Inat – A Secret Weapon Of Resilience?

Asking around about inat, I’ve received interesting some feedback. … Let sleeping dogs lie, just write more cute anxious-mommy stories.

It all started when I wondered about the 1999 Nato bombing. The thing I wanted to know was, with bombs falling on your city: Why not just get the heck out?

Me: I know there are exceptions to all stereotypes …

Fellow mommy friend: Of course, they never hold true for everyone.

Me: But what about inat?

Not an actual 1999 t-shirt, but (I hope) a decent approximation …

Friend: Ha! That one is completely true. Inat means spite, but not exactly. Not in the sense of retribution. Inat is something like, “You gave me sanctions, and I survived. Now you want to bomb me? I’m not going anywhere. Bring. It. On.” That’s why all of us were walking around Belgrade wearing t-shirts with a target on them.

The Anxious Mommy Perspective on National Emergencies

Here’s the thing, after 9/11, many Americans came up with emergency contingency plans. (Serbs—feel free to throw salt over your shoulder or to spit on the ground … )

No joke, I know exactly what I’m going to do if some shit hits the fan here. Who I’ll call, what I’ll bring if I have 10 minutes to pack the family in the car and leave. Not to be macabre, but even before Libya, my plan did not involve knocking on the heavily fortified doors of a likely targeted American Embassy.

I know, I know, there are a lot of reasons people didn’t leave Serbia. Some had no place to go, let alone the money to go there. The bombing didn’t just occur at night, and only on military installations. The entire country was targeted, and travelling—even across local city bridges—was as treacherous as staying in one spot.

Etymology of Inat

Originally a Turkish word that means “persistence,” inat takes on a deeper meaning in Serbian. (The Ottoman Empire ruled over the Balkans for 500+ years, hence the language influences.) From Open Democracy, Aleksandra Kovac said

The meaning of the Serbian word inat in a bilingual dictionary like Morton Benson’s is often defined in terms of malice, spite, or grudge. None of these is a direct equivalent and each contains only a partial component of the emotional complexities the word suggests to the Serbian ear.

A closer correspondence for inat would be, in the words of Dragan Milovic [London’s Institute of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies.] … “an attitude of proud defiance, stubbornness and self-preservation—sometimes to the detriment of everyone else or even oneself.” (2004)

A closely held secret

Back in April 1999, the BBC called Inat: “Serbia’s Secret Weapon.”

Nato’s bombing of Serbia is bringing inat even closer to the surface of its people’s raison d’etre.

They get up, go to work, and carry on with life as normally as possible, not through any notion of presenting a stiff upper lip—but because Nato doesn’t want them to.

Inat is doing something on purpose, even though it’s forbidden, perhaps because it’s forbidden.

No one ever mentioned inat to me 

Over the last ten years, I’ve had many dear friends and wonderful colleagues who are from ex-Yugoslavia, living in the US and Europe. People who’d lived in places that are now called Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia. I’ve met Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and agnostics. Even atheists (I know, scandal!). All sorts of mixes, too.

The point is, I know a lot of people from the Balkans, but no one mentioned inat.

Talking about politics and even something that might be construed as a cultural identity (and therefore dangerously “nationalistic”) is still a complex, emotional subject. Truly, depending upon whom I ask, inat is either seen as a nasty, negative quality, or one of survival and resilience.

Nevertheless, I feel like I got a satisfying answer. … When Nato started bombing Serbia, why didn’t people just leave?

Expat Confessional – 3 Ways I Suck At Driving In Serbia

Driving in and around Belgrade is not easy. [Understatement.]

Things simply doesn’t make sense (literally, as in I’m illerate in Cyrillic). It’s New York City-type-driving on steroids. Lanes are more narrow, drivers cut-it-closer, with just the slightest bit of aggression. No, I’m not implying all Serbs are aggressive, I’m still a semi-PC-American, remember? People are skilled, not nasty drivers.

I will never understand the traffic patterns here.

While I do consider myself a competent, safe driver, but please don’t ask my husband his opinion, I will now provide a few examples to elucidate why and how I truly … suck at driving in Serbia.

