Home > Biculturalism, Bilingualism, Language Learning, Serbia > Walnut and Chestnut Streets and Pleasure and Sadness

Walnut and Chestnut Streets and Pleasure and Sadness

I’ve lived in the US for over thirteen years. After I got out of Beaver College (the US school I attended for two years), I could have gone home (strangely, “home” still means Serbia; at this point, that may be only a figure of speech). I chose not to. I found a job here and built my life here. I fell in love with my husband and married him. I had a son. So essentially, my home is now here.

Nostalgia, the frequent accompaniment of my first years in the US, is long gone. Most of the time. Sometimes I get to these places of intense remembering of people and places from my old life. I experience flashes of intense emotion, and maybe that’s some kind of nostalgia too. But that is very different from the nostalgia of my first years in the US. Maybe the main difference is the intensity. And the duration. And how disabled it makes me. And what is good about this new kind of nostalgia is that it comes and goes, easily, and I easily move on, through my day and my life.

But while at that place of nostalgic emotion, no matter how briefly, I might look for things that would take me closer to home. Photographs. Articles. Essays. I might abuse the Internet (this, in my vocabulary, means spending time on the Internet not to get information but to find comfort). I plunge into Serbia and Serbian.

Recently, I got into some web page about the names of streets in Belgrade. One of the major streets used to be called Marsala Tita (Marshal Tito Street), like the major streets in most cities in the republics of the old Yugoslavia were called in the period between the Second World War and the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Some other names for this Belgrade street before it was Marsala Tita Street were Kragujevacka Ulica (Kragujevac’s Street) and Ulica Kralja Milana (King Milan’s Street). Since the nineties, the street has been called Ulica Srpskih Vladara (Street of Serbian Rulers). Bulevar Revolucije (Boulevard of Revolution) changed its name to Ulica Kralja Aleksandra (King Alexander’s Street).

Something makes me compare these names to the names of Philadelphia streets. Yes, Philadelphia has Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue and Jefferson Street. But Philadelphia also has Walnut Street, Chestnut Street, Spruce Street, Pine Street, Strawberry Street. And I love the names of these streets. I love them so much that sometimes I try to translate them into Serbian: Ulica Oraha, Ulica Kestenova, Ulica Borova. And what blows my mind is the fact that you can’t do that. You simply can’t because these names sound like poetry rather than like the names of streets.

This kind of differences between the two languages has created maybe the biggest writing problems for me. I had to invent a new aesthetic that pertained only to English. I had to create a rift between me and Serbian in order to be able to see (or rather hear) English directly, not through the prism of Serbian. I did it. I am grateful for it. But the differences between two languages, one Slavic and one Germanic, never stop to amaze me.

When I studied linguistics (very little of it), I learned that the vocabularies of languages tended to reflect the reality in which they existed. For example, the Eskimo language had a number of words for snow  to express these small differences between different kinds of snow.

Now  Serbian doesn’t really seem to have a word equivalent to the English word pleasure. There is the word zadovoljstvo (content), and there is the word uzivanje (enjoyment). But not the equivalent to that beautiful, very pleasurable word  pleasure. Pleasure is usually translated as zadovoljstvo or uzivanje.

On the other hand, Serbian has two words for sadness. Tuga, that’s sadness, plain sadness. But there is the word seta that has a slightly different meaning. It is sometimes translated as melancholy, but Serbian has the word melanholija, which is a direct equivalent to the word melancholy. Seta is a complex kind of sadness, it’s sadness plus something else. Maybe longing, nostalgia.

Every time I think of these peculiarities of Serbian and English, I wonder, Well, what’s this supposed to mean? What is this supposed to tell me about the Serbian reality and Serbian culture?

And then I decide I don’t really  care. I love the Serbian word seta, and I love the English word pleasure. And that’s enough. For now.

  1. Bob DiNardo
    October 11, 2011 at 5:24 am

    Loved this little essay on the effects the sounds of words can have on us and how we often relate to them through memory. For what it’s worth, I’m really glad you left Belgrade and settled here on Marlborough St. Now there’s a sound for you – MARLBOROUGH – such weight – such gravity.

    • October 12, 2011 at 12:51 am

      Thanks! Interestingly enough, I’ve always lived on the streets whose names had weight to them, and in the cities that had two rivers.

  2. October 16, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    I’m an American living in Beograd. I don’t know how you’ve managed to be there so long. I’ve been here almost 2 years. While I know I wasn’t here during harder times, I never plan to live in the US again unless I absolutely had to, but it would not be permanent. I love it here… Learning the language has been a slow process, partially because I have not put forth the effort and everyone here knows English almost, but I’m still learning it. It’s not hard, just different. And while English might have a vast vocabulary in some things, Serbian has its own. Look at Serbian verbs or nouns describing family. Maybe it’s like the snow for Eskimos. Family has always been a key element to daily life for Serbs for centuries now.

    I hope you get to visit soon, and frequently. And I hope you teach your son the language!


    • October 17, 2011 at 7:28 am

      Thanks for your comment! That’s a great example of differences between the two languages – extended family. It took me years to be able to get them all straight – pasenog, for example. And yes, Serbs are so much more attached to their extended family. It’s always been such a big part of the culture, and it’s maybe easier to cherish those relations in a smaller country. Uzivaj u Beogradu! It’s a beautiful city!

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