know them at all. What could I pray for? Recently I have valued precision of prayer as a recognition of God’s power to answer but last night emphasized the humility of ignorance. Again, what could I pray? I could only pray for Sudahan–I could be no less vague than that. Only the person, not his story, mattered. The moment was a reminder that who we are is more than where we’ve been or what we’ve done. A lot of discourse is about the importance of story for identity, and I think that is all true, but there is a beauty, also, in knowing that we are not our story. I can pray for Sudahan without really knowing him, in part because God knows him, but also because that story is irrelevant to God, or at least his answer. My deafness to Serbian and Albanian is a reminder of the blindness of God’s grace.
The night of the sleepover epitomized this trip. This whole summer is about saying yes. We, foreign to this place and to these people, cannot offer a whole lot. We cannot plan any solution to the people here’s needs. We can, however, say yes. A time of openness and willingness.
14 July 2014
Sinisha always refers to the people in his church as the people in his church. Most are between the ages of 13 and 19, with a gaggle of younger kids and a selection of indeterminately and impoverishedly aged adults, yet he does not refer to the teenagers as youth or children, or anything but the people in his church.
We went to the river to swim. We bought and brought pizza flavored smoki, cookies and a two liter of coke. The water was frigid and, like any good swim, we spent our time considering getting in or gladly exiting it. To encourage swimming we flung mud at each other; you had to rinse eventually.
Our chosen spot was in the old neighborhood, in the part of town whose stone architecture and winding roads still remember Ottoman rule. It is hidden from the neighborhood by a fifty-foot drop and dense vegetation. We would have felt remote from all human contact except for the rife refuse and the dilapidated sports complex across from us.
When we had been swimming and slabbing for a half hour or so, a voice from above challenged that seclusion. A man looked down on us from the road above the river, yelling. As he yelled in Serbian, Nigel and I couldn’t know what he said, but given its tones and volume, and everyone else’s reactions, it clearly offended. At first a few people volleyed back, but soon they quieted down, feigning deafness. When the man persisted they packed up their things and, after telling Nigel and me that the man was no good, waded into the jungly overgrowth. Nigel and I followed, but went back when Sudahan said he had left his sunglasses. The man had now descended, and hoped to talk to Nigel and me, white person to white person. They are no good, he said. They come here everyday and steal. You are my friends, but they are no good, he said. When we responded that the Roma were our friends, he shook his head and told us to tell them that if they ever returned he would kill them. You are my friends, he said, come whenever you like, but I will kill them. I will kill them.
We reentered the vegetation. The exit was certainly the other way but our friends had gone this way, though they were nowhere to be seen now. We persisted into the green, over branches and whacking vines, slightly doubting that they were really ahead of us and hadn’t found another way. We climbed over a trash heap and were halted by a riverscale bluff. While we considered turning around, we heard whispers beyond the bluff. The group was huddled on the other side, waiting for us. When we rounded the boulderbluff, they hurried us up to the road and, once on the road, out of the neighborhood.
We had a farewell party scheduled that night. We had chosen that spot on the river because it was near where the party would be. No one, though, would have anything to do with the neighborhood. People are coming, they said, and it was obvious they expected a fight. Back on the road, we walked to a bridge up river where we hid and calmed down. Briefly Nigel and I downplayed the risk. No one was coming after them, no one would fight them, we said. We could walk back to the party, we said. But they wouldn’t hear us. Maybe they were right—what did we know about being Roma in a white neighborhood? I have never witnessed such explicit racism as there at the river.
All of them besides Sema went home, but Sema chose to stay with us and go to the farewell party. As we walked she told us that Emra had taken a pan from a pile of things left by the river, and had broken the handle. The yelling man could not have known Emra had done this, but the act partially validated his outburst. Certainly his racism was inexcusable, but suddenly his accusation was no longer unfounded. The Roma were no longer these innocent victims. They were actors in a more complex system of prejudices and grievances.
