To Kiss or Not to Kiss?

I’ve got a fantastic handshake. I’ve developed the perfect amount of pressure – neither flimsy and weak, nor overbearing and aggressive, just the right balance of friendly assertiveness.  I’ve been developing my technique ever since I shook the hands with the President of the United States when I was 4 years old. It was at a public appearance back in the Midwest and my ultra-political family had taken me to meet the big guy.  As a little girl, I thought nothing was unusual about this at all; in fact, I was thrilled to shake the hands of the President of the United States.  From this moment on, I knew that handshakes were the proper way to greet people. Eye contact, a smile, and a firm, confident, handshake are the beginnings of a good first impression. I used this tried and true tool to greet friends, teachers, coaches, and later on, the passengers on board the plane I piloted. My dad and my brothers would sometimes shake hands with each other and none of this struck me as abnormal until I started dating my Serb. Gone were all the familiar handshakes of my white bread American upbringing – they were replaced with kisses and hugs. Kisses and hugs?! I recoiled at the thought of being required to kiss and hug complete strangers when I barely displayed this behavior with close friends. This to me seems completely artificial. Why would I kiss someone I’d just met? It seemed strange, forced, and fake.  Don’t get me wrong, I won’t hesitate to bear-hug someone I love, but to kiss a frienemy? I know I speak for many when I say  – WTF?

Not only was the concept of kissing complete strangers very foreign to me, the idea that straight men would kiss each other seemed really unnatural. Ok, so 4 years later and I’ve accepted it as one of the many cultural differences. I put it in the same category as making a feast for someone when they just stop by for coffee; draining, a waste of energy, and totally unnecessary. However, Serbs would probably think some American social norms are equally pointless, such as asking about someone’s day or telling someone they look great. A Serb would skip the pleasantries, tell you you’ve gained weight, and talk about politics instead of the weather. To each his own.

The execution of the greeting itself is dangerous territory – shake hands and a Serb might think you are being too formal, kiss and the American might feel uncomfortable, hug, and you wonder why you are holding each other like a long-lost friend who returned from war.  Let’s say you decide to kiss, is it 1 kiss, 2, the Very Serbian 3 kisses, or the never-ending 4 kiss dance? What if they kiss you an extra time? What if they go left when you go right, and you end up making out with a complete stranger? (I’ve been a victim to the accidental smooch at least twice so far). What if you start out with a kiss when you first meet them – do you need to continue this charade for as long as the relationship continues? If you downshift to a side hug and 1 kiss on the cheek, is this a barometer for the friendship? If we kiss hello, must we also kiss goodbye? Where does it all end? Are you actually supposed to kiss their check or are you supposed to pretend and do “air kisses” like the French? If so, is that considered insincere? Maybe I should just stick my face out in anticipation and let the other party do their thing.

In America, we teach our children how to shake hands; do they teach people how to kiss in Serbia? Do teachers sit down with their students, and say, “Now children, its: enter the comfort zone swiftly, left hand lightly on right forearm, start with a left, right, left in perfect rhythm, and then exit with a smile?” In the US, they’d be sued for sexual harassment! It seems I’m not the only one dreading this awkward formality when I greet Serbs, they too, seem a little unsure in whether to shake my hand, hug me, or kiss me like I’m one of their own kind. But it doesn’t feel right if they kiss my husband jubilantly 4 times and then stare at me and wave like I’m some kind of leper. I think it’d be easier if we just eliminate all possibility of social faux pas and just greet each other with a simple high-five!  As Jerry Seinfeld said, “I’m going on record right now. That was my last kiss hello!”

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Is that Your Final Answer?

Slagalica "The Puzzle"

During my stay in Belgrade, I was the beneficiary of a very warm Serbian welcome by my cousin and his girlfriend, who much to my delight, are popular game show competitors in Serbia. Yes, I’m pleased to add them to my growing list of fascinating and eclectic relatives. My quest was to discover what the lifestyle of real locals was like, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these two have been deeply entrenched in the Serbian quiz show world for the last twenty years. They started out in radio quiz shows in the early 90s.  As formats evolved, they found themselves competing on national television and even getting to travel for championships around the country.

Hearing all of this, I was curious to see if quiz shows in Serbia were similar to what you’d see in the States. Though a few are modeled after popular British or American shows, the Serbian versions seem to be less gimmicky and more focused on the actual quizzing than their foreign counterparts.  The shows are a combination of trivia, general knowledge, and word and numbers puzzles. Their seems to be a group of competitors that see each other again and again at various quiz events, bolstering both healthy competition and camaraderie among the participants. Prizes range from a simple household items like a Turkish coffee pot to more substantial cash checks. These modest prizes are nothing like their American equivalents, proving that these competitors are really in it for the right reasons: intellectual stimulation, fun, learning, and the pursuit of a hobby. Game shows in the states usually have competitors winning incredibly outlandish prizes such as first class vacations to Tahiti, New Luxury Sports Cars, and Cash prizes into the 6 digits. This obsession with over the top, larger than life prizes takes the focus away from the actual game itself as the viewers drool over the latest lucky winner’s new loot. With reality TV taking over the airwaves in the US, and game shows getting more and more outlandish, there is something refreshing about the down to earth authenticity about the Serbian quiz shows.

