January 7, 2011

Serbian Orthodox Christmas

Posted in Family, Food, Holidays, Serbia, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , at 7:59 am by Liliana

Today is Serbian Orthodox Christmas.

Serbian Orthodox Church (together with the Greek and the Russian Orthodox churches) follows the Julian calendar system, while the rest of the western world transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. The Julian calendar is 13 days behind Gregorian, so our Christmas falls on January 7th, and our New Year on January 14th.

Serbian Christmas traditions are gloriously complex and differ from area to area. When I was a child we celebrated them in most of their intricate glory, despite the fact that we lived in a socialist country.

My immediate family, here in the US, has simplified those old traditions quite a bit.

Burning of the “badnjak” - the Serbian Yule Log

Burning of the “badnjak” - the Serbian Yule Log

On Christmas Eve, my sister, daughter, friends and I drive about an hour to the nearest Serbian church. (Not this year, though. We are all sick.) We partake in the celebratory rituals, including following the priest around the  church three times and burning the “badnjak” the Serbian Yule log.

Everyone takes a branch of the log before it is burned to take home and place on the icon for good luck.

On Christmas Day, instead of the customary ancient practice of going from house to house to congratulate the holiday, sing and celebrate, I make phone calls to family and friends and greet them with the traditional Serbian Christmas greeting, “Hristos se rodi” or “Christ is born!” Their reply is, “Vaistinu se rodi!” or “This true he is born.”

On Christmas Day, we make a sumptuous dinner of soup, roast lamb, potatoes, salads, desserts. My sister makes “chesnica,” a dish similar to baklava. She places a quarter (in ancient times it used to be a golden coin) somewhere within the cake, and whoever in the family finds it, gets a prize of money. They are also considered to have good luck for the entire year.

In the reenactments of these ancient traditions and rituals, I feel comfort and connection to my culture and history. For a few days, the complexity of the modern world slows down a bit, and I belong to a different time, a different place.

Merry Christmas!


November 20, 2010

Earliest Memories

Posted in Children, Family, Serbia, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 9:46 am by Liliana

Me - two years old

Me - two years old. Nena thinks I resemble a little alien.

My memories are frequently unreliable, mercurial.

They are not rock-like and immovable like granite, but fluid and restless like silk.

They are not to be trusted. Especially those early, childhood memories.

Still, I hold on to them like a child holds on to a beloved mother. Some I cherish, tend to and caress. I find solace and support in them. When I revisit them, every once in a while, I hope that they will be familiar, recognizable. Not too altered.

Someone recently asked me what my earliest memory was. I thought and thought and came to a moment that I hadn’t visited in a very long time.

I journeyed in my mind to a time when I was little, not even two years old. I know this was my approximate age, because my sister was not born yet, and I was twenty two months old when she was born.

My mother, father and I had gone to visit my father’s family in the little Serbian village where they had lived for generations. It was wintertime. My father was wearing a large, soft suede jacket. He had placed me on his chest, buttoned up the jacket and there I was lying, quiet as a mouse, hiding.

My grandfather, my grandmother, my uncles, everyone there, came out to greet us and were asking where I was. Everyone pretended that they didn’t know and went along with game.

“Where is Lilia?” they asked. “We left her back in Belgrade,” my mother and father said.

I lay quietly on my father’s chest, listening to the ticking of his heart, pleased that no one knew that I was there. I was elated to have tricked them all.

But then I became sad. Inconsolably sad. I started to believe that my parents had really left me in Belgrade. I thought of myself all alone in our house while my parents visited the family in the village.

I felt very sorry for myself. How could my parents leave me behind?

I started to wail.

My father unbuttoned the jacket and took me out. Everyone gathered around me, shouting “Here is Lilia, she has not been left behind after all!”

And while my family embraced me, kissed me, passed me from hand to hand, delighted in my presence, I gave a great sigh of relief.

How glorious to be among them, not to be left behind!

September 30, 2010

The Pull of the Old

Posted in Children, Family, Home, Serbia, Traditions, Travel, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:56 am by Liliana

Revelers at the wedding

Revelers at the wedding, 8/10

My sister and I spent the last few days visiting our father and stepmother in Florida.

They had just gotten back from a month long trip to Serbia. Neither has been there for over twenty years. They were full of stories and impressions.

They had lots of photographs; and an eighteen hour video of an old fashioned wedding of our cousin’s son. We watched all eighteen hours.

Our father grew up in a small village (about hundred and fifty households) in Northern Serbia. His family has lived there for many generations. We are related, by blood or marriage, to almost every member of the population. We know their stories, and the nicknames of their grandfathers.

My father left the village and went out “into the wide world” when he was a teenager. My sister and I grew up in Belgrade. But almost every summer of our childhood and young adulthood we returned to visit. Everyone there knows not only us, but everything about us.