Later I told Sinisa about the river, though not about Emra. I expressed my disappointment at seeing such blatant racism. He dismissed it, and would not see the Roma as victims. They are good kids, he said, but one of them will always ruin it for the others. Someone will always do something stupid. His lack of sympathy surprised me. This was the man who committed his life to the Roma, the Roma’s one external advocate. Yet the lack of sympathy did not mean a lack of concern. It was simply honesty. Sinisa always amazes me in his honesty.
Eldin left today. Two days ago was Biondina, and Sajmon claims to be going to Germany in five. Supposedly he is joking but, if not, at least he gave us some warning. Everyone is leaving. We are losing our connection to camp and with it our desire to visit. Why would we go if all of our friends are gone? Strange to miss people you can’t speak with, strange to call them friends.
Eldin and Egzon came over today to be with Albijan, but after we all got burek Albijan napped. Eldin, Egzon and I played cards, because the others were sleeping as well. The entire time I was bored achingly–they play the most mindless card games!—though I probably should appreciate that given our inability to communicate instructions—I vainly attempted hearts and Egyptain rat screw with them. I sat there bored as we played, only wanting them to leave. Then Eldin said he was leaving in the morning for Bar and did not know when he was returning.
Suddenly I wanted our playing cards, our sitting together, our English/Serbian attempts to be more meaningful, as we always want of goodbyes. We want whole friendships summarized in the farewell, or for the last few hours to weigh down the teeter totter of the whole friendship. Instead we get boring, eyelid pulling card games and a quick embrace.
We sat on the rocks, Redjep and I. To escape the shallows we had climbed on the rocks and clambored over them to the end of the bay. We sat there, suffering through English and Serbian. With Albi, I speak Serbian and he speaks English. Sudahan strictly mimes. Eldin knows the extent of my Serbian, and curtails his vocabulary. Sema just yells and giggles. But Redjep and I had no system, so we blundered forth. He was telling me about growing up in Kosovo. He moved away to Montenegro when he was two. His father drank a lot and beat his mother. You know “fork”?–Redjep asked, and held an imaginary utensil in front of him. When I nodded he said, my mother, and stabbed that fork into his side, repeatedly. His head dropped and his eyes shut. His mom had killed his dad with a fork. I think. The joys of translation–when neither party can really translate.
Went to the barber yesterday. We had tried earlier to go to Buyar’s but, like every other thirty-ish year old man in this country, he had taken a spontaneous trip to Kosovo. People are always leaving for Kosovo. We meandered over to camp where we had made plans to meet to head on over to the river. When we returned from the river we walked back to camp one to catch a taxi that Lejla called for us. While we were waiting the kids who had told me Buyar was in Kosovo came running over and directed me to a different barber, whither Emra and Lejla took me.
At English last night, everyone asked who had cut my hair. I didn’t need to know his name to tell them—I just needed to mime drinking beer and smoking a cigarette. Shoban cuts your hair with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He was shirtless, showing off his developed beer belly, and wearing baggy jean capris. The mirror read -URBO FRIZURA, the T having peeled off. During my haircut a number of men sat in the eight by ten shack, and a girl hung through the empty window. Shoban chatted the whole time to his friends, and when he was done with my scalp he gestured with his cigaretted hand for me to get out and waved the next man in. He didn’t even bother to ask for the euro and a half, so I just held it out instead. Part way through the hair cut Emra returned, though I had not seen him leave, with a bottle of beer I had not heard Shoban request. He paused my hair cut, popped the cap and poured the foam into the sink, and proceeded to drink and cut. I had asked that he trim the sides to a one-two fade and do nothing to the top. He most definitely trimmed the top.
The walls of the cave are, everywhere, painted. Faces, chipped and faded by the past century, gaze out at you as you walker deeper in the cross-shaped cavern. They belong to saints and angels, and one, at the cave’s top, to Jesus. The cave is Dajbabe Monastery, founded in the 1890s, when a dreamled man discovered the site outside of Podgorica. Given the dream and the shape of the cave, it is believed to have been an early church. We visited before going off to the airport to leave for Belgrade.
