Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Yes, Serbia Photographs Are Coming

To all of you who have emailed me, thanks for encouragement. I forgot to pack a digital camera but a neighbor has loaned me his so I can take pictures for this blog. (The suggestion that I just buy one for my stay here horrified him. Serbs are not financial wastrels as we Americans can be.)

As soon as I get over this flu, I'll be out snapping away. In the meantime I'm having a ball dreaming up potential photo essays.

Sombor's Unwritten Shoe Law (Or, Why I've Got the Flu)

I've been sick with the flu for several days now, and apparently it's all my own fault because I flagrantly and frequently broke the unwritten but extremely important BARE FEET LAW in Sombor, Serbia.

Everyone here (and I mean everyone) wears shoes outdoors *all the time* even in their own backyards. These can be the flimsiest of sandles, but nevertheless the sole of your foot is covered. However, the split second your foot enters a house, it must be unshod. You're supposed to whip those shoes off and walk around barefoot (or in socks or house slippers) inside your home as well as other people's homes.

"What if you're all dressed up for a formal affair?" I asked a Serb girlfriend who recently moved back to live with her family in Sombor after a dozen years in New Jersey. "Sure you wouldn't take off your dressy shoes and walk around in bare feet in someone's house with a fancy outfit on?" "Oh, there's a procedure for that," she replied. She lept up from my kitchen table and ran out the front door, so she could enter again. This time, just as she stepped over the door into the house she raised one foot and placed her hand on it, as if to slip off her strappy sandle. Then she paused and looked coyly over her shoulder cocking an eyebrow at me. "This is how you show your hostess you're willing to take off your shoes." "And then she says 'It's ok to leave them on, right?" I asked. "Sometime yes, sometimes no."

Apparently this Shoe Law is not a Serbia-wide affair. People in Belgrade routinely wear shoes in the house. It's also not a Serb-ethnic thing, Serbs living in Croatia and other countries do not fret about shoe-wearing rules much. It's a Sombor thing. My husband thinks it arose 200+ years ago when the streets were often extremely muddy in this farm-market town.

No matter that the streets have been paved since the 1850s, I saw for myself at the outdoor fish Paprikas party last week, how this shoe law still holds sway. As we adults relaxed around an outdoor dining table, the young children frequently ran in and out of the propped-open back door of the house. No matter how much we'd drunk, or how engrossed we were in conversation, or how late it was, all the Sombor-born adults were on a continual state of what I can only call 'Shoe Alert. ' Each time a child approached that back door, someone in the group would break off conversation, and call out 'Take your shoes off" or "Put your shoes on!" whichever the situation called for. Then they would fix the child with a beady eye until the action in question was taken care of.

I can only imagine what my hostess thought of my dreadful American manners that same night when I forgot to take off my shoes when entering the house to go to the bathroom. She was gracious however, and made not a sign of her dismay.

Our next door neighbor couldn't help herself in a similar situation though. When she witnessed me walking about in our little grassy courtyard IN MY BARE FEET, she gasped loudly and cried out to my husband. I asked him why she was so concerned. "She thinks you'll get the flu if you walk outside in bare feet," he explained. "In 95 degree heat in August?" I asked. He replied, "Well, she's wrong of course, but she's older. It's old fashioned thinking."

However here I am now with a full blown case of the flu, so our neighbor's concerns are completely vindicated. As she knew they would be.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Triumph! I Made Serbian Coffee by Myself!

I did it! I finally made coffee in Serbia that a real Serb would drink, all by myself and *without* supervision. It's taken months and I am not a tremendously stupid person. It's just alien that's all.

Step 1. Put sugar into cold water in metal coffee "pot" (a tall thin pot with no lid; I'll post a photo soon of this and other exotic sights) and put on stove to boil. At this point a real Serb will tell you that you put in the wrong amount of water and they will pour some of it off.

Step 2. Add two HEAPING tablespoons of super-fine-ground coffee (looks like dark powder) per person to be served. At this point a real Serb will add a bit more coffee.

Step 3. Within 2-5 seconds the coffee will foam up in the pot, very dramatically. Yank it off the heat just at the microsecond it's going to boil over. At this point a real Serb will laugh because you forgot to have the potholder ready.

Step 4. Stir the coffee briefly but thoroughly, and put it back on the heat to boil a few more seconds.

Step #5. Turn off heat with one hand and slam a china plate (tea cup sized, bottom side down) over the pot as a "lid". As every Serb will explain, this is critical to catch the coffee oil that would otherwise escape in the steam. They will not explain why Serbian coffee pots are sold without lids. Let sit for several minutes.

