Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
They were all fantastic, and the child dancers were, as always, terribly charming. There's even a company dog who appears on stage for the start of the first act; he did a great job but then this is his 31st Nutcracker performance since he joined in 2000, so he's had plenty of practice. The sets were also truly magical.
The audience wasn't. As you would expect, the theatre was jammed with children. I expected small noises and rustlings from them. What I didn't expect were the sheer bad manners of many parents. Mothers sitting all around us continually spoke with their children throughout the show. Also, instead of waiting for intermission, they dug into their purses bringing out snacks during the performance... the sound of plastic wrappers being taken off of sandwiches all around you is quite distracting. Then there were the parents who brought children far, far too young to be in a theatre. What stunned me the most was they seemed to think of it as if they were trapped in a 747 jet instead of a room with doors. Babies would start screaming and parents would continue to sit there. Mister, don't shush your child here, get up and go to the hallway outside already!
Finally, as the company prepared to take their bows, instead of clapping, many of the parents in the audience stood up, slapped their jackets on and hustled their children up the aisle to the exits. Hey, it's not a movie theatre! There are live people bowing on the stage! I clapped extra loudly to make up for it, but so many families were leaving early that the stage manager brought down the curtain abruptly far earlier than I've ever seen before.
The Providence Ballet is to be commended. They did a fine job and didn't deserve their audience.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
He can't. He gives it a valiant try though. "Brridgeheratone Road." "Brridgeheratone?" "Yes that's it." "Ok, you're going to have to email it to me." When his email arrives, it reads "Brighton."
I never really realized how very un-phonetic English spelling is. You know how when you're learning to read when you are little, and the teacher keeps saying, "Just sound it out." I thought that meant English was something a reasonable human being could sound out. It's just schoolteacher propaganda.
Due to the efforts of a 19th century spelling reformer, Serbian is a language you really truly can sound out. Everything is spelled precisely the way it sounds. This makes things much easier when you're trying to learn it. (That's the first and last thing that will be easy though -- otherwise learning Serbian is hellish.)
I think Serbs take this phonetic spelling thing too far though when they apply it to personal names. As far as I'm concerned, your name is your name is your name. Not in Serbia. If your name doesn't seem phonetic to them, they will automatically change the spelling. For example, when you read gossip about Hollywood stars in the newspaper, the names have been changed to work in Serbian spelling. For example, Jennifer Aniston's first name is spelled Dženifer.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Saturday, December 6, 2008
He's returned to Nepal to hike his beloved Annapurna Circuit again. I stayed back in the US this time, because after three months there last winter, I'm still Nepal-ed out. I don't like hiking in mountains - who's kidding, I loathe hiking in mountains. Nepal has outstanding natural beauty and great shopping; but if you're not a native, a mountain hiker or an aid worker, it gets pretty dull after awhile.
It's also lonelier for a woman to visit Nepal because local women are not social with outsiders unless you live there year-round. As in many countries, the men are out and about while the women stay at home. All of the friends and acquaintances we made last winter are male. Hence the hangover. So delighted were the old gang to see my husband return, that they've been celebrating for four solid days and nights. Although these men are in their 40s and 50s, they drink like American teenagers with a blithe disregard for mixing liquors. "First a glass of beer, then a whiskey, then a glass of wine, and then they start with the beer all over again," my husband sighed.
On the good side, my husband has now been to native Nepali nightclubs, complete with dancing girls, where regular tourists are rarely invited. "The whole room was just Nepalis. I was the only Westerner." There are so many clubs targeting tourists and rich locals in Nepal that we hadn't suspected the existence of separate clubs for the locals-only.
As soon as my husband woke up and could get his legs under him this morning, he headed out to start his trek. His liver just can't take much more of Nepali hospitality.
One tiny problem, my accountant says the IRS won't recognize donations to churches outside the US for tax deductions. (I know, I should not care if the right hand knows what the left is doing... but in this economy with a kid in college, etc., I'll take any financial break I can get.)
Luckily, St Sava's priest Father Aleksandar Vlajkovic has made this very easy. We can just donate the funds to the US church, who'll give us an IRS-worthy receipt, and then he'll arrange for the churches we earmarked in Croatia to receive funds. He needs the church name and location to do this, and a local priest name is also helpful but not required.
I was also delighted to discover that our US bank already has online bill pay set up for St Sava's. To donate, I just went into our account online and clicked a couple of buttons! Strangely though, when I tried to use the same online service to pay my New York Times subscription, that was harder. I guess church wins over state.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Embassies need quicker ways to get the word out to citizen travelers. They should set up an email list and make it easy for anyone to join. All you'd need is a computer terminal in the airports, plus an online site. Getting on the list would be strictly voluntary, and one could choose for which dates they'd like to remain on the list.
The email list would only be used in times of critical importance (that is so say, very rarely) and also each new name should be sent, via autoresponder, a list of handy info from that embassy (number to call if you get in trouble; .gov web site; visiting guidelines, etc.).
I've been in quite a few countries now in times of political unrest - ranging from bomb threats in Rome, to Maoist troubles in Nepal, to the US embassy burning in Belgrade. Would have been nice to get a friendly little note from my Embassy at those times.
UPDATE: Since I posted the blog above, I received word that the US Embassy in Belgrade does offer an email plus an SMS service to US citizens living in Serbia. In fact during this Spring's Kosovo-related crisis, they emailed folks six times with updates. Other Embassies also have email lists, called "IBRS". You can sign up for free at the US State Dept site here.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
In Serbia and Croatia, dogs are animals, just like cows or sheep. They have their uses. And they have their place. That place is in an outside cage or chained up in your home's courtyard. Dogs don't ever ever ever sleep on the bed. They don't lick the plate. They don't have special diets selected for their age, stress-level and allergy-profile by a vet.
In Serbia, you don't treat dogs as though they were humans. It's seen as vaguely disgusting -- a sign of how devoid your life must be of real human companionship, mingled up with a titch of mental insanity or outright stupidity. It's a dog, stupid!
My husband's first impression of American traffic, beyond how shiny new and large all the vehicles were, was how many dogs were riding along with their owners. Around here, seems like at least every third car has a dog in it. That just doesn't happen in Serbia. No way.
After five years of arguing, I agreed to make my dog sleep outside at night. Every single night. Even if it's really cold. My husband built her a custom doghouse to beat all doghouses. It's insulated and built specifically for her dimensions. But when the temperature plummeted last week I began to worry. So I trotted over to Ocean State Job Lot and picked up a cheap new dog bed for her house. This is America, so it's got a few bells and whistles.
My husband blanched when he saw it. Don't anyone tell the neighbors in Sombor Serbia that in America our dog has an electronically heated bed with intermittent massage functionality. It's just a bit too Ancient Romans Eating Pickled Hummingbird Tongues Served By Slaves in Golden Loin Cloths. You know, the way seriously idiotic rich people live.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
So, of course I leaned forward and said, "Dobr dan." And it turns out he is Bosnian. Which, apparently isn't the oddity one might expect in a small northern Florida city. There are roughly 20,000 former Yugoslavs in Jacksonville. The first bunch probably came via the help of a local church group in the early 1990s, and the rest accumulated over time like a magnet attracting iron filings. My taxi driver, for example, had originally landed in Utah but made his way inevitably to Jacksonville in under a year.
Every former Yugoslav ethnicity and religion is represented. The entire community comes together around two central activities -- their soccer team (which I suspect plays the local former-Russians and former-Chinese teams) and their grocery store. Everyone says they've never seen any problems between the various sub-demographics -- Macedonians, Serbs, Muslims, Christians, etc.
As you might guess from the name, Amar European Grocery Store (5664 Santa Monica Blvd S, near University Blvd, jacksonville (904)739-9447; firstname.lastname@example.org) specializes solely in Yugoslav-groceries. Located in a side-wing of a mini-mall, it's not a huge place, but big enough. I scampered between aisles going nuts with a kind of dotty joy that only a a mother or step-mother can feel when she spots items her children have been without for a long time. Banana-candies covered in chocolate. Smoki peanut butter flavored puffs, Eva brand sardines in oil, coffee ground properly in Belgrade, and Vegeta soup stock. Prices were very reasonable, in fact some were far lower than what you'd pay back in the Balkans.