1. The Protected Green Left-turn Light.

Doesn’t sound so hard, right? It (should) mean I have the right-of-way to make my left turn safely.

Not so.

These lights coincide with green walk signs for pedestrians who are crossing the very intersection through which I’m attempting to drive.

Seriously. It is extremely disconcerting to see grandmas slowly shuffling and I hope to dear god they don’t fall and break a hip crossing these intersections. What I want to know is … Why give me the go-ahead with a protected green light? Why Serbia-traffic-laws, why?

Those sneaky protected green lights mess with my head.

Which brings me to Confession #1: may have slammed my breaks on more than one occasion to keep from flattening a man-in-a-jaunty-white-jacket-who-nearly-lost-his-life, sorry! pedestrian who sprinted into the intersection at the last possible moment.

2. Un-marked lanes, which are actually reserved for … trams. Yes, as in electric trains on the street

Belgrade has electric trams, like those quaint street cars in San Francisco. Here, they sometimes have own dedicated lanes. No big deal, right?

Confession #2: Ummmm, I may have driven in tram lane once or twice. Don’t judge … it was empty, as in tram-free!

These lanes aren’t properly marked (see above, re: Laura’s illiteratacy), so to thestupid American driver and even a casual observer, they are merely unused lanes perfect for getting a leg-up on backed up traffic.

3. Invisible traffic lights

On the subject of unmarked-things-you-need-to-see-when-driving-a-car (and, yes, I was wearing my glasses, thank you for asking) … Most traffic lights have some “protective material” that reflects the light, thereby making it nearly impossible to ascertain the light’s status … until one is nearly in the intersection.

Confession #3: I may have run a red light (let’s call it pink, not quite red) but not on purpose!

Pa·tri·ot·ism

Pa·tri·ot·ism – A noun, meaning: devoted love, support, national loyalty, devotion to one’s own country and concern for its defence.  What is patriotism?  Nationalism? Why is it so hard to define ones’ self as either or?  In today’s world, where it is often frowned upon and seen as a negative to explicitly state that you are either or, where acceptance of ones’ choice has become tolerable and yet freedom of choice is still very hard to come by, I am most definitely a patriot.

There are a few things that I strongly believe in, that I guess I would defend whole heartedly – my family and my Serbia.  I think that once you leave this beautiful country, you begin to miss certain things and most definitely appreciate what you have lost.  I often catch myself daydreaming and still even after almost three years back in Belgrade I cannot fathom and grasp my own reality….

It must have been some time in the late 90’s, that the first seed of patriotism was planted.  Serbia at that time was being shredded to pieces by NATO bombs and yet I was safe and sound in New Zealand.  Peculiar.  My father organised the protests in Wellington and our whole family and most of our friends participated.

I was very young, and although literally on the other side of the world, I experienced this tragedy and very much took it to heart.  I began to miss Serbia even more, I began to actively seek involved within the Serbian community so that I could feel more at home.  It was then that I realised, it doesn’t really matter where you are, it matters where you came from.  It doesn’t matter, that I spent most of my life outside of this beautiful city, country, when from day one I yearned to return.  Hi, my name is Tijana and I suffer from patriotism.

When you have the freedom to walk down Francuska street whenever you like, drink your favourite coffee in Cika Ljubina, watch your favourite play in Atelje 212 you pretty soon realize that are complete.  The accumulation of small things in life, are vital to your happiness, that the circle which makes up your existence is absolutely complete, you then realize that you wouldn’t have it any other way…

People in diaspora are not very different to me, to us.  For the fear offending certain individuals, I wouldn’t say that Serbian diaspora are more patriotic, however, they are fears competitors to those born and bred, local living Serbs.  We in diaspora already feel a deeper sense of loss, we are more aggressive towards defending what is ours, more tolerable to differences for the sake of a happy community and last but not least we believe in Serbia.  We left, some on our own accord, some were forced out and some ran away… 

However, we never forgot where we came from and the patriotic seed was planted probably long before the departure date.  We didn’t leave Serbia, because it was surrounded by rainbows and butterflied, no – we left because our Serbia had changed, she became someone else, something we couldn’t recognise and could no longer follow blindly.

