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

Monday, December 6, 2010

Serbian Journalists Urged to Apply for Stanford Fellowships: Live Free in CA for 9 Months

Stanford's Knight Foundation is sponsoring fellowships for journalists who want to go to Stanford University to do independent study for a year. They'll pay you $60,000 plus help with health insurance, moving costs, finding apartments, helping your spouse find something to do, etc. Although the program is open to journalists of any age from anywhere in the world, I believe that Serbian Journalists have a particular edge in winning a fellowship because these types of programs love "diversity" and the program's application guidelines say:

"We are particularly interested in people who can have a direct impact on the development of a free press and flow of information in their countries and, to that end, we encourage journalists from countries where the press is either under threat or still in the process of becoming an independent press. We also continue to seek and consider international journalists from countries with a more robust press, especially those who propose to focus their work here on innovation and entrepreneurship."

To my mind, Serbia has a very robust press but definitely Serbs could stand to learn A LOT about entrepreneurship!

The deadline for the application is Wed Dec 15th. You'll have to come up with an idea for a project you'd be working on .. perhaps something about mobile Internet and the press or ensuring voices for the many Vojvodina minorities in the press would go over well. My preference would be mobile Internet if I won a fellowship :-)

You'll have to get your samples translated to English for this - but don't worry about official stamps and stuff, an "unofficial" translation would do.

It's a great opportunity - Stanford is the Harvard of the west, and in an incredibly gorgeous area of California with lots of natural beauty, plus it's near San Francisco. Definitely my idea of a dream all-expenses-paid sabbatical.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

In Honor of Branko Grgurev

Sometimes, even to this day, in Zadar Croatia where my husband grew up, small but poisonous enmities between Croats and Serbs permeate everywhere, even when you're not expecting them. As a Serb, you must always be at least slightly on your guard.

Except with our friend Branko.

Branko, a son of one of Zadar's most ancient Croatian families, was the only Croatian friend who kept up with my husband after he fled to Serbia as a refugee during the civil war. "He telephoned me when no one else would, he called me in Sombor!" my husband exclaimed.

Later, when Branko found work supervising a factory in Italy, he spent his Euros on driving all the way home nearly every weekend to visit his widowed mother in Zadar ... and to keep calling his friends no matter where in the world they had ended up.

Finally, when my husband met me in America and we decided to get married, Branko was our sole friend from the Balkans who agreed to fly over from the ceremony (even though we offered to pay for several other people's tickets.) Branko not only danced at our wedding, in a gorgeous new Italian suit bought specially for the occasion, he was the best man.

Early this morning in Zadar, Branko died. He was not yet 50.

This evening with candles lit and wine flowing, we paid tribute to him. We each told stories of the Branko we loved. The man who was shy with women, but adored heavy metal music. The man who knew the toughest people in Zadar, but fed dozens of stray cats in the alley outside his flat in Italy. The man who knew to the millimeter how far a few drops of petrol would allow him to drive around town in his red Fiat. The man who could, with a bit of red wine, make the most delicious mussels anyone's ever tasted. And, the man who was infamous in 1981 for making a joint so large it required 16 rolling papers... plus, he flew his Zadar buddies up to Belgrade for one amazing weekend at his own expense so they could partake of it with him.

That's the kind of guy Branko was. A good son, an even better friend. The guy who would help create the good times and then stand steadfastly at your back during the bad ones.

We will miss him.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sometimes I Just Get Krompir-ed Out: A Weekend of Lika-style Hospitality

We are visiting my husband's ancestral lands in Lika (pronounced "leeka") a long thin area that lies just behind the sharp hills of the Dalmatian and Kvarner coast. It reminds me of Vermont more than anything. Maple trees, pines, cows, sheep, and a few little ski resorts, all less than an hour from the Riviera-style coast. The leaves have just begun to turn, but no tourists come for the fall show.

Except us. The people who live in this area -- or rather I should say "still live in this area" because it's been significantly depopulated by the past century's wars and economic diasporas -- are happy to welcome us when we drop in uninvited to visit them in their kitchens.

At first, this act of dropping in makes me feel intensely uncomfortable, because it's against the rules of good manners my mother raised me with. But my husband persists. We must stop to say hello to this cousin, that neighbor, the uncle's widow, and you can't forget that family... it would be extremely rude not to. A slap in the face. You can't visit one without visiting them all. Call first? What on earth for? The split second our American SUV rolled into town everyone for miles and miles knew we were here.

So, from mid-morning 'til late-night we spend an entire day making the rounds. Each time we park and walk straight into the kitchen, where people are already gathered. If the family owns two kitchens -- newly-flush families often build a new house just a few yards away from the old one -- you automatically go to the old kitchen. I get the feeling the new kitchen is a bit like a fancy new front parlor. You're proud of it but you don't touch it except for special occasions. And for god's sake don't go in there with your shoes on! Who knows what's on them from walking in the farmyard?

The old kitchen inevitably has at least two stoves. The first is an ancient wood-burning Susler. This is the main stove in continual use, merrily keeping the room warm all fall and winter along with being handy for cooking. The second stove might be gas or electric, or a combination. It's there for overflow capabilities, when you need a few extra burners.

The host and the men present sit around the table and often do a shot or two of homemade liquor to break the ice. Any women present may sit (if they are not cooking) but a bit further away, at the end of the table or perhaps in a chair across the room. It's as though they are spectators rather than main participants. They may occasionally toss interjections into the conversation, and they clearly listen keenly to everything, but nothing centers on them. I sit at the table, but don't speak enough of the language to say much of anything. And anyway, I am an Amerikanka stranger so all rules are off for me.

