Chauvinism at 350° (Lease Fineprint)

Just three weeks to go until my dissertation is due so I’ve been quite occupied, but this story you had to hear…

I swear my oven in Belgrade is cursed. I can cook anything on the stovetop and anything that doesn’t require precision (chicken, potatoes, roasted vegetables, nachos, meatballs..etc.) works out fine in the oven. Since I’ve moved to Belgrade I haven’t been able to bake anything that requires precision. Breads. Cakes. Muffins. Cookies. Even pies. True story: I used to bake all the time in Canada. Almost every single day. Without issues. But since I got the Bosch curse nothing works out. Today, my landlord, the guy who is a dentist by trade but believes he is an electrician, plumber…(insert every profession that you can do for free yourself), came to look at my oven today while he was fixing one of the toilets. (If we wake up to flood #5 tomorrow, I’ll let you know.) Anyway, I explained the problem to him and he could not/would not understand or believe me.

So, we tested my theory.

He made me put a loaf of bread in the oven (already baked), turned the broiler on high and when the loaf was toasted 10 minutes later, he said, “there! See! It works.” Hmmm…

I explained that precision was required for baking and that it took me 40 minutes to bake a 20 minute loaf, and it still was white and raw afterward. I showed him the muffins I baked that were still raw on the inside, explaining that I even baked them 10 minutes longer than the recipe required.  This is not an issue of low heat. If I turn it up any higher, whatever I’m baking burns on the outside and is raw inside. Fix-it-guy said that as long as I put my heat the highest it could go, then turn the heat down while I was baking, everything should be fine. (Face palm of all face palms.) Even better, he told me to get a Serbian woman to show me how to use my oven. This, of course, is just before he told me that women in Serbia are “down here” (waves hand at ass level), below men. (He ACTUALLY said this.)  I told him I was smart enough to use an oven as I had been successfully baking (and winning awards for it, no less), for many years and that it was obvious we weren’t going to agree. I told him I’m buying an oven thermometer to see if there is a difference in temperature between the thermometer and the oven setting. He said, “I don’t understand these high tech things you have in Canada. Maybe you can’t find that here.” A thermometer. Serbs, help me out on this one. I know with all my heart you’re smart enough to know the type of guy I’m talking about because they’re often your landlords, too.

But the chauvinist landlord I have could see that I was upset and didn’t want to leave on bad terms. So he said, “Shauna, the most important thing is that you look good. Much better than before (hahaha!), and you are popular, everyone likes you.” At which point he kisses three of his fingers and left.  (Probably kicking all the stray cats on his way out.)

This is the problem with Serbia. Lord bless all the women and give all the good men strength to squish the archaic ones.

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Good Summer – Bad Experience

It has been over 2 months since my last post and…crap…has a lot happened. The good stuff first:

My super-awesome mother-in-law came for a visit all the way from Canada. We took her to a bunch of local tourist sites and we surprised her with a road trip to see the Rolling Stones in Stuttgart, Germany. We drove through Slovenia and Croatia along the way and saw some of the most beautiful landscapes imaginable.  From there, we all flew to Edmonton, Canada to visit family and friends, leaving Edmonton for our beloved Sarnia, Ontario on July 17. While we were thrilled to see our closest friends and our favorite city, we soon encountered some significant trouble which led to several medical appointments, the cancellation of flights, and a hasty reorganization of our schedule.

It began back in November when I noticed some changes on my  right breast. Because my mother first had cancer in her 40s, I watch my health very carefully. So, I saw an oncologist in Belgrade. After laughing at me because I am “too young to get cancer” and telling me that “even in Canada, you wouldn’t have a mammogram before 50” (I previously had 2 in Canada, as baselines, because of my family history), the doctor grudgingly sent me for an ultrasound. They identified a reactive lymph node and told me that “I must have cut myself shaving”. This, of course, was written on the report, despite my insistence that I hadn’t cut myself. Two months later, when the changes I was experiencing were getting worse, I saw another oncologist in Belgrade who told me it must be “hormones”.  A quick visit to an oncologist in Ireland and I was told to get a mammogram the moment I get to Canada.