My cousin Milan and I are the same age. As children we played together, roamed the orchards, picked mushrooms in the nearby forests. He stole a cigarette from my grandfather and we tried smoking it in a dark corner behind the house. We chocked on the bitter smoke and neither tried again.

As teenagers we went hunting together, and spent evenings at village dances. He confided in me when he fell in love and decided to get married. Our children are the same age. It was his son’s wedding that we watched for eighteen hours.

Milan’s father and my father are first cousins. The two of them are the same age, twenty days apart. They grew up during the difficult years of WWII, and their childhoods were a lot less idyllic. But they probably did most of the same things that Milan and I did.

My grandfather and Milan’s grandmother were brother and sister. When her husband got killed by a horse in a freak accident, leaving her a widow with four children, my grandfather took on the care of her family.

Their father, my and Milan’s great-grandfather, Milos, was an adventurous man. He traveled the world and came to America in the late part of the 19th century. But he couldn’t stay long away from the village. Just like my father, who traveled the world as well, but has always gone back.

Watching the video made Branka and me feel like the part of the tribe that we belong to. We couldn’t eat the delicious food, we couldn’t drink the home made wine and plum brandy, we couldn’t place our arms around our family and join in the dance.

But when the music started playing, we knew exactly how they felt. And we knew all the songs.

September 13, 2010

Battle in Istanbul

Posted in Children, Family, Serbia tagged , , , , , , at 8:20 am by Liliana

basketball woes

Basketball woes

Last Saturday, there was a lot of excitement at my house. We had reserved the afternoon so there would be no interruptions. My children, in different parts of the country, were all in battle mode.

Serbia was playing Turkey in the semi-finals at the world basketball championships in Istanbul.

If you are unfamiliar with the long and violent history of the Balkans, there is only one thing you need to know – Serbia (together with the surrounding neighborhood) was subjugated to the Turkish Ottoman empire for five hundred years. We still blame many of our woes on that painful history.

To beat the Turks in Istanbul (in basketball, of course) would be a sweet victory – it might almost avenge the bottle of Kosovo and release us from enslavement to that grievous memory.

The game started off well. The Serbian team consisting mostly of young players (ten under the age of twenty three) fought bravely and led throughout the first half by almost ten points. The audience was overwhelmingly Turkish, with a very small (but loud and brave) contingent of Serbs. The Turks looked worried. The Serbs were overjoyed.

Only once or twice did the Turkish team take the lead. It seemed possible that Serbs could win, but I was taking nothing for granted. I didn’t want to jinx them by being overly confident. So, I didn’t call Mike in Boston and gloat about how well things were going.

Well, at the very, very end of the game, the Turks took the lead. And during the last five seconds, they won by one point.

One point!

One point and that sweet sense of victory eluded us again.

The Turks in Istanbul celebrated with the unrestrained joy of tribal ecstasy. At my house, it was very quiet. The kids didn’t call. Jeff and I said nothing to each other. I turned my face to the wall, and I cried.

I have grown up in a society that idealizes pain and suffering. The path to true wisdom is strewn with thorns. But really, I am starting to wonder if there can be such a thing as too much of pain-infused wisdom.

To put it plainly, sometimes I just want my team to win.

August 10, 2010

Trip to Serbia

Posted in Family, Friendships, Home, Serbia, Travel tagged , , , , at 5:14 pm by Liliana

My father in Serbia - August 2010

My father in Serbia - August 2010

My father has not visited Serbia in over twenty years.

Last week, he and my step-mother (Nana) took the long trip from Florida to Belgrade. It took a lot of courage on my father’s part to fly in an airplane. He hates to fly.

Also, as much as one yearns to see the people one loves, the longer one stays away, the harder it is to go back.

My father is seventy seven years old. He is not in best health, and his heart is not very strong. We all worried about his ability to handle the intensity of emotion that would flood him as soon as he stepped off the airplane.

So far, he and Nana are doing great. They went to a huge, old fashioned wedding that my father’s entire village attended (close to four hindered people!) They danced, sang songs, and partied with young and old.

They saw family, and old friends. They met children who were born since they left. They went to the cemetery to visit those who had departed.

And when I saw this picture of my father’s face, I knew that he was where he needed to be.

I hope that it will be a wonderful trip.

August 3, 2010

The Old Well

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Garden, Serbia tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 8:24 am by Liliana

The Old Well

The Old Well

In the corner of my grandparents’ garden stood an old well. It had been there for a long time, hundreds of years.

During the early part of my childhood, before there was plumbing installed in the village, all the water for cooking, bathing, drinking and animals was fetched from the bucket in that well.

The children knew not to go near it. The well was very deep and dark, and if anyone fell in, they would not survive.

