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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Problem with English (Part II): Idioms

My Yugoslavian-born husband is the owner of a book entitled, '100 American Idioms'. Which is why he can, only slightly self-consciously, make declarations such as, "It is raining cats and dogs!"

We are all terribly proud of him. How many men, after all, could come to America at the age of 40, with only a haze of remembered high school English, and then a scant handful of years later be able to say things like that? In normal conversation!

Which brings me to last weekend, on the Saturday after the big American Holiday of Thanksgiving. Due to the depredations of an unusually aggressive squirrel, we had to go buy a new 30lb sack of bird seed for the feeder outside our favorite window.

My step-daughter, home from college, had borrowed the car the night before. So, instead of my regular music, the sound system boomed out songs from a CD she'd left in the player. As we neared the local farmer's supply store where we buy bird food, the sound system blared a song, with an insanely danceable beat, to which the words, as best I can remember them, went, "I'm going down on you, I'm going down, I'm going down. I go down on you every morning; I go down on you every night. I'm always going down on you."

I thought nothing of it... until my husband, caught by the danceable beat, began to sing along, "I'm Going Down on You!" he warbled. 'I go down on you every morning! And every night!!"

My husband is a Serb. Which means he is completely unafraid of and unabashed by public singing. If you've got something to sing, well sing it out loud and sing it for quite a while.

As I descended from the driver's seat I was struck by this thought and interrupted him. "Honey? Do you know what this means? To go down on a person?" "Of course I do," he scoffed, "It is about going down to the river, going down the hill, going downstairs. Everybody knows that." With that he started singing with renewed vigor...

...and it was only with the utmost persuasion I got him to stop while we were in the store. I'm pretty sure he still thinks I over-exaggerated the reason why.

Note: The Problem With English Part I is here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Trade Mission From Boston Visiting Serbia Today

Kind of fun to read this press release about mainly Boston-based companies whose executives are touring Serbia today as part of a trade mission. Seems like they are mostly seeking cheap tech labor; although, based on his name alone, I bet US executive Milenko Beslic will be busy also visiting relatives!

I've emailed him personally to ask how the mission goes and will let you know if I hear back.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Super-Easy Way to Piss Off Serbs: Praise Any Clinton

In a move calculated to piss off pretty much every Serb around the world, Kosovo is about to unveil a statue of Bill Clinton. This is an overly dramatic comparison, but think how would Americans feel if another country commissioned a big public statue of Osama bin Laden?

Deliberate provocation.

I wasn't aware of any connection between Clinton and Serbia before I married my husband, and so was astonished by Serbs' invariably venomous reaction to any mention of the name "Clinton." The anger extends to the whole Clinton family, and simmers just under boiling to this day. It's about the NATO bombing of course. Something typical Americans were only vaguely aware of, and only few knew Clinton had anything to do with. It was a European thing, between Europeans, surely?, many would say if asked.

So no one in New York thought it was unusual when then-Senator Hilary Clinton promised to use her powers of international persuasion to get that young Serbian basketball player sent back to the US to stand trial for beating up an American in a bar a couple of years ago. Anyone who knew Serbs laughed at her presumption. Not a chance. No matter how hard she tried or what she promised -- with a name like Clinton!

And now, most people in the US who hear about the new statue of Bill Clinton in Kosovo will probably think, 'How nice' and assume American aid such as food for hungry people or help building schools had something to do with this international 'thank you'. They won't recognize the insult. Kosovo is slapping Serbia in the face, and using an American President's image to do it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Serbian Man vs American Woman: The Toilet-Seat Battle Rages On...

I'm not naming names, but, somebody-just-back-from-the-Balkans apparently unlearned his ability to put the toilet seat back down after using it. Five years of my seat-tutorials down the toilet after just three short weeks visiting the old country. What is it with Central European men? Do women there never teach them anything?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Freakishly Strange 'We'll Wrap Your Baggage in Plastic" Service At Belgrade Airport

The first time I saw this in the central hall at Nikola Tesla Airport, I stopped in my tracks. I've traveled quite a bit. Across the USA, Italy, UK, India, Nepal, and various way-stations in between. I had never, ever seen a machine that wrapped your luggage in plastic before.

I'm particularly thrilled by this photo -- which required multiple visits to the Belgrade Serbia Airport -- because it shows the machine in action. I'd seen the machine sitting there with its attendant many times before, but somehow never quite believed that anyone actually used it. This is proof that people do!

My assumption, which could be utterly wrong, is that some Serbs headed abroad, this machine makes perfect sense. Perhaps this is their first time. Perhaps they want to put their best foot forward. Perhaps they think if their luggage is scuffed, it would look old and tacky. Perhaps they have no idea that we travelers in the West consider scuffs a badge of honor, showing that you've been there, done that, and sold the t-shirt at a garage sale already.

Visiting the Balkans (a View from the One Left at Home)

So I'm going crazy because my husband has been over in the Balkans, mainly Serbia and Croatia, for the past three weeks. We had personal business why he had to leave. These days US banks are giving 1.85% interest on CDs, Serbian and Croatian banks are giving 3.5-6% interest on CDs, so he decided to move his savings.

But I think part of the unofficial reason he took off is because I got bored-shitless in "early retirement" so I launched another start-up and am working crazy hours again.... for just now I swear! But, Balkan men like to come home from work at noon and find a meal waiting for them along with a smiling relaxed woman who might not be averse to a midday nap. And I was like, "I hope you don't mind left-overs; how fast can I get back to my computer?"

Well that's an over-exaggeration on both sides, but you get the idea.

So anyway, he jetted off to deal with Balkan financials while I worked longer hours on my start-up which will payoff someday in the future.

The plan backfired when I ran up against the no-husband-here wall though. It's a psychological thing. For the first week he's gone, I'm more than ok. In fact I'm actively thrilled. I'm Getting Work Done Without Interruptions! I feel like a balsa-wood model airplane set loose to fly on my own in a hot updraft. Then week two comes. Cooler air. My work starts to stumble. By week three, the winds are positively frigid. I'm losing altitude quickly.