Let me tell you something about my doctor in Sarnia. He is THE BEST.   (God bless him!) I messaged him to tell him about the changes I was experiencing and explained that I would be in Sarnia in the summer and asked if he would be willing to book me a mammogram. Not only did he take care of me from thousands of miles away, once I was in Sarnia and had the first mammogram, he was unbelievably kind and very quick to share information and book subsequent appointments.  I had my mammogram on a Thursday afternoon and by 8:00am the next morning, I was booked for an ultrasound 2 days later. An hour after my ultrasound, my doctor called me to say I needed a biopsy. Now 4 lymph nodes were reactive and one had a sizeable mass within. Of course, the worst went through our minds. We went through hell for about 2 weeks. I didn’t eat or sleep. Chris was so positive, but worried sick. We didn’t tell the girls anything because we didn’t want to scare them.  We were scheduled to leave Sarnia on July 28 but had to cancel those flights. Timing was bad. Our rent was due. Our cats were taken care of but would have needed more food and litter. Our Serbian taxes were due, and must be paid in person at the bank (of course). Some of our AMAZING expat friends who knew what was happening generously offered/insisted to take care of everything for us but I knew that there would be nothing Chris could do if he was here except worry.  He flew to Serbia on a Saturday and back to Canada the Saturday after that, then we waited together and worried together. Chris is the best. I am so lucky to have him, he makes everything better. He just does. (I think he has magic in that Ukrainian blood of his.)

I can comfortably write this today because I officially got a harmless diagnosis: fibrocystic breasts. Basically, I will get harmless cysts. While I’ve never experienced anything like this before, I will have to use extra caution not to dismiss something that could be potentially harmful as a cyst. When I picked up the pathology report at the hospital a few days ago, I understand the doctor’s concern: on a scale of 1-6 with 1 being non-cancerous and 6, where cancer is confirmed, I rated a 4.

We spent ridiculous amounts of money on flights and car rentals and everything else that was this crazy trip but everything and I mean EVERYTHING was made bearable because of our friends. Dawn and Ryan are literally walking saints. They’ve boarded us for nearly a month now. We’ve been driving their cars. They’ve taken us to appointments. They’ve taken care of our children. They’ve cooked all our meals. My nails are the longest they’ve ever been in my life because they won’t let me clean. Dawn literally picked me up off the hospital floor when I had a bad reaction to the double-dose of lidocane they gave me for my biopsy.  (And, yes, half my boob is a lovely green/yellow right now as it heals. Super sexy.) We often joke about being “Sista Moms”, not to be confused with “Sista Wives”, there is no husband sharing here, just mom duties and I couldn’t ask for a better co-mom. There simply isn’t one. We love you both infinitely.

So….we are now officially leaving Sarnia on Saturday and while I am sad to leave our friends and this hidden gem of a city, we are very excited to get back to Belgrade, cuddle our cats, and relax as a family.  Let fall and winter begin….

 

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Serbia…shooting hail since forever

I debated posting this one but I figured you’d all enlighten me a little. There’s a chance I’m wrong and I learn something new, and new knowledge is never a bad thing. There’s also the chance that my suspicions are correct, in which case I’ve learned a new depth of naivete.

