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

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Flight Home: Jugoslav Airways & Heathrow

Dawn over Vojvodina in the autumn is an incredible thing. The pinks, the yellows, the giant sky of clouds. I guess it's like dawn over Kansas which is also really flat and covered with crops as far as the eye can see.... but no one ever told me dawn over Kansas could beat a Hawaiian sunset. Despite the anxiety of long-distance travel, the magic of a Vojvodina dawn pulled me out of myself completely.

Then we got to Belgrade airport which is tiny (roughly the size of Providence Airport, only way less parking, shorter security lines and about half the flights) and I saw the sweater display at the tourism store.
Why oh why didn't I take the time to go to Slatibor for some sweaters? Next year, it's top priority.

Then we are through security (GREAT uniforms gals, I especially like the epaulets.) and on our plane. I love the crews on JAT airlines, they are very serious about their jobs. I don't know why, but they feel more like Grown Ups than any other airlines' crews. I wish to use this blog as a public forum to apologize about the ipod thing to them right now. I'm sorry. It will not happen again.

JAT pilots are the most talky pilots on this planet. They get on the intercom to make that "welcome to our flight" pilot announcement and it just never ends. I have never heard so many details about our flight path, etc as with the JAT guys. Plus, of course, just like the Serbian Orthodox Priests in America they have to give every single speech twice in its entirety, once in Serb and then in English. (Which, on Easter Sunday just when you think you're coming down the home stretch of the service after standing for more than 90 minutes, and the priest switches languages and starts the entire thing over at the beginning again, can be overwhelming. This also explains why invariably somebody faints during big church services.)

Unfortunately no one who works in flight sales planning at the JAT home office has ever apparently tried to make a connection at Heathrow. The official line (as in written in official documents) "You need a hour and a half between flights to make connections" is so blatantly inaccurate as to make actual Heathrow officials giggle when you mention it to them. I know, I mentioned it to them. Yes, it's in writing, but they never expected anyone to be so naive as to believe them and base flight scheduling on this.

JAT is that naive and I, stupidly, didn't think to double check our flight plans set by the infamous Danny Travel of New York who book so many Serb immigrant flights that they answer the phone "Dobar dan" and have a hard time spelling my name but not my husband's.

Which is how we ended up in standing a Line of Serbs at the Terminal 3 help desk for JAT's partner airline Virgin Atlantic trying to get rebooked to get home somehow because we all missed our connections due to endless security lines in Terminal 2 which you are forced to go through to connect from (or to) JAT airlines and most other flights. Luckily we were able to get rebooked on a British Airways flight later in the day. Unluckily this required going back on a bus to Terminal 2 and those horrible lines yet again to get our old tickets stamped by JAT officials.

We made friends with other Serbs in line though. All agreed what Terminal 2 really needs is a little Serb cafe serving Turkish coffee to security staff and Jelen Pivo to everyone in line (the black and yellow umbrellas would match Heathrow's signage perfectly.)

We also had a fine time meeting the AirItalia service guy who mans the booth for all ticket problems for all Balkan countries as well as Italy. There's a list of central and eastern European national airline logos taped on the counter in front of him so you know he's the right guy to go to. (Hint to JAT: this is a branding and PR no-no your marketing department ought to look into. A small paper sign shared with Uzbekistan Air and 7 others does not make you look impressive. It makes you look like a little dinky country who can't even afford (or need) to have a service booth of their own. And this is the booth every single JAT passenger coming via Heathrow must go to as part of their first experience of "entering" Serbia.)

While we waited for JAT's local admin manager to come up out of the bowels of the building to stamp our tickets, he told us stories about local-based JAT staff. Although the airline is fairly small, the JAT girls (they are mostly female) are obviously larger than life characters in the Heathrow staff scene. Everyone knows them.

BTW: If you are the blonde assistant manager, I agree Heathrow Internal Security have absolutely no sense of humor. They should have understood about your shoes and then that strip tease and subsequent week-long ban would have never happened.

Finally we made it via yet more buses and security lines to Terminal 4 and hence to the sky and home again. Waiting in line at US passport control & customs, I noticed all non-US passport holders were being treated like potential criminals. Everyone was fingerprinted and photographed before being let in the country. Luckily most on our flight took it lightly, laughing. But I can imagine flights from some other countries being mightily affronted.

In a probably futile effort at placation, every US Passport Control Officer's desk has a sign posted in front giving in effect a Customer's Bill of Rights. You have the right to be politely treated and to have your questions answered. You have the right to ask to speak to a supervisor. You have the right to great customer service.

These made me remember a similar sign I'd seen posted in front of nearly every single Heathrow employee including bus drivers' seats, ticketing agents, security people's stands, even gate managers. I wish I wrote down precisely what they said, but in effect the words were, "Please do not be rude or act aggressively toward Heathrow staff. They deserve to work in an environment where people are not shouting at them all the time."

The dichotomy between these two sets of national signs -- in the US you have a right to polite customer service, in the UK the service staff have a right to polite customers -- made me smile.

And now, off to eat massive quantities of Vietnamese food. Good to be home in America where such things are possible!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thanks Zlatko! Orphans Rescued

A last minute thanks to my pal Zlatko who after reading my post from earlier today came over to my house in his trusty old red Yugo to help me transport the computer equipment to the Sombor orphanage.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Last of the Summer Tomatoes... Preparing to Leave Sombor for the Winter

Today is our official last day in Sombor for this year (but we'll be back in months and years to come on a more permanent basis.) The tomatoes in the greenmarket are the very last stragglers from 2007's harvest. Small, spotty, uneven. Just a few weeks ago, these would have been thrown out rather than offered for sale. Now I buy as many as I think I can stuff into my mouth before we have to leave for the airport. They are utterly rich with flavor. The best ever.

As we scurry about packing and putting the house in order for its winter rest, I am continually remembering things I had meant to do but somehow never had time for. Oh no! We never took the tour of the Boreli shoe factory at the edge of town... we never went to Slatibor to buy wool sweaters ... we didn't hike in the hills outside Novi Sad, in fact aside from the bus station we didn't visit Novi Sad at all ... we didn't try out Belgrade's sole Mexican restaurant... we forgot to bring our old computer over to the orphanage in town (this I feel very badly about)... We only visited one of Sombor's 20+ painters' ateliers... and I fell down on my express desire to take Serb language lessons every single day...etc.

There is so much to be done that I am already itching to return. However, the fall weather is well dug in now. It's chilly at night and what my husband calls "fresh" during the days. I definitely did not bring clothing for this - when we left the US all I'd heard about were overused air conditioners causing fires in Belgrade and German tourists arrested for biking about naked in 105 degree heat. So I packed linen skirts and short-sleeved tops. Just seven weeks later, I'm freezing all the time.

Why "all the time?" Well that's because ladies and gentleman, the image at the left is what a typical Sombor (and for all I know, Belgrade) home heating system looks like. Every Serb reading this will say "Duh." Every American will say, "HUH???"

When I first saw this wood stove in our house, I assumed it was there because the house is nearly 100 years old and nobody had ever upgraded properly. So it was quite a shock when during our first week we visited a friend's newly and lavishly renovated home to see a brand new stove IDENTICAL to this one, only even bigger.

And it clearly wasn't there for decorative, celebrating-the-Serbia-of-our-forefathers purposes. It was intended as the sole heating system for the home's open plan kitchen and living room.

These stoves work very well once you get fire built up in them for a bit. But, you can't just flip a switch and Bam! your whole house is evenly warm 15 minutes later. You also can't get super-picky about adjusting heat by a few degrees. (but then my response is who needs to? As long as it is what any man on this planet would consider overheated inside, I'm perfectly comfortable.)

And then there is the smell. As we took our final walk about town last night, the air was loaded with the scent of charcoal fires. I don't mean barbeque smell, and I don't mean romantic wood fire smell. I mean Serbian heating stove charcoal is in a class by itself. It doesn't smell nasty, but it sure doesn't smell breathe-in-lungfuls-good. I'm told many people here have bronchial infections in the wintertime.

