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

Friday, July 1, 2011

Advice to the Lovelorn: What to Do If You're Considering Marrying a Serb

I know I said I wasn't going to post again, but since my farewell post, have been deluged with letters from women around the world agonizing over whether they should marry their Serbian boyfriend.

So here is my advice - take it or leave it as you please:

1) I'm glad I married a Serb.
The experience was well worth the final pain. I learned so much, had many wonderful experiences, and filled my life with so much love. Serbian families, the country of Serbia, the culture... all worth experiencing and learning from. I'm not sorry I did it, and I hope you won't be either.

2) Some Serb-American marriages are great successes.
My step-brother has been married happily for more than a decade to a Serbian woman who previously immigrated to the US where they now live. A friend of mine's parents were a mixed marriage of Serb and Swede, both US immigrants, who apparently had a wonderful marriage until the day the husband died.

3) Plan ahead for child custody battles.
I am lucky not to have this problem, as we had no children of our own, but have heard of several battles that were far more agonizing (not to mention expensive) because each parent planned to live in a different country and wanted their child by their side.

I cannot underscore enough how important it is for you to have a prenuptial agreement in writing, hopefully recognized by courts in both countries, that spells out which country children will be raised in should you split. Be generous and assume that the child should have ample experience of both countries as they grow up.

4) Keep some cash in your name in your country.
Less important than child custody, but worth mentioning. If you ever do separate, it may be difficult for you to access funds in your own country. Keep a single (not joint) account in your name. Also, this keeps you safe if Serbian banks fail (as they have done in the past) and you have to wait years to get the small portion of your money that was covered by government insurance back.

Also bear in mind that if you spend much of your working life in Serbia, you and your spouse may not qualify for Social Security or other US government benefits someday. You never know if or when you'll want to move home (what if you are widowed?) so think ahead about how to establish retirement in both countries. Don't put your eggs in just one basket.

5) Don't move in with his family.
It's not unusual for adult and married children of Serbs to live with their parents for eons. You can move in "just for now" and suddenly months and years have gone by. It's hard enough to adjust to married life with a foreigner. Don't add in the burden of integrating with his family in their home as well. Your husband will never truly understand how hard it is for you if you're from a country without that tradition. Insist on your own home, from day one. Luckily furnished and long-term rentals are very cheap in Serbia, especially compared with buying!

6) Make your own circle of friends.
Most Serbs have lots of friends and very active social lives. It's easy to get swept up in your beloved's circle. That's great, but make an effort to create your own circle as well. You need your own support system separate from his.

7) Don't assume you'll find paying employment in Serbia.
Even well-connected and educated Serbs have trouble. You'll probably either wind up doing volunteer work (lots of opportunities with needy organizations) or starting your own business.

If you do start your own business, don't start it (at least at first) with your fiance or husband. It adds extra strain to a marriage to work together, especially if you grew up in different cultures regarding work and capitalism, and you'll already have enough challenges with culture, family, language, etc. Also, better if you own something yourself than being too dependent on a single person in a foreign land. That said, I do know foreign women who have run great businesses with their husbands in Serbia.

8) If you live outside Serbia, be prepared for long-term guests.
When relatives visit from Serbia, they often expect to stay in your home with you for weeks or even months. It's normal. Think you got out of living with his parents when you moved away? Think again. I thoroughly enjoyed this, but some women would not.

9) Your vacations will be probably spent in the Balkans.
Expats need to go home. It's understandable. And their family is expecting them to come. They don't understand about measly US two-weeks-per-year-only. And it may be tough if you ever had a yearning to go to other places in the world on vacation... Serbia here we come.

10) Don' promise to learn to speak Serbian if you live outside the Balkans.
Unless you are a language genius or perhaps grew up speaking another Slavic language, learning Serbian will be harder than you expected. You really do need to live there for the lessons to sink in and your knowledge to stick.

That doesn't mean your husband will only speak English in your household (although your children unfortunately may, even if he wishes they would use his language). There will be many times when he's speaking to friends, family, etc and you'll have no idea what's going on. You're going to feel left out sometimes, but you probably can't help it.

11) If you intend to live in the Balkans, don't marry him first before you visit thoroughly.
You're marrying a man and a country. Don't jump into either without adequate research and personal experience. If you plan to move to the Balkans, move first and marry later. You've got plenty of time.

So that's all my advice. Good luck and best wishes!


Saturday, May 28, 2011

And So It's Divorce...

I am sorry, dear readers, to end our journey with this post. I had not anticipated it.

I would not say that every Balkan-American marriage will end this way, not even most I hope. Just this one.

It's hard for me because I am giving up not just a marriage and close relationships with step-children, but also two countries. Croatia, the country of my husband's birth and his soul's home, and Serbia the country of his adulthood and in many ways the home of my dreams.

Often the cultural differences held us together, so we were never bored with each other, as much as they impaired our ability to communicate truly. One thing's for sure, you'll never gain a certain perspective on your own culture until you marry someone from another.

Some very basic concepts, what is a wife, what is a husband ... are profoundly different in everyday life, although perhaps not in their greater meanings. The Puritan work ethic, a moral fabric of the region I'm from, is considered nonessential, even absurdly silly, by many people from my husband's region. While Balkan-style drinking, well that's judged differently here. The whole Slavic dark moodiness, not to mention the Serbian sense of destined "victim-hood", well, we Americans just don't have those in our think-positive ethos, which must sometimes seem simple-minded to those outside of us.

We also shoot straight with our words, like John Wayne with his gun. You can't read between the lines, or see a conspiracy, or decipher a deeper, different message. We say what we think and that's it. It must be confusing for someone for whom every conversation has Byzantine layers of meaning. They're sifting for what you really meant, when it's plain in front of their faces. In return, I'd take conversations at face value, to learn later I'd been making assumptions that were 180 degrees from the truth.

I've gained a lot from this marriage. I know that. Travel, meeting new people, looking up from my desk to the sunny skies above, the family singalongs, you name it. I'll miss Sombor most of all. I look at pictures of it online and they move me to tears. I even have fantasies about moving there by myself... but without speaking fluent Srpski that's a crazy dream.

I want those of you who are personal friends of mine to know everything's alright. I have my family, my friends, my lovely home in the US, and a career that fits me well. For me right now it feels like the sun after a hurricane. Pleasant and sweet. The landscape seems strange, with big old trees blown down. But soon enough it will feel normal again.

It's time to build a new life. And American that I am, I just went out and bought a new car. I'm going to have fun tooling around in her, exploring a new life here.

I really truly enjoyed writing this blog. Sometimes when I was adrift, traveling about in foreign places, it helped anchor me. And I adored meeting so many of you who wrote comments and letters, as well as being a sort of mini-spokesperson for Serbia for those who wanted to know more about the country. But that's it for me now. I'd feel a fraud if I continued. Perhaps someday I'll begin again. But not, I think at this URL.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How do Serbian and American Teenagers Differ?