Although, we are so far away from Mother Serbia and probably feel a sense of guilt we most definitely go out of our way to give back to our country.  I never explicitly supported any one organisation in their humanitarian work, until I came across 28. Jun (http://28jun.blogspot.com).  In my opinion, this is a rear organisation which provides the Serbian people with tangible resources, with help and hope.  This is an organisation which is based in Canada and yet has managed to bring together the Serbian diaspora which spans on numerous continents. 

A breath of fresh air, hope to our community, a step closer to a better and stronger Serbia, an organisation supported by people who have had a very similar childhood to mine.  Have a read, see what they are about, meet our diaspora and hopefully you too will feel an ever stronger bond and proudness of the Serbs who left Serbia but never forgot her and never lost the sense of belonging to such a powerful nation.  Long live this amazing country!

Adventures and Opportunities

Depending on the circumstances as an expat here, the experiences will differ. On one of the few recent adventures I’ve taken with a friend of mine here – another expat – it was brought to my attention by her wisdom that all expats are living a life that most only dream of.

This hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve got lots of my mind lately, and even more on my plate it seems, but she was right. Still is, too. She and I both had vowed at the beginning of the year as an unofficial resolution that we’d stop saying “no” to everything and experience this awesome opportunity we’ve provided for ourselves.

Now, as in my previous post that you may have read – I’ve been here 3 years. And in 3 years, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I haven’t really experienced Belgrade or Serbia as much as I would like or had hoped. I’ve never been to a club here. Haven’t toured around Serbia much. I’ve only been to Sokobanja – which I must say I love Sokobanja! But that’s a different story. 😉 I’ve never really been to many of the events, or anything. Now.. there are many reasons to this. Unfortunately, the biggest most of the time was money wasn’t there to spend. But that doesn’t cover the things that were free I skipped out on. So… this year, is about living up to the dreams I had and have about living in Serbia and not disappointing those who only get to dream about it.

There are limitations with this though – traveling around Serbia requires money and time. I work 1 part time teaching job (hopefully 2 soon), I have my own company, and I have household obligations also. Clubs and going out take money, time, and energy – all of which I am sometimes just completely lacking. It happens to the best of us.

BUT – these are also all excuses. We all know, as human beings, if you want to do something – you will find a way no matter what.

So from here on out – actually started like a week ago – I refuse to let Belgrade and Serbia pass by me any longer. I’m living a dream of my own, in a country and city rich with history, culture, and beauty. I refuse to not experience it anymore. So I will always do what I can within my means.

Are you an expat that lets Serbia just pass you by? Are you a Serb that doesn’t realize the gem of a city or country you live in? Who’s with me in making sure 2013 is fully enjoyed and appreciated?

Food Glorious Food!

Let’s face it: air, water and food are integral to our lives. Serbian water and air is relatively indistinguishable from that of England’s water and air, but the food can differ.

Sure, England has pork and Serbia has pork, England has potatoes and Serbia has potatoes, people scoff Mars bars here, and they do so in England too. But after a while spent in Serbia I began to crave food products from there not available here. Also too, I began to develop a taste for some local food here, not available there.

This article details my hunger pangs.

I am English, and these are the ‘foods’ I miss:

Fish-and-ChipsBattered Cod and Chips: lemon soaked golden batter that parts under the knife to reveal succulent ripe white cod. Cod that melts on my tongue and makes my toes tingle and curl. Hmm… what could top that? Oh, yes, the salt and vinegar coated chunky chips that nestle alongside the battered cod (or sometimes the curry sauce covered chips that nestle there).