Although there was electricity in my grandfather’s house, in the early 1960’s my grandparents didn’t own a refrigerator. No one in the village did. No one owned any kind of modern day appliance – no electric ranges, no washing machines and certainly no dishwashers. Those came gradually and later, in the late 60’s and 70’s. Before that, people used wooden stoves for cooking and heating, and all the washing was done by hand. The water was pulled from the well.

Because there was no refrigeration, the food had to be eaten quickly. Chickens were prepared by my grandmother the same day that my grandfather slaughtered them. Fruits and vegetables were picked and consumed the same day. We ate what was ripe and in season.

Sometimes, my mother made ice cream and we children helped. I still remember the steps.

My grandfather would bring a bucket of heavy cream, skimmed of the milk that his dairy cows provided that morning. He would place it in the cool of the veranda while we washed berries or pealed fresh peaches, or other fruit from the garden trees.

Our mother would cook the cream with the fruit, stirring and adding a bit of sugar if needed, until the concoction thickened. Then we poured it into porcelain cups, which she placed in the well bucket, and lowered into the coolness of the water so it would solidify.

But no matter how long we waited, and the time seemed awfully long, our ice cream was never the same as the ice cream we bought in the store. It was cold, but never frozen.

It was smooth, creamy, fruity and delicious. Different generations assembled in the cool shade of the veranda, eating ice cream with tea spoons out of those delicate porcelain cups.

“This is not frozen enough to be ice cream,” one of the children complained.

“Maybe not ice, but it is cream,” my grandfather answered. And no matter how many times he said it, we always laughed.

July 28, 2010

The Old and the New

Posted in Family, Holidays, Serbia, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , , at 6:46 am by Liliana


The old ways

The village in Serbia where my father grew up is located in a deep valley with tall hills all around. The hills are covered with thick forests.

When I was a child in the 1960’s, there was no paved road to the village. There was an ancient cobblestone pathway that got terribly muddy when it rained and became practically impassable in spring and fall. The only way to get through during those seasons was with a wagon pulled by strong horses.

My father left the village as a young boy, went to school, and spend most of his life living in a big city, where my sister and I grew up. His brother inherited the family house and land and stayed in the village to take care of their parents and be a farmer.

Our father and uncle were close and loved each other but there was always rivalry between them – city against country, new against old, modernity against old customs.

Every Serbian family has a Patron Saint’s day and ours is in October, the rainy, muddy season of the year. Our entire large, extended family would assemble in my uncle’s house and celebrate. It was the biggest event of the year.

The year I was five, 1964, my father bought a car. He was excited to drive it to the Saint’s Day celebration, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t rain and that the roads would be dry. He wanted to display to his brother the industrial superiority of the modern times.

Well, I will never forget how hard it rained as my father, mother, sister and I drove through the thick forest. It poured. The road was thick with mud and pretty soon, the car stopped. My father tried this and that, but the car wouldn’t budge. He tried pushing it, and we got out to help.

Pretty soon, our fancy clothes were wet and muddy, and my sister and I started to cry. Our father knew that it was time to give up.

He left us to sit in the car with our mother and went looking for help. We sat for what seemed like a long time, afraid of the dark, rainy forest. Our mother sang songs to us.

And then we heard the sound of a wagon and joyous voices. Our father was coming back with our uncle, his wagon and two horses.

Our uncle was delighted. Delighted to see us but also delighted to attach the new car to his old horse wagon and pull it into the village.

The family was waiting as we descended into the valley. Everyone was amused to see that the old ways still had their place.

It wouldn’t last. These days everyone in the village has a car. The old cobblestone road is paved.

And no one keeps horses anymore.

July 23, 2010

Remembering Nikola Tesla

Posted in Serbia tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:36 am by Liliana

Nikola Tesla

“Science is but a perversion of itself unless it has as its ultimate goal the betterment of humanity.” Nikola Tesla

As a schoolgirl in Yugoslavia, I grew up with great reverence for Nikola Tesla. Every child knew details of his life and his discoveries in science and electricity.

When my family moved to the US, I was shocked to discover that people here hardly knew his name.

My husband Jeff, a scientist himself, sent me an email about Tesla recently. It seems that people in the US are starting to talk about him more.

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant scientist and inventor. He single-handedly ushered in the age of alternating-current electrical power  over the objections of Thomas Edison, who proposed a massively inefficient scheme for distributing power via direct current (like batteries).

He was born on July 9, 1856, in the village of Smiljan, in the province of Lika, Croatia which was at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest. His mother, although not educated, descended from many generations of Serbian Orthodox priests and was an intelligent and innovative woman in her own right.

After completing his elementary education in Croatia, Tesla continued his schooling in Graz, Austira, then attended the University of Prague. Before emigrating to the United States in 1884, he worked as an electrical engineer in Germany, Hungary and France.