Even now, he's in a good mood on the cell phone when I call each morning. Things are going well. He's met with this old friend and that old buddy. He's moved the money. He's dealt with the landbooks (In Croatia, 2009 is the last year to register former family lands officially so they're not taken over by the State.)

He misses me. Sure. Of course. But this and that happened yesterday and isn't it all exciting? Such is traveling.

But I'm back in my office in the US. I haven't been able to sleep at all for the past week. Just a couple of hours a night. I'm so tired now the extra hours aren't translating into more work done. It's all an ashy, tired eyes, burned out gray. Ten hours at the computer equals maybe three if I were really awake.

I can't sleep. I can't sleep without him. Damn the Balkans.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Should You Ship Your Car from the US to Serbia? Or Should You Buy a Car in Serbia?

As I blogged last month, we just bought a new, higher mileage SUV using America's Cash for Clunkers program with the main idea of shipping it to Serbia as soon as the state sends us our title paperwork (which takes months here, arrgh.) I've tried to ship cars in the past (never yet actually made it), but since a reader emailed me a "ship from the US vs buy in Serbia" question I thought I'd outline the factors we've considered in our decision-making process.

1. Can you afford to buy a car outright?

Buying a car in the US is vastly less expensive than buying it in Europe. But, if you're going to take your US car to Serbia, you can't be leasing it (leases usually prohibit you from taking the car outside of North America). You may not be able to take a car you're financing (buying on credit) outside North America either. You have to own title clear and outright.

That's to stop people from buying lots of new cars in the US and then flipping them in other countries where cars are far more expensive (pretty much everywhere on the planet).

If you have European plates, you can drive your car as a tourist to Serbia. But, once you've been there for a year or two the police will require that you get local plates. For local plates, you'll have to register it locally, and pay taxes on it.

2. Can you afford the taxes & insurance?

If you register your car in Serbia, you'll have to pay import taxes or duties. Each returning citizen is allowed to bring one car duty-free with them. You then are required to own the car for a certain number of years before selling it -- that's to stop you flipping it for a fast buck.

Annual car taxes in Serbia vary depending on the engine of the car. If you're driving a car with a smaller engine, it's cheaper. If you're driving a revved up SUV or truck, it's far more expensive. We chose the base model RAV4 due to this, the sport model would have been more in taxes.

Insurance isn't cheaper than the US, except for one thing. In the US most people insure for "comprehensive coverage", whereas in Serbia almost no one does. They pick the cheaper version. Your US coverage will not carry over to Serbia, you'll have to buy specific insurance. If your car is being delivered to a port in Croatia, Germany or other country, you'll also need insurance for that country for the time in which you drive the car from that country to Serbia, for which you will be GOUGED. It's a rip off, but it is what it is.

3. Do you strongly prefer automatic transmission?

Car dealers across Europe don't tend to stock automatics. You'll have to pay extra and probably wait for delivery. If you want to buy an automatic used, good luck. I've seen them, but it's not a big selection.

4. How many miles per gallon does your vehicle get?

Gasoline prices are, and always will be, more than double in Europe. Filling that tank becomes painful. Diesel, which is artificially high in the US as a form of tax on the shipping industry, is more economical than gas in Europe. So, diesel models are really popular over there. You can also have a Serbian garage switch you from a gas to a propane-burning engine. It's much cheaper and the investment may be $1000-2000 at most for the engine work. However, you'll obviously never take the car outside of areas with lots of propane stations ever again.

5. How much do you want to spend on the car itself?

Cars are often 50-100% more expensive in Serbia than in the US. Yes, that extends to used cars as well. I was shocked at the high sticker prices for used cars there. You'll see a lot of German-made cars on the roads because so many Serbs have relatives in Germany and Serbs trust German engineering, but they paid nearly double what you would have for the same model back home. Increasingly you'll see some Japanese cars, dealerships are springing up. But Japanese cars have higher import fees in many European countries to protect European cars, so there's an added cost there too.

6. Do you want to impress people or do business in Serbia?

People really judge you by the car you drive. (In Croatia this is more extreme, people really, really, really judge you by the car you drive.) I've been stunned by the snap judgments Serbs have made about me based on my car. (I drive a VW Passat which a Serb acquaintance told me is an "uneducated shopkeeper's car.")

If you plan on doing business in Serbia -- or Croatia -- an uber-fancy car such as a Maybach, a Jaguar, etc., will give you a type of instant credibility and respect that otherwise could take year to achieve. I think this is insanely stupid, but, again, it is what it is.

The nice thing is, it's OK if it's a slightly older model. Brand matters more than age. People will be far more wildly impressed by a used 2004 Bentley than a brand new, more common BMW that cost the same amount. So, if you want to impress people with your car, go for a flashy brand. In fact, if that's your goal, I'd make sure a native vetted choices before I bought.

7. Maintenance considerations

Garages are cheaper. In the US, a typical Audi dealership will charge over $100 an hour for basic maintenance fees. Serb labor is a lot cheaper, although parts probably won't be.

Parts for US-brand cars sold in the US will be tough. (As you may know, US brands like Ford have a completely different model line in Europe, so just because Ford Europe exists doesn't mean you can get new brakes for your F150.) If you bring over an American or Japanese pick-up truck, in particular, you'll be hard put to get parts quickly if at all. Practically no one drives a pick-up in Serbia. If it's a recent model Japanese sedan or SUV, you should be OK. And European-maker parts are no problem.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Job in Belgrade: Applications Due Today Though

Thanks to the reader who posted this job opening in PR and media monitoring in Serbia for a "young person who reads English." http://www.webbdowse.com/account%20executive%20ad.pdf

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Paying in Cash. As in Cash Cash.

Like most Serbs, my husband is not truly comfortable paying with plastic. How can you be careful with your spending if you don't have to feel the pain of parting with actual bills? How do you know how much money you have left if there's no thinning wad of bills to touch? Not to mention relying on those bank computers! Someday, due to sunspots, Ukrainian hackers, or cheating executives, your electronic account will get diddled for sure.

