August 8, 2009

A new direction


As I’ve not so recently said, lots of stuff happened, er, recently. I’ve tried to write about it, and I’ve actually been working on one post for several weeks now, but it’s just not coming out the way it should. The more I write it, the more I feel that I should write more, like I must cover every possible place where my readers might misunderstand me – like I’m trying to push all of my thoughts into one big unified idea which will also be understood by almost anyone who can read English.

Then I realized that it simply isn’t working. It’s not just this post, it’s my entire perception of my blog. I think I’m not sure whom I’m writing for anymore or how I should write. This blog started with mostly logs of what I’m doing, with the occasional reflective post; then switching into my musings on “doing” and the various people and situations that have inspired me to do and be better.

Those posts would come out, if not always naturally, then at least with a certain “this post just feels right” vibe in my mind. I would oftentimes write a draft that I didn’t like, but that first draft would then be a sort of anchor from which I could move into the direction I want. I accepted this as a natural part of my writing process. But now, I see that anchors are not enough – I must define a new direction.

I was trying to define it without thinking too precisely about who will read my blog, but I think that can’t be taken out of the equation. The “doing” posts were written in a certain tone that not only felt right but also seemed like it was written for an audience – because they were. I always wanted feedback from my readers, and I got a fair amount of it, some really insightful, but at the same time I always strived not to think too much about the fact that I’m writing for an audience, in the sense of wondering whether or not they would like what I have to say. I had things I wanted to say. They were written for me, but also for other people. Now that it has become too difficult to say things, it’s time for a change.

I think I won’t even clearly define my new direction here. It’s too early, and I don’t want the one thought that was written down to push away the others that weren’t. I have some ideas, but we’ll see how it goes.


May 26, 2009

From coals to diamonds – the evolution of ideas

One of the most valuable lessons from my experimental language workshop was seeing how ideas can change, evolve and die when in contact with reality. What I imagined the workshop would look like and what it turned out to be are two things that not only look different, but are also based on very different principles.

I’m posting an email I’ve recently sent to a friend of mine which sprang out of one of our discussions about language learning, trying out new ideas etc. In it you will see the key stages of the evolution of my workshop and some of my personal reflections on the whole topic.  Name and other personal details have been removed.

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May 25, 2009

The calm after the storm

I really have a hard time not only comprehending how quickly the last few months have past, but how different that person looking ahead from a few months ago is. I am now for the first time in the paradoxal situation of looking forward to studying for my exams, because of how simple that is – you don’t make arrangements or intricate schedules or  negotiate with the books, you just goddamn sit down and study from them. Too many things have happened recently, most of them demanding that I put them down of paper, but it simply didn’t feel right to do it yet. But now it feels right.

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March 26, 2009

From primary school to outer space, part 1

“I am one of the beneficiaries of Osvit. First of all I want to say that I have problems with crowds, but I’m taking medicine for that. We’ve been awaiting your arrival for 3 hours now, and all this time I managed to sit here among all these people! Osvit has helped me a lot, but one of the best things for me here is the time I spend socializing with all these nice people.”

For a moment, I’m confused. This is supposed to be about the victims of domestic abuse, Osvit’s target group, not about socializing. And there is something in her voice that nags at me, demanding that I turn on my brain, but I shrug it off. You can’t analyze and interpret at the same time. Then she goes on:

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February 6, 2009

Why we avoid the whys, part 1

It was one of those late weekend afternoons when it’s too late to make any plans or call anybody, but still to early to go to bed. You know, you’re just sitting there, staring at the screen or whatever. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, because you’re not really doing anything.

So I’m click around Ken Robinson’s new book’s website, looking for something interesting, and I notice that he has a presentation on the 2nd of February in London. The entrance is free.

I look at the date for a few seconds. One thought slowly manifests itself:

“I have to be there.”

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January 22, 2009

Thinking properly, part 2 – looking Lady Destiny in the eyes

I enter the small flat. They are sitting at the kitchen table. Greetings are exchanged, and we begin the process.

I translate their words to Jenny, the social worker. Her very calm, soothing demeanor makes it difficult for me, and even them, to be nervous. I convey their story – the sad history, the current situation, the outcome they desire.

They answer her questions. She asks them more. They speak about everything, calmly and truthfully. They do what they must – slowly, they lay their lives in front of us on the table, bare and defenseless.

I look into their eyes, and they look at mine. For a moment, I become a part of their world, of them. I may be translating their words coldly and objectively, but I cannot help feeling incredibly moved by the whole situation. Their lives, and the lives and destinies of two more persons they care about immensely, will be determined by this conversation, by this appraisal of whether or not they are… adequate.

We finish. I say goodbye to the family. It is a truly strange feeling; stepping into someone’s life, watching them talk about their most private, most important thing in their world, and then disappearing, probably never to see them again.

I take Jenny to the tea-place where just hours ago I had a very special situation of my own.  We talk about the adoption case, Serbia and life in general. I receive my payment and we say our goodbyes.