Meanwhile, the hostess busies herself getting a snack ready. First she slices a bunch of krompiri (potatoes), from her own garden, in half lengthwise, dusts the open sides with salt, and bakes them in or on the stove. You eat these with your fingers, peeling off the skin and popping them in your mouth. (My husband was startled when he learned people ate potato skins in America.)

The hostess also creates two platters of accompanyments, one of cheese (which if it's not homemade, she apologizes about) and one of slices of cold bacon and sometimes prosciutto. Then, she offers everyone fresh coffee, as well as plunking down (an unasked-for) bottle of cola for the Amerikanka.

This was a delicious snack... at the first two kitchens. By the time we hit house number three, I begin to yearn for something green and/or crunchy. By house number five, I ask for a glass of water and ate nothing at all, hoping it would not be construed as an insult. Thankfully my husband chowed down enough krompiri for both of us, and then went on to one final kitchen visit after that while I crashed for the night.

As we are leaving town the next morning, my husband's aunt comes tearing out of her house with a warm bag she thrusts into my arms. She's gotten up early to cook a dozen or so krompiri for our journey. I desperately master control of my facial muscles to appear grateful. My husband says, "What's that?" And then, god love his Likan stomach, he is absolutely delighted with the answer.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fabulous Partisan Statues Littering the Kvarner Coast

Although I've toured Croatia's Dalmatian coast extensively from Dubrovnik to Senj, until this fall, I'd never been further up to the Kvarner Coast. I figured it would be pretty much like Dalmatia. Rocky, lovely, empty in parts and overrun by tourists in parts (with nothing in-between), and a little too windy for comfort now that Fall is here.

I was right. What I wasn't expecting were all the WWII partisan statues. Maybe there are partisan statues in Dalmatia, but I've never seen them. Here, though, every town and village seems to have their own version. Each is slightly different but most appear to be done by the same artist using the same model, only in a variety of poses, such as:

- Striding forth
- About to throw a hand grenade
- Just after throwing a hand grenade
- Being shot in battle
- Holding a wounded buddy who has just been shot in battle
- Arms raised in victory

All of the statues have the same Partisan-style which is ... a little homoerotic if you ask me, but I'm sure Tito didn't see it that way. They have ripped clothing, with shirts unbuttoned so you can see their fabulous chest muscles, and despite apparently living for years in the forest, they all have absolutely perfect haircuts and clean shaves.

They also all have what I used to call 'WPA-style' hands. These are enormous, squarish hands you see on Depression-era statues in Washington DC that I always thought were inspired by stylized Russian art of the period. Until I met my husband I didn't know hands like this could be found in nature -- on him and many other Serb men.

My husband was much struck by this wealth of partisan statues. He said he thought they used to be in towns all over Croatia, but many were toppled and destroyed during the civil war, in part because so many of the partisans themselves had been of Serb ethnicity. (Which is what the Austrian/Hapsburg empire, who settled these Serb warrior-farmers on the land hundreds of years ago, had in mind, although they were thinking about repelling Turks instead of Nazis.) For my husband, seeing partisan statues still in situ had a great deal of significance. He hoped it meant "We don't hate Serbs so much here."

Compared to the area around Zadar and Gospic where many former Serb lands are still coated in land mines in part so people can't return safely, you can see what a difference a partisan statue's presence might indicate. We hope so anyway, because we plan to return.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cafe Society in Sombor

When my husband leaves the house, he always gives a time estimate. As in "I'll be back in an hour." In America, he'll match that ETA. But, in Sombor Serbia, he's on Balkan time. It's the cafes he blames. He meant to get home when he said he would. He really really did. There was just this cafe on the way, no matter where he was coming from, where it so happened an old friend was sitting. So he joined him for just one quick coffee, which completely unexpectedly turned into two coffees. Then someone else came along and it would be rude to leave without talking for bit to him too! And somehow one hour turned to two... sometimes even three.

He always looks so hangdog when he gets back. As though he's expecting to be in trouble. He shuffles his feet and apologizes. Which in itself is heroic, because Serbs rarely apologize for anything. The whole routine makes me smile. He has no idea how happy I am to have him out for hours at his cafes, getting his Balkan on.

I feel so guilty in America where he doesn't have that outlet. That casual dropping into the cafe man-time. Because no matter how much you love your wife, shooting the shit with her at home just doesn't feel the same.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Not-So-Fun Adventures in Serbian Healthcare

Just as I arrived last week for my vacation in Serbia, a close friend fell seriously ill and was taken to the Sombor hospital. From the outside, it looks like the setting for a Dr Who TV show, or perhaps The Jetsons. Futuristic design a la 1965, that probably belongs in an architectural tourbook, proving that while Communist Europe was building concrete monstrosities, Yugoslavs had a more creative soul.

Get a little closer and it looks like the setting for one of those "After the Apocalypse" movies, where it's a generation after the atom bomb fell and everything's been untouched and falling apart since. Large plants growing out of gutters, siding falling away in chunks... an abandoned building in the process of turning into rubble.

We push through the only remaining working door to find a huge dark lobby. The reception desk has been pushed to one side because there is clearly no reception anymore... you wander in and find your patient on your own. There's only one sign of life, a small shop in the corner where you can buy, among other things, rolls of toilet paper and bottles of water to bring your patient, because these are apparently not provided by the administration.

I learn you are also supposed to bring cookies, chocolate, fruit juice, or bags of coffee. These are not for your patient but meant for leaving in the nurses' lounge in hopes that they'll pay your patient a bit more attention. But doctors often apparently require studier fare, perhaps a very good bottle of whiskey for a quick in-office consultation or a wad of cash for more significant services. Unfortunately for us, there's just been a medical corruption scandal in Serbia that led to actual arrests, so all the corruptible doctors are a bit shy right now. It seems you need good personal connections to be able to bribe someone! So even corruption is not on a level playing field here.