Which is why, when he went down today to pick up the new car that we purchased under America's Cash for Clunkers program, he brought along several bundles of hundreds which he'd saved up in his safety deposit box at the bank to pay for it.

He's planning to ship this car over to the Balkans soon. You can't ship a car internationally unless you own it 100%. So, he had told the car salesman he'd be paying cash up front, instead of financing the purchase.

Why then, was the salesman so surprised when my husband thunked down a wad of cash onto his desk? I think the guy's eyelids were going to peel back into his head.

The salesguy jumped up and ran to the corner office in the dealership to confer with his boss. Apparently there was some terrible concern. Nobody was sure if they could receive in their own hands actual cash for a new automobile. How were they supposed to handle the bills? What if it was drug money from an illegal deal? What if it bit them like a live rattlesnake?

My husband asked what the problem was. "Well, when you said 'cash', we really didn't think you meant cash cash," the salesguy explained. I understood completely. To most Americans, 'cash' means anything that's not a formal bank loan. It could be a debit card, a check, or even a credit card. My husband, on the other hand, looked at the guy like he was a complete idiot.

I started laughing. You can take the boy out of the Balkans, but not the Balkans out of the boy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

No Jobs for Expats in Belgrade (That I Know Of)

In 2007, when I was living for a few months at our home in Sombor Serbia, I received a bunch of queries from Western companies seeking executives who had Western work experience and a willingness to work in Belgrade. Most of them didn't know me from Adam, but I was one of the very, very few Serbia-based executives with a Western background their HR recruiters could find on LinkedIn, which is a tool recruiters heavily rely on.

Blithely -- and in hindsight idiotically -- I wrote about this over at the popular Serbian media site B92 where I was a guest blogger. Just after that, my husband and I went on extended trips to Nepal and Croatia, and then wound up back in the US where I'm now working. While we traveled, two things happened: firstly the global economic meltdown ensured that nobody was hiring anybody in Serbia. Secondly, B92's webmasters shut down my guest blogging account during my extended absence and won't now re-open it. (Yes, I asked, but no reply.)

Unfortunately, the old blog post is still up and attracting attention. Nearly every week I get another hopeful inquiry about it. Usually it's the Western spouse of a Serbian expat who is moving back home. The emailer asks for where to go and who to talk to for these jobs I mentioned. I am forced to reply, I don't know. I don't think there are any jobs right now. If there are, I have no idea how to go about finding them.

Here's what I do know:

- Don't count on the US, UK, Australian or any other Embassy located in Belgrade to have job openings. In my experience, there are very few openings in Embassies. These are filled either by locals who never give them up, or by career foreign service officers assigned by the home country.

- Don't count on an embassy to know of other job openings. They have a hard enough time informally helping the spouses of their own Embassy staffers to find employment or at least busywork in Serbia.

- Don't count on merit (your brilliant experience and accomplishments) to help you land a job. Just as in many countries (Croatia and Italy to name two), your personal and family connections are the true levers to gainful employment at both local firms and at local branches of global firms if the boss is a local.

- Do seek out connections at international business clubs in Serbia such as the American chamber of commerce. Try to find out which companies might be opening new offices in Serbia - who is coming new and who is expanding. Remember though, that many job placements may be handled by the offices back in the head country.

- Do update your LinkedIn profile to show Serbia as your location -- even if you're still in the process of moving. Remember, that's how HR people search.

- Do surf other places recruiters for multinationals hang out online, such as RecruitingBlogs.com. Start networking with the recruiters for companies which you've identified as hanging long-term potential business interests in Serbia.

- Do network with international staff of multinational non-profits, and other non-governmental organizations which have branches in Serbia. The Desperate Serbwife blog which was written a few years ago by an American woman looking for a job in Belgrade is all about this. It's not encouraging - she networked her brains out for months to find a position. But, at least it's something.

- Do consider starting your own company if you have an entrepreneurial background and (this is important) a Serbian spouse who is willing to roll up his/her sleeves and help you deal with cross-cultural misunderstandings with employees, customers, government regulations, you name it. Or, you can work from home on the Internet for a Western firm (which is what I did when I lived in Serbia.)

That's all I know. I have NO OTHER connections or ideas. Please don't email me and ask for them. I am tired of feeling guilty all the time. I wish I had not written that B92 blog about jobs. I didn't mean to give hope in an impossible situation.

On the other hand, if YOU know something that could help job seekers, please, please, please write a comment and post it here. Everyone would really appreciate it. Thanks!

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Struggles of a Multi-Language Home & Marriage

When, in the first flush of blossoming love, I promised my then-fiance, "Of course I'll learn your language", I imagined a year or so of hard work, followed by decades of of family jokes over my Amerikanka accent.

I never imagined five entire years later not speaking a single word of Serbian, beyond scraping-the-barrel-bottom (swear words, "good day", "yes/no", "potato", "to fart", "I love you", and that's about it.)

At first I blamed my job, then an 80-hour a week mental marathon. Then I blamed the language itself in which all nouns change given tense, even people's NAMES, often violently. (For example, my step-son's name on his diploma from Croatian Culinary School is spelt "Petrova" instead of "Petar" because it's in the "we're being really official" tense I suppose.)

And I'm sorry, but no matter how much you "ch, ch, ch" at me over the dinner table, I will never discern between Č and Ć. It's just not possible.

At last, we all realized I would not be able to learn the language while we still lived most of the year in the US. I would need an in-depth course in Serbo-Croatian in either Zagreb or Belgrade for several months when we moved over, and then to live in a non-English-speaking community for a year at least thereafter. So, whenever we really, honestly, truly move over, that's the plan. A few years from now.

In the meantime, there's the language thing at home. Everyone on my side speaks English and rocky high school French, but my relatives, like most Americans, visit infrequently. Everyone on his side speaks Serb and pretty good American English and like good Serbs are over at the house all the time. I feel GUILTY insisting that people speak English when I'm in the room. But at the same time I catch myself having an absolute nervous breakdown if they do not. I hate feeling completely left out of conversations, and by extension, cut out of the family.