So, although I will miss Sombor and fervently wish we could have stayed longer this time, perhaps that fervency is mixed with a bit of lucky-me. I have the freedom to come and go as I please, staying when it's lovely and moving on when the charcoal air gets a bit much.

The Going-Away Parties Begin: Two Fishy Nights (Serb Food Part III)

My first video should appear here, but Blogger Video is having trouble with it - maybe in a few hours. Anyway it's a bit dark but you can see our host circling not-so-cautiously around what looks like a huge wok. It's sitting on a tripod over a fiercely burning little wood fire he made in the corner of his concrete driveway. The other guests told me this is a typical Serb outdoor frypan for manly cooking. (Like the US, men cook outside, women in.)

Earlier he'd filled it to the brim with vegetable oil and then when the oil started boiling, tossed in four entire freshwater fish which had been battered with corn flour. Now you see him frantically poking and turning the fish with a spatula while the oil spills over the edges making the fire flare so crazily that we spectators on the balcony were laughing and cheering. Our poor host though was terribly worried - what if the fish burned too much?

When after just a few short minutes cooking time per fish, he scooped them onto an awaiting platter and held it up to the light, his worst fears were confirmed and his wife openly horrified. The fish looked like black fish-shaped pieces of charcoal.

I, however, was delighted. It's not for nothing I spent much of my youth eating blackened fish in many of America's restaurants. I'm enormously fond of crackly burned fish skin, and know the meat underneath can be unusually tender due to the quickness of cooking. And so it was -- utterly delicious. I even persuaded one of the other guests to taste the black skin - he claimed he liked it too. Everyone else threw theirs away on the bone plate scrap-heap... which I rummaged through for more skin until I caught my host's unhappy eye. OK, enough's enough.

So I settled back and asked the other guests who were Serbs who'd visited the US in the past, if there were any US foods they missed? "Chinese food," said one. "Mexican nachos," said another. Which just goes to show you what's memorable about American food isn't exactly American... or maybe it is. You can get both nachos and Chinese food in nearly every town in the US, even ones far smaller than Sombor. A nation of immigrants, many of us eat food from around the world routinely. The hardest thing for many Americans to get used to in foreign travel is that people in most other countries only eat their own food plus maybe pizza and burgers. We go somewhere, taste the local stuff, love it but get bored after a while, and ask "Where is the nearest Thai restaurant?" Unless we are in a global city like London or Sydney, we are doomed to disappointment.

Anyway, my husband and I are leaving for a month in the US on Thursday so last night's dinner was one of several celebrations as we say goodbye to Sombor friends for awhile.

On Monday night we revisited the very best Fish Restaurant in Sombor, Riblja Carda Andric, which sits on the canal outside of town. They only serve fish and it's all spectacularly well done in a stunning setting with stone terraces and little gardens sweeping down to the water, that makes me want to throw away my entire life to build a house by a canal that copies this place.

But then our guests Maria and Serge, who own Cafe De Sol, the equally lovely cafe-bar next door to Andric, told us how damp and cold the air is in the wintery off-season, making their lives there slightly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, they intend to stay because of the beauty of the place. You can put up with quite a bit of discomfort for beauty.

Luckily our waiter, a tall guy who'd emigrated from Zadar Croatia, quickly brought both Maria and I warm blankets so we could cuddle at the table while our respective husbands told us, "What are you doing? It's not cold at all!" A lovely time was had by all.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fall Shoe & Boot News From Serbia & Croatia

No one except other shoe-lovers will appreciate this post, so if you are not a shoe-fanatic, then skip it.

This post is based solely on personal observations, so it may be entirely wrong. But I've got a keen eye for footwear whereever I travel, so I bet it's at least partly correct.

Firstly, unlike what upscale stores and shoe advertising here are showing, most young women (by which I infer they are hip to what's real in fashion vs what's hyped) are wearing no heels at all. Above you'll see an absolutely typical flat-heel slouchy boot being sold and widely worn for fall in Sombor Serbia and I presume elsewhere. The only thing that's not typical about this boot is color -- the totally-in color for all shoes and boots I've seen in both Croatia and Serbia is a deep rich chestnut brown suede. I'd be so bold as to say chestnut brown is the new black.

There's just one exception on the commonly worn flat boot front, and that's in Croatia's capital city Zagreb. Here's a snapshot I took of the park and buildings outside the main train station. If you squint at the giant billboard ad on that main building, you'll see a pair of female legs in cowboy boots. "Do they have a Texas fetish here in Zagreb?!" I asked my husband in astonishment. No, not at all. Turns out Zagreb is well known as a fashionable cowboy boot capital for Europe and the natives have made the boot their own, especially upscale, urban versions of it for women. And yes, after we saw this sign I did look around carefully for women actually wearing cowboy boots on the street, and spotted a live one. (Felt a bit like spotting a man in a kilt walking down the street in Edinburgh.)

However, most young women in Zagreb weren't in boots. As you can see from the pic below of three typical young women, most were in comfortable flat sporty shoes. The girl in the middle is wearing the ultimate in young women's foot fashion in Croatia right now -- an old fashioned-style high top sneaker. Converse high tops in colors other than black are really the most popular, but she appears to be wearing a nike version of the same style. I've never seen so many Converse hightops in one place in my life as I saw on young women and girl's feet throughout Croatia.

However, if you're a bit older and have wads (and wads and wads) of cash to burn, the streets of downtown Zagreb are lined with little, glossy shoe boutiques. Here's a typical one in a neighborhood akin to Boston's Newbury Street.

I saw far more of these little jewel-box-style shoe stores than I did jewelry stores. I guess shoes are a Croatian girl's best friend.

Or maybe it's a slavic or Balkan thing, because the streets of downtown Sombor also have far more shoe stores than practically anything else. Part of that is due to the fact that the Boreli shoe factory is located on the outskirts of town. So Boreli has at least four shopfronts downtown that I counted and possibly more. Unfortunately the shoe styles are ... stodgy. I asked a 20-something Serb girlfriend if she would buy shoes from Boreli, she said, "Well no, but my mother might."

Compare this snapshot of a typical Boreli shopfront to the Zagreb jewel-box above. It kind of sums up the differences in the two countries right currently. One is glitzy, fresh, but overpriced. The other is beat up, old fashioned, but rock solid at heart.

Lastly, if you are a middle aged or older person in either country, you're more likely to buy your shoes at the greenmarket than in a shop. Here's a snapshot of a Croatian granny trying on rubber boots at an outdoor stall in downtown Ogulin.

By the way, aside from rubber boots and hundreds of Puma and Nike knock-off sneakers (mainly in blue for men) Ogulin's stalls also featured a lot of office-style shoes. All were nearly flat, perhaps a half inch heel at most, mainly a wide version of princess style. And every single one had a rounded toe. I guess the merger of ballet slipper and formal pump is now universal.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Macedonian Rice Rocks But Why No Shrimp? Serb Food Notes Part II

Everywhere we've been in the last week, visiting Serb relatives across the former Yugoslavia (actually my husband visited while I frantically found an Internet cafe, or in Ogulin Croatia a T-Mobile shop with a Web-ready PC on display, to keep up with US work obligations), as we left, older female relatives pushed vast quantities of food into our arms. Saying "no thank you" was NOT an option. We scored:

- Large mineral water bottles filled instead with homemade brandy
- Two liter Pepsi bottles filled instead with homemade wine
- 5 kilos of just-picked apples from a family tree
- Huge (9 inch wide) wheels of homemade cheese
- 4 kilos of dried beans
- Oversized loaves of homemade bread
- 3 big jars of homemade blackberry and plum preserves, some of which had a definite alcoholic kick for more flavor
- A two-liter bottle of real, true olive oil (which tastes so different from the stuff you buy in supermarkets that I'm astonished they dare label it olive oil at all. Such inadequate forgery!)