Sitting by my friend's shadowy bedside (there are very few lights in the rooms or hallways either), I'm appalled to see the food she is served - a large bowl of boiled potatoes in a sauce that smells like Vegeta and chicken fat. I'm pretty sure it's all-wrong for her condition. It's also the same exact meal everyone else in the ward is served, no matter what their condition is. (This is not unusual for the Balkans, in Croatia, my Father-in-Law had the same experience, albeit with spaghetti.)

I remember when my own father was in his local US hospital recently for a knee operation. He was a bit dismissive of the four-page room service menu, so he called us from his private phone to ask us to bring in some of his favorite foods from home, while he surfed the Web using the room's excellent WIFI and the nurses came in to "pester" him every 15 minutes. All courtesy of Medicare.

There are no private nurses or medical services we can find to help our friend in Sombor. Or that we know of in Novi Sad either. But yesterday, due to a complete coincidence, I was in Belgrade to visit one of Serbia's first private hospitals with a different friend who needed a quick chat with a doctor. It's in one of those shiny, glossy new buildings in the business center of Novi Beograd. The enormous hospital lobby is glistening with marble and decorated with huge flat-screen TVs and an official-looking security guard. We perch on Italian leather sofas with chrome legs waiting for the Doctor. The beautiful receptionists, who all wear medical-looking white scrubs, assure us the Doctor will come at 8pm. 8pm? Well, it seems the doctor may also have a day job at the military hospital close-by (where services are free even for civilians, but you must get on a wait list to enter, and presumably there is no marble, chrome, or flat screens.)

At last the doctor is ready to see us. She does look a bit tired, in her also-enormous white room. But she has the latest US medical technology including MRIs at her command.

I sit there, in my comfortable white visitor chair, observing the detailed discussion, which I haven't 1/100th the Srpski required to follow. She hands over, without our asking, copies of the MRI plus a detailed diagnosis memo, so we can take it to another doctor if need be. But, it seems everything is fine. Then we walk out past the security guard into the night. I think, this is what a millionaire feels like.

If they had this in Sombor, I would pay for it in a heartbeat for my friend there. But they don't. And my frustration is intense.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

New York's Nice, but Belgrade is the Center of the World...

So my husband and I are lazing around our kitchen table in the US one morning when he says it..."Belgrade is the center of the world."

He doesn't mean to say it out loud. He isn't even really aware he has said it out loud; in fact I'm not sure if he knows he consciously thinks it. But there it was.

I was wittering away about some reality TV show on American television that's basically real estate porn for people who love Manhattan. I was saying how we could someday sell our house here, because we are planning on moving to the Balkans full-time in a few years, and buy a flat in New York. The idea being, if you're only going to visit the US intermittently, why bother with the upkeep of a house and garden in a small New England town; instead why not own a flat in New York?

And he looked at me and, nearly under his breath, said, "New York's nice, but Belgrade is the center of the world. If you really want a city apartment, we should get one there instead."

The conversation then quickly devolved into how much we could afford; how big a terrace we could get for that; Novi Beograd versus Zemun versus Starigrad; and Belgrade real estate ideas of what counts as a bedroom (living-rooms) vs American ideas (only actual bedrooms.)

All the while, his little heartfelt but already half forgotten exclamation about the center of the world remained there in front of me. I suddenly thought that when I talked about New York, I could have been talking about Sydney Australia. A big city, A very famous and exciting big city. A big city where there are a bunch of Serbs no less. But really, not exactly in a central location.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Etiquette for Foreign Travelers in Serbia - Got Tips?

An American reader of this blog just emailed me to say she's planning a two-three month visit to Serbia next year with her family. She wanted to know about etiquette.

She wrote me, "In particular, I am interested in small things that would not be obvious to someone who has spent much of her life in the US. For example, when we visited Paris a few years ago, it helped me so much to know that it was important for me to speak first when entering shops (to say "Bonjour Madame!" to the woman helping me in the boulangerie or asking directions for the metro).

It would be nice to know about things like this for Belgrade. For instance, do waiters treat you differently in Belgrade than in Cleveland? How much to tip? How do you greet the post office employee? How about my young children?"

I think I need help answering this question...because I can't think of many things at all. In my experience, Serbs are extremely friendly to travelers, so much so in fact, that as long as you are not an overtly rude person, you'll get along very well. Here are my limited tips:

-> Take your shoes off when entering a home - usually the hosts will offer a pair of spare slippers to put on. And, to expect to have lots coffee and snacks thrust upon you whenever you visit people. If they visit you, you are expected to make coffee immediately, no matter what time of the day or night.

-> The first time you visit someone's home, it's good to bring a small gift such as a bottle of wine, flowers, etc. Be sure to ask for flowers appropriate for the home and make sure there are an odd number of flowers in the bouquet. Many flowers sold are for graveside visits. (In fact, on my mistaken advice, my husband went to see a friend in the hospital recently with a bouquet in his hand, and got many very strange looks from everyone!)

-> Waiters in Serbia are usually long-term professionals, with an air of dignity to them. These are not kids with temp jobs before "real" life begins. I tip them as I would in the US, but have no idea how the natives do it.

-> I've also noticed the male/female thing. There is a sense, at least in Sombor where our home is (which is not as sophisticated as Belgrade, but perhaps not that far behind either), that an adult woman who speaks to a man at length may be engaging in some type of come-on behavior... even if it's nothing of the sort. Every day conversation is totally fine, but an extended one-on-one conversation might be a bit suspicious.

