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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hitler is Always Present in My Father-in-Law's Conversation

At first it was slightly delightful, because after torrents of Srpski, at last one of my husband's parents said a word I could understand. "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Hitler..."

I have never, to my knowledge, heard my own, American father mention Hitler in conversation. Not once. Nor my mother either. They were in their teens during WWII, and keenly aware of it, but it's not remotely the center - or even outer edges - of their thoughts now.

For Serbs of my parents' generation, however, WWII is a frequent point of reference in normal everyday conversation. Hitler slips into sentences like a tiny, silver minnow, and then slips out again. Partly this is because the war hit closer to them. My husband's parents were actively involved in the partisan movement and Hitler's troops and allies killed many of their relatives, not to mention burning the house down.

But, also I think partly because if you watch Balkan TV stations, especially TV in Croatia, WWII isn't limited to an occasional old movie on an inconspicuous cable channel in the mid-afternoon. WWII is still and continually prime time television. It's almost like there's a news vacuum between WWII and now, everyday life. Or just things Serbs and Croats would rather not reminisce about at this time.

I don't mean to get too deep. But you can understand how, when a Serbian friend who is precisely my father-in-law's age came to visit us in the US for a dinner party, Hitler popped into the conversation in less than 30 minutes. Of course he did.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cooking for Serbian Friends (How to Feel Like an Alien)

I know my dinner party standard - Thai-spiced shrimp over steamed basmati - is going to be "weird food" for our guests just off the plane from Belgrade. It's their first day in America ever and I don't want to freak them (or their stomachs) out too much. On the other hand, cooking for company always makes me idiotically nervous, so I lean on my standard to steady myself emotionally.

Ok so, why not make the rest of the courses comfortingly familiar to Serbs. That way it's just one weird thing surrounded by normalicy. I confer with my step-son who went to chef school in Croatia. "A meat platter - cold cuts - would be great for appetizers. You could throw some cheese on there too," he says. Ewww. I am a 25-year vegetarian and meat kinda creeps me out. "How about fresh homemade salsa and chips instead?" I reply. "I think they'll like that," he says. "So it's familiar?" "Oh no. Well, maybe they've eaten tortilla chips, but not salsa."

As for the next course, I realize the only Serbian soup I know is the tomato soup everyone makes from dried packets, never cans. I'm damned if I'm serving soup from a packet, and anyway two tomato dishes in a row is too much. We settle on my famous ginger-broth soup with bean thread noodles and tofu. "That won't be too weird for them?" I ask. "It will be ok as long as you serve plenty of bread with everything. Serbs expect bread on the table." I am baffled. Why would you need yet another carb when there's one already included in the dish itself?

Then I remember the story of the first time my husband, as a teenager, was taken to a pizza restaurant. He sat and sat not touching the pizza in front of him. Finally someone asked him what was wrong. "I can't start eating," he explained. "There's no bread on the table."

Next we discuss the desert course. "How about cheesecake? Everyone likes cheesecake, right?" "Of course!" my step-son replies. "They'll love it. They've probably never tasted cheesecake before, but I'm sure it will be a hit."

Oh dear, I guess bread-aside the whole meal will be alien then. "What should I serve to drink?" "Beer is probably a good idea." I relax. Beer I know. Beer will be no problem.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Serbia vs the West: Why My Husband Wears Two Wedding Rings

When we flew over to Serbia a few months after we first got engaged, I did what any proud bride-to-be would do. I flaunted my ring.

"Look what he gave me!" I said in fractured Srpski. As I stretched my left hand across the table, glistening with diamonds, the response was always... polite. As in, 'Oh that's nice." Period.

There was none of the "Oh my gosh! It's so beautiful! How did he give it to you? When's the wedding?!" exclamations that are de rigour in America. I began to wonder, maybe they weren't happy with the engagement? Maybe everyone was being smiley to my face but hated Americans? Maybe I smelled bad?

