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

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Why You Must Always Count Flowers...

My husband is off to a 50th birthday party for another former Yugoslav friend in the States. Although officially I'm also invited, I wouldn't dream of attending because that would put too much of a crimp on the birthday girl's evening. You can't let loose with hours of drinking, reminiscing about your youth, and then arguing about, "if I were a millionaire and could move back home without needing a job, what would it be like?" if some American citizen too-dumb-to-speak-Serbian is sitting there like a lump in the midst of the revelers. Some effort must be made to speak English, and after a long day at work dealing with all those Americans, it's such a relief to be at a party where everyone speaks your language!

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

Serb POV: Laws Are Just "Suggestions"

I was riding with my brother this weekend in his huge, shiny, thoroughly American pick-up truck when he suddenly slammed on the brakes. WTF? "Green light just turned yellow", he explained. Wow. It was incredibly strange to be with a driver who stops for yellow.

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

Slow Slow Slow vs Go Go Go: The Art of Serbian Conversation

Warning: Gross generalizations ahead....

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

Argh! Shipping Car to Croatia Part III

Why ship a US car to Europe? Simple - cars have always been insanely more expensive in Europe than the US. My US town's property tax department estimates my four-year old Passat is worth about US$6000. In Croatia or Serbia, that same car would be worth possibly as much as 10,000 Euros! Another example: a new BMW SUV that costs $60k at a US dealer would cost us 60k Euros in Croatia... that's a 56% increase.

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.