-> However, cheek kissing is completely approved and expected between you and all your friends no matter what sex they are. You grasp their hand lightly and kiss three times quickly -- one side, the other side and then the first side again. (In Croatia, it's often just two kisses, which can leave me feeling flat-footed.) It's something in between an air kiss and a hearty buss. More like a light tap.

-> You'll want to get a temporary Serb cell phone if you can so people can reach you, and also so you can pay for parking in Belgrade which is often on a text messaging basis.

-> Lastly, be sure to set aside a week of time at the end of your trip for leave-taking social activities. Each of your new friends will want to have you to dinner or at least coffee at their house. And you should try to take them out to dinner at a nice restaurant. People will be offended if you don't make an effort to say goodbye.

Does anyone else reading this blog have advice for this young American family? Love to hear it!

Friday, July 16, 2010

American Composers Teaching in Sombor This Week

Damn. Well, I'm here in the US until late August when we're scheduled to at long last take a break in Serbia. Just got an email from one of the composer-organizers behind the Summer in Sombor seminar. (Here's their brochure.) She says she'll be hanging out at our favorite place by the canal, Cafe Del Sol, if I'd like to stop by. Boy would I.

This time of year in the career rat-race in the US is when I miss the laid back summer life in Sombor the most. And I am disgustingly proud of the fact that these wonderful composers chose Sombor, of all places in the world, to have their annual seminar at year after year.

While other people in the office have PC screensavers of tropical beaches, my vacation dreams are of Sombor. Call me crazy, but I know where I like to go to relax and have a good time... and it's green and leafy!

Monday, June 28, 2010

My Micro-Blitva Recipe: How to Cook Vegetables Dalmatian-Style

On Croatia's Dalmatia Coast, it seems nearly all vegetables are cooked in the exact same way.

Step #1. Skin & chop potatoes into bite-sized chunks
Step #2. Put into pot with the "main" vegetable you are cooking, along with some salted water.
Step #4. Boil until done.
Step #5. Then, boil some more.
Step #6. Stir in fresh chopped garlic and dollops of olive oil. Serve immediately.

Yes, the potatoes are added NO MATTER WHAT VEGETABLE YOU ARE ACTUALLY COOKING. Peas, cabbage, small artichokes, you name it. The cooking time is then determined by how long it takes for the potatoes to get mushy. Or possibly longer. If you are someone who likes fresh vegetables, especially picked ripe from a Dalmatian's home garden (and everybody with a tiny plot of land has a veggie garden), this cooking style can be a crushing blow when you first encounter it.

Everything is mushy, everything tastes the same, and really it could have come from a can.

There's just one vegetable that shines given this treatment, and that is blitva. In the US blitva is called Swiss Chard and is often sold, for astounding prices, in the "gourmet veggies" section of your grocer with red stems. In Dalmatia, a white-stemmed version is in everyone's garden. You can grow it year-round, even in the chilly winter months, and harvest it by snipping off leaf by leaf as needed, leaving the main plant to carry on until it finally sprouts loads of seeds for the next generation. When planted, the seeds sprout very quickly and even idiots can grow them.

Blitva tastes unbelievably good when prepared the Dalmatian way, although being a feckless American I boil it for about 1/10th of the time my Dalmatian mother-in-law does. And last night I discovered, quite by accident, a way to make it taste even better. Micro-blitva! This does not involve the microwave, but rather little, tiny, baby blitva plants. You wind up with buckets of these when your husband seeds enormous expanses of your home garden with blitva, using far more seed than is needed because there's such a huge jar left from last year's plants and he can't bear to see any go to waste. So, two weeks later, you go out and get a nice suntan while pricking out all the extra seedlings so as to give the rest room to grow properly.

Baby blitva cooks in about 20 seconds, so you'll want to boil your potatoes (I cut them into teensy chunks for this) ahead of time and then just slip the blitva in at the end. Instead of olive oil I seasoned with butter along with finely chopped garlic. Incredible. I can see the future in my crystal ball -- lots and lots of baby blitva growing in our sunny windows and coldframes for picking fresh all winter long!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Serbia's World Cup Team - Only As Good (or Bad) as Whoever They're Playing?

Inconsistency, thy name is Serbia. I kept asking my husband, "Do these guys train together normally?" Because to my uninformed eye, they're playing like well-meaning people who met a few weeks ago.

After the embarrassment of the Ghana game, I was so sure the Serbs were gonna be crushed by Germany. A funny thing happened on the way to the Aryan Nation (aside from last names like Gomez.) Suddenly these Serbs turned into a serious team to beat. "They must have practiced like crazy all week!" I exclaimed.

"Oh no," my husband and step-daughter answered in perfect unison. "The Serbian team is only ever as good as the team it's playing. Whether they win or lose is really down to the luck of the moment." Which is why, despite whupping the Germans, my family is confident they'll stink against the stinky Australians on the 23rd. No win is ever assured.

The only thing we can be sure of is that frankly we have the Best Damn Good-looking Coach in FIFA! That suit, that haircut, that tan, that air of gravitas, those little crinkles by his eyes... all the other coaches look like schlumps compared to Radomir Antic.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cheaper and Easier Ways to Send Money to Serbia?

Shamefully, Paypal still doesn't serve any of the Balkan countries.

In the past, when I needed to send funds to Serbia I relied on bankwire or various types of moneygrams -- usually costing me at least $35 in fees per send.

Those fees can add up quickly, so if I had to send money to someone frequently, such as paying a freelancer on a routine basis, I often sent a larger sum to one person in Serbia I trusted, such as a relative, and then had that person disburse the funds over time. For example, my husband's white-haired godmother used to personally pay various Serb contractors for us every two weeks. I think she enjoyed it; she put on her best dress to draw funds from our account at the local bank where they treated her like a visiting dignitary, and then she majestically handed out pay packets to contractors as they came cap-in-hand to her house.