Step #6. Pour the coffee very carefully into little cups. These are smaller than teacups but bigger than espresso cups. Never pour one cup all at once (unless you are the only one drinking coffee); instead pour a little into one cup, a bit into the next, and so on and so on. The goal is for every cup to have equal amounts of clear coffee versus grounds.

Yes, grounds. Coffee is not filtered at all.

Step #7. Sit and wait for coffee to cool and settle in your cup. Under no circumstances should you stir. If you need extra sugar, hold the spoon horizontally in the cup, so the sugar is just covered by liquid and slowly dissolves.

Step #8. Drink in tiny sips, careful of upsetting grounds which are thick sludge at the bottom of the cup. Caffeine impact is much bigger than US coffee, so naturally Serbs drink coffee anytime of day or night including right before bed.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Why Serbs Love Curtains (& Americans Don't)

My step-daughter shuddered when she first saw my house (now our house) in the US a few years ago. "Why don't you have any curtains?" she wailed. "I can't stay here. It's creepy."

It's a modern-style house with lots of windows overlooking a sunny water view and no one but the birds to see inside. Curtains, was she crazy? Blech. I thought maybe it was a teenage thing.

Now that I'm here I see, no it's not. It's a Serb thing. Windows here are huge - way bigger than US windows for most houses. But every single one of them is covered by a curtain -- usually white gauze with a lacy pattern of some sort. Very few have anything heavier (I've not seen any formal drapes of the type we Americans like to frame our windows with. ) These gauzy curtains are firmly pulled across every window, open or closed.

At first I couldn't figure out why. An entire country with really stuffy taste? I stripped the old dusty floor-to-ceiling gauze panels off every window in our Sombor house under the cover of needing to remove them for safety while painting all the rooms.

Then the first night we couldn't sleep due to mosquitos. "You see honey, curtains have a purpose," my husband remarked mildly. The next day I had him march to the hardware store to buy wire screens to put on the outsides of all our windows.

Then, when the paint had dried I moved into to my new home office. By 1pm the room was pretty hot. By 2pm it was an oven. I ran into the kitchen to throw water on my face, "Oh God!" "Honey, since you don't have curtains, you should close the wooden shutters in there against the sun so it doesn't get so hot," my husband recommended. "But you still won't have any air I'm afraid."

Next, as I met more people in the neighborhood, their heads started poking into my office window day and night abruptly breaking my concentration and sometimes startling me considerably. "Dobr Dan," they would say cheerfully. My husband would come running from wherever he was in the house and a social conversation would ensue. "They think you are open to the public because you don't have curtains," he finally explained. "If you don't want to be interrupted...."

OK, ok. I get it. There are many reasons why every house in Serbia has curtains hanging in every window. None of them are because anyone likes stuffy dark rooms. It's because they like privacy, cooling breezes, and fewer bugs.

So am I going to put the curtains back up? Well, only in the bedroom which faces the street and sidewalk. I'm sorry, I'm just too American. All those curtains inside just make my skin crawl.

Things I Have Seen Carried by Bicyles in Sombor

One large watermelon (balanced on the handlebar)
An adult who would otherwise need a wheelchair (being led along)
An enormous industrial saw (towed with its own set of wheels)
A cushioned chair (upside down, being led along)
A stainless steel kitchen sink with draining board (carried awkwardly under one arm)

... my husband says this is nothing. Wait until we visit Asia.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Things Stocked in Office Supply Stores in Serbia

Ash trays. On the display shelf next to the digital cameras. Because every office needs them.

You Can't Return Things You Bought to Serbian Store (At Least Not Easily)

Before coming here I'd heard that customer service pretty much anywhere outside the US and Canada was fairly bad. OK, at least by our standards. For example, France is infamous for shopstaff ignoring customers or saying they don't have something that's clearly in stock. So I braced myself for bad service from Serbs.

Actually it's not remotely a problem ... at first glance. Most of the shops I've been in are overstaffed given their size and low customer numbers. (I think this is a holdover from communist times when stores were operated by the State and everyone possible was given a job.) So, staff are a bit bored and eager to help you out. Plus, Serbs are outgoing, social people at heart, so chatting with customers is a delight for them.

I only saw the "dark side" of shopping in Serbia when we got things home, and they weren't perfect for our needs. (Example: a fan was broken, a chair was too short for the table.) There's nothing wrong with that... until you realize that Serb stores are *extremely* reluctant to give exchanges or refunds. Actually a refund in most cases is out of the question and an exchange, even for the same thing or for store credit is going to take pushing.

