Rachel Behler is a Wellesley College student who is spending a year studying post-conflict transformation in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. The junior sociology major knew very little about the region before she went. She wanted to study abroad in a place that was both safe and undergoing social reconstruction - not easy to find.
MY TWO FAMILIES: "I have had very different home-stay experiences in Zagreb and Belgrade. In Zagreb, my host mother was an eccentric music professor at the University of Zagreb and my host sister, who is 22, spent most of her time playing World of Warcraft. In contrast, my host family in Belgrade consisted of my host mother, a feminist activist, and my host sister, a Swiss NGO activist about my age."
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: "Before the war, Serbo-Croatian was the official language of Yugoslavia. Now I speak Croatian in Croatia, Bosnian in Bosnia, and Serbian in Serbia. The most important distinctions between the three languages are the greetings they use. Croats use 'bog' and Serbs use 'cao.' Although Croats and Serbs look alike, these greetings automatically reveal their ethnic heritage."
BARE YOUR SOLES: "In the Balkans, anything can allegedly trigger meningitis. Going outside with wet hair . . . meningitis. Wearing ballet flats without socks . . . meningitis. Wearing shoes during boots season . . . meningitis. Boots season is indefinitely long and is the period when it is socially unacceptable to wear any foot attire other than boots. It could be 75 degrees out, but if it's boots season, you wear boots."
REMNANTS OF WAR: "A friend and I were wandering around Vukovar, Croatia, looking for a place to eat our lunch, when we realized we were walking through a house that had been completely obliterated. We were standing on the kitchen floor, overgrown with grass. I was overcome by profound sadness and nausea. Although the crumbling buildings in town were an eyesore, and must have made rehabilitation a nightmare for returning inhabitants, this kitchen floor was by far the most terrifying thing I saw in Vukovar."
POLITICS OF TURBOFOLK: "Serbian coeds can be divided into those who like turbofolk and those who do not. Turbofolk is a product of 1990s Belgrade when there was an influx of rural people into the city who brought their traditional folk music. As they assimilated to the city, techno beats and synthesizers snuck into their old-time favorites. Turbofolk was largely associated with the warmongers and criminal elite of the 1990s and is inherently political. Hence, listening to turbofolk or frequenting turbofolk clubs is often interpreted as more of a political statement than a musical preference."