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!

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December 30, 2010

Christmas this Year

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Health, Holidays, Home, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , , at 8:14 am by Liliana

Christmas Spread

Christmas Spread

My family hosted Christmas this year.

Every part of the house was put to good use.

The children came home from far and wide. Nena, Nicole and Sam were comfortably ensconced in their rooms. Mike flew in from Boston, Sasha drove in from Ohio. The two of them had to sleep on a sofa bed in the basement.

Branka started baking a week before Christmas. Every evening and all weekend long she was spreading phyllo dough for baklava, grinding walnuts, juicing oranges and making her secret citrus honey syrup. The house smelled of fresh baking, cloves and cinnamon.

Two days before Christmas I started making side dishes to go with roasted turkey and honey glazed ham. I made green bean casserole with fresh mushrooms, sweet potatoes with pecans and cinnamon, mushroom gravy. As I tasted my concoctions, I noticed that my sense of taste, and my sense of smell, was numb and muted.

Sam had been sick the week before Christmas. He had gotten a nasty bug from his girlfriend Emily – high fever, sore throat, achiness, no appetite. Now it was my turn to fight the virus.

We were expecting thirty people for Christmas dinner.

Somehow, by sheer will power I got up early on Christmas morning and readied the turkey for roasting. I cut up lemons, apples, celery and onions, stuffed the turkey and placed it in the oven. Everyone commented on the delicious fragrance but I could smell nothing.

We set out our best china, got out the crystal. The guests started arriving at three in the afternoon.

Jelena brought two kinds of appetizers and a selection of confections that could rival any French bakery. Martha baked a perfect apple pie. Natasha made a frothy, creamy torte. Hannah baked a delicate spice cake and a key lime pie.

The table was overflowing with delicacies.

I could neither smell nor taste anything.

My head ached so badly I had to prop it up with my arm so it would stay upright. My throat was sore, eyes watery, nose red.

Still, the evening seemed to go well. People filled their plates with turkey and glazed ham slices, side dishes, salads. They talked and laughed. The kids watched basketball and played pool.

We made tea and coffee and spread out the deserts. Guests sampled everything.

I filled my plate with desserts – one of each, hoping that by some miracle I could taste the beauty of the food in front of me. I could not.

By eight in the evening, with a house full of guests, I waved good night, and slowly walked up the stairs to my room.

Good night, all!

December 9, 2010

William and the Lions

Posted in Family, Food, Friendships, Traditions, Travel tagged , , , , , , at 7:57 am by Liliana

William (in red) and his Family in Kenya

William (in red) and his Family in Kenya

Last summer, I wrote about William, an exchange student from Kenya  who is spending this year with my friends Ann and Ray and their children here in Michigan.

William belongs to the Masai tribe and lives near the Masai Mara National Park in south-western Kenya. His parents are farmers and he is the tenth of eleven children. William is seventeen years old and a high school senior. This is his first trip ever outside his country.

We recently had Ann, Ray and William join our family and a number of friends for dinner and conversation.

There were fifteen of us around the table. We had vegetable soup, roasted lamb, roasted potatoes, salads, bread. For dessert, we had coffee, tea and a selection of fruit pies.

William had mentioned that goat is his favorite meat but I had never cooked goat so I settled for lamb. William loved lamb. He said it reminded him of Africa.

William and his Mother

William and his Mother

After dinner, while the adults sat around the table and talked, William and Sam (my youngest son) went to the basement, played pool and listened to music.

Sam has the impression that William is having a wonderful time in the US. He is keeping up with his studies, enjoys playing soccer on his high school team, and has made new friends. And, according to Sam, he is a very good pool player.

Later in the evening, we all gathered in our family room, and William treated us to a power point presentation about his family, the Masai culture and about Kenya.

William showed us pictures of his mother, his brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews and the extended family. He told us everyone’s names. He showed us pictures of the huts his family lives in and told us about their daily lives.

And then, William told us what it takes to become a Masai warrior.

