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

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!


Anonymous said...

There's only 1 tip for Americans: stop being American for the time being. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

American tourists stand our like a sore thumb. The way they are dressed, talk, behave, smile. They almost never try to make an effort to speak the local language even if it's just to say "thank you" or "please". They behave like the world belong to them and then learn the hard way that, well, it doesn't.

So... take notice of how locals dress, how they spend their day, what they eat (try not to hit McDonald's and instead have a pljeskavica), etc. And, most importantly, DO NOT OVERDO IT. If you try too hard, it becomes obvious and will push people away.

Cheers and good luck.

Joni Mueller said...

Well the flip side is that as far as I can tell, in Serbia, when you give a tip, you don't ask for "change" back like we do here in the U.S. I noticed this behavior when my friends from Belgrade were visiting Houston (Texas). My friend was stuck with a pretty big bill and his culture would not let him ask for the change back and I wasn't aware of that at the time and so didn't intervene. It wasn't until they got back home and I mentioned it that he told me, no, it is rude to ask for change. So that American waiter got lucky! So my tip to the travelers is ... don't expect change back and certainly don't ask for it. :)

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

I agree with doing-what-the-Romans-do up to a point. I'm not going to start smoking. I'm not going to wear a lot of make up, or any really. I'm not drinking anything stronger than Jelen Pivo. I'm not going to buy the most expensive cell phone I can in order to show off. Sometimes I'm going to walk outside in my own yard without shoes on. And when my husband helps out with the housework, I will happily let him!

There's a line to be drawn between being yourself and being polite. I'll always try to be polite.

Anonymous said...

I agree with some of these comments to a point, i am English and married to a guy from Zrenanin, Serbia.
He has mentioned about taking me to his country, of course i am interested to see where he comes from, but then he started giving me a list of what the people would expect from me.
This included visiting people all day long for hours and lots of talking.

I am a more reserved introverted person and this would cripple me, but he said it would be expected.
He went on to tell me that some of his friends may slaughter the pig in their back yard as a welcome.
I immediately felt sick.
We visit his friends here who thought he was absolutely crazy to marry an "ENGLISH"
Whatever was he thinking of ??
It took many months to be accepted but i find it all very controlling.
I do not smoke, hate the smell, find it is disgusting and repulsive, husband does not either thankfully, but has told me that some of his friends do in Serbia.
We once visited his friends here in Canada and bless they did try to welcome me by pouring me a LARGE brandy from back home, i could not drink it, a tiny sip was to much, i could see this caused offence, husband has told me i should never leave any brandy.
So in summary, i can see that by visiting Serbia, there would be highexpectations, and offence and upset from both sides.
To visit peoples homes all day long and chat chat chat chat, would cripple me, just on its own, to force serbian plum brandy down my throat and burn my windpipe just to please the serbs is unthinkable.
To visit a family aftet the pig has just been slaughtered in the back yard and then be expected to eat it, NO NO NO.
Infact i would be expected to be there i believe.
It all sounds sooooo terrible!!
Fortunately we have not gone there together, and i now would refuse point blank, even if it means a DIVORCE!!!

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

Country people in many countries such as France and Italy slaughter pigs and invite close friends for the feast. You can politely avoid the start by being strategically late to the party.

If you don't speak Sprski, the "hours of talking" won't involve you much, you just can sit quietly on the side and be gently ignored. Perfect for an introvert. Bring some needlework and enjoy the break.

As for brandy, as long as you politely discourage it by saying you don't drink at all when you enter a home, then you're fine. Ask for coffee and give it lots of compliments. Brandy will always be offered, it's considered polite, but there are polite ways to get out of having it poured for you.

As for smoking, well I've been to plenty of homes in the UK with Brits puffing away. If you can manage in your own country, you can manage in his.

Lastly, as for divorce, I am saddened by the fact that any spouse would be unwilling to give an inch on their desires, even for a short visit. To deny your husband the joy of showing his wife his home town seems harsh and more than a little self centered.

gordo said...

As Basil Fawlty said: "Don't mention the war(s)". If you're an American, Canadian, European, a Serb will mention it for you and passionately explain their side in detail, including all the info that CNN, your foreign government and others conveniently left out.

A little self research will find that they're mostly correct.

As or everything else, try a bit of everything, except the harsh ciggs and cow brain/hoof? pie. Myself, I tried the pie and though repulsive, I smiled, thanked the host and was offered 2 more servings which I promptly washed down with pivo. ;-)

Learn a few words of Serbian, even though many speak English, they'll appreciate it and be amused by your pronunciation.

Ask about local museums and cultural exhibitions. Serbs are proud to show off their culture. The ethic museum in Belgrade is a nice example, with exhibits of national dress/costumes going back centuries.

