Monday, March 13, 2017

On Friendships in the States and Friendships in Croatia

I'll open here by saying that I have no concrete evidence for everything I'm about to write, that I don't know how much of what I say could possibly be measured, and that even if something can't be measured, it can still be true.

In the U.S., I've only studied and worked in highly competitive environments. I went to competitive magnet programs in middle school and high school in a rich, competitive school system. I went to an Ivy. I went to an MA program at the University of Iowa, which had a good reputation and where more than half of the people I knew went to an undergraduate program in the top 25. For the past five years, I've been in a Ph.D. program at the University of Washington, which does not have the same prestige, but which has plenty of smart people who are competing with each other for jobs in a terrible job market, and who are competing with each other for ever rarer grants and TA assignments so they can finish their dissertations. In environments like these, everyone's ego takes brutal hit after brutal hit. I was emotionally destroyed by high school and again by my freshman year of college, and again by my first year of my MA program at Iowa. Everyone searched for reasons to look down on each other in order to establish their worth and their right to be where they were.

I had friends from all these environments whom I still talk to, outside of Facebook, which is the only true definition of friendship in this era. But I developed other friendships that were doomed in the long run, for they were based on a measure of transaction and could easily be troubled by petty jealousies. There were pervasive ideas in each environment that in retrospect were profoundly stupid. In college, people would look down on the athletes who supposedly didn't have the same intellectual qualifications they had. They looked down on people who didn't get into the right seminars. In high school they looked down on people who said supposedly stupid things in their English classes or about Anna Karennina, which they had read over the summer, and a couple of jackasses toted Ayn Rand, because such an environments attract jackasses who tote Ayn Rand. I wasn't above it. I was part of it. Most of the people I knew were. My MA program at Iowa was hilarious. I am barely exaggerating when I mention the dude who once made fun of someone for just not getting Walter Benjamin. People were friends with people who told them they were brilliant, who had an "in" with a professor at another school and who could get them a connection, people who were clearly going places and who might be good to know in the long run. Was everyone like this? Of course not, but many were.

For the past two months, I've found myself, out of necessity, asking for favors from people who don't owe me a damn thing. I introduce myself as a Ph.D. candidate who is researching the Zagreb School, and I ask for books, DVDs, special meetings with important people, last-minute, before-I-leave-the-country access to archival materials, informal tours of the city where The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962) was shot, workhours to spend copying films from film to DVD for free. I have rarely heard a no. The generosity is staggering and I find myself falling into American habits and offering future favors. ("If you ever want to publish something in English, I can help with proofreading." "I might know someone in the States if you ever want to show your movie at a film festival.") Everyone shrugs off the offer. I doubt I will ever have to follow through on any promises.

Hospitality to a foreigner? Sure. But the culture among a young crowd of filmmakers and film scholars here is not vicious to any degree. They give each other advice and encouragement. They have a common enemy in an arrogant older generation that got the country into one hell of a mess.  But you don't sense imbalances in power in relationships. I have friends here who spent time not in the States but in Germany and Austria and they complain about a similar culture.

I won't romanticize too much. People can be assholes in other ways. There's a culture of bluntness and the sexism here isn't different from what you get in the States. A friend has mentioned his local friends' willingness to make fun of his weight.

Is it a legacy of Yugoslavia's soft socialism, which always had one or two good features? Am I around a non-representative minority of the country? Is the culture I know in the States equally non-representative? The places where I've lived in and worked in the States have their own merits, but they have an incurable illness, one that I always thought was degenerative, but which I now think may be terminal.

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