Speaking Serbian

He was riding with Anne and Zarko in their Volvo, Zarko driving, Anne in the back, he in the passenger seat. They were driving through Bavaria toward Linz, Austria, where they would see the new Opera by Phillip Glass and Peter Handke, “Spuren der Verirrten” (Traces of the Lost). He was spooked by the speed (although Zarko drove well and the Volvo was very stable) and by aggressive Autobahn drivers. He tried to cover his anxiety with witty conversation. Unfortunately, his German had suffered during the 15 years since he had last been in the country and he lacked words and phrases and even grammar for some of his best thoughts. With no control over the car (that was Zarko’s task and comfort) and with even less than no control over the speed-crazed psychopaths racing through the heavy traffic, he turned to prayer. It was a joke, of course, and yet it felt like his only option: Komm Herr Jesus, sei unser Gast, segne was Du uns bescherret hast. It was grace, a blessing on the food, an invitation for Jesus to be a guest and bless the bounty he has blessed us with. It was almost childish with the rhyme and he  recited it with some irony. Anne repeated it, correcting a couple of words. He chanted the prayer again, remembering the comfort of believing there is someone to turn to when there is nowhere to turn. But there is no one to turn to, he thought, Herr Jesus isn’t going to be any help in a crash, and so he turned around and asked Anne if she would have a conversation with him in Serbian. Her Serbian, Zarko had told him, was lively and serviceable and full of the kinds of mistakes that make a personal lovable.

Da, she said. Da, da, da.

Zarko glanced over to see if he was joking.

He was, and he wasn’t.

Gospodin, he said.

Anne said Gospodin and then spoke in Serbian about the gentleman.

Beograd, he said.

Anne repeated the city name and then expanded on the idea.

Pivo, he said.

Anne spoke about beer.

Belo vino, crno vino.

Anne had a lot to say about white and red wine.

Slobodan, he said.

Anne distinguished been the two parts of the name: free and man, and, he thought, mentioned something about World War II, using the word Rat / war.

Rat, he said, jebi ga, he said — fuck it.

Anne gave an impassioned speech.

Dobar dan, he said graciously. Dobro jutro, dobra vecer, laku noc.

Anne greeted him back and spoke about the times of day and night.

As the conversation continued — hvala (thank you) . . . Visegrad (a city on the Drina) . . . most (bridge) . . . kava (coffee) . . . recnic (dictionary) . . . razumni rjecnic (reasonable dictionary) . . . pisac (writer) . . . Radakovic (my friend) . . . emigracia (emigration) . . . Moravska Noc (Moravian Night) . . . pogled (view) . . . musticla (cigarette holder — a word Zarko’s mother taught him) . . . Srbi su dobri ljudi (another gift from Zarko’s mother — Serbs are good people) . . . Sava (a river) . . . Morava (a river) . . . reka (river) . . . Kalamegdan (a Belgrade fortress) . . . Gavrillo Princip (an assassin)  . . . he was surprised at how many words he knew.

Zarko was smiling like he had never seen him smile.

The Austrian border appeared, a speed limit took control, and he asked Zarko for the Serbian word for the god he no longer felt compelled to call on.


About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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One Response to Speaking Serbian

  1. mikerol says:

    I like the way it comes out here, your writing about yourself in the third person. It’s better than first person because it makes for a kind of twinning, which then makes it less naturalistic.


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