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passionate democracy

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. 


Allow me to introduce Professor Radmila Gorup and her students (minus one) of “Elementary Serbian/Croatian.Bosnian” at Columbia U., Fall ’09.  Radmila generously welcomed me to join the class for the first three weeks before my departure on the Fulbright and the students were just as generous in their tolerance of my (incredibly slow!)  absorption of Serbian grammar, and the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet.  It’s been some years since I sat on the other side of the desk at CU; but I settled in to that seminar chair easily, thanks to an excellent teacher and intelligent, sympathetic colleagues.  Several of them spoke Serbian, Croatian, or Macedonian at home; some of them had a remarkable native’s understanding of the culture; all of them were intelligent and invested in the study of these languages and cultures.  As a native speaker of German myself, I adored the moments when Radmila was given pause over a student’s articulated response.  “Just where are you from?” she quizzed Millina, after a peculiar use of the Croatian vocabulary came up.  We all eagerly tuned in to these conversations.  This was a living, breathing, changing set of languages!  It made the difficult grammar exercises mean something.  Hvala, Radmila, for this delicious and intriguing introduction!  (and if you’re wondering—yes, my Serbian’s pretty lousy.  But I plan on persevering in Novi Sad, with Aleksandra’s help.  Stay tuned for future posts in Cyrillic!).

Three weeks of introduction to Serbian language and culture culminated in a fitting and rather spectacular finale this Tuesday, when Serbian President Boris Tadic addressed the Columbia community as part of its World Leaders Forum.   How could I not vie for one of the front-row seats?

100_0205                ( I’m grateful to Alaa Milbes for the photo– many thanks again. ~k.)


“I hear he talks from the chair,” whispered a student who had also managed to secure a good vantage point.  Though he had solidly grounded his large frame in a blue leather chair for his introduction,  Tadic rose to speak—and to meet the challenges offered by an informed and  reactive audience.  His opening remarks outlined the ways in which he has helped build Serbia’s new democracy, as well as his hopes for his country’s EU status and a renewed healthy relationship with the US.  Tadic described with passion his role in the 2000 Bulldozer Revolution, and his stage presence that day made it easy to understand how he had emerged as leader of the Democratic Party.  I found him articulate and convincing, and he seemed to hold the audience’s good will. 

And then came the difficult questions—most of them from Columbia grad students hailing from former Yugoslavian territories.  Did Tadic recognize a contradiction between his democratic ideals and his position on Kosovo, or the recently passed legislation allowing the government to shut down news agencies easily?  How did he feel about the “Pride Parade” (“Gay” implied but not explicitly mentioned)– the second in the country’s history—that was cancelled this Sunday because of threats of violence?  Tadic conceded that practical considerations sometimes needed to be addressed before principles, though ultimately and always the goal was democracy.  He had, after all, offered his support and protection of Parade participants—“and yet,” the questioner almost interrupted,”there was violence in the streets nonetheless.”  When I got home, I googled and easily found reports of Sunday’s ill-fated celebration in the New York Times and on the BBC.  There was some shocking video of the Belgrade streets—blood, beatings, badges and all. 

Walt (I turn to my traveling partner helping himself to his fourth bag of airline peanuts), we now must justify you to an audience that is complex, critical, and ready to act.  What will this new democracy think of your Passionate Democracy, a concept of nationhood empowered by “the institution of the dear love of comrades”? 

 And then this from the depths of Seat 23C, with full heart (and mouth):

 I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,

I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other’s necks.

For you these, from me, O Democracy, to serve you, ma femme!

For you!  for you, I am trilling these songs.

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