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

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Serbian vs American Working Styles

Just saw this very funny blog post by Alexis Hughart (born in Novi Sad, lives in the US now) where she explains the differences between Serbian and American attitudes toward work. Two examples:

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

Why I Don't Want to Learn Serbian (Or Croatian) Just Yet

It's not laziness. Ok, well it is, but a more poetic kind of laziness than perhaps you are imagining.

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.

Pure pleasure.

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

Whoo! 54 Members & Counting in Serb Expats & Spouses Facebook Group

It's so great to know I'm not alone. Plus, now when I have questions, I can post them to a board where others married to Serbs can answer (or sympathize.)

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

Reveling in Bath Towel Luxury: Serbia's Pannonian Linens

The UPS guy just dropped off a big fat box at our doorstep. "Come see, come see!" I call the family. "My new towels from Serbia have arrived!" My step-daughter rounds the corner looking skeptical. "Serbian towels are AWFUL." My husband, who's been known to load up on discount luxury towels at TJ Max before trips back to Serbia, promptly agrees. What's this crazy Amerikanka going on about?

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

Internet Radio: Great for Serbian Expats... Sort of

I scored a bunch of flowers and an Internet radio for (Step) Mother's Day. The flowers, at least, were not at all a disappointment.

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

Buying Homes & Land in Serbia

In response to a reader who emailed me about buying a farmhouse and orchard in Serbia: It's my understanding, that currently only Serbs can buy land in Serbia. (It's the same in Croatia.) Foreigners are able to buy condos, houses, and even ruined houses with land attached, but you can't buy land by itself.

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

Cinco De Mayo... Serbian Style

Blame the Ottoman Empire. In the Middle Ages they invaded Serbia (serving in its role as a handy buffer state for Christian Europe), kicked ass at Kosovo, and then settled down for a few centuries amongst the downtrodden peasantry. Among the debris left behind when the empire finally crumbled: women with small waists and plentifully-rounded bottoms (an Ottoman must, they were an entire nation of Butt Men), and a massive national sweet tooth.

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

Join the Discussion: New Facebook Group 'Married to a Serb Expat '

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.

Specific Instructions:

#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.