In Belgrade I can obtain fairly nice battered fish, and I can obtain nice tiny fish – but please – somebody – anybody – tell me where I can find battered cod and their sidekick chunky chips.

lemon-chickenChinese Food: Belgrade has Chinese takeaways and Chinese restaurants, but the taste (especially in the restaurants) is qualitatively different from that in England. When I return to England, the day after I’ve gorged on battered cod and chips I tend to find myself in a Chinese establishment, either a ‘eat all you can’ buffet restaurant (preferably where the Chinese themselves eat), or a takeaway. The exotic flavours that hit the tongue from a plate of ribs dripping with barbecue sauce, or the bursts of enjoyment you receive from chicken oozing with lemon sauce, are 48 frames per second of intensity compared to the 24 frames per second I’ve received from Chinese food here.
For some reason the Chinese cook differently in Belgrade. Maybe they simply tailor their product to the taste-bud preferences of the native population?

alldaybreakfastThe All Day Breakfast: The best time to indulge in a fried breakfast is midday, and the best location (in my biased opinion) is a greasy spoon café (i.e. truckers café, or ‘delboy’ type food establishment located on a minor side-street). True, this food is unhealthy. If the doctor could give you a prescription for a heart attack – this would be it. But, who can deny the illicit pleasure of slurping tea from a chipped mug between mouthfuls of banger (sausage), bacon and yolk covered chips? What greater luxury is there on a Friday lunchtime, after a stressful week at work, than deciding whether to tackle a standard, large or belly-buster all-day-breakfast and then to dine on the most flavoursome saturated fat this side of Cholesterol city, whilst reading the sports section of a daily tabloid. Working class heaven.
We’ve tried our own ADB’s in Belgrade, but without easy access to sliced bacon, British style sausages and black pudding – it’s just not the same.

TwigletsTwiglets: You either love twiglets or you hate them (like Marmite, but that’s another tale). Hopefully, you loathe twiglets because that leaves more for me. And so by deduction you realise – I love twiglets. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a twiglet lover watching television on a Christmas evening is in want of a huge tub of the aforementioned yummies to bide time with. What can be more fulfilling than licking that yeast extracting coating from the knobbly wheat sticks, until your tongue is brown? Hmm…..
Can’t find them in Belgrade.

These are the ‘foods’ I’ve developed a taste for in Belgrade:

CocktaCockta: A Herbal Coke? WTF? What foul commercial rip-off is this, I first thought, when coming to Belgrade. Then I tasted the tangy liquid heaven and upgraded to swigging litre bottles from brown paper bags in the park. Gee, this stuff is addictive, it’s replaced coke as my soft drink of choice and it doesn’t give me insomnia if I drink it all evening in a bar (unlike coke or coffee).
I’ve not seen Cockta in the UK – why not?ChocBananas

Chocolate Bananas (soko stark): Do we have these little chocolate banana treats in the UK? I don’t know. We’ve got little banana like soft sweets, but I don’t think we have any with chocolate coats. Maybe it’s best if the UK doesn’t import these – because they’re subversive. You buy them en-bulk with the intention of munching maybe one or two of the little devils a day, and yet come sundown they’re all gone and you have a pile of wrappers on the coffee table next to you, and and very minor sense of guilt. These things are lush with a capital L.

PorkyScratchingPorkie Scratching (cvarci): I love porkie scratching. The interplay between risking breaking your molars by crunching the brittle skin, and the salty meaty flavour makes for a dynamic snack experience. The trouble is, in England porkie scratching comes in a little bag, containing hardly enough of the salty wonders to fill your mouth – and more often that not nowadays you’re cheated of the real article and offered puffed up artificial nonsense that don’t mean a thing because it ain’t got no zing.
Imagine my delight to discover that almost every butcher in Belgrade can scoop a hundredweight of the genuine non-additive chopped barbecued pork-skin into your backpack whereupon you can munch away to your hearts content.

Side-note:

My Serbian wife spent six months in England and experienced similar pangs and cravings as me, though of course for different food items. She missed the Serbian foods: Smoki, Grilled piglet & Burek, and she grew to delight in eating: English cakes & tarts, jacket potatoes and fresh shellfish (which are lot more expensive to purchase in Belgrade).

The Good, the Bad, and the 3 Year Anniversary

Yep. You read that right… At approximately 4pm today (January 28, 2013) I will have lived in Serbia for 3 years. It has been one heck of a ride, too! I’m just an average emigrant here living with a Serbian salary and enjoying life. I wouldn’t change too much either, honestly.