A Serbian-American reader of this blog just wrote in to ask about Serbian parenting and how teens differ between the two countries. It seems her husband, a Serb, does not like the Serbian style and would like to raise their children in a Western fashion...

I'm not an expert on Serb teens, aside from having had two step-children in their teens myself, and having met plenty of Serb teens in Sombor and Belgrade. So I'd love you guys to post your opinions.

In my experience Serb teens:

- Expect to live at home through college and well beyond (unless they are from small towns like Sombor where many dream of shaking that country-dust off their boots and moving to Belgrade ASAP.) I've seen data that even by the age of 45, many Serbs still live with their parents. This is both culturally and economically based.

- Are far thinner and have better posture than their American counterparts, due to less junk food and TV/computer slouching. They eat home-cooked meals most days, not fast food (which is more expensive than what's in the kitchen), and like to stroll about town showing off their glory.

- Don't get steady allowances (cash from parents) but rather occasional, irregular, gifts of money when the mood strikes a relative to hand them something. This means they may not have a chance to learn to budget or handle wages before they are on their own. But then they won't be on their own for a long, long time.

- Have cell phones (that they live on) but not credit cards.

- Share bedrooms with siblings and share single bathrooms with their entire, often extended, family.

- Dress up in a somewhat more formal way than US teens. Europeans in general don't do casual dress in public the way Americans do.

- The girls wear more make-up, often far far more, than US teens would ever consider. The expression "troweling it on" might be used. Same for perfume.

- Are more likely to have at least experimented with heroin, which is more readily available. While Americans are more likely to be on medication for ADD.

- Grew up with daily social drinking at home, unlike American teens who binge secretly at teen parties.

- Dream of international travel and jobs overseas. I doubt the majority of US teens have passports or can locate most countries on a world map. Provincialism, thy name is America.

- Are strongly bigoted against gays, while the majority of US teens surveyed think gays are normal, should be able to get married, etc.

- Speak a foreign language enough to get by, usually English or German. American teens are often required to learn a foreign language in school, but for fewer years and rarely take it remotely seriously. (That is except for immigrant's children and those born in close-knit Hispanic-American communities.)

- Hope to have a career someday, but don't assume they will be lucky enough to land a job and be promoted. The economy is too stinky for self-assurance. US teens on the other hand blithely assume that by the age of 30 they'll be making good money and own cars, homes, etc.

- May not have a driver's license, and certainly not a car. If there's an "old banger" in the family, their parents are still driving it. American teens often get cars as gifts in High School or college.

- Are deeply interested in meeting people from other cultures and places. Most American teens would be automatically friendly to someone from another country (frankly unlike many Croatians I've met) but aren't aggressively interested in the opportunity.

- Grew up in a culture in 1990s-2000 where criminals and government leaders were often seen as the only people who had success. Most American kids would not consider either as worthy of a career choice. Maybe a fallback position, but not a great one.

- Strongly prefer an apartment (stan) to a house and Belgrade to the countryside. American teens range the gamut from loving small towns with white picket fences to New York City.

- Don't take college class attendance as seriously as Americans, mainly because it's not always required and exams are far fewer and more spaced out. Also, of course, college is largely free.

- Hope to get by in life. Americans all secretly believe if you try hard enough and dream, you can be all you want to be.

In my experience, Serbian parents of teens tend to:

- coddle their adult children, treating them more softly in many ways than American parents would ever consider. In the US, you are a separate, independent adult very early on (as early as 14 in some upper class niches, as late as 22 in others.) In Serbia, you're a [protected child for eons.

- have absolutely zero sense of humor about outsiders' remarks about their children, and zero capacity to ever hear any criticism of their child. This is hard in all human cultures, but carried to an extreme in Serbia sometimes I think.

- don't have high expectations of their children's future. Hope they'll get by. Not because the kids aren't capable, but rather again due to the economy.

- allow children to do whatever after school-activities they desire on their own, but won't drive them around for this purpose, and won't enroll them in special summer camps or classes (except perhaps a language class.)

- assume they will pay for in whole or part (as much as possible) each child's first bought apartment. Sometimes sell a large apartment and buy several smaller ones from the proceeds so kids have homes of their own. Americans assume their kids are nearly entirely on their own the minute they hit 18.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Serbian Attitudes Toward Domestic Violence Are... Scary

As we were drinking hot cocoa in a cafe in Vracar Belgrade several weeks ago, a young woman approached each table in the room to ask if they'd like to contribute toward a shelter for domestic violence victims. Turns out there is zero government funding for shelters, so naturally I was happy to chip in.

According to this recent article in SETimes.com, the lack of government funding doesn't mean there's no problem. In fact, domestic violence victims equal a stunning 30% of people killed in Serbia each year. To put that into perspective, 1% of Americans who died in 2007 were killed by domestic violence.

I immediately doubted this 30% stat upon reading it. Surely that fat round number must be inflated at least a bit. But it made me recall a conversation I had with a journalist friend a couple of years ago. He'd lived in the Balkans in the 1990s while extensively covering news there. I asked him, "What are relationships between Serbian husbands and wives like? How are they different from Americans?" "The men beat their wives," he said flatly. "Ha, ha, you're joking," I replied. "No, I'm not." Disconcerted, I switched the conversation to ask which wines he liked.

Luckily, my husband is a very enlightened man for a Serb on the feminism front. But, he'll still occasionally make remarks of the "if a woman was hit, she must have had it coming to her" variety that got Sean Connery into so much PR trouble a few years back. And he really doesn't understand why I find this so disturbing. He's pretty sure I'm naive.

Sometimes cultural differences can exciting and enlightening. Sometimes they're confusing. But, sometimes they're just scary.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Serbian Orthodox Generation Gap: In Which Our Priest Bitches Out His Congregation

Well before the end of Easter Sunday services at our local US church, at least half the congregation is already outside milling about in the spring sun. Some went out because their small children don't have the patience for a two hour service (the congregation is bursting with two and three year olds, Easter 2008 must have been a sea of pregnant bellies.) Others went out to socialize with family and friends. Still others never quite made it inside the church at all, many arriving more than an hour after service started, just to be together and enjoy the Church luncheon that will be served afterwards.

The parking lot, the overflow lot, and the streets all around are jammed with cars with plates from five different states. Many people, like us, have driven more than an hour to be here.

Most of the service is in Serbian. But one speech our young priest feels is important enough to be translated into English as well. No, it is not the Patriarch's annual letter. (If you want that in English, you have to give the priest your email address.) This translated speech is a lecture by the priest himself. He is upset with the low turn-out at last night's midnight service. He feels that many more of us should have been there. I look around at the young families surrounding us who have driven such a way with their two year olds today, and think, "He's certainly not a father."