If you have to send a lot of money to one person, which an intermediary might not be comfortable with, you might consider opening up an Everbank account. The good thing about Everbank is they have, to my knowledge, the best Dollar->Euro exchange rates you'll find in the US and if you exchange your dollars with them, they'll wire the Euros anywhere in the world for free. And you can do the wire by faxing instructions, instead of visiting the bank in person which most other US banks insist on. The drawback is, again to my knowledge, they don't exchange Dollars for Dinars. If I were to buy a house in Serbia, I'd probably send the money over via Everbank. But I might not use it for more routine things.

Today I discovered iKobo, an online service that I've decided to try next. They charge $8 per transaction, and you can do the whole thing online, which is a lot cheaper and easier than dealing with bankwires. However, there's an additional $33.60 charge the first time you send money to a particular individual in Serbia. That's because iKobo uses Federal Express to send that person a Visa debit card. Then, when you send additional funds, the debit card is automatically "topped off".

This tactic has an added bonus in that the Serbian recipient gets to flaunt a Visa card in their wallet, which is still unusual enough for some people there to get excited about. For example, I doubt my husband's godmother has any credit cards whatsoever.

If you've tried this tactic, or others, let me know how it went. And let's cross our fingers that Paypal gets to the Balkans sometime soon!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Shortsighted Balkan Business Mentality -- Why I Avoid Doing Business in Croatia & Serbia

Not every Croat or Serb professional or businessperson is like this -- but enough are that the others stand out like red roses on a field of snow.

Here's what happens: you start a business relationship, perhaps hiring a person in the Balkans to do a job for you or perhaps starting a business contract if some type. Everyone is smiling and nice and happy. Then, fairly soon after that your friendly employee or partner screws you. Blatantly.

I've had all sorts of people, both Serbs and Croats ask for emergency loans... and then string me along with excuses for months until I realized they never intend to pay the money back, and sometimes the "emergency" had never existed in the first place.

I've had Serb contractors, who had just finished one job but were up for rehire on another, turn in their company computers... that were just hollow shells because they'd literally stripped out the innards to use somehow elsewhere.

I've had a Croatian lawyer, who was on the US Embassy's recommended list, agree in writing to do a job for me for a particular amount, and then when he was up against my tight court deadline, he suddenly raised the amount of money required and demanded it up front before he'd do a lick of work.

The weird thing for me in all of these situations is not that people screw other people. I'm not naive. That happens in every country of the world, including America. The difference in the Balkans is that all these people screwed me when it was against their own best interest!

In each of the cases I mentioned above, I was in the midst of starting what I thought would be a longer-term business relationship with these people. One that would be very fruitful for them. But, they grabbed the chance to screw me at the very start. That lawyer, for example, knew we had a longer court case coming up.
Why cheat me at the beginning when I'll just dump you?

My theory is it's due to short-sighted Balkan mentality. Maybe if you grew up in a country where everything kept changing and falling apart over and over again, you begin to think, "forget tomorrow, grab what you can for today!" If you don't have faith in even the near future, why build toward it?

This may also explain why Balkan ex-patriots themselves very rarely invest in Serbian or Croatian business. You only hear about expats investing their savings in two things -- cafes and residential buildings. Even the infamous Pink Panther gang of international jewel thieves funnel their millions back home into almost nothing but cafes and flats in towns such as Nis. Which is incredibly stupid from both a local and national economic standpoint. Outside of limited tourism areas (which are overbuilt and underselling these days in much of Croatia) cafes and buildings don't help rebuild Serbia or Croatia's economy. They don't provide many new ongoing jobs. They don't help with exports. They don't grow expertise. They just sit there.

I do still, occasionally now, do business in the Balkans. But I catch myself flinching whenever I'm doing it. I've been burned too often.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Hidden Cost of Serbian Gasoline

I knew that the cost of gasoline (petrol) in Serbia, like the rest of Europe, would be far higher than it is in the US. We built that extra cost into our budget, and planned to drive less than we normally would at home in the US. What we didn't count on was the hidden cost of crappy Serbian petrol quality. In the US, we got about 25 miles per gallon. The same vehicle with a tankful of Serbian petrol got fewer than 18 miles per gallon, even with similar driving speeds and conditions (ie. steady highway at ~70 miles per hour.)

In the US, 87-89 octane worked great. In Serbia, we had to switch to 95 octane. Actually I think I should put that in quotes as in "95 octane" because looking at the car's performance, the number "95" was used for marketing purposes only and bore no relation to reality. If there's such a thing as an octane inspector in the Balkans, he's clearly getting paid off.

After experimentation, my husband found a petrol station in Novi Sad with a "95 octane" Euro brand petrol that worked about as well as 89 octane US. In fact, he's planning on gassing up from there from now on. It's a long drive from our house in Sombor, which has plenty of petrol stations of its own, but you get so much more mileage from the Novi Sad petrol that it's worth it.

For what it's worth, my husband says he had the same problems with Croatian petrol as well. There goes my budget.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Which I am Chided By an American Hotel for Misspelling My Last Name

I am in Arizona at an industry trade show. I checked into the hotel using my married name -- which ends in the traditional Serbian "ic".

Then I go to my room and try to get online so I can email everyone to let them know I arrived safely. To get to the Internet, you have to type your room number and last name. I do it over and over again. No good, something's not working.

Defeated, I call the front desk. "Well, how are you spelling your last name?" she asks. "Like it's spelled," I say slowly, thinking what an odd question.... "How did you spell it exactly?" the woman at the front desk sounds a bit exasperated. I spell it out for her. "There's your problem!" she exclaims, "you're not spelling it correctly. You have to put an 'h' at the end."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Most Flights From Belgrade to US Are Cancelled Due to Iceland's Volcanic Eruption

I'm posting this here because apparently this news isn't on the news in Serbia that anyone I know knows of. If you, like my husband, are planning to fly from Serbia to the US this weekend, you'd better contact your air carrier right away. I've heard the Lufthansa staff at Nikola Tesla Airport are working overtime answering calls tonight.