On the other hand, my husband *should* be able to speak his own language in his own home. I'd got nuts if the tables were reversed! And his children, surrounded by American friends day and night, are delighted to get home for the release of being able to speak Serbian once again. (As my step-daughter once remarked, it's kind of awful knowing you're the only one out of 10,000 people on campus who speaks your native language.)

But then, there they are all chattering away, and I feel... completely left out. I get to cook up a few snacks, set the table, clear plates, and then sit at the side smiling blandly, blindly. Completely left out. Sometimes I feel a bit like the family dog, beloved and patted on the head, but ignored in conversation.

My step-brother Tom, who is also married to a Serb, has the opposite problem -- the offended grandparent scenario. His wife's mother and father, who are divorced, split the year, each spending roughly half in Belgrade and half in the USA with the grandchildren. Despite a Serb mother and year-round grandparent encouragement, the kids are not interested in speaking anything but American English. It's the language of their peers. Period.

Tears have been shed and adult feelings hurt.

Which pretty much mirrors my household. Sometimes though, I think even if I learned school-perfect Serbo-Croatian tomorrow, I'd still be left out. There would be cultural and family history jokes and references I would never get. I'd never, ever completely fit in. Which will always hurt and probably offer some pleasure at the same time. Families need oddballs, and oddballs need families.

When you marry a Serb, you are a permanent oddball in his family. It's just a fact.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jesus Love's U?

Yesterday evening as my husband and I were walking on the public beach a few miles from our US home, we came upon a 20-foot-long message someone had drawn in the sand. "Jesus Love's U!" it proclaimed.

"How could anyone conceivably put an apostrophe in loves? Is our educational system that bad?" I exclaimed. As I set to rubbing out the offending mark with my feet, my Croatian-born, Serb husband stood stood to one side staring at the end of the message. Finally he asked in a slightly strained voice, "What does U mean?"

"You. As in me and you. It's the text message way of spelling it." "Oh", he said relieved. "Where I come from that means Ustashe."

He thought Nazi-aligned, Serb-hating fascists might be posting messages on our beach!

It's less unlikely than one might think because the political descendants of fascism are currently on the rise in Croatia, Austria and Germany. And, our hometown beach is in an area tourists and immigrants visit on their tour of America. We run into former Croatian and Bosnian visitors often enough for it to be unremarkable.

Luckily, though, this message was just from a dumb American.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My Serbian Husband Returns the "Eww!" Favor

In order to make sure this blog is not entirely one-sided, with an American wife getting grossed out by my Serb husband's eating habits, I think it's fair to mention that most Americans like to eat sweets with meat. Such as:

- Mint jelly with lamb
- Applesauce with baked ham
- Highly sugared tomato ketchup with burgers
- Cranberry sauce with turkey and smoked salmon

In addition, if you've lived in the UK, you probably enjoy a chutney-and-cheese sandwich now and then. As sold in all the train stations.

All of which, as a good Serb, my husband finds disgusting to a degree nearly beyond words.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ewww! Former Yugoslavs Eating Raw Bacon

I couldn't figure out where the bacon was going. I work from home these days, so if someone was cooking up some bacon I was sure to smell it. But, I never did. There was a bunch of bacon in the fridge, and then it was gone.

Then I caught him.

I walked into my husband's home office late one evening and there he was tucking into a heaping portion of raw bacon on one of my favorite blue-and-white plates. Ewww! In America we cook our bacon up in a frying pan. Crispy or chewy, it's your pleasure, but it's cooked up before you eat it. Even then you feel kinda sinful because it's bacon, a guilty pleasure, you know?

So a few days later I'm hanging out chit chatting with a couple of former Yugoslav women - one from Belgrade, the other from Zagreb - and I think, 'well here's a funny story' and I bring up the raw bacon. They look at me like I'm nuts. "How else would you eat it?" the one from Zagreb asks.

OMG. Raw bacon. Situation normal. Ewww.

At last I ask, "is there any situation in which you'd cook the bacon before you eat it?" They think long and hard. "Perhaps with polenta or if you're frying some eggs?" at last the one from Belgrade ventures. "But, you'd cook it beforehand and pour off the fat before adding it to the rest of the food, right?" "No," she looks really confused, "Why would you want to do that?"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jebiga! An Old (But Good) Story

When I first met my husband, he barely spoke English, but our hearts spoke the same language ... or so I thought with stars in my eyes.

Luckily I knew a guy at work who was half Serb, who indeed had spent a year of his college life in Belgrade. So, one day I asked him. There was this word my beloved used in conversation with me nearly constantly it seemed. And I was pretty sure it was an endearment. Which is why I didn't feel shy about asking my friend about it in public, in an open office full of people.

"What's the word?" he asked. "Jebiga!", I said, "'Jebiga, Honey.' He says it all the time to me. What does that mean?" My colleague gave me a look, such a look that I began to feel a bit foolish. Finally he said dryly, "Well, it's not endearment."

Two years later, by which time I could "jebiga!" with the best of them, he danced at our wedding.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Power of 'The Secret'

Zadar Croatia only has a tiny handful of bookstores, and they in turn only have a tiny handful of titles -- even in Croatian. These people are not big readers.

However, even in Zadar, bookshops carry copies of the worldwide bestseller, The Secret, which is a much-hyped redo of many, 'new age' tomes of the past, in particular Shaki Gawain's Creative Visualization. The Secret's premise is that if you visualize what you'd like to have in your life as though it's already there and you feel joy and gratitude for this fact, then pretty soon that item will appear. The universe bends to the power of your emotion-laden will.

The good news is, this is not all hype or new age mumbo jumbo. As much of advanced quantum physics and Lynne McTaggart's footnote-heavy book The Intention Experiment reveals, many scientific studies have been successfully conducted showing mind-power affects the "real" world.

All of which goes to explain why when I was a little stressed out about money recently, I decided to take action by visualizing a check for my lucky number five million in my hand. What's not to lose?