Two days ago, I was working on my homework when I heard it. Pat. Pat. Pat. Pat. Pat. Boom. Pat. Pat. Boom. Boom. Gunfire. It was so loud and so close to the house that I was convinced there was a shooting in the area. A friend even texted me to ask if I heard the sound. She lives 4 blocks away.  The noise was unmistakable. I called the school, which is only 5 minutes from the house and asked if there was anything happening. They had no idea what I was talking about. These are sounds you typically don’t hear in Canada. It was definitely unexpected and I was terrified.  Unconvinced that nothing was happening,  I raced over and picked the girls up from school. I was the only parent who did this but maybe it’s because I was the only parent who never experienced this… sound invasion… before.  From the time I first heard the sounds to the time I picked up the girls, 3 Serbians explained what the noises where: the government was shooting down hail so it doesn’t damage the tomato crops.  Military drills I would totally understand. Countries do that. Countries that are not participating in the nearby NATO exercise in Poland (https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/03/world/nato-exercise-poland-baltics-russia/index.html) might also want to flex their muscles, as in a “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” display of might.  This would also be believable. But shooting down HAIL? I quite literally choked out, “this is what you actually BELIEVE?”  Not one, but three people had the same explanation. I wondered which Serbian newspaper came up with it.

The next day, I heard the sounds again and went out of the house to record it. Have a listen. I’m definitely interested in hearing your thoughts.

The Ice Lady and the Smoking Chiropractor

I’ve decided to go au naturale and freak all the Serbians out.

Here’s the story…

I used to have nice hair like 20 years ago. It was super long and super healthy. After too many dye jobs and too much heat styling, my poor hair is dry, damaged, and very thin. I could reasonably pass for an aging witch, but I don’t have the age spots yet so at least I’ve got that going for me. Anyway, I haven’t styled my hair in over a month. As usual, I wash it, but I no longer blow dry or flat iron my fragile hair because I’m trying to get it back to its healthy, natural state. Yes, it’s frizzy and most days it looks like I haven’t brushed it (I  have) but the big thing is that I often leave the house with wet hair.

Serbians have a thing about wet hair. A MAJOR thing. It’s in the same sphere as promaja, the Balkan belief that drafts cause sickness or even death. When I go out with wet hair, people actually cringe. The collective sucking of air through clenched teeth can be heard wherever I walk. I was even called “The Ice Lady” by my chiropractor here, who told me that it is people with wet hair like me that keep him in business. He said this, of course, while he adjusted me with a cigarette in his mouth, the smoke coiling up in the air, intertwining with the mist from my hair.

Another funny story…

I walked into yet another door last week and hurt my elbow pretty bad. It’s not broken, but I’ve got some nerve damage, to say the least.  My arm has been in a sling for a week and, last night, my doctor said I’d be in the sling for at least another 10 days.  The funny part of this is that when I went in for my appointment yesterday, I sat in the waiting room for 40 minutes while the staff were trying to find a gynecologist for me…for my ELBOW.  Living in a foreign country can be pretty funny sometimes.  Eventually, the appropriate doctor and I found each other. He crossed himself when he heard where the nurses were trying to direct me.

Kolo – Balkan Equivalent of the Chicken Dance

Hello again. I’ve been slacking with the blog lately but you sure know how to light a fire under me to get me going again. Yes, I read all your emails and messages and I appreciate every single one.

It’s Saturday, so let’s do something fun. Close your eyes . (Ok, open them again, but you get the point.) Pretend you’re at a wedding. Envision the beautiful couple, plates of food, sweaty children who’ve already stained their best clothes playing on the grass and binging at the dessert table, young people ripping it up on the dance floor, multitudes of grandparents quietly watching all the action from the perimeter. (If this was Canada, you’d also be listening to the Chicken Dance in your head.) Think of the quiet ceremonial cake cutting, the pictures, and the curious variety of lonely family and friends at the reject table. (Read: table in the furthest reach of the wedding but still considered part of it.)

If you’ve come this far, you are NOT at a Serbian wedding.

EVERYONE needs to go to a Serbian wedding at some point. Seriously, just crash one. They’ll probably invite you in anyway, and make you drink copious amounts of Rakija (fruit brandy) and dance the kolo all night. 3 weeks ago, we went to our first Serbian wedding in a town called Knjazevac (Kin-ya-je-vats). The bride, of course, was beautiful and possibly one of the sweetest women on the planet. The ceremony itself was very short, maybe 15 minutes or so, and then all of the guests cued up to get their pictures taken with the bride and groom, after which we all hustled inside for the first dance, back outside for the bouquet toss, and back inside for what was to be 12 hours of continuous food, drink, and kolo.