I cannot talk about the adoption case in detail, because I am forbidden by law, but it is not necessary. What is important here is to realize that, yes, there are special moments; moments which have enormous impact on how your life will go from there on.

But they are not always so clear and powerful. In fact, they are a lot more common than you think. But too often we say no to them.

It could be from fear, or social conditioning, or indifference, or any combination of those. In any case, the result is that you say no to them; and because of that you don’t organize that road-trip, you don’t meet that amazing new person and you don’t learn that language you always wanted to. You miss a chance not to grow, but to flourish. Because you thought that it wasn’t anything important.

I passed by Dina on the street, and our eyes met. We, stopped, talked and realized we don’t know each other, but exchanged phone numbers anyway.

Two months later, I promised to her I’ll visit her in Paris next summer.

Next summer, I visited her in Paris. I slept in 5 different places, from a student’s flat so small you literally cannot lie down on the floor (don’t ask about the bathroom. Just don’t.), 10 minutes by foot from Notre Damme, to a spacious apartment in a luxurious suburb.  I met Laura, Penelope, David, Vladi, Brankica and others. I had breakfast with Milica on Montmartre. I walked, relaxed, read books, planned my experimental workshop and also learned a lot about myself. Being alone most of the day in a beautiful city had that effect, among many others.

My trip to Paris was a fantastic experience, and I have no idea how much further it will positively influence my life.

But it wouldn’t have happened if Dina and I didn’t look each other in the eyes. And decided to stop. You know, just to check if we know each other.

So, say yes to those moments. Learn to recognize them and capture them before they pass you by. Listen to that voice. It takes practice, and, as with everything in life, you will make mistakes. Some of those moments will lead absolutely nowhere. But some will make you go to places or do things or meet people you never dreamed you would.

Like when our eyes met. And next summer, I was in Paris.

to be continued

January 12, 2009

from Rembrandt to Jack Daniels – doing vs. wanting to do

Nikola: “Hey, there’s an exhibition of Rembrandt’s work in Zagreb, wanna go?”

me: “I don’t listen to hip-hop.  Yeah ok, but it’s not like I’ll understand it.”

Nikola: “Yeah, me neither, but can’t we at least give it a try?”

True. And besides, I’ve been having a growing desire to understand art. Until recently I was pretty much part of the “What’s the big deal with Mona Lisa anyway?” crowd. Ok, I still am. I’d like to understand art, enjoy it etc. but I don’t really know how. All of my attempts to get to know art had ended in my looking at paintings and going “Oh look, a naked lady, drawn nicely. Oh, a guy sitting very still, thankfully not naked, drawn nicely. Booooriiing”.  I’ve never felt the je ne sais quoi you’re supposed to feel when in front of a masterpiece.

And don’t get me started on abstract art.

However, after a few years of an on and off relationship with drawing, combined with an awesome high-school art teacher, my art sense finally started tingling. It’s not something I can really express in words, other than, well, I’d really like to stand in front of a large picture and finally understand that je ne sais motherfucking quoi.

So, off I went to Zagreb.

A little back-story. Nikola, who invited me, is a friend I’ve known since we were kids. Since he’s from Split, our friendship for the most of our lives was  “that cool dude I see once or twice a year” i.e. whenever I go to visit my mom’s family from Split.

That was until one december evening of 2005 when we were chatting and he suggested we could walk across Spain. I took him up on the offer, and next summer we spent one month walking some 800 km, from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. It was an amazing experience, and one of a number of examples of Nikola and me motivating each other to, simply put, do things.

Because Nikola is one of those people who do things. If they want to do something (and they often do), they usually make it happen. Spain is one example. Another is a several thousand miles long trip across land and sea from Croatia to Japan (Croatian only, but lots of nice pics). Or a group of creative people he organized which made several satirical and Monty-Pythonish sketches which were a small sensation in Croatia (homepage is in Croatian only).

A lot of people have ideas. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a road-trip?”. “I have the bestest idea for a best-selling book ever” “Being an interpreter is awesome, all I have to do is learn 4 languages.” And stuff like that.

However, when it comes to making those things happen, it’s oh so easy to postpone them. “I’ll start tomorrow, honest.” “I don’t have the time now, I have to study for exams.” “It’s not like I really wanted to do that anyway.” And stuff like that.

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January 2, 2009

Thinking properly, part 1 – when Lady Destiny is a guy with a stutter

“Hello, is this Relja? I am calling concerning your interpreting services for the adoption case with the _______ family.”

“Ah, yes, I’ve received the email a couple of weeks ago. So, when am I needed?”

“Er, today.”

“Er, today?”

“Yes. I’m dreadfully sorry, there’s been a mix-up, and, well, please, I desperately need an interpreter for today’s case!”

The middle-aged lady’s heavily-British-accented voice sounds very sincere, but far from desperate – she was very composed, pleasant even, and I will soon find out why – the work she does is anything but easy.