Lo and behold a few weeks later, my husband, to whom I did not reveal my secret get-rich plan, walks in the door crowing, "I've got a present for you!" Yes. A five million dinar bill from the craziest inflationary days of old Yugoslavia.

Which goes to show. The Secret does work, but you must be very specific about that which you ask for. As in currency that's legal tender.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Live from Belgrade! Bajaga in Boston (Sort Of)

Bajaga's been a rock/pop-star in the former Yugoslavia for 25 years now, which makes his act a shoe-in for the expat circuit. My husband was terrifically excited when his daughter bought us all tickets to Bajaga's Boston concert in April... which was then delayed for a month due to "visa problems". We consoled ourselves as we waited by watching a bit of video from his 2009 Canada tour which someone posted online. The crowds in Toronto looked enormous.

I for one, couldn't figure out how, because whoever was in charge of marketing the tour did a beyond-crappy job of it. We only found out about the tour by accident, and even then, it took my step-daughter a full hour of clicking and cursing to find her way down the rabbit's hole to where one could buy a ticket online. When, on the appointed day, we piled into the car and I asked for the address for the GPS, my worst fears were confirmed. The "Boston" concert was being held in a rundown neighborhood in Everett, a working class town a few miles away. Instead of a concert hall, the band rented 'The Silver Fox' a dingy local nightclub with no heat and folding tables and chairs. It had all the ambiance of your local VFW hall.

We arrived, unfashionably early, at the exact time our tickets said the concert started, then we scurried back out again to get coats left in the car. And for the next hour or so watched everyone else come in and then run back out again to do the same. I was one of the tiny handful of non-Yugoslavs in the crowd. (There were maybe 3-4 of us American-born spouses out of 125 or so concert-goers.) If I'm dressed right, I think I can pass as a Serb as long as I don't open my mouth, but I wasn't dressed right. Not by a long shot. I felt like an alien anthropologist.

The women were Feminine with a capital F. I'm talking heels - as spiky and high as possible - tiny, tight top ( a tank top if you could stand the cold), a skirt, and potentially something in the ensemble with glitter or sequins on it. These were Beauties On Display for a big night out, although as my step-daughter noted, sometimes the taste level was "lacking".

The men were also in uniform. This consisted of closely cropped hair, button-down shirt, jeans, and leather shoes. They all looked squeaky clean.

Everyone was drinking. And drinking. Then they went outside for a smoke, and returned to drink some more. If smoking were legal indoors I have no doubt the resulting fug would have obscured our view of the stage.

And everyone, besides us, seemed to know a lot of other people. It felt like a high school reunion. Lots of hugging, kissing, photo-taking. More phototaking. Wait! We have to take yet another photo with this person's camera too!

My husband figured nearly everyone in the room was a Serb, but I didn't recognize a single person from church. I guess there are two crowds of expats - the Orthodox and the Partiers. The women of both, it must be noted, have a fondness for spike heels, although the partiers perhaps in more colors. It should also be noted that the Orthodox definitely party, just look at the line for sljivoica shots with the priest in the church basement after services on important Sundays.

So, now we come to Bajaga himself. He looked, to my eye, like any former rock star on tour amongst the faithful. A bit older than anyone remembered, a little puffy from too much alcohol or jet lag or both, tired from the road but game for the concert. And that hair, well, he looked more like an aging Frankie Avalon from the 1950s with a dyed black pompadour than a star from the 80s and 90s.

But we didn't care, we came to hear him sing and play.

There was no opening act. We doubted, given how small the crowd was (due, again, to the utter crappiness of the marketing) that the band could afford one. The sound men, hired locally, sucked. And no one, no tour manager, no bar owner, could be bothered to hop on stage to introduce the act so poor Bajaga had to make the announcement himself. "Live from Belgrade, I am here Boston!" His backing band, two more guitar players, a drummer and an electronic keyboard guy launched into the first song. It was an unfortunate choice. A new song, apparently, no one in the audience had ever heard it before and it did not go over well with this nostalgia seeking crowd.

I'm thinking, where is the guy's manager? Idiot, idiot.

But then the hits started to come. Even I, the Amerikanka wife could spot them. Not for nothing have I had mix tapes of Yugoslav greatest hits as the backdrop to so much of my life over the past five years, including our wedding celebration. Some of the songs were pop born of their times - Yugoslav version of Culture Club, Yugoslav version of Caribbean rythmns, Yugoslav version of U2-style.... Some were classic Serb, songs that could only come from that culture. And some were just classics. Even I, speaking next to no Srpski, could tell the difference. It's like watching foreign movies, you know when you are in the presence of greatness even when it's not in your language. Some of Bajaga's songs should win the rock version of the Cannes Palme D'or.

And, the man can sing. He would be a singing star anywhere. Even worn out, jetlagged, with silly old fashioned hair and maybe a little drunk. He's a great singer. World class.

Afterwards my husband said he wishes we hadn't come. The reality was more tawdry and tired than his memories wanted to allow. He will not go see any more Yugo bands on tour, except maybe Bregovic who is well-known to keep production standards up. But I disagree. Maybe it's because I have no memories of Bajaga in his days of glory. Despite everything, right here, right now, he sounded pretty damn good to me.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Don't Listen to Balkan Beat Box While You're Driving

Unless you want a speeding ticket. Perfect soundtrack for housework though.

So, OK, what's your favorite Balkan music record?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Suggest Your Favorite Expat Books & Blogs

Even before I met and married my Yugoslav husband, I was always fascinated by people who live outside the countries of their birth. Over the years I've gathered a collection of more than 100 autobiographies by expats, diplomats and journalists living abroad, especially women. (Hey, I'm female, so that's my preference.)

Tonight I started a longtime dream, to post book reviews and Amazon hotlinks for all these wonderful books and share them with the world. Some of them are famous, some barely known, others rare collectibles.

And what the heck, I also decided to start reviewing the best living abroad bloggers as well. Because blogs are often the autobiographies of tomorrow. I haven't added any yet, but will do so shortly.