It's a case of buyer beware. Only buy if you're sure you can stand to lose the money if the item doesn't work out. Which is why I'm sitting at a stumpy office chair with the PC keyboard high up on the table above me. My husband says he can build me a little wooden platform for the chair to sit on. But, his eyes tell me this is all my fault for not making sure the chair would extend as high as I needed it before we left the store. As an American consumer, I have a lot of retraining to do before I can be trusted with major purchases here!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Serbian Women Are Beautiful (Luckily Most Don't Know It)

We were having coffee in the courtyard of a neighbor's house yesterday morning when a man I knew came by with his wife. He's an average looking guy, pleasant enough but nothing special, although his eyes are a bit more intense and his body a bit more trim than his US counterpart average guy would be. The wife, however, was something else. A stunning beauty. Total knock out.

However, you could tell she didn't think she was anything extraordinary. Probably that's because she isn't. Serbian women are, on average, more beautiful than Americans ... or Germans or Austrians or Hungarians for that matter. It's a matter of beautiful bone structure mixed with nearly perfect posture and grace of bearing, strong healthy hair (even natural blondes), glowing olive skin tones (again even natural blondes), and those Serb eyes. Plus, until they hit middle age nearly no one is overweight. Not even a few pounds around the middle.

(The children and teens here are the same -- perfect posture, perfect skin, and rarely overweight.)

As I tried not to stare at my friend's wife, who was calmly prepping a fishing pole for her intended afternoon outing to the Danube, I thought, "If Tyra Banks saw an entire town of women like these while scouting for her America's Next Top Model show, the top of her head would pop off. It would be too much to choose from, overwhelming."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Late night at Riblji Paprikas Party

Going to a Riblji Paprikas party in Sombor in August is like going to an American barbecue in July. The dress is casual, the women lounge about on the deck idly talking, the children run like demented puppies all around the yard, and the men are completely in charge of the cooking.

Ribliji Paprikas is a type of fish soup, cooked outside in a huge cast iron pot over an open fire, that's only made in a certain northwestern part of Serbia, where the Hungarian influence is strong. Once you get about 30 kilometers below Belgrade, my host explains, you've gone too far south. The ingredients, which like any good pot of chili in Texas vary slightly from chef to chef, but the basis of every Paprikas is finely chopped red peppers, onions, a dash of salt and an entire large fresh water fish or two (including head and tail) from the Danube or local canal.

Sustained by shots of Rakija, the famous Serb clear plum brandy, the men dashed about the fire officiously, tossing in half a handful of this, a tiny bit of that to season the broth. They continually heaped on piles of dried twigs so the flames leapt high and white hot, and the soup boiled up dramatically for what seemed like more than an hour. Every few minutes one of the men would kick the pot with his foot, slightly searing his leather moccasins, to get it rolling about as it dangled over the fire -- the macho equivalent of stirring.

I was slightly alarmed watching - it seemed a very long time to cook a soup at such a high heat. Would the fish be hard and tasteless? Nothing could be further from reality.

When at last the soup was ready, the men carried the pot to sit in a place of honor in the middle of the table. (Naturally, like men around the world, they forgot about formal potholders and seared their hands until an awkward carrying device was contrived out of a piece of cardboard from the woodpile. I said to my husband, "That's exactly the way you would do it honey." To which he replied, "This is true.")

In the meantime, in a brief flurry of activity the women had set an outdoor table with wide bowls of the type you eat pasta from. The only silverware was a ladle for the soup and a large soup spoon for everyone. They also brought out a big bowl of pasta -- thick yellow egg-spaghetti only cut into two-inch lengths.

Everyone filled their bowls with the pasta and then ladeled soup broth over it. We'd get to the fish later, it was explained to me, when we'd eaten enough of the broth for the fish to be visible at the bottom of the pot. Because the fish is thrown into the pot pretty much whole, it's hard to pull out serving-sized pieces if you can't see what you're jabbing at with the ladle.

There had been some concerned conversation earlier about whether the soup would be too hot -- as in spicy hot-- for this Amerikanka (me). I'd poo-pooed the suggestion, "Oh I eat Indian and hot Asian food all the time!", but secretly begun to worry as the soup had so dramatically boiled and boiled. In my experience with Mexican peppers, the longer you cook them at high heat in a soup, the more intense the spicyness.

However, my first taste proved the soup was actually fairly mild, more of a smokey, tangy flavor than anything that could burn your mouth painfully. So when I saw the men adding small slices of fresh, uncooked hot pepper to their bowls, I begged some too. Now the soup was perfect!

