Read, Write, Run, Roam

America

Pet Peeve Petak

When did 60 ounces of soda become “small?”

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Also, the new James Bond is great–but for all the hype about filming in Novi Sad, I barely caught a glimpse!

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Yarn Bombing: this IS your grandma’s graffiti

I normally post about “traditional” graffiti using stencils or spray paint, but I thought I’d highlight a wacky form of the genre: yarn bombing. All over the world, people knit around potholes, bicycles, even trees to make an artistic statement. This tree sleeve is from Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, courtesy of the DC blog Prince of Petworth:

D.C. is no stranger to yarn-bombing. Bicycles and buildings have also fallen victim to the yarn bomb:

Image from Washington Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure how I feel about it. One one hand, it’s a fun, harmless form of expression (unless that’s your bike). On the other, this seems more silly and crafty than artistic. And I can just imagine all the Serbian grandmothers out there, shaking their heads and imagining all the papuce they could knit with this yarn.

Still, I have to admit, it makes me smile–especially when I think of some grandma planning to pull off a yarn bomb in the dead of night.

I guess Banksy put it best: “Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.”


American graffiti

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In the spirit of U.S. election day, here’s a DC graffiti mural depicting people rising up against political oppression. Hopefully it won’t have to come to that after tonight…

For DC readers, this is right by the New York Ave animal shelter–sorry I didn’t write the street down. Hope the phone pic does it justice.


Beauty, gangnam-style: navigating the Korean-Virginian Spa World

Getting beauty treatments abroad is a unique way of exploring other cultures. It may not be field anthropology, but there’s something about going to a Turkish hamam, Hungarian public bath, or simply getting manicures in Belgrade that offers insight into how people like to relax and look their best. My opportunities for European beauty treatments are more limited these days, but I have a little secret for getting my culture-through-beauty fix: Spa World.

Spa World is a Korean Day spa, or jimjilbang, in Centreville, Virginia. Stepping into Spa World is probably not like stepping into Korea, but it’s a far cry from your average American spa. The most difficult–and interesting–part of Spa World is the rules. There’s a semi-secret code of conduct that can make people think, “where am I?” in an uncomfortable way, or “where am I?” in an adventurous way.  You can guess which side I come down on, but I’ll explain the rules anyway.

The most relaxing prison ever. Image from Washington Post.

Upon arrival, pay the entrance fee and get your locker key. Lock your shoes in the small lockers in the entrance, or risk the wrath of a tiny Korean lady at the cash register. Once you’re barefoot (or in slippers, if you brought them), go to the locker room and proceed to wear the orange outfit in your locker. Ignore the fact that you look like a prisoner and proceed to the sauna rooms. Gangnam dance moves are optional.

Chilling, I mean, heating, in the gem room

There are several super-hot sauna rooms with special properties like gemstones, clay, and charcoal. There’s also an ice room to cool you down. Between sauna treatments, people hang out in the main room featuring free wireless, woven lounge mats and K-pop music videos. There’s a Korean restaurant on premises where you can order by pointing to photos along the wall. Most of the patrons are Korean but make others feel welcome.

If that’s not enough of a new experience for you, get ready for the pools. Actually, get ready for what it takes to get into the gender-segregated pools: absolutely nothing. This is probably the most awkward thing for newcomers. Lose the jumpsuit and–this is important–shower and wash your hair before going into the hot baths and whirlpools. Don’t dip your head or towel in the water; it’s meant to be as hygenic as possible. Sign up for the body scrub, if you dare. There are also more “American” spa services, like massages and nail services.

All this can take several hours, so I reserve at least a half-day to take in the sauna, pools, restaurant, and lounge area. It’s not international travel, but it’s an easy, relaxing way to get that “Seoul glow,” slurp up mandu, and dream about my next trip–in half the time it would take to fly to Korea. Now that’s worth dancing about.


Explaining Baseball to Serbians: a how not-to guide

Image source: East Coast Baseball Academy

Last night, Muž and I entertained some of his Serbian colleagues who were visiting Washington, D.C. It was their first trip to America, and we were excited to return some of the hospitality we received abroad. However, this was an organized bunch. In the few days before we saw them, they experienced much of what DC has to offer:   they had seen the monuments, gone to the museums, been ripped off by a taxi driver. What else was there? We were stumped.

 

Then it hit us like a fly ball:  what’s more American than a baseball game?

We bought some nosebleed, er, “scenic” Nationals tickets, sat down, and started discussing the rules. I always thought baseball was a pretty simple game. Until I tried to explain it.

“Three strikes is an out. Unless it’s a foul ball, because you can’t strike out on a foul ball. Unless it’s a foul tip …” You get the idea. Muž was better at explaining the basics. We bought hot dogs and beer (naturally) but we did not have Cracker Jacks, because let’s face it: Cracker Jacks are vile.

After a few innings, we settled into that special baseball lull that comes with processed meat, beer, and prolonged sitting. “It’s a peaceful game,” one guest remarked. Compared to a European soccer game? Apsolutno.