Almost always I get asked why I left America to live here.  It’s simple.  It’s Serbia. True, it has the bad – what country doesn’t? But then it has the good – great even! It is a matter of what you want in a country – in your personal life and what you want in a culture/society. And I chose Serbia.  A special someone helped that, too. My original destination was Russia or Ukraine as a teenager. But Serbia is simply amazing and I love it. No regrets.

My three years here have been never dull. Ever. I’ve managed to always be legal here, thankfully. I’m aiming for citizenship when I’m eligible. I’ve had jobs with language schools, privately taught, and now own my own small, international company. The economy blows, jobs are scarce, but it’s Serbia! Everyone knows about the food, nightlife, and women (and men!) – but not everyone appreciates the true beauty of Serbia. That would include the customs, the culture, the deep rooted history, and the mystery of everything that happens in Serbia. I’ve been to protests, witnessed rallies and demonstrations, and sat through lectures and conversations of profound debates. This is my life as an expat. It’s not the normal life of an expat – true. But I wouldn’t change it really.  Okay, maybe more traveling around Serbia and Serbian territories. Bettering my own Serbian language skills – which is my own deaf lazy bum’s fault (but that’s my new year’s resolution). I’ve never been to a club here. I love dancing but most of the time would prefer to see a folklore dance troupe over clubs and drinking. And yes, I’ve had rakija. It’s nice if it’s of good quality. But I prefer a good wine which there are many options here in Serbia!

I’m new to The Balkans Daily, if you haven’t noticed. I generally write at my own blog when I have time, but it’s very focused on the topics covered. And here I have a chance to show a different perspective of expat living that doesn’t really fit into my own blog. I’m honored with the opportunity, too.

Today when I was headed home from my English lesson in Novi Beograd, I had the luxury of walking from Ušće to Slavija. It gave me so much time to think about my life here while I had Beogradski Sindikat, Frank Sinatra, Stateless, and other great music blaring in my ears. Seeing the snow blanketed river-banks, the mixed architecture from different time periods, the coming and going of passersby, bundled up children, the scars of wars yet to truly end , the stench of the winter air – all of it makes me feel complete. This is what a city should do for you. And this is what Beograd does for me.

So yes… Serbia has problems. So does America. But I feel at home for once. And I’m forever grateful that Serbia has taken me into her arms and treated me as one of her own.

Here’s to three years and many more to come!

G’Day Serbia

On the eve of Australia Day (or Straya day as we refer to it back home) I find myself in a much different setting than one three years ago. Three years ago I decided to make the big jump in my life and move to Belgrade after a good 16 year absence. It’s obvious where I was before, Australia. Three years ago on this day I was making my way home from work and preparing for the long weekend and the upcoming Australia Day celebrations which usually entailed a lot of beer, prawns on the barbie (not shrimp), sun baking in the hot and humid weather in beautiful Brisbane and listening to the top 100 count down of “Top Aussie Songs”. For the purpose of this article and my nostalgic feelings i will be referring to Australia as Straya. Straya Day was a day in which we could relax and really take in the beauty of Straya, appreciate all the is Strayin like, vegemite, pavlova (yeap, definitely not yours Kiwi’s) and Lamingtons (also not your Kiwi’s).

So what brought me here, to Belgrade? Well the real question should be what made me leave in the first place! As all stories, start at the beginning so does this one. I was almost ten years old when my family left Serbia in 1994 during the heat of the war. We left Belgrade on a snowy and rather cold winters’ day, much like today, in the beginning of January and set off for the “unknown” others wise known as a “better place”, and while we are being honest, anywhere was better than here at that point.

We arrived in New Zealand’s windiest city by far, Wellington on the 16th of January 1995. My family and I became New Zealanders over night and embraced the “Kiwi way of life”. Then, in early 2000 my Karate escapades (a tournament) took us to Brisbane (our motto in Brisbane is – sunny one day, perfect the next) and shortly after falling in love realised that we had had enough of the wind and let’s be honest, who could ever resist Brisbane’s charm and laid back attitude? From the day that we left Serbia, I was infected by the travelling bug; apparently there is no cure…

I completed my schooling in Brisbane’s south and whilst completing university slowly decided what it was that i wanted to be when I “grew up”. I met “human resources” sometime in 2006 and fell in LOVE. I worked for Hayes in Brisbane for sometime when the nasty travel bug reappeared in my life and forced me to do the unthinkable. Yeap, I sat at home and sent off my résumé to companies in Belgrade, I expected nothing, not even a response. Much to my surprise a few days later my inbox was near enough full with replies.. Some were genuine others were nothing less than a joke “haha, you are from Straya and want to return to Serbia… Yeah right!”

