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Christmas in January? It's all about calendars!

We burned our 'Badnjak' (Yule Log) outside the Church of St Sava on Christmas Eve (6th January)

We burned our 'Badnjak' (Yule Log) outside the Church of St Sava on Christmas Eve (6th January)

My husband, Dragan, who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son, Aleks and I have embarked on an adventure, by moving to Belgrade from England for 8 months. These are excerpts from my weekly diary.

Srećan Božić (Happy Christmas)

If you thought Christmas was all wrapped up until next year, then read on! We are lucky enough to have two Christmases in our family, one of the benefits of coming from two different cultures, English and Serbian.

When we returned to Exeter for two weeks in December, Aleks had the whole Western Christmas thing on the 25th December, with a stocking full of presents, more presents under the Christmas tree, roast turkey and then yet more presents. But Serbs rarely exchange presents on 'Božić' (Christmas) [1], although children sometimes receive a small gift. Presents are more likely to be exchanged on New Year's Eve. Božić is celebrated on the 7th January in Serbia, because the Serbian Orthodox Church follows the old Julian calendar for its religious festivals. In the West, the Gregorian calendar is used. 

Burning of the 'Badnjak' (Yule Tide Log)

So, we are back in Serbia, where Aleks has now experienced a whole new set of Christmas traditions, starting on the 6th January (Orthodox Christmas Eve), with the burning of the ‘badnjaks’ (pronounced badnyaks) [2]! Christmas Eve is known as 'Badnji Dan' and after sunset, 'Badnje Veče'.

We attended the local Church service on Christmas Eve, where a large pile of ready prepared 'badnjaks' were blessed with holy water by the priest. The rush to grab a 'badnjak' by the congregation at the end of the service was a bit of a squish, but Aleks ducked down and rescued a fine sprig! 

Instead of a log, the city 'badnjak' is a bundle of oak sprigs, replete with dried oak leaves, often arranged in a flat fan shape and is a symbol of renewal. Wheat, straw and a small packet of corn and nuts in a hessian bag are attached with ribbon. 

'Badnjak' seller. The green shoots in decorated pots are wheat, symbolising new growth.

'Badnjak' seller. The green shoots in decorated pots are wheat, symbolising new growth.

Sharing 'Česnica' (Christmas Loaf)

There was a jolly and playful atmosphere, especially after the service, when the priest broke the 'česnica' (Christmas bread) with the congregation and the children grabbed a piece. He said 'watch your teeth', because one lucky person would find a coin in their chunk of bread. (Just like a sixpence in Christmas pudding!). In the old times, this used to be a gold coin, but that night the priest exchanged a simple coin for a 20 Euro note!

Later on we walked to St Sava Church, where 'badnjaks' are burned on a bonfire outside the church. Aleks enjoyed throwing his into the flames.

Our very own Special Person

After church on 'Božić' (Christmas Day), we visited our Kum and Kuma. Aleks entered their flat first and thus became the special person for the day. He was prepped to say 'Hristos se Rodi!' (Christ is born!) and our Kum replied with the traditional response, 'Vaistinu se Rodi!' (Born Indeed!). Aleks received a gift, then we had a coffee and chatted with our Kum's parents. Dragan's brother had arranged a delicious Christmas lunch of spit-roasted pork which was provided by a relative. This was served with soup, pickles and salads.

When we sat at the table I noticed something crunchy underfoot? A 'badnjak' was laid neatly under the table, I haven't worked out yet if this is a tradition or it had ended up there by accident!? I must ask my brother-in-law.

'Belgrade in Winter', photo-etching by Ali Savic [4]

'Belgrade in Winter', photo-etching by Ali Savic [4]

Diary of a British woman in Belgrade - Day 29 & 30

My husband who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son and I have moved from England to Belgrade for 8 months. This is day 29 & 30 of our stay.

DAY 29

Skadarlija, the Bohemian Quarter of Belgrade

Skadarlija, the Bohemian Quarter of Belgrade

This morning was surprisingly busy with Aleks’ homework (he has some everyday) and violin practise. Dragan was in charge of making ‘pita sa pečurkama’ (mushroom pie with filo pastry) ready to take to our Kum and Kuma’s second day of ‘Slava’ (family patron saint day celebration) later on.

