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

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.