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!!!!!!