Anonymous said...

For your information Rosemary
I do not enter into any homes either here or UK where they puff puff puff.
For you to assume that i do is ignorant on your part.
So therefore i " do not manage in my own country"
As for sitting in somebodys house all day long while there are endless boring hours of listening to serbo croatian talk, is not for me. I mean what would i do, just sit there and look into space.
I don't sew by the way lol & even if i did i would be bored senseless sitting there for long hours listening to a language that i do not understand.
And even to arrive late after the poor pig has been squealing would be too much, the smell of blood and knowing the poor animal has been slaughtered in the backyard is unthinkable.
Then it would be put on a spit with the face on, then i would have to endure watching the people chewing its ears.
Yukkkkkkkkkkkky. Enough to make me vomit!!!
Recently went to a party and the poor pig was first prize in a raffle, it was being paraded around the hall with an apple in its mouth and a pepper up its arse.
I thought i was dreaming, i was a bit intoxicated and said Am i dreaming, did i really see a pig, the fellow diners eyes looked offended and upset.
Nope Serbia is not for me, and no i am not self centred.
We could get into a whole new debate about Americans visiting Barbados but will leave it here as this topic is about Serbia and visiting.
Lump it or leave it.
Post it on your wall or refuse it.
Do i care nope.
My views will remain the same!!

Stan Bosco said...


Your life sounds boring, and you are, like Rosemary said, a bit self-centered. I'm surprised that you're married to a Serb as most Serbs are the exact opposite of you.

Also, are you a vegan/vegetarian? If not, I don't see the difference between the roasted pig and the meat that you probably eat every week. Those animals were killed too. And you act like everyone in Serbia has a pig in their back yard.

Partly, it's your husbands fault as he scared you off with "you must", "you should never", etc. You don't have to do any of those things while you're there. Serbs will understand, as you're not one of them and the family will do whatever they can to make you feel comfortable.

"We visit his friends here who thought he was absolutely crazy to marry an "ENGLISH"
Whatever was he thinking of ??"

Well, it's obvious why. In your case, he can never visit his hometown with his English wife as you will threaten to divorce him.

The truth is, you can't truly know your husband until you know Serbia.

Have a nice divorce.

Anonymous said...

I've been told that when people go out to eat in a restaurant, they don't take their leftovers home. The waiters might think it strange if you asked for the food to be wrapped up. Has anyone else found this to be true?? I hate wasting food like that!

Pera said...

@Anonymous,August 11, 2010 5:05 AM
I wouldn't say is true. I go to restaurants quite often and sometimes I ask them to pack leftovers for me. I couldn't catch any weird reaction on them face on my demands.

ana.the.serious.cat said...

I am an introvert, and local, and it’s a real challenge. Be very polite but firm and brief; “an iron hand in velvet gloves” is a French expression you can visualize.

Regarding politics, you have conservative and liberal types all around the world. With liberal people you engage if you wish, with conservative, well, not so much, as it doesn’t lead very far.

So. The delicate art of tipping. This is where you can really see how “the East meets the West” as they say for Serbia. The western part is that the expected tip is about 13%. And the eastern part is that you should round the amount of the bill, with the tip added, to the first acceptable note bill, sometimes up and sometimes down.

For instance, if your bill is 540 RSD (two coffees and two Cokes in an unassuming cafe), the tip should be 70 RSD, so that gives the final amount of 610 RSD. It’s acceptable to pay 600 RSD, so you are rounding down a bit, but it’s okay. In a trendier cafe, this same order is going to cost 880 RSD. So you add the tip, the final amount is 995, and then you round it to 1000.

Whom do you tip? You tip waiters, taxi drivers and hairdressers. You don’t tip shop assistants and clerks of any kind.

I rarely stop a taxi in the street, and never at the intercity bus stops and railway stations. The numbers of taxi companies are easy to come by, so we call them and order a cab. That way you are in a controlled situation – your present location, your destination and the number of the vehicle are noted.

Anyway, in Belgrade the taxi is somewhat superfluous during the day (up until 23 h). The public transportation is mainly safe and regular. Housewives, students and grannies. That doesn’t mean you should be completely relaxed concerning your wallet.

I am so inclined to address the situation of the ill-fated pig, but this has already been too long...

mostovljanin said...

1. The shoes - Don't take that seriously, please! It's common only in Flats (where Sombor is). Everywhere else, asking your guest to take off the shoes is considered like asking them to take off their undies :D (rude, impolite, red neck-ish). For some reason people in Flats take off their shoes, we others just clean them once entering some1's home (if they were dirty).