I'd love your suggestions for blogs and/or books to include. I'll keep posting new reviews in the weeks and months to come, so lemme know at rosemarybaileybrown(at)gmail.com

In the meantime, my new blog is at: http://living-abroad-books.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Most Serbians Are Never, Truly Alone In Life

A girlfriend of mine is in Rome on business for the spring, including this upcoming Western Easter weekend, which in Italy is a solidly four-five day long holiday. She doesn't know anyone in Rome, besides a few local work colleagues who are spending the holiday with their families. So, she's effectively on her own. And she's freaking out about it. Stress-city. I've been getting these long OMG! emails from her about this upcoming long-weekend-alone for a few weeks now.

She's over 30, a well traveled and competent expert in her field. It's not even a holiday for her religion, so she's not missing anything special back home with her family. So what's the big deal???

She's a Serb.

At first I was a bit annoyed by her stressed-out emails. Come on girlfriend. Deal already! But I realized it's wrong for me to judge her through my American perspective. I left home when I was 14 to go to boarding school, then camp, then Europe, then college, then a new city for my first job, etc., etc. I visited my parents on occasion, but not that often after the first couple of years. Normal life was living anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand miles away from any family. Holidays were usually alone or occasionally in the company of other single, far-from-home friends. When I arrived at each new place, I knew almost no one. Although I'm a somewhat shy bookish person, I learned to reach out, to meet people, to make a new life again and again. I also learned how to be alone, completely by myself for days, weeks, even months on end if need be.

I do have some cousins, but have only met one of them briefly in adulthood. I have a bunch of siblings and step-siblings, but they also lived typical American lives, which meant they mostly lived hundreds of miles away from wherever I was. They were on their own too.

I'm a pretty typical American of my class and background. Most leave home at 18, I was early, but aside from that, this being completely on your own thing is really, really normal.

In fact I always assumed that being on your own in a strange place where you know no one is a critical part of becoming a mature human. Sure, it's scary. So is learning how to ride a bike the first time you try. There may be bruises. But, you know, deal. Grow up. Sometimes you'll be intensely lonely, sometimes you'll be scared. It's good for you. Grow up. That's what life is like.

Not for Serbs. I read in a Serbian magazine last year that something like 50% of 30-year old Serbs still live with their parents, and a big chunk are still at home even when they are 45! Part of this is due to a lack of housing, and economics, but a big part is because it's just normal. It's what you do. You stay at home.

Even when you leave, if you stay in Serbia, you're never far from home. It's not like the country is all that big. Unless they emigrate, your old friends are all going to be a part of your regular life for the rest of your life. You're surrounded by an active network of cousins, school buddies, workmates, friends-of-friends, siblings, etc. You're almost never in a strange place alone. And certainly not for an extended period of time.

Even the Serbs who emigrate tend to form social clumps in their new lands. If you mention any country in the world to my husband, he'll automatically tell you roughly how many Serbs are living there, and he'll probably know how to get in touch with them. (Look for an Orthodox Church or surf the expat comments at sites such as Politika.)

I was just down in St Petersburg Florida for a quick vacation, and visited a Bosnian store to stock up on Smokis. In the courtyard outside there sat a group of perhaps 10 Balkan men, smoking, sipping coffee, idling talking ... for hours and hours. Making company so no one is alone in this strange land, this America.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Serbs Relentlessly Criticize the Ones They Love

Forgive me. The word probably should not be "criticize", but I don't know what the word in English is for this activity because we just don't do it. Not in the same way.

When a Serb meets a dear friend or relative, often nearly the first words out of his or her mouth will be what Americans would consider critical, rude and even hurtful. For example: "You're getting too fat!" Or, "You're wasting your money on that fancy cell phone." Or, "Your nervous stress is terrible for you and the people who have to live with you."

Whether it's your health, your personal appearance, your finances, your emotions, your love life, your career... let's face it, every single one of us has more than one thing which could be improved. The difference between Serbs and Americans is that Serbs openly and frequently discuss these things with each other in normal conversation. "It's good to see you, but your outfit is atrocious."

If an American is in a particularly bitchy or immature mood, he or she may say those things behind another person's back. It's a bit poisonous, nothing to be proud of. But he or she would never dream of saying it directly in everyday conversation with the person concerned. In polite American society -- especially with the ones you love -- personal criticism is given in exceptional situations of either extreme anger or extreme delicacy.

When my husband and I first met, I found this situation, enduring what was to me constant daily criticism, rather painful. Here, when I wanted to appear at my absolute best for the most important person I'd ever met, I was obviously failing miserably. From his conversation, it seemed the relationship was doomed as he ceaselessly thought about everything was wrong with me. How else could he make those remarks every day otherwise?

"But, I am not criticizing you!," he would explain. "I am trying to help you. I love you! I wouldn't bother to say these things if I didn't love you."

What helped the most, aside from the fact that I was absolutely crazy about him, was seeing him encounter the exact same situation whenever he ran into other Serbs we knew. When his sister said, "Hello, that beard looks awful!" as we walked in the door, and my father's best Serb friend said point blank, "You're getting a pot belly!" immediately upon being introduced to my husband, I began to see this wasn't about our relationship... it was about our cultures.

Since then, I have learned slowly but surely to take Serbian criticism in the spirit in which it is given. As an expression of caring and support. A disconcerting and annoying one, but one nonetheless.

Today though, after five years, I learned something completely new about the situation. It suddenly occurred to me to ask, "What have I ever criticized about you?" He thought for a moment, "Almost nothing. You hardly ever criticize me." "Ha!" I thought triumphantly. Now he will gain perspective and see things from my point of view. Then he continued, "That's a real problem with you. I need you to point things out so I can learn from them. I know I have a lot to improve and you are one of the best people to help me, but you're not helping!" "You mean you wish I would criticize you?" I was astounded. "Yes, yes of course I do! You really need to improve about that. If you love me, you will."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ignorance or Propoganda? Only LA Times Reports on Serbia-CIA Connection

The biggest news story in Serbia right now is the Hague's announcement that Milosevic's intelligence chief, Jovica Stanisic, was alsothe CIA's "main man in Belgade" for 8 years in the 1990s. So, he was reporting to Washington DC at the same time as he was in charge of much of the ethnic cleansing that gave Serbia her current bad reputation.