Turns out a big volcanic eruption in Iceland has shut down most flights in Northern Europe including France and Germany. The ash cloud is expected to drift eastward over the weekend, which isn't good for Atlantic travel because most Europe-to-USA and Europe-to-Canada flights are normally routed where that ash may be. And ash is very dangerous for plane engines. (I'm not an expert, I just heard this in the news here in the US.)

If you have any reason to be concerned, don't expect your travel agent to call you -- call the airline directly!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Update on Stray Dogs in Serbia: Fewer but Happier

As I wrote in 2007, although I had a typical American horror of strays, living in Sombor Serbia for a few months surrounded by mostly sweet and jaunty owner-less dogs had changed my thinking.

The first thing I noticed on my visit this month was that there are far fewer owner-less dogs on the streets. In fact, at first I didn't think I saw any. I sadly asked my husband had they all been put down? I'd heard a mass round up and slaughter happens every few years when the Serb stray dog population gets out of control. "Oh no, not all of them," he replied. "That's an independent dog right over there." He pointed to a healthy-looking dog sniffing at the flower-beds in front of the cafe where we were sitting. But, the dog had a collar. I'd assumed it was somebody's.

Turns out, this past year instead of killing all the dogs, vets in Sombor, Belgrade, and perhaps elsewhere in Serbia did a mass spaying effort on the healthiest of the owner-less dogs. These dogs were fitted with identifying collars and then released to live their lives at their own discretion again. Some Serbs inveigh against spaying as a barbaric practice that robs a dog of its natural personality. This may be true, but spaying also has two benefits for the wild dog population -- not only will they cease to reproduce, but their potential for aggressive behavior toward humans is greatly lessened.

My sister-in-law, who had several scary encounters with feral dogs as she bicycled about her neighborhood in Novi Beograd last year, now fondly watches the wild, collared-dogs playing with a stick in the little park beside her building. Oh, now they've found a rag and are engaged in tug of war battles with it. Adorable. She tells me now that the dogs are less scary, her neighbors have begun setting out food for them.

For now, anyway, Serbia's solution seems to be working. At least, unlike America where generally all dogs must have owners or they are put down, there's a chance for a dog to live its own life in Serbia without leashes and obligations.

An Evening in Novi Sad with George Clooney & Antonio Banderas

"I am George Clooney and here is my friend Antonio Banderas!" Our family lawyer Dusan and my husband are sitting side by side at an outdoor cafe in Novi Sad grinning at me. I'm startled to realize it's true. The resemblance is remarkable ... if Clooney and Banderas were Serbians.

The boys are just back from a four-day road trip to Knin, once a Serb stronghold in central Croatia, where Dusan was born. I suddenly realize this whole Clooney/Banderas thing is a finely honed act they've used to flirt with barmaids and waitresses all the way there and back. It's a side of my husband I've never seen before, and it makes me laugh.

Novi Sad is Serbia's second largest city. It seems to consist of super-shiny banks and slightly-dingier apartment buildings. Only the old town area has many antique buildings in Austro-Hungarian style. Most have had their ground floors transformed into glass-fronted boutiques and cafes. Cars are banned so people can stroll about at ease. The resemblance to one of those vaguely 'Olde World-style' outdoor shopping malls in America is striking. Only, I guess you could say, this is the real George Clooney.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Change My "Dirty" Dollars Into Serbian Dinars, Please!

It's been too long -- I've really been missing Sombor. So, when I found out this past Friday that Air France was having a discount sale on Boston-to-Belgrade flights, less than 24 hours later I was on the plane.

Which gave me no time to change money. (Try asking for Serbian Dinars in practically any US bank and they'll tell you it's a week's wait.) This morning, I knew I would die without Diet Coke or Pepsi, because I am such an Amerikanka. But there was no cash to buy soda with. Luckily my husband had a $100 bill in his pocket that he'd snagged for travel expenses. We set off for the money-changer in downtown Sombor to get some dinars.

She took one look at the bill and shook her head. No way. No Dinars for us. The other money changers we visited all said no as well. Why? Well, something was scribbled in ink in the corner of the bill, so obviously this was not a bill that could be changed. Only dollars that are fresh, clean and PERFECT can be changed in Serbia. No folded corners, no worn edges, certainly no rips or tears, and absolutely no writing!

Well, actually a couple of years ago we did manage to get some slightly worn dollars changed in a Sombor bank, but we had to pay an extra 15% fee on top of the normal exchange fee to cover the extraordinary trouble they were taking.

To me, this is just so weird that it defies comprehension. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar, no matter what condition it is in. My husband's theory is that dollars are easier to fake than Euros, something about fewer glowing bits showing up under the blue security light. Therefore exchange offices have to be much more careful. Why, I'm still not sure. Wouldn't it be sensible that fake dollars would be crispier and more perfect-looking than those that had clearly been through a few hands?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Yugoslavs Use Landmarks, Not Street Signs, to Find Their Way

My husband calls me as his train pulls into Manhattan's Penn Station. He is slightly panicked. "This is not Grand Central Station!" I say it's OK. Penn is the main New York station for North-South trains and he should get off the train immediately because he's in the right place. Now, all he has to do is walk 30 minutes to the Croatian Consulate where he has an appointment.

"But I only know the way to get there from Grand Central! How can I find the Consulate if I am walking from a different place?!"

