On the Road 2011: Day Sixteen

June 9, 2011

By hammersmith

Each summer the Flinn Scholars Program takes an entire class of Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Slovakia and Serbia for a three-week seminar on the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Here’s a day-by-day account.

Kevin Thomas (’10)

Today started earlier than usual, when my alarm went off at 6 am. I quickly threw on some clothes and met up outside the monastery with a group of us who had decided to attend the morning liturgy at the Orthodox Church down the road. We were all pulled out of bed by the rare opportunity of completing our monastery stay with a traditional Orthodox service. In order to enter the church, the girls had to cover their heads with scarves and everyone needed long sleeves. 

Once we were outfitted with the proper apparel, we entered, and my eyes immediately grew big to absorb the vibrantly colored frescos that covered every wall as well as the ceiling. Iconic images of saints with golden halos and vivid garments depicted numerous Biblical events. These frescos were currently being renovated by a renowned painting team that we later got to meet. They explained that there are rigid laws dictating the style and layout of these frescos in traditional churches and also that the art’s main purpose is to connect the church attendees (who were once often illiterate) with the Bible. Our group made its way past the painting supplies in the back and each of us took our place in the central area; the males went to the right and the females to the left. 

From there, it was difficult to understand the liturgy because all of it was in a very old Slavic dialect but there was still a lot to take from the experience. The long-standing tradition of the service stood out most of all. The rhythmic call-and-response chanting between Father Stefan and the other attendants, everyone’s completely black traditional dress, and the fact that we all remained standing for most of the 60 minute service all made it clear that we were witnessing an unaltered cultural event.

Unlike the Budapest street with McDonald’s or the Novi Sad college apartments echoing with American music, this was a corner of Central Europe that had managed to preserve its original culture and resist the pressures of globalization. While sharing ideas and embracing other cultures can be a very beneficial experience (as I am learning from this trip), I found this resistance refreshing. I am so happy that I got a glimpse into such a traditional life that has not been tampered with.

While we ate our breakfast, Father Stefan spoke with us about the lifestyle of those who choose to join the monastery. Their lives emphasize contemplation, prayer, and moderation. They forsake materialism and many personal comforts to enhance their ability to seek the truth. Moderation pervades their lives and they even give up food (and sometimes water!) for periods of fasting. It is clear that their values of avoiding materialism and overindulgence would clash with many aspects of modern western culture but I appreciated the merits of such practices. This whole experience has helped me understand the viewpoint of those from other countries who are resistant to pervasive American culture. Before, I might have taken them as ultra conservative and overly traditional but I now appreciate the unique qualities of the cultures that they aim to protect. 

Later, we met with an art PhD student named Marko Tubic to learn about medieval religious paintings in Serbia. He taught us the difference between the embellished beauty of the Rashka-style depictions and the reserved, modest paintings of the Narrative style. It was fascinating to see a Serbian painting known as “The White Angel” that is regarded as a national image and was even transmitted into space with the first satellites.

However, the most important lesson I learned from Marko didn’t concern Medieval paintings. It came when we asked him about his life as an artist. After telling us how hard it was for artists to get their work into galleries and how teaching positions were never available, he told us that he has never thought of pursuing any other career for more money and stability. It was amazing how much he had endured for his art. His parents had kicked him out because they didn’t respect his career choice. This led him to move into cheap housing in a bad neighborhood. He also mentioned that he sometimes had to get by with little food. Despite all of these challenges, his passion never waivered. He asserted that if you really want something, you can make it happen but that you must dedicate yourself to it 100%. According to him, “There can be no compromise.” This really hit home with me because of my current struggle to settle on a major and career that will make me truly happy. When all is said and done, I hope I am as passionate about my career as Marko is for his art.

After eating lunch at a nearby restaurant, the owner invited us to pick some cherries from his tree. The cherries were ripe and delicious and all of us had fun trying to get to the high ones. Simple pleasures like this are an understated aspect of this trip that have made it great. 

When everyone had gotten their fill of fresh cherries, we got on the bus and headed to Belgrade. Our group bought out the Star hostel so we dropped our bags on the bunk beds and went out to dinner at the Two Deers’ Restaurant where we feasted on sausages and potatoes.  It was Nikil’s birthday, so the musicians at the restaurant followed their Blue Danube Waltz with a birthday song for him and the waiter brought out a Serbian baklava for his dessert. 

The celebrating continued later that night when we walked to a stretch of the Danube where all the splavs were docked. I learned that these houseboats acted as floating dance clubs and were a major part of Belgrade’s nightlife. After learning so much about the Danube and its importance to the region, it was fun to experience it in a lighter context with all of us scholars testing our sea legs on the dance floor. The great river even inspired me to create a new dance move called the KT Can Opener. Now that 20 Flinn Scholars and a boat-full of Serbians have seen it, I expect that it will become an international dancing sensation. 

Even 24 hours ago, I could not have dreamed I would start this day with a traditional Orthodox liturgy and end it with dancing to techno music on a floating club. I am so thankful for the mind-blowing mix of cultural experiences that this trip has provided and for this evening’s great introduction to Belgrade.