It takes years of training, discipline, learning from one’s elders, listening, facing one’s fears and learning to overcome those fears.

And it takes going on a lion hunt with the rest of the warriors. Every warrior has a role to play and a rank in the community of hunters. The hunters surround the lion in a circle. Those who are young and weak and afraid, attract the lion’s attention. Those who are strong and brave and experienced, attack the lion with their spears. Those who kill the lion protect the community. They are praised, admired and revered.

William has chosen different, less traditional kinds of challenges than his brothers. But to us, sitting in a circle and listening to him, he seemed just as brave and composed as the bravest of the lion hunters.

For who can say what courage it takes to leave one’s mother, one’s family and tribe, and go face the strange and unfamiliar world?

November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Iroquois Prayer

Posted in Holidays, Traditions tagged , , , at 8:01 am by Liliana

Iroquois Indian

Iroquois Indian

We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us.

We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water.

We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases.

We return thanks to the moon and stars, which have given to us their light when the sun was gone.

We return thanks to the sun, that has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.

Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in Whom is embodied all goodness, and Who directs all things for the good of Her children.

October 5, 2010

In Enemy Territory

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Knitting, Traditions, Travel tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 6:49 am by Liliana

Ohio Michigan Rivalry

Ohio-Michigan Rivalry

My nephew Sasha works as a community organizer in Columbus, Ohio.

He graduated from college last summer and this is his first serious, full-time job. He knows few people in this city, so my sister, brother-in-law and I decided to visit last weekend. We planned to feed him some good food, catch up on news and cheer him up.

We also wanted to keep him company during a college football game between Michigan and Indiana. It is not easy cheering for your team in a sports bar all alone. Especially not when you are in Ohio State country and everyone is cheering against you.

Early Saturday morning, we had a huge breakfast at an old diner on Main Street. We shared an omelet, biscuits, blueberry pancakes, bacon and hash browns. We sipped coffee without hurry, laughed and talked. It was a warm, golden morning.

After breakfast, Sasha drove us around the city. I had never been to Columbus before and I expected a quietly dying urban landscape with monotonously endless strip malls. It was anything but. The downtown has a beautiful, modern, innovative skyline. The ethnic neighborhoods like German Village, Italian Village and the market area have a distinctive charm all their own. The city feels vital, young and stylish.

I wanted to walk through the Ohio State University campus. But when we drove up, we realized that Sasha was wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt. Everyone else, as far as the eye could see, was wearing red buckeye shirts. We decided to stay in the car.

We had lunch at the market area. The market is a renovated old warehouse that now houses fine artisan and ethnic food stores. Sasha and Joe had sushi, Branka had tender barbecued ribs and I decided to try a sampling of Indian vegetarian dishes. We took our food upstairs, made a colorful spread on a table, and shared.

By this time, the sky was getting cloudy and it was threatening rain so we walked to Sasha’s favorite sports bar. The music was deafening and a million TV’s were blaring different football games at the same time. Not one was of the Michigan/Indiana game. Sasha found a waitress willing to turn one of the TV’s to the right channel and we huddled around a cozy table to watch.

I am not much of a football fan, in fact, I hardly understand the game. So I got my knitting out, and worked on a delicately gauzy scarf for my niece. On occasion I glanced at the TV to see what Sasha and Joe were getting excited about. Most of the other patrons ignored us, although a couple of people noticed Sasha’s Michigan t-shirt and stopped to say hello. Fellow Michiganders.

The expectations were that Michigan would easily beat Indiana, but the game was not as close as expected. It was getting tense. Branka, Joe and I had to leave at halftime, but Sasha promised to keep us posted. It was really hard to leave him there to watch the rest of the game by himself, but we had to go.

While the three of us drove home in the gathering darkness and pouring rain, Sasha kept texting Joe reports on how the game was progressing. It was tied. Then Michigan pulled ahead. Michigan won. Go Blue!

We might have ventured into enemy territory, but the natives were friendly. It was a perfect trip.

