As I walked through the front door to meet my Serbian boyfriend’s parents, I immediately began my rehearsed speech in near perfect diction, “Good Day, How are you both? I’m so glad to meet you, my name is (my Serbian name). This is unfortunately where the intelligent exchange of conversation ended. His father immediately commandeered my attention and insisted I sit by him on the couch, where I remained captive, listening intently (understanding nothing but the excitement in his eyes and voice) to his stories. The first one was about a young beauty he had met 60 years or so ago who had beautiful blue eyes, just like me, he said, and a dazzling smile, just like me, and after much flattery, she responded to his flirtation. He suddenly realized, upon her opening her mouth to speak, that though she was beautiful, she was just a common peasant. In Serbian, a peasant is a simple, usually uneducated person, rough around the edges and culturally uncouth. What a great first impression from his father and how did he know that I too, when I opened my mouth that evening would be pouring out worthless drivel?
Soon after that I found myself curiously listening to his 82 year old war veteran father proudly singing the Russian national anthem. His Serbian architect roommate was casually wearing a red USSR t-shirt, and I commented on it, couldn’t help but remember phrases of “better red than dead, and “commi”, from my right leaning and patriotic childhood. My remark on his shirt led to his communist father telling war stories (again, in Serbian of course) from his WWII service and singing a Russian nationalist song right there on the World Market furniture in Costa Mesa, CA.
How did I find myself here again?
The next few days of getting to know the parents were filled with culture shocks. They say that 90% of communication is nonverbal, but after one evening with this group, (boyfriend, his foreign parents and friend, and myself) I must tell you that there is a limit to the nodding and smiling and gentle laughter that one can do before you sit there and shake your head internally and say, I don’t freaking understand one word you are saying. Not one word. But as the wine glasses were poured and their language became more animated, I began to make up my own stories to go with their words to pass the time. His mother was telling about an angry soup maker, who had been cheated out of payment by a local sheppard… apparently the truth (the watermelons were really great this summer in Belgrade) wasn’t quite as interesting. As we sat on the luxe white sofas in front of the flickering fireplace that evening, I couldn’t help but note that with her Yiddish pink robe and black and orange vest, looked more like a character out of Fiddler on the Roof than a Serbian mother misplaced in Orange County, CA. Maybe my cultural references were a bit off frame, but this was indeed a culture shock in the U.S. of A.
Due to our massive language barrier, my boyfriend had been attempting a quick translation whenever the conversation gave enough pause to slip a few English words in for my benefit. By the end of the night, I had arrived at a love/hate relationship with the translations. If I didn’t get a translation for, say, 15 minutes of pure conversation, I began to tire of straining for a reference. If I did get one, sometimes I wish I hadn’t, such was the case when it came to the discussion of my ovaries. In 6 hours of conversation I picked up about 6 words, a nice steady rate of about 1 word per hour, which is not good given that I’d been earnestly studying this puzzling language for some time now. At one point I picked up the words, vegetable, sister, bakery, and vagina. Could I be imagining this odd choice of words? No, indeed his mother was a gynecologist and remarked later, as I slipped off my heels in his apartment, that I shouldn’t go barefoot, for fear of my ovaries. My ovaries? Barefoot? Apparently walking the 1 step I took onto the tile to get to the carpet in the doorway would damage my fragile, but hopefully fertile, female reproductive organs, and that I should cover them, my feet, not my ovaries, for fear that I would not be able to produce a son that would carry on the noble family name. Maybe a better way to encourage procreation between her son and myself would be to hint at marriage instead of scorning me for my footwear. You be the judge.
Later in weekend, frustrated by not being able to express myself intelligently, I found myself explaining my family in the currency of the world. Family, jobs, food, 1800 acres of farmland, ground for cattle. Father, brother, sister, wedding, etc. And though I was quite proud of myself for finding an obscure opportunity to show off my limited vocabulary one night at dinner, pointing to the breadbasket at dinner and announcing proudly “HLEB” (bread), didn’t seem to impress them. I did however learn how to say “ovo je dobro vino” this is good wine, which is a good thing to know in any language.
The extent of my laudatory vocabulary in Serbian comes to two words. Bravo! And Dobro! (Good) also Cool (a universally understood cliché). And so I employed them generously in all extents the following day. The first time I put them to use was when his generously sized mother did a twirl as a part of her fashion show inside the women’s dressing room at our local Target. Her son had apparently found her the perfect black velour jumpsuit, of which she was quite proud. It didn’t quite fit her, but she apparently assured him that when she lost some more weight once she made it safely back to Belgrade, it’d be perfect. Later in the day, I expressed my enthusiasm and friendliness the best I knew how, which amounted to a triple kiss on the check, at hello and goodbye, and vigorous nods and smiles, accompanied with excessive usage of “Bravo!” and “Dobro” I’m pretty sure I used these words synonymously both when his mom found just the right walking shoes at Payless and when his dad explained how many American lives he saved during the invasion of his country in WWII.
