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

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Stray Dogs of Serbia

Here's one of my favorite stray dogs of Sombor Serbia as he jauntily trots along the main drag on the day they ripped up the pavement to do municipal work:

The dozen or so stray dogs of Sombor are well-known town characters. Back in the US, before I lived in Sombor, I was filled with horror and pity whenever my husband mentioned the stray dogs. No shelter to feed them and help them find a loving home, no vet service to spay them so they would not be burdened with litter after litter of unwanted puppies....

My husband was similarly horrified when he learned our US town had no strays - no option for a dog between ownership or euthanasia. And the whole idea of spaying any animal outraged him - how could Americans mutilate a defenseless animal?

He's not changed his mind and in fact heartily feels our own dog, originally adopted from a shelter, would be much happier as a stray albeit with visitation and feeding rights. After meeting the strays of Sombor, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Sombor's strays are the happiest dogs I've ever seen in my life. Confident, peppy, joyful, self-important. They dart busily about town sometimes playing together in small packs, sometimes alone. They all appear well fed, but not fat. (Restaurants, bakeries, and people put out scraps for them at night.) They are all smaller breeds, maybe 15-35 pounds. I never felt threatened and never heard them bark annoyingly.

Serbs love dogs. Most houses have dogs, and all Sombor apartment buildings allow dog-ownership (infrequent in the States.) Domestic dogs are clearly well looked after, but their frustration and jealousy of the stray dogs' lifestyle can be palpable. Oh to be allowed off leash! Oh to be allowed to go outside and play wherever you want all day and all night long!

I'm not stupidly naive. I'm sure Sombor's good-natured strays would be far better off if they had access to medical care, a secure warm place to sleep in the winter, and adoption services for those that prefer the security of a home (you can tell at a glance which dogs these are - it's all in demeanor and personality.) I'm also sure that strays in larger Serbian cities and perhaps smaller towns, might have a far tougher life. As a mid-sized city, Sombor may be as good as it gets.

Sometimes I say, "If we lived full time in Sombor, I would have to do something for the stray dogs." My husband always replies, "Why do you Americans give so much to animals when people should come first? If you have something to give, go down to the town orphanage." It's a thought to consider...

In the meantime, here's a snapshot I took of two strays snuggled in the warmth of a pile of brush downtown. Incredibly adorable. And they'd be miserable if I tried to confine them to live in a yard like American dogs.

Family Emergency: Got any notes to post from Serb Unity Congress in SF?

If you are (or were) at the Serb unity congress this weekend, please do let me know via comments here. I'd love to hear what the Congress was like, what the key message of the politicans was, and what the typical attendees were talking about. Please do report on this on my behalf - thank you!

P.S. The emergency: my step-son who was to accompanied me to the Congress (and do a little ancillary frolicking in San Francisco which is littered with beautiful girls, great wine, and fabulous clubs) had to be rushed to the hospital last night with acute appendicitis. He's going to be fine although it hurts a great deal to do anything that uses the stomach muscles, including sitting up, walking, laughing, and, as he pointed out, farting is quite painful.

The most important thing I learned from the experience (aside from that fart factoid) was how Serb I have apparently become. I saw nothing unusual in the fact that all of us in the family, Aunt, Father, Step-Mother and Sister, dropped everything and rushed to the hospital to be by his side before and after surgery. All of us also changed our plans for today so we could be with him during at least part of his first day of recovery.

I could see from the hospital staff's eyes how unusual it was for such a large group to gather bedside. Then, I dimly remembered when I had my appendix out as a 15-year old. My boarding school sent me to a hospital about 30 minutes from my hometown. From what I recall, only my mother drove out to see me in the hospital. It was quite a happy time though, I lay back and relished all the attention from nurses and the dazzling idea of getting out of so many school classes with a "free" pass. The idea of all my siblings and father coming to see me would have been too weird for comprehension, so I didn't miss it. And all aunts and uncles lived hundreds, even thousands of miles away, which is quite normal in the US.

However, Serbs gain strength and warmth from family togetherness -- or at least the bunch who have taken me under their wing do. So it seemed horrible to me to leave our 23-year old son all alone by himself in the hospital last night. We were quite relieved to get his phone call at 7:15am the next morning saying, "The doctor tells me I must go, the paperwork will be done in a few minutes. Can you come pick me up?"

Later he admitted things hadn't quite gone like that... the nurse had told him he could "maybe leave in a day or two" but when he pressured her, she allowed that as an adult he had the legal power to check himself out and go home early. Eager to be cosseted in the heart of the family home, naturally he used that power immediately. And I can't blame him.