When Aleks was at school, Dragan and I went for a run. He showed me the quick route to my Serbian lesson, so that I can go that way tomorrow. It’s about 3 miles there and back. We went through the Bohemian district called Skadarlija [1], which has cobbled streets and quirky restaurants. It was so mild for November that people were even sitting outside. We passed by a really rickety book binding shop, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Diagon Alley.

Bookbinding Shop in Skadarlija

Bookbinding Shop in Skadarlija

Sculpture of the Serbian poet, Djura Jakšić, by sculptor Jovan Soldatović, Skadarlija

Sculpture of the Serbian poet, Djura Jakšić, by sculptor Jovan Soldatović, Skadarlija

Our Kum’s patron saint is Archangel Michael and we spent the evening chatting to Ljuba’s relatives and friends to celebrate ‘Slava’. The pies were good and the ‘domači kolači’ (small homemade cakes, a bit like petit fours) were delicate and lovely.

DAY 30

For lunch we had ‘pola kila ćevapa’ (half a kilo of ćevapa – pork & beef meat patties) from the ‘mesara’ (butcher) which they cooked on the grill there and then!

To get some exercise, Dragan walked with me to my Serbian lesson and this week we were learning the locative case. ‘I go to the park’ etc… Sounds easy doesn’t it?

After the lesson I stopped at ‘Hleb i Kifle’ (a bakery/café) for a salad. Aha! Finally a place to sit and eat where smoking is not allowed! The salad was good, loads of chicken, not so much salad!

I had time to potter around the city centre because I was meeting the boys later for a concert. I wondered down to Belgrade’s ‘Saborna Crkva’ (Cathedral) [2]. I’ve been calling St Sava the cathedral, turns out that’s a temple and this is the cathedral. It has a distinctive verdigris and gold decorative spire and the frescoes were painted in the 19th century which are stylistically very much of the period. Prince Miloš Obrenović and his son, Prince Milhailo are buried here, as well as Vuk Karadžić, the reformer of the Serbian language. Apparently he simplified the language, not that I've noticed!

'Saborna Crkva', Cathedral Church of St Michael the Archangel

'Saborna Crkva', Cathedral Church of St Michael the Archangel

The boys came into town by car and we walked to the 1930s Kolarac Concert Hall [3], with gorgeous leather seats, a wooden interior and frosted glass features. As we entered the building I was surprised to see the official photographer taking photos of the arriving concert goers, including us. I regretted wearing jeans and big boots! We were also being filmed.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was followed by Tchaikowsky’s Serenade for Strings in C. The soloist, Quan Yuan, directed the Serbian ‘International Prodigy Orchestra’, with Jovana Topalov playing the harpsichord. Very beautiful and afterwards Aleks said, ‘I shall never forget this’.

But most importantly after that we had to go to the ice-cream parlour called ‘Icebox’ for ice-cream with toppings.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skadarlija 

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Michael%27s_Cathedral,_Belgrade 

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilija_M._Kolarac_Endowment 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/AliSavicPRINTS

Diary of a British woman in Belgrade - Day 27 & 28

My husband who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son and I have moved from England to Belgrade for 8 months. This is day 27 & 28 of our stay.

DAY 27

Don Quixote by Jovan Soldatović in Tašmajdan Park

Don Quixote by Jovan Soldatović in Tašmajdan Park

When Aleks was at school, Dragan and I went for a run around Tašmajdan Park [1]. The trams have a turning circle here and St Mark’s Church overlooks the whole park. There are some wonderful sculptures, including an eerie headless horseman, Soldatović's [2] 'Don Quixote'. This park is steeped in history.

Crkva Svetog Marka (St Mark's Church), Tašmajdan Park

Crkva Svetog Marka (St Mark's Church), Tašmajdan Park

Aleks had yet another school trip. His class walked to the Children’s Cultural Centre and watched some children singing and playing instruments. He’s only been at school for 3 weeks and has been on three school outings already!

Poor Dragan went on a bit of a wild goose chase today. We have to provide materials for school, so Dragan went to buy paint, but couldn’t remember which colours Aleks needed. Mine and Aleks’ phones were switched off and the landline was off the hook by mistake, so he couldn’t ask us. Very frustrating. Aleks didn’t even need any paint today, he was too busy going on a school trip.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta%C5%A1majdan_Park 

[2] https://translate.google.rs/translate?hl=en&sl=sr&u=http://www.skulpture-srbija.com/soldatovic-jovan-272/&prev=search 

DAY 28

It’s a special day, our Kum & Kuma are celebrating their ‘slava’ (family saint day celebration) of Archangel Michael and Dragan joined them at the ‘crkva’ (church) to be present when the priest blesses the ‘slavski kolač’ (slava bread) [1] and the ‘žito’ [2] (sweet paste that you eat in remembrance of the dead). Families take their own bread and ’žito’ to be blessed.

