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

Monday, April 28, 2008

Happy Orthodox Easter: Fainting & Feasting at Serbian Churches

Yesterday was my fourth Orthodox Easter. In the US, Easter is one of those holidays like Christmas (Jan 7th) when immigrant Serbs will drive hours to get to a church in the US even if they never attend regular services. If there's no Serb church within, say, four hours driving, then they show up at local Greek churches as guests. It's not the same thing, but at least it's Orthodox.

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

"Poison From Your Hands, Darling. Poison!"

Being romanced by a Serbian man is *completely* different from going out with an American man. For one thing, the Serb will bring you flowers, often a single rose, every single time he sees you for the first few months when the romance is new. Then the floral onslaught slows to one fresh bouquet per week... for life. Even my father-in-law, who's bickered with his wife year in year out for 50 years as of last February, rides his little old bicycle down to the greenmarket every Saturday to get those flowers without any prompting whatsoever. It's a man's duty, after all.

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

Why Don't 39% of Croatians Want to Join the EU?

Although more Croatians are in favor of joining the EU than ever before, a pretty big chunk disagree. Why? I thought the answer might be banking laws because easy money laundering would be a thing of the past. My Croatian-born husband says, gosh no! It's something far more important than mere money.

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

Homesick? NetFlix Offers Serbo-Croatian Language DVDs

It's better than nothing. If you're stuck in the US and miss the sound of your language, Netflix now has a Serbo-Croatian Language section in their "Foreign language" genre area. They've got about 15 films in that section for rental by mail currently... although you may have to get in line because most of them are winging their way to our house.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Serbs Don't Understand About the High Cost of American Living

We just got back from a weekend trip to see my brother in the Washington DC area. I used to live there as well when I was single and wore suits and high heels to work for 15 years. (Now I work in jeans in my home offices in Sombor, Serbia and the New England coast, not to mention Nepal whenever my husband feels like hiking up a mountain.)

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

How Much Should You Normally Spend on Wine? Cultural Dichotomy

"I don't think my husband understands the value of money," an American girlfriend of mine told me this week. "He went out the other night and spent $50 on a single bottle of wine to drink with dinner!"

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: The Joys of Listening to the Radio with My Serbian Husband

The other morning we were lazing about when 'Smoke on the Water' came on the radio. "I know that band!" my husband exclaimed. "They were a big favorite of mine growing up in Yugoslavia. That's Dip Parpal."

"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.