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

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....