Today I am writing from beautiful downtown Belgrade.
After an adventurous flight in an almost empty plane headed for London to pick up American Olympians and their followers, I waited at Heathrow with the Slovakian Olympic Team to fly to Vienna and then, sans athletes, on to Belgrade last night. Today, we had the first of our three-day Belgrade Creative Writing Camp at the American Center and it was a wonderful start. The children arrived mostly not knowing each other, so we had a round of introductions of the young ones and their five counselors. The counselors were great. They created a program of explanation of Haiku as a Japanese poetic form for the campers and made selections from the great Basho.  They created a word wall in Serbian and English all over the bookshelves of the library to allow the students to create ‘Found Poetry” in the tradition of “Found Art”.  Small Japanese umbrellas were placed in another bookshelf in order to ask the students why umbrellas exist, what and who protect them and what and who are they willing to protect.  After a rather serious question like that, a colorful little umbrella that usually goes into some summer beach drink made of juices is not only the focus of a rather serious work, but then after the Haiku House is built, the umbrella works well on the house itself. I call those “Creative Writing Camp Two-fers” after the notion of a two for one sale found regularly, in Houston, at your local drug store.
The American Corners librarians are very brave. Even when the bottles of glue and finger paints came out, there was not a sign of faint-heartedness. But then historically, Serbians have had to be brave to be where they are, basically, at cultural dividing points between different worlds.  This can be seen in their Cyrillic alphabet.  No one even signed (in any of their languages) at the placing of open cans of fingerpaint on the beautiful blonde wooden table. “No worries, we can always wash it off” was the only statement from the head librarian.  I was very impressed,  I am getting used to the young men, aged 7 or 8, who speak native English that they learned from computer games and television and are brought to the American Corners workshops to practice their English with “real human beings.” The notion that these kids have actually learned a language from machines is very interesting to me, as I tried the same thing at the Northwestern University French Lab many years ago with much less success. Let me repeat, these machine-taught, native English speakers are 7 and 8 years old.

This afternoon we will start the Creative Writing Camp with the older students. But now I am free to go to the Citadel. Most Serbian cities have a Citadel. They are terrifically useful to gather together behind powerful walls and in a high place so that you can focus your efforts on defending yourself against your enemy.  A culture with a lot of cities with Citadels tells you something about their expectations and their preparation for those expectations. They expect to be attacked. They expect to have to retreat to the Citadel. They expect to have to defend themselves there and to be plagued by plagues, overcrowdedness, and warfare. Today the citadel in Belgrade is an entertainment and market center, a place to enjoy music, lilke the amazing blues festival that they will have tonight or the jazz I heard last night in front of the Austro-Hungarian edifice of the National Museum.  There I listened to a young Russian girl, two middle-eastern young men, and a Serbian host, argue over whether or not one should live for pleasure or the contributions one can make to the betterment of mankind. All of this argument was in English, because it was their only common language as that took classic Roman positions of Marcus-Aurelius-lilke stoicism versus Hedonism.  It was all I could do not to enter the conversation, but then sometimes the young should travel this path by themselves, unlike our campers, who better have their four haiku ready by in the morning. As I dear old friend of mine would say, “more anon” from Belgrade Serbia on the Serbian Express.

by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

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