Perspective – The Monthly Breakdown

We’re enjoying quite a (much needed) rainstorm this morning and, unlike Belgrade, there’s not a lot to do in Bor when it rains.  I’m sitting in the kitchen with the girls, enjoying a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee (YES!!!!), figuring out what we should do while we’re boarded up for the day. Games, puzzles, family yoga and maybe one of the girls’ new favs, an old Ernest movie. (Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Saves Christmas, Ernest Scared Stupid…) With little exploring going on today, I’ll give you what I’ve got from our travels and conversations as of late.

  • My understanding was that Serbs, on average, make between $4,500 – $5,500 Canadian a year. At the pool this weekend, we chatted with a few families about Canada and Serbia and they told me that the lucky people made that amount of money and that, more often in rural settings like Bor, a person is most likely to make only $200 Euros a month, roughly $290 Canadian.) This is IF they are lucky enough to get a job. Many are not so fortunate.  If they are one of the chosen few, it breaks down like this:  $100 EU/month goes to rent in an apartment, leaving $100 EU a month (often) for an entire family to pay for electricity, transportation, food, clothing, and any other necessities like medicine or child care. Full time childcare, with 3 meals a day, might cost $50 Euros a month. This might not seem like a lot to us Canadians, but if you only have $50 left to spend on necessities after rent and childcare, this is an astronomical amount for a Serbian family. We are so incredibly lucky to have what we have in Canada. We have won the country lottery, really.

 

  • One of our Serbian friends here sent us a link to some lyrics that, he says, perfectly sums up Serbian mentality. It was created by a Croatian group, but he believes the strong message also applies to all of Serbia. In my short time here it seems pretty accurate to me, and a good reminder of how blessed we are to be Canadian.

Here is the link if you want to listen to the song: Priroda i drustvo lyrics

Nature and Society

Remi:
(chorus)
That’s our nature and society
Let a child be born, but let it be male,
Let it be male…
Shot:
We find a countryman who somewhat succeeded in life
But we praise him only when his coffin’s in the ground
We think of ourselves as the best, our hearts can feel it
There’s almost as many of us as there is voting ballots
We hear advice from hodja, priest and a prot
So we mass produce children because rubbers are a sin
Football fans embarras us, as soon as they spot each other they get in a brawl
Fingers crossed behind back when shaking hands
At one moment we want this way, at another that way,
If we can’t make a deal, we can even do it lawfully
We want foreigners to come spend some, buy something,
Even if he doesn’t come next year, the price’ll remain the same
There’s too much pensioners, and the budget blows
But ask anyone, he’d retire immediately
If he could scam something, have the commision sign the papers,
He’d leave the firm immediately, he’s sick and tired of everything
We would sell everything, but only if it would stay ours,
If someone else were to run it, oh, that’s not fine with us
And we break glasses when happy and we break
The bottles on the heads of the people we’re drinking with
We yell, we become wild, when we score a goal
God and homeland is everything we’ve got
Robust body, oh little soul
Nature is nice, but society #ucked up.
Chorus:
That’s our nature and society
Let a child be born, but let it be male,
Let it be male…
Remi:
We visit courses, we read books
To grow into higher beings with no worries
It’s not easy to hear someone else’s misery, avoid that!
We don’t know how to help ourselves, let God help us!
It’s always someone else’s fault, it’s never our own
We only start thinking once we’re stuck
We like to complain: it’s all due to Balkan
Those who were worth something ran away from here.
We suffer and swallow, and everybody lives in fear
That’s left from Yuga* where they would weigh every word
According to our words we appreciate work
And then we connect our long weekends while we catch some shade
Imagine that, we cannot see and our eyes are healthy
We proudly hug the athletes in 5 minutes of fame
We’re as unanimous as brothers every two years
When 11 mercenaries run out on fields
We – shine from the outside, it’s all empty on the inside
I guess that must be our nature and society.
We – shine from the outside, it’s all empty on the inside
(Shot) I guess that must be our nature and society.
(Chorus)
Bridge:
We look for prophets in the clouds, yet we can’t see a finger in front of our eyes
And then we make mistakes in steps, step bare-footed on thornes
We wouldn’t recognise the best even if it were to pass us by slowly
We – shine from the outside, it’s all empty on the inside
(Chorus)

I’ll leave you with this image. It’s an info graphic from the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit of the Government of the Republic of Serbia.  It says that ….Almost two-thirds of households in the Republic of Serbia report “making ends meet” with difficulty or great difficulty.poverty_in_the_republic_of_serbia

Zajecar Fair – Where Anything Goes

Let’s talk fairs.  The old-fashioned, creaking-metal mini coaster, deep fried everything, guess your weight for a buck, best of society kind of fair.  I never thought I would say it, but I have new respect for Conklin.  Those street-carnival, new city every three days because you gotta get in and out before the public realizes how much they’ve lost playing guessing games and balloon darts; frenzied with stomach-turning, brain-burning mini-donut withdrawals.  Those kind.  In North America, we yearn for fairs. Can’t wait for them. Spend our paychecks getting our kids on the rides, ensuring they go home with stuffed animals so large they need to be zip-tied to the roof for the slow ride home.  We also laugh about the rusty machines, the ride-attendants that are more interested in short-shorts than the safety of our children, the garbage, the over-the-top nutrient-deficient, calorie overload.

