Rosemary Bailey Brown's Married to a Serb Blog

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, 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.