Sorry readers, I meant to post every day this week. Fortunately, Orthodox Christmas isn’t until January 7th, so posts about holiday gifts are still timely! Which leads to the day three of what do get your favorite Serb: Slippers.
For most Americans, slippers are an…unusual gift. Something that a distant, elderly relative might give you. That they bought at a gas station. The night before Christmas.
But for most Serbians, they are an essential item. Serbians generally don’t wear shoes inside the home. Walk around a Serbian home barefoot and risk being told you’ll become infertile or have kidney problems. Walk around a Serbian house barefoot and sneeze, and expect to be yelled at by someone’s grandmother and swaddled with rakija-soaked towels. Which doesn’t sound so bad, really.
Slippers are easily acquired in and outside of Serbia. In Belgrade, hand-knit slippers are often found around the outdoor markets, at stalls in Kalemegdan, and in the passages below major intersections in town. In America, there are a couple of places to find great slippers I’ve listed below.
If you’re feeling flush, Anthropologie has some cute options like these for $78:
Not in the mood to spend that kind of dough on slippers? Try Ann Taylor Loft’s ballet slipper versions, now on sale under $20:
Or you can try my favorite source for slippers now that I am a convert to the shoeless life: Target.
They have the best selection (for men AND women), and offer ones with rubber soles. Because while I don’t want to catch an illness from bare feet, I also don’t want to slip on tile and crack my head open. Even rakija won’t cure a concussion. I think.
Before we moved back to the States, I made a Belgrade Bucket List in an attempt to conquer the city before we left. Of course, the list was long, and we wound up missing out on some quintessential city activities. Like going to the Nikola Tesla museum.
If you should have the good fortune to meet at Serb, and that person doesn’t mention Nikola Tesla in the first hour, then I must say: you have not met a Serb. Tesla is one of the most famous Serbians, ever. He was a renown scientist who contributed to the development of AC current, wireless electric power transmission, the remote control, x-rays, and foresaw wireless signals similar to the internet. AND he inspired an amazing 80’s band and a verrry cool car. What have you done lately?
The man is so famous that three countries vie to call him their own. Tesla was born in 1846 in modern-day Croatia to Serb parents. His father and maternal grandfather were Serbian Orthodox priests, but he has famously stated he was “equally proud” of his “Serbian origin and Croatian homeland.” In 1891, seven years after moving to America, he became an American citizen, and expressed his pride to be an American, too.
After moving to the U.S. in 1884, he spent the rest of his life there, mostly in New York. Sadly, he was a great scientist but a terrible businessman. He was cheated out of patents and funding, spent his grants and savings on experiments, and died penniless in New York City in 1943.
You can understand my disbelief that we lived in Belgrade and never went to the Tesla museum. We figured we would go with our numerous guests and get sick of the place–but sent guests there without us instead. So when we came back to the city as tourists, the Testa Museum was one of our first stops. The museum is on Krunska, a pretty, mansion-lined street.
The museum offers tours in English, and I wouldn’t recommend seeing it any other way. After a short video about Tesla’s life, our tour guide demonstrated experiments to our group of 18 European visitors. We first demonstrated the tesla coil’s wireless power. Check out the arc of electricity and the people holding fluorescent tubes. Look ma, no wires!
we also saw Tesla’s remote control boat move:
and even got to feel AC current pass through us. The docent explained how the current couldn’t hurt us, but I let this random dude test it out before I gave it a shot.
Finally, we were led to Tesla’s resting place. His remains are stored in a golden sphere, which is supposedly Tesla’s favorite shape. I think there’s more to this, but can’t remember the exact story. Maybe that AC current was stronger than advertised.
The museum is a little short on details–especially about his later life in America and incredible fondness for pigeons–but the experiments and local pride make up for it.
Tesla might be gone, but he’s not forgotten. Recently, Tesla fans raised over a million dollars to build a Tesla museum at the sight of the Wardenclyffe Tower, where Tesla experimented with wireless broadcasting. George Clooney is rumored to be interested in playing Tesla in a developing movie. He’ll have big shoes to fill after David Bowie’s Tesla in the underrated movie The Prestige. (How is Bowie so foxy after all these years?)