His chastisement continues. Most of the people who were there at midnight didn't seem to know how to behave in a church service. And, after he led the march around the outside of the church, which occurs at about the half-way mark in the service, most people left for home! Then, as the midnight service continued, more and more people peeled out. By the end of the service there were fewer than a dozen parishioners left in the church with him. And one of them, he adds in damning tones, one of them was a Bulgarian!

I am struck once again with this evidence of the generation gap in the Serbian church, which I've noticed both in the US and in Serbia itself. The new generation of clergy seem fierce and evangelical. Their religion is Crucial. People should Pay Attention! I recently met one young monk in Serbia who has posted videos of himself on YouTube speaking on (and on and on) the importance of religion.

On one hand, these vigorous green shoots are marvelous. Exactly what the doctor ordered for a religion that had been ignored or suppressed for so many decades under socialism.

On the other hand, it puts them at odds with their own congregations. It's difficult for these fervent young clergy to understand, much less build a bridge of commonality with, the Serbs of my husband's generation who mostly grew up thinking of religion as something your ancient granny in the country knows about, but no one else, certainly not their parents so proud of their new Yugoslavia. They grew up without Christmas, without Easter. Tito's birthday and May Day were the big celebrations.

Those who did find their way to Orthodoxy in the past two decades often did so less from a religious impulse than from a cultural one. Orthodoxy was part of a Serbian identity they were exploring now that being a Yugoslav was closed to them.

Others, including I suspect many in our local congregation which is mainly made up of Serbs who came to the US as adults, came to to the church for social purposes. The Easter luncheon is the one of only times in the entire year that you can be in a room full of people speaking your own language!

Also, if you are new to our area, the Church is one of the first places you stop in to try to meet people. For example, I met a young Serb from New Zealand at a Church picnic last summer, who had clearly trotted over as soon as he moved here to see if there were any nice girls in the congregation.

Lastly, given how far apart many of the expat community live from one another, not to mention the busyness of every day life here, the Church is one of the best places for extended family and friends to get together and see each other. Easter Sunday is a clearly an important reunion. You've never seen to many hugs and cries of welcome in a parking lot in your life.

All of this, for our young priest, is clearly beside the point.

I felt a little sorry for him. And, I wanted to go up and give him an education. So what if people come to your church for what you think are the "wrong" reasons? So what if they are not as fervant as you are?

Don't be angry. Instead, be glad that they are coming at all. If you know what you are doing, if you are a good "fisher of men", you can turn this gathering to your advantage. Just look at all those toddlers who'll be ready for Sunday school soon! But, you have to thoroughly understand, empathize, and work with your congregation to be able to turn their thoughts toward the call of heaven.

Harrange them, and they'll slip through your net to return to the ocean.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Under the Rainbow: Balkan Fairy Tales Are ... Different

"I drove under a rainbow today!" my husband announces when I make my daily phone call to the Balkans. "But don't worry honey, I am still a man."


He assumes the problem is with the phone line and repeats himself, speaking extra loudly and clearly,"I'm still male. I did not turn into a woman."

I did not think he knew any fairy tales, certainly no Western ones. But it turns out there are Balkan fairy tales, and one of them details what happens to people who go under rainbows. Sex change!

My husband is a little surprised I hadn't heard about this fable before. Am I really sure? We each realize abruptly we are married to the Alien. It's one of those moments where you are so close, yet so far apart.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Springtime in Belgrade - End of Winter in New England

The utter unfairness of life. When my husband kept telling me, "It's short sleeve weather in Belgrade," I didn't think he was serious. Or rather, I thought he was in short sleeves, but everyone sane was still bundled up in a sweater and coat. As they would be here.

Usually Belgrade weather is fairly close to Southern New England's where we live in the US. But, it snowed here last week. And in all the photos of views-from-possible-stan-windows that my husband's now sending me, Serbian Spring is in full throttle. It's 75 degrees there! The leaves on the trees are fully unfurled.

I sit here in my American office cubicle, looking out the window at bare branches and a chilly, gray haze so thick the harbor fog horns have been booming all day long. My husband calls anxiously, have I gotten this and that planted out in our US garden yet? "Hold your horses honey," I tell him, "first I have to wait for the sleet to stop."

Thursday, March 31, 2011

In Which My Husband Finds His Dream Stan

For my husband, all of this stan-shopping has been just like shopping for a prom dress with a very picky teenage girl -- sheer torture after the first 15 minutes. "If it were up to me, by now I could have bought a stan and celebrated four or five times over," he exclaims repeatedly.

Yet, now that I've had to return to the States, he is slogging on doggedly and, to my mind, more than a little heroically.

When he calls me in exaltation, to tell me he's Found *The* Stan in Novi Beograd, I am delighted... but guarded. We've been shopping for property together before. I know what he looks for. He looks for An Extraordinary View. I also know what he doesn't look for -- a nice floor plan, a workable kitchen, comfortably-sized bedrooms, places to install closets, plenty of windows, etc, etc.

"You can see the city and the river and the sunrise and the sunset!" he proclaims. "The terrace is more than 20 meters plus there's an additional terrace you can expand into!"

From his description, I realize I know this stan. It's one of the few advertised on the Internet with the price "Dogovor" which means "ask." As in if you can't afford a lot, you should not bother asking.

As I guessed, the price is far above our budget. "But the realtor who knows our budget says we can afford this one, so I think the owner is really ready to come down," my husband says happily. I suspect it's more likely that the realtor has fantasies about the depths of American pockets, no matter what our officially stated budget.

"Wire more from our savings tomorrow! I want to buy this stan!" my husband orders just before we say goodnight.

I am overwhelmed. Here is a man who's never gotten excited about a stan before in his entire life, and he is all fired up. Forget my doubts about the kitchen. Somehow we can manage. I tell him to start negotiating. Down. Far, far down.

Everything now depends on how much the owner really needs to sell. It feels strange for me to be crossing my fingers and hoping so hard for someone else's desperate economic circumstances. We'll be offering a fair price based on square meters and the location, but as we've learned, owners in Serbia don't make decisions based on fairness. We'll see....

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Belgrade You Don't Have to Throw a Party to Have a Party

My husband calls me from the bathroom of his sister's stan in Belgrade on the evening of her birthday. He's in there because it's the only place to have a quick, private conversation out of the noise.

The noise from the non-party. She had decided not to throw any sort of party because this birthday isn't a special one (with an "0" or "5" at the end.) So a quiet evening at home with her brother was in order.

People just started showing up anyway... one bearing a gargantuan torte he'd spent hours creating. When my husband last counted, the total was up to 26 unexpected guests. In a 450 square foot stan. No problem!

Then the expats started calling in via Skype because they didn't want to miss anything.