The paintings are almost Byzantine. They resemble without being. They were painted by the priest, coming from Ostrog Monastery, who founded the monastery when the site was first discovered. His familiarity with Byzantine art, being surrounded by it at Ostrog, is clear–yet equally clear is his lack of training. The emphatic eyes remain, and so too the length, but his paintings lack the geometry and dark lines of conventional Orthodox art. The noses are softer, and the lips less pursed. His faces are less impressive yet in their naiveté become more welcoming. They gain a warmth that I do not find in the art of the Eastern Church.
They are also more ethereal, though this is due not to style but to time. Chipped, sooted and ensconced in candlelit darkness, the faces fade into and out of view–flickering like stars that dim when you stare at them. Believing itself a church and not a museum, the monastery has not preserved the paintings–for such would close the church. So many churches, today–and perhaps always–have become sites to worship humanity’s achievement, to revere an artist’s craft. The art takes precedence over the God it is supposed to honor. In refusing to close the church to maintain the art, the brothers refuse this usurpation.
With all this–the smallness of the cave, where walls and ceiling are all within arm’s reach, the humility of those unfinished walls, the naiveté of the paintings, and their acquired fragile flicker–with all this, the host of saints feels real. They are present, with you as you stand amid their countenances. They are not focal yet distant, as on the walls of a great cathedral, or to be worshipped. Instead, near and humble, they protect and guide the mortals they, hovering, surround.
I have not yet recorded the river. Our summer consisted of lesson-less English lessons and going to the river, so it is important to describe it. Going to the river only partly means going to the river: the river is the destination but not the whole. A large part of going to the river is the actual going, the walk. Each day, after phone calls from Sema and Eldin confirming and reconfirming—”You coming!?”—plans made the night before, we would arrive in Camp Two, either by foot or by taxi. People would be gathered, waiting for us. Or they would have insisted that we be there at two but when we arrived at two, no one would be the around.
Once everyone was together, we would set off for the river. We walked along the road, people giggling whenever we yelled “car”—it means penis in Albanian. Soon the horde would fall apart, as one clump took the lead and another fell back, and often we ended up in a long line of twos and threes. At times we walked in silence. At times we freestyle rapped. Sometimes Emra would tell us about Samantha, the girl he liked. When we reached the blackberry bushes a few of us would break off from the line and cross the street to find the night’s growth and the day’s picking. When we did Emra would yell at me, “Nooo, no hungry,” admonishing me for slowing down the group and picking the fruit.
The walk was long. A good thirty minutes—forty if you were in the straggling half. Finally, though, after detouring through some barbed wire to get to a water pump, we came to the footbridge. Then was the decision process, of which we, the Americans, took no part. We would cross the bridge and walk down to the edge but then Fekrija or Egzon would yell, “Noo, no good people,” and it would be time to move. Egzon might also add in, “No good people, smoking,” while he was the only person smoking anything. We then moved upstream, but there we were just as liable to find “no good people” and be forced to move. We traipsed until we found an empty swimming hole, or finally gave in to swimming with the undesirables.
The bridge spot had three jumping tiers. The first was perhaps twelve feet, the next maybe twenty, then the bridge at thirty five. On the rainiest days the water approached eight feet. I hit bottom from the lowest height—I never tried the bridge. But they did. They would wrap their arms around the railing and lean away, over the river. Then drop, and shoot their feet in front of them as soon as they hit the water. Senad was the most prolific, and the first. Ismael, though, would dive. He dove all scrunched up, like one of those paper jumping frogs, with his elbows by his knees.
I have already written that I appreciated not knowing the language this summer. It taught me about friendship and the beautiful blindness of grace. As I reflect more, now that I have returned to the land of English speakers, a third reason strikes me. When a person doesn’t understand English I am forced to care more about their understanding me. I must listen more, to the whole person. When talking to an English speaker, I assume they know what I am saying, and I can let the person devolve into just their words. The person becomes no more than their role in our conversation. Once communication is complicated, though, once I cannot rely upon their understanding, I must listen to their listening. I must care about what they take in, not only what they express, and to do that I cannot reduce them to what they offer me, to how they entertain or inform me. I must take on their perspective and hear what they hear.