By Alexis Traussi
For all intents and purposes, I was completely unprepared for my entire study abroad semester with SIT Balkans, let alone the ISPJ (Independent Study Project in Journalism). To put this in perspective, I did not know that I would be living with a homestay until I had to write the “homestay letter.” So it would make sense that I had absolutely no idea that the ISPJ would include independent field research, barring the fact that the word “independent” is the first word in our friendly acronym ISPJ, or would take an entire month to do such research. Yes, I know, I seem to be an irresponsible human, and in many ways, that is correct. But, I (also) know, that zero expectations lead to a wildly fulfilling ISPJ experience.
The adventure, like usual, began with a sharp spike in my already crippling anxiety. An entire group of fourteen students constantly questioning and whispering to each other, what are you going to write about? never, ever helps. Once we reached the brainstorming period I did know that journalism students had to stay in Belgrade, which was advantageous for the sole purpose that it narrowed down the “you can write about whatever you want wherever you want within the region” prompt. Still I had to worry about what “story” I wanted to write.
Now, I have some things to admit. I am thoroughly steeped in academia and would love to identify as an academic, although I do not think I am quite there, yet. The next thing, journalism is an art of its own. It is a forum for finding stories and presenting those out to the general public. The journalist is just a messenger like Milton’s Raphael appearing in Eden to warn Adam and Eve not to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Opinions fall between the cracks of well-placed facts or figures or quotes. Opinions! One of the building blocks for an academic paper, for an ISPJ they are gone. Remember my anxiety? It is back.
With all of my secrets aired, I will return to the choosing of my topic, which inevitably leads to my story. Since arriving to Belgrade, I, oddly enough, came to the realization that I am a creative soul. Usually when you are trapped in the Liberal Arts box, you have friends making astounding art, playing piano like the second coming of Mozart, and taking photos that would impress Ansel Adams. I, on the other hand, am none of that, which is just as important (I am working on not being self-deprecating). But the avid reader in me was shouting at me for not diving into an analytical reading of poems or novels or memoirs or, or, or. To combat such head-banging thoughts, I wanted to write a story about artists reclaiming spaces in Belgrade as a form of protest. There is a shell of a building in the middle of Savamala, the place our faculty calls home, that has been infiltrated by young artist as a gallery space. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—it was not a story, rather a topic. Alas, by the second round of pitching my story, I was advised, quite wisely, to scrap the topic. Welcome back, anxiety.
what are you interested in?
Everything, I do not know, oh no, oh no, oh no, I guess, um, queer issues.
That last sentence sums up my entire thought process moments after I was asked that dreadful question. Good story ideas were thrown my way, but me being my difficult self, none of them struck a chord with me. As my anxiety nearly hit the roof, I found a fleeting memory. The image of the French café, dogs barking around me, being chastised for not speaking Serbian, and the trans man I met who lived in Belgrade, who opened up to me when others were silencing me, which was no one’s fault. I remember his all-too-real joke about moving to Brooklyn to receive hormones, his explanation of female-to-male surgery options, everything. There it was: my story idea, the trans experience in Belgrade.
This community is small, alienated, and nearly invisible, but it is also a group of the most well-spoken, insightful, and hard-working people I have met in Belgrade. My first interviewee, who heads Gayten-LGBT, an all-inclusive LGBTQIA NGO, paved the way to find candidates to interview. All of whom spoke about the issues trans people faced with an astounding passion and knowledge that transformed the interviews into lengthy conversations about problems, facts, and changes that were to be proposed to the Serbian and international political spheres. They opened up to me, an odd foreigner, about their respective pains with an unspoken courage that roused me to the pitch of tears. To say that my interviewees changed my worldly perspective would be the understatement of the year.
The challenges came at the forefront of the writing process. With nearly 14 pages of quotable quotes and no idea where to begin; this 1,500 word piece became the anxious hand I was talking about earlier. Not to mention the demands of journalistic ethics that encumbered my entire thought process. Transgender vocabulary is, unfortunately, usually harmful to those in the community and focuses on people’s transitions rather than their thoughts and experiences—the very heart of the piece. When writing, I constantly fumbled through the reworking of potentially problematic phrases, the explaining of trans-specific vocabulary, the proper usage of people’s pronouns. The writing process, my words this time held more weight than my usual pandering about fourth-century maps or feminist education reformers. In search of painting an accurate and often times painful image of trans people living in Belgrade, I felt as though I needed to break through the stigma that I have read on numerous occasions throughout my research that Serbia “is the most homophobic, transphobic, and violent nation” rhetoric.
At the end of the piece, I (think I) found some semblance of truth; the kind of truth with a lower-case “t,” a kind of snapshot—to quote the title—into some person’s everyday life. To put into perspective peoples own privileges, own struggles, own lives. In some ways I succeeded. In some ways I failed. But like I mentioned before, the ISPJ experience was educationally fulfilling process. So much so, that I am so glad I stumbled upon such a study abroad program.