Would an American 23 year old have done the same thing? I can't imagine it. Of course the likelihood that a 23 year old American would still be living anywhere near his parents' home, much less in it, is fairly small.

I can definitively say, I like the Serb way better. I'm enormously glad our son does too. So I guess I am at a kind of Serb Unity Congress this weekend -- in our own living room.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How Much is That Bidet in the Window?

I frequently walked by this bathroom supply store near our home in Sombor this summer. They opened in 1991, and you've got to admire the resiliency of a business that made it through civil war, insane inflation, and NATO bombing... coming out the other side of a dozen straight years of crisis still healthy. In fact, their Italian tile displays made me nearly faint with pleasure. But then I get that way about gorgeous housewares.

The tiles aren't the only thing that's much nicer than my local Home Depot back in the USA. Here's a close-up pic of a typical display window:
Take a look at the porcelain item in the bottom left corner. No it's not a toilet with its seat missing. It's something you'll never ever see in a US plumbing display, or probably in an American private home either. It's a bidet. And it's not the only one in Sombor either.

Strolling by one afternoon this September I remarked to my husband how pleased I was that our own Sombor bathroom had a bidet, the first I've ever lived with up close and personal. He replied, "Yes, that was my (first) wife's idea, not mine." I couldn't think of a rejoinder beyond a big honking "Duh!", so remained politely silent.

Then after a half a minute of thought he spoke again, "You know, I really like it too. It's so useful." "Useful?" "Yes, it's great to wash your feet in." Yuck! Too much information.

That said, I'd like to compliment the women of Sombor, and of Europe, for convincing their men to buy bidets in such great numbers that bidets are seen as essential equipment to be rightfully included in any bathroom suppliers' window. Bravo. Your American sisters are far, far behind you.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Scandalize the Neighborhood...

Since we came back from Serbia last month I've been rejoicing in two things:

#1. Heaps of Hot Water:
American showers with nearly endless supplies of hot water are WONDERFUL. I let the water run and run and run. I know I'm a gross-carbon-footprint-wastrel. After Serbian bathrooms I don't care anymore about being environmentally correct. No more little tank mounted on the shower wall with a temperature needle diving toward cold five minutes after the shower starts. No more having to turn off the water, after I put on the shampoo, to conserve enough hot water so I don't freeze when washing it out afterwards. Glory be.

#2. Laundry Takes 35 Minutes:
I do NOT understand. Washing machine technology has been nailed down since the 1940s. Aside from maybe adding a digital clock, nothing has changed. So why do Serbian washing machines take more than two hours to do the job it takes an American machine 35 minutes to do? It's certainly not because there's more work - Serbian machines take about 1/2 the load a US machine will. And it's not because they do a better job - the results are the same. I cannot conceive of how a Serbian family, especially with babies, gets the laundry done given how insanely long it takes.

However, (this is where the Scandal comes in) the Serbs have one thing right for summer months -- they hang laundry outside to dry. Aside from a few hand-wash-only dainties, I never hung laundry in my life until we moved there. Everything feels crisper, smells wonderful, and needs less ironing. (OK, who am I kidding? If you know me, you'll know I haven't ironed since the late 1980s.)

So this weekend I trekked to the store to purchase rope and clips, and then I asked my husband to put up a laundry line for us in the backyard. It is the only laundry line in the entire neighborhood and possibly the entire town. And there's a load of wash flapping out there right now, scandalizing the neighbors. However, they can't do anything about it. We're lucky, we don't live in one of those neighborhoods where there are rules and restrictions about this. (Can you imagine trying to explain to Serbs it's actually not legal to hang laundry outside in parts of America?)

But, even as I hung that laundry in the sunshine I sent a prayer of thankfulness up for the existence of our dryer. I never saw a dryer in any Serb home we visited. They must exist, but not perhaps frequently. I cannot imagine the horribleness of trying to get laundry dry all winter long without one.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Serbs Don't Say "I'm Sorry" the Way Americans Do

"I'm sorry" is not a phrase that trips lightly off the Serb tongue. Serbs do not apologize quickly and easily the way Americans do. It simply never enters their minds. They also may find it odd, of not a bit offensive, when Americans apologize in the course of daily life the way we do.

American apologies come in two categories -- the first is the "Whups by mistake" offense. You may have bumped into someone in the hallway by mistake, be late for a meeting, or double booked a flight so now there are too many passengers for seats. When you say, "I'm sorry", everyone knows you're not totally anguished or anything. But you are at least polite about it, acknowledging other people's feelings.

