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.
Dominic Chen (’10)
After arriving in Sombor late last night, we awoke to our first morning in Serbia, having spent the night at a dormitory for secondary school students. Breakfast consisted of bread, cheese, honey, sausages, and chamomile tea in the school cafeteria, food that differed significantly from our previous meals in the past few days.
On our way to an introductory lecture at the Town House following breakfast, we were shocked to discover that our bus had been tagged overnight with the word “antifaso” in spray paint, something that we had never experienced before in either Hungary or Slovakia. Perhaps this was a result of our Hungarian license plate, or a byproduct of the heavily graffitied neighborhood that the school was located in, but nevertheless it served as a dramatic introduction to the realities of life in contemporary Serbia. Despite the veneer of modernism and economic development in the past decade, it was quite clear to us that Serbia is still very much a developing country, haunted by both the past shadow of racial tension and the present resurgence of ethnic nationalism. This fact only become more apparent as the day progressed, as some members of our group received hostile stares or derogative comments.
Nevertheless, our experience in Serbia thus far has given us a greater understanding of the history and culture of this region, including the conflicted background of the town between the Hungarians, the Serbs, and the Ottoman Turks. During a scavenger hunt with volunteers from the Youth Office, local students shared anecdotes and experiences, some of which were negatively affected by the government, which reintroduced mandatory theology classes into the school curriculum a few years ago and took bribes for certain jobs.
Following a lunch break at a small Serbian fast food stand by the Old Town Market, we proceeded to a small restaurant located on the bank of the Danube River, Plava Ruza. At this point, we engaged in numerous activities, including swimming, running, and even journaling, providing us with an opportunity to relax in the natural environment and mull over our experienced during the past few days.
This was followed by dinner at the neighboring restaurant, accompanied by a question and answer session with a basketball star from the former Yugoslav National Team now a businessman. His responses emphasized that nationalism and systemic corruption is significantly impeding the socioeconomic development of Serbia, and that these are challenges that must be overcome for accession into the European Union.
Our last activity was a film screening titled “Once Brothers” that discussed the impact of the Yugoslav Wars on the members of the former Yugoslav National Basketball Team. It revealed that inter-team relationships were broken by ethnic tensions between Serbs and Croats, especially focusing on that between Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic. Unfortunately, due to the premature death of the latter in an automobile accident, the pair was never able to reform their friendship, resulting in a bitter competition between the then-newfound Serbian National Team and the remainder of the Yugoslav National Team that lasted to the grave—an indelible mark of past conflicts that continues to influence modern-day Serbia.