Serbia is no different, really. Our experience at the Zajecar Fair on Saturday leads me to believe they love a good fair like the rest of us. After touring Felix Romuliana, Roman ruins circa 300 A.D, and enjoying a mammoth meat platter at a local restaurant, we took the girls to the Zajecar Fair.  My first thought was that we had stumbled upon a Roma encampment. Though rides were mostly clustered together, there was no organization. Grocery bags, by the hundreds, blew like tumbleweeds across the field which was cluttered with makeshift tents, garbage, open hatchbacks, shirtless old men, and the most curious assortment of wares I’d ever seen at a fair. There were beautiful handmade baskets, knives, carvings and furniture crafted by talented women and men. Beside these, and often in the same stalls by the same vendors, you might find underwear, a table top full of branded pop bottles (ie. Pepsi, Coke, Fanta) filled with motor oil instead of pop, used toys laid atop blankets (think headless, naked Barbies), knock-off purses (Coach, Chanel, Gucci), Chinese throwing stars, VERY realistic toy guns, and, of course, beer for a buck. Beside this, pigs on spits.

We rode the bumper cars first.  They weren’t the typical speed-limiting cars we drive in NA. Nope. Slam your foot down and drive an amusement-part Autobahn, half of you wearing seatbelts, the other half thrown around like rocks in a dryer. We survived.

Next, Bekah went into a giant inflatable ball that she rolled along a pool of water like a hamster on a wheel while Laura went on a giant inflatable slide. While the girls had fun, Chris and I mused at how no ride had the safety setups that we were used to in Canada. There were no fences around anything, no barricades or barriers. You had to watch where you walked and where you stood, careful not to be run over by a small roller coaster or smacked in the head by the swings. Safety costs money and so most often isn’t a priority in Serbia. This is evident everywhere.

Once you’re on a ride? Well, you’re not necessarily safe there either. The girls went on an inflatable obstacle course and I noted two people flanking the entrance at the corners, holding tight to the netting and pillars as though to hold the inflatable pillars up. The girls went in and Chris and I watched when, maybe 5 minutes later, the girl holding one of the corners up walked away and the pillar lost its strength and fell over. Then the maze swallowed the girls. I quickly called to them to come out and that was the end of that bit of fun.

Nothing, however, shocked me more than the sheer amount of garbage just lying around.  There were no garbage cans. Not one.  People would get their roast pig and fried donuts and cotton candy or beer and simply toss the garbage on the ground.  I made the girls give me their garbage so we could bring it home with us.

Overall, the girls had a great time, and we left with my North American senses thoroughly shocked.  I’ll leave you with some pictures that will give you a clearer idea of what we experienced on Saturday.

Gas Station Etiquette In Serbia

One thing I recently learned is that, in Serbia, there is only one direction in which to get your gas at a gas station. Sure, you can go into any entrance or exit, but when you officially line up to get your gas, all vehicles must be facing the same direction at all times even if there are openings easily reachable by pulling your car around.  This strikes me as very odd because not only do I often see flagrant disregard for traffic rules  – driving the wrong way down a one way street, parking on a main street outside a mall,  essentially stopping traffic in that lane, creating your own lane, driving at insanely high speeds (more often) or at a snail’s pace (less often) –  but because of sheer efficiency.  Take this picture, for example…

Gas station
Major sin in Serbia

Note several vehicles facing in opposite directions. This would NEVER happen in Serbia. Even if there were empty spaces just ready to be taken, if you are not in the same direction as the other vehicles, you must not navigate into that space.  Of course, this is not written anywhere. You must discover this for yourself when locals excitedly insist this in your face, in Serbian, with hand gestures.  In the queue but your gas tank is on the opposite side of the car, away from the pump? Too bad. You gotta figure that out. Bring the line around your car or drive out and get in another queue. Slow person in front of you taking too long and there’s a empty stall in front of that car in your queue? Too bad. You can’t leap frog that car.  You need to wait until they finish up before proceeding to that stall or their stall. If they use the restroom, order a cappuccino, or maybe the owner of the car in front of you (and behind the empty stall) knows the cashier and they get into a conversation about the weather or politics. Gear up for a long wait. Better yet, get some cips and voda (chips and water) because you’re going to be there for a while.

Serbia, where unwritten rules apply at gas stations and written traffic laws are merely suggestions.

Patriarchy and the Jason Bateman Tail

The girls and I had our second Serbian lesson today. We learned how to introduce ourselves and ask others for their names. We learned how to ask and say our ages, count to ten, identify members of a family and inquire as to how much something costs.  I also learned that men are paramount in Serbian society. Both yesterday and today, in explaining the male and female classification of words, our instructor said, “men are the most important” or men are the only things that matter in Serbia (to that effect), several times.  She did this as she was explaining why many words only have a masculine identity.  I, of course, do not want my girls learning this ideology, so I quickly say, “that’s not true”, and smile as sweetly as I can. Not that a gender gap doesn’t exist in Canada, but I feel it more acutely here. Upon further research , I see that this ideology appears ingrained within the culture.  Perhaps not, but our experience with living in Serbia leads me to believe this is true.