... and apparently there was more stuff but my husband hid it from me because it was Just Too Much. In fact when we left his parent's flat in Croatia for the long bus ride home we had mysteriously acquired an entire additional suitcase packed solely with more food "for the journey" from his mother. Next she started trying to stuff five, large, frozen sea bass wrapped in tin foil into my personal bag as well. ("Oh god, make her stop! I don't want fish melting all over my clothes!" "Just say Hvala and smile. That's an order!")

That said, none of this is strictly a Serbian thing. My mother back in the US who doesn't have a shred of Serb blood in her would have done exactly the same, and has on numerous occasions. And her food choices have made as little sense -- air mailing 5 pounds of dried pasta to me when I lived in Europe, and that 30 pound box of onions she sent to my office once, "because you are never at home when the mailman comes."

Despite all of this gifted food, the first thing I did after stumbling off the bus in Sombor was to dash to the greenmarket before it closed down for the weekend. I grabbed a big bag of fresh tomatoes (oh the joy of Serbian Tomatoes, if I could write an ode I would) . Next we sprinted to the Mega Market to buy the other best thing about Serb food: rice from Macedonia.

Macedonian rice is extra large, chewy, flavorful, incredible. I am a big rice eater so I know what I'm talking about. The stuff is incredible and I'm definitely smuggling bags back to the US when we visit there for a month in October. Tip: ignore the directions on the bag that say 4 cups of water to each cup of rice. You only need two and 3/4 cups of water to each cup of this rice.

I also hoped for shrimp. Not fresh shimp, I'm not stupid. But perhaps some frozen shrimp. It's such a staple in our cooking that I normally keep a 10 or 20 pound bag in our freezer at home in the US. Maybe the streets of Belgrade are lined with frozen shrimp but you are completely out of luck in Sombor. There had been two small boxes of shrimp at the Mega; I know because I bought them and ate them in August freezer burn and all. They had not been replaced yet. So I snagged two packets of tiny frozen prawns (shrimp the size of a child's fingertip) instead and made due.

The weird thing on the shrimp front is much of US frozen shrimp comes from the far east, places like Thailand. Serbia does import other food from Thailand, especially rice (not as good as Macedonian), but not much shrimp. Why???

From what I can figure out, Serbs and Croats prefer squid. At upscale pasta and pizza restaurants you'll see squid all over the menu in exactly the same recipes you would expect shrimp to appear in the US. Aside from fried calamari, most Americans think squid is icky, icky, icky. (In fact I bet most calamari eaters in the US have no idea it's made with squid, because if they did, they would not have tried it in the first place.)

So, my question is: are shrimp the squid of Serbia? Do Serbs hate shrimp the way Americans hate squid? Let me know. Thanks.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ooh I am Chosen as a VIP Blogger for B92

I am so excited. I've been invited by the staff of B92 (one of the largest and most established news sites in Serbia since 1995) to be a VIP guest blogger on the B92 blog. They said I can re-use some of my posts from here, but that doesn't feel quite right to me now. Maybe if I get tired later ;-) Luckily they also said I can post in English only, which is good because my Serb is terrible.

Anyhow, I've just posted my very first post to B92. It's on the truth behind most Americans' impressions of Serbia.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Back in Sombor Serbia After 14 Hour Nighttime Bus Trip

After hours of unsuccessfully researching every other possible option, took the Serb Express (not actual name) from Zadar Croatia last night at 11pm. Trip which takes about 6 hours by car driving Serb-long-distance-style (not nearly as fast as US highway but far more daring feats of passing) took 14 hours including swift passport checks at the border, three pee breaks, and a lengthy stop at Novi Sad to wash the outside of the bus (but not clean the inside.)

Am completely shattered and exhausted as if I took the red eye from San Francisco to Boston with a 4am plane switch at Dulles (something which I have all too much experience of.) American inter-city travel sucks because the distances involved can be massive and there are way, way too many other people traveling at the same time. Although far fewer people travel here and the distances are fairly dinky, given road conditions, driving talents, and the whole past-civil-war thing, getting from Croatia to Serbia isn't nearly as easy as it could and should be.

Our bus was the oldest I've ever been in. I guess the Sombor route doesn't merit the very best. At one pee-break we parked next to a gorgeous bus bound for Belgrade, which looked like a palace on wheels compared to ours which listed to one side, had tiny seats well past their sell-by dates, and permanently fogged-in windows. Thankfully all buses are non-smoking. Not so thankfully, this rule does not extend to the driver.

At about 1:30am we stopped for a snack break at Macola Restaran (oddly, this word does not have a "t" at the end in Serbia or Croatia) which is famous to all frequent long-distance bus travelers here. I counted more than 20 other buses outside at that hour, bound for everywhere from Split to Bosnia. Turns out every single bus driver on a route that goes anywhere near the Macola will do everything in his power to make a stop, dumping his passengers out there for at least a half hour no matter what time of the day or night.


Clever business idea actually: the owner of this otherwise typical, cafeteria-style truck-stop (which also features a small 7/11-style shop and bigger signage for toilettes than the actual toilettes themselves) set aside an area designated for Bus Drivers Only. There the bus drivers are treated like Gods by a 24/7 professional wait staff, uniformed in snappy red vests, white shirts and black trousers, who rush about at high speed intent on bringing the bus drivers every bit of food or drink their heart desires... FOR FREE. Meanwhile many of the hapless passengers wind up buying something if only to pass the time.

Our pitstop in Novi Sad was the other trip highlight. Like all other large towns I've been in both Serbia and Croatia the building trade is booooooming. The hills outside town are coated with new and in-process middle class detached, two-story houses on fairly large lots. Most seem to be built by owner and not as a development yet. I assume land speculators are making a bundle on lots just outside town and bet the same thing is happening outside Belgrade.

Downtown Novi Sad is packed with a zillion mostly 7-10 story apartment buildings, many of which are obviously new too. With about a quarter of a million residents jammed into a smallish urban area, Novi Sad is a bit like shorter, shinier version of New York.

The highpoint of Novi Sad for the bus crowd is the Brand New Bus Station which just opened in the last month. It shares that Balkan architecture philosophy that if you want to look Modern a building must be coated with glass and chrome with solid granite floors buffed to an insane level of shine (which I assume is utterly against building code in the US where you'll be sued into instant bankruptcy by people who inevitably slip and fall down.)

It also shares the Balkan travel service idea that it is a Bad Idea to Provide Many Places to Sit Down. The architects envision travelers, uniformly wearing rubber-soled shoes, dashing briskly through buildings on their ways to other places; so, it never occurs to them that buses and planes must be waited for and, often elderly, relatives will wait for hours in the station to see you off/in. I can only assume this means not a single Serbian or Croatian architect has ever ever traveled anyplace except in his or her own auto.

Anyway, enough scathing comments, it's mean of me. I really am extremely happy to be home in Sombor which was warm and sunny today. As one of the very youngest travelers on the bus (at 45 years of age), I cannot complain too much about how grueling the journey was. And I'm sure bus trips in 3rd world countries make this look like a total cushy breeze.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gas is $7 a Gallon in Croatia

In every town and city we visit the streets are jammed with cars - mostly fairly new ones. Parking is next to impossible even though this is the off season when tourists have all but deserted Zadar and most of the Dalmatian coastline. We continually see student drivers on the streets in very prominently marked vehicles...sometimes these are typical teens but sometimes they are teens parents or even grandparents driving for the first time.

However, when you drive from town to town... for example, 40 minutes from Zadar to Starigrad for a refreshing hike up in Paklinica National Park after a long day of sweating over an Internet Cafe keyboard, there is no one on the roads between towns. A few busloads of German pensioners on cheap off-season tours, a few trucks of produce bound for mega stores, a handful of expensive cars with EU plates, and that is it. We drive alone on highways for sometimes miles.