Could it be that we’re in the midst of a Tesla revivial? Perhaps. And if not, I’m at least glad to knock another item off my Belgrade Bucket List.
Okay, what kind of weirdo blogger writes about her dog’s birthday?
Happy 2nd birthday to Milos, the best souvenir of our time in Serbia. I still catch myself yelling at him in Serbian, not that he listens in any language. However, he might listen to the Serbian happy birthday song (simply called Srecan Rodjendan). Serbia has a different birthday tune than you’re used to, and it’s catchier than I like to admit. Here’s a cheesy video of it for your listening pleasure.
I’ve been keeping a secret: my September trip to Paris also included a trip back to Belgrade. The return of RHOB! Or so I thought. I soon realized it’s not so easy to go home again, as a tourist to a former hometown.
We were so excited to return. Even in Paris, city of culinary delights, we kept telling ourselves, “only three more days until we’re eating in Belgrade!” We arrived at Tesla Airport and promptly checked into a Stari Grad hotel.
And that’s when it started to felt weird. I’d never to been to Belgrade as a tourist. The hotel was nice, but without a kitchen and refrigerator, my plans to shop at the markets, visit the Zlatiborski shop, or fix my favorite snack of ajvar, bread and feta didn’t make sense.
Muz and I decided to take a walk, but we disagreed about the route. I wanted to go to “my Belgrade,” all my favorite coffee shops and the cobblestone streets of Dorcol I used to wander around in search of blog material. Muz wanted to see “his Belgrade,” restaurants he visited with colleagues, parks where we walked our dog, and bars. With only three days in town, we had to compromise how to spend our time. (Long story short: we went to Coffee Dream and Parliament bar.)
We also discovered that our language skills had declined–considerably. Before we left, we felt comfortable using Serbian in most of our transactions. So imagine my surprise when I got into a taxi, tried to explain where I was going, and realized I was forgetting basic words. I had to phone my Serbian friend and give my phone to the driver to clarify things. After all the hours I spent learning the language, it was a sad moment.
After our second day, things improved. We went to our favorite restaurants and bakery, thrilled to be back in Serbian hospitality. We saw old friends and danced in new places. I realized I had to stop trying to cram a year into three days, and enjoy the difference between visiting Belgrade and living there. While I can’t return to our Stari Grad apartment, and I doubt I’ll live in Belgrade again, it was nice to return and see the city in a new light.
But next time? I’m renting an apartment for a week and bringing a suitcase of clothes and shoes for repair. I may not live in Belgrade anymore, but I can still benefit from its perks.
After my grumpy post yesterday, and my three hours of pre-Thanksgiving cooking today, I realized: Thanksgiving is basically American slava.
A slava is the celebration of a Serbian family’s patron saint. I’ve been told that the family saint is selected according to the proximity of a Saint’s celebration to the date that the Serbian family accepted the Orthodox religion. That’s the (sort of) official version.
Unofficially, a slava is a crazy day–or two–of non-stop eating, visitors, music, and alcohol.
Today, Serbians are celebrating the slava of St. Michael. So while I do a little prep work for tomorrow’s meal, I’m channeling the energy of Serbian housewives who are overseeing the spit roast of at least one animal, inviting a priest over to bless the bread, serving sweets before and after the meal, planning to feed anywhere from 30-80 people, bringing the extra stash of rakija into the house, and fortifying chairs because at some point, people will start dancing on them.
So…no complaints here. (Especially since my stash of rakija is conveniently close to the kitchen.) Happy Thanksgiving and Srecna Slava, everyone!
I don’t know if it’s due to Thanksgiving prep, but I’m in a list-y mood lately. I’m also in a wistful mood, as it’s around the anniversary of our return to the United States. It’s been long enough that I can laugh at my mistakes, but not long enough that I’ve forgotten about them. I loved my expat life–mostly–and I thought I’d share some of my experience and suggestions for jobless spouses moving abroad.