Aleks and I went to the ‘pijac’ (green market) in the morning, but we made sure we only bought food from the stalls that had the prices displayed. My English accent will send the prices up! We made a good team. I was in charge of asking for the veggies etc… and Aleks (because he understands Serbian numbers quicker than me) was in charge of the dinars! I was glad that I knew enough Serbian to order what I wanted and also that Dragan had filled me in on a few unusual Serbian expressions! Ok, so ‘sine’* means son in Serbian. I know this and luckily I also know that when somebody calls you ‘sine’ (son) when you are a woman it is not rude, but it’s a term of endearment! One of the older women who served me called me ‘sine’. The only other time in my life I have been called ‘sonny’ was when I was about 9 and had very short hair!

It’s hilarious but true, that some Serbian people may call all their children ‘sine’ (son), including their daughters! Equally, some of them can call a son by using another term of endearment, 'ćero' (meaning daughter). Go figure!

It was lovely to visit our Kum and Kuma for their ‘slava’, not least because Dragan made the ‘kisela kupus pita’ (pickled cabbage pie). The evening was a very gentle and civilised affair, with a few relatives, ‘komširi’ (neighbours) and friends.

* Apologies to my dear Serbian readers, I think it is easier for my dear English readers if I just use one word for ‘son’, in the vocative case, ‘sine’.

[1] https://www.thespruce.com/slava-bread-recipe-slavski-kolac-1136570

[2] http://wonderfulserbia.com/destination/food/desserts/zito/

Diary of a British woman in Belgrade - DAY 23 & 24

DAY 23

'Crkva Svetog Marka' (St Mark's Church) & the Russian Church (right)

'Crkva Svetog Marka' (St Mark's Church) & the Russian Church (right)

I knew this would happen, things are getting busy now and time is flying by. School finished at 12.25, then Aleks had a violin lesson via Skype. He’s nearly cracked the Vivaldi piece he is practising. Dragan went to the 'fakultet' (university), so Aleks needed some company whilst I went to my Serbian language lesson. Luckily my Kuma (godmother) could babysit.

I decided to walk, having had a few practises with the boys to find my way. My route took me past 'Crkva Svetog Marka' (St Mark's Church) and the Russian Church. I was the only person who wasn't wearing a coat, because I was roasting; I tend to walk quite fast. Serbian people always wrap up warm, as there is danger in the wind, known as 'promaja' (draught). It’s a killer you know! With this knowledge, I felt almost guilty and didn’t last long without my coat. Maybe the cold air is as dangerous as they say.

The lessons are entertaining, with several people from all around the world. We’re learning possessive pronouns and did you know there are about 42 in Serbian and I think only 8 in English! Phew no wonder I am confused, but Dragan and I practise as we jog around the park.

Dragan: 'Da li je ovo tvoja kapa?' (Is that your hat?)

Ali: 'Da, to je moja kapa.' (Yes, this is my hat) and so on….

‘J’ is pronounced ‘Y’ in Serbian (as in the English word 'yellow'). All the other letters in the above Serbian sentences are pronounced more or less the same as English, except all vowels are short. Have a go yourself!

The boys met me after the lesson and we booked tickets for a concert, Vivaldi's Four Seasons at the Kolarac Cultural Centre [1].

Aleks has an instinct for the latest gimmick. He led his befuddled parents to an ice cream parlour called ‘Icebox’ [2], where you add your own toppings, sauce, sweets, fruit and nuts to a little takeaway box of icecream. I had the obligatory pizza slice to go and we headed back home on foot.

Adding toppings to IceBox icecream.

Adding toppings to IceBox icecream.

DAY 24

It’s tradition that Dragan goes to the ‘pekara’ (bakery) most mornings to buy ‘doručak’ (breakfast), but to break with tradition I decided to go and I ordered everything in Serbian. I am determined to crack this pesky language!