When at dusk we saw two backpack laden kids hitchhiking on the main coast road to Zadar, I make my husband stop immediately. "This car is too tiny for their packs!" he exclaims, but I persist. "We may be the only car going by tonight that will pick them up and it is cold outside." He agrees we very well may be the kids only chance at a ride into town and somehow we all squeeze.

Why so little traffic between towns? Gas prices. Just because you can get the credit here for a shiny new car to nip around town ostentatiously, does not mean you have cash for gas for trips longer than a couple of miles. So all this insane car buying, driving lessons, and parking nightmares, etc., is for cars that people use for trips they could easily walk or use cheap, clean, easily available public transport for. They are as car-mad here in Croatia as they are in Serbia. It has nothing to do with need and a lot to do with status.

$7 a gallon. When I visit the US, I will never complain about the pump prices again.

Freakish Croatian Tourism Magazine Content

"Texts in English!" proclaims a bright yellow banner on the cover of Turist Plus magazine, a glossy produced in Zagreb and planted in three and four star hotel rooms throughout Croatia. Great, so I grab a copy.

Unlike the real estate magazine I got earlier which carefully printed each article in two languages, the editors of this magazine targeting wealthy tourists have made a strategic decision to ONLY publish a couple of "lifestyle" articles in English. So all the articles about actually being a tourist are in Croatian only, although the average Croatian stays in four star hotels in this country pretty much never.

But the weirdest is yet to come. Turns out the English language lifestyle articles are about how to lose weight (Tip # 12 is : "Wash your fathers car, the activity takes about 100 calories.") The editors also decided to include a practical guide to sex in English which advises me anal sex may be somewhat painful and that women who have lots of sex overall tend to have bigger breasts because of it.

Well, that is just the sort of information I need when touring Croatia.

Blogger Localization Hell

In an effort to make bloggers lives easier around the world, Blogger.com senses what country you are blogging from and then presents you with the screen in what it presumes to be your language. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to turn this back to English instructions. Blech, blech. Random stabs at keyboard.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Horrible Thing About Zadar Croatia

This is an undeniably lovely place to live, if you can get your breath back after hearing the real estate prices. When my husband was born here 45 years ago, he says it was a town of about 20,000. Now the population is in the six figures and the town council reportedly has plans for at least a million, and to buy an acre of land far outside town and not near water costs about a million Euros....

We walk through town and my husband points out new giant apartment complexes and says, "That was an orchard before. That one was a vineyard. This was a factory." We sit on a park bench by the water, eating a lunch of cheese and apples. I say, "How many construction cranes can you count from here?" "Oh I dont know, at least ten."

I ask if all of this development bothers him as it did me when they coated the apple orchards of my childhood home with "executive" housing estates. No, he says, it is ok. He is just bemused, and rather proud. He himself has always known this was one of the finest places on earth, with the Adriatic coast and the mountains so close to each other. Now the rest of the world does too. No wonder everyone wants to live in Zadar.

Luckily, unlike what we hear about Montenegro where Russian cash is flowing down like a huge champagne fountain gushing into the sea and buildings are being built with very little urban planning (but lots of compensation), Zadars growth is managed fairly carefully. I met an American woman on the sidewalk near the famous Zadar sea organ and she said her homes planning permission took three years to work its way through city hall. So many new regulations to be considered and a pile up of plans all crashing together.

And the nicest thing about much of the growth is that it is for Summer people who tend to show up July-August and then vanish. So, you can always do what my in-laws do and get yourself an inexpensive little mountain cabin to visit when the Zadar crowds and heat are too bothersome.

So what, you ask, is the horrible thing about Zadar Croatia? The tomatoes.

The tomatoes in the greenmarket are simply dreadful. It is like being back in an American Supermarket. They are round and red and tasteless. Too firm, too transported, too mass market grown.

Why? I ask. My husband explains no one grows tomatoes for market here. The soil is too sandy and rocky. The water, sparse. Tomatoes are grown in the Croatian hinterlands and trucked in. Sombor Serbia, where we live, has been suffering in comparison to Zadar this past week. The sun, the sea, the clean brisk air, the positive outlook of natives... but now Sombor triumphs. Sombor tomatoes are heavenly. They truly deserve the name "paradise."

Do we have to choose just one place to live in former Yugoslavia? I ask my husband. I do not think I can stand to chose between Zadar sunlight and Sombor tomatoes. No, he says. We can live in both and move about like gypsies. I laugh. That suits me just fine. Now all I have to do is start growing bucketloads of cilantro and my life here will be complete.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Immediate Differences After Crossing the Serbian Border....

Our taxi driver, a typical Sombor resident in that his parents are a mix of Bosnian and Croatian but 100% Serb, kept glancing at me after we crossed the border on our way from Sombor to catch the train in Northern Croatia down to Zagreb (and thence via tram and bus to Zadar on the Adriatic coast). He was the calm, serious type of young man who barely speaks. But he kept on glancing at me as I sat next to him.

Finally he said, "Here near the border you see that Serbia and Croatia are not much different. No difference really."

"Oh you are wrong!" I exclaimed. "Look around. I see no signs for Jelen Pivo or Chipsie. Croatia is empty." He smiled, his first and only smile of the voyage.

As we got further away from the immediate border, though, I began to notice more differences. Houses were more likely to be detached, soon nearly all in the country and suburbs were. Nearly all cars were sleeker and newer looking, even in small country towns. (In Serbia even brand new cars of local originuse such old fashioned styling that they appear to the uneducated eye to be extremely old, albeit very clean. Our taxi which I assumed was made in the 1970s was only a year old. Thankfully my husband loudly congratulated the driver on such a new car before I made any awful gaffes on the subject.)

By the time we got to the first big town, the difference in economy was more substantial. Women clearly went to the hair dresser rather than doing it themselves at home. And clothing was just that little bit less cheaply made, although similar in style. "This is Sombor a decade from now," my husbvand said. I hope so.

Internet Cafes in Zadar Croatia: Bring Your Own Laptop & Plenty of Patience

Note to self: never ever ever leave your laptop at home in Serbia when you visit your husbands parents in Zadar Croatia for a few days. Do not think innocently, "They have oodles of Internet cafes in Zadar. It is a sophisticated place used to lots of tourists from around the world. You can work all day long at an attractive cafe by the waters edge, typing away in the most glamorous place possible. Just post your documents online and go, without bothering to heft that heavy old laptop on the 16 hour trip to get there in taxis, buses, trams, and trains. You do not need to lug your laptop across the border. It will be like heaven."

Note to self: I am an idiot.

Ok, I was not an idiot in one way. It is incredibly beautiful here, and yes I am sitting at a cafe by the water with soft music playing. They even have Pepsi Light! (The waiter did not want to bring it to me so early in the day. Coffee? Coffee? he kept on asking anxiously. "No!" I replied firmly. I am American! Bring me Pepsi! Bring me Two!")

Here is why I am an idiot: čćšđžćčšđćčšđčć.

Yeah. This Internet cafe, in a town so used to international tourism that street signs and real estate magazines are printed in both Croatian and English, only has Croatian keyboards. There is no apostrophe at all. None. They do not use it. The positions of the letters Z and Y are switched. It is very tough to find the exclamation point.

And, just try using the "at" symbol key. No one here could. It is on the keyboard, sharing a key with the letter V. But it is impossible to make it appear on your screen no matter how you push it or in what combination with other keys.... Last night I and the other Internet cafe residents mounted a joint effort, three different teams at different tables all working away on the problem. At last an English girl came up with a workaround. Go to Google, look up to "at# symbol, and then copy and paste it whereever you need. Brilliant!

One last thing. Since the last time I visited three years ago, serious cash has obviously flowed into Zadar. Construction cranes in every direction. Buildings and cafes and even the post office is all gussied up to reflect the Modern New Spirit.

