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

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.