A run round the park for 4 miles, whilst we practised more personal pronouns in Serbian. A puzzled passer-by turned his head as Dragan waved his arms and asked me (in Serbian), ‘are these your arms?’ I replied ‘no, those are not my arms, those are your arms!’

After the school pick-up, we set off to pick up Baka Dana (Grandma Dana). All four of us went to our relatives’ place in ‘Arandjelovac’[3] to their ‘Slava’ (saint day celebration) [4]. ‘Slava’, which is listed by UNESCO as, ‘a representative of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity’, is celebrated all over Serbia on Saint days. On the menu this evening was ‘Ruska Salata’ (Russian Salad, much nicer than Heinz) [5], ‘kiseli kupus’ (sauerkraut) [6] and roast meat. Our hostess cooked the cabbage on a lovely old stove in a huge pot. She stoked the stove with wood in between making salads and coffee for the guests. Our niece and nephew’s wife served the steady stream of friends and relatives food and drinks.

Roast meat and 'kiseli kupus' (sour cabbage) cooking on the stove

Roast meat and 'kiseli kupus' (sour cabbage) cooking on the stove

Aleks played with his cousin and had a lovely time. We chatted with our relatives, but my Serbian just couldn’t hack it and I gave up after an hour or so. The banter was just too quick for me! We arrived back in Belgrade at midnight.

[1] http://www.kolarac.rs/?lang=en 

[2] http://www.icebox.rs/en/ 

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aran%C4%91elovac

[4] https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/slava-celebration-of-family-saint-patrons-day-01010

[5] http://www.serbiancookbook.com/food-recipes/salads/russian-salad-ruska-salata-recipe/

[6] https://www.google.rs/search?q=kisela+kupus&oq=kisela+kupus&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.7117j0j8&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

Diary of a British woman in Belgrade Day 11 & 12

DAY 11

My husband, who is a native Serb, our 10 year old son and me have all moved to Belgrade, Serbia’s lively capital for 8 months. This is day 11 of our big adventure.

Belgrade Waterfront with Brankov Most in the distance

Belgrade Waterfront with Brankov Most in the distance

In the morning we went to visit friends, who live in the city centre, near Zeleni Venac, which is surprise, surprise yet another pijac (green market). However, you’ll be relieved to know that I am not going to write more about the pijac today. After a chat and a coffee, we strolled down to Belgrade’s new waterfront area on the Sava River. On the way there we passed by the old bus station, half of it was demolished. It looked like a bomb site! Dodging the cars and buses we managed to get to Belgrade Waterfront [2]. Two enormous luxury apartment blocks are being built and are quite controversial, because very little is known about them and who is funding the project. But, the path by the river is lovely. There are small cafes and kids play areas dotted along the way.

We then walked inland towards the city and crossed a railway line near ‘Brankov Most’ (a bridge that connects old Belgrade with New Belgrade) [3]. I was shocked that there were no warning signs, no barriers on the railway. It made me nervous, but our friends reassured us that the trains are very infrequent and slow. I took a photo of Dragan standing on the tracks, but felt very uneasy about that!

Dragan on the railway line!

Dragan on the railway line!

This part of town is fairly derelict, but is in the process of being developed. We passed by a hostel for refugees; lots of Syrians came to Belgrade, as Serbia didn’t close its borders to them. Many refugees used to sleep in the park opposite the bus station before they could be accommodated or they moved on. We also passed a centre where refugees could get a meal and medical attention.

We stopped for lunch at a typical Serbian restaurant – very rustic in design, with red & white gingham tablecloths and terracotta dishes. The walls were decorated with 19th century style paintings of the countryside and the food was, as always, delicious and plentiful. I had ‘teleća čorba’ (veal soup) and a ’mala pljeskavica’ (small burger). It was however enormous, but good. To my surprise Aleks ordered ‘kupus salata’ (cabbage salad) with his chicken kebab. He is becoming naturalised. He never eats cabbage in England!

Waiters and waitresses in Serbia have a career, not a job. They are extremely professional, discreet and nothing is too difficult. They are able to carry a heavy tray full of drinks whilst opening, pouring and serving the drinks with one hand, usually with a flourish and with style. The service in Serbian restaurants is excellent. Dragan tells me in the time when he was young, the waiters were earning more from tips than from their salary. In fact some of them would gladly work for free, relying completely on tips. Tipping is still expected for good service in Serbia at a rate of about 10%.