Modern made incarnate here seems to be a lot of chrome, stainless steel, sheets of glass, and terrific lighting (the service reps at the postal bank sit behind panels that glow pale blue). However nobody I can see has created the true essense of modernity... technology. The modern veneer here at the Internet Cafe and at the postal bank are the same, just stage setting designed to impress. The Post Office Bank informed us, after we explained at length what an electronic transfer was (vs western Union which was their only apparent point of reference), that it would take at least 3 to 4 weeks for funds to appear in our Zadar account if we transferred them from our US Internet bank today.

And this Super Duper chrome and glass "VIP" Internet Cafe operates at what feels like maybe a 100k connection. I may be generous. This could be 56k. Yeah. I think it is.

So that is my experience of Croatia this time around, beautiful on the surface, but still rough behind the scenes. It has to change soon because the millionaires buying the new insanely expensive flats and villas are going to demand it. Can I afford to live here even if I sell my house in the US? Heck no!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Drinks at the "Millionnaire's Club" Outside Sombor

We went for a long walk in the countryside outside Sombor the other evening and wound up here a couple of miles outside town. It's a fairly new building but reminds me of the old Hungarian-style fancy places by Lake Palic near the border. (Sorry about the terrible pic, I'm still learning how to use this digital camera....)

Apparently when it first opened a few years back it was nicknamed the Millionaire's Club because it was so big and fancy and out in the country. Supposedly there are at least 10 millionaires locally, all of whom live fairly quietly so you might not guess it, and most of whom are rich in land not cash, this being such an agricultural center. So it's believable some of these gentlemen farmers would stop by this palace in the middle of what seemed like nowhere in the fields far out of town for a night's drink.

I was nervous to go inside because we dressed for a chilly walk, not for a swank club. But my husband pulled me inside anyway. There I was relieved to find our eccentric attire of sweat pants, old warm tops and sneakers was more or less what the other few inhabitants were wearing too. They were all men, about 10 strewn about a few at one table, a few at another. All looking a bit serious and quiet.

Then two cheerful looking men came in, both wearing the most beautifully tailored and tasteful suits. "This is more like it!" I thought to myself. "This is exactly how millionaires should look."

Turns out, they were the musicians hired for the evening's entertainment.

P.S. And yes, several of the tables sang along with nearly every song.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Whole Kosovo Mess : America , Please Stop Sword Rattling

Let me state for the record that I'm not remotely political. I also have never been to Kosovo, nor do I have any firsthand information about Kosovo, nor do I frankly have an opinion about what should happen with Kosovo. I'm not qualified to. I just read the news from a wide variety of sources thanks totally to Google's free Alerts service that scrapes English-language stories, from a possible tens of thousands of sources, with the word 'Serbia" in them and emails them to me once a day.

Many of these Kosovo stories from around the world, but mainly from the US, sound alike. Generally the US is being a bully, saying they'll recognize Kosovo statehood if nobody solves this mess in a manner they like soon. And then Belgrade authorities are quoted, sounding staunching in favor of keeping the country in one peice. The more the US sword rattling that day, the more macho the posturing becomes in Belgrade in reaction.

Then the reporter invariably says that Kosovo is 90% ethnic Albanian although it hold a special place in Serb hearts, history and religion. This is supposed to give "both sides of the story" plus that background US readers need to understand the story "in context."

I find several things very annoying with this:

1. Although the whole Kosovo heroin/drug trade thing was all over the legitimate press in the late 1990s, the last time the US got involved, nobody mentions it now at all. Does that mean some of the Albanians interested in Statehood are no longer major heroin traffickers who would find this very convenient? Is the US in favor of making the world a better place for heroin dealers?

2. Although Kosovo is currently 90% Albanian, it wasn't always. Populations shift here more than Americans expect (we think we are the only immigrant-decedents in the world and everyone in the old country has stayed in the same spot since the dawn of time.) As recently as 100 years ago, Albanians were not the overwhelming majority in Kosovo, and some somewhat significant population shifts have happened just in the last 10 years. Having said that, you should also know neither Albanians nor Serbs were the original inhabitants. In Roman times it was entirely different people.

Anyway, if having an ethnic majority meant you should start your own country, I can think of plenty of areas of the US that would have had the right to bail on the whole "united" part of the States thing. I'm not saying it's not a good idea, just that the US position is a bit hypocritical.

3. I'm pretty darn sure that the pushier the US gets, the more the guys in Belgrade have this machismo need to start battling. It's a face thing - by rattling our swords at the Serbs on the world stage we nearly force them to rattle their swords back or lose face in front of the school yard bully. And they've got eons of history getting in trouble with bullies from Hitler to the Ottoman Empire. It never did them much good (although it certainly saved the Western World's bacon a few times.) Serbs are not guys who back down when you force them to fight even when they know damn well they will lose.

So anyway, this whole thing is not remotely as clearcut as all those well meaning, fairminded, showing both sides of the story, US journalists make out.

Why do I care? Well because if the worst should come to happen, I could end up getting kicked out of Serbia because I'm an American and we might have ceased diplomatic relations. I'm married to a Serb and we plan to spend much of the rest of our lives here. This is a pretty great place. Please George Bush, don't screw it up for me.

Why Can't Serbian Honey Be Like Italian Olive Oil? Expensive and Highly Sought After

Recently we attended the Annual Sombor Beekeeping Convention. Here is the President of the Convention Committee Mr. Nebojsa Filipovic with his lovely daughter. Behind them you can see some of the equipment on sale, including a beekeeping hat my husband promptly purchased.

There were about 25 tabletop exhibits, mostly beekeepers offering a full range of honeys - ranging in color and taste depending on which flower the bees were gathering pollen from. They also offered propolis, which our family (as well as the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians) use as a type of natural antibiotic to help cuts, scrapes, and even canker sores heal far more quickly. You could also get bags of pollen to help with allergies, and royal jelly to boost hunger and energy (especially useful for invalids.)

Most booths had a token gargantuan wheel of wax (like a huge wheel of cheese) included as decor, but none that I noticed sold actual candles. I'm pretty sure that's because most extra wax is sold to the Serbian Orthodox Church which makes candles, blesses them, and sells them on at very low prices to the public. Why buy an unblessed candle from your local beekeeper when a blessed one is available?

None of the beekeepers mind that. What they do mind is the lackluster honey market. You can't sell much, and you can't sell it for a proper price. Honey keeps nearly forever, so many Serbian professional beekeepers have literally tons in storage. In fact, as you can see below, what I thought was an unusually lumpy bench on my neighbor's front porch turned out to be the unsold honey supply he's got on hand. I've perched on that "bench" many times drinking tiny cups of coffee, so lifting the sheets was rather a surprise.

Here's a photo of my beekeeper neighbor Andre and his life companion Milica. He keeps his hives on a plot of land by the Danube a few miles way. Here they are processing the beeswax from the harvested frames in their backyard. At the right you can see part of the giant boiling vat of scraped wax and water. And in the middle they are pressing out the pure wax from the mixture:

Serbian honey is fantastic stuff, probably far better for you than the honey on supermarket shelves because it's not overprocessed, and the bees were very likely gathering pollen from entirely organic sources. However, most producers are like Andre, sole owner-operators who do it themselves and then can't move much product locally because too many Serbs have a hobbyist relative who gives them honey for free. (We have scads of them and haven't bought honey in years.)

The US market is also flooded with ultra-cheap honey from China and parts of South America. They fill up a tanker, send it to the US and sell it for next to nothing. Pennies per pound. Guys like Andre can't begin to compete globally.

What's the solution? Speaking with my business hat on, I think it comes down to cooperative organization and global marketing. The local guys have to pool product and resources to present a united front and make large export sales possible. At the same time, they need to establish a Serbian Honey Brand marketing team to brand the product as a whole and educate the world market that this is something rare and special.