Next came the joy of telling my fiancé, family, friends and boss that I was in fact moving to Serbia to work as a senior HR consultant for one of the BIG4. Most people thought I was mad and had completely lost the plot…apart from my fiancé and family (they didn’t have a choice!) which brings us back to the start…. Belgrade.

On the eve of Straya Day I’m sitting in my apartment, drinking a warm chamomile tea (trying to get rid of this horrible fever) watching the snowflakes slowly gathering on my window sill and the road below, do I miss Straya, absolutely, but no where near as much as I love Belgrade and all that’s wonderful and crazy about it.

I hope you all have a fabulous Straya Day weekend. Until next time…
Hooroo! (or goodbye in the fair dinkum’ language of Strayan.)

Just like Cats & Dogs

Are you a cat person or a dog person? The question might bring images of cute furry things lapping at milk, or forces of nature chasing after thrown balls. You might assemble all manner of whiskery, purring, barking, tail wagging images into a weighted mental Pinterest board, and arrive at a decision concerning which of these types of Pets really are ‘mans’ (Human’s) best friends.

But, in this instance I’m asking you another sort of question entirely. Not what of these two pets you’d choose to keep, rather, which of these two beasts you’d be if some divine power looked into your skull and reconfigured your genes based on the animus it saw lurking there.

If you weren’t human would you be a dog or a cat?

What has all this to do with Serbia?

Asked by BalkanDailyNews to write a blog entry, noting perceived differences between Brits and Serbians, I set about scribbling down ideas – only to realize I had to weld them into a coherent article.

Under pressure, I decided upon a non-too-serious analogy: that Serbians (or at least, Belgrade) people have something of a cat-like nature, and the British (or at least Bristolians) have the canine essence within.

For example, when I first came to Belgrade I remember standing where I thought the queue was, in a mobile phone shop, only for new people entering the shop to ignore my presence and start making demands of the shop staff (who were currently dealing with other customers). This lack of a Serbian gene for queuing, wasn’t an isolated incident. If I need to get on a bus, served in a bank, or to buy tickets at the cinema, then I’ve learned fast action with elbows works wonders.

See the dog/cat analogy? A dog, if ordered, will wait until you’ve put his food in the bowl before eating it. A cat will rush in to make sure it gets there first.

And we’re talking about more than just queuing. The comparisons expand to structure, laws and rules. Brits have lived in a caste driven structured society for centuries. We’re more lax nowadays, but we’re still driven by paperwork, bureaucracy and a need for order. Just as dogs crave their master’s order, we Brits need the system to work and people to fulfil their roles. A risqué BBC television programme, poor school food or a missing traffic warden will lead to a flurry of complaints from ‘citizens concerned about the appalling decline of society’.

Serbians observance of laws, however, resembles one of those friendly tom-cats who eight out of ten times will come along and purr as you stroke it. But, when it’s not in the mood will twitch its ears in your direction but otherwise not flinch. Not the dog-like need to obey the rules for this cat – its got its own mind.

So, what does this independent cat do with itself? Not demand walkies or stupidly run after balls thrown in the park. If there’s nothing important to do, then this cat will sit on a windowsill and watch the world go by – it knows how to relax. Similarly, a Serbian eschews the nervous hustle and bustle of British life – and takes time to sit and stare from a café, coffee in hand.

This relaxed cat might hiss at the proximity of a rival, but he doesn’t gather in packs and fight with territorial rives – as might stray dogs. Similarly, the evening streets of Belgrade are filled with leisurely relaxed throngs, and even the most timid old lady has no fear of walking through a park under the moon. Whereas, the evening streets & parks of British cities can be less pleasant.