Here's the thing that's weird to me -- despite the fact that I surf Serbian news (in English) via Google and Yahoo News Alerts which gather feeds from tens of thousands pof English-language sources, not a single mention was made of this story. The only way I happened to find out about it was because my husband surfs Serbian news sites in his own language, where it was the weekend's big headline.

Next I started checking major US news sites individually -- perhaps the Google and Yahoo 'bots missed something? First I went to the Washington Post, nothing. Then I checked the New York Times, zilch. In fact, the only major paper to mention this story was the LA Times. And it wasn't a small mention. The LA Times story by their Belgrade correspondent Greg Miller, entitled 'Serbian Spy's Trial Lifts Cloak on his CIA Alliance' , is more than 2,000 words long! That's major feature-story length.

Why would the LA Times do a major feature story on a CIA revelation that no other US news outlet I can find even mentioned? Not even a brief? Or, rather, why would the other news outlets ignore the story so completely? Again, not even a brief?

It seems our national honor is to some degree at stake. The CIA's cooperation with vile people in other countries, especially smaller, war-torn ones, is well documented in the past. Apparently they claim, it's the only way to do their job. War lords beat choir boys when it comes to intelligence gathering. To understand the barnyard, you have to shovel shit now and then. Whatever....

To me as a businessperson, the CIA's choice looks mostly like HR incompetence, pure and simple. Belgrade has been a center of spies and spying since before WWII. Everyone from Russia to India to the EU and yes the US, all have had spies there forever. After the Berlin Wall fell, the streets of Belgrade must have been littered with out-of-work spies! Surely the CIA could have recruited someone who was not so willing to engage in atrocities. The CIA is famous for not having remotely enough competent spies in the Middle East, where any HR exec could have told them recruiting would be critical, so let's just assume their HR department pretty much sucks wind.

But why the media silence? Is this ignorance, propoganda, stupidity? I guess, as my husband tells me, I'm naive about things like this.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Dubious Pleasures of a Dirty Table

This is one of those little things that can make you nuts in a cross-cultural marriage. Monday was a national holiday here, so my husband grilled up some lamb and I made a vat of soup as well as roasted potatoes and asparagus. A couple of Serb family members came over to feast starting at about 1pm.

By 2:30pm, we were utterly and completely done eating... for the next decade.

When Serbs are done eating, that doesn't mean it's time to get up from the table. Oh no, they're just getting comfortable! They settle in and start talking, talking, talking. It gets dark outside. They are still talking. It's been so long that you actually start to feel hungry again. They are still talking. You begin to consider going to bed... but the Serbs aren't done talking yet.

It's OK, I'm used to this by now. I can cope.

What I can't cope with is sitting in front of dirty dishes the whole time. Acck! In America, as soon as you're done eating, you clear the table. Everyone can still sit there, toying with coffee or whatever, but the dirty plates, silverware, platters, etc., are wisked away to the kitchen where they are scraped, washed, dried and quickly put away. Only then can you relax and enjoy the rest of the evening with your guests, sitting around a nice clean table.

Unfortunately for me, Serbs hate it when you take away their dirty dishes. "Leave them! Leave them!" they cry. At first I thought they were trying to be polite, telling me not to work in the kitchen while they were relaxing. I tried to explain, I can't enjoy sitting at a table with dirty dishes, the sight and especially the smell of the mess is disturbing.

Au contraire, my sister in law explained. To the Serbian mind, the sight and smell of loads of dirty dishes in front of you is a enormous pleasure. It reminds you of the wonderful feast you just had, the pleasure in the food, the comfort of good food and lots of it. A feast is to be relished, why clear the evidence way so quickly? What kind of strange people are Americans anyway?

I sit, magnificently controlling my twitching urge to clean, clean, clean, for nearly four hours. I concentrate on the conversation. I will not let this drive me mad. At last around 7pm, I am allowed to take away the old dishes to make room for an ice cream snack. Whew! Feels a bit like I ran a marathon.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Real Estate Sales Plummet in Serbia & Croatia, But Prices Are ... UP?

It seems only in the former Yugoslavia do economic laws of supply and demand not apply to pricing. In the US, EU, and even Asia, real estate prices are plummeting. Although sales in both Belgrade and Zagreb are practically at a standstill these days, you won't find many bargains.

We've heard and read conflicting numbers from the press, realtor associations and friends on the street. In Belgrade, prices of flats that absolutely have to be sold (as opposed to flats that an owner could hang onto indefinitely if need be) have just recently gone down by roughly 20%. But that still makes Belgrade one of the most expensive places to buy in Central Europe, and prices are still far above 2007 levels.

Unfortunately Serbian mortgage costs are rising - now at 12% interest and higher. However, only about 30% of Serbian homes are purchased with a mortgage, most are entirely cash transactions with prices based on Euros despite local jobs being mainly paid in Dinars. So you can imagine things are even tougher now that the Dinar is in trouble. Still, Belgrade realtors actively dislike and even dissuade buyers who want to use bank financing because the extra paperwork is a pain for them. (Can you imagine an American realtor turning down a buyer with a mortgage?!)

In Zagreb, where last year only 80 flats sold in an average month and far fewer sell now, there are at least 1,000 flats on the market. Things are so bad that one real estate developer has started giving away a free car with every apartment in an effort to make sales. Nevertheless, in the past six months typical Zagreb flat prices may have gone UP! The Croatian logic is, if you are going to sell fewer flats, you should raise the price so at least you "should" make the same amount of money. Honest to god.

Why are former Yugoslavians such crappy capitalists? Why do they lack any instinct for price flexibility in the face of marketplace shifts?

