On the Road 2011: Day Thirteen

June 6, 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.

Rae Anne Martinez (’10)

Lectures, lectures, lectures, and–surprise–more lectures! 

That was the thought that ran through my head as I arose this morning for our first activity. Don’t get me wrong–lectures are an important part of our growth and awakening on this seminar, and we are blessed to have such intelligent and charismatic speakers. However, sometimes after many long, rough days of traveling, late nights and earlier mornings, with tired feet and eyes, we become lethargic. Our eyes are only pried open with respect. For me, today was one of those mornings.

After breakfast, we stumbled across the street to the Students Dorm, where Zorka, the Coordinator of the Youth Office, and a handful of representatives of Sombor’s youth organizations, greeted us again. Zorka was to be our first speaker on history of the Youth and Sport organization.

Before 2007, the Youth and Sport organization was only local to Vojvodina, but after 2007, there was a switch to developing the ministry of Youth and Sport into a national infrastructure. Today the ministry of Youth and Sport is a fully developed national program that gives grants to finance volunteer opportunities for the community. 

After the short lecture with Zorka, we had the opportunity to break into smaller groups and hear from the representatives of Sombor’s youth organizations. The majority of us centered around Diana and a few others who represented the Ravangrad programs. These programs set up several international camps to promote peace and understanding between students of former Yugoslavia republics, like Serbians, Croats, and Bosnians. 

Our dialogue quickly took a turn from us asking questions about their programs, to Diana and the others asking questions about our student involvement and volunteer programs back home, as well as the public mentality about volunteerism. It felt to me that this was no longer a typical lecture day. We were becoming the lectures. They genuinely wanted to know about how civic involvement worked in our homes, communities, and schools, so they could take this new knowledge and use it to benefit their own country. 

During Serbia’s 20-year communist rule, youth involvement and civic activism simply was not allowed. Now, as a result, the public looks upon civic activism with disdain. Community work is not formally recognized and the field of sociology is not viewed as a viable career path. I could not believe it–I was sitting across from some of the most dedicated students in Serbia. These dozen plus bright, talented, and unbelievably friendly students all feel the need to better their community and nation by becoming teachers, counselors, and sociologists, but every day they have to work against a deeply rooted, negative public sentiment. I only have the utmost respect for these students.

After a series of warm good byes to our new friends, we climbed aboard the bus, heading for Bac village. During our bus ride, our lovely chaperones, Amy and Alan, decided that instead of sleep we should partake in a much-needed “reflection session.” Our discussion group rapidly fell into analyzing our experiences with ethnic issues, discrimination, racism, and tolerance in Central Europe.

It was such a powerful and prevalent topic that our discussion continued well into our lunch at Didina Kuca, a beautifully restored traditional Serbian home that had been converted into a museum and restaurant. After finishing our hearty lunch under a covered patio amidst a blooming, bountiful garden, the owners led us through the house, explaining certain household customs and showing off elaborate traditional dress. They even gave us a hands-on demonstration in harvesting corn and cutting grass!

We walked across Bac’s sleepy streets to a Franciscan monastery, where we were welcomed by the local father. With Nada’s help translating, he proceeded to lead us throughout hallowed halls to the most amazing treasure of the monastery, the library! This monastery specializes in preserving and restoring printed books from this region. We all gazed in awe upon the aged volumes in reds, browns, and blues, still glittering with gold embellishments. Dan and I stood shocked by one of the largest dictionaries we had ever seen–reminding us of our collective nerdiness.

After an hour, we emerged from the cool stone walls of the monastery into the blazing heat and humidity of midday. Once again, we trekked across the empty streets, but this time to the remains of a Bac fortification. A local woman unlocked the gate to the refurbished main tour and we climbed a perilous spiral staircase into another cool stone room. As we stared at the old walls and the golden light through the slit windows, we wondered what used to be in this magnificent building. Nada filled our heads with Serbian history, which only added to our dream-like perceptions. As soon as the lecture concluded, we ran like small school children scrambling to take pictures and explore every crevice. 

Finally tuckered out, we boarded the bus headed for the college city of Novi Sad. We all slept soundly until we arrived in the center of Novi Sad in the American Corner, where we were greeted by our new home-stays: Serbian college students who either planned to or had already traveled to the United States. Bethany, Angela, and myself all ended up staying with Olja Jovicki. Olja had one of the biggest hearts, most generous sense of hospitality, and sharpest sense of fashion among anyone I had met so far on this trip. After a homemade dinner of baloney and ketchup pizza (which was quite delicious), we freshened up and dressed for a night out with the other home-stays and our fliblings in the city with the third-best night-life.

Today, we met students with a drive for civic duty greater than our own, geeked out over books, ran like children, and got to stay with generous people. Days like this, still active and full of wonderful people, can replenish my lethargic spirit and body–making me want to stay for hundreds more!