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добро дошли !

The first words I read upon landing in Belgrade  weren’t actually part of an exotic-looking Cyrillic greeting, nor were they the captions of the HSBC ad campaign that framed every other flight I’ve taken this year.  “Karen Karbiener” greeted me from a sign held up by smiling Dida Stojanovic, the American Embassy’s indispensable Cultural Affairs Assistant.  Dida had ensured a warm welcome for me well before this moment: her fact-filled, friendly emails and her assistance in rescuing a package from Serbian customs humanized complex and often mysterious processes.  We chatted like old friends on the way in to Belgrade, and I found her a great source for juicy tidbits about the city—like the location of its own Silicone Valley, a street well known for its plastic surgeons and parading patients.

After meeting Cultural Affairs Officer Susan Delja at the American Embassy, the three of us walked down Kneza Milosa to the Monument Café, a sleek restaurant with a shaded terrace humming with conversation and a scene-setting soundtrack (you’ll here piped-in music almost everywhere you walk in Serbian cities, from walking streets to public parks).  We were joined by Jeff Lash, the only other Fulbrighter to be sent to Serbia this year.   Susan recommended the cheesecake, and all of us—except you, Dida!—indulged as we were briefed on the Embassy’s cultural activities.  Though the American presence returned less than ten years ago after Milosevic fell, and Susan’s only been in her position for two years, she and her staff have been busy inviting American speakers and initiating new programs designed to build understanding and cooperation between the two countries.  “It’s a great time to be here,” Susan said, and I knew she meant it as she described the interesting challenges of raising daughters in central Belgrade.

–I know what you’re thinking.  Yes, this is a perfect place for a photo of Susan, Dida, Jeff and I.  But at this point I was still shaken from what happened when I tried to photograph the American Embassy earlier that afternoon.  The grand building at 50 Kneza Milosa was firebombed last year during the Kosovo crisis, and though the Embassy is still in full operation, they have kept the front windows boarded up and painted as white as the building itself.  It’s s ominously faceless— and a great photo opp.  You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that an Embassy guard asked me to show him the photos I had taken, and then watched as I erased them.  And to accept the fact that you’ll never know what the Embassy looks like (unless you google it, of course.  I see from what’s out there that I should have just crossed the street).

So, let me focus on a subject that’s much less camera-shy: the esteemed and energetic political geographer Jeff Lash.


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10 2009

songs from the big chair

September 24, 2009– squeezed into Seat 23C of American Airlines flight 100 (to London, where I’ll connect to Belgrade-bound flight 888).   Sandra  Bullock’s antics in “The Proposal” just can’t keep my interest—  I’m more incredulous about the mere fact of my sitting here, in this seat, in this plane headed to that place, than her overdrawn portrait of ‘The New York Woman.”  So much history and serendipity, planning and packing and Love has led to this moment… so many people inspiring or enabling this mission.  Squeezed into Seat 23C with me are some of the biggest people in my life: my father, my Oma, and my Walt.  This visionary company have been more present than ever these past few weeks: my dad remembering his favorite horses on the salas, Oma singing the old songs in her high thready voice, and Walt laughing heartily (eyebrows raised, cheeks on fire) that, by God!  He’s making that overseas trip at last!  And to Serbia, no less!!!

There have been other mentors, muses, facilitators, and friends whose brief roles in this saga occurred at just the right time, providing a memorable encounter or a key idea.  Here are nine of them—none of whom I knew a month ago, though they’ve added immeasurable (and literal!) meaning to my Serbian odyssey. 


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09 2009

live, from new york…

            Days speed by, tasks and pleasures come and go, events and appointments and happenings happen— all is flashes and specks, as Whitman writes– but time must slow down to accommodate my deliberations over these weekly entries.   It’s simultaneously frustrating and freeing to give this ongoing adventure a sense of order and development…  always and ever the question, where to begin?  How far back do I need to go, patient reader, to make this narrative understandable and interesting to you? 

            Last week, I got stuck on the technicalities of setting up my first blog.  It is time to explain myself… let us stand up, Walt!  We’ll go back to the place we first met, and explain our blog title (or the first half, at least).

            New York City is my hometown, and the absolute center of my heart’s geography.   My love for Whitman and his work comes from many places, but most directly from our shared love of this one place (or several places, depending upon how you feel about Brooklyn’s “big mistake” to become a borough of NYC in 1898).  Both of us were “born” here (in the literary sense for Walt; in the literal sense of the word for myself), first sang on the (omni)buses and swam in its waters (no kidding); we both find the best of what civilization can accomplish on its streets—always and ever new identities meanings signs curiosities faces pageants smells visions fears hopes love.   Both of us, I think, found something spiritual in its raw and undeniable physicality.  And so when I teach a class on Whitman, I find that I must take my students out of the classroom and into New York to answer the big question:  how did Walter Whitman—second son of a carpenter, grammar school dropout and sometime penny daily hack writer—become Walt Whitman?   It’s my belief that “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” was indeed the product of his immediate environment and experience; and it is my aim to introduce my students to a real New Yorker in his beloved Brooklyn and Manhattan, and to have them see, hear, and sense the urban setting that transformed a sensitive young man into America’s greatest poet.  The open road of his poetry is, in fact, the city street—and we explore this idea through texts as well as walking tours.

            Consider, for example, some of the out-of-doors learning experiences shared by us in “American Literature and Culture: Whitman and New York”, a Columbia University summer class that I’ve taught for nine years running.  Summer ’09 in NYC has been blissfully cooler and less humid than we’re used to in the Big Apple, which may help account for how relaxed and comfortable we look here (at a good two hours into a three-hour tour).  After visiting the site of the Rome brothers’ printing shop (where Walt helped set up the type for the groundbreaking first edition of Leaves of Grass), we visited the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, the First Unitarian Church, and the Brooklyn Historical Society before taking in the spectacular view of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Picture 016

            “There may be finer views in the world, but I don’t believe it,” Abraham Lincoln said of this spot in 1864—and here’s my hearty second to this beloved scene!  It’s the best not just because these are my Whitmaniacs (and yes, you guys know that I think you’re the best), not just because of the view of Whitman’s Mannahatta, East River, Governor’s Island (Nutten Island to him), the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge, but because this view is enabled and empowered by the community spirit Whitman himself represented here in Brooklyn.  In the 1940s, when Robert Moses proposed running the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through this very spot, Brooklyn Heights residents opposed him… and won!  The highway now roars below the cantilevered promenade, while walkers, rollerbladers, and bikers take in this magnificent, car-free cityscape.  What’s more, the Brooklyn Ice Cream factory (another New York “best”) is a ten-minute stroll away, and thanks to the generosity of Columbia’s summer session staff (yo Richard!), we’re all about to be treated to a free cone. Read the rest of this entry →


08 2009

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