The food…massive, tasty, and endless. The drinks…well, I think I have found a supplier. (Sounds like a drug deal, doesn’t it?) I usually like a glass, at most two glasses of wine. More than that and I get the nasty wine feel.  The week prior, Chris, the awesome husband he is, visited a winery for the groom’s bachelor party where he bought me 2 dozen bottles of wine. Yes. 24 bottles. No. I did not drink them in one night. Yes, we like to entertain. Anyway, this wine is the cleanest wine I have ever drank and I’ve found it’s the only wine I’ve had that hasn’t given me the ugly wine hangover. So, at the wedding, 2 bottles of wine were placed in front of me and I drank a bottle and a half and still felt incredible. I am admitting this because the next day, I woke early and was able to bike with Chris and the girls to the next town with total ease. The wine might have even made me quicker, more powerful. Kind of like what spinach does for Popeye. Anyone who comes to my house will get some because, contrary to what you may think by now, I do not drink it every day.

Back to the wedding. Rakija, the fruit brandy (usually plum), poured as freely as water and helped to amp up the crowd as they danced the kolo for hours and hours. Kolo is a dance that has quite simple footsteps and can vary from town to town. One of the main ones we did went …shuffle right-right-right, tap left, tap right, shuffle-right-right-right, all while holding hands in a conga-like procession. Doing this dance now, sober, in my living room, I’m not sure I have it right, which would explain why I stepped on more than a few toes.  Young and old danced the kolo all night, with the old people literally owning the dance floor for the majority of the time. It’s also important to note that the leader of the conga/kolo line is responsible for swinging a white napkin or handkerchief in the air as he/she dances.

And the cake. THE CAKE! Midway through the evening, torches of fire were lit and the music thrummed and people started chanting and cheering. Something major was happening. For 15 minutes fires were burning and people were vibrating around some important center. I expected a galaxial orb or religious shrine to erupt. I squeezed my way through the crowd of people and saw the mystical being: the cake. The cake wasn’t being cut, nor were the couple taking those staged photos in front of it. People were celebrating the cake like fans at a rock concert. It was fascinating!

We’re on our way to an Israeli harvest celebration so I will leave you with best wishes for an amazing weekend. Cheers!

Wedding Pic - Good

Bits and Bones

Me again. School has been busy and my dissertation started on Monday so I’ve been slightly occupied. Like usual, I’m going to give you the goods in bits and pieces because that’s how I roll.  Here goes:

  • Serbians write the #1 like a #7. I figured I’d point this out in case any of you are in the area and are wondering why something seems like it’s 7x more expensive than it should be.
  • Most stores ask for exact change when paying for an item and cashiers may not-so-subtly roll their eyes at you if you don’t have it.
  • I need to show the post office my passport every time I pay a utility bill.
  • It’s stray animal season in Serbia. Tiny stray pups and kittens are everywhere.
  • My cell phone does not work in my house. Seems to be some sort of massive dead zone. Internet, too, can be sporadic at times. This has presented some challenges for school, but I’m managing well enough.
  • Since the end of February, I’ve travelled to the Stara Planina ski resort in south western Serbia, Rome, Sarajevo, London, Montenegro, Croatia, Ireland and, this weekend, more of western Serbia and then Bulgaria.  In June, it will be either a week in either Dubai or Greece, followed with nearly a month back in Canada. We’re also aiming for Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Ukraine, Poland and Portugal when we’re able.
  • The history here is deep. During a drive near Bor, Chris spotted some white sticks stuck in the mud along the side of the highway.  (It had been a bit of a rainy season and the rain had washed out part of the hillside along the road.) He passed the area three times before he stopped to investigate and was surprised to find what appeared to be clusters of bones. He called the local police because he suspected they might be human. His suspicion was confirmed by the police, telling Chris that there were multiple bodies in the dirt and they were going to investigate further. Of course, they could have been from any time period, and from any of the many conflicts Serbia (and the former Yugoslavia) had been involved in. The International Commission for Missing Persons has expressed interest in the case because they have thousands of missing people they are hoping to find and identify. Not sure if we’ll hear any more on this, but it’s an incredible curiosity.
  • For those of you who love to learn, you should check out Masterclass.com. I have an annual membership and it’s super cool.  You can learn from the pros with lessons in cooking, writing, film making, music and much, much more. The nerd I am, I signed up for 10 courses, having already done 2. Really, if you don’t want to do homework, you don’t have to. There is no test or anything, just a bunch of really interesting lessons by the greats including Helen Mirren, Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, David Mamet, Judy Blume, Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck, Steve Martin, Aaron Sorkin and more. This is the kind of thing I like to watch. I highly recommend this site! (There’s even a handy little MasterClass app.)
  • We also walked in a 5KM event for charity. The energy of the crowd was amazing and we had a ton of fun. We also cried a bit for the environment when thousands of balloons were released into the air to signal the start of the race.
  • Lastly, we’re going to a Serbian wedding this weekend and we don’t know what to expect but we’re really excited for it.