Sure I'm a little jealous, and not just of the torte either. I've had plenty of friends in my day, and often thrown parties for 50 or more. But over time it's become tougher and tougher. In America, as you age your friends winnow down, mainly because people move frequently (on average every 7 years.) With more than 100 cities to chose from, they go on to new horizons. Maybe it will be different for the social networking generation, but for people in my age group, you're likely to have lost close ties to many of your old friends over the years. Everyone from high school, college, first jobs, your 30's... they're all scattered across 3,000 miles, with new lives and new friends.

Not to mention how busy everyone always seems to be. It can easily take up to a month to arrange a dinner date with my best local girlfriend as we juggle our schedules and obligations.

But, as my step-daughter says, "Everybody's always got time to be social in Belgrade."

And there's just a huge advantage to living in a capital city in a country with very few other cities. People come and they stay.. for life. You make a friend and they are always there. Or, they are working overseas while saving up and plotting their way to getting back to staying there for life.

To me, a single central city seems like an incredible luxury. I lay back in bed and imagined what it would be like if all my old friends from all those passages in my life were living in the same place. Gorgeous fantasy. Or, I guess you could say 26 people showing up for your birthday when you're NOT throwing a party.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are You Really, Really Sure You Don't Want a Shot of Rakija?

No matter what time of the day or night you visit someone at home in Serbia, most will immediately haul out a bottle of rakija -- fruit brandy with a 40-60% alcohol rating. Only after your third 'Ne hvala' they'll switch tactics and ask politely if you'd prefer some beer or wine instead. It takes real persistence on the part of a guest to reject alcohol.

(They'll also offer you coffee, but as an add-on to the rakija rather than a hospitality beverage all by its lonely self.)

Rakija is, in fact, so much a part of socializing that I was amused to see a young Orthodox monk happily accepting a shot during a house visit recently. This after he'd scrupulously turned down any meat from his hosts because it's Lent. "Wait a minute, is liquor allowed during Lent?!" I just had to ask. "Well... it looks so much like water," was the explanation. Which was perfectly true.

When I told my husband this story he remarked that funnily enough he'd been visiting an Orthodox priest on the same exact day, who had done the same thing too.

As you can see from this daily alcohol consumption chart published in The Economist, people in the Balkans as a whole consume roughly double the amount of alcohol that typical Americans do.

What I hadn't realized, until I dug into the latest World Health Organization numbers, was how different the data was between Serbs and Croatians.

In fact the Croatians made the Top 10 list of biggest global drinkers. And, the data shows they used to be much worse... this is after a big downward swing in consumption! That said, they are still behind the former Soviet Union. Serbs were somewhere in the mid-20s of top drinking countries.

The difference between American over-drinking and Serb over-drinking is that in Serbia, if you have an alcohol problem people will tell you about it as soon as they notice it. To your face. Americans will not. They will be "polite" and not say a word to you until things are so very bad that you require an "intervention." Which is a fancy American word for everyone in your circle getting together and telling you something that if you were a Serb you would have heard about incessantly long before. You drink too much. You need to stop.

Perhaps as a result, there's no branch of Alcoholics Anonymous in Serbia. Nor, if you Google for clinics will you find places focused on alcohol abuse. Heroin yes, alcohol not so much.

It's not to say people don't have problems in every country. Clearly according to research they do. But perhaps problems are better handled the Serbian way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Belgrade Stan-Search Search Renewed: Avoiding Dreaded Duplex

The vast majority -- 90% or more it seems -- of apartments in Belgrade Serbia only have one or two real bedrooms. (As opposed to living rooms called bedrooms by the realtor.) On one hand it makes sense, Yugoslavia's vast building projects of the 1960s-80s created as many apartments as possible to meet overwhelming need. Smaller apartments means far more apartments per building.

On the other hand, it makes no sense because unlike people in Paris or New York, the vast majority of Serbs live with their families. People don't tend to live alone, nor do they leave home when they turn 21... or 31... or sometimes even when they get married. Families are jammed into their apartments, with most children sharing bedrooms, and permanently sleeping in the living room is perfectly normal.

The problem comes when you are an effete Amerikanka who wants to have a living room that's dedicated to being a living room, as well as separate home offices for you and your husband because your jobs do not play together nicely (his demanding quiet concentration, mine hours on the phone), and an actual bedroom just for sleeping. That adds up to what a Serb realtor would consider a 3.5 or 4 bedroom apartment.

Of which there are a very small number, and even fewer actually on sale at the moment. Or ever really.

Of these, the majority are what I call the "dreaded duplex" where the owners of a top-floor apartment broke through their ceiling to create a set of rooms in the attic. The rooms have heavily slanted ceilings, following the roof's slope, and the windows are often what they call "vertical" which means they are more like skylights set at an angle than a window you can look out of.

I truly am not a picky person. But I deeply desire a flat ceiling and a window with a view. I've also always thought the most delicious part about living in an apartment - as opposed to a house - is the lack of stairs. No running up and down looking for a pair of missing glasses, or carrying laundry, or lugging a vacuum cleaner.

So I have told my husband "NE DUPLEX". Ne, ne, ne, ne. And some more "ne" after that.

This leaves a tiny handful of four-bedroom stans available for us in Belgrade. All of which he will spend the next few weeks inspecting while I work away at my job in America. Both of us missing each other like crazy. Real estate, bah!

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Well, our offer was rejected. And soundly rejected at that.

Although we based our offer on what other stans in the neighborhood have been sold for recently, the owner (who himself bought it for a mere 765 Dinars some years back) flatly turned us down. We pointed out we had a little flexibility and would he like to dicker? Sure, he said, as long as we were prepared to offer his full price. Which one? we asked, as it is currently being advertised at rates ranging a over 5,000 Euros difference. The highest, naturally.

We pointed out that his price was higher than any stan of that nature had ever sold for, even at the very peak of the market a few years ago when Montenegrins were swarming into Belgrade flush with Russian cash for their coastline. We also pointed out that his building and stan were not in exactly peak condition, and he didn't even have his landbook ownership papers in order.

No matter, he replied. His price was his price!

How, you may ask, did he arrive at that price? He did the math. He added up what it would cost him to buy two smaller apartments, one each for his son and daughter. His daughter also needed a car. Plus, he'd like to do some home improvements to his own kuca in the country. And lastly, there must be some left over for his personal savings account as a cushion for the future.

Actual real estate valuations had nothing to do with it.

Our pain was increased by the fact that he took an ungodly amount of time, involving hours of rambling discussions and plenty of rakija to get to the point. What, you folks in America don't spend an entire Sunday afternoon drinking hard liquor while turning down real estate offers? What an uncivilized place.

Anyhow, he can afford to wait for the right buyer to come along. Eons from now, if ever. And he's now got something like 10 realtors all advertising the place simultaneously, so he'll have the fun of doing this to lots of people.

In the meantime, I am on a plane tomorrow back to my job in the US. The stan search is not discontinued so much as elongated.