I’m also learning that the craning of necks to ogle women is not just a Serbian thing, as many others have told me this is more common in Europe than North America. At the pool today, I saw an older teenage boy with short cropped hair, let’s call him the Serbian version of Jason Bateman, with a pencil-thin, braided tail that extended from the nape of his neck to the waistband of his shorts. A pretty girl walked by and that tail whipped as though snapped by an animal trainer. She did not notice the boy or his tail. Almost felt sorry for the kid. Almost. When my girls get older, I will likely yank any tail that whips at them or tie that tail to a tree until it learned some manners.

Kinda like this, but Jason Bateman with a loooooong tail.  But I think Jason Bateman would actually make it look cool. Or insanely funny. I’d love to see either.

Gender Observances From Serbia

I posted this last night on FB, but figured I’d add it here for the rest of you to see. These, of course, are just my experiences in Serbia. If any of you have similar, or different experiences in Serbia, I’d love to hear about it.

Here are last night’s ramblings:

-Maybe it’s a cultural thing or just the places I’ve been here, but I’ve seen more Serbian men openly picking their nose here than anywhere I’ve ever been in my life. This is both in Belgrade and Bor. Not sure what to make of this.  Maybe this is a European thing?

-In the mining town, Bor, the male/female ratio is incredible, what seems like maybe 3:1. Walking down the street, cafes, elsewhere. SO many men, so few women!

-Since people walk far distances every day, most are quite fit. I’m totally envious of the butts on Serbian women.

-Serbian men are not ashamed to openly stare at women, all women. I think they might be part owl, the way they are able to rotate their necks. Fascinating, really.

-I’ve been around many children, boys and girls, consistently since I’ve had my own children. I know from experience that little boys tend to be more rambunctious than little girls. My observances here lead me to believe that little Serbian boys tend to play a bit rougher than boys back in Canada. More yelling, more shoving, but they seem quite happy nonetheless.

-I see more women wearing dresses and more men wearing elasticized sweat pants than anywhere else.

Cheers!

Serbia: In the Shadows

Here we are, almost a month into our stay in Serbia and I realize I have given everyone a very romantic view of our travels thus far. You know about the food and the weather and how affordable Serbia is for North American foreigners.  I’ve shared some very lovely natural and artisan scenery. I’ve shown you how happy our girls are, strangers in a foreign land, but exploring with glee.  I’ve shown you how much Serbs love animals, and how caring for animals is, more often than not, a communal act.  We’ve been here a month and we’ve had a great time. We also look forward to the next 2 years, fully committed to exploring the rest of Europe as much as we can.

But…

No country is perfect, even my beloved Canada, but there are occurrences in Serbia that I will never fully understand nor, I think, do I want to. My incessant desire to “fix” things will not serve me well here; most likely, I would go crazy working against a system that is snail-slow to change.  These, mind you, are just my experiences here. Maybe others have an entirely different view. But here’s what I’ve got:

-Any foreigners who visit Serbia must report to the local police station within 24 hours. Even with a residence permit, if that foreigner desired to stay at a hotel with, perhaps, a pool for the weekend, that foreigner must report, again, to the police as to the change of address (ie. hotel stay), so that the police always know where you are. They have made this easier, as hotels are equipped to report your whereabouts to the police for you, saving you another trip to the station. On this note, I highly recommend the book ‘Catch 22’ by Joseph Heller. Some of the things that happen to the main character, Captain John Yossarian, just remind me of some of the rationale used in Serbia.  A good read nonetheless.

-Pollution is rampant. I could be wrong about this, but not only is garbage strewn about, I believe sewage is dumped into arterial waterways, which eventually feed into the main rivers. Our shoes have never been dirtier. The soles of our shoes are not just dirty, but black.

-Conversations with locals lead me to believe that corruption is just a part of life in Serbia. I’ve read that the postal system is unreliable and that packages of value often do not make their way to the intended recipient. Police and politicians, can be persuaded, or persuade, in no particular order. This said, I’m sure that there are admirable police and politicians here as well.

-While we have NEVER felt unsafe or unwelcome, my feeling is that a communistic blanket still hovers over the country. Years of bombardment and corruption haven’t helped pull Serbia out of the dark ages, but the feeling is that it is slowly, slowly working its way out.

-I have had no conversations with locals about the United States. Of course, I proudly say that we’re from Canada. We, however, look foreign to them, with our clothes and our accents, especially in Bor.  Today, as the girls and I were walking home from lunch, a young boy about Laura’s age (6), pointed a toy gun at me and said, with an angry face, “America!” And he shot. Bang. Bang.

-The juxtaposition of rich and poor is heart-wrenching. In Belgrade, you might have a Lamborghini parked while, a few steps away, someone is digging through trash for a meal.

Everything considered, I still think this is a good experience for our family. We’ve met some very kind people and are learning how other people live.  We are better for it.