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

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.