Olive oil producers in Italy and the fine wine industry in California have accomplished this under somewhat similar circumstances. They had a whole bunch of small, independent producers, and a brand nobody cared about. 20 years ago the Italian oil industry was languishing in nearly the exact same circumstances. Now prices are so high that the New Yorker magazine recently did an expose on cheaters trying to hone in on the crazy profits by selling faked oil.

Is this a crazy dream? If the Serbian bees are not infected by the horrific Colony Collapse Disorder that's currently killing off up to 90% of US bees, I think Serbian Honey as a widely sold gourmet delicacy could happen. For Andre's sake, I hope it's sooner than later.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Car Photos from Serbia - Mainly Small, Old & Deisel

This post is for my sister Molly, who emailed asking what are the cars like in Serbia? It's Europe so they are far smaller than American cars. A Mini Cooper would fit right in here and even look BIG next to many cars. (Not that there are any Mini Coopers here because they are too fancy. If you have that kind of money, you'll buy something showy and German like the 15 year old Mercedes here.)

The other two brands you almost never see are Honda and Toyota. One of our neighbors is a mechanic and he says people don't buy them because you can't get the parts easily. Toyota's got distributors in Hungary, Belgrade and Switzerland (where a lot of Serb expats live) so that may change. In the meantime, you can understand why I nearly snorted Pepsi out my nose when I saw the Aug 30th CNNMoney.com article "Drive Your Car to Death" which gave the revolutionary advice to Americans that you can actually drive the same car for 15 years. However, the article counseled, you better buy a Honda or a Toyota because they are about the only cars that can stand that kind of extreme pounding.


According to our neighbor the mechanic, the average age of a car in Serbia is 12-15 years. That means at least a solid third are older. They are mostly diesel because diesel is cheaper than gas in Europe. But some people, like another of our neighbors, get creative to save even more money and run on a mixture of oil and diesel. When he drives by I swear it smells so bad it's like his car is farting really badly.

If the EU suddenly relented and allowed Serbs to move about the rest of Europe without hard-to-get visas, almost nobody would go because their cars are not remotely street legal in the rest of Europe. Even that Mercedes pictured above almost certainly wouldn't pass emissions tests. Some people say Serbs should be forced to improve emissions now, because they'll have to sooner or later so why not get it over with before we all die of the stench? Others say, take pity, the average income is fairly low here. People can't afford it yet.

Molly asked if cars here were like cars in Cuba, huge old US models. Nope. Unlike Cuba Yugoslavia (and now Serbia) had its own auto plants. (Remember Yugos? They still make them here, a lot.) Plus, before and after economic sanctions during the '90s, Serbians imported cars from both Western and Eastern Europe. But, most people didn't have big budgets. That means aside from the perhaps 5-10% of Serbs who show off with fancy upscale German models, everyone else bought teeny, tiny, cheap cars. Preferably in bright colors.

Most of these cars never made it to the US marketplace, so they look incredibly foreign to me. Often I can't identify them at all. Cars from Romania, Russia, France, etc. etc. I have never seen a large old American car here. I've also never seen a pick-up truck. Here's a few cars I have seen:

This 15-20 year old Zastova is a Serb-built car based on a design licensed from Fiat in the 1980s. After they licensed it, they never changed it, you can buy this exact model across the decades.

I'm pretty sure this is a Citron from France. There are a lot of them around here, usually far more brightly colored, often in aqua marine or vivid greens.

This is a Yugo hatchback model. The banner across the top of the windshield says this is a Racing Yugo, which made me laugh because you know, it's a Yugo.
This is a Russian Lada SUV which I think is the cutest thing on the planet. It's SO adorable. However my husband says when we buy a car here we will buy a Toyota or Honda because they don't break down for years and with a Lada you are supposedly always having to fiddle with something even if it's brand new.

By the way, due to European prices and Serbian import taxes, imported cars cost INSANE prices. Often double what you'd pay in the US for the same car. OK, well not exactly the same car. In the US it would be have automatic transmission and run on gas.

One last thing: No matter what Serbs are driving, or how old it is, or what time of day or night, or what neighborhood they are driving in, they all drive like BATS OUT OF HELL. People gun it all the time, screeching around corners, barreling past bikes and pedestrians without swerving, hurl the car up on the sidewalk or front lawn, leap out and .... sit down at the cafe for hours absolutely motionless except for lighting cigarettes.

One time downtown a car slowed so I could walk across the highly marked pedestrian crosswalk. I stared in amazement. It had Austrian plates. Of course. Couldn't possibly be a Serb. In the Serb mentality, my husband explains, traffic laws are not really laws so much as they are "suggestions."

The fact is Serbs really enjoy driving. A lot. As soon as most get a bit of extra cash or credit, a car is their immediate purchase. If you want to get rich here someday, be an automotive importer.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Serbians Are Unrelentingly Social

This place feels like living as a student on a small college campus in the States. Remember back when you lived in a college dorm room and your friends were constantly, casually dropping by your room? And if you weren't in your room, you were probably at the college coffee house or student lounge just hanging out and socializing a bit?

Welcome to Serbia. Here, friends come over to your house without warning and ring the bell and then you are supposed to drop whatever you are doing, be very happy that thank goodness it's Social Time, make coffee, and sit around for 30-45 minutes. Then they leave. Then, a few hours later someone else drops by.

If you are at home but do not want to answer the door (let's say you are having an intense discussion with your husband) that's OK. You do not have to answer the door because your neighbor, after a polite waiting period of 90 seconds, will open the door and see herself in.

To help you cope with that alone time between social visits, you'll get a half dozen phone calls from yet more friends and acquaintances. No reason, just how are you doing? What's up? If you don't answer the house phone, then they'll buzz the mobile.

If you have an aching void in your social heart that the visitors and calls don't quite fill, no problem. Just stroll outside.

Older women, you will be expected to talk with each other, for minutes or even hours while standing on the sidewalk. You can lean a bit on your bike a little, but no sitting! Younger women and men, you are obviously more feeble so you are supposed to sit down, again sometimes for hours, at a cafe. Most cafes do have inside rooms, but these are reserved for the depths of winter, perhaps an ice storm. Otherwise, regardless of bracing cool fall weather, you must sit OUTSIDE so as to be more social with passers by.

To the outside world, who mostly know next to nothing about Serbia, the one thing they do hear about: civil war, war crimes, and genocide. None of which paint a picture of the exceptionally social and warm hearted people. Complete dissonance.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Real Serbian Men Don't Do Dishes

I was just ushering a visiting girlfriend into the kitchen for some coffee when she shrieked. "Oh My God!" What? I'm looking around like crazy - is it a mouse, a fire, a pool of blood?

She turns around and pushes me back out to our hallway where we can be alone. Then, in a lowered tone she whispers, "Your husband is doing the dishes." "And...?" I reply. "In Serbia men do not do dishes."

Oh. And here I thought I was married to a real Serb.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Vojvodina Farm House Pics

Just like downtown Sombor, when you're driving in this typical Vojvodina village the whole thing looks like one tall wall punctuated by doors and windows. All the houses are attached together down the street and round the corner and so on. But when you open the solid high gate (too high to look over) and walk inside it's a whole other world.

This is a shot of the courtyard and side of a farm house (remember that "L" shape I talked about in my last post?) once you step in the front gate. The living part of the house is on the right. Then the long wing going down the right side is a series of rooms that only open out to the court-yard, not to each other. Each is for some type of specific storage: firewood, garden produce, farm equipment, and of course the all-important still and home-made brandy supply. (That was the only side room I saw evidence of human activity in, there was one lone plastic chair inside. Naturally I cracked a joke about it which all enjoyed.)

Along the back of the courtyard are what used to be stalls for horses, oxen and wagons. Now the family uses them for various cars and vans of all ages. Many families do still keep horses and wagons here as well though. The area is famous for it.

The wall to the left side, which you can't see in this photo, is of course the next door neighbor's side wall for her wing of storage rooms, and so on and so on.