Later when we got to the fish part of the meal, it was also completely different than I had imagined. Instead of hard overcooked fish, it was unbelievably moist and tender. I have never tasted better cooked fish in my life. Everyone ate their fish with their soup spoon, which takes a great deal of dexterity given that you're dealing with skin plus lots and lots of little bones, and also given the amount of pivo (beer) you've probably had by that point. I had to use a few fingers as well to pry the meat clean. I'll get better with practice; Americans are not used to eating unboned fish routinely as Serbs are.

Every summer in Sombor they have a Paprikas festival with dozens of men gathering to cook and compete outside. We just missed it this year, but hopefully will be here for the next in 2008. I suggested that someone should contact Tabasco to sponsor it. Tabasco is one of the very, very few items on supermarket shelves from the US, it would go perfectly in Paprikas, and best of all, it's from Louisiana which in festive spirit reminds me a great deal of Sombor.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Radio Sombor to be sold off to highest bidder on Sept 20th

Radio Sombor, one of the town's radio stations, is up for auction as part of Serbia's privatization movement as the government sells off many of its business assets. Serbia's official privatization Web site for government-owned company auctions and offerings nationwide is here (just click the link to the English language section.)

It's fascinating reading for the business-minded. You can see revenues, assets, costs, staff sizes, etc for an enormously wide range of operations, including farms with thousands of acres, shoe factories built to serve a nation, several vet clinics, and of course the media including newspapers, magazines, TV stations as well as Radio Sombor.

Most are officially losing money each year, mainly people here tell me, because they are overstaffed sometimes by 50-100% which is typical of state-run organizations everywhere in the world since the time of the Roman Empire.

However, staff here make very little money -- a top manager of a government organization may have take home pay of 500 Euros a month (plus the employer kicks in roughly 70% more to the state for pension, healthcare, etc.) That's incredibly low. So, although you might be able to "save money" by cutting extra staff after your obligatory first year when you legally are bound to keep everyone, in a few years staff costs will go right back up again as market forces cause employees to require more money.

Let's face it, the days of employing a 40-year old experienced worker in Serbia for 200-300 Euros take home pay are on their way out the door. So the profits a "privateer" can make by simply slashing staff down to 'normal' Western company size will be eaten away by Serb staff beginning to require normal Western wages.

This means anyone taking a company private should be buying into supporting the growth of the Serb economy as a whole, so they have a strong healthy country to do business in as wages increase. Otherwise future profits are doomed. Unfortunately that's not always what seems to be happening now. Stories abound of "privateers" buying state-run orgs, sucking all the possible fast profits out of them (slashing staff, selling off assets, neglecting to pay for staff pensions, etc) and then flipping them again to new buyers. Although the initial "privateers" are I think required by law to be Serb citizens, I don't think there's any law (or at least anything that's remotely enforced) requiring them to sell in turn to Serbs too.

So more and more of the former Yugoslavia's best assets -- including prime farm land and key media such as Radio Sombor -- are owned by outsiders who have no real allegiance to Serbs at all beyond making a profit. It's a dangerous thing, but I don't see how the government can stop it.

Anyway, kind of cool to think it's possible to buy a radio station in my new home town!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Serbs claim you can't lose on Belgrade Stock Market

In 2006 the Belgrade Stock Market was one of the top 10 fastest growing markets in the world although hardly anyone in the US ever heard of it. In fact roughly 60% of funds on the market are from foreign backers -- according to my husband this is mostly Croatian financial firms and expatriated Serbs.

Aside from real estate, the Belgrade Stock market is the hip hot thing for young people (by which I mean ages 25-35) to talk about getting rich on. I'm hearing about new brokerages being formed by former bank employees who want to get rich. The new brokerage I have a connection to say they'll either take 1% commission on all transactions for a client, or if you wish to invest a minimum of 100,000 Euros, they'll manage your funds personally, buying and selling as needed to get you the highest possible return. The latter service costs a straight 17% cut of the "profits" (I'm not sure how often it's calculated) and they say they "guarantee" at least a 20% return on investment pre-commission of course.

If you look at the annual growth charts in the latest monthly report (PDF here, it's in Serbian but the numbers are obvious to any English-speaker) , you can see why everyone's so bullish.

But I'm not. Whenever I hear about a "guaranteed sure thing" on the financial markets, I immediately grow wary and suspicious. I've heard of and seen too many bubbles fall. Heck, I lived through the dot-com blow out when so many of my friends lost their businesses (and some their marriages and homes to boot.)