I asked, or rather begged, the shopkeeper to tell me if she shipped to customers outside of the area. She's considering it for someday maybe, but really, she said, she's far too busy helping out with the soccer team to take on any more business. Proof, if I needed it, that she truly was a Yugoslav. Why work to expand your business when you already get by and really there is a community life to be having?
Saturday, November 1, 2008
The first thing I do when visiting a new country is a beer tasting to pick which one I'll be ordering from then on. It's sort of like a wine tasting only hopefully with less spitting. I spend an evening ordering every single brew available at a couple of different bars and take a considered sip of each. When you order a whole bunch of different beers to taste in Serbia, it's tough on the waiters because they also have to schlep out a different branded glass in which to pour each separate beer. Apparently it's not done to drink from a generic glass, a glass with the wrong logo, or heaven forbid, the bottle.
For me, Jelen Pivo was the big winner. Everyone thought this was really funny. "She likes Jelen Pivo!" my husband would gleefully announce as we entered someone's home. People would stare, try not to crack up too obviously, and then dispatch a kid to get a bottle from the corner store because no one with any sophistication would normally keep that brand on hand for guests.
I've now achieved a degree of oddball fame. Which means that when Serbish acquaintances visit America, they always tuck a can or two of Jelen Pivo into their suitcases for me. This is handed over with both laughter and pride. Then I take a sip and make a bit of a production out of smiling and enjoying it. Hvala. Puno Hvala!
Secretly though, I wish they hadn't done it. Because after a Jelen Pivo or two, American beer tastes like pisswater. Which is why I plunked an entire case of Rolling Rock from our pantry into my step-daughter's car trunk the other night just before she drove back to college. We've had too many Serb visitors recently, my palate's compromised. "I'm not drinking that stuff!" she exclaimed. "Give it to your American housemates," I replied. "They won't know any better."
Sunday, October 26, 2008
I have never, to my knowledge, heard my own, American father mention Hitler in conversation. Not once. Nor my mother either. They were in their teens during WWII, and keenly aware of it, but it's not remotely the center - or even outer edges - of their thoughts now.
For Serbs of my parents' generation, however, WWII is a frequent point of reference in normal everyday conversation. Hitler slips into sentences like a tiny, silver minnow, and then slips out again. Partly this is because the war hit closer to them. My husband's parents were actively involved in the partisan movement and Hitler's troops and allies killed many of their relatives, not to mention burning the house down.
But, also I think partly because if you watch Balkan TV stations, especially TV in Croatia, WWII isn't limited to an occasional old movie on an inconspicuous cable channel in the mid-afternoon. WWII is still and continually prime time television. It's almost like there's a news vacuum between WWII and now, everyday life. Or just things Serbs and Croats would rather not reminisce about at this time.
I don't mean to get too deep. But you can understand how, when a Serbian friend who is precisely my father-in-law's age came to visit us in the US for a dinner party, Hitler popped into the conversation in less than 30 minutes. Of course he did.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Ok so, why not make the rest of the courses comfortingly familiar to Serbs. That way it's just one weird thing surrounded by normalicy. I confer with my step-son who went to chef school in Croatia. "A meat platter - cold cuts - would be great for appetizers. You could throw some cheese on there too," he says. Ewww. I am a 25-year vegetarian and meat kinda creeps me out. "How about fresh homemade salsa and chips instead?" I reply. "I think they'll like that," he says. "So it's familiar?" "Oh no. Well, maybe they've eaten tortilla chips, but not salsa."
As for the next course, I realize the only Serbian soup I know is the tomato soup everyone makes from dried packets, never cans. I'm damned if I'm serving soup from a packet, and anyway two tomato dishes in a row is too much. We settle on my famous ginger-broth soup with bean thread noodles and tofu. "That won't be too weird for them?" I ask. "It will be ok as long as you serve plenty of bread with everything. Serbs expect bread on the table." I am baffled. Why would you need yet another carb when there's one already included in the dish itself?
Then I remember the story of the first time my husband, as a teenager, was taken to a pizza restaurant. He sat and sat not touching the pizza in front of him. Finally someone asked him what was wrong. "I can't start eating," he explained. "There's no bread on the table."
Next we discuss the desert course. "How about cheesecake? Everyone likes cheesecake, right?" "Of course!" my step-son replies. "They'll love it. They've probably never tasted cheesecake before, but I'm sure it will be a hit."
Oh dear, I guess bread-aside the whole meal will be alien then. "What should I serve to drink?" "Beer is probably a good idea." I relax. Beer I know. Beer will be no problem.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
"Look what he gave me!" I said in fractured Srpski. As I stretched my left hand across the table, glistening with diamonds, the response was always... polite. As in, 'Oh that's nice." Period.
There was none of the "Oh my gosh! It's so beautiful! How did he give it to you? When's the wedding?!" exclamations that are de rigour in America. I began to wonder, maybe they weren't happy with the engagement? Maybe everyone was being smiley to my face but hated Americans? Maybe I smelled bad?
After growing increasingly paranoid over a period of weeks, finally I did what I should have done in the beginning and asked my beloved what the heck was the matter. Turns out I was proudly wearing my engagement ring on the *wrong* hand. In Serbia, engagement and wedding rings are worn on the right hand, not the left. Everyone had thought I was showing off a random nice ring, not an Engagement Ring.
When we at last got married, I had my engagement ring re-sized and moved it to my right hand. So now I'm "'claimed" on both hands.
Then I started fretting. We were married in the States and live there primarly, so my husband wears his wedding ring on the left hand. But, he traveled back home frequently and I wasn't always able to accompany him. Alone late at night, the paranoia began to creep up again. What if all these gorgeous Serbian women saw this hunk of a man and decided he was fair game for poaching because hey there's no ring on that right finger!
I waited up until 2am when it would be 8am Serbian time and then called him, "Honey, you need to do something for me immediately. You have to buy another wedding ring and put it on your other finger." He laughed and pointed out that young Serbian beauties do not think of shaggy old grey haired guys as "poach-material".
"Never mind," I said, "Go get that extra ring anyway. And wear both of them at the same time. You never know where a girl might be from." So now I guess you could say, as a husband, he's double-banded.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Friday, October 10, 2008
My step-son comes running upstairs to see what's making me laugh so loudly. "Oh bummer. That means I must have failed too."
Turns out while I've been on my woman-on-her-own trip in New Mexico, the men in the household went on an afternoon's jaunt down to check out the merchandise at a local gun shop. Unlike what many Europeans think of the US, you can't buy guns like candy in many states. For example, in our state, you have to take an ownership test -- handily administered in the gunshop itself -- and wait for results to be mailed to you before purchasing.
According to my step-son, the gunshop owner had handed the test to them with the airy remark, "It's a no-brainer; all you need is common sense to pass this thing." And, unlike our local DMV (where you get driver's licenses), this guy didn't have any problem with my step-son and husband conferring lengthily in Serbian together as they attempted to figure out the most common sense correct answer to each question. I guess unlike driving, gun ownership could be considered a team sport.
Of course, this all makes me laugh even harder. The combined 'common sense' wisdom of not one but two Balkan men about what to do with a gun equals an American failing score. God only knows what the questions were....
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Middle-aged male bus driver speaking to a middle aged female passenger traveling alone, "How long have you been away from home?" Her reply, "About five days, and I gotta tell you, if our house is a mess when I get back, my husband will be getting a lot of hot tongue and cold shoulder!"
A second, older female passenger, "You mean he doesn't clean up after himself?!"
First woman, "My husband is spoiled rotten. He thinks if he does the laundry, that he's contributing in a major way to the household. It's my fault - his mother ruined him growing up and then I put up with it for years for the sake of the children. But they're grown and gone now and things have to change!"
Bus driver, "Well, I do all the cooking in my household."
An elderly male passenger, "So do I. Everything. I'm the family chef." His wife pats his hand proudly, "Yes, he is!"
Bus driver, "Tonight I'm making short-ribs with a fresh salad and some local feta cheese I picked up at the market. And maybe some other vegetables. "
General murmurs of approval all around.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Banks in Serbia are required to keep something like 40% of deposits in cash at the national central bank. So if there's a bank run during say a Global Economic Crisis, they can pay off 40% of the funds customers gave them . In Croatia that rate is 17%. (In comparison, banks in the US are required to keep something like 5% of their deposits with the Fed, the remainder can be loaned out or invested elsewhere. So if there's a bank run, we're in trouble.)
