Friday, April 20, 2012

Coffee, Computers and Cafe Culture

If I had a kuna for every double take I receive in the cafe I frequent, I'd have enough to finance the opening of the first Starbucks in Croatia. I've been in this country for five years now, so I know that sitting by oneself at a table with only a computer is rare. Unheard of. At least in small town Croatia.

Since I started working towards a master's degree in the fall, I've been coming to this cafe at least 3 times a week while our son is in preschool. Despite the music, and the conversations around me, I find it a pleasant place to study for a couple hours. But, there is no doubt I am a fish out of water.

To my right, five elderly ladies order čaj and compare medical conditions and prescriptions. On the other side, two suits discuss local politics. And here am I, reading about Pannenberg's doctrine of Christ, frequently stopping to type notes on my laptop - with no one to talk to.

I've had some sympathetic coffee drinkers try to help. One elderly gentleman attempted to start a conversation this way: "Oh, my daughter lives in America and wants to buy a new laptop". I responded by asking where she lived. My accent seemed to confuse him so he turned around...then turned again to ask where I was from. We still talk from time to time, but laptops and relatives in America don't get us very far.

Another acquaintance recently predicted that within the next 10 years, people will read from computers like they used to read books. He's a professor of mathematics at a college in Osijek. When I showed him that his journal articles were on the internet, and told him that anyone, anywhere could access them, he literally jumped out of his seat.

Whenever he comes to the cafe and I'm here, he asks me what else this machine can do. We talk about teaching, learning, and even religion and politics from time to time. I'm grateful for his company whenever he sits with me. I'm able to practice a completely different set of Croatian vocabulary with him than I am with anyone else.

Slatina is a town of 10,000 in the region of Croatia known for farming. There are bankers, teachers, business owners and even students here. But working on a laptop is still 10 years away from coming to this cafe. In Croatia, computers are more associated with games and facebook than email and Word. In fact, even in the workplace, computers are not seen as the necessity they are in America. Typewriters and file cabinets are much more familiar to the workers, and thus are used with much more frequency. And no one brings a computer to the cafe.

But I'm content here. Without having to take my order anymore, the waitresses happily bring my kava s mlijekom when I walk in. Most of the people around me have already done their double-take. They're used to me. And I'm glad to have company if anyone offers.

Still, it's shocking for anyone who has never seen me here. But for once, it's nice to be on the other side.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Day my Pastor Washed my Car

His name is Slobodan, which means "free". You can tell, just by spending a half-hour with him that he is constrained by nothing.

One day last fall, he and I had plans to take down the bunk-beds used for camp in order to begin making a nursery in our church.  But he had changed his mind by the time I arrived at his house.

"The wind blew yesterday and we have to go get the chestnuts that have fallen in the woods" he explained in a hurry.  This was after he told me to come in, sit down and eat the mushrooms sizzling in the frying pan he picked from the forest floor in the morning.

So rather than working in the church, we went to pick chestnuts.

Pastor Slobodan is recently retired - from his job as an agriculturalist.  Most pastors of evangelical churches in Croatia have full-time jobs besides their responsibilities as a pastor.  Now that he is no longer working his main job, he'll be able to spend more of his time doing what full-time pastors do.

But his attitude since I've met him has always been the same.  Whether he's in the fields (from what I've heard), or helping me build a fence, driving somewhere, or washing the dishes, he's singing.  All the time.

So it was no surprise when we were picking chestnuts that he praised the Lord for every chestnut we put in his basket.  "Lord, just like your grace falls freely, so also you have given us these chestnuts.  All glory to God".   He would sing.  He exclaimed.  He praised the Lord. And he constantly reminded me of how good our God is.  Which is refreshing.  It made me think about how often I wait to sing in a controlled environment, when I feel comfortable, and when everyone else is doing it.

When we returned to the car, we realized it had sunk into the mud a bit. I did my best to get it out, but with little mud experience, Slobodan realized it would be better for him to do it.  Like a pro, he rocked the car, spun the wheels while steering left and right and immediately got it out.  But not without splattering the car with mud.

He knew I had a guitar lesson as soon as we got back to the church, so he told me "Jeremy, you can't go back to your wife with a dirty car.  I'm going to clean it." Sure enough, the whole time I was teaching several teenagers how to strum the G chord, he washed my car.

That day told me everything you need to know about our pastor. He's traditional. He's spontaneous. He's genuine. And he's humble.

When many western congregations are so often consumed by programs, methods and the newest thing, it's refreshing (dare I say shocking?) to witness the actions of a simple servant.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Shifting Gears

It started with a confession: "Jeremy, I'm a little tired, would you mind taking the wheel?"

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't object at all. I love to drive. The only thing keeping me from immediately accepting the invitation to hop in the drivers seat was the fact that there was a stick shift next to it. But I didn't have to say a thing.

"Dad! You know my husband has never driven manual before, don't you?"

"Well, he can learn now" my father-in-law said as we sped down the highway along the Adriatic. "He lives in Europe. He's got to learn sometime" he reasoned.

Unable to argue with him, after stopping at a rest stop, I reluctantly changed seats, put on my seat belt and turned on the car - without pushing in the clutch. The car's lurch indicated how offended it was that an American driver was trying to control it. "Maybe this is good" I thought as my head whipped back to it's original position. "He has to see there's no chance I can do this".

But the man who's been through an airplane crash and a war was determined to survive this too. He patiently instructed me how to correctly turn on the car and get from neutral to first gear successfully. After about five tries, I got it. Then a few more. Finally, it was time.

Fifteen  minutes and a ton of cars passed before I had the guts to merge onto the highway. We stumbled into third, then fourth, then finally the last one. Fifth gear quickly became my best friend. As long as I could stay at 80 km/hr or higher, I was good.

But there was a toll booth coming.

After successfully slowing down and paying the fee, I pushed in the clutch nonchalantly - as if the man who took my money cared to watch my footwork. "I got this" I told myself. My foot eased onto the gas. Nothing happened. I slowly let up the clutch. Still nothing. I did both a little faster and we screeched to a standstill. So did the German VW behind us. The toll-booth guy looked confused.

Starting to sweat a bit, I tried again, but even less smoothly. Screeeeeeeetch!

The car, toll-booth guy, wife, and VW were all impatient. None more than I though. And impatience doesn't help one find the perfect balance between clutch and gas. We must have sputtered forward five or six more times. But finally we were on our way again. Back to fifth gear. Back to heaven.

What's the moral of the story?

Learn to drive stick before you move to Europe. Or, hope your passengers have as much faith as my father-in-law does.