Bilingual Baby and the Mother Tongue

Like many American kids, I studied Spanish in elementary school, but my understanding of the language is pretty limited.

I also studied Latin in middle school, French in high school, Chinese in college, and now I study Serbian as an adult. Yet despite all this language exposure, I do not speak any other language fluently. I do have an appreciation for languages, understanding how cultural nuances can be gleaned from slang, and how the presence of foreign words in modern day jargon gives insight into a languages history. This is all well and great, but its like someone who can appreciate music but not play. Sure I can enjoy a night at the symphony, but when I try to play the violin, I’m an amateur.

I’ve spent countless hours studying the Serbian language, my stack of vocabulary cards is massive, my grammar charts declinating the cases are extensive, but when someone puts me on the spot at a party to speak Serbian, I freeze. I realize now, being a new parent of a beautiful baby boy, that I have an opportunity. The opportunity to give him something I don’t have. The gift of being bilingual. The freedom from wrestling with a language, the gift of natural fluency. I also realize that being bilingual is not something that is ensured simply because his father is. I see so many kids who were born in America to foreign parents, who don’t speak their parents native language well. They usually understand it easily enough, but they respond in English, and its only with a lot of prodding that they utter even a few words in that language. Why is this? Is it because they are surrounded by so much English all around them that this becomes more dominant in their brains? Is it because the parents did not insist on Serbian being spoken or whatever the secondary language is in the home, from day 1? Or is it, as I am starting to wonder now, that the window of language opportunity has closed, and the child’s brain is now wired for English, and speaking anything else requires mental work.  A New York Times article discussing the difference in brain activity between monolingual and bilingual babies talks about “neural commitment” in babies as young as 6 months old. It explains how by 10-12 months, monolingual babies brains are wired differently than bilingual babies brains, and monolingual babies have started to lose the ability to distinguish phonetics from any other language other than their own.


After researching babies understanding of language and how they process sounds, meanings, and distinguish one language from the other, I’m even more motivated than before to encourage my child to be exposed to Serbian. But despite my efforts and my constant nagging of my husband to speak Serbian to our baby, I wonder if its all in vain. Even by modern standards, my husband is a very involved dad – skilled at swaddling, diapering, bathing, and bedtimes. But still, I have to admit that I probably speak way more to our baby than he does. Its just the natural way of things I suppose, our baby hears his mothers voice more. So say that I speak 70% of the words to the baby, and my husband speaks 30%. Of that 30%, perhaps half is in Serbian. Or, put another way, our baby hears several types of language in the home. Direct conversation with me, direct conversation with my husband, and overheard conversation between my husband and me. Of those 3 types, only one has the potential to be in Serbian, and probably only half the time it is. Is it realistic to assume that this miniscule amount of exposure to Serbian during infancy and childhood will ensure that 30 years from now he’ll be toasting in fluent Serbian at a slava?

At a kids birthday party recently, I discussed these ideas with a few other young parents. It was one of those great conversations where I found myself talking with a Serbian girl friend, a French woman, and her Israeli husband. I found myself laughing as they looked on with horror as they watched some American kids bashing a piñata. We discussed the differences in birthday traditions and shared stories about language and cultural barriers at home. We realized that the phrase native language or as we would say the “mother tongue” has a direct translation in both Serbian and French. In French, its “Langue Maternelle“, and in Serbian, “Maternji Jezik”. Both phrases have the word “mother” in them, hinting at the idea that its the mother who most influences the language of the child. If this is true, than perhaps my baby has little hope of becoming truly bilingual and will at best speak some form of “Serblish” like me, regardless of how many times I prod my husband to “govoriš Srpski to the baby, bre!”.

Do you have any experience raising a bilingual babe? Struggle to get your child to speak in anything other than English? What has worked for you? Let me know!


What’s in a name?

Muž and I are expecting our first baby in June.  Preparing for baby has been an exhausting process. With nausea, fatigue, and emotional ups and downs permeating many of my days, keeping my cool in an incredibly challenging and stressful work environment while continuing to move forward in my training as an air traffic controller at a fast pace has been a struggle. One of the more joyful parts of the process of turning two into three has been choosing a name.