Luckily I have always been of the philosophy that if you lose one real estate deal, it's because fate has a much nicer one in mind for you around the corner. Sometimes being a typical positive-thinker American has its virtues!

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Laundry Room Next Door

By the time he thinks to call me on my cell phone, my husband is distraught. He's come home after a trip and the door lock is jammed so he can't get inside. He can hear the radio and the bathroom fan, which I inadvertently left on before going out to Vracar's green market, so he's sure I'm inside. Crazy scenarios of what must be stopping me from opening the door, involving electricity, bathtubs and absent-minded Amerikankas, are racing through his mind.

"Oh for goodness sake," I say when he finally calls me. "I'm fine. Why don't you just knock on the neighbor's door and ask them if they have a spare key to the place? I'm sure they do, this is that sort of country."

"What neighbor? There's no neighbor on our floor."

"Yes there is! They live right next door!" Now I am concerned that he is completely losing his mind. "They've got a little name plate right next to their door, they are called Podkrovlje."

He bursts out laughing. Apparently "podkrovlje" means "laundry room." And all this time I thought what nice quiet neighbors we had in Belgrade!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Found it!

Can't say anything more until the Muz gets back from his business trip and officially approves my choice. Could not sleep last night. But this time for a happy reason. I was dreaming of decorating!

And you know, nobody can obsess over decorating the way an American woman can.

P.S. Yes, it's in Novi Beograd. But the very, very nicest bit right next to the Sava River. With sunlight pouring in from three sides of the stan, no smelly diesel fumes, a green market around the corner, and several friends living close by. Plus, if you look out the windows at night, the twinkling lights of the Blokovi almost look like a city. Squint and it's New York.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Agony of Indecision

After viewing nine stans in person, as well as everything possible repeatedly online, I come to the conclusion that one particular stan is our best choice. It's more than what we expected to spend... but so is everything in the neighborhoods we like best in Belgrade. And since we're coming the Belgrade simply for the love of it (rather than being required to by any obligations) it would be pretty pointless to live in an area we didn't really like.

Anyway, both the building and neighborhood are a good investment for the long term.

So after a month of stress, I relax inside. Then we decide to take a walk at night. Why not go down and check out the new neighborhood before we call the realtor with our final decision? Everything seems fine at first; quiet; a pleasant number of lit windows (nothing's worse than living in an empty neighborhood, which some of the newer buildings in Belgrade can be.)

At last, we reach a little cafe at the end of the street. From the distance it looks nice enough, a little pretentious, but I don't expect to be hanging out there myself. "Hey, there's about $2 million in cars parked here!" my husband exclaims. Cars have never remotely interested me so I hadn't noticed. Oh dear, he's right. Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, another Porsche.

We drive a "nice car" for Belgrade, but really it's an ordinary middle class car in the US. Even our local plumber has two of that model! I'm not used to living near to people who drive Porsches. I don't think I want to be either.

"Is this a fancier neighborhood than I thought it was?" I ask some local friends who I like tremendously. Well, they say kindly, it's a very good neighborhood and a good investment to be sure, but they prefer to live in Novi Beograd themselves. All their friends are there and it's just more "comfortable" for "people like us."

I had a hard time sleeping last night and today I'm heading over to Novi Beograd. It's probably best to look at a few more options before making my final decision. Blokovi here I come!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Celebrity Kuca Viewing!

We're standing outside a classic mid-century modern in the middle of Belgrade. Palm Springs California circa 1960. A typical falling-down Vojvodine farmhouse is next door, a concrete French villa stands across the street, and a 5-story Miami apartment building glistens on the street corner. Belgrade is great fun if you like variety in architecture.

But who built this place that looks as though Frank Sinatra lived there? The realtor proudly explains it was the family home of a famous celebrity folk-music couple from Yugoslavia's heyday. And, he just happens to have a key to it in his pocket.

We stroll from dusty room to dusty room. No one's lived here for a long time. Then, we walk into the biggest living room I've ever seen in Serbia. It's big for America even. Enormous. I suspect this unwieldy room, coupled with horribly expensive electric heat, is one of the reasons the place has been on the market for nearly a year now.

"They needed a very big room because this is where every musician in Belgrade used to come to visit and play," the realtor explains. We stand in silence for a moment, paying homage to those historic parties.

As we're leaving, I ask the realtor how much the celebrity connection affects the price. "Ah, it is very important" he says, "because you know if it is rich person then they must have used good building materials." OK, but what about a price tag on celebrity itself? He looks confused. Who would ever charge more for a place because a famous person once lived there? Americans must be even odder than he suspected.

The Kitchen With No Counter (At All)

So there I am standing in a stan that we found in the private for-sale listings at Halo Oglasi. It's already feeling much smaller than the advertised 80 meters because (a) it's a very old building so all the walls between rooms are like a foot thick* (b) there are many small rooms, and (c) the stan-owner, his adult children, and my own entourage are all there as well.

But the kitchen feels unusually small. In fact, it's really more of a closet with the door taken off. When I stand still in the middle, my winter coat is grazing all of the three remaining walls. And something seems to be missing. Can't put my finger on it.... Sink, check. Fridge, check. Stove, check. Wait a minute, where's the counter? I spin around in a circle looking. No, no counter whatsoever. Not even an itsy bitsy one.

The stan owner sees me looking confused and volunteers the information that the kitchen used to be much bigger in its original position where a large round table now sits outside the closet. But he decided to renovate to make things better.

A while later I ask seemingly apropos of nothing, is he married? Why no. He has no wife. How ever did I know?

*Footnote: My husband does the math and figures out later that those thick walls took a solid 10-14 meters of space from the inside of the stan. Something to consider when you are paying per square meter!

Friday, March 4, 2011

In Which I Stand Semi-Corrected: Realtors in Belgrade Do Cooperate (Sometimes)

Last week I said that most realtors in Belgrade Serbia will only show you their own listings. I was wrong.

Based on my now-broader experience, most realtors in Belgrade will happily show you one or two listings they think meet your needs no matter who the official listing agent of record is.

Actually, as my sister-in-law remarked, "No owner would ever dream of listing their apartment with just one single realtor." So, your realtor will pick out his favorite of the several listing agents and call that one to meet you at the listing. (This means everything still comfortably reverts to the time honored only-do-business-with-your-connections Balkan tradition.)

However, today I met one of the most experienced realtors in Belgrade. A man who is old enough never to have bothered learning a single word of English (he's in that generation who learned German or Russian as their second language.) And, he completely refused to show us or even discuss any listings that he, himself did not personally represent. Even if the listings were handled by his family's firm.

Infuriating. But he was so charming otherwise that one could not be really mad. It was simply the way things are for him. Now, did we want to buy his lovely listings or not?

As I said though, this guy is probably a dying breed. The new guys will show you anything ... but only one or two listings, and those one or two will be the most heavily advertised stans on the Net. Stans you could have found all by yourself without blinking an eyelash. No one will show you more than a couple of stans, no matter how many they promise at first meeting to "line up." And, if you don't buy the first couple of places they show you, they tend to drop you like a lead brick. No more calls, no more appointments.