Luckily, I’m free at the time she needs me, and I decide to spend an hour or so at one of my favorite cafes, a quiet tea house, before meeting with her, in order to prepare myself, both mentally and with the necessary vocabulary.

I enter the cafe and go up the stairs to take my usual seat. One of the girls who work there is talking with some guy. I say hi to her and, out of courtesy, to him, thinking that they’re friends or something.

“Oh n-no, we don’t kn-know each o-o-ot-other, but now th-that we’ve m-met, wo-would you li-like to par-par-participate in a psy-psy-psychologi-ca-cal test I’m do-doing for my fa-faculty?”

I stop and try to think. I have a very delicate adoption case in which I’m the interpreter. I have less than an hour to do at least some rudimentary preparation (e.g. google some common technical terms in adoption issues and their Serbian translations etc.). It is imperative that I am mentally relaxed; somebody’s future greatly depends on how well I’ll translate their words. I am short on time, and the guy who wants me to do the test has a stutter.


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December 25, 2008

confronting snapshots of yourself

“Wait, I wanted to learn 3 languages to near fluency in one year? What was I, crazy?”

“Hah, you know better now. Look at this though: I was planning to learn how to drive, which is a bit simpler than 3 languages, and I still didn’t do it.”

“Yeah, but you did graduate in 3 instead of 4 years, as you stated here, which is awesome, so I think you can be forgiven for the driving thing.”

“True. You didn’t do as well with your exams, but hey, you did make your workshop happen, which is a huge thing and wasn’t planned at all.”

And it is a huge thing. And I really didn’t plan it at all. Because the me now is quite  a different person from the me that sat down with my friend Filip last December and wrote  down our goals for the next 12 months. Now, looking at it for the first time after that day, I’m amazed at the difference between what I thought I could and would do and what I actually did. Some things happened as planned. Some big things that happened weren’t planned at all. And some I failed to achieve after a year of trying, or I didn’t even think about them after that December coffee, let alone try to make them happen.

This is because once we wrote down our general goals for the next 12 months, on a single piece of paper, I tucked it away and we forgot about it. For we knew that this isn’t supposed to be a true plan of our activities or something to constantly remind us what we should be striving towards; it is, rather, a snapshot of ourselves at a particular point in time – of our ideas, plans and experiences. It shows what was important to us personally, what we thought we were capable of.

There was another piece of paper which we also looked at for the first time since last December. On it we wrote down all the things that happened to us over the course of 2007 that we felt were important to us – everything from projects, travelling and falling in love to disappointments, emotional crises and personal revelations about life.

We did the same thing now for the year 2008 and then, as I said, we compared it to what the we-from-December-2007 thought we’d do in 2008, and… well, looking at a snapshot of you and your plans a year ago next to a snapshot of a year of your actual life is both a humbling and an exhilarating experience. You can’t believe that you really thought you could learn 3 languages to fluency in a mere 12 months (instead failing to achieve fluency in even one); that you actually did travel to Paris because of a promise to a certain person you met accidentally on the street; that you would get incredibly closer to knowing what it is you really want to do in life.

So, we’ve written down our goals for 2009 and we’ve tucked them away. Already, two weeks later, they are becoming hazy – I know I want to reach fluency in Japanese, learn how to drive and do some other things, but I’m not really sure if I could recall the whole list. And that’s good, because as I said, this is not a guideline, it is a snapshot of my and Filip’s plans on one December afternoon.

How much will I accomplish? How much I won’t? What will I be like, what will happen to me and what will be important to me next month, next summer, next December, next decade? I don’t know; And I’m really looking forward to finding out.

Why don’t you do the same? Grab a good friend, sit down in a quiet bar or somewhere, and write what were the most important things that you did and that happened to you in the past 12 months. Then write a set of things you want to achieve in exactly one year from that day. Then stash those two pieces of paper away and go on with your life. 12 months later, sit down with that friend, look at the papers, and take it all in. Repeat.

Don’t rely on your memory for this. This is not just one thought – this is you at a certain moment in your life, and also your life over a whole year. It’s incredibly hard, if not right down impossible, to remember such a range of thoughts and emotions with any semblance of precision without recording them externally in some way. The mind is quite a slippery thing, and if we need stuff such as grocery lists, are we really expecting to remember what we thought and believed about ourselves and life at a certain moment in our past? Especially 5 or 10 or more years down the road?

So, go grab a friend and a piece of paper.

You’ll be surprised at the results. I guarantee it.

December 9, 2008

learning with Spartans and fruit salads

According to this description of CPE, at 16, when I took the test, I was ” approaching a standard of English similar to that of an educated native speaker”. A year before that, I represented Yugoslavia at English Speaking Union’s international public speaking competition. At the end of high-school I was second place on the national-level English competition. I was often lauded as being incredibly talented for languages.

I had also been learning French in school for 10 years. A decade.

My French sucks.

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