Anyway, past performance is not a remotely solid indicator of the future. And this market has too FEW influencers. Only a few companies are represented, only a few brokers are involved, only a few million-Euro funds are investing, etc. When there are only a few influencers, the problems of any one of them could pull the entire market down. Plus, let's face it, Serbia is a pretty small country that's spent most of its history being batted around like a mouse toy by bigger powers (Russia, Turkey, Austria, Germany, NATO, etc.) who care little if anything for the fate of the little man - or average stockholder. Any of these could make a move that could squash the Belgrade market like a bug ... at least for a while.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

People-watching in Budapest Ikea

When we visited Budapest on a day trip from Serbia yesterday, our friends wanted very much to shop at Ikea. There are rumors of an Ikea opening next year in Novi Sad (where no doubt they will make out like bandits) but no Ikea in Serbia as yet. So this was a fairly exciting destination for our friends.

My husband and I live less than an hour from an Ikea in the States, we have college-aged kids and just finished a kitchen renovation, so you can imagine how often we've been to Ikea in the past couple of years! So Ikea in Budapest, when we finally found it -- after an hour of driving about in Budapest's thick traffic, over the Danube, then reversing back over the Danube, asking the old woman at the bus stop, asking the young man in the car lane next to us, asking the two mothers crossing the street, etc. -- was not very exciting for its merchandise which is the nearly entirely same as in the US (only higher prices.)

However, we had a grand time people watching. We found a good place to sit while our friends shopped and treated Ikea as a luxury cafe, perfect to see the world go by, complete with ligonberry juice.

Basically everyone was, naturally, Hungarian. And let me tell you, most Hungarians look very much alike. It felt like we were at a large family reunion with no one but first, second, and third cousins all swarming about. Now, I've noticed in the past a certain sameness about Serbs as well, although definitely less of one. In general there are two Serb faces - thin with high cheek bones, and very square with high cheek bones. Plus, most Serbs have a fairly similar something about the eye socket. Their eyes are penetrating and haunting at the same time.

Hungarian's likeness -- at least to my eyes -- were concentrated in their noses. From what I could see, reviewing literally hundreds of Hungarian noses, they only actually have about five of them. If you are Hungarian, you have one of the five, and that's that.

After a while I gave them names -- the Emperor's nose, the round end, the classic profile, etc. It was very fun to watch all these noses carried by on their owners.... Two Emperors hand in hand in full flush of young love, an elderly round end in a fine pair of linen trousers, several classic profiles impatient in line...

If Americans look alike, it's due to their attitude, their gestures, and the fashions they are wearing... not the actual structure of their faces. So this world of being able to pick out a person's nationality by their nose or by their eyes is very foreign and a bit amusing to me.

My new US passport slows the Serbo-Hungarian border for at least an hour

Traffic on the Serbia's border with Hungary near Subotica was held up for about an hour yesterday morning and it's all my fault. When the Hungarian border guards asked our car to pull over, we thought it was because one of our party was a Serb with an EU country green card. Apparently this is the sort of situation that brings out all the officiousness in a typical EU border guard's nature, especially because Serb's without EU visas are not blithely allowed over the Hungarian border even though the two countries are neighbors and have sent fairly large populations to and fro for eons in history. (In fact, about 30% of Sombor's population are ethnic Hungarians.)

As we all waited, and waited, and waited it began to seem a bit long. Plus, now the entire border seemed to be slowed down more than usual, with lines getting longer and longer. After about 30 minutes, our friend who was the driver, walked over to the guard's station to see what was up. Turns out the "problem" was my brand new US passport that I'd just gotten a couple of weeks ago with my new married name.

The US State Department has just come out with a new passport format. From the outside it looks the same as the old passports, but inside every page is covered with images of famous American scenes with accompanying quotes. It's like looking through a tourism brochure. The images are screened at perhaps 50% when they are printed, so supposedly visa stamps and country entry marks can be stamped on top of them legibly. (Actually, it's fairly hard to read the stamps now...)

When I first saw this new passport, I called to everyone in the family to look, "Hey, it's a propoganda booklet!" (Personally I especially disliked how often the word "God" happened to be mentioned in the quotes that were so carefully selected. It's not a word we, or any other country or people, should flaunt as being specifically "on our side" in these times when too many people around the world use it to justify violence. )

Anyway, turns out mine was the very first new-version US passport the Hungarian border guards had seen. Being what you might call passport examination professionals, they were utterly fascinated by all the changes. So each one at the border in turn left his station and came over to our particular guard's little hut to spend time carefully examining it.