I'm not sure if it's because they don't think you're a real buyer, or if they are simply too lazy to work for their commission.

So, Serbian stan-hunting is a miserable business mainly because the realtors themselves aren't what I'd consider professionally adept. Like most Americans I've bought and sold many homes in my lifetime. I know it doesn't have to be this tough. Serbs shrug and say, well that's the way it is here. I shrug and say, "So you enjoy this pain? Because it's entirely self inflicted."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Where to Buy Canned Coconut Milk in Belgrade?

"Need Thai food NOW!!!" is the heading of one of the lively discussions online at Belgrade Foreign Visitors' Club's bulletin board.

Having spent half my life, it seems, in search of Thai food while living in the most unlikely places to find it, I came to Belgrade well prepared. I have spice bags for both yellow and green Thai curry. I have big bottles of fish sauce, Tom Yum soup base, and soybean-chili sauce. Not to mention rice noodles. I even smuggled fresh lemongrass stalks, tiny hot thai peppers, and kefir lime tree leaves in past customs.

But, given how little room there was in my luggage, I was only able to pack two piddly cans of coconut milk. My sister-in-law assured me we would find some in one of the larger grocery stores or in the Chinese market in Novi Begrad. No luck though.

Any ideas? I don't want to have drive to Hungary as one guy reportedly did. (Although you never know, those cravings can hit real bad.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Purgatory of Stan-Hunting

Ok so I've visited a stan in Blok 21, my husband's favorite skyscrapers at the edge of Novi Beograd. And really, it was lovely inside. I'm not talking about a renovated stan either: I don't think this one's been touched since the 1970s. For such an inhuman-looking building from the outside, the insides are rather wonderful. The rooms are not too big, not too small. There's a sense of comfort and, dare I say it, grace and human proportion. Plus, lots of windows. Very nice indeed.

I was startled to find myself think, "I could definitely live here."

But, the stan we saw was on the Northeast corner of the building. I'm obsessed with sunshine and my husband is obsessed with a good view. That means the stans worth buying for us are in the Southwest corners of those buildings, on floors 7-14 above the traffic noise but below the neon advertisements perched on their rooftops. I asked the realtor what he could dig up. He laughed with ever-so-slight derision for my naivete. Everyone in Belgrade knows those Southwestern stans are the best. The chances one would make its way onto the open market are slim at best.

Meanwhile, my stan-hunt in Vracar, my favorite neighborhood in the old Belgrade, was bearing similar fruit. We saw stans with lots of windows but all facing into the walls of close-by buildings; or lots of windows all facing North; or lots of closets but bedrooms too skinny to fit our bed into.

Every owner was eager to volunteer which walls could and could not be knocked down. No one thought to mention about parking (even if they had it) unless we asked specifically. The prices of particular stans varied, sometimes rather widely, depending on which realtor you asked. But all indicated the official Internet price was a ceiling from which the owner would naturally expect to come down.

I broke free of the hunt and wandered disconsolately through the streets near the Kalenic Pijaca green market. Then I turned a corner and there it was. The stan of my dreams. My heart literally skipped a beat and then I think it exploded.

But, is it for sale? Probably not. But one never knows in Belgrade of course. How much money would the crazy Amerikanka care throw at the problem? That said, if we're talking multiple heirs, all bets are off because they'll never agree. Two Serbs have three opinions and probably four political parties.

The problem with being in love is of course it makes it very hard to carry on seeing other stans. I don't want to play the field anymore. Stan monogamy.

My husband says I'm wearing him out with all this emotion. Would I please have pity? Less darkness and fewer exaltations. I say, 'You're a Serb. Emotional is your genetic nature.' But, really he's right, it's wearing for me as well. This hunting and searching purgatory.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Your Choice at Belgrade McDonalds: Pay 20 Dinars for Ketchup or the Restroom

I almost never eat at McDonalds back home, but last night I needed comfort food after walking over the Sava River bridge to the Hyatt in Novi Beograd, Serbia and then back again.

This expedition was my husband's idea to demonstrate what a pleasant 20-minute stroll it would be for me to shop at the Stari Grad (old town) green market if we bought a stan in the Blok 21 skyscrapers on the other side of the Sava river. Yes, the sidewalk was very wide with plenty of room. And, if your idea of comfort is to walk high up over a wide river on a busy highway bridge that periodically trembles with heavy, smelly trucks and buses, then you would be in heaven.

As for me, after that experience I wanted McDonalds' fries and I wanted them pronto.

Four observations about the Stari Grad green market-area McDonalds:

1. It's a romantic hotspot. Especially if you are 16-20 years old, this is where a young man would take a girl in order to gaze deeply into each others' eyes while nursing a soda for hours. The very bright lighting is handy because for extra entertainment you can examine each other's cell phones for amusing text messages.

2. Do not presume to imagine that because you are an American that you can order without help from a local translator. For example, here the Filet-o-fish sandwich is pronounced so differently, involving a hard "t" among other things, that it would have been impossible for me to figure out by myself.

3. It is free to use the toilet, but only if you have a McDonalds' receipt proving you spent at least 20 dinars here within the past 3 days. Otherwise you need to pay 20 dinars to borrow the toilet key. (20 dinars is about 35 US cents, but given average salaries here, it feels like a buck.)

4. By sheer coincidence, the cheapest thing on the menu, a small packet of ketchup, costs 20 dinars. Yes, shocking to me, ketchup is not free.

After this experience, we continued by foot home to our rental stan in Vracar. And there on Slavia Circle, my husband happily bought himself a enormous burger-style sandwich from the locally-owned 'Gold Grill' fast food shack. It was half the price of my McDonalds meal, and ketchup was completely free.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Typical Prices for Apartments in Belgrade Area + My Three Favorite Listings Web Sites

I got these from a list at e-Belgrade.net which is one of my favorite real estate sites because it has so many realtors' listings all combined into one database. The prices are Euros per square meter.

