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

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Yet Another Cool 'Married to a Serb' Blog

Thanks to Ian Thornton for this hotlink to his blog & MySpace page where he reveals what it's really like to be a British musician touring Serbia with your band of locals. Not always easy, but certainly truthful and funny. (Example, his stories about Serb drivers being offended when you the passenger put on a seat belt are dead on spot.)

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

American vs Serbian Humor: Why My Husband Usually Doesn't Laugh at My Jokes

I was always a little proud of my wit. Throughout my 20s, most of my friends were in a comedic improvisation troupe. You don't know what honed humor is until you've had to hold your own over a decade of late night parties (not to mention hung over Sunday brunches) with a group of semi-pro comedians.

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

Weird Twists of Fate: Serbia vs Croatia and the Tourism Industry

Just heard from a behind-the-scenes source that the Globetrekker TV series will be shooting an episode in Serbia this August. Between late night, raft-bar parties on the banks of Belgrade's rivers and the Guca festival, not to mention Belgrade's book fair, I can imagine it will be a heck of a fun episode both to film and to watch.

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.