1. Learn the language/alphabet.
I can’t stress this enough. Life in Belgrade is pretty easy for Americans, since most people speak English. But learning the language is essential for connecting with people and showing them respect. I didn’t have a chance to learn Serbian before moving there, but I taught myself cyrillic by writing things phonetically in English with cyrillic letters. When I arrived, I had no idea where things were, but at least I could read the street signs to find my tutor.
If you can’t afford a tutor, find a language exchange parter. My language exchange buddy taught me some of my most valuable Serbian colloquialisms. She also showed me secret bars and how to curse, which made me seem MUCH cooler than I am. (Thanks, Anja!)
2. Get ready for the roller coaster.
Expats’ emotions for the first four months usually go something like this: shock; surprise; happy; homesick. Once the novelty of a place has worn off, it’s clear that you are very, very far from home. My homesickness was compounded by missed weddings, new babies, and all sorts of fun things back in the U.S. But it lifted after a few weeks when I realized that I was a part of a new circle of friends, which happened when I began to…
3. Say yes.
I am not a natural joiner. So imagine Muz’ surprise when I began to join any kind of club that would have me, attend lectures on things I knew nothing about, and ask anyone to coffee. Was it uncomfortable? Sometimes. Did I become lifelong buddies with everyone I met? No. But I was fortunate to befriend a great group of Serbians and expats who liked to read, run, write and roam as much as I do as a result.
Of course, this can become its own kind of problem. Serbians are really friendly; toward the end of our stay, I had to walk our dog a completely different route if I wanted to avoid a 45 minute excursion talking to shopkeepers and neighbors. Serbians aren’t late because they don’t care about time; they’re late because it’s impossible to just wave hello.
4. Find your superpower.
I was nervous about being unemployed abroad. I thought it would be too easy to slide into a life of staying at home all day, meeting no one, and doing nothing. So before I left, I made a list of things that I always wanted to do, but never seemed to find the time for. The list was: (1) become a better cook; (2) play the ukulele; (3) learn Serbian; (4) write.
Ok, so none of these things are my superpower. I didn’t master any of them, but they helped me structure my first weeks and gave me great cocktail party conversation skills: “What are you doing in Belgrade?” “Learning the ukulele.”
5. Accept the differences, appreciate the positives
Okay, so you’ve learned the language, joined the umbrella repair club, and listened to your neighbor talk about her dog’s bowel movements for ten minutes. But you also hate the showers, or the bus system, or tiny habits that are unique to your new culture. Time for some tough love, expat: suck it up. You’re in a foreign place–probably by choice–and it’s going to be foreign. Accept that. Find the good things about it. Because you’re going to miss them like crazy when you leave.
I used to joke that a person only needed three phrases to get by in Serbia:
Moze, or ok/sure, could be used anywhere from farmer’s markets to restaurants. “Is this table ok?” “Moze.” “Do you want this watermelon?” “Moze.” “More wine?” “Moze.”
-To be totally honest, that response was usually, “Naravno!” (of course).
The next one was slazem se, or “I agree.” I inevitably attracted people, mostly older women, who wanted to speak Serbian with me. Even though they realized I didn’t speak much, they liked to talk about their aches and pains, other people’s illnesses, or the košava winds. I would smile, catching every third word and nodding gravely when it seemed appropriate. Lord knows what I agreed to with these women, but it seemed to make them happy.
I also was fond of “to je to” (that’s all/that’s that). This could sum up most things: a restaurant order, business transactions, or a general story. When my puppy would flop on the sidewalk in protest of a long walk, I would say “to je to” to passerby and it would always get a laugh. I’m sure I didn’t use it properly, but my meaning always got across.
“To je to” seems to be a fitting way to end this blog. The relocation, job hunt and house hunt took up so much of my time that I fell off the blog wagon. (Blagon?) And it was a little sad to keep writing about a place I loved, only to remind myself that I didn’t live there anymore.
I miss writing about travel. And I miss interacting with readers all over the world. So I’m back, sort of. I’ll be writing about travel twice a week. Maybe more, depending on my schedule. I’m starting this week, while I’m in Paris and….Belgrade! Hope you’ll join me in this new, old adventure.