Until next time, thanks for reading my ramblings and remember that you are all welcome here!

 

Move over Jon Snow, the Cats of Kotor are the real warriors

My hubby rocks. Like seriously.  My wish for my 40th birthday was to visit Ireland so we are flying there with the kiddies for a week in 2 weeks. Cool, right? Well, Chris surprised me with a weekend getaway to Tivat, Montenegro and Dubrovnik, Croatia. We didn’t have much scheduled on Friday so we toured Tivat a little and drove up to a nearby town called Kotor because my good friend Google said there was a cat museum there, where we figured we could get a souvenir for our cat-loving kids.  Kotor itself, like Tivat, is stunning but Kotor is more reminiscent of the streets of Rome. Here the cobbled streets wind with a series of narrow pedestrian walkways, flanked all along by cafes and shops and quaint little residences. Cats, of course, were everywhere, and there were cat sovenir shops and cat restaurants and even a cat-themed casino. Cats are the symbolic animal of town. And for very good reason.

Cats helped save the town when the plague was ravishing the world.  Locals told us that when the plagues occurred (in the 1400s and late 1500s), rats helped spread the disease but a multitude of cats were brought into the city to kill the rats. The cats killed the rats and ultimately helped stop the plague from spreading and saved the town.  Today, many cats still roam the streets, and they are all very healthy because the locals take very good care of them. For more on Kotor, read here:

https://www.visit-montenegro.com/main-cities/kotor/kotor-history/

Today, Chris surprised me with a drive up the coast into Croatia to the city of Dubrovnik for a Game of Thrones themed tour of the fictional place of King’s Landing, actually Old Town Dubrovnik.  We’ve been quite a few places but I think this is the most beautiful city I have ever been in. I said that about Budapest, then Paris, then Rome, then Kotor, but it’s oficially official. Dubrovnik is the most beautiful place on earth. At least, it’s going to be very, very difficult to find any place better. Our tour lasted 3 hours and we took many pictures but they do not do this place justice.  Afterward, we went for fresh mussels and calamari and then walked the paths at the top of the walls for about an hour. It was heavenly.

Back to the food. The seafood here is the freshest we’ve ever eaten. Not only are the octopus, mussels, calamari and prawns the best we’ve ever had, they were all quite affordable. Most entrees were about $10-20 (Canadian) a person and the wine was only a few dollars a glass. This was at very  beautiful, high-end restaurants. These meals would have likely cost us nearly $200 in Canada. Of course, cats were in Old Town Dubrovnik, too. Our tour guide said that if there are 3 or more cats sitting outside a restaurant, it’s a 5 star restaurant on Trip Advisor – “always trust the cats”.