Crveni Krst 1938
Dedinje 2128
Dorcol 1979
Slavija 2214
Stari Grad 2186
Vracar 2172
Zemun 1331

My other favorite Serbian real estate sites which combine multiple realtors' listings are are:
Halo Oglasi - for the absolute newest listings, hour by hour through the day
Imoniva - for listings arranged on a map

However, be forewarned, even if you look at every single listing on all three of these sites, you won't have seen all that's available as many listings either don't appear anywhere online, or only appear on an individual realtor's site. Also, you'll see a lot of duplicate listings -- the same stan advertised by multiple realtors. One place I only recognized after the fourth time of seeing very different pictures of it because the same small, angry dog, was scampering toward the camera with vengeance in its eyes each time.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Everybody's Pushing Novi Beograd

Everyone I talk to about real estate here - relatives, friends, friends-of-friends, even the landlord of our current rental in Vracar - says "Oh yes, central Belgrade and Stari Grad are so lovely." And then they proceed to list all the reasons we really should be moving to Novi Beograd instead:

- Novi Beograd is far cheaper per square meter;
- construction, especially of buildings from the 1970s and 1980s when Yugoslavian building was in its prime, is higher quality;
- you can always find free parking;
- a new green market is opening in Blok 44 that will be the best in Belgrade;
- You can go for long walks and bike rides along the Sava River greenbelt;
- You can eat and drink at houseboat cafes tethered to the Novi Beograd side of the Sava River;

and, then the pièce de résistance: everyone they know lives in Novi Beograd! Then they start naming people... which can take all day.

To an American's eyes Novi Beograd looks like the projects. Ugly, concrete skyscraper-style housing units that we shove poor people into on the outskirts of cities. Unloved places with crime, hopelessness, drug addiction, grey skies. Clearly that's not what Novi Beograd really is, only what it strongly reminds us of. (Even my father emailed me from home to say, 'Don't look in that area - it's too depressing.')

To a city-lover's eyes, Novi Beograd looks like an urban suburb (which is not a compliment.) All the neighborhoods are circled by highways and four-lane boulevards with traffic driving through at high speeds day and night.

Strolling through city streets is one of my absolute favorite activities in the world. I can't imagine enjoying walking around the concrete Bloks of Novi Beograd, and no, the Sava WILL NOT DO. The point, for a city-lover, is the city! Not nature. I have enough green in family-owned weekend places in the countryside (where to my mind we spend entirely too much time at as it is.) When I come to the city, I'm trying to Get Away From Nature. That's the whole point.

A central city garden, designed and cared for by humans, with sculptures, benches and clipped hedges, surrounded by a wide variety of historic and modern architecture... now that is the kind of nature I like! The banks of the Sava? Dull as dishwater.

That said, I have just made my first viewing appointment with a realtor (who I picked out because he was recommended by not one but two readers of this blog - thank you!) We will go look at stans on Saturday... in Novi Beograd. Because everybody lives there. And you know, you easily can go across the bridge to Stari Grad at any time - it's just two bus stops or ten minutes by foot.

Sigh. I feel the inevitable coming toward me.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Great Stan-Hunt Begins: What I've Learned So Far About Belgrade Real Estate

I love, love, love real estate. But, I can't imagine the agony shopping for an apartment (stan) in Belgrade Serbia must be for people who don't share my passion... because even for me it's turning into a headache.

Serbian real estate is a lot like its cousin Croatian real estate (Posts from our failed 2008 attempt to find a condo we liked in Zadar Croatia.) To wit:

- No national or city-wide MLS (centralized listings). You have to surf a dozen sites looking for listings. Maybe 5% of online listings have photos. I suspect some listings never make it online at all, and I know for sure many realtors don't bother to take listings down when a stan is sold.

Most brokers will *only* show you their own listings. Property owners list their properties with multiple brokers to expand the pool of potential buyers. That's why you'll see multiple ads for the same property online, sometimes at different prices!

- No such thing as a universal 'broker's key' to properties, so a broker can't show you as many listings as you'd like whenever you have time available. Instead they must call each property owner and make an individual appointment to see the listing. This slows down property hunting considerably, and it means the owner will be staring at you the whole time you tour their place. Awkward!

- No 'open house' days (in fact, many brokers don't work Sundays) and no brokers-opens. Again this means it's harder to see what's available and your broker often hasn't seen the listings in person either.

- Title search, which is more pro-forma than needed in the US, is CRITICAL in Belgrade where properties are not always "on the books." I've heard expensive "penthouse" condos that have been added to older buildings are the worst for this. Apparently some owners insist upon a non-refundable 10% buyer deposit before you do the title search, which is obviously problematic.

- Prices are low for a capital city ... but high compared to potential rental income and astronomical compared to citizens' incomes. The rates I see quoted on general news sites of 1,200-1,800 Euros per square meter are not realistic compared to listings which tend to go from 1,500-3,000 Euros per square meter. Anything in a "good" location is on the 2,000-3,000+ Euros end of things.

Plus, bad news on the tax front. Serbia's just passed new annual real estate taxes, which start at reasonable levels but rise to US-levels for property worth more than 150,000 Euros. So the savings we anticipated in moving here won't happen, especially because electricity and gasoline (petrol) costs are so much higher.

... and now for the stans themselves:

- "Salon-style" means nose-bleed high ceilings and large rooms except for the kitchen which is tiny (see below.)

- Kitchens are either shoved into a small dark corner or contained in a claustrophobic hallway attached to a 4-6 square meter terrace where you hang laundry. Renovated or "lux" kitchens are still small, but the cupboards are uber-glossy and one side of the kitchen may open up bar-style to the living room.

I personally so loath the "lux" style, which is pretentious and not very practical, that I'm praying we end up buying a non-renovated stan so I can do the redesign myself.

- Bedrooms are small. You could not fit a US king or even queen-sized bed in many of them. Closets are either tiny or non-existent, so you'll have to put a hulking wardrobe in your bedroom.

WARNING: In the Balkans, realtors refer to every single room that's not obviously a kitchen, hall or bathroom as a "sobe" (bedroom). That means they count the living room and dining room (if a separate room) as bedrooms... as indeed these probably are given the cramped conditions for many families. A corner that's good for a tiny home office would be considered a "half bedroom" which is why you see ads with ".5 sobe"s. A one sobe stan means a studio apartment, with no separate bedroom at all.

- Bathrooms are depressing. Why must all bathroom walls be coated with huge, ugly tiles from floor to ceiling? Only stans with bathrooms too small for tubs have showers. Tubs are not equipped with proper shower heads, but only with a hand-held device on a short hose so you must squat down to wash your hair.

- There is no such thing as a laundry closet. The washing machine is shoved - often awkwardly - into the bathroom. The dryer is, as mention above, a clothesline on your balcony or terrace. The good news is, this means nearly every single place has at least a small balcony, which can be unusual in the US.

- Windows are nice and large, but most apartment buildings are designed so you only have windows on one side of each room. Even if it's a corner apartment! Clearly no one in Serbia has ever read the studies showing humans get depressed when they have light from one side only.

- Floors are invariably wood parquet and rather attractive. Walls, even in newly renovated places, tend to be real plaster and often more than a foot thick. No thin dry-wall! However the newly lux places sometimes have horrible plastic interior doors.

- Heating is wonderful and close to free if you buy a stan with "city heat" in Novi Beograd, or you add extra radiators to a Stari Grad stan. (Apparently, Stari Grad city heat pipes are old and pump less warmth.) Everyone has warned me against buying a stan without city heat, because the cost of "independent" heat would be too high. Central air conditioning is non-existent.