After about an hour, when each had looked his fill, they let us go with a glad wave.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Disappointing Visit to Serb Grocery Store - Ziper

Sombor's greenmarket has far fresher and tastier produce than any US grocery store. The tomatoes alone... oh wow. And compared to US farmer's markets, the prices are next to nothing. (Again, the tomatoes....wow.) But I can't live on tomatoes alone. So I went to small grocery stores in town center to stock up on anything else - canned goods, prepared foods, cheese, you know.

As you'd expect in a small neighborhood store, there wasn't much selection. Actually a weirdly large amount of the space was taken up up rows of cookies and candy. Not that we don't have those in the US, but they don't dominate such a high percent of groceries in the store. Also weird because the overwhelming majority of Serbs are THIN. You'd never guess these kids went anywhere near junk food.

The other rows were mainly liquids (waters, wide array of juices, soda, beer, etc), household cleaning products, and a whole bunch of meat, mainly sausages and beef.

Since I don't eat meat or candy or wheat-based food, I left the store with some water and juice and that's it. My husband warned me it would be tough to find food in Serbia, but this was tougher than I imagined it would be. I wasn't expecting gourmet food or foreign (Thai, Indian, etc) food. But I had thought there'd be things like canned chickpeas. And nobody warned me there's no cilantro apparently in most of Europe. (All those tomatoes and I can't make real salsa! Pain. Agony.)

So yesterday we took a taxi out of town to the Big Market. It's called Ziper, and it's in a Big glossy new building. I was very hopeful. The good news is, we bought a great mop and bucket. Plus, I found two tiny dusty jars of pasta sauce up high on a shelf. The bad news is, aside from this, that's about all the big store had that the tiny ones didn't. The big store essentially had precisely the same exact stock the small stores had, only more volume of that same exact stock. So if you really needed 5,000 bottles of the exact same water, you were in for a treat.

If you wanted variety, you need to drive to Belgrade. Or Hungary. So today we're getting up early to drive to Budapest for a shopping trip with friends. I'm excited!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Serbian Real Estate Market Taking Off

Nearly everyone I meet is talking about real estate. Feels like California in the 1980s. There's this strong feeling the market is significantly underpriced, and will be going up fairly quickly - as in 10-20% steadily per year for the next five years at least. Seems to hold true no matter what real estate Serbs are talking about - farm land, houses, flats, Sombor, Novia Sad or even the biggie, Belgrade.

Here's some ways it differs from the US markets:

o Pricing by the square meter. People tell you how much by square meter, and then when you ask, they tel you how many meters, and then you have to do the math. Everything is evaluated by square meter price though. (Except farm land which is in hectares)

o Euros. Everything in the stores is Dinars only... but if you want to buy Serbian real estate, bring Euros. (BTW: If you need to exchange large sums of dollars for Euros for real estate deals in Europe, I strongly recommend this peer-to-peer el cheapo currency exchange which several friends have used FXA World.)

o Building & rebuilding is pretty cheap. Unlike the US where there's still a shortage of skilled building labor in many markets, Serbia has loads of talented workmen eager to take on renovation and building work. In fact, a Church painting restorer just finished painting the entire inside of our house in Sombor. He was quick, very pleasant, always on time, did a great job, and affordable. I've never had that experience with home repair in the US.

o Very few real estate agents... and they only rep a tiny percent of the actual homes or land for sale. Most homes and land are sold direct by owner. But hardly anyone puts the local equivilant of a for sale sign up. Very occasionally they might post a tiny black and white flyer in the window. You hear about everything through word of mouth. Incredibly we've seen far more flyers posted in public by flat (condo) seekers than we have from sellers. If you realy want to get into a particular building, you post a flyer outside it asking for people to contact you!

o Title and ownership -- fuzzy titles due to WWII, communism, etc are supposedly all being sorted out over the next year or two. This seems to be a bigger problem in Croatia than it is in Serbia because so many Serbs fled Croatia due to civil war, and their homes, often half burned-out, are still standing empty. It seems, to my perhaps misinformed eye anyway, few Croats fled Serbia. So there's not such a problem in the reverse.

Anyway, the giant mansion at the end of our street is a case just like much of belgrade... a beautiful building that's falling apart partly because the title hasn't been cleared up completely yet. It belonged to a rich foreigner (Austrian I think) before WWII, then invading troops used it, then the Yugoslav government took it 'for the people', and now someone in an office somewhere is sorting out what to do with the title. Meanwhile it stands empty.

