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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Updated: Why Don't Embassies Start Email Lists of Citizens in the Area

I was struck by a line in one of the news stories about Mumbai right now where terrorists are targeting Brits and Americans. The US Embassy in Mumbai was quoted saying something like, "We're working on a Wardens Briefing for Americans visiting now." As though any American in the area weren't riveted to a TV set already.

Embassies need quicker ways to get the word out to citizen travelers. They should set up an email list and make it easy for anyone to join. All you'd need is a computer terminal in the airports, plus an online site. Getting on the list would be strictly voluntary, and one could choose for which dates they'd like to remain on the list.

The email list would only be used in times of critical importance (that is so say, very rarely) and also each new name should be sent, via autoresponder, a list of handy info from that embassy (number to call if you get in trouble; .gov web site; visiting guidelines, etc.).

I've been in quite a few countries now in times of political unrest - ranging from bomb threats in Rome, to Maoist troubles in Nepal, to the US embassy burning in Belgrade. Would have been nice to get a friendly little note from my Embassy at those times.

UPDATE: Since I posted the blog above, I received word that the US Embassy in Belgrade does offer an email plus an SMS service to US citizens living in Serbia. In fact during this Spring's Kosovo-related crisis, they emailed folks six times with updates. Other Embassies also have email lists, called "IBRS". You can sign up for free at the US State Dept site here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Don't Tell the Neighbors About Our New Dog Bed

Most of our marital arguments have been about the dog. When we first met, I flat out accused him, "You don't like dogs!" He was shocked and appalled. To his mind, he's a total softy for dogs -- in fact in Serbia he had a dog that he would sometimes allow inside the house.

In Serbia and Croatia, dogs are animals, just like cows or sheep. They have their uses. And they have their place. That place is in an outside cage or chained up in your home's courtyard. Dogs don't ever ever ever sleep on the bed. They don't lick the plate. They don't have special diets selected for their age, stress-level and allergy-profile by a vet.

In Serbia, you don't treat dogs as though they were humans. It's seen as vaguely disgusting -- a sign of how devoid your life must be of real human companionship, mingled up with a titch of mental insanity or outright stupidity. It's a dog, stupid!

My husband's first impression of American traffic, beyond how shiny new and large all the vehicles were, was how many dogs were riding along with their owners. Around here, seems like at least every third car has a dog in it. That just doesn't happen in Serbia. No way.

After five years of arguing, I agreed to make my dog sleep outside at night. Every single night. Even if it's really cold. My husband built her a custom doghouse to beat all doghouses. It's insulated and built specifically for her dimensions. But when the temperature plummeted last week I began to worry. So I trotted over to Ocean State Job Lot and picked up a cheap new dog bed for her house. This is America, so it's got a few bells and whistles.

My husband blanched when he saw it. Don't anyone tell the neighbors in Sombor Serbia that in America our dog has an electronically heated bed with intermittent massage functionality. It's just a bit too Ancient Romans Eating Pickled Hummingbird Tongues Served By Slaves in Golden Loin Cloths. You know, the way seriously idiotic rich people live.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Which I Trip Over Serbian Food Whilst on a Business Trip to Florida

I knew the second my Gator City Taxicab driver with the Slavic accent said, "I am from Europe" that he was guaranteed to be a former Yugoslavian. I have never met people from any other part of Europe who refer to themselves as being from "Europe" instead of a particular nation.

So, of course I leaned forward and said, "Dobr dan." And it turns out he is Bosnian. Which, apparently isn't the oddity one might expect in a small northern Florida city. There are roughly 20,000 former Yugoslavs in Jacksonville. The first bunch probably came via the help of a local church group in the early 1990s, and the rest accumulated over time like a magnet attracting iron filings. My taxi driver, for example, had originally landed in Utah but made his way inevitably to Jacksonville in under a year.

Every former Yugoslav ethnicity and religion is represented. The entire community comes together around two central activities -- their soccer team (which I suspect plays the local former-Russians and former-Chinese teams) and their grocery store. Everyone says they've never seen any problems between the various sub-demographics -- Macedonians, Serbs, Muslims, Christians, etc.

As you might guess from the name, Amar European Grocery Store (5664 Santa Monica Blvd S, near University Blvd, jacksonville (904)739-9447; atahirovic@comcast.net) specializes solely in Yugoslav-groceries. Located in a side-wing of a mini-mall, it's not a huge place, but big enough. I scampered between aisles going nuts with a kind of dotty joy that only a a mother or step-mother can feel when she spots items her children have been without for a long time. Banana-candies covered in chocolate. Smoki peanut butter flavored puffs, Eva brand sardines in oil, coffee ground properly in Belgrade, and Vegeta soup stock. Prices were very reasonable, in fact some were far lower than what you'd pay back in the Balkans.

I asked, or rather begged, the shopkeeper to tell me if she shipped to customers outside of the area. She's considering it for someday maybe, but really, she said, she's far too busy helping out with the soccer team to take on any more business. Proof, if I needed it, that she truly was a Yugoslav. Why work to expand your business when you already get by and really there is a community life to be having?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Thanks for the Jelen Pivo - Now You've Ruined American Beers for Me

Jelen Pivo is the Budweiser of Serbia. It's cheap, available in every corner store, and the beer of choice for the 'Joe Six Pack' crowd, such as your plumber.

The first thing I do when visiting a new country is a beer tasting to pick which one I'll be ordering from then on. It's sort of like a wine tasting only hopefully with less spitting. I spend an evening ordering every single brew available at a couple of different bars and take a considered sip of each. When you order a whole bunch of different beers to taste in Serbia, it's tough on the waiters because they also have to schlep out a different branded glass in which to pour each separate beer. Apparently it's not done to drink from a generic glass, a glass with the wrong logo, or heaven forbid, the bottle.

For me, Jelen Pivo was the big winner. Everyone thought this was really funny. "She likes Jelen Pivo!" my husband would gleefully announce as we entered someone's home. People would stare, try not to crack up too obviously, and then dispatch a kid to get a bottle from the corner store because no one with any sophistication would normally keep that brand on hand for guests.

I've now achieved a degree of oddball fame. Which means that when Serbish acquaintances visit America, they always tuck a can or two of Jelen Pivo into their suitcases for me. This is handed over with both laughter and pride. Then I take a sip and make a bit of a production out of smiling and enjoying it. Hvala. Puno Hvala!

Secretly though, I wish they hadn't done it. Because after a Jelen Pivo or two, American beer tastes like pisswater. Which is why I plunked an entire case of Rolling Rock from our pantry into my step-daughter's car trunk the other night just before she drove back to college. We've had too many Serb visitors recently, my palate's compromised. "I'm not drinking that stuff!" she exclaimed. "Give it to your American housemates," I replied. "They won't know any better."