- The typical stan seems to be around 40-70 square meters (roughly 400-700 square feet.) Big, expensive stans are 70-90 square meters (700-900 square feet.) Crazy huge stans that only millionaires, diplomats, and old ladies live in are 90-120 square meters (900-1,200 square feet.) So, what many Americans would consider a moderately-sized nice apartment, would be enormous over here.

- 99% of stans do not include a dedicated parking spot, nor is it easy to buy or rent parking separately. You can find on-street public parking in Novi Beograd fairly easily (when the economy improves that will be a thing of the past) but hardly ever in older parts of the city.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Many Faces of Belgrade (& My Tired Feet)

Just back in from my third walking tour of Belgrade in as many days. Ostensibly each tour is for the purpose of showing me the neighborhoods in Vracar and Stari Grad that I should consider for buying an apartment. But, each person takes me to "their" Belgrade.

The route is pretty much the same. Starting at St Sava Cathedral we work our way down to the outskirts of Kalemegdan Park and then back again. But what a different city each time I see!

With my sister-in-law, Belgrade was a city of food. That's where you buy the best smoked salmon, over here is a wonderful restaurant from her student days, and it never hurts to stop and eat some small cakes at this place.

At my husband's side, Belgrade became a city of bookshops. Did you know this publisher has their own chain of stores? Oh, look which author won the Book of the Year prize. Can we pop into this place to check if they have one thing? Sure, it's OK if you want to wait outside, I'll just be a minute....

Then today, walking with my friend Anja, the exact same streets were suddenly bursting with art galleries. Photographs from South America, antique Japanese tea pots, 185-years of Serb intelligentsia portraits, sculptures made from toothbrushes. Really it's too bad everything closes at 4pm on Sundays or we could have seen much, much more. Am I sure I've seen enough now to make an informed decision?

Absolutely. If I need to eat, read, or have an aesthetic experience, I'm all set. And, you know, that's really about all I demand from a city. So, Belgrade seems fine to me.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Help - Seeking a Decent Real Estate Agent (Nekretnine) in Belgrade Serbia

By "decent" I mean the following:

1. Knows and will show more listings than his/her own, so we're not limited by and only steered to those.

2. Listens to what you say you want (neighborhoods, size, terrace, light) and doesn't waste your time pushing listings that don't remotely meet your needs.

3. Won't try to cheat an Amerikanka too much. Some is understandable, but within reason!

Some English would also be nice, but I have local friends with me as a translators so we can get along if need be without it.

Every single Serb I've spoken with has told me nothing but realtor horror stories. From what I gather, very little is selling right now and the buyer often pays the realtor commission here... so one would think Serbian real estate agents would try extra hard. But I get the feeling that in Serbia realtors are viewed a bit like Americans think of used car dealers.

If you know a realtor who is trustworthy, intelligent, and experienced in Belgrade's Stari Grad and Central areas, please do post their info here in comments! In the meantime, I'll keep posting updates on the Stan Search. It will certainly help me keep my sense of humor knowing that I can write about it here!

Friday, February 18, 2011

"SO" on the Box in a Serbian Kitchen Does Not Mean "Sugar"

And now that I've made an enormous pot of coffee for all our guests with this SO stuff, not to mention ruining a week's supply of oatmeal, I will creep away from our rental kitchen in Belgrade with my tail between my legs.

Just when you think you're getting the hang of things....

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Surrounded by Minks & Millionaires in a Belgrade Green Market

I am fumbling my way through a green market in the heart of downtown Belgrade Serbia in a bleary haze of jet-lag. It's a damp and chilly February day, so I'm glad to be snuggled into the full-length mink coat my husband bought me as a Christmas surprise this year.

It's an American-style mink, which means that you can't actually tell it's a mink unless you're wearing it, as the fur is hidden as the interior lining. From the outside it just looks like an unusually bulky raincoat. Although well-off women of my grandmothers' generation certainly all wore minks publicly, no one I've known in my generation owns one, let alone flaunts it. All those PETA ads I suppose (which makes little sense given how much leather and meat typical Americans buy, but there it is.)

Standing in the midst of the green market stalls, I am surrounded by furs of every sort. None of which are hidden. They're not exactly flaunted either, but worn as a normal coat would be. I start counting. Every third or fourth woman is wearing some real fur, either as a jacket and/or a hat. About the same percentage are wearing faux fur. The others are bundled into elegant wool coats. Zero parkas.

My husband tells me furs are much cheaper in Serbia than they are in the US (I get the impression he had profound sticker shock when he bought my coat in America.) Everyone knows someone who knows someone just back from a trip to Russia with a stack of coats to sell from the bedroom of their apartment.

I turn my attention from fur-counting to paying for our purchases. Fresh from the money exchange, all we have are larger denominations. I apologize, but the man at the stall smiles and pulls a simply enormous wad of dinars from his pocket to make change. "Wow, you're a millionaire!" I blurt out.

He starts laughing and shows me his money roll is thick with mostly 20 and 50 dinar notes worth far less than a dollar. "Take it! Take it!" he cries, "Now you can be rich."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Packing Hell Day: 46 Kilos Is Not Enough for Visiting Serbia

In my 20s, I once toured Scotland and Northern England for two weeks with one tiny bag that fit easily into the plane's overhead compartment. Now that I've married a Serb and we travel to his country several times per year, packing has become a lot more difficult. It's not because I'm a diva.

It's because of all the commissions. Part of "coming from America" is the obligation to bring things for people. In the old days (read the 1990s and early 2000s) you brought gifts for people. Now that sanctions are over and we visit several times a year, gifts are too over the top, but it's assumed that we are open to "orders." As in if you "order" something from America, our luggage will be your personal delivery vehicle. In the past, people called or emailed their requests and then we went on a frenzied shopping trip the day before we left. Now the Internet has changed things. Mostly people order things to be delivered to our house in the US for us to transport to Serbia.

My husband and I are on our way to Belgrade tomorrow night. So this weekend we started pulling out all the boxes of Serbs' stuff that have been delivered to our house recently. It was a truly impressive mountain. Most was either bulky, such as a large boardgame, or heavy, such as engine parts, or both, such as classic 33 rpm LPs.

We lucked out and got what I think are the absolute last tickets to Europe that allow two pieces of 23 kilo luggage per person. After this, we'll be limited to just one bag each. I was excited about the "extra" luggage because I thought I'd use the space to bring over some stuff to stock our kitchen in Sombor such as Thai sauces I can't get in the Balkans.

No way. I will be able to wrap my underwear around the computer parts and maybe slip a packet of Cilantro seeds under the children's board game. But the bulk of my luggage is not for me - it's for Serbia. When you are married to a returnik, you are expected to relegate your needs.

If you see me on the street in Sombor or Belgrade, I'll be the raggedy-looking American who has worn the same exact outfit for 30 days and counting....