After growing increasingly paranoid over a period of weeks, finally I did what I should have done in the beginning and asked my beloved what the heck was the matter. Turns out I was proudly wearing my engagement ring on the *wrong* hand. In Serbia, engagement and wedding rings are worn on the right hand, not the left. Everyone had thought I was showing off a random nice ring, not an Engagement Ring.

When we at last got married, I had my engagement ring re-sized and moved it to my right hand. So now I'm "'claimed" on both hands.

Then I started fretting. We were married in the States and live there primarly, so my husband wears his wedding ring on the left hand. But, he traveled back home frequently and I wasn't always able to accompany him. Alone late at night, the paranoia began to creep up again. What if all these gorgeous Serbian women saw this hunk of a man and decided he was fair game for poaching because hey there's no ring on that right finger!

I waited up until 2am when it would be 8am Serbian time and then called him, "Honey, you need to do something for me immediately. You have to buy another wedding ring and put it on your other finger." He laughed and pointed out that young Serbian beauties do not think of shaggy old grey haired guys as "poach-material".

"Never mind," I said, "Go get that extra ring anyway. And wear both of them at the same time. You never know where a girl might be from." So now I guess you could say, as a husband, he's double-banded.

Another Great Photo Blog of Belgrade...

A Yankee in Belgrade

Friday, October 10, 2008

'Common Sense' & Your Gun

I am screaming with laughter. A letter addressed to my husband has just arrived from the state's Department of Fish & Wildlife, which apparently also handles local gun ownership control. "Thank you for recently taking the Handgun Safety Examination," it reads. "To pass this exam a score of 80 points or higher is required. This letter is to inform you that you did *not* receive a passing score."

My step-son comes running upstairs to see what's making me laugh so loudly. "Oh bummer. That means I must have failed too."

Turns out while I've been on my woman-on-her-own trip in New Mexico, the men in the household went on an afternoon's jaunt down to check out the merchandise at a local gun shop. Unlike what many Europeans think of the US, you can't buy guns like candy in many states. For example, in our state, you have to take an ownership test -- handily administered in the gunshop itself -- and wait for results to be mailed to you before purchasing.

According to my step-son, the gunshop owner had handed the test to them with the airy remark, "It's a no-brainer; all you need is common sense to pass this thing." And, unlike our local DMV (where you get driver's licenses), this guy didn't have any problem with my step-son and husband conferring lengthily in Serbian together as they attempted to figure out the most common sense correct answer to each question. I guess unlike driving, gun ownership could be considered a team sport.

Of course, this all makes me laugh even harder. The combined 'common sense' wisdom of not one but two Balkan men about what to do with a gun equals an American failing score. God only knows what the questions were....

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Differences Between Serbian Men & American Men: Household Chores

Less than an hour ago, I overheard this conversation on the Albuquerque airport bus, and it made me laugh to myself when considering the amount of cooking and cleaning typical Serbian men do :

Middle-aged male bus driver speaking to a middle aged female passenger traveling alone, "How long have you been away from home?" Her reply, "About five days, and I gotta tell you, if our house is a mess when I get back, my husband will be getting a lot of hot tongue and cold shoulder!"

A second, older female passenger, "You mean he doesn't clean up after himself?!"

First woman, "My husband is spoiled rotten. He thinks if he does the laundry, that he's contributing in a major way to the household. It's my fault - his mother ruined him growing up and then I put up with it for years for the sake of the children. But they're grown and gone now and things have to change!"

Bus driver, "Well, I do all the cooking in my household."

An elderly male passenger, "So do I. Everything. I'm the family chef." His wife pats his hand proudly, "Yes, he is!"

Bus driver, "Tonight I'm making short-ribs with a fresh salad and some local feta cheese I picked up at the market. And maybe some other vegetables. "

General murmurs of approval all around.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Will Serbian or Croatian Banks Fail in the Economic Crisis?

I'm of two minds on this, and would very much appreciate any feedback you have if you're the sort of person who knows things...

Banks in Serbia are required to keep something like 40% of deposits in cash at the national central bank. So if there's a bank run during say a Global Economic Crisis, they can pay off 40% of the funds customers gave them . In Croatia that rate is 17%. (In comparison, banks in the US are required to keep something like 5% of their deposits with the Fed, the remainder can be loaned out or invested elsewhere. So if there's a bank run, we're in trouble.)

