My Coffee Cup Runeth Over

The three of us had arrived relatively unscathed from our adventure and once the cars (yes we had a convoy!) were packed, seating plans organized and location of the car parking payment booth found, we were off!!! I have to admit to being completely ignorant of anything Serbian, so my constant stream of well meaning questions on the way to Ruma was probably not the best first impression to my weary car companions. No, apparently we would not be going through Belgrade, and yes there are motorways!!! It was pitch black outside so I cannot say that the breathtaking beauty of this country blew me away, in fact I saw squat. After about 50 minutes we turned off the motorway and I was told we had arrived at my new home town. At least there were street lights… no people however as it was the middle of the night, so I could not form an impression but it seemed normal enough. I mean there were no straw huts, none of the gun wielding maniacs; it appeared to be a standard small town. Relief flooded through me.

But in times like this we Brits lean on our national tradition, a cuppa! So once I supervised the unpacking of the cars into a mini mountain in the hall, I had one ear open for the sound of the kettle. I cannot function without copious amounts of tea, and in my mini mountain I did have some tea bags, so I started scourging through and produced my box. The whole convoy was now ensconced in the dining room and the kettle started ringing but there was a deadly silence when I started pouring milk into my tea. They all looked at me as if I had walked off another planet! I have to say this is a feeling that I experienced many times in the coming days. The questions started, “Are you feeling ill?” Apparently tea is only drunk when you are not feeling well! “If you don’t want that you can throw it away and have coffee if you want.” I gathered they believed I had made a mistake by adding milk to my tea. Serious tremors set in; my future tea drinking seemed to be in jeopardy. I would and could not survive!! However, once everyone had tried it, and claimed it tasted like lemonade (something that confuses me to this day) it seemed to be accepted that the mad English woman was maybe tolerable, even if her drinking habits were very strange!!

Although absolutely physically exhausted, after getting both children in pyjamas and nappies, sleep completely eluded me. It had been such a day and what tomorrow would bring didn’t even bear thinking about.
After breakfast, the likes of which I had never seen before as the table was literally groaning under the amount of food, the first guest came to see us. This was the start of the ‘Jules and children freak show’. Everyone and their dog (literally, in many cases) came to meet us. And this was when I first encountered one of the strangest customs in rural Serbia that to this day I have not got to the root of. Everyone very kindly brought the children lots and lots (and then some more) chocolate. Now as all mothers know, when your daughter is 5 months, she cannot consume chocolate and a 20 month old boy can only manage a small amount. My eyes lit up with every guest, I knew any depressing times were now dealt with; I would sneak the kids chocolate!! But along with the wonderful sweet stuff came packets of coffee. Every single person brought various sizes, brands and packs of the Serbian coffee. My mother-in-law accepted each one and stored them in a cupboard. By the end of our first week we had moved to a third cupboard full of packets of coffee. I do have to explain that everyone came to us; I hadn’t started to visit other people myself by this point. I am still searching for the reason behind this coffee giving custom, although there was not a chance we would run out… ever!!!

Along with my amazement at my mini mountain of stuff being replaced by a hill of coffee, I was also bemused by how many people came to see us. There was a constant stream of people, some of whom I have never seen again, well actually I might have done but I am not great with faces. Obviously at 20 months my son had just started talking and his favourite word was “look”. He liked pointing at everything and exclaiming: “Look!“ I encouraged this and felt like we were being accepted when everyone else who visited us asked him to say it, laughing afterwards. I was a tad bemused, but in all that was going on I didn’t dwell on it. It was a while later that someone told me how sweet it was that I had taught him the Serbian word for onion before we came here (luk). Hmm, have to say I never admitted to anything, but why anyone would think, of all the words to teach him, that I would choose onion, is kind of beyond me.

I felt that our coming out parade, as this was how it seemed, had been successful and we had been accepted to a point – the tea drinking still bringing lots of head shaking, but I learnt to deal with that… and now it was time to go and sort out my paperwork. Boy was that a jolt to the system!!!!!!

Only in Serbia

This saying has developed over my 7 years in this wonderful but sometimes completely baffling country!!! From my arrival at Nikola Tesla airport at midnight July 2005 accompanied by a 20 month old, a 5 month old, the accompanying necessities and paraphernalia that go hand in hand with children and my 250kg of luggage I have been on a voyage of discovery that I would not change for the world and have had experiences from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Explaining how I ended up here is easy, why we stayed is perhaps more complex!!! I met my husband while we were both working in Malta. Two children later and the lack of family support we had the decision to make, Serbia or England……as someone who has never been to Serbia, did not speak a word of the language and had no friends there this was a tricky one for me but I was promised
great things!!! All my mind, family and friends kept on flashing up were the news reports of the Balkan war, I will be honest I had visions of the streets full of gun brandishing maniacs along with the concern of what peoples reaction to me, an English woman, would be to me as after all we were part of the Nato strikes, would everyone instantly blame me!

The decision was made, Serbia it was!! From what I heard the family structure was much stronger, the visa situation for me would be easier than for my husband in England and we had my mother in law waiting to help us however we wanted. Yes, alright that terrified me too, we all know what mothers in law are like and especially a widowed mother of an only son, a Serbian son at that.

After much deliberation my husband left a couple of weeks before us to get everything ready for us. What a great plan, no building cots etc when we land. What we didn’t think through was the packing up plus two children that I was left with!!! To this day I still think of things that I have no idea where they were hidden by my 20 month old son, but at least I managed to pack both kids and in a trail of cars and a wonderful JAT representative who arranged my 250kg of excess luggage onto the plane. Lots of tears and thoughts of I should turn round now and go back to my comfortable life in the sun were flashing through my mind.

The flight was uneventful, well apart from my conviction that we would be snatched from the plane as English passport holders when we were on the tarmac in Libya but something amazing happened on that flight. Yes, I had known Serbians in Malta but none of our friends were on the flight but by the time we arrived at the airport every single person on our flight came and spoke to me,
played with the kids and was so excited that I had made the decision to move to Serbia. That was my first glimpse into the Serbian nature!! I can honestly say that I know if the boot was on the other foot not one English person would have approached a Serbian on the plane.

As homage to my husband I changed my son into his Partizan football shirt, daughter into carry seat, pushchair under one arm, bags on my head and passports strategically placed in my mouth we got off the plane. People were picking up my trail of discarded items when we got to passport control. Ah, no problem I have an English passport I thought but oh no!!! They asked me something, I looked blank, so they shouted it at me, I still looked blank, my son was off somewhere in the distance…….god what now!!! Luckily one of the other passengers noticed my plight answered the questions, which to this day I have no idea what they were but we had stamps in our passports and we were through.

Once I had found my errant child and went towards the baggage reclaim it was empty, and that is when all the plans completely fell to pieces. Ok, JAT was wonderful with all my luggage, and all my friends waving me off had loaded it at Malta airport, but now how the devil was I going to hold onto child, carry daughter in her seat and remove from the carousel 250kg of luggage and then get it through customs!! A major sulk ensued where I just sat down and watched my luggage going round and round!!!! Then the second miracle happened, men appeared like ants from all corners of baggage reclaim, my bags were on luggage trolleys and were headed through the nothing to declare. Where else in the world would that have happened? Serbia and Serbian people I had fallen in love!!!

We had arrived and in the short time that I had experience of the Serbian nature I could tell we were going to like it here!!!