2. Tipping - try 10%. If something is 450 dinars, you just give 500 and tell waiter "it's ok" (meaning he can take change) if he has "may I take the change" look in his eyes :D

3. Post office/boutique/etc employees - just say "dobar dan" (good after noon) or "zdravo", ciao (less formal) while entering the office.

4. Young children and their (pregnant) mommies are the most important creatures in Balkans, so (if you have them) don't be ashamed if they're noisy in public - we won't be offended, hey, they're cute little kids! :) Expect people get off their seats in buses, so you and your baby can sit; expect to be put at the start of a (waiting) line (if you're pregnant), to go first always, etc. Other side of the coin is - if some1's kid is crying, don't make fuss about it, don't look offended, don't go there and tell their parents how to deal with it...

Ask more specific, get more specific answers ;)

Anonymous said...

I'm American and I love smoking, rakija, and all sorts of local food-related traditions. I speak a bit of srpski, but don't discuss religion or politics in general, and I know enough about Serbian history to know that I will never know everything, so I listen but keep my mouth shut on that subject. It's easier to discuss sports - I recommend anyone brush up on their knowledge of popular Serbian pastimes.

I have found Serbian people to have exceptionally good manners. It brings out my best, too.

Mia said...

Thank you for your comments to my question. It's interesting because I spent time in Serbia when I was younger, but it's been about 25 years since I visited, so I'm a little scared (in a good way--I'm anticipating nice things).

A couple more questions:)
What if someone addresses me first as "vi" (someone older than me, like an older relation? Do I address them back the same, or do I use "ti" to them? (I assume I use "ti" with people my own age, 40ish and anyone younger) What about older people who use "ti" to me? Do I say "vi" to them, or do I use "ti" to them?

Most of the people I know live in cities. I imagine we'll go out to eat often and that they will have us over (American hubbie, 2 daughters & self) for meals. From the comments, I gather that it would be nice to treat a group of friends for dinner towads the end of my stay. But when we first arrive, they will want to treat us, correct? (I ask because my husband likes to grab checks).

I speak & read Serbian pretty well as a heritage speaker and will act as translator for my family members, who hope to learn some Serbian before & during our trip.

Lastly, gordo mentioned, let them bring up the wars.. what about other topics of conversation? I recently had a Polish friend here bring up Tito in converation to me, knowing my heritage is Serbian, but I didn't have much to say about Tito, since I never directly experienced that..and my history is not so great..I can drop a few facts about Tito, but I have few positive things to say about him, other than a couple of obvious comments. Anyway, my Polish friend, who seemed to look forward to having a conversation with me seem deflated, and I ran home and reread passages from Djilas's book about Tito. Still it didn't really help me much.

It seems like most of the Serbs I have met do like to talk, and I like to talk and listen, but I also want to be up on topics of common interest. Any hot topics in Belgrade? Politics? Art? History? Tennis & Soccer?

And thanks, mostovljanin, for your specific answers--it does help.

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

As he is "rich" foreigner from outside Serbia, everyone will be happy when your husband grabs checks. However, you can expect many more invitations to eat in homes than out. Americans eat out routinely. Typical Serbs do not because it's (relative to income) expensive there and it's in their culture to make homemade food.

mostovljanin said...

If you get a "vi" from stranger - answer with "vi". If you get it from an older relative, like not so close grand dad, answer the same. At some point people will tell you "predjimo na ti" - to start using "ti" in mutual communication.
I don't know your age, but try to get it like this = a generation (or 2) older relative shall be addressed with "vi" (paying respect to their age) until they say "lets try 'ti'". Those of your age wont mind "ti". Those younger don't even expect "vi" from you.

Yes, they'll treat you. They'll invite you for (every) meal (don't be shy, once your plate is empty, and you feel there's some space left in your stomach - fill the plate; if you don't, hosts might think their food tasted bad :)).

Also, for the elderly people - you're 'supposed' to get up from your seat, in public transport, if there aren't any unoccupied seats left and if they'd have to stand (same as for pregnant women).

Hot topics in Belgrade:
- renovation of blv. of King Alexander (looks like if a comet landed all the way through blv. right now; it'll look better once it's finished. thing is - city decided to cut all trees in that part of blv, "because they were sick and bad maintained" - same trees like everywhere else in the city, but only these were sick and had to be cut. go figure);
- bridge over Sava river (chosen project costs as much as 3 normal, non-glorious-skyscraper-tall bridges. while Serbia doesn't have all world's oil reserves...)
- decade long renovation of National Museum.
- faggot parade (expect tensions in the air)
- beer fest

mira said...

I am a woman of a certain age and I'm looking forward to my trip. Thanks for your helpful comments. Ciao ciao.