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

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.