I suggest he get directions from someone or take a cab maybe. "Don't be stupid. Most New Yorkers do not know where the Croatian consulate is," he replies crushingly.

As it turns out, he himself has no idea of the actual address of the place. It's never even occurred to him to research it or to carry it with him on a slip of paper for easy referral. After all, he already "knows" how to get there. By landmark. Isn't that how everyone knows how to get places?

Suddenly I remembered a remark his sister had made a few years ago, which I hadn't really understood at the time. She said, "It used to be impossible for me to find my way on the highways in America. Every exit looks so much the same! I could never recognize where to turn." At long last it had occurred to her to read the signs.

I never realized that relying on road signs, addresses, or even maps could be such an alien concept to some people. People who are from a smaller country, a place that's rife with landmarks, where everyone knows where to go because they've been going there all their lives.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Belgrade Serbia named #1 "Ultimate Party City" on the Globe by Lonely Planet

And well deserved too.

Personally, I've always described Belgrade to people as "the New Orleans of Europe." A little corrupt, a little scruffy, a little impoverished, but my god the spirit and fun of the place.

Note: As a businessperson, my next thought is how to monetize this burgeoning party reputation. If only the Belgrade tourism board could get their act together and copy New Orlean's incredibly organized convention services bureau. Putting on a conference in New Orleans is a pleasure because they make the organizer's job easy every step of the way. The hotels, the taxis, the entertainment, food, and even the drinks in the airport are all set up for a smoothly functioning and pleasurable event. With a few fact-finding missions and serious government support, Belgrade could become the coolest new meetings and conference center in Europe, especially now that we're all bored of Barcelona which practically became the Orlando of the European event industry in the past decade.

Just an idea....

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

At Long Last! Our Car is Floating Across the Atlantic to Rijeka Croatia

Dropped off our car at DAS Global Services's New Jersey location about 10 days ago, and now she's all packed up in a shipping container in the bowels of a giant ocean-going vessel. Next stop Rijeka!

After my past experiences trying to ship a car to the Balkans using an el cheapo shipper, I was relieved to see DAS's warehouse is in a well-lit, high-security, nicer area of the port district. In fact it's just behind a giant Wal-Mart. Our customer rep Sergei came running downstairs to meet us and help with final paperwork when we arrived. Then another staffer came out to personally inspect the car with us, carefully noting any and all dings on a form we co-signed so we won't blame them for pre-existing problems when the car gets to the other side of the ocean. Two days after we got home, a third customer service rep contacted us via email to let us know about final shipping dates and tracking contacts.

So, far the experience has been throughly friendly and professional. My favorite part -- the big sign in DAS's lobby covered with 23 different countries' flags and the headline "Those who work here are all Americans. This is where we came from!"

It was one of those moments when you're proud to be an American, looking at the original home country flags of your fellow-citizens. From Russia to Peru and so many places in between.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Astrology in the Workplace: How Serbs Hire the Right People

I find it really tough to hire the right people for my company in America. I've studied HR books, developed applicant quizzes and tests, honed my interview skills, contacted references, checked Facebook profiles, etc. And yet, usually about half the people I hired turned out to be the wrong match. For a small, entrepreneurial company that can be very painful.

My husband tries to be helpful and supportive as I agonize over a stack of applications. "Get their birthdays and I'll check their astrological charts for you," he says.

Huh? But when I had a few openings in Serbia in 2005, I noticed that every Serbian applicant featured their astrological sign at the very top of their CV or resume. "Here's my contact info, my sun sign and a list of my past employers...."

Huh again. Well, maybe it helps to pick the right people. The only problem, for a useful astrological chart you need birth year. And in the US, you can't ever ask what year a candidate was born in, or you lay yourself wide open to age discrimination lawsuits, a constant danger here. (In fact, some creeps apply for jobs just so they can try to sue when they don't get them.)

Which is too bad. I'd like to try this chart stuff.

P.S. If you are looking for a job in Serbia, please don't contact me. Here's my blog entry with everything I know about jobs in Serbia. I can't help you other than that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Government-run Pensions: Perhaps the Only Political Promise Former Yugoslavs Believe In

Former Yugoslavs are famous for being cynical about almost anything to do with governments and politicians. Tell them you trust a promise made by the US, Serbian, or Croatian governments and they'll scoff loudly at your naivete.

Except for one thing.

Their credulous, child-like faith in government-run pensions.

I do not have any American-born friends who honestly, completely trust that Social Security will be there for them when they hit retirement age. Not 100% guaranteed. We love America, but we're not blind to her failings.

My husband just can't imagine this. Of course there will be Social Security!!!

I guess you base your beliefs on your experiences. In his experience, countries may fall apart, your neighborhood may be bombed, inflation may hit 10,000%, the economy be wrenched from socialism to capitalism, etc.; but, no matter what, old people will always get their government pensions. True, the payments may not be as high as originally promised, but you'll get something, and you'll get it every month too.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Insuring Your US Car for Serbia & Croatia: Latest Info

After several years of research and fruitless attempts, we're at long last really, honestly shipping our car from the US to the Balkans. This time I'm using one of the best shippers,not the discount idiots. Luckily, shipping prices have come down since last time I checked. Now it's $1100 RORO (roll-on, roll-off) to Bremerhaven Germany or $3100 container (no RORO avail) to Rijeka Croatia.

We're leaving our car on US plates for now. (There's a bunch of legal research and strategizing around the whole which-country-to-register-your-car-in conundrum, which I'll write about someday when I fully understand it. Suffice to say, most people moving to the Balkans who have US, Canadian or EU plates seem to try to keep those plates as long as possible, for whatever reason.)

