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

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.