Two weeks ago, I found myself on a plane with Kyle to Serbia.
Yes… Kragujevac, Serbia; the 4th largest city in the country, to be exact.
With a clean bill of health 4 months post-shoulder surgery, a great Serbian professional basketball team offered Kyle a contract through the end of their season in May/June.
Who knew that one of the former countries of Yugoslavia had a high level basketball league?
So, 48 hours later, we packed, hugged our loved ones, locked our condo, and jet set off to Eastern Europe.
Clueless about the language and culture, and kicking myself for not having time to buy a “Serbian For Dummies” book, I picked up a Serbian newspaper to enlighten myself on our final leg of travel.
I basically found this:
What in the WORLD!??
Okay, so I was somewhat able to assimilate into German culture last year, but after looking at this nonsense, all I could think about was that the letters look like the “Wingdings” font in Microsoft Word.
Good news (or bad), I found out that Serbia has two alphabets – one Latin and one Cyrillic – which the latter is displayed above. Both are used regularly, and I’ve decided that learning the Cyrillic alphabet is simply a lost cause. The language itself sounds like a mix of French and Italian.
Our Arrival in Belgrade
Meanwhile, we landed in Belgrade. By the grace of God, we figured out how to stuff our 4 huge bags, 2 carry-ons, and 2 backpacks (and ourselves!) into a small Volkswagon Golf that Kyle’s manager picked us up in.
Add to that 5 long days of living in a “box” of a hotel room prior to getting our apartment, and that is what you call a proper welcome in Serbia!
Fast forward two weeks, where we’ve had an inundation of culture and a complete contrast of impressions from our experiences in Germany last season.
What a different world, but a very unique and interesting one, at that!
Here are a few (or many) of my first impressions from 2 weeks of enculturation:
1. Want to fit in here? SMOKE.
According to The Economist’s 2008 World Rankings Book, the average Serb (man, woman, and child) smokes 5.8 cigs per day, ranking them as the Top 9 Most Smoking Countries on Earth.
Hence, my childhood instincts, where I would rudely pinch my nose and make “ewww” noises to smoking passers-by, have come back like deja vu.
Cab drivers smoke.
Kyle’s coaches light up on the sidelines during practice.
If f I leave the door to our apartment open for longer than 1 minute, our place fills with smoke from the hallway.
And if you want to go out to eat, you might as well have a few drinks with your meal, because you’re going to come back smelling like a bar whether you like it or not.
One of our Serbian friends here that we met is of the minority that doesn’t smoke, and said that after his physical in high school, the doctor told him that if he stopped smoking now, he’d be okay. As in, his lungs were already blackened from the second-hand smoke from his classmates, that the doctor assumed he smoked.
2. Sweatpants are very acceptable. And so are purses for men.
I am a HUGE fan of wearing leggings and/or workout pants during my days overseas. Half the time, I’m walking outside or at the gym, so it makes it comfortable and easy.
And on any given day in Serbia, I blend right in, because from infants to the elderly, it is very acceptable and common to wear sweatpants. The men are deemed really cool if they wear a matching jumpsuit, too (Puma, Adidas, Nike, etc.).
It’s even hard to tell who the professional athletes are in this city, because Serbians are above average in height (booyah! We fit in!) and because they wear workout gear all the time. Hah!
Did I touch on the Serbian man purses yet?
I was first exposed when Kyle’s manager came to pick us up at the airport. He helped carry our luggage to his car, and after handing over a bag to him, I realized he was carrying a black strappy purse. I thought that he accidentally grabbed it from a different woman in the crowd, thinking it was mine, and nudged Kyle for him to tell his manager that it wasn’t mine.
Luckily, Kyle realized that it was actually his purse, saving me the embarrassment (or him, rather?!).
Though not as common as it once was, it is normal for Serbian men to wear a purse or even a purse/fanny pack thing horizontally over their shoulder.
Don’t tell Kyle, but I’m considering getting him one for his birthday. I’m sure it will go over well with his manliness…
3. Serbians go by the Orthodox calendar…
Which means that they celebrate Christmas on January 7th, and in addition to celebrating the calendar New Year, they celebrate their New Year on January 13th.
Admittedly, I’m really ready to see the Christmas commercials, music, lights, and trees get taken down this week, after 2 months+ of enduring the Christmas season this year!
But hey, Kyle and I can say that we were able to celebrate 2 Christmases and 2 New Years this year because of it!
4. The Serbian currency is the dinar, and makes me feel like a baller because of the ridiculous exchange rate.
How naive that Kyle and I assumed that Serbia’s currency was the euro. I even brought 10 euros that I had leftover from Germany last year, thinking it would be easily spent while here.
1 dollar = 83.7 Serbian dinar
I literally laugh every time I go to the grocery store, because the bill will often total something like 8,000 dinar… reminding me of Monopoly money!
5. The average Serbian makes 300-400 euros per month (approx. $400-$500).
The standard of living here is quite shocking, but considering their recent Civil War and economic devastation, things are looking better for Serbians these days.
Apparently, in 1999, the economy was so bad, that people would line up for a liter of oil and a loaf of bread for the week due to embargoes. And when people got their paycheck for working, they basically had to spend it all in one day, because there was no certainty about whether or not it would be worth anything the next day.
Crazy to think this was all going on when I was in high school…
It is quite humbling living here, realizing how good we have it.
The cost of living over here is much lower, too, which is a huge difference from living in Germany last year, where food and most things were relatively expensive.
6. The food here is AMAZING.
Despite their poor smoking habits, Serbians make up for it with their FOOD. As gluten-free eaters, we weren’t sure how it would be living here, but the typical Serbian meal includes meat (and more meat!), vegetables, and yes, some rice/bread/or pasta.
One of the most notorious and delicious meals I’ve had thus far, is their “ćevapčići;” a grilled dish of either beef, lamb or pork (or mixed),
seasoned with garlic and other spices. It is seriously the most tender, juicy, mouth-watering meat!
We were told that Serbian food standards are very high here, too, and surrounding European countries often import Serbian food because of it.
I feel so blessed because of this! And I’ve discovered the huge daily market here in Kragujevac, which supposedly is all organic, seasonal and local. Bomb sauce!
So far, I must say that we weirdly like it here.
Yes, the organization of Kyle’s team is much different (perhaps, nonexistent?!) and the living conditions are different, but the people are friendly, the food is delicious, and the countryside is beautiful.
I’ve been enjoying going for hikes/walks daily, exploring the rolling hills and hidden gems of this place, and look forward to hopping to nearby countries in proximity.
It’s certainly a nice change of pace and perspective, and opens up a world of travel and adventure that we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves otherwise. How blessed we are!!
More to come on our adventures over the pond, but in the meantime, Happy Serbian New Year!