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

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.