So much for showing off my eloquence.
At one point during the evening, after I had slaved over a back breaking multiple course meal, all hand made, all from scratch, we were sitting down to enjoy, the conversation shifted to the political status of Yugoslavia and Serbia in particular in the 40s. Specifically, his father’s fighting the Nazis, political imprisonment, sacrifice, adventure, and the valiant efforts he had made in his youth. Three hours into the night, I realized I had forgotten my most important prop of the evening, the one intended to score the most points with his parents, the apron. I figured the good food from the kitchen had done the job though, as his father (tata) I am to call him, had toasted me at least 7 times to my parents, to health, to life, to love, to his son and me, and I think several times to producing a grandson who would carry on the family name. Hmmm…..
As the conversation grew more political, I sensed that all the Serbs at the table (everyone except me) were sensing the need to justify themselves as a collective nationality. It was as if they needed to prove to me that Serbia was indeed a great nation, on the right side in every war, and discriminated against in them all too. I could feel the passion rising in their voice when they spoke about Nazi Germany and the brutality inflicted on so many Serbs. When they started to talk about how they liked America and how we should like them too, I hated to say, “Look, I never had a bad impression of Serbia, in fact, I never had any impression of Serbia at all until I met my boyfriend, because frankly, it wasn’t really on my radar screen”.
What I really wanted to say, but couldn’t quite get translated, was that my impression of a country’s people came more from stories from them personally, their manner, behavior, the warmth in their eyes and smile, and the interaction I had with them personally that it ever would from some blaring 24 hour news channel, or from the history book summaries I might have read in highschool.
After a two day work trip/break in visiting them, I popped in after work for a home cooked meal, Serbian style. Well I had been told about Mama’s delicious Serbian food for a while now so I was eager to see what the fuss was all about. After arriving and planting my still awkward 3 kisses, I tried multiple times to tell Mama that her cooking smelled good. Pointing to my nose with a goofy grin while giving the thumbs up sign was the best I could do, but I’m not sure whether she understood or thought I was asking for a tissue. After a bowl of chicken broth with what I’m sure was 1 small bite of cartlidge posing as the chicken, came a large serving of gooey cold rice and sticky peas. I could tell this was her pride and joy, as it covered most of my plate. Had this been my first experience attempting to digest authentic Serbian food, I would have tried my darnedest to gulp it down with a smile, but having 2 or 3 similar sessions followed by embarrassed vomiting in the Serb’s guest bathroom, I decided to push most of it off onto my boyfriend’s plate and save my intestines the misery. Sorry Mama, but the rest really is “Super!”. The remainder of the evening was filled with the usual toasts, to life, to health, to happiness, and of course Tata always chimed in “to future Grandsons!” After several toasts to our unborn potential grandsons, I decided to take the bait. Well, it’s really not up to me, since as you all know, anatomically speaking, the father determines the gender of the child. After my boyfriend translated this to his mother, the gynecologist, she nodded, apparently unimpressed by my basic sex education, and proceeded to explain to her son, (over our dinner plates), the graphic details of how in about 1% of all conceptions, this is not actually true. The details of this advanced sex education were complete with hand gestures and it was explained loudly directly over our dinner plates. Fortunately, un-phased, he skipped the translation.
Later, as I was smiling contentedly to myself over desert, musing over my successful day at work, my boyfriend gazed at me adoringly and said, look at that Snajka (affectionate word for girlfriend). “Isn’t she beautiful? She’s just glowing!” “Indeed!” Exclaimed Tata, but Mama just looked at her son and said “Beauty is passing”. How friendly of her, I thought to say this as her son was complementing her girlfriend. “I was beautiful when I was young too!” she said, “and now look at me!” Well, I wanted to say, Look, your son is not dating me because of my exquisite beauty or supermodel good looks. Yes I am young and benefit from at least average genetics, but those are mostly present in my brains and my character, and I’d like to think that he thinks I’m beautiful because of my personality, my talents and skills, my passion for life, and my soul. He thinks I’m beautiful because any one who is in love, is beautiful and seems to glow a little. He thinks I’m beautiful because I’m happy and at peace in my life, not because of my waist size, or my soft skin. But of course, the minute he makes a comment about my beauty, she has to jump in and correct him. Thanks Mama, I think you’re beautiful too.