I’ve always held the belief that names are very important. Names are the first part of your identity that many people see or hear, and they are full of cultural nuance that I believe can help or hinder the named. I absolutely love my name and wouldn’t ever want anything different, it’s exactly me. My muž on the other hand, being born in Belgrade with a very Serbian name chose an American one for himself to help acclimate to society after immigrating to California. He chose a classic American name and it suits him perfectly. So now he has a handful of names and nicknames that he can choose at will; selecting to wear the one that best suits the current social climate.  To me, he’s just my “Voli Thing”. But most people do not get to name themselves, most people are stuck with the name their parents gave them without any say in the process.  I’m know I’m not just naming a baby boy; I’m naming a child, a teenager, a man who will one day work and love and eventually grow old. This name must carry him through life.

Being an international couple, we want an international name.  We want a name that he can use while traveling and living abroad if he chooses and in circles of global friendships that he surely will develop. We want a name that doesn’t sound too foreign to the average American, but one that his grandparents in Belgrade won’t stumble over. We want one that is unique, but not so unique that he will have to spell it out every time he introduces himself.  We want a name that is actually a name, not just a made up word, but nothing in the top 100 list. It must have the right balance of strength and likeability. It must be a trustworthy name, one that looks good on a resume, but also sounds good to a date.

We went through thousands of names; most of the obviously international favorites were just too popular for our taste – Dominic, Luka, Aleksandar, Stefan, etc. The Serbian ones were just too foreign sounding to the American ear – Lazar, Stanislav, Jovan, and somehow many of my suggestions curiously ended in “o” – Carlo, Corrado, Otto and Leo.   Then of course, we had our aviation names – Glenn, Neil, and Skyler. For a while we were fixated on Felix, inspired by Felix Baumgartner, the man who famously held the world’s attention in 2012 when he broke records by being the first man to skydive from outer space and break the speed of sound with his body in free fall. Conversations at our dinner table would sound something like this. “Is Felix the guy who brings coffee to the boss, or is Felix the boss himself?  Is Felix just the hot guy who is always off hang gliding or surfing, or is Felix the guy who puts a ring on it?” One by one, our long list of boy names dwindled as we vetoed them for some reason or another. We decided Felix had Peter Pan syndrome, and so he was off the list. Salvador was a tortured soul, and Nolan, well Nolan just didn’t stand up for himself enough, especially in relationships, and no guy named Trevor would ever cure cancer.

For a while we were at a stalemate, each vetoing the others name suggestions as soon as they were spoken.  For some time, Muž wanted to get a book of Slavic names, and he would google “Orthodox Calendar” and other things, looking for the most Serbian of all Serbian names. More than once, frustrated with the process, I pointed out to muž, not so lovingly, that our sons name would already include a Serbian last name, and that a Serbian first and last name made no sense, since after all, he is born to a Midwestern American mom living California. Our son would be American. Born in America, educated in America, and probably spend his lifetime in America.  Any time I mentioned this, an unspoken hesitation would flutter across muž’s face, as if he wasn’t really sure what to make of the idea of having an American son. Perhaps this very thought is why he launched into the search for a really Serbian name. If his son would be American, at least his name would be a reminder of his roots. I wonder if muž had ever considered that possibility growing up. I certainly never really considered the possibility that a child of mine would technically be a first generation American on one side.  I wonder how our son will think of his ancestry one day. His dad immigrating to the states in his mid-20s, with a rich and often misunderstood cultural past, and his moms family having come over to the New World with the pilgrims, as American as apple pie.