However, unlike the US which now offers $250,000 per account federal insurance, backed by a 200+ year old government, the far newer country of Serbia only offers a few thousand dollars-worth of account insurance. And it's not like they could vote to make that much bigger, there just isn't all that much money to spend on bailouts, nor friendly countries to borrow it from easily.
The banking sector has been one of the top three booming industries in Serbia for the past five years (the other two being telecommunications and construction.) Most of the banks are new, and have expanded super-aggressively. Our small city of Sombor is served by more than a dozen different name brand banks. Those brands are mainly European - Ernst, Raiffeisen, etc. You'll find most of these same banks in Croatia now as well. But there's one huge difference. The Croatian branches tend to be direct divisions or subsidiaries of the main bank. The Serbian branches tend to be franchises. They got the logo from the main bank, and maybe some management advice, but they're not directly owned 100% by that main bank. So, if they fail... the main bank may not be obliged or interested in bailing them out.
Consumer lending has already tightened in both countries - Croatians are having a much harder time getting mortages, according to a friend of ours who is a real estate developer in Zagreb. Serbs can still get modest mortgages, but interest rates are going upwards fast and may have already hit 10%. Oddly, this hasn't stopped real estate prices from continuing to rise sharply in Belgrade. I don't know who the Belgrade bubble buyers can possibly be... surely the supply of newly rich Montenegrins can't continue forever? Fairly soon they're going to run out of waterfront property to pawn off on Russians and/or Madonna.
So anyway, things are looking rough for the Serb and Croatian economies in the next couple of years. My gut is that Serb banks will be OK, aside from another big wave of M&As, so we'll see fewer name brands coming out the other end of the economic tunnel. For some reason I believe Serbia's isolation can be its salvation. It won't be pulled down by external forces, because the country isn't intertwined enough with Europe yet to be.
My gut doesn't feel like Croatian banks are as safe. Croatia is much further along in the process of integration with the capitalist world. More Croatians have mortgages and credit cards, the government of Croatia has an astonishingly high public debt (in the tens of billions) in comparison with the actual size of the country, and Croatia relies heavily on Europeans for everything from tourism revenues to running its banks. In fact, unlike Serbia, there are no banks in Croatia that are majority owned by locals.
If you have money in a Croatia or Serbian banks and you're considering flying home to yank it out, there's one bit of good news. Last minute flights from the US to Europe are extremely cheap right now, and plenty of seats are available. I know, I've been booking them.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
But I won't. Because I'm in this horrible whale of a rental. It seats 8 (in Serbia that would be 12, in Nepal it would be more like 20.) The rental place told me it was this or a Hummer, and I'd rather look like a soccer mom than an asshole. In an effort to conserve gas, juggle my camera while driving in beautiful Georgia O'Keefe country, and not roll over on moderately sharp curves, I'm going precisely the speed limit.
Which means there's this long line of locals driving behind me who are clearly going Nuts Stuck Behind the Soccer Mom Tourist. Occasionally I do the good girl thing and pull over to the side of the road to let everyone blast past me. But, you know, after awhile it just gets tiresome.
Why won't anybody pass me?! They'll ride up to my back bumper and stare at me real hard so my neck gets itchy, but by god, nobody will pass even when given acres of perfectly legal opportunity.
That's when I realize I've been married to a Serb for too long. Only a Serb would think a microsecond of space with oncoming traffic an eyelash away is plenty of room for passing one, two, maybe even three cars. Serbs pass like bats out of hell. Serbs are the gods of passing. But then a lot more of them die in traffic accidents than Americans do.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Which is how I found myself waking up the next morning and announcing to my husband, "I'm going to New Mexico for a few days tomorrow. Can I get a ride to the airport?"
His reaction, "Serbian women do not go on trips alone."
"Your sister goes on trips alone." "She's not married." "I go on business trips alone." "This isn't business. Wives do not go on vacation without their husbands!" "Maybe in Serbia they don't, but I'm American." He's disbelieving, "Oh really? You know women who have gone on vacation without their husbands?" "'Oh honey, it's normal. All my girlfriends have done it. So, can I get that ride to the airport?" "Ask your step-son."
In the end we reach a compromise. As long as I recognize how incredibly broad minded he is being, a true citizen of the world, he will give me a ride. Also I cross-my-heart and swear I'll never ever make plans again without talking to him beforehand; which in all fairness I should have done from the beginning.
As I dash around the house packing, the men of the house gather in the kitchen. "You know if you were a Serbian woman, you'd be cooking like crazy right now." "Why? I'm leaving." "You'd prepare each meal for us for all the time you're away and write a long note with instructions."
I do, in fact, adore cooking. But, I'm not an idiot. These men are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves without me, and frankly they'll enjoy it. Why would they want to reheat pre-cooked stuff when they could roast new potatoes, grill lamb, hit the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet down the street, or order a pizza with all their favorite toppings?
"Go wild guys," I tell them. "It's your big chance to eat anything you want!"
My husband agrees. But he's careful to let me know he won't be telling the folks back home about this. They wouldn't understand.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
His initial experience of the US was disappointment geographically. If you drive for an entire day from our US house, you'd still be in a part of a country that's fairly identical. If you drive for an entire day from our Sombor Serbia house, you can go from the snowy flat northern plains, through rolling central hills, over the peaks of Montenegrin mountains, and down to the Adriatic sea where people have lemon trees growing in their yards.
"What, were you expecting to hop in the car in Boston and drive out to see cowboys and the Grand Canyon by nightfall?" I asked him. Well, yes....
My theory is that no matter what country you grow up in, printed maps of your country are about the same size when you unfold them on your lap in the car. So, although intellectually you know the distances and ratios of mile-to-inch are quite different, emotionally you're expecting every country to be about the same size.
When I had to give a business speech out West a few years back, I wheedled another ticket for "my assistant" and took my husband along for the ride. It was his first US trip out of New England. About 90 minutes into the flight, he grew restive. "Are we going to be there soon?" I stared at him. "Are you kidding? We haven't even gotten to Chicago. We've got another six hours until we hit Utah." He was completely flabbergasted. "You mean going to western America is like flying from Boston to Frankfurt?"
I pulled out the airline magazine from the seatback in front of me and turned to the map in the back pages. "Take a look. This is America. This dinky corner is where Serbia would fit in."
When we returned home, my husband's sister asked him, "How was it?" His reply, "Big, really big. It was so big. Did you know how big America is? Big! " Then he smiled joyously, "And I saw a real cowboy."
Thursday, August 28, 2008
I understand this completely. So, instead of imposing myself, I've rented a romantic comedy that my husband could never get through without making annoying smooching sounds, and have planned a very nice evening alone, thank you very much.
But first, I run out to the south side of our garden where my old pink roses are bursting with their late summer second bloom. "Here you go, give this to her," I thrust a homemade bouquet with the ends carefully wrapped in wet paper towels and a plastic baggie, through the car window as my husband starts the engine.
The next afternoon, however, I get into the car to find a single rose from the bouquet lying shriveled on the dashboard. What happened?
My husband explains. "You made a mistake. It's OK. I fixed. She'll never know you didn't count the roses."
I didn't count the roses? Well, apparently in Serbia bouquets with an even number of flowers are only used for funerals and grave sites. For the living, the bouquet must have an odd number of flowers.
Ever since I learned this I've rather anxiously examined every bouquet in our house. I can never relax and plop whatever into a vase again.
Monday, August 18, 2008
If there's a Serb on this earth who has stopped at the hint of a new yellow, I have yet to meet them. My brother is shocked. "But, it's the law!"
I am caught in a Serb-American culture gap. My US family and indeed most of my US friends never go in through the "out" door or heaven forbid, smoke where there is a no smoking sign. If there is a posted rule, or even an implied rule such as a paved path through the woods, then you Stay On It. Anything else is irresponsible, dishonest and slightly stupid. Rules are there for your own good and all our common welfare. The US is a big and complex place, with hundreds of millions of people from thousands of cultures, creeds and ethnicities. Obeying the rules is good sense, it keeps us all safe and makes it possible for all of us to live together. Breaking rules is bad citizenship, and more than slightly adolescent.
