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

Friday, February 22, 2008

Burning the US Embassy in Belgrade Serbia - America At Fault

Belgrade was peaceful and full of post-election hope when I was there around Valentine's Day. We were so convinced that things might, at last, be getting sustainably better, that we'd even started looking for a condo to buy there.

We took a quick break from real estate -- which can be incredibly wearing in the Balkans for reasons I'll happily bitch about in further posts -- and drove down to Montenegro for a few days because I'd never seen it. Then we heard the news on the car radio. Or rather my husband heard, I don't speak enough Serb yet to understand everything, and then he swore and hit the dashboard repeatedly with his fist. That plus the word "Kosovo" pretty much gave me the picture.

My reaction - well the US Embassy were idiots not to have more protection in Belgrade. In Croatia's capital Zagreb, there's a new US Embassy built waaaay out by the airport pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Croatians, who are fairly friendly with the US, have to drive for ages, then get permission from armed guards to enter the parking lot, then walk about 150 yards in the open to get to a security bunker that you are only allowed to enter one at a time. The 3-4 burly guards make you empty your pockets, pass through metal detectors, examine your ID, etc. Then you have to walk another long path in the open (presumably so you can be studied and snipers can get you) to the actual embassy chancery building itself. The chances a gang of 1,000 probably drunk, pissed off natives are going to make it in to trash the place are exactly nil.

So, why is the US embassy in our friend Croatia protected to the teeth and apparently the one in Serbia - a place we bombed less than 10 years ago and are having testy relations with now - is Easy As Shit for a Mob to Burn?

Can you say, "asking for it?"

Do Serbs really hate America that much? Actually most are incredibly nice to individual Americans they meet. And they are well educated and intelligent people (often better than Americans I know.) But, it's been a long cold, grey winter. There's significant unemployment. People drink. A lot. Politicians have been rabble-rousing to get votes. Young people have grown up seeing nothing ever go right for their country. First they do badly in the civil war, then they get bombed by NATO for activities most weren't in favor of in the first place, and then there's year's of economic sanctions that scupper the economy and make surviving your full time job. And then Montenegro bails on them. And now this.

It's my opinion that many older Serbs are resigned to nothing ever going right. Most younger Serbs are INCREDIBLY frustrated. How often can you hope and then have foreign and political affairs far out of your specter of influence bash your hopes down again and again and again?

These are not bad people. They are wonderful people who have been pushed a bit too far for years and years and years. Something had to snap, a bunch of younger people who were probably unemployed, drunk and worked up by the polemics spewing in the Serb media got pissed off and kicked some American ass.

We deserved it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Valentines Day in Serbia: Commercial Propoganda or a Darn Good Time?

It's cold, it's grey, coal smoke hangs heavy in the damp air, it's Lent, and anyway everyone is broke after nearly a month and a half of Holiday celebrations (first Western ones, then Orthodox)... which is why cafe and restaurant owners in Sombor Serbia are wondering if they should even bother to pay to keep the lights on this month. Filled with my Amerikanka pep, I suggested to two of them, "Why not promote a Valentine's Day celebration to get people out of their homes and into the cafe?"

No, no, no, no. Or rather: Ne, ne, ne, ne.

Apparently Valentine's Day is a crassly capitalist idea that no Serb would be foolish enough to fall for. Customers see right through commercial propoganda of that nature.

Well, maybe they do in Sombor, but in Belgrade Valentine's Day was a nice business lift for cafes this year. I was a bit disappointed to see no romantic couples in the fancy restaurant in Belgrade's new mall Delta City. But then we went up to the foodcourt on the next floor and there they all were... clustered around McDonalds. Ah yes, McDonalds was the most romantic place to be in Belgrade this Valentine's Day. It's cheaper than a fancy place, plus they gave out free romantic balloons on a stick to all appropriate couples. (My 40-something husband and I, still wearing hiking togs left over from our Nepal trek, were not given balloons; everyone in their 20s who were dressed up in Date Night Clothing flaunted theirs as they cooed.)

According to our buoyantly cheerful waiter Bojan Laluderovic at the (very fancy) Restoran Nacionale in Cetinje Montenegro the next night, Valentine's Day had been a surprise success there as well. The owner, not expecting any business on a weeknight, had scheduled just a single chef and one waiter to handle the whole place which seats about 50. By 7pm Feb 14th, it was completely packed, absolutely heaving with romantic couples. Such is Bojan's nature that he delighted in the crisis, zipping from table to table, cracking jokes, helping out in the kitchen in a pinch, and cleaning up on the tip-front. His own girlfriend had to wait until the next night for their Valentine's date. And then, we Americans showed up ordering a four course meal just before closing on Feb 15th... he kept her updated via mobile phone as we ate and we popped him a massive tip to make up for the trouble.

I absolutely believe Serbs and Montenegrins see right through the crass commercialism of holidays such as Valentine's Day - far better, in fact, than Americans do. Why then are they falling into the "trap" of celebrating them anyway? It's human nature. Any excuse to get dressed up, to flirt and snuggle with your beloved, and pretend like this horrible cold blah February is a place of cinematic dreams... why not? Life is too short to be politically correct all the time.