Partly it's because few people absolutely have to sell. They may want to sell, but the world will not come to an end if they hang onto their property for awhile longer. They almost never have an existing mortgage to pay off; real estate taxes are laughably tiny; and, insurance costs are insignificant. Our US house costs more than $7,000 per year just to own due to taxes and insurance. Our home in Sombor Serbia costs maybe $100 per year to own. We could leave it sitting there for the rest of our lives and not worry about our pocketbook.

Also, unlike the reams of realistic pricing stats available in the US, Serbs and Croats often only rely on word of mouth to make pricing decisions. My local US newspaper constantly reports on home sale prices, and if I miss a notice, I can check both the most recent sale amount and the current estimated value of nearly any home in America just by plugging in an address at Zillow.

In Yugoslavia the news that a home or flat sold for a lot of money, perhaps to a crazy rich foreigner such as a Montenegrin flush with Russian cash or a returning former citizen from the diaspora of the 90s, spreads like wildfire. Everyone in that town with a flat to sell immediately thinks, 'Hey my place is with more now!' and they raise their prices accordingly even if their flat has nothing whatsoever in common with the one that actually sold, and even if the one that sold is the only one to sell in months. Owners truly believe their flat is "worth more" now, as though the new price is engraved in stone.

Prices can rise even on just a whiff of a potential sale. Last year a realtor in Zadar told me he recently received a full price offer from a German tourist for a flat in a good location near the famous sea organ. Instead of accepting the offer, the flat owner scoffed at it saying, 'Well, if someone will agree to pay my price so quickly, then obviously I've priced too low. Tell him the price is now higher."

When the German walked away from the deal, shocked by the Croatian's lack of business sense (not to mention ethics), the Croatian smiled calmly, serene in the knowledge his flat was worth a lot more money than even he'd expected, and someday no doubt it would actually sell for that amount. Then he ran to tell his neighbors and they to tell their relatives, and so on and so on, until nearly every flat in town had risen at least 10% in asking price.

Since then hardly anything's sold whatsoever. But, everyone is content counting their pennies (or rather Kuna) in the golden, imaginary world of someday to come.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

In the Closet About Being Serbian in Zadar Croatia

Zadar Croatia is the hometown of my husband's heart. It's where he was brought up, where he was educated, where his children were born, and where his aging parents still live.

It's an outstanding place. Super-clean air and the everpresent sunshine mix with ancient buildings and lovely public parks. You can take a ferry to your choice of local islands or as far as Italy. You can buy fresh Adriatic fish, homemade local wine and olive oil, as well as Pag's famous sheep cheeses everyday in the old town greenmarket. You can swim at the beach in the morning, go rock climbing at Paklinica park in the afternoon, and then listen to the unearthly sounds of Zadar's sea organ as the sun goes down. (The sunsets are well known to be among Dalmatia's finest.)

But, for me, it's all a bit hard to enjoy.

I get the feeling that we never can really relax and be ourselves there. Partly this is due to the heavy Italian influence (Zadar was part of Italy until WWII) which means even a trip to the corner store is considered worth dressing for. Zadar women never look remotely as casual as American women.

Mostly though, it's because ethnically my husband is a Serb. I don't speak enough Croatian yet to really understand the ebb and flow of native conversations; so, I'm hamstrung in my perceptions. Is being a Serb no big deal these days or do many in Zadar hate Serbs still? Most people who "knew all along" are friendly to us; only a very few have been cold if not outright rude. Some friendly people who "find out" become a little more distant. And, some people, we met while flat-hunting last year, I suspect would be uncomfortable if they knew they'd had a Serb in their homes.

At my husband's counsel, we stay undercover with strangers. He is a Croatian returning home from America and that is all. We do not mention our other home in Serbia. We do not mention in what specific year my husband first left Zadar. We do not mention the fact that his sister lives in Belgrade. We are glad our last name is generic enough to be either Serb or Croatian.

I ask my husband, "Is subterfuge really neccesary?" He honestly doesn't know. He'd rather be safe than sorry. And, as this recent news item shows, perhaps he's smart to be that way.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Serbs Are So Emotional - Now, What Does That Mean?

Nearly every Serb I've ever known has at some point told me, "Serbs Are So Emotional" as though it's a statement about the entire Serbish race that would give me, a non-Serb some terrific insight into them.

The problem is, to a native English-speaker the word 'emotional' conveys an image of someone who is terribly weepy. A crybaby bursting into tears at the slightest provocation.

I've met a lot of Serbs and if I've seen one cry, I can't remember it. So, this afternoon when a girlfriend of mine described her retired military officer father as "hugely emotional", I immediately cut in. "Describe exactly what you mean by 'emotional'," I asked, "because I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean what you think it means."

"Oh it's someone who has a lot of empathy and compassion, who feels grief because they can put themselves in the shoes of other people. An emotional person is so much more involved in the people he or she loves. They are always taking care about you, worrying about you, and wanting to control your life because they are sure they know what's best for you."

I thought for a minute. I have met my friend's father many times. Only the very last part of my friend's description is anything remotely like that tough, old battleaxe. I replied hesitantly, "Empathy? That's not exactly how I'd describe him. How about 'angry'?"

She said, "Well perhaps a better description of emotion is to be very sentimental - not crying in a sad way always, but still sentimental."

Huh? I really don't think sentimental is the perfect description either. If you know a better explanation for what Serbs mean when they describe themselves as having "very strong emotion" please be my guest. Otherwise, it's a mystery to me.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Whups! The Problem with Dinars is...

When my husband wound up in Bahrain for three hours on a layover recently while en route to Kathmandu, he nipped over to the airport ATM to take out a few sample bills. When he discovered Bahrainian currency is called 'Dinars' just like Serbian currency, he was utterly charmed and immediately requested 1,000 dinars. The ATM refused.

He tried again. Nope. The machine would only give out 300 Dinars at a time. Why? Well, as he was horrified to discover when he window shopped Duty Free moments later, a single Bahrain Dinar is worth about US$3. In comparison, the exchange rate for a Serbian Dinar is about US$0.02.

That's right, he thought he was taking pocket change from the ATM and instead there he was with close to $1,000 to spend! It could only happen to a Serb.