My Serbian family, on the other hand, think that anyone who obeys the rules is a conformist idiot. Rules and laws, even when posted on large signs, are "just suggestions." It's smart to make rules and laws, but each member of the population should independently decide whether to obey them. This explains both why Serbia has great, public non-smoking laws on the books and why no one in history has ever obeyed or enforced them.
During the past two-three generations, if you had obeyed the letter of the law all the time in Serbia/Yugoslavia, you would not only have been mocked and jeered by your compatriots, you'd also be broke, starved and possibly dead. During economic sanctions, for example, it was impossible to live without the black market.
The most frustrating thing for both cultures, I think, is how attitudes toward rules change quite radically in the larger context. The US thinks nothing of disobeying international law, and even gets quite self righteous about its actitivities when doing so. And Serbia tries to obey contracts only to be denied what it sees as justice for doing so (ie. Kosovo agreements broken.)
I've also found this to be the case for corruption. Petty corruption is common enough in Serbia. For example, we've been pulled over for non-existent traffic violations by police who just wanted to collect enough bribe money to go out for a good night's drinking. That sort of thing is unheardof in the US; I can't begin to imagine paying off a government official in everyday life. On the other hand, the highest echelons of US corporations can be immoral to the extreme. For example, tobacco companies hiding scientific evidence in the 1950s and 60s, and now targeting brands to appeal to teens.
Neither country is less corrupt, more moral, or more intelligent than the other. They are just really different. And I'm caught in the middle, riding along in a huge pleasure truck than would make everyone in Sombor stare with their mouths open.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
When a Serb wakes up in the morning, he or she lies in bed for a while enjoying the sensation. Then he or she gets up and wanders over to the balcony or kitchen for a coffee with family members (who he invariably lives with - the chances of a Serb living alone are statistically slender.) They sit companionably chit chatting together, stretching that first conversation of the day out for as long as possible, even an hour or more.
When a Serb goes to a cafe or takes a break during the day, the same thing happens. He or she sits with friends for hours talking and talking and talking. Later, if the Serb goes out at night for dinner, it's understood that he will occupy the restaurant table (or friend's dining table) conversing for the entire evening until it's time to go to sleep.
If there were an Olympic competition for sitting around talking with friends and relatives, the final contest would come down to the Irish and the Serbs, and the Serbs would win. The Americans wouldn't even be able to field a team.
My friend Adriana (formerly Jadranka) who left her family and name back in Zagreb when she moved to the States in the early 90s, came over for dinner last night around 6:30pm. First she and I talked as I fixed supper. Then my husband joined in as we all ate together. By 8:50pm, my head was aching. I needed a vacation from all the talking. Escaping, guiltily, to sit for a bit by myself in the other room without talking to anyone was an enormous relief. By 10:30pm, I was happily asleep by myself in bed as the voices continued murmuring in the kitchen for hours later in the night.
I just can't talk that long. I can talk all day at the office, but that's different because it's short, pointed conversations with a series of very different people. You joke in the hallway, then you take a brief meeting with a new client, then you figure out a gameplan with co-workers, and then you make a few quick calls. It's not just different tones and people, it's action, action, action. Each conversation moves things forward. A working relationship is slightly stronger, an appointment is nailed down, schedules determined, orders given and received.... things have happened. People have been hired (or fired), money has been made, plans set, etc.
Conversations, for me, have always been mainly for the purpose of taking action. Step one: figure out your plan with a pointed conversation. Step Two: take action. Step Three: talk to analyze the results so you can take action better next time round. Step Four: start on the next activity on your list.
It's all part of what Adriana calls American's "Go Go Go" mental pattern. It's why we have drive-through banks and pharmacies, and why restaurants expect to flip dinner tables (sit new customers at the same old table) 2-3 times per evening. It's also why time management, the art of getting more and more things done in each day's limited time, is critical to career and personal success. It can also supposedly lower your stress level. (If you can manage time and tasks so beautifully that everything gets done without losing your breath or mind, then presumably you'll exist in a state of activity-balancing nirvana and be truly relaxed. It's all about getting the proper rythmn while juggling, really. Well really not because then you might not be human, but that is the scripture I lived my entire school and business life in accordance with.)
Serbs, on the other hand, have a "slow slow slow" mental pattern. It's not that they are stupid or unable to get things done, it's that they prefer to take their time with lots and lots of breaks for conversation. Because, without sitting around for hours every day enjoying lengthy conversations with your family and friends, life isn't worth living. What's the point to activity, to getting things done, when life's true pleasure is already right in front of you? Coffee, conversation... that's the Serbian good life.
Except apparently for me. Because when I wake up in the morning, I lie for ten minutes in bed making a mental list of what needs to get done that day. Then I spring into action, preferably ticking each item off a written list as I do it. If someone wants me to stop and sit around and chit chat for more than an hour, I get so restless and itchy that I want to kill them. Acck! Let me alone! I'm a motion-machine. Can't help it, been conditioned that way.
Which is why I'm grateful that my husband has so many friends and family with whom he can sit about and shoot the breeze. They literally take some of the burden of talking off my shoulders. I don't have to be always ready to sit down and talk for hours at a moment's notice anytime day or night, because they will be. Don't get me wrong, he's a fascinating man who I love practically more than life itself. I'm just constitutionally unable to live life the Serbian slow slow slow way. But, I'm trying to learn to be.
Monday, August 4, 2008
If you live in a particular town in Europe, you don't absolutely need a car the way you do in most US towns. But, we have American habits (my bad) plus relatives and friends to visit who are scattered widely throughout the former Yugoslavia (my husband's fault.)
As you may recall, I tried shipping my car earlier this year, got burned, but finally got her back. So this time I was determined to find the most reputable and experienced shipper I could, and not be taken in by Google Ads or friendly Web sites. I doublechecked the Better Business Bureau records of each shipper, and doublechecked whether the company was just a broker or also an actual shipper. I also tried to find out how many cars each shipped, some only ship a few dozen, some ship thousands. Lastly, I emailed and phoned my final candidates to see how well they'd reply to both modes of communication. Nothing's worse than not being able to reach a human when you're panicking!
My results boiled down to three favorites: All Auto Shipping are remarkably knowledgeable and honest about shipping realities, but they don't ship to Croatia, just Germany. Rinkens are partnered with one of the largest UK auto shippers and boast decades of experience. DAS Auto are perhaps the largest international auto shippers based in the US (aside from government contractors) and have great customer service.
Four kinds of bad news:
1. Due to rising oil prices, shipping costs have gone up an average of $300 per car to all the ports I was quoted on since January.
2. Croatia is incredibly expensive to ship to. "It's not popular, so it costs more," one rep told me. Bremerhaven Germany is the cheapest port, currently at about $1,250 for an RORO (roll on roll off) vehicle. Italy and Spain are pricier in the low $2000s. Croatia is INSANE at $3850!
Partly it's because it seems no one ships RORO to Croatia currently, so you're paying for a 20 foot container. Unfortunately you're often not allowed to put anything else in the container, or the car, except for a car.
3. Ships are way overbooked. "It started in March when the dollar got so weak," one agent told me. "People are shipping way more cars to Europe than normally." In fact, DAS' Los Angeles shipments have been so overwhelmed that they stopped accepting new shipments seven weeks ago. They hope to have a few spots by early-mid-fall. You can still get a spot on some ships in New York/New Jersey ports luckily. However, you can't book ahead anymore. Your place is not assured until the car arrives at their offices in the port.
4. US Customs' spotchecks can slow delivery dates by as much as a month. I thought customs were focused on the security of goods coming into the US. Apparently though, our taxpayer dollars are also being spent on investigating shipments leaving US ports. Every single car going out mjust be inspected by US customs. They're looking for everything from stolen cars to possible bombs. The inspection can take anywhere from a few hours to three-four weeks... per car! The latter is for cars that are randomly pulled for spot checks, so nothing you can do besides crossing your fingers will help.
However, all the more reason to have your paperwork in perfect order for the car, including an original copy of the title and copies of your passport. (The latter is a new requirement.)
Tonight I foresee a math fiesta as my husband attempts to calculate the best port to send to. He'll have to figure out insurance costs, port hotel costs, flights, and gas/petrol back to where-ever we end up going next on our fall Serbia-Croatia trip. I'm glad I married a Serb because that kind of math would crush me like a bug. Genetically though, I think he's programmed to enjoy it.