Today I researched the whole insurance situation and here's what I found out:

1) Marine Insurance:
This covers your car as it's being transported on the ship. It's not required, but as Isabella Snow explains you really should have it. DAS Global told me their cost would be $100 for every $5,000 of car-value I wanted covered. Geico Overseas quoted me about the same price, although they did fancier calculations to get there.

2) Employment Requirement:
According to both reps I spoke with, you must be employed to get international car insurance on your US car. So, you can't be (officially) retired. However, it seems like you can be a virtual or part-time employee, or even a missionary. I don't know how official that employment has to be - can you just say you work for a particular company, or will they check?

3) No More "Green Cards" for US cars:
If your car is registered in Europe or the UK, you can buy a "green card" from your local insurance agent that allows you to travel throughout the area, merrily crossing national borders without getting different insurance for each country. Until last year, cars with American plates could do the same. However, AIU, the only company that apparently sold green cards to Americans has now ceased doing so. According to the reps I spoke with, the cries of pain from US nationals living oversea are vociferous.

4) Country-by-Country 3rd party Liability Insurance:
Since you won't have a green card, you will be required to buy 3rd party liability insurance in each country you visit. It doesn't seem like you can buy this insurance from any international company... you can only buy it from a local in-country insurance agent. If you're shipping your car to Serbia, you'll have to buy this insurance at the dock where the ship deposits your car (for me, that would be Germany or Croatia), and then again in Serbia. If, like me, you have friends and relatives you plan to drive to see in several Balkan countries, you'll probably need separate insurance for each country. Blech!

This liability insurance only covers damages to the other guy if you are in an accident. Your car and your passengers are not covered.

4) Non-Required Physical Damage & Theft Insurance:
Not legally required but strongly recommended by everyone I know. Physical damage and theft insurance covers damage to your car in case of accidents, etc. Clements International quoted me a little under $2000 per year to get this insurance on my brand new SUV. You can get an instant online quote here.

That includes an add-on of 25% for "duty coverage" (you can get up to 100% duty coverage). If your car is stolen or totalled in a country outside your own, that country will charge you duty on it because it's not leaving. Officially it's staying and is suddenly considered an "import." In Egypt that duty can be 200% of the value of the car. I don't know what it is in the Balkans... yet.

The good news is, this insurance will cover my car in every country I take it to except for US, Canada and American Territories. I can drive to Belgrade, Zagreb or Timbuktu worry-free.

The bad news is, your car is only covered for its replacement value in the country "of its specs". A US car would have US specs. If your car is stolen or totalled in the Balkans, you'll only get the US bluebook replacement value for it. NOT the Balkan replacement value. The latter is often at least 50% higher than the US sticker price. Ouch.

5) Geico vs Clements:
I'm a happy US Geico customer so I called them first. It was very disappointing. Their International office is only open during continental European business hours - which means if you call after 11am US East Coast time, you missed them. The rep spoke fine English (he sounded like he was in India actually), but he was pretty clueless and easy to fluster with basic questions. He kept on insisting I would probably have to register my car in Croatia to drive it there, which is incorrect. He said Geico would only sell me "access liability" but couldn't explain what that was aside from reading out loud a snippet of gobbledygook from his manual.

Next I called Clements. They maintain US office hours as well as international office hours. Matt Willinger, the rep I spoke with, really bowled me over with his expertise and willingness to explain things in detail. Although Clements does not offer marine coverage (he said just to buy it from my shipper), their other coverage sounds great. So, I guess we'll be going with them for the Damage policy and supplementing with (required) local Balkan liability policies which we'll buy over there.

6) Your input??
If you've dealt with insuring a foreign-plated car in the Balkans, please post your comments below. Thanks very much.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thankfully, My Serb-American Holidays Are Now, At Last, Over

I woke up this morning feeling like it's the day after I ran a marathon. Dazed, a bit disorientated, slightly frayed at the edges, and really happy to be entering regular life again. I sense this regular life will take a few days to feel "normal" though.

The problem is not the holiday season, but rather the combination of Serb and American holidays. When I was single, I'd take off a week between Dec 25-Jan 1st and then get right back to work. Now that I have a family, my own holidays take on greater importance, plus we add in Serb holidays as well. That quick week off mainly dedicated to sleep has turned into four full months punctuated by celebration after celebration, each requiring special shopping, cooking, eating, drinking, long distance phone calls, and hours and hours sitting around the table being with each other:

Oct 31 - American Halloween
Late Nov - American Thanksgiving
Dec 25 - Western Christmas
Dec 31 - Western New Year's Eve
Jan 1 - Western New Year's Day
Jan 7 - Serbian Orthodox Christmas
Jan 13 - Serbian Orthodox New Year's
Jan 19-20 - Our Serbian Family's Saints Day (date varies depending on your family history)

All I can say now is, thank goodness we have a nice long rest before both Easters kick in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

American Guy Married to a Serb Complains About Serbian Pizza (& Rightfully So)

Just discovered a new blog entitled, They called it Promaja, written by the US husband of a Serb woman. My favorite part is Serbuki Theater wherein dolls, Japanese theater and Serb characters all meet.

He's also outed Serbia's vilest food secret -- their horrific pizza sauce aka "ketchup".

It's completely inexplicable. It's not like tasty pizza sauce is a global mystery. In fact, America's largest Serb immigrant community is in Chicago, deep dish pizza heartland. So you think some of that info might have seeped back to the home country. And, it's not a question of cost or exotic ingredients -- all you need is tomatoes, basil, garlic, and salt. (No, not sugar.)

So, where did Serbs in Serbia get the idea that good pizza sauce is manufactured-by-the-ton, sticky-sweet ketchup? They even call it ketchup. Go to any grocery store in Serbia and there are piles of plastic packets on the shelf in the refrigerator section labeled "Pizza Ketchup."