Once in the US, Tesla found employment with Thomas Edison in his New Jersey laboratories. In 1888 Tesla made the discovery that a magnetic field could be made to rotate if two coils at right angles are supplied with AC current 90 degrees out of phase . This discovery  made possible the invention of the AC induction motor. Soon after, Tesla and Edison separated over differences in style and approaches to science.

In 1885, George Westinghouse, founder of the Westinghouse Electric Company, bought patent rights to Tesla’s system of alternating-current. The advantages of alternating-current over Edison’s system of direct-current became apparent when Westinghouse successfully used Tesla’s system to light the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

In 1887, Tesla  built a laboratory in New York City. His experiments ranged from an exploration of electrical resonance to studies of various lighting systems. To counter fears of alternating current, Tesla gave exhibitions in his laboratory in which he lighted lamps without wires by allowing electricity to flow through his body.

Tesla became a US citizen in 1891.  He was at the peak of his creative powers at this time, developing  in rapid succession the induction motor, new types of generators and transformers, a system of alternating-current power transmission, fluorescent lights, and a new type of steam turbine. He also became interested in wireless transmission of power.

In 1900, Tesla began construction on Long Island of a wireless broadcasting tower, but due to a lack of funds it was never built. Tesla’s notebooks are still examined by scientists and engineers looking for original ideas.

In later years, Telsa’s hot temper, impractical business decisions, and eccentric beliefs damaged his reputation among the businessmen he depended upon for funding of his experiments. He spent the last years of his life in increasing poverty and seclusion, living in a hotel and feeding pigeons daily on the steps of the New York Public Library.

Still, when Tesla died in New York City on January 7, 1943, hundreds of admirers attended his funeral services, mourning the loss of a great genius. At the time of his death Tesla held over 700 patents.

Tesla was a shy, eccentric and reclusive man. He had very few friends. It delighted me to find out that one of his closest friends was Mark Twain. Oh, to be a fly on the wall and listen to their conversations!

July 21, 2010

The Picky Eater

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Home, Serbia, Travel tagged , , , at 6:43 am by Liliana

Serbian burek

Serbian burek

I was a very picky eater when I was a little girl. I gave my poor parents, and our extended family, no end of trouble with my unwillingness to try new (or even everyday) foods.

I didn’t like tomatoes. I wouldn’t touch cheese. The taste of milk made me sick. I hated meat.

The list was long. I didn’t like certain textures or colors, or aromas.

I was not an easy child.

But somewhere along the way, I became an adventurous eater. Maybe it was when our family moved to different countries and I was exposed to new cuisines. Maybe as I grew, my mind expended and my courage developed, and I realized that I was missing a lot of really delicious flavors.

Now, at fifty years of age, I am willing to taste anything that looks edible.

Now, when I eat, I travel to mysterious places. Alaskan crab legs take me to the bottomless seas in their delicate saltiness. Indian food paints intense colors on my taste buds. Middle Eastern flavors bring to mind shady olive groves. Sushi sweeps me up to the Sea of Japan.

And Serbian foods, what journeys do they take me on?

Roasted peppers seasoned with minced garlic, olive oil and vinegar? Refreshing tomatoes, onion and cucumber salad with crumbs of feta cheese on top? Burek – delicate phyllo dough pastry filled with cheese or apples?

They take me to a sweet, safe, loving place where I am given the time and the patience needed to grow and mature.

July 13, 2010

Family Land

Posted in Family, Serbia, Travel tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:48 am by Liliana

Our land

One of the few orchards still owned by my family

My family owned land for generations in a fertile region of Northern Serbia. The area is hilly, green and lush, and a wide stretch of Danube flows through the middle of the village.

Every piece of land has a name of its own. My grandfather owned orchards with plum, apple, peach, cherry, apricot and pear trees. He owned vast vineyards and was known in the region for grafting the best vines. He had fields of corn and wheat, rye and clover. My grandmother tended a large vegetable garden just outside the village. Around the house they had fruit trees, a smaller vegetable garden and an elaborate flower garden.

When I was a little girl and time stood still and I believed that all of us would live forever, and that nothing would ever change, I could never have imagined that our family would cease to live on this land, in this green village on the Danube.

I am fifty years old now and live with my husband and children in an American town. My grandparents have died. My mother has died. Our old family house (now owned by cousins) is slowly decaying into a thing of the past. Climbing roses and trumpet wines cover windows and crumbling bricks of the chimney. Most of the land has been sold.

When my sister and I visited with our kids a few years ago, we went to the family cemetery. The place was overgrown with weeds. We weeded and tidied up as much as we could, but we knew it wouldn’t last. The weeds would grow back.

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