If you were not to say "I'm sorry" in those circumstances, many Americans would be fairly upset - sometimes more by the lack of an apology as a courtesy than by the actual problem that prompted it.

I've known Serbs, completely unknowingly, to upset and even outrage American clients and co-workers in this manner in international business. It doesn't occur to a Serb that an apology is called for for such a little thing. It doesn't occur to Americans that the Serbs aren't being deliberately impolite.

The second American apology category is the Big Screw Up, often part and parcel of a Big Fight. One person (or both) is shaking with outrage and the other person better darn well ante up an "I'm sorry" in a timely manner or risk seriously damaging the relationship. The apology in this case may just mean, "I've cooled down, I love you, I am extending an olive branch of peace, let's work this out together without crazy emotions." Or it may mean, "I acknowledge I did something terribly wrong, and I regret it. I empathize with your point of view on this, it's my bad. Can you forgive me?"

If this apology is offered American to American, it may well work. If, however, this gesture of reconciliation is offered by an American to a Serb, the Serb's reaction may range from being completely unmoved to becoming even more pissed off.

"If you are sorry, then why did you do the thing in the first place?" wonders the Serb. "Do you think with two little words now that you can wipe out your error from my memory and everything will go back to the way it was before? This is not the Catholic Church, you can't get your sins washed away like they didn't exist just by saying a few words. You Americans are not sincere people, no one who says 'Sorry' so often can really mean it. These are just words without meaning."

Now that our little Serb-American family has been together for three years, my husband has learned to say "I'm sorry" more. (OK, it was twice, but I treasure those two times, deeply.) And I've learned to stop saying "I'm sorry" as a kneejerk reaction so frequently.

Which is fine for us, but the adjustment has screwed up my American-to-American relations. Earlier this year I completely messed up with a close relative. I called her to say she was right, I was wrong. After nearly an hour on the phone she was still fairly upset. Why? "You say you understand and you did the wrong thing," she cried," but you never said I"m sorry!" Whups.

Now I have to learn to adjust my apologies for the culture I'm in.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Thank Heavens for the Language Barrier"

There's a line in the wonderful and intelligent film, Spanglish, where the lead character, a Hispanic immigrant working as a housekeeper for a wealthy California household says, "Thank Heavens for the language barrier."

The first time we heard it, our entire household roared with laughter. Then it crept into regular usage. Someone, my husband or I, would get annoyed with each other and say something that perhaps would have gone unsaid (or been said more nicely) with cooler heads. Luckily, when you're annoyed, you tend to lapse into slang in your language of birth. His is Serbo-Croatian slang and mine is American slang.

So, neither of us would quite understand what the other person was saying. You can tell from the tone and face of course. Arms being flung into the air, things like that. But, we've discovered if you don't understand the precise wording, it's not so upsetting. There's a curiously relieving distance between the other person's biting tone and your heart.

Which may be why somewhere in the conversation, someone (usually one of the kids) mutters, "Thank heavens for the language barrier."

So, when my husband decided to wear his horrible, new, clunky leather sandals all day yesterday, my remark of "Crunchy Granola!" didn't put a dent in his excited pride. And when, after sniffing the air outside, he decided to wear socks with those sandals, my comment of "You look like a dork" didn't douse the bounce in his step. "What's a dork?" he said.

Well, there may be a word for Dork in Srpski, but it's not in our dictionary. I know, because in the heat of the moment to make my feelings heard, I looked it up.

But you know, I'd like to thank the dictionary makers for not putting slang in. They kept the language barrier intact. And waking this morning, I thought over yesterday and how happy he was striding out into the day with his Brand New Sandals and I don't have the heart to put a little arrow of poison into that joy. I guess we all can be dorky at times, and it doesn't matter as long as we are happy together.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

When You Get Vaccinations for Foreign Travel...

... don't make my mistake and do it on a Tuesday. Choose a Friday night or Saturday morning instead.

As part of our prep for our upcoming trip to Nepal, we got typhoid, hepatitis, polio and tetanus shots yesterday at a travel clinic. (Given the rising incidence of rabid dogs and possibly monkeys in Nepal, my husband also wanted the rabies shot, but I wimped out because that one is supposed to hurt a lot. I'll just avoid animals there.) Within a few minutes of getting shots we both had headaches and felt tired. I crashed at nine last night and didn't wake until nine this morning. And despite two liters of Diet Pepsi, it's noon here now and my bed is looking awfully inviting.

