Expat Confessional – I’m Barely Literate

Yoo-hoo! Over here! That’s me!  The barely literate American …

Last week in Expat Confessional–3 Ways I Suck at Driving in Serbia, I wrote about nearly hitting various pedestrians what a great driver I actually am. But there’s a fourth thing that impedes my ability to find my way around Belgrade, and that is … The Cyrillic Issue.

What, pray tell, is The Cyrillic Issue?

And why do you insist upon making up phrases for everything?


Sometimes it’s quaint that I can’t read Cyrillic, like when I first arrived in Serbia and wondered if


as in PEC-to-pah (which is how I pronounced it in my head) … meant, “fish.” Because the sign said, PECTOPAH with a picture of, you guessed it, a fish. Right.

Months later when my husband asked where I wanted to go for dinner, I said, “Pectopah, you know, that fish restaurant by the river.”

“What the hell is a Pectopah, Laura?” [In point of fact, there a hundred or more “fish restaurants by the river.” It’s hard being my spouse. Understatement of the year.]

And this is what I mean by The Cyrillic Issue. … Because P-E-C-T-O-P-A-H isRestoran, written in Cyrillic. Restoran means RESTAURANT.

Not a proud moment.

Finding my way (poorly) when half the signs are in Cyrillic

When I wrote of the perils of applying my American driving skills to Belgrade traffic, I didn’t even go into the Belgrade Street Sign clusterf**k.

“Old” street names are often in Cyrillic, and generally new (post-1990s messiness) signs use the Latin alphabet.

Additionally, streets have been renamed and renamed, again. After WWII, Tito called a bunch of stuff “Tito-grad,” and Tito-this and Tito-that. Then, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, streets were changed again, presumably to make Serbia appear less “communist dictatorship,” and more “socialist democracy.” Yes, there is a difference.

How you describe the location of something–including the street names used, depends upon how long you’ve lived here, and when and if you ever left.

Oh … you ask, What about google maps? It’s true, the Serbian counterpart, Plan.rs is a lifesaver, IF you can figure out which address to input. You might find “an address” that roughly resembles where you want to go in Plan.rs … written in Latin. When you get to driving there, you may find only Cyrillic street signs.

At these times, I feel as if I’m endeavoring to complete a crossword puzzle while blind-folded with two screaming kids demanding I put on a new movie.  I’m not even good a crossword puzzles.

Instead, people tend to rely on descriptions of where to go and how to get there, like when I needed to figure out how to take my daughter and her friend to gymnastics class:

Do you know such-and-such high school [insert unrecognizable name here]? Yes? Okay, well, the bank down the street from that high school is where you want to turn left.

Then go around behind it, yes, by the dumpsters. [Dumpsters are everywhere, they are not what one might call “distinct” landmarks.] That’s where you’ll find parking. Look for the sign that says “Gimnastika” and you should be fine from there.

Completely fine. Which is why, I made the other mom drive with me the first time. Because you only learn by actually paying attention to the road  doing.

And so, I’ve resigned to remedy my illiteracy. That’s not to say I’ll be able to read Cyrillic street signs fast enough while driving anytime soon. I will have to continue to rely on the Landmark Method, watching for the dark grey run-down building (among all the generally grey concrete buildings) and making a right.

At least I know now how to find a damn restaurant in this country.

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image from freedigitalphotos.net