Monday, July 7, 2008
Now our part-time home -- the city on the Adriatic we flee to when the grey winter skies above our homes in New England and Sombor Serbia are too depressing -- has gotten a big fat glorious write-up in the New York Times. Complete with color photo, and a rather nice slideshow, no less.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Everything went routinely. Then a few minutes after my husband returned home, the bank manager called up on the phone. Our transaction had been flagged by the Feds and they had a critical question that must be answered before the funds could go through:
Were we sending this money to Kosovo? If so, it cannot be allowed because it might fund terrorist activities.
We laughed and said, Sombor is on the other end of the country. You go any further north and pretty soon you hit the Hungarian border. You can't expect a small town bank manager in New England to know that. It's impressive enough he doesn't get Serbia confused with Siberia, which is awfully common for Americans.
Anyway, the whole thing felt weird. Being a suspect. Homeland Security. Honestly. Weird.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Wow - having now (virtually) met so many really interesting Brits, Americans, Canadians, etc who have moved to Serbia to be with their native spouses, I am beginning to think it will be easier for me to make new friends and acquaintances when we move fuller-time to Serbia in 2009. (Currently we only live in Serbia a couple of months per year, and spend the rest of our time traveling and living elsewhere, including the US, Nepal and Croatia, due to work and family obligations.) I can't wait.
In the meantime, I'm keeping track of all the 'married to a Serb' and 'foreigner living in Serbia' bloggers I find that I like. I post hotlinks to each on my blog roll which you can see at the right of this page. If you do a relevant blog, please do drop me an email (directly or via Facebook) and I'll see about adding your blog too!
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
At the ripe age of 42, I at long last met my dream man. And lo, the lord and god above gave him a fantastic sense of humor. But, here's the kicker: the lord made him a Serb.
For the first few years I thought the reason why he almost never laughed at any of my quips was the language thing. He was just picking English back up, 30 years after leaving it behind in the schoolroom. "Excuse me?" he would ask whenever I cracked a joke, "Say again please?" Gamely, I'd repeat, often two or even three times. But there's nothing flatter than a merry little witticism that's been enunciated slowly over and over again as if to a half-deaf listener.
At the same time, whenever he was with a member of his family or an old Yugoslav-friend, everyone was roaring with laughter at and with him. "What are you saying?" "Oh honey, I can't translate it." OK. I'll take it on evidence that you are a funny guy. Maybe when I can speak fluent Serb someday, I'll be able to laugh too.
Then this spring we got a Netflix membership and started sending away for our old favorite movies to show one another. That's when the penny dropped. The reason we didn't get each other's jokes wasn't language, it was culture.
First we saw Serbian film 'The Wounds" (also released as "Rane".) It's an action-filled portrayal of the lives of young Belgrade gangsters in the 1990s. "Gritty," "heartwrenching", and "powerful" are words you could apply to it, but it's not remotely funny. Unless you're a Serb. My husband and step-daughter burst into loud laughter repeatedly throughout. I sat quietly mystified.
Next it was my turn. Knowing how much my step-son likes classic heavy metal, I sent for 'This is Spinal Tap" and we all watched it together one rainy evening last week. His silence was almost painfully polite. He did not laugh, he did not crack a smile. He was good enough to wait until the credits began to roll before he fled back to his room. I turned to my husband, who had actually laughed at least twice, not big laughs, but still something. "Why didn't he enjoy it?" "What were you expecting?" he replied. "It's not like it's a funny movie."
Monday, June 9, 2008
Serbia in the summertime reminds me a lot of (pre-hurricane) New Orleans -- great music, steamy weather, serious partying, a relaxed attitude, and open arms to all visitors.
The funny thing is, of all the countries to be split from the former Yugoslavia, Croatia got the would-be-tourism motherload. Sun, islands, olive trees, the Adriatic, homemade wine ... how could you beat that? In the 1970s when Yugoslavia relaxed her borders, thousands of Germans, Austrians and Italians streamed to the Croatian sea-side for cheap Balkan holidays. These days, with new super-cheap flights from Germany, Italy and the UK, plus new super-highways built specifically to whisk vacationers from the inland to the sea, Croatia's tourism board is issuing proclamations about how many billions in tourism revenues it can expect shortly.
I strongly doubt progress will be as easy as they expect. Because (and this is a broad generalization but at heart, I think, a fairly true one) Croatians don't like strangers. They're just not a warm and welcoming people to anyone except for other Croatians, and even then, you often won't see true warmth unless you're a member of the family. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that ... unless you expect to make billions from tourism.
Serbia has none of the advantages of Croatia. No seaside. Far fewer flights. Fairly crappy highways. Physically it doesn't look much different from most of Central Europe aside from a sprinkling of Orthodox churches, a smattering of badly run-down hotspring spas, and random wildlife centers in between countryside damaged by too much chemical fertilizer and everyday pollution. (My husband told me not to post my photographs of main roadsides in southern Serbia here because they are so utterly depressing due to kilometer after kilometer of waste from badly positioned, open-pit, town dumps... such as thickly shredded layers of plastic adorning river banks.)
And yet Serbia has what it takes to be a tourist mecca -- it's just plain fun to be there. People (again a broad generalization, but again I think warranted) are happy to meet new people. People are happy to sing, smile, philosophize, dance and drink with strangers. There's a quality of friendly welcome and good-hearted appreciation of life itself.
Sometimes I think the Gods or Fates must have a strange sense of humor. Witness when they stuck the Serbs inland and the Croats on the Adriatic. Because if positions were reversed, the Croatian coast in the hands of the Serbs would be nearly too much fun to bear. Summer holiday heaven. And the Serbian farmlands and administration in the hands of the Croats would in all fairness, probably be better managed. Belgrade's business would be booming, and the countryside would be more tidy.
But the fates did not so dispose. Which is why Zagreb is a financially healthier yet horribly staid, middle class city, and Belgrade is one big, slightly disheveled, party packed with artists, poets, visionaries and musicians. Which would you rather visit for vacation?*
*Disclaimer: I'm unusually lucky, I get to visit both as we have family, friends and flats in both countries.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
West: Time is money.
Serbia: I prefer to be rich in time.
West: Follow the rules.
Serbia: What rules?
Having in the past worked at a US company which had some Serbian contractors, I can tell you both sides - the Americans and the Serbs - bitched about each other. Both sides think the other's values are skewed; the others are a bit lazy; the others are far harder to communicate with than seems reasonable; the others are greedy for money; etc. I can also tell you both sides respect each other's intelligence and are excited by the idea of visiting each other's countries in person.
In short, it's far more stressful than I ever thought it would be to work with Serbians-in-Serbia in a US business context, even though the rewards on both sides are plentiful.
What about Serbs in America? In my experience Serb expats, just like every other group of expats I've worked with personally in the US (Latin Americans, Koreans, Pakistanis, Indians, South Africans, Phillipinos, etc), are often harder working than both "normal Americans" and "normal Serbians". It's due to what I call "Immigrant Syndrome". You left so much behind - family, friends, language, culture, etc., - to make a life in this new place and now by golly you are going to make it pay off! Starting, often from nothing, you learn to work extra-hard to make ends meet. Having acquired the habit of work, and perhaps gotten a taste of success and/or money that's better than the old country, you dig in and work harder.
"America's for making money", says my hardworking sister-in-law, a Serb in the US planning her retirement back home. "Belgrade is for living."
So, I guess you can see how the work-life cultures in both places take a sharp divide!
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
After nearly four years with my husband, I know most Yugoslavian swearwords, plus the words for 'I love you", "my wife", "good", "pretty", "very", "fart", "what?" "strawberry", "potato", "apartment" anything that sounds English (ie. 'Internet') and "watermelon." Actually, as a Croatian friend rather sadly pointed out, I only know the word for watermelon in Serbian. It's one of a few but growing number of words that are completely different in Croatian.
Given how long I've lived in a native Serb-speaking household in the US, the number of "teach yourself Serbo-Croatian" books and tapes I own, plus the amount of time I've spent in both Serbia and Croatia these past years, it's a damned poor showing.
Learning new languages is hard, especially when you're not a kid. And, especially when as a kid, you spent a summer on an immersion course living with an Italian family and then managed to utterly fail Beginner's Italian in school the next year. Although I've got a fantastic ear, the ability to parrot back phrases sounding just like a native, the words don't stick with me. It's all quite literally in one ear and out the other.