Pondering the cultural identity of my son brings up many questions. I wonder what his first word will be, and will his native language be Serblish, the hybrid Serbian-English that we speak only to each other at home?  Will Muž be Tata or Daddy? Will our son feel American or half Serbian? Will his grandparents in Belgrade be around long enough to tell him stories about the old country? Will he correct my Serbian grammar by age 3? Probably. Will he be a rock star, a neurosurgeon, or just a pilot like mom and dad? Will we be able to finally choose a name that honors both his father’s and mother’s heritage while still maintaining a timeless sense of style and allowing him to be accepted in both obscure villages and cosmopolitan circles?  The clock is ticking, but we are up for the challenge, the name game is on and we will play until the time is up.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”- William Shakespeare

Belgrade, You Can Do Better

After months of anticipation, we were finally on our big vacation. We were enroute to Belgrade, and after a day or so there, we would go down to the Adriatic coast for a road trip and some island hopping before returning to the white city for our last week. I remembered nearly every detail about my last Belgrade adventure, and I couldn’t wait to get to know the city a little better. Within minutes of touching down at the Nikola Tesla Airport, I had my first reality check. I visited the ladies room and realized realized the toilet wouldn’t flush. I was not surprised, but I was disappointed. I remembered all the bad experiences I had had with hygiene he last time I was here. This time around, I was equally annoyed. We had just paid thousands of dollars to get to this city from Los Angeles. We had carefully saved up vacation time and planned the trip and bought tickets, and when we arrived, what were we greeted with what? Facilities that were dingy, dirty, bleak, and non-functioning. Attention Belgrade: If you want to win the admiration, no, not even admiration, but the respect of other citizens of this world, you need to roll up your sleeves, and put a little elbow grease into its appearance, because unfortunately, most people Do judge a book by its cover.  Take some pride in this great city. It has so much potential. It has art and history and music and culture. It has beautiful rivers, and lovely green parks, and creative cafes and unique bars, and welcoming restaurants and good schools and buzzing pedestrian zones and even decent public transportation. It has so much to offer, but many visitors can’t see past the grime. They can’t see past the dirty bathrooms, the trash in the parks, the graffiti on ancient fortress walls.  Clean up the senseless graffiti (not all of it, not the art, or the political messages, but the scribbles), make sure your bathrooms are clean and well stocked, and get rid of the piles of cigarette butts drowning in the puddles in Kalemegdan fortress. Please, do yourself a favor. Everyone will love you for it. Or at least, they will begin to see you.

The airport toilet incident was a stark reminder of the problems that Belgrade faces. It, like many in Belgrade was dingy and barely functional. This is much like Belgrade itself. It has almost everything you need, but it’s a little worse for the wear. I knew that the beauty and charm of Belgrade would still be there waiting for me, just outside the airport doors, but this time, I’m a few years older, maybe a little less forgiving, a little more critical, a little less patient. This time I wanted to just say, “Come on Belgrade, get it together. You can do better than this.”

Nevertheless, I was determined not to let this less than welcoming first impression color my attitude for the trip. I am back to Belgrade and I can’t believe I am finally here. I had such a wonderful time last time, and I am hoping that this time, it will be as good.

The ABCs of Cultural Exchange

“I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring…. an apple, a backpack, a cherry soda.” This children’s game was popular on road trips and at campfires, each kid repeating the line, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring… ” and then they would each add an item that began with the first letter of the alphabet (A for apple, B for boat, C for Catamaran etc.) and went all the way to the end of the alphabet till you reached an item that started with the letter Z . We would vary the game and say “I’m going to the moon and I’m going to bring…an Astronaut suit”, or “I’m going on an adventure and I’m going to bring an Atlas…” It was a fun way to pass the time.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the exchange of items between Serbia and the US between friends and family members. By now I know the drill –  leave plenty of room in my suitcase for last-minute items to bring both to and from Serbia. Every time someone in the community goes back, they are asked to bring with them a smorgasboard of items. The last time my muž took a trip back to Belgrade from Los Angeles, and he was inundated with the usual requests. Most times, its electronics and drug store items such as hair color and vitamins, but one time the list seemed even more colorful than normal. “Could you get me an iPad for my cousin’s husband?” “Return the TV remote control to my little brother’s house that he left here in LA on the couch” “Get some St. John’s Wort (a mood enhancer) from your local vitamin store”, and even, “2 electric fly swatters – they look like tennis rackets!”. The list seemed endless and took up half his suitcase, but like always, he obliged, because that’s really the only sensible thing to do.