Some of the best deals for formerly-government properties being privatized are being advertised in The Economist. I saw a ad there last week for a chain of 20+ department stores across Serbia for 150 million Euros... having been in some of the store in question, they themselves are totally not worth it. Horribly run down and half-deserted. However, the land they sit on is the real value. Gold, gold, gold.

Must go off to my language lesson now. Eyeing potential investment property all the way!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Acck! I miss talking about work and the Web... just-personal is boring

I can't help it ... I started this blog, as I do most conversations these days, in the social-personal vein. Talking about this and that. But the itch is killing me to bring up business.... The girl can't help it.

I sold my company a few months ago (I was in Internet publishing and ecommerce in the USA) to start a NEW LIFE with my new husband!
"New" means something that's not 24x7 workaholic business, business, business. I'm still consulting via email and phone to the new owners 40 hours a week... but the rest of my time is supposed to be spent having a life. Going to the greenmarket and cooking from scratch, learning to speak Serbo-Croatian, relaxing at cafes, etc. etc.

But loads of the people I'm meeting are entrepreneurs, so I love talking to them about their businesses. And then there are Internet-related Serbs I met in the past (usually virtually) through work connections, so we're all getting in touch with each other now that I'm here and talking opportunities.

So anyway, I guess this blog will probably devolve into a mix of more professional than personal. Because, heck, I'm built that way. Apologies if you were expecting something else here.

Fantastic Saturday Night at Cafe De Sol in Sombor, Serbia

Cafe De Sol is a six minute taxi ride outside downtown Sombor... but you feel like you're in a whole other universe. It's spacious, with groups of tables and chairs scattered on beautifully designed patios, each with its own elegantly trimmed tree or large umbrellas, running in a series of terraces gradually down the hillside to the canal. Sombor is flat as a pancake, so the sensation of being on a slight hill alone was refreshing. The lighting is romantic, the sound a foot-tapping selection of mixed European and US house music.

At about 9:30pm when we arrived, it was tranquil and empty. By midnight when we left, the place was packed, with people four or five deep at the long bar. It felt like the party was just starting.

I had a chance to chat with owners Serge and Maria when we arrived. Serge is a Sombor native who is bursting with local patriotism and entrepreneurial enthusiasm. He's the most laid back guy I ever met with so much vim and enthusiasm. Like a chilled out workaholic. Maria is from Spain, but is now a proud Serb passport holder. She's practical, down to earth, and smart. Turns out the patios and hand-built bars we admired were made by Serge and Maria's own hands. They've literally built the place brick by brick themselves, and have even bigger plans.

Serge had to make a run to Novi Sad around 9:45 to pick up the Jagermeister girls -- a half dozen waitresses dressed in scanty orange and black outfits who scampered about all night offering patrons test tube shots. It's a special promotion. Cafe de Sol's regular waiters continued their jobs as well. "Your waitresses are a lot prettier than the girls Jagermeister sent all the way to Novi Sad for," I told Maria. "I know, " she replied, "That's why we hired them. Check out the male waiters too. It's 50/50 here, male/female." Ah, a fact that perhaps only a woman could appreciate.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Evenings in Sombor - Promenade & Cafe Scene

First, every evening there's a Promenade down the central street that it seems like everyone - male and female, young and old - participates in.... just like in towns in Italy, everyone comes out to walk slowly up and down the street in the middle of town. Old couples, young parents, groups of kids with their friends, and especially teenagers all dressed up but trying very hard to look nonchalant about it.

But then, around 10pm or perhaps a bit earlier, the promenade is over. Abruptly nearly all the women disappear, while the men disperse to various cafes and bars on every block.

The men thronging in the cafes are of every possible age and demographic. Rich men, poor men, old pensioners, middle aged working men, hippy-style long-haired men, artists, crispy-dressed fashionable men... you name it. However, aside from young waitresses, young single women who are dressed up to the hilt and on the prowl, and a few young wives carefully accompanied by husbands, there are really NO women at the cafes or on the streets.

Most groups are men only. In almost all cases I'm the only woman at a table. In nearly all cases I'm the only woman over 30 in the entire cafe. Other women are nearly all wait-staff, single girls all gussied up for a night out, and a few summer visitor's wives. The single girls move in packs (just like the US), and the wives are all on their husband's arms. You don't see many Sombor wives out with each other though.