Here’s a new word for you. ‘Ručak’, pronounced ‘roo-tchak’, meaning lunch. Lunch is normally eaten later than in England, often between 2pm and 4pm.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belgrade_Waterfront

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Branko%27s_Bridge

DAY 12

Today we visited Dragan’s mum and bought her loads of ready cooked ‘sarma’ at the supermarket. Lots of places now produce delicious hot homemade food. ‘Sarma’ [1] is pickled cabbage rolls stuffed with mincemeat, rice and spices including paprika. It’s good. Dragan’s mum seems to be partial to it at the moment! We had lunch at Grandma’s including my absolute favourite, ‘boranija’ (yellow string bean stew).

National Assembly, Belgrade

National Assembly, Belgrade

On the way back to our flat it was twilight and the Christmas Decorations throughout the centre were lit up. ‘Skupština’ (Parliament or The National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia), building looked beautiful [2].

Christmas Decorations in Kneza Miloša

Christmas Decorations in Kneza Miloša

In the other direction on the same road, a police car was escorting a protest march of about 100 people. The protesters were carrying banners, Christian crosses and religious images. Aleks said it looks like they are protesting about a Church being demolished. Dragan said you are not far off, that protest is something to do with me and my engineering colleagues! Many years ago a dam was constructed near the city of Valjevo [3]. Dragan worked on the design as a young engineer about 30 years ago, but the construction started in the late 1990s. The Dam is now complete and being filled. The protesters object to the flooding of a Church although a new one has been built above the flood-line and the Serbian Orthodox Church actually agreed to it being submerged. To my surprise the protest was on a busy road at dusk and even though it had a police escort the vehicles were still passing very close to the protesters walking on the road!

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Diary of a British woman in Belgrade - Day 2

My husband, Dragan, our 10 year old son and I have set off from England, to spend 8 months in Dragan’s home city, Belgrade.

So today we went shopping with our Kuma, Daniela. We loved the ‘Prodavnica Zdrave Hrane’ (health food shop), with lots of nuts, dried fruit and goodies in square glass compartments, which is sold by weight. Aleks had some red, blue & purple jelly sweets (not very healthy!).

Prodavnica Zdrave Hrane

Prodavnica Zdrave Hrane

The most important event was a visit to Aleks’ Serbian school. We were all pretty nervous, maybe the parents more than the pupil, but were very impressed in the end. Aleks’ teacher (učiteljica) is very sweet and gentle. We liked her very much. We also met the School secretary, who was friendly and said to Dragan that Serbian school is so different now from when he was a schoolboy in Yugoslavia, much more child centred and gentle. Dragan said that he certainly hoped so, because his schooling in the 1960s & 70s was pretty strict. He also says that living with a former teacher (me) brings back traumatic memories! The school has a resident psychologist who is responsible for the children’s well-being. We also met the English teacher and the headteacher, both of whom were very welcoming. In fact the room was packed with people chatting to us. Dragan and I were offered ‘domaća kafa’[1] (Serbian coffee), which was served with a glass of water by one of the house keeping staff. The coffee has coffee grounds at the bottom, is generally drunk without milk and always comes with a glass of water, so you don’t have to order it separately. I really like Serbian coffee, but only in the morning! The school building was boiling hot; interiors in Serbia in winter-time are always very toastie.

The school itself is very typical for Serbia, with stone floors and wooden desks. The outside area is pretty big with some trees, grass and playground areas for football and basketball. Aleks was very impressed with the small kiosk on the ground floor of the school, where the kids can buy pastries, drinks and hot chocolate!

We watched a PE lesson in the gym where the kids were playing dodgeball and chatted to some of the kids who were keen to speak English with us.

Aleks is looking forward with trepidation to next Monday morning when he starts his new school at 8am sharp. As am I.

As a finisher I thought I would give you a new Serbian word 'Prodavnica' (pronounced Prodavnitsa) meaning 'Shop'.

https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/AliSavicPRINTS

[1] http://www.serbiatouristguide.com/live/Food_and_drink/Drinks/Coffee

[2] https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/221956799/belgrade-in-winter-fine-art-photo?ref=ss_listing

Belgrade in Winter, Photo etching by Ali Savic [2]

Belgrade in Winter, Photo etching by Ali Savic [2]