In preparation for our upcoming trip, I’ve even come up with my own mental list of personal conveniences to bring to Belgrade just to try to narrow the “creature comfort” gap. A box of energy bars for hunger emergencies, hand sanitizer, and a collapsible clothes drying rack. Still can’t believe there are no clothes driers! And of course, I wouldn’t go travel anywhere anymore without bringing my trusted pack towel light! Of course, on the way back home, we’ll be explaining to the customs officer that our tub of Kajmak (stinky dairy spread) is actually the latest European face cream.

I’m reminded by my muž, that it seems a little callous to assume that Belgrade, with its relative small consumer base compared to the US should be expected to have all the same conveniences that we have here, and at such low costs. But for what we Americans can boast in cheap, modern, conveniences, Serbians offer up in soul. Human nature makes us all want what we don’t have, whether that be something to make your life easier, or something to make it richer. I can just imagine packing up to return home from Belgrade and wanting to bring back a taste of Serbia saying, “We’re going to America and we’re bringing….a homemade jar of Ajvar, a clear and potent Bottle of Slivovitz, and a CD of Gypsy Trumpet music”. What we bring back each time, besides all the memories and maybe a few crosswords puzzles in cyrillic, is a a fresh perspective on life, a few little items to help us savor every day, slow down, and enjoy the ride.



A Feast I once had in Belgrade

Prijatno! En Guete! Bon Appetit! All around the world, people sitting down to a good meal begin it with a single phrase, but In America, we simply don’t say anything at all. We just sort of start eating unceremoniously, with no clear line signalling the beginning of a meal. The closest you will hear to “Prijatno” is “Bon Appetit!” Which of course, is not English, but French, one of the many foreign phrases we have incorporated into our language. Some Americans will say “Dig In!” or “Let’s Eat!” or “Enjoy!” But these aren’t really customary, they’re small talk, and they just don’t carry the happy familiarity of the word Prijatno.

Why don’t we have an equivalent word like Prijatno in English? Is it because it seems too formal, too old-fashioned, too indulgent? Or is it simply because most of us don’t give enough attention to the meal at hand? In a society where everything is convenience based, whether its fast food for the budget conscious or power bars for the health conscious, meal time just doesn’t get the attention it could. Meals are eaten in front of the TV, alone on the couch, or in the driver’s seat on the way to and from work. So to many Americans using a word like Prijatno would be a meaningless formality, obscure and irrelevant to their lifestyle.

I started saying Prijatno around my dinner table long before I went to Belgrade, since my Serb was always saying it to me, and now it feels strange not to say it.  In Belgrade, I was confused when hearing a shop keeper call “Prijatno”, after me, as I left the store. My Serbian grammar teacher explained that Prijatno, comes from the verb Prijati, meaning to suit, or to be pleasant. He meant, have a good day, not have a good meal. My teacher explained that the shop keeper was actually grammatically incorrect by saying Prijatno, and should technically say “Prijatan Dan”, however no one actually says that, and it would therefore sound very odd to do so. As someone who delights in correct grammar usage in any language, I loved this explanation! The intricacies of language are so fascinating, although sometimes infuriating! But I digress.

As a child, my dining experience was very structured, we would all sit down at the dinner table nightly, my dad on one end of our oblong wooden table, my mom on the other end, the 5 of us kids seated at our regular positions along the sides. We would sit quietly, bowing our heads over empty place settings, waiting until my Dad’s routine prayer was over before being served. After the meal each of us kids would need to ask a parent, “May I please be excused?” Their response signaled whether we were free to leave or not. This kind of routine seemed stifling compared to my friends. While I was confined to the dinner table, sitting straight in a worn bentwood chair, I imagined them lounging on a beanbag chair, eating mac n cheese while watching their favorite TV show. Later I was grateful for our meal time rituals, however puritanical they seemed.

I now say Prijatno instead of a prayer, drink wine instead of milk, and though my customs have evolved into my own, I’ve found I enjoy maintaining a bit of tradition at the dinner table, and in my case it comes in the form of an old Serbian phrase. To me, