Downshift

So far, my Serbian vacation has been great. Vlad has been a great host, as were his family when we drove down to Jagodina to pay a visit and escape Belgrade’s potent cocktail of heat, humidity, and smog.

My mastery of the Serbian language remains frustratingly incomplete, but I was able to wander out on my own and get a drink and food the other night without too much difficulty. Comprehension remains alarmingly fragile, with “we only serve drinks now” being no problem and “we don’t serve food now” requiring several passes of “ne razumem” to resolve. I’m starting to feel like each new word takes up less brainspace now, though, which is a pleasant knee-in-the-curve sensation I recall from my early days of studying Latin, or for that matter various computer languages and environments. Vlad still makes fun of my pronunciation of several words, including the crucial “hiljadu”, or “thousand”. Given that a 1000-dinar note is equivalent in buying power to a little more than $20, this is a pretty useful word, especially when one is locked in battle with a waitress over the making of change.

My aforementioned difficulty notwithstanding, Serbian has ridiculously straightforward pronunciation: every letter is pronounced, every letter has a single context-independent sound, and the emphasis is virtually always on the first syllable. What pronunciation gives, however, grammar takes away with a smirking swipe. Coming from a modest background in French and Latin, and a mostly-forgotten semester’s study of Greek, I was emotionally prepared for the array of declensions and cases, and their construction is relatively regular. Their use, though, can be a little hairy. As an example, when you are speaking of “one” thing, the word for one is an adjective and accords with the thing you are counting. But when you are speaking of two to four things, you use the plural genitive, and once you’ve got five or more the singular genitive is employed. (If I recall correctly; I’m away from my book right now, and Vlad’s a little tired of answering my grammar-school questions.). I’m sure it’s quite natural once you get used to it. I am not yet used to it, though it turns out that screwing up one’s declensions does not render one unintelligible, so I manage to muddle along. Cyrillic is no big problem, other than that it slows my brain down to below the sight-reading threshold, and that sometimes I mistake which alphabet is in play on short signs and the like. Cursive Cyrillic is basically another alphabet, not unlike one composed primarily of mostly-indistinct sine waves; don’t get me started. Nor on italics.

In other communication-related news, our efforts to obtain internet access here have been largely in vain. We had a tenuous connection for a few hours yesterday morning at the offices of the Serbian Unity Congress, and a brief period of excellent connectivity for my laptop while we were speaking at ETF in the afternoon, but otherwise it’s been nil. Much of the underlying telecoms infrastructure in Belgrade is pretty veteran stuff, often dating back to WWII, so a certain, mmm, fickleness is to be expected. I wonder if we’ll see wireless-based ISPs take off here, as an end-run around the phone system (electronic and corporate). If nothing else, the IP-over-second-hand-smoke business plan practically writes itself. (My Blackberry has been terrifyingly reliable, and a marvelous deal if the $0.05/kB rate I believe I’m getting holds. The only place I’ve noticed not having full GPRS service on this whole European tour was at a 14th century monastery on Tuesday, when I was tapping in an email to Tyla. Clearly, it was a sign.)

Our somewhat impromptu talk at ETF (no link, sorry, but your search engine of choice will probably turn it up with some combination of “ETF”, “Belgrade”, and “engineering”) went well enough, though there didn’t really seem to be a lot of energy around participating in Open Source, as much as in consuming or advocating it. Certainly, the economic realities of needing a job to eat while studying are quite pressing, here at least as much as elsewhere, and I hope that things like Google’s Summer of Code programme will provide interesting opportunities to bootstrap things. There was some interest in exploring localization as a first involvement with Mozilla, which could work out nicely: our current Firefox localization was generally rated poorly (too formal or awkward, mainly). We’ll see how that goes.

We’re back in vacation mode today, with a nice late start and a trip to the Ethnographic Museum to see some traditional clothing, structures, implements, and energetic schoolchildren. Off to lunch with a family friend of Vlad’s — I confidently predict meat — and then probably some more museuming. The weather’s a little cooler today, but no less pleasant for it, so we’ll likely do a fair bit of walking around. Given the local diet and air quality (and inexpensive beer), I wouldn’t have expected it, but I feel like I’ve been having a pretty healthy time. Wonder if I’ll keep it up when I get back home… My email backlog is appropriately stunning, so it’ll be a few days next week before I’m back on top of things. Please do bear with me! In the meantime, you might amuse yourselves playing with a new extension that recently appeared on AMO, called “Jajah”. It’s a helper for their interesting twist on VOIP, and though there are still some rough edges I think their approach to integrating with the browser is promising. Inexpensive international calling is top-of-mind for me these last couple of weeks, for perhaps obvious reasons. Leave your comments in the usual AMO place — which we’ll be improving in the next little while, by the by — or send them to me via my gmail: mike.shaver@gmail.com. [tags]travel, serbia, mozilla, language[/tags]