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.

July 28, 2010

The Old and the New

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

Horses

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.

June 4, 2010

High School Graduation

Posted in Children, Family, Traditions tagged , , , , at 6:55 am by Liliana

Nicole

Nicole

Last Tuesday, my family and I attended my niece, Nicole’s, high school graduation. It was an unusual event, different from many graduations that I have attended in the past.

Nicole went to an alternative high school, a small, intimate place where kids are encouraged to explore their individuality and to cultivate their talents and interests. The ceremony honoring a hundred graduates reflected this emphasis and celebration of differences. The students could wear their caps and gowns if they wanted to, but they didn’t have to. Some wore shorts, others came in suits and ties. A number of girls wore formal dresses, a few wore embroidered skirts.

Each student had a minute to make their voice heard. Some played an instrument or sang a song. Some thanked their parents or teachers. Others read sentimental poems. Some quoted famous men and women. A surprising number mentioned that they didn’t think they would ever graduate. One girl unabashedly embraced her intelligence and geekiness. She admitted that calculus was her favorite class. A young man played his guitar so beautifully that my husband Jeff and my brother-in-law, Joe (who both deeply understands music) almost cried.

I knew that Nicole was nervous. How could she not be in front of her peers, teachers and family? But as her name was called and she walked out on the stage in her elegant black gown, she was in complete control. She leaned to the microphone and thanked everyone for their support and friendships during her years in high school. The only constant in life, she said, is change. No profound quotes or sentimental rhymes from that girl. But her calm, mature voice expressed that she was ready to accept the baton of the next generation.

Good luck to all the young voyagers.

May 31, 2010

Learning by Heart

Posted in Books, Children, Family, Serbia, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , at 7:30 am by Liliana

Battle of Kosovo

The Battle of Kosovo

I grew up in a family of storytellers, but the best storyteller by far was my grandfather, Nikola. A shy and tender man, always a perfect gentleman, he entertained his grandchildren with stories and wondrous recitals of Serbian epic poetry. Every story and poem he told us was from memory. I never saw him read a book but I know that my love of books and literature descend directly from the creative mind of this gentle man.

My earliest memories are of us (a number of very young grandchildren) begging our grandfather to tell us a fable or recite a poem about the heroic battles of the glorious Serbs fighting the Ottoman Turks. My grandfather loved children and even when he was extremely busy with the work of running a farm and taking care of his land, I never remember him refusing our requests.

Grandfather made a magical game out of every experience. On the spacious veranda of his old house, he would set little stools in a circle for us to sit on, settle in the middle of our group and start a poem. Transported in a second, we left the village on the wings of my grandfather’s rhymes and floated to the heroic adventures of Serbian medieval warriors.

Knights, ladies, silk gowns, gold, honor, swords, betrayal, vengeance, family, friendship, pride, love, death, Serbian valor, Turkish valor, history, Kosovo – those are the topics that fired our young imaginations. Told from memory, in predictable and well ordered rhyme, we knew all those poems by heart ourselves without even noticing that we have learned them.

They are still with me. They never left.

The Banquet on the Eve of the Battle
(a fragment)

Prince Lazar his patron saint doth honour

On the fair and pleasant field Kossovo,

With his lords is seated round the table

With his lords and with his youthful nobles

On his left the Jug Bogdan is seated,

And with him nine Jugovitch, nine brothers;

On his right Vuk Brankovitch is seated,

And the other lords in their due order;

Facing him is Milosh, that great warrior,

And with him two other Serbian leaders

Kossanchitch, and young Toplitza Milan.

Tsar Lazar lifts high the golden goblet,

Thus he speaks unto his Serbian nobles:

“Unto whom shall this my cup be emptied?