But, I'm not whining about how lousy I am at languages, or how hard Serbian is to learn (Cyrillic, blech!) I realized the other night when my husband point-blank dared me to learn 100 words in 100 days, that the true problem is I REALLY DON'T WANT TO LEARN SERBIAN.
Why? Because when you don't speak the language, no one expects you to speak.
I cannot describe the bone-deep relaxation you can feel when sitting amidst a whole bunch of chattering people, none of whom expect anything more from you than be clean and calm. It feels like what I imagine being on one of those ultra-luxury cruises is like. You lounge back on your deck chair, caressed by the sun and a light ocean breeze. Occasionally a waiter appears to inquire if you need another beer or perhaps a gin and tonic? You pick up your book and glance at a page, you lay it aside again and close your eyes. You don't even have the obligation of sleeping, just laying there is enough of an activity.
After a lifetime of being asked for my opinion, of being a business leader, of giving speeches at national conventions, of instructing others, of endless 4000-word-a-day professional writing and emails, being absolutely silent is the hugest vacation you can possibly imagine.
I've noticed whenever I am on this type of non-speaking holiday, my own creative output -- from writing to ideas to drawing -- triples or even quintuples. Bereft of the obligations of conversation, my mind bubbles and ferments with its own creations.
Someday this nirvana, like all, must end. In its place I'll be able to take my rightful place in the larger family, chat amiably with neighbors instead of just their teenaged children, understand jokes, read the local newspaper, and bicker with my husband in two languages instead of the lone shared one. Instead of relaxing when in Serbia, my brain cells will be on overdrive, declining verb tenses, selecting the correct nouns, alert and translating every moment.
I'll miss the old days. Shameful, lazy, but true.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
In sort of related news, Cafe Del Sol my favorite cafe canal-side in Sombor started a Facebook group as well. They have patrons from all over the world who visit every summer, so I bet that group will start to be fairly international-yet-Serbish as well.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Although most Serbs may be oblivious to it, Serbia has a longstanding tradition of fine luxury towel-making. The cotton is from Turkey; the work is done by hand on antique Swiss shuttle Jaquard looms; and, the initial customer base were Hapsburg nobles who visited Serbia's plentiful, natural thermal spas. (I've heard Serbia has more hot water spas than any other country in Europe. Sadly most are in very bad shape now. Could be a goldmine for the right investors.)
A Serbian company called Pannonian Linens offers large towels in a variety of colors (I got one each in white, off-white, blue, gold, and teal - all use German eco-friendly dyes.) They feel lush and slightly silky but not overly soft to the touch - a perfect balance between brisk roughness and soft thickness. I don't know how you can get them in Serbia, but if you are in the US or Canada you can get them online in the towel section at Bon Savon or call (877) 832-4635.
Bon Savon is a California-based, online store specializing in fine soaps from around the world. They don't have any soaps from Serbia, so why the towels? Turns out president Alex Hughart is actually originally from Novi Sad. Her friends back home know her better as Dragana Aleksic.
(Dragana is not exactly an English-friendly name -- people think you're named after a giant lizard -- so she changed her name for her new country.)
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
I'd been dropping a lot of hints about wanting an Internet radio for a while now because I figured how great would it be to have a radio that we could tune to practically any station in the world? I could listen to stations I missed from places I used to live and my husband could listen to stations from Serbia whenever he wanted a little Balkan background sound on.
And so it was. A box containing a Sono Digital Media Player by Merconnet appeared by my bedside on Mother's Day morning, and we spent much of the afternoon setting it up. Turns out Internet radio doesn't quite have all the kinks ironed out yet. To make it work you must have a wireless PC set up someplace in the house that's always turned on with a perfect broadband connection. If it's ever turned off, you have to rush over and click around a bunch to get the darn stations up again.
Aside from that inconvenience, the real problem that cropped up were those Belgrade radio stations. My husband was So Excited to be able to hear spoken Serbian on demand. Sometimes when we are living in the US, the 360 degree English, English, English 24x7 gets too much for him. When he woke up in the middle of the night last night, he eagerly loped out to the kitchen where the Internet radio was set up, hoping a bit of his native tongue would sooth him back to bed.
No such luck. The Belgrade station was playing music our daughter's US college roommates would be perfectly familiar with. Song after song in American English. He thought, 'Oh well it's 4am, I guess it's OK for them not to play Srpski music now." But then he remembered about the time difference. It was 10am in Belgrade. Prime time devoted to sounds that were anything but Srpski in nature.
Since then we've kept the radio tuned on Serbia for whole the day and into the night hoping to hear some good Serbian sound. So far the English to Serbian ratio is roughly 8:1. Slivers of Serbian and then right back to English. Not much good for curing homesickness!
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Individuals and companies sometimes buy land using a Serb attorney as their frontman. (This happens in other countries with similar laws too.) But you have to really trust your local attorney. It's also common to buy a rental contract for Serbian land for 100 years - just like Hong Kong used to be rented by the UK.
The main problem in negotiations that I've heard many Serbs complain about is that most bits of farmland with houses have complex ownership - often multiple descendants of the original owner, at least some of whom have emigrated outside Serbia. If you get all of them to agree to sell/rent to you, you still can run into problems. Seems that as soon as a foreigner appears very interested in a piece of land, suddenly locals start reconsidering whether they should buy it instead. Your local lawyer gets jealous and undercuts your deal. Honestly, it's happened recently to a friend of mine!
Lastly, as a foreigner or a returning expat, of course you'll pay foreigner prices. When my husband and I started looking for a bit of farmland in the Sombor area, we contracted a local friend to be our agent instead of showing up too obviously ourselves... which may save us real money in the end (we're still looking for the right place.)
By the way, if you're considering buying a condo in Belgrade, now is the time. Just this year alone, prices have gone up in desirable neighborhoods by roughly 30% in five months. It's not a scary bubble yet either. Prices are still lower than neighboring countries' capitals and well under historic highs. Plus, renting your place out is apparently fairly easy, although rents are low (100-200 Euros a month total perhaps) compared to your condo investment unless you luck out and attract foreigners. Read advice from Belgrade residents on the local real estate scene in the comments on my b92 blog on the topic here.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Which is how at our family's Cinco De Mayo party last night, I was appalled to spot a bowl of brown sugar next to the bowl of salt for dipping your margarita glass edges in before you refilled with the tequila-laden concoction. Gross! Bowl-use split down national lines. Americans, obviously with far finer palates, went for the salt, while Serbs went for the sugar.
Friday, May 2, 2008
I've started a Facebook Group for people who are married (or going out with) expatrioted Serbs. Actually you could be an ex-pat Serb yourself, or a foreigners living in Serbia, or any one of many other Serb-related combinations... So far more than two dozen people have joined and we're already discussing on the message board and posting bios and stuff.
Like all Facebook applications, it's totally free.
#1. If you are not on http://www.facebook.com already, create a free account for yourself. You can create a profile of yourself which friends who you've selected can see. You can get emails and other contacts from Facebook members who are your friends. And you can join groups.
#2. After you log in, click on the left, "applications" list where it says "Groups".
#3. In the search box at the top of the Groups home page, enter the words: Married to a Serb Expat
#4. The group summary should appear. Click on the blue headline name of the group to go to the grouyp homepage.
#5. Join the group by clicking on the join link in the list of activities at the right of the page.
Optional: If you'd like to be Facebook Friends with me, search for my name in Facebook and then use the add to friends option.
Monday, April 28, 2008
I was brought up Catholic, so my first Serbian Easter was like nothing I'd ever experienced. The night before we all talked about going to bed early so we could be in the car on time for the long (for us 90 minutes) drive in the morning. Talk is cheap; we all stayed up late anyway. Hey it's Saturday night. As a result, I'm running around freaking out in my nice Sunday Church outfit the next morning on dot of the appointed leave time, and everyone else is still sleeping. One of the kids waves me away with a drowsy, "We don't want to get there on time anyway, it's best to arrive near the end of the service." Huh?!
OK in my world, you get to church ON TIME and sit down in a pew. Then there's the entire service for no more than an hour. Afterwards you shake hands with the priest at the front door and you go home.
In US Serbian immigrant land, you get to church at some point during the service. The precise point is determined by personal preference. Whenever you walk in, your first duty is to buy beeswax candles from the stall at the back of the church which is kept open throughout the service for your convenience. You need two - one to light and stand upright the sandbox for prayers for dead people, and second for prayers for people who are alive. On some holidays you do only one of them, but I always forget and mess it up.
Then you make your way into the main area of the church. There are no pews, nor anyplace to sit except for a handful of chairs on the edges of the room for the extreme elderly. It's just a big open room with everyone standing around listening to the priest. The crowd isn't fixed in place. Newcomers work their way up from the back to see what's going on, or to find a spot in the crowd for their family to stand. Then as they get bored or the crowd shifts, pressing too much, you all shift to another spot. Small children wiggle away from their parents and wander about the room throughout the service. Adults - especially men - slip out for a quick smoke as the need calls. The constant, quiet motion feels like one of those undersea movies of ocean plants waving about in the water.
By the time the service is halfway through, so much standing plus the crowds, candles, and droning service begin to make you feel hot and sleepy. At roughly the 3/4 mark, somebody faints. It's guaranteed. This is a good reason to have brought your cell phone against your parent's expressed desires, as my step-daughter proved one year when that Easter's designated fainter dropped directly in front of her. She called emergency services, several men carried the fainter out to the lawn, and the service carried on without a hitch.
Services in the USA are fairly long, at least two hours, maybe more. I don't know if it's the case in Serbia itself. US priests have the language problem. Depending on how recently their congregation immigrated, they have to say most stuff twice, once in English and once in Serbian. The Cambridge Massachusetts church we go to only does the important stuff -- fundraising notes, key mass points -- in English because most of the congregation arrived in the US after 1990 so they all speak Serb. The Serb church we've been to when visiting Chicago does everything in both English and Serb because so many in the congregation are grandchildren of the original immigrants to that area between WWI and WWII.
When the service is at long last over, you do not get to go home. For most people, especially the more recent immigrants, the real reason for attending happens after the service. Eating, drinking, socializing and yes, music. Serbs take the white bread concept of a church social and turn it into a kick ass party.
All the men, including the priest of course, line up for shots of rakjia while the women busily lay out the feast which includes potatoes, ham, lamb, and wine. Someone else gets the sound system going, with fearful feedback screetches, and starts playing traditional music which sounds like a cross between gypsy music and old fashioned Italian restaurant soundtracks.
This is the music that touches the Serb immigrant soul. Notably it is not remotely pleasurable to visiting Serbs from Serbia itself. They are dismayed, 'You listen to this stuff? I was hoping for some modern music." But, hey, when you're homesick for the old country, only the old classics will do the job.
At last, hours later, you stagger out of the church feasting hall (aka the basement, or on one ill-advised, chilly Easter, a tent set up on the lawn). Exhausted and slightly drunk, this is the moment when you bless god for having provided you with teen-aged children who are too young to drink much, yet old enough to have driver's licenses and be excited by the chance to use them. I usually end up in the back of the car, sleeping my way home in my crumpled Easter outfit.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Then there are also those little turns of phrase - instead of "Are you crazy?" he will ask, "Are you normal?" And, when you serve him food you've made, which, if you are me will be more or less burned, he will smile reassuringly and say, "Poison from your hands, Darling. I would eat poison from your hands."
I thought it was just his own unique brand of broken-English until our second Thanksgiving together, when my step-brother's father-in-law, a professor at Belgrade University, was among our honored guests. As he advanced on me cowering among the smoking pots in the kitchen, he brandished a single red rose, bowed and said, "I am so looking forward to this meal. Poison from your hands, I would eat. Poison!" with a gallant Serbian smile.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
EU regulations apparently forbid the selling of homemade wine, which will be a shocking blow to the millions who buy, sell, and drink it daily. I know my quality of life would suffer. Bad EU. Boo!
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Since I left, DC has become even more of a boomtown. You'd never know there was a recession or that anyone in the universe was hurting. It's shiny, glossy, packed. Unemployment and crime at an all-time low; new housing, shopping mall starts at a high. Lots of millionaires in every industry you can imagine from plumbing to travel. It's everything Serbs in Serbia think of when they imagine American Streets Paved in Gold Living Easy.
It's a terribly trite observation, but most people are not happy. The faces I saw were not glowing. They were grey.
If you're the sort of person who gets very passionate about your job, and lives 24X7 for it, then you might be happier in DC than you would be in Serbia. (But you're also a thin slice of a real human being.) Partly it's because American-style prosperity is so expensive. My Serb friends who visit here, see the glittering cars and think wow, these guys are rich. They don't know that in DC, everyone is working like crazy just to pay for basics including:
- Monthly $150 or more student loan payments for college degrees you got in your 20s; and/or savings for your kids to pay for $30k per year college someday.
- Annual ~$10k house insurance, house taxes, house maintenance (does not include mortgage.)
- Annual ~$5000 car ownership cost for taxes, insurance, maintenance (does not include car loan, gas, parking fees); plus the near requirement for families living in the Subburbs that every member over 18 years have their own vehicle because it's nearly impossible to get to a grocery store, post office, doctor, workplace, gym, or day care center without your own car.
- $94 per month average on electricity, not including heating with is another $150-ish in winter, and cable/Internet/phone which runs about $130 per month.
- No socialized medicine. Your employer may pay part of your insurance, but you need to pay $300-800 or more per month, per nuclear family, in "co-pays" to keep health insurance. This doesn't usually include major dental, eye-care, or cancer treatments, so you need more savings for this.
- Debt servicing. The average DC family has more than $10,000 in credit card debt with monthly required payments of $300 or more. (This doesn't include mortgage debt or student loans.) Sometimes this debt is from healthcare costs not covered by insurance.
- 30-40% of your pay swallowed by taxes before you see it, and then 5-10% buying taxes on top of that for everything you purchase.
Washingtonians keep racing like hamsters on a wheel working more hours per week than almost any other nation to pay, pay, pay. The economy depends on them working like crazy, only taking 2-3 weeks of vacation a year.
Prosperity is also a lonely life. Family and old friends are often thousands of miles away; but, even 10 miles distance can take 45 minutes in traffic. Your neighbors are likely to be strangers or passing acquaintances, because everyone moves so much. You practically never ever see kids playing outside in neighborhood streets with each other... they are shipped by car to playing locations and then back to isolated homes again.
Before this weekend, I had been missing DC bitterly. Enough, in fact, to have dreamed late at night about moving back there someday. Now I realize I can't. I won't. I will not join those grey faces on the Metro. It's a fantastic city - the gardens, the parks, the architecture, the art galleries, the bookstores, the public sculpture everywhere, the sense of history, the libraries, the cafes, the Potomac River, the churches, the mixture of races, the 100s of international restaurants.... To me it is the most beautiful city in the world.
But, you know. Serbia's better for living.
Friday, April 4, 2008
I nodded vigorously. My husband, too, is perfectly capable of nipping up to the liquor store for a little something to go with dinner and coming back with a $39-80 bottle. On a weeknight. When we don't have guests. No special reason beyond, "Well honey, this one tastes good."
This is not a coincidence. My girlfriend's husband is a Croatian-British mix. My husband is a Serb who grew up in Croatia. I've discovered for men with a Croatian background, it's not so much that they don't understand the value of money as it is their American wives do not understand the value of wine.
I ran this past my husband. He flat out agreed. "Even when I had nothing as a refugee in Serbia, I would buy good wine," he explained. "A good bottle is not worth an entire week's salary, but, maybe two-three days of salary. Definitely."
Using that math, it would not be out of the question to budget 30% of your salary for wine. God love Croatian men.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
"Dip Parpal? Oh, you mean Deep Purple." He was considerably shocked to discover not only had he gotten the name wrong for decades, but now it actually made some sense.
When you grow up in Europe, much of the music you hear on the radio is in English. In fact I recently heard an NPR interview with the hottest band in France who explained that although they barely spoke English themselves, all their lyrics are in English because "that's the language rock and roll on the radio is supposed to be in."
My husband just learned English a few years ago at the age of 40 when he moved to America. At last he could understand the lyrics of songs he'd enjoyed on the radio for a lifetime. Some were unhappy revelations. His longtime favorite Jimi Hendrix song is about a subject so depressing he can no longer bear to hear it.
