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

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.