If it be old age that I should honour

Then, oh Jug Bogdan, I must now pledge you;

If it be high rank that I should honour

Then Vuk Brankovitch, I must now pledge you;

If the voice of feeling I should follow

To the Tsaritsa’s nine well-lov’d brothers

To the Jugovitch, my toast is owing;

If it beauty be that I should honour

Ivan Kossanchitch, I must now pledge you;

If heroic looks I now should honour

Then Toplitza Milan, I must pledge you;

If heroic deeds are to be toasted

I must drink to that great warrior Milosh,

I can surely pledge no other hero.

Milosh Obilitch, I drink to thee now,

To thy health, oh Milosh, friend and traitor!

Friend at first, but at the last a traitor.

When the battle rages fierce to-morrow

Thou wilt then betray me on Kossovo,

And wilt join the Turkish Sultan, Murad!

Drink with me, and pledge me deep, oh Milosh,

Drain the cup; I give it thee in token!”

To his feet leaps Milosh, that great warrior,

To the black earth bows himself, and answers:

“Tsar Lazar, for this thy toast I thank thee,

Thank thee for the toast and for the goblet,

But for those thy words I do not thank thee.

For—else may the truth be my undoing—

Never, Tsar Lazar, was I unfaithful,

Never have I been, and never will be.

And to-morrow I go to Kossovo

For the Christian faith to fight and perish.

At thy very knees there sits the traitor,

Covered by thy robes he drains the wine-cup,

’Tis Vuk Brankovitch, th’ accurséd traitor!

And when dawns the pleasant day to-morrow

We shall see upon the field, Kossovo,

Who to thee is faithful, and who faithless.

And I call Almighty God to witness

I will go to-morrow to Kossovo,

I will slay the Turkish Sultan, Murad,

And I’ll plant my foot upon his false throat;

And if God and fortune so befriend me,

I will take Vuk Brankovitch then captive,

Bind him to my battle-lance! Yea, tie him

As a woman ties hemp to her distaff,

And I’ll drag him with me to Kossovo.”

This is a fragment of a famous epic poem about the “Last Supper” set on eve of the battle of Kosovo. The translation does not do it justice, but it is the best I could find.

Source: Serbian Epic Poetry

May 19, 2010

Babies

Posted in Children, Family, Traditions, Women tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:47 pm by Liliana

Babies

Ponijao (left) and friend

Last week, I went to see the movie Babies with two friends. Babies follows the development of four infants for about a year, from birth until their first words and steps.

The babies inhabit four very different societies: Ponijao is from a village in Namibia; Bayar lives in a yurt (nomadic tent) in Mongolia; Mari resides in a modern high rise in Tokyo; and Hattie lives in San Francisco.

I loved the movie. It also made me sad.

My own three babies had childhoods not unlike Mari and Hattie. They have all grown into happy and well adjusted people. Maybe it is my own sentimentality that gets in the way, when I wish their early years back so that I could do it all over again.

I found aspects of Ponijao’s childhood most comforting. She lives in a communal society with few material belongings. Mostly what we see is women and children of different ages spending time together. The women sit and talk to each other, tell stories, make jewelry out of rope. They grind flower for food with stones. They hold their babies, or hand them over to older children. Babies crawl around on  the dirt floor. They put things in their mouth. They taste, smell, hear, see. They are fed when hungry and reassured when frustrated. Expectations are clear. There is time for everything.

Punjao meets all the milestones that babies in other societies do at a similar rate of development. She (together with Bayar from Mongolia) seems to have gotten there at a more relaxed pace, though.

Mari and Hattie have wonderful childhoods, also. Their fathers are present and involved in their upbringing. But these two girls and their parents are living hectic, distracted lives. With their busy schedules they seem to be trying to recreate in baby classes what Ponijao and Bayar have as a starting point. And even though they live in large, populated cities, their existence seems more isolated and restrained than Bayar’s and Pujao’s. Punjao has her community; Bayar has his animals as companions and the expansive landscape around him is wide open for him to explore.

What do infants need to grow and flourish? Love, time and patience from their parents; response to their needs and concerned company of other beings (both human and animal). These seem to be the ingredients of a happy childhood. Most other activities seem to be a distraction.

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