But there are moments of joyous discovery to make up for it. For example, the first time he understood the lyrics "I Shot the sheriff, but I didn't shoot the deputy" was worth its weight in gold.
Monday, March 31, 2008
o Cheap living -- Belgrade is pretty pricey (although not compared to London, New York or Boston), but other places, such as my part-time hometown of Sombor Serbia are remarkably cheap. You can buy or build a house for very little, perhaps 100k Euros for a nice house in the best part of town. Locally grown food at the greenmarket is inexpensive too. Imported stuff gets pricey.
o Bring your car -- Cars, even used ones, are really expensive. If you're coming from the US or Canada where cars are cheaper, then import your own vehicle. (Each Serb citizen gets to import one car free from customs tax per lifetime. I think the car must be less than 5 years old.) Shipping to German ports is up to 2/3 cheaper than shipping to Croatia. You can keep your US plates for a fairly long time.
o Don't move to a village or a fairly small town (unless you are from there.) Serbian villages can get incredibly claustrophobic, even for returnees. That's why we like Sombor, it's big enough to have a mix of people and not everyone is watching what you do all the time.
o Keep an 'escape hatch' outside Serbia -- Even if you sell your house outside Serbia, you might want to hang on to a cheap apartment or small condo in your old country just as someplace to go when you need some fresh air, especially in the winter when the coal-smoke from your neighbors' household heating gets too hard to breath (loads of people have respiratory problems in Sombor in the Winter) and/or when you just need to return to the thinking-cap of the wider world. Serbia can feel too parochial sometimes if you've lived elsewhere.
Some people I know consider buying a tiny condo in Belgrade as their escape hatch when they move back to smaller Serbian towns... I bet that would work for expanding your mindset somewhat, but Belgrade air quality isn't great in winter either.
o Medical and dental care isn't that bad -- My husband regularly has his dental work which would cost thousands in the US, taken care of by our dentist in Sombor for much less. I get my prescription glasses made up there. Great, fashionable frame selection and the cost is very reasonable. We've heard good things about heart surgeons in Novi Sad. You have to check through the grape vine about quality of medical care, but it's generally not bad.
o Buy clothing overseas or have it made there -- Off the rack clothing costs way too much in Serbia and there are no "outlet malls" or places like TJ Max. I've seen low-quality outfits (the sort that fall apart when you wash them a few times) selling in Belgrade malls for $400 or more. My sister in law who is planning to retire to Belgrade next year also plans annual clothing shopping trips to the US. Plus, she buys fabric and has local Serb tailors make outfits for her at very reasonable costs.
BTW: No size 10 women's shoes in Serbia (or Croatia) that I know of. If your feet are larger than US women's 9 1/2, you'll have to buy all your shoes somewhere else. It's also hard to find a large selection of books in English, so you'll need to ship them in.
o Add a guestroom -- the primary reaction of my whole circle of family and friends to our announcement that we were going to be living part-time in Serbia from now on was "When can I come visit?" We are now everyone's vacation destination - my brother plans to fish the Danube, my sister to go rug-shopping in Subotica, etc., etc.
o Visit in the wintertime - Don't base your decision to move to Serbia on a Summertime visit. August especially is very different from "regular" life, with all the ex-pat fatcats swanning around town showing off their German SUVs, fat wallets, and fatter waistlines. Come and stay for at least a few weeks in the off-season when you are the only ex-part visiting in town. See if you fit in as well, and if you like it. I loved Sombor in March, when practically no one else does, so I knew I'd be OK. But I am unusual.
o Build a silly house -- Maybe there's a law? :-) Returning expats often build houses that look nothing else in town. Either it's the house of their deeply-personal dreams, or a house that reminds them of "back home", or a house for nouveau-rich-style showing off. I've seen houses that looked like palaces, houses with only circular round windows, shocking pink houses, etc.
o Keep the bulk of your retirement funds outside Serbia -- As I mentioned in a past post, banks in Serbia are not very safe. Your deposit is only insured for a couple of thousand dollars. Even banks with famous Western European brand names, may be nothing more than Serb franchises and not as safe as their mother banks. The Serb stock market is worth playing a little, but it's so new I would not trust the bulk of my savings to it.
Have you retired or considered moving back to Serbia? Got any tips to add to this list? Please post them! Thanks.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
The US-based shipping agent we used, ShipOverseas.com, had pretty much given up after his calls and emails weren't returned by the Balkan-owned shippers he'd contracted with, Demars International. I am nothing if not tenacious, so with help from my husband and step-daughter, we started a revolving phone calling campaign. Every few minutes we'd call one of the Demars numbers, get hung up on, or put on hold forever and then hung up on, or just not picked up. Then we'd start again with another one of the four phones we own between us. (If you alternate phone numbers, you're more likely to get answered.)
It took three days of phone calls, some digging in Google, and help from kind strangers (I convinced a guy who worked in an unrelated warehouse in New Jersey, near where I'd heard Demars had leased a parking lot, to walk around outside and look for my car), but at last we found her.
The small parking lot was packed with at least 50 cars that have been waiting to be shipped to various Balkan ports since Jan-early Feb of this year. If you're reading this and you own any type of Volkswagon, Austin, Corvette, Mercedes, or a Ford SUV that you think is being shipped to the Balkans, well the chances are it's sitting in Elizabeth New Jersey for the unforeseen future. It's not indoors and the security is laughable - the ancient chain link fence is missing entire sections. All the cars' titles and other paperwork is in their glove compartments. Anyone could walk off with your vehicle. It's just dumb luck no thief has figured this out yet.
The guys in the warehouse next door had the keys in an unlabled, jumbled mess in a black plastic bucket Demars had given them. "Go fishing!" one of them gaily said. "You want to take the 2007 Mercedes? I don't care, here's the key." We tried three Volkswagon keys until we found the one that matched my car.
"Lady, can you tell me why car owners trust these people?" the warehouse manager asked me. "I can't imagine just handing over my car with the signed title and keys to some strangers who do business like this." "I think it's a Balkan thing," I said. "They are all from the same small countries and when they get over here to America maybe they trust each other more than they ought to."
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Ottoman Empire Era:
Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric wrote several novels and short stories about Bosnia during the Ottoman empire which relates to much of Serb experience (same empire after all). Most famous is the Bridge on the Drina.
Dame Rebecca West wrote 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' at the outbreak of WWII inspired by a lengthy trip through Croatia and Yugoslavia. It's long, more than 1,000 pages. Called, "One of the great books of our time' by the New Yorker, it's brilliant writing worth reading no matter what the topic. And frankly, her deep insights into the characters and backgrounds of Serbs and Croatians are incredibly illuminating even - or maybe especially -- today. Should be required reading in Serb schools, probably isn't (my husband never heard of it until he moved to the West.)
Tito and post-Tito era:
Slavenka Drakulic's bestselling collections of essays, especially 'How we survived communism and even laughed' and 'Cafe Europa' are funny, sad, truthful, and brilliantly written. If you know any expats who left Yuogoslavia in the early 1990s, read Slavenka to understand where they are coming from ... and what's behind their obsession for bargain shopping and foreign travel among other things. Highly praised by the New York Times Book Review.
Search Amazon.com for books on why-the-civil-war-? and you'll see a virtual war of reactions to every single book available. Every book deeply offends one side or the other and is proclaimed lies and/or propoganda by one side or the other. It's nearly impossible for an outsider to figure out which title is at least slightly factual, not to mention well written.
That said, my personal favorite is Brian Hall's 'An Impossible Country:A Journey Through the Last days of Yugoslavia' -- written by an on-the-spot journalist from the UK who did just that... traveled through Yugoslavia just as she was falling apart and chronicled his experiences along the way.
Slobodan Milosevic Era & After:
Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad chronicles 14 Serbs from every walk of life (including a rock star, a top politician, an elderly farmer, a civil war refugee, etc.) who she met with personally and repeatedly during her trips to Serbia from 1999 to 2004. She doesn't seem to have any axes to grind or agenda. She just lets Serbs talk in their own voices. This book has helped me understand today's Serb citizens - the ones who never left -- better than any other. It's especially helpful when I am mystified by their political decisions.
I read the blogs, columns and especially the comments, in English over at B92, my favorite independent national TV and Web channel in Serbia. In fact, I often learn far more from the comments expats and Serbs post on my occasional blogs there than I have from any book or conversation!