In the far corner of everyone's inner courtyard is a door out to the back garden which you can see open here:
When you step through, you are again in a whole new world. It's a huge garden plot complete with fruit trees, tomatoes, cabbages, hot red peppers, mild red peppers (no one grows green bell peppers here which I think is really weird in what is practically the pepper capital of the planet.)

Here's the other funny thing: see those rooftops at the end of the garden? Those are the neighbors on the other side of the block. You see the whole block of houses is like a group of covered wagons circled for the night. From the outside they present one closed wall to the world from all directions. As you climb inside the wagon there is your private space. But then when you climb out the end of the wagon, there's this vast open space of light, land and life. There are no formal boundaries to mark where one neighbor's garden ends and the next one begins. Everyone just sort of knows.

The women socialize out here as they work their individual kitchen plots. (The men socialize like Greek men do, sitting quietly at little neighborhood cafes watching the world go by - or not - for hours.) As we were standing out here (I was greedily stuffing little tiny ripe tomatoes the size of the tip of my pinky into my mouth), one of the neighbors came strolling by. She peered up at me, and wanted to know who is this? I showed off my four or five words - pointing to a huge pumpkin saying "Big, Beautiful, Good!" several times in Serb, feeling like an idiot, but hey it's about all I can say yet properly besides hello and swearwords. Satisfied, she gave me one last sharp look and marched off to see to her own household's dinner.

Typical Sombor, Serbia House Photos - Honestly

For my sister Rachel who emailed asking "What do houses look like in Serbia?". This NOT our house. Our house is the same size, shape and brick-faced but without the froo-froo details. About half the houses in downtown Sombor look like our house and the other half look roughly like this. They're all mixed up together, not segregated like they might be in a US city.

This particular house is about a block from ours. I took the picture of it because I was thrilled to see a local cat stroll casually across the roof and dive into the dark hole you can see up there. (It's a vent space for the attic.) The house layout is typical of many here:

- one story (only newer houses, apartment buildings and rich people's mansions are higher)

- three-four tall street-side windows. (This photo is only of about 60% the front of house.)

- two entries on the street, the front door and the carriage (now car) door.

- firmly attached on both sides to other houses. However, there's usually an "l" shaped tail out the back that's not touching any other house. It forms a private courtyard in the back for you, with your neighbor's house wing forming one of the walls of that courtyard.

Note: Everyone is VERY careful not to put windows on the side of the wall that look out into their neighbor's courtyards... they may have a tiny window up high for light, but nothing low enough to look through.

- tiled roofs. These are the old tiles which were originally "yellow" (I'm not sure how vivid, probably not terribly). Newer houses are all built with those red-orange tiles. When you look out of the plane circling Belgrade, it's a sea of orange tiled house roofs. Which feels odd at first so far North.

- butts right up next to the sidewalk. Zero land, not one blade of grass, between the sidewalk where quite a few people are walking (this is town center, it's better to walk than drive). Many houses do have small front yards, BUT even then, the public sidewalk is right next to the house. My husband says that's because you used to have the town septic run through the front yard so you didn't want that near your windows... there's also a grassy drainage ditch there now. Anyway, this shows you why the whole curtains thing happened. Your neighbors are an inch from your window as they walk by.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Do All Serbs Sing Together? (Or is it just my family?)

Here's a photo I took at a family get-together last Saturday evening. It all started normally enough in late afternoon, with everyone eating and talking quietly at a long table set out in the courtyard of a family farmhouse in a village set in the farmland between Sombor and Novi Sad. Then when it got dark around 7-ish, one of the Aunts brought out a guitar, handed it to a cousin, and started singing and clapping her hands. Immediately everyone -- no matter their age -- joined in. Slowly, over more than an hour, the singing grew from a quiet family singalong to something more like a loud party. An accordion appeared almost by magic in the arms of another cousin. And one uncle sang so passionately that the crowd finally hoisted him on on their shoulders ... and everyone continued carrying on singing for what seemed like at least another hour.

Then, as small children began to droop, the singing quieted to a soft murmur, and we all began to depart for home. When we finally left, I'm fairly sure someone was still going at it though.

Now here's my question - is this a Serb thing? I've noticed this singing before in our own home, although in a far smaller scale. The first time it happened, right after I met my husband, we were washing dishes in the kitchen when he just started singing. And instead of making fun of him, as any rightminded American teen would do, the kids lifted their heads and joined right in. I nearly fell on the floor. Was this a real family or a Disney movie?

After awhile I got used to our small family bursting into song every once and a while. So when at my first big gazillions-of-cousins get-together, they started the singing thing, I thought, well ok I guess that must be typical Serbian. But is it? Or is it just this particular family? If you know, please do drop me a comment.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Serb Internet Industry Insiders Send in Some Notes & Hotlinks

Since my posting a few days ago about the Serb Internet industry, a few folks posted really insightful comments (thanks) and several contacted me directly.

Dejan Bizinger in Belgrade is B92's blogmaster. He's also doing an official blog for the BlogOpen conference in Novi Sad in November. He emailed me, "As I wrote in my comment there, excellent article. Maybe you have seen my post about Adria market on my eMarketingBlog - or my article on Top Web Applications in Serbia on very popular Read/Write Web Blog."

Viktor Markovic who's one of my favorite writers at Belgrade 2.0 blog emailed me that, "Net business here is still in diapers as you mentioned in your previous blog post. As for the 'who is who' I guess you'll find out most by reading forums, elitesecurity.org devprotalk.com and dizajnzona.com - if you know Serbian, that is. I don't know of any good or forums or blogs in English where you could find such an info... maybe you have just given me idea for a blog post in the future - 'who is who in Serbia net industry' :) "

As for myself, visiting Serbia now and meeting these guys (albeit virtually for now) is a really cool thing because it's the second time I've been witness at the start of a healthy Internet business. (Yes, I know Serb Web sites have been around for a decade and B92 in particular has more historical importance than most US Web sites ever did for their country! But I'm talking about business here, as in for-profit, because hey, I am a capitalist after all....)

Anyway, for me it's a bit like being in a time machine. I feel, for the second time in a row, like a cheerleader cheering the Internet-inventing team on to victory.

Serb Blog Conference Set for Nov 10th in Novi Sad

I'm pretty sure it's the first annual. I won't be able to make it because I'll be about 4,000 miles away that day, but have been assured many of Serbia's most famous bloggers will be there. More info here.

#1 Thing My Serb Friend Was Asked About America

When my friend Zlatko returned from visiting us in America earlier this year, he says everyone here in Sombor had one, single, big question for him, "Do Americans have really huge refrigerators like in the movies that are all full of food?"

Now I understand why, when he first visited my US house, he ran to the kitchen and threw open the fridge doors and then just stood there like it was the Grand Canyon or something. It must have been a crazy sight for a guy whose wife and/or mother prefer to shop for fresh produce daily at the local farmer's market, so very little ever needs to be refrigerated.

My husband and I just bought a new fridge for the Sombor house because the old one was dead, dead, dead. And things smelled bad. The stores had two kinds of fridges -- little short thin ones like you see in college dorm rooms, and very tall thin ones that look as though someone took the short ones and streeeeetched it tall. None were as wide as a "normal" American low-cost regular fridge. And certainly none were wide enough to have two doors (plus freezer drawer) the way ours does at home. Actually I think you could stuff two of our new tall Serb fridge inside our US fridge and there might still be some room for milk or something.

That said, we shop the Serb way here too. So, when we loaded the new Serb fridge up, it was still pretty empty inside.

By the way: My step-daughter tells me, if you're a Serbian kid returning from the US, the #1 question all the other kids will have for you is, "Did you ride in the yellow bus?"

Monday, September 3, 2007

F-ing Croatians

No this post isn't about what you probably think it is about.

One evening last week, I was sitting here in my little home office, working away at my computer. (Ok I was reading the Desperate Serbwife Blog past postings, which are absolutely addictive, but hey I supposed to be working so that counts for something.) Anyway, a couple of young guys walked past, saw our house lights on, and said in Serbian (roughly translated) "Oh, the f-ing Croatians are back again."