But I have to run into the office, so will buck up. Next time though, I'll get shots on the weekend!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Dumbest Thing a US-Based Serb Ever Said to Me

"Our son is dating an American." Said in a dramatic tone of horror and dismay, just as you might say, "Our son is doing Heroin."

I, the blatantly, doesn't-even-speak-Srpski-yet, American wife was standing right next to my Serb husband when this remark was addressed to ... me! I quite literally could not think of a reply for a moment, and then nodded in commiseration, "Yes, well that's been known to happen."

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Random Acts of Refrigeration

You never know true culture shock until you refrigerate with natives of another country; especially those who spent their formative years with a very different-sized fridge than you did.

Strikingly few things are agreed upon as "must-refrigerate" by both the American (me) and the Serbs (everyone else) in our US household. These include milk, lumps of cheese (but not grated cheese), lunch meats, and lettuce. Some things, such as most fresh vegetables, get refrigerated by default because there's no pantry so the Serbs can't figure out where else to put them.

However, the Serbs feel the proper place for partly eaten food, such as a casserole or a jar of taco sauce clearly marked "Refrigerate After Opening", is in the oven or cupboards. They are genuinely mystified when I discover these items sometimes days later, wail with worry, and either throw them out or bundle them up for the fridge immediately.

I, on the other hand, am equally mystified why our fridge is packed with unopened canned goods such as anchovies and never-cracked bottled goods such as spare jars of mustard. (In fact there are three, never-opened huge jars of Grey Poupon in there right now, but somebody keeps putting the half-empty ketchup back in the cupboard instead.)

But then you know, if this is the biggest article of confusion and stress in our multinational family, then I am a lucky woman indeed. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

From Vermont to the California Coast in 30 Minutes... in Croatia

This morning's mail at our US home brought a new Classic Journeys catalog -- upscale walking tours with gourmet food in places like Southern Tuscany, Provence, and the newest hot-spot Croatia. Prices start at (to me insanely high) US$3400 per person for week-long trips to your choice of either the area around Dubrovnik on the southern coast near Montenegro or the Istrian Coast up north near Italy.

Nearly all of the estimated seven billion Euros spent by tourists in Croatia this past year were spent in coastal areas like these. In fact, when you drive along the coast, every single town and village is awash with Zimmer (hotel) signs, so much so in most areas that you wonder if there is anything at all in Croatia besides hotels, vacation villas, and auto-bus camps all butted up against the Adriatic.

Here's the funny thing: if you go just 30 minutes inland, there's an entirely different Croatia that few tourists see. Aside from an Olympic ski team training camp, there are nearly no hotels. Nothing but scenery, sheep, cows, horses, and a few natives... and it looks surprisingly like Vermont and the loveliest parts of New Hampshire. Places, that in the US would be crowded with tourists on beautiful autumn days.

A few snapshots for you to enjoy. A typical winding road... this is a main road for the entire area. Count the cars with me:I took this snapshot of mossy stones and tree trunks while hiking on a woody trail:

Here's another view during my hike, of the bucolic valley opening up from a hill view. My husband says it used to be more open land, but so many small family farms have been abandoned or hardly worked in the past 20 years it's becoming woods now. It's not just due to civil war. The area suffered heavy losses in both world wars and then came a population shift to the coast which Tito's government made possible by building new roads and encouraging tourism so coastal communities could make big bucks in a Zimmer trade. The young generation took off to seek their fortunes, and the elders slowly died out. We've seen that happen plenty to family farms in the US as well of course. Here's a little guest cottage located in this valley that was too sweet not to photograph:
This is a typical village scene:
Unlike Vermont, here if you drive on the road to the coast for just 30 minutes, you'll quickly leave the leafy woods and winter ski areas behind and come abruptly to open hills that remind me greatly of parts of California. Here you can see some semi-wild horses grazing:
And then, just as abruptly, the road curves and goes down, and there you are spat out on the Croatian coast:
And here we are back in Zimmer-Land.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Pull Into a Serb Auto Gas Station & You'll Find...

Propane. For cars. You want gasoline you better get yourself to a place where they sell petrol.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Anyone Gonna Be At Serbian Unity Conference in SF?

I have to be in San Francisco at the end of this month on business, so I'm considering popping over to the Serbian Unity Congress being held at the same time there. Have you been or know anyone who is going? My husband is excited about the band they have playing, Bajaga & Instruktori (although not excited enough to get on a plane for seven hours each way and come with me.) And apparently Milorad Dodik is speaking, who I being completely politically-unaware have no feelings for, but several of my Sombor-based friends say is liked there about as much as George Bush is in the US (ie., not.)