A dog will roll in the mud, then scramble amongst the leaves – and take half of them home on his coat. A cat will preen itself and ensue a constantly fine coat. A cat cares a lot more about its appearance than a dog. Cast an eye at the average British street and islands of style are muddled with a smorgasbord of lapsed fashion. Whereas, the men and women of Belgrade purr with an eye for style that only the Italians can rival.

One more point… my Serbian Mother in Law said, ‘Dogs mess anywhere, whereas cats are more careful. The British messed over many nations in the last few centuries, whereas we’ve only soiled our own backyard.’.

I’d reply ‘Who’s to judge what is ‘mess’, and what is ‘fertilizer’. 😉

Drinking 1/2 Liter Of Rakija

I have said this over and over… one of the things I enjoyed the most about Serbia was their homemade liquor, rakija. They have many different flavors.

My preference is peach or apricot. Sliva or plum is probably the most common. Serbia has large amounts of plum trees. I lived by the hospital in Zrenjanin, Serbia. Everyday I would walk the 15 minutes to town. I would take a little shortcut and walk past this old bread factory. Every house on this little path had their own “little orchard” growing in their yard.

The people would always be outside trimming, nurturing, picking, or tending to their fruit trees. Many of them had their own little still for making rakija.

Serbs have many uses for rakija. They would use it as a cure for many ailments, religious ceremonies, welcoming people into their homes, etc. I was warned by many of them to be very careful in consuming it.

Ivan called me one evening. He invited me to his house to play a game. We had to go pick up two ladies and another friend that lived a few blocks away. They insisted on paying for the alcohol. My Serbian friends are very generous.

We arrived at their home. They were sisters and their father was a crazy guy!! He loved to sit and talk to me about everything imaginable! The only problem…. he speaks ZERO English!

My friends were so annoyed because they had to constantly translate everything. We leave their house and start heading back to Ivan’s home. I ask them about the alcohol because the store was the other way. They said we are going to buy homemade rakija from a neighbor.

That was another cool thing about Serbia. You could walk down a street and see a sign hanging in someones window that they sold rakija. You don’t find that in the USA. The D.E.A would be at your doorstep in a few hours! They knock on the window and someone comes out. We buy a liter of dunja rakija from them for a few hundred Dinars.

I had to translate dunja.

It says in the USA it is called quince. I have never seen or heard of that fruit in my life.

I was a little concerned with buying homemade alcohol from strangers. My friends had told me a story about a guy in Zrenjanin that was in jail because he made some rakija that poisoned and killed a few people and left a few others blind!!!

They said that they knew this family well and that it was some of the best rakija you could get.

We get back to Ivan’s home. He lives very close to the center of the Zrenjanin. His house is similar to many other Serbian homes. They have a small little “cottage” behind their home. They use it in the fall months to make rakija or ajvar. It has all the amenities of a normal house… bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, etc…

We sit down at the table and some of the girls start filling up a few bottles of water. I never liked the tap water in Zrenjanin. It is very yellow and foul smelling, but they said it was a must to have water handy when playing a drinking game with rakija.

They pull the board game out and everything is written in Serbian Cyrillic. UGHH!!! I had a feeling that the American was going to get screwed on a drinking game that he couldn’t understand the writing!!!

I WAS CORRECT!!!!

The game is called CUGOPOL. You have a couple dice and some cards that come with it. It SHOULD be played with beer or something a little friendlier to your body! We start out and it seems that every single roll of the dice lead to the American having to drink.

We get three quarters of the way around the board and I am bombed!!!!

The girls and the other guys are holding their own! I think they cheated and filled their shot glasses with water instead of rakija! We get to the end of the game and the bottle is gone. I remember nothing else. The next memory I have is walking up on his couch at 10AM. His parents are calling us for breakfast. I am still drunk from the previous night but scarf down all of the breakfast I can hold and thank them for their hospitality. I shuffled back to my apartment and crash again. Thank God I didn’t have class that day.

WHEW!!!! If you ever get the chance to play Cugopol with Serbs… Make sure you get an English translated version and play with BEER!!!!! I know my organs are forever damaged from this night in Zrenjanin, Serbia. I love my Serbian friends and trust them with my life… But I still think they screwed me over on this game…

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!!!!!!