I thought, "Oh isn't that funny, they think we are Croatian." I figured they thought my husband wasn't a Serb because we travel and live elsewhere, which is rare for many Serbs still, given financial restrictions and problems getting visas. And I knew from studying the Wikipedia info about Sombor that 8.33% of Sombor residents were Croatians.

Then a few days later I was walking with an acquaintance when we passed a cafe that's a blight on the neighborhood. It's on a fairly quiet, otherwise lovely, stretch of street, and no matter what time day or night, it always seems to be BLASTING music outside. Usually only a couple of people -- nearly always 100% male -- will be sitting outside next to a sound system that's booming and booming like it's for a concert for hundreds. A few other cafes in the town center do this, but only at peak times in the evening and only in more commercial neighborhoods. Plus, the other cafes' music just sounds better. It's either live gypsies, or European house music, or not-too-bad central European pop. This awful cafe instead blasts stuff called Turbofolk all day and night.

If you're a Serb you know what this is, if you're not, be very very glad. (Actually there are a few Turbofolk hits that weren't bad at all, but like heavy metal, a couple of popular hits do not make the rest of the genre palatable when blasted out in a quiet neighborhood morning, noon, and night.)

As we walked past this loud cafe, my companion turned to me and said words to the effect of "F-ing Croatians. " "It's a Croatian bar?" I asked. "Yes."

OK, so my (turns out incredibly naive) assumption through all of this was "Croatians" meant ETHNIC CROATS. And hey, although it would be better for world peace, etc. if the two Slavic tribes of Serbs and Croats could just get along, according to Rebecca West it wasn't going to happen anytime soon for the most part. So, it was sad but slightly understandable if the Serbs in Serbia might not be such big fans of the Croats living in their midst, even in Sombor which is known for open mindedness and a uniquely high racial mix.

Turns out I was completely wrong. Turns out we are the "f-ing Croatians" people were bitching about here, because they're not talking about racial Croats. They are talking about racial Serbs who were refugees from Croatia when civil war broke out 15 years ago. My husband was one of those refugees.

Even though he's ethnically 100% Serb, and he never took a single dinar of government assistance, and he built a business with his own hands (he was a carpenter) and raised a family here, and currently is responsible for the well-paid employment of four Sombor citizens (in an area that's rife with unemployment) etc., etc., to some people's minds he'll always be a F-ing Croatian Refugee.

Let the record note we never play Turbofolk, or any other music so loudly it would upset the neighbors.

Now I have to go ask someone about that noisy bar. Is it really a 'Croatian' hang-out or it is just an obnoxious place for obnoxious people which is being tarred with the 'Croatian' brush just because refugees are easy people to blame for stuff you don't like? Will post here again and let you know.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Attn Web Programmers Worldwide: Serbian Firm Seeks Freelancers

As I mentioned in my post below, Web programming shops in Serbia are gaining business like crazy mainly from external clients (especially British marketers) who are shopping for cheap but well-done systems and design.

At a picnic yesterday evening, I ran into Igor Trpcevic who heads Novi Sad-based Web development firm Program In who also run this site. When I mentioned I was writing this blog, he asked me to post a few job openings for virtual, freelance programmers. If you can write in English, have any of the following skills, and would like to moonlight for Igor, it's not a lot of money but he can toss you plenty of business because his company has been growing quickly. (In fact, he says the only thing holding him back right now is the lack of programmers with a few years work experience who are seeking work. )

Program In is seeking:

- PHP programmers
- CRM system experts, especially those who've worked on B2B applications and/or with Joomla, or OSCommerce
- Flex programmers who also have some MySQL abnd PHP skills
- Web designers with HTML, Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Flash experience

Apply by contacting Igor by email -- igor.trpcevic(at)gmail.com

Serbia's Internet Industry: Ready for Takeoff?

Depending on which source you research, the amount of Serbs who are online ranges from 16% to 27%. That's somewhere between 1 and 2.5 million people, which is not a a large universe to build an entire industry around.

I assume this figure includes people at work, but most white collar workers here are not online at the office yet. Example: although Radio Sombor has a Web site, the station's 20-person staff share about four PCs between all of them, and most of these are reportedly fairly old.

On the consumer front, from what I've seen of Internet cafes in Sombor at least, going online means you're a teenage boy who uses the Internet exclusively for game playing. A 14 year old girl, I met last week at the beauty salon that her mother manages, told me she'd like to do more on the Internet but she couldn't find any Web sites to visit aside from Google, B92 and Krstarica. She simply had no idea where else to navigate to.

Based on my admittedly brief time here, plus 13 years in the Internet industry in the US here's my analysis of Serbia's Internet potential.

On the down-side:

o You probably can't profit online in Serbia by exploiting a particular micro-niche, which has been the strategy of many US Netpreneurs, especially the AdSense publisher crowd, because the whole country is a niche in and of itself. Anything you launch has to be of wide interest, or cost you so little in time and effort it's worth doing even though the payoff may be small.

o Extreme convenience and time saving -- which are the raison d'etre of many ecommerce, Web conferencing and other online services in the US -- may not be very compelling here either. The overwhelming majority of Serbs online are concentrated in just two cities, Belgrade and Novi Sad. So, they already have ready in-person access to (a) each other and (b) the best stocked stores the country has to offer. And, for now at least, they're not time stressed the way Americans tend to be. It's a more relaxed life.

o Serbia's not ready for video which is where the big bucks are headed in US Internet services and advertising. I pay extra for the best bandwidth you can buy from the cable company in Sombor, and video is very slow and jerky. It takes 4 hours to download a one-house low rez TV show from iTunes.

o Ecommerce security may be still a very real problem. The vast influx of banks to Serbia in the past three years means a lot more people have credit cards. However they are not protected by some of the laws and customer service traditions Americans have. If someone steals your card number online and starts charging, you probably have to pay even though it's not your fault. Everyone I know in the Net world here has been saying ecommerce will take off when PayPal at long last comes to Serbia. Unfortunately, PayPal doesn't appear to be on the horizon.

On the good side for the Serbian Internet industry:

o Recently the government slashed the VAT (purchase taxes) on PCs from 18% to less than half that amount. And, close to 42% of Serbian households have cable TV, so they might be upsold to Web if they don't have it already. (However, even $20 a month which many US households pay for Internet, is going to be too high here to entice the broad use the Web needs to take off in a big way.)

o Diners Club and Mastercard have reportedly announced Serb ecommerce-enabling initiatives in the past couple of months. This could be huge, even if PayPal takes their slow sweet time getting here.

o Web development professionals here are already getting plenty of practice by doing loads of freelance projects for clients outside Serbia. In fact, they routinely beat bids from teams in India because Serb prices are often a bit lower. You'd be surprised to learn how many Web sites for British small and mid-sized businesses are built and maintained by Serbian firms such as Program In who are based in Novi Sad.

o Serb programmers are unusually well-rounded. If you attend university to become a programmer here, your classes concentrate solely on that topic (no liberal arts extras, Serbian universities assume you got all that stuff in high school.) To graduate, you have to learn at least six, and sometimes ten or more programming languages fluently. This is exceptional brain preparation for an Internet world where new programs and applications are invented frequently. These guys are not paralyzed by over-specialization.

o 90% of adult Serbs have cell phones, and I can tell you most teens do too. Just like their peers all over the world, those teens are driving their parents nuts by text messaging all times of the day and night. Plus, according to my step-daughter, a fancy new cell phone is a MUST-HAVE for showing off affluence here. Younger consumers will scrimp like crazy on every other expenditure but lay out the big Dinars on new cell phones. If your cell phone is a year or two old, even if it works perfectly well, your friends will start thinking you have no dash and no dosh.

So, as the whole mobile Internet confluence gains strength, Serbia may end up going online through their cell phones. I bet the whole space will be transformed in the next 24 months.