Euro football is more...heated

Until the fourth inning, that is. Serbian soccer might have flares and ultrafans, but D.C. baseball has the President’s Race. Plush costumes of four iconic presidents race each other around the field. The crowd goes wild, chanting for President (Teddy) Roosevelt, who has never won a race.

Image: blog.letteddywin.com

When you think about it–much less try to explain it–this is pretty weird. Stuffed replicas of dead presidents compete in a foot race for our general amusement. I can’t imagine this happening in other countries.  Our guests were bewildered. Then they were amused. Then, of course, they posed for a photo with Teddy.

We sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and celebrated a Nationals win. Though it was a most American evening, we ended it Serbian-style: by piling our five guests in a compact car to drive them to their hotel. I think we left them confused about the game, but without a doubt that we were happy to show them a bit of our home.


Fake it ’til you make it: an American ajvar experience

Longtime readers already know about my love for ajvar, so you may not be surprised to learn that one of my most treasured departing gifts was a jar of the ruby goodness from my friend Anja. “My grandmother makes the best ajvar,” she said. “I hope you like it.”

“I love it already,” I said. I eyed the big glass jar and felt my mouth water a little. “I’ll bring it back to America and eat it when I’m homesick for Belgrade.” I imagined gently packing the jar in Politika newspapers and taping it in a Pekara Aca bag to make sure it would be with me on a cold, gray day in America.

Instead, Muz and I ate it two days later. All of it.

Readers, I couldn’t help it. I thought, “I should eat this with Serbian bread. I should enjoy this with Zlatiborski prsut and young cheese. What if the jar broke on the way over? What if–GASP–Muz ate all of it first?” (He does this. Frequently.)

Any Serbian lady over the age of 40 would just look at me and say, “RHOB, make your own ajvar!” But that seems…really hard. And time consuming. And I don’t know where to get roga peppers. So imagine my happy surprise to see this at a Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago: fake ajvar!

Sure, it says “Red Pepper Spread,” but we all know that just means, “ajvar for people who don’t know what ajvar is.” The ingredients were the same. The color….ok, the color was not the same, but I could get past that. When I was ready to try it, I had to force myself to spread it on bread and not eat it straight out of the jar. I popped the bread in my mouth and…immediately frowned.

It’s bad, readers. There’s no other way to phrase it. If you’ve never had ajvar it’s fine, but it lacks the smokiness and velvety texture I was used to. It had a slightly bitter aftertaste that (I think) was due to either using bell peppers or not skinning the peppers properly. Balkan bake (grandmothers) will not be happy about this. And I was increasingly disturbed by the neon orange color. Trader Joe’s “fake ajvar” is, well, fakakta.

Which leads me to a new quest for roga peppers in the D.C. area and a time machine. Or a Serbian grandmother looking to adopt. Any ideas?


A mildly successful, slightly silent, re-entry

Expats warned us that it is harder to go back home than it is to move abroad. I suppose that’s because moving somewhere new is usually exciting, even more so when it’s a foreign country. Adjusting to new languages, sights and sounds is time-consuming and (hopefully) interesting. Moving back to a known city, however, can seem like a bit of a letdown. Oh, there’s my old apartment building. Yep, that’s the coffee shop I went to for five years. Here’s the shoe repair store that ripped me off one time. And so on.

Yet so far, I don’t feel let down. Everything is familiar, but a find myself being confused or tongue tied at the simplest things. It’s almost like my first weeks in Belgrade all over again.

Here’s an example. I went to Starbucks yesterday and when it was my turn to order, I was unable to speak for twenty seconds. I wanted to order a grande green tea. Simple, right? But there were two or three kinds of green tea, and I couldn’t figure out the difference. Then I tried to remember how to say “medium” in Serbian but (1) I was not in Serbia and (2) if we had a Starbucks in Serbia it would still be called a grande. (Also, they don’t really have “medium” portions of things in Serbia. Go big or go home.) I stood there, mute, for about 20 seconds while I tried to figure this all out. Finally, I just sputtered “Tea. Green. Medium,” like a robot that barely spoke English (or Serbian, for that matter.)

Green tea in hand, I walked to my dentist’s office. I went into the restroom before my appointment and hit the light switch just outside the door. The hallway went dark. I thought the power went out for about five seconds before I remembered that U.S. light switches are inside the restroom, not outside. Someone poked their head out into the hallway but I managed to flip the light and dash into the restroom before anyone could see me. Probably.

My dentist, a man of Iranian heritage, asked what I was doing these days. I said I had just returned from a year in Serbia. I wondered if he’d respond: “Where’s Serbia?” I figured at best he’d say “sounds interesting” and at worst he’d say, “How bad was it?” What he said made me, once again, completely dumbfounded: “Govorite li Srpski?”

That’s right, readers. My Iranian-born dentist lived in Belgrade and Nis for two years. He went to University there before coming to America. I had no idea. We chatted and laughed, until he told me I had a cavity. (Thanks, krempite.) Then I was silent again, but for entirely different and more painful reasons.