My husband told me the differences between men and women are exaggerated here from the US. It's fascinating to see what they are and to discern what about me, acting like a normal American woman, must have seemed really weird to him when we first met when he first came to the US.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Current Serbian Shoe Fashions: lower, elegant, streamlined

The first thing I do when arriving in any foreign country is check out women's shoes. Men don't seem to understand this at all -- but I'm endlessly fascinated by it. Based on the Belgrade Bus Station (admittedly not a high fashion center) and nearly a week now in cafes in Sombor downtown (perhaps provincial, but better than nothing at all) I can tell you, unlike the US, high spikey heels are out. I didn't see anyone aside from a 14-year old in what were obviously hand-me-downs wearing thin heels taller than say 2 inches.

However, plenty of wedges are in, albeit at an average 2-3 inches, still a bit lower than I've seen in similar date-night street scenes back home where some women wobble more than walk. Also, I've seen plenty of kitten heels, especially as sandles. You won't see typical American plastic flip-flops, that's to casual for the women here whose sandles are equally comfortable and flat heeled, but slightly more elegant.

On the sneaker front, everything is very, very streamlined and also low-heeled. It's more like a sneaker genetically crossed with a ballet flat. A pair of US sneakers would look comically bulbous in their midst.

Lastly, although one store known for "sports shoes" has a couple of crok-look-alikes in the window, I've not seen anyone wearing Croks (real or faux.) And I doubt very much, aside from perhaps very small children's shoes, that Croks will ever make much headway in this land where they expect good looks just as much as comfort. Which is fine - the astounding $145 million that North Americans apparently spent on Croks in the last fiscal quarter (March-June) was one of the reasons I've decided to travel to foreign lands. OK, well, my husband handing me a ticket and saying 'We're going now" was the main one....

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Nobody calls their wives "Honey" or "sweetie" in Serbia

Arrived in Sombor, Serbia Sunday night very late after nearly 32 hours of traveling. Now four days later I'm finally beginning to feel awake. On the airport bus from Nicola Tesla Airport to the Belgrade Bus Station we sat diagonally across the row from two businessmen - they looked German or perhaps Dutch. Blonde, sincere, you know the type. I very much enjoyed watching them see Belgrade, well see everything for the first time. Goggling at their change in paper Dinars, carefully examining the view outside their windows. Made me feel, for a moment, a tiny bit superior. I've been to Belgrade before - only once mind you, and only for a few days.

That was 18 months ago on a trip to see my fiance's country. Now we are married and we are returned to live for awhile in his house in Sombor.

Sombor is a large country town (pop 50k+) in the northwestern corner of Serbia, near both Croatia and Hungary, and about 10 miles from the Danube. I'm assured by everyone that there are other Americans here, although no one can actually point to one. Probably returning Serb expats, struck it rich, or at least middle class comfortable, in their new countries and returned to buy up cheap houses for a summer retreat in the old country.

At first as we walked through town, I felt terribly self conscious about speaking English. I know how people in the US stop and stare when they hear my husband's thick accent... how odd American English, or really any English at all, must sound suddenly spoken out loud when you're not expecting it in this old fashioned town tucked into the corner of the back of the Serb beyond! But after about five minutes I dropped the self consciousness, it just takes too much energy and self-centeredness to keep up when you are over 40. As long as I'm reasonably clean, not smelly, and not overtly rude, I don't care much what other people think of me. (What a relief that would have been at 17 when I lived in Italy!)

The funniest thing does make me self conscious though. It's the "Honey-Sweetie" factor. Here we all are, my husband's connections and I, sitting about socializing when either he or I preface a remark to each other with an utterly-natural "Honey,..." or "Sweetie,..."

Then all the Serbs present give a start of surprise. Perhaps a blink, a breath, or a full drawn out look. Why? Turns out nobody uses such endearments in the place of names here. "What do husbands and wives call each other then?" I asked my husband. "By their names," he said. This makes me shudder. Husbands and wives calling each other by their public names as though they were just-introduced strangers. I would hate that.

You know, I knew that moving to Serbia would be different. I knew the women dress up more than we casual Americancas. I knew most people take their coffee Turkish-style with the sludgy grounds in the bottom of their cups. I knew the streets would be filled with 10+ year old model cars made by companies I'd barely heard of (Lada, Citron, Yugo...) dashing to and fro with seemingly complete disregard for traffic regulations or safety of others. I knew electronics and clothing would be crazily expensive while organic, just-picked tomatoes would be insanely cheap. I knew I would be an alien in a friendly land.

But I never dreamed they would not call each other some Serb version of Honey or Sweetie. These are the tiny things that catch you just when you are starting to relax and think "It's not so different." Oh yes it is.