However, unlike the US which now offers $250,000 per account federal insurance, backed by a 200+ year old government, the far newer country of Serbia only offers a few thousand dollars-worth of account insurance. And it's not like they could vote to make that much bigger, there just isn't all that much money to spend on bailouts, nor friendly countries to borrow it from easily.

The banking sector has been one of the top three booming industries in Serbia for the past five years (the other two being telecommunications and construction.) Most of the banks are new, and have expanded super-aggressively. Our small city of Sombor is served by more than a dozen different name brand banks. Those brands are mainly European - Ernst, Raiffeisen, etc. You'll find most of these same banks in Croatia now as well. But there's one huge difference. The Croatian branches tend to be direct divisions or subsidiaries of the main bank. The Serbian branches tend to be franchises. They got the logo from the main bank, and maybe some management advice, but they're not directly owned 100% by that main bank. So, if they fail... the main bank may not be obliged or interested in bailing them out.

Consumer lending has already tightened in both countries - Croatians are having a much harder time getting mortages, according to a friend of ours who is a real estate developer in Zagreb. Serbs can still get modest mortgages, but interest rates are going upwards fast and may have already hit 10%. Oddly, this hasn't stopped real estate prices from continuing to rise sharply in Belgrade. I don't know who the Belgrade bubble buyers can possibly be... surely the supply of newly rich Montenegrins can't continue forever? Fairly soon they're going to run out of waterfront property to pawn off on Russians and/or Madonna.

So anyway, things are looking rough for the Serb and Croatian economies in the next couple of years. My gut is that Serb banks will be OK, aside from another big wave of M&As, so we'll see fewer name brands coming out the other end of the economic tunnel. For some reason I believe Serbia's isolation can be its salvation. It won't be pulled down by external forces, because the country isn't intertwined enough with Europe yet to be.

My gut doesn't feel like Croatian banks are as safe. Croatia is much further along in the process of integration with the capitalist world. More Croatians have mortgages and credit cards, the government of Croatia has an astonishingly high public debt (in the tens of billions) in comparison with the actual size of the country, and Croatia relies heavily on Europeans for everything from tourism revenues to running its banks. In fact, unlike Serbia, there are no banks in Croatia that are majority owned by locals.

If you have money in a Croatia or Serbian banks and you're considering flying home to yank it out, there's one bit of good news. Last minute flights from the US to Europe are extremely cheap right now, and plenty of seats are available. I know, I've been booking them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Mister, You Ain't No Serb

So, I'm driving back from lunch in Abiquiu New Mexico today, and the other drivers are making me CRAZY. It's a rural hilly area, but the roads are US western-style wide, as straight as possible, and exceptionally well-kept. This means everyone wants to drive far faster than the posted speed limit of 55-60 MPH. Well, ok. Fine. Go for the gusto.

But I won't. Because I'm in this horrible whale of a rental. It seats 8 (in Serbia that would be 12, in Nepal it would be more like 20.) The rental place told me it was this or a Hummer, and I'd rather look like a soccer mom than an asshole. In an effort to conserve gas, juggle my camera while driving in beautiful Georgia O'Keefe country, and not roll over on moderately sharp curves, I'm going precisely the speed limit.

Which means there's this long line of locals driving behind me who are clearly going Nuts Stuck Behind the Soccer Mom Tourist. Occasionally I do the good girl thing and pull over to the side of the road to let everyone blast past me. But, you know, after awhile it just gets tiresome.

Why won't anybody pass me?! They'll ride up to my back bumper and stare at me real hard so my neck gets itchy, but by god, nobody will pass even when given acres of perfectly legal opportunity.

That's when I realize I've been married to a Serb for too long. Only a Serb would think a microsecond of space with oncoming traffic an eyelash away is plenty of room for passing one, two, maybe even three cars. Serbs pass like bats out of hell. Serbs are the gods of passing. But then a lot more of them die in traffic accidents than Americans do.

Well, hey.