In the former Yugoslavia, famous host Oliver Mlakar popularized the show, Kviskoteka in the 70s and 80s on TV Zagreb, but now, quiz shows such as Slagalica (The Puzzle) and Veliki Izazov (The Big Challenge) are the mainstays. These quiz shows are professionally filmed, produced with modern studios and on par with Western shows despite an obviously smaller budget.

In a country where unemployment is always a problem and opportunities are less than abundant, quiz shows provide a welcome creative outlet and an escape from the daily grind.  Competitors get a chance to use their knowledge, expertise in a field, or mental prowess to travel, make new friends, gain a few small prizes, and even enjoy a little popularity in their local community – breaks that many people don’t have.  After all, who wouldn’t be flattered to be recognized as a TV personality when perusing one’s local pijaca?

Serbian National Quizzing Team in Pančevo - June 2011

Try out a fun Serbian mini quiz here.

I got 8 out of 10 correct on this simple Serbian Quiz. Not terrible for a non-Serb, right? What’s your score?

Let the Slava Season Begin!

St. Gregory Icon - Our Patron Saint

It’s that time of the year again, Slava Season!  It’s hard to believe that four years have gone by since the very first Slava I attended in San Diego, CA when I had just started dating my Belgrade raised boyfriend. This was the beginning of Serbian culture shock for me.  On the drive over, I rehearsed “Srećna Slava” (Happy Slava), eager to show off my new phrase to all the guests. It was only after being met with a blank stare several times that I realized what wasn’t right: saying “Srećna Slava” isn’t like saying “Happy New Year” or “Merry Christmas” – a phrase used to greet anyone on that holiday, it’s more like “Congratulations” or “Happy Birthday”, said only to a particular individual.  I must have sounded ridiculous going around saying it to everyone, not just the Slava host. This tiny but significant detail could have saved me from appearing ignorant. Alas, it was somehow left out of my Slava briefing, and seems to have set the tone for the following years of my Serbian interactions.  Preparation and a sincere desire to understand the culture left me just as confused and isolated as if I hadn’t made any effort.

Back to my first Slava – so it’s November in San Diego, and my Serb and I arrive at the door, dressed up and hungry, and carrying a bottle of wine.  The host greeted us with 3 swift kisses on our cheeks and triumphantly held up a bowl of a mushy looking substance and a wooden icon of a saint. My boyfriend crossed himself (a very unusual act to protestant Christians in the US) before swallowing the stuff with a spoon. I stared at him curiously and suddenly realized I was expected to follow suit.  (Zhito is the sweet gruel-like substance made of wheat, ground nuts, and sugar, and its tradition at Slavas symbolizes the resurrection and is served in memory of deceased family members. Yummy.)   Several hours later, I began to grow weary of all the nodding and smiling as I stood quietly alone in my English Only mind, separated from the Serbian Only socializing. The few English words that punctuated the constant Serbian chatter were directed at me: “Eat something!”. “Try this, you’ll love it!” or “Have some slivovitz!”.  At some point, amidst the turbo folk, the kolo dancing, the sweet wheat gruel, the oily peppers, and hours of loud, raucous laughter to jokes I couldn’t understand, something didn’t feel quite right, and I ended up hunched over in the host’s toilet, vomiting up all kinds of bizarre ethnic food I had ingested against my will.

Zhito

Four years and many misunderstandings later and I’ve become a seasoned pro at this Slava thing. I show up well fed, thick-skinned, and ready with a bottle of slivovitz and a joke about Mujo and Haso, the Bosnian hillbillies. By now, I’m actually excited to attend them. I find myself whining to my husband in our unique language, Serblish, to stop checking himself out in the mirror and go already – “C’mon baby…… Idemo na Slavu!! I’m ready sada! Let’s Go Bre!” With a few ground rules and a thorough pre-game briefing, we can both have fun and no one gets hurt.

Our Tried and True Slava Survival Briefing:

Home Team Rules

1)       No launching into a long-winded conversation in Serbian when I’m standing right there, thereby effectively eliminating me from any hopes of participating in conversation.

2)      He starves himself before we go; I come prepared with a full tummy. I’ve accepted the fact that most traditional Serbian food doesn’t agree with me much. So though I appreciate the hard work and effort of the hosts, I unfortunately cannot participate in the feast.

3)      Don’t ask me to eat something in front of the host. Chances are I won’t like it. Someone is bound to end up embarrassed or offended, or worse yet, vomiting in the toilet.

Its Slava season everyone, get ready, I may show up at a Slava near you!

Though I joke about the culture shock of a Slava, I do appreciate its essence. A Slava is a holiday set aside for each family to recognize the patron saint that protected them during ancient times. Though Slavas still hint at tradition with slavski kolac (blessed bread) and zhito (sweet gruel), their celebration has evolved into something more secular.  I believe that a Slava is still the best place in America to witness the Serbian spirit. After all, it’s an event for giving thanks for all the blessings in one’s life and for welcoming friends and family into one’s home to celebrate their national identity and good fortune. A wise one said that “Slava is a day not only of feasting, but also a day of spiritual revival through which the Serbian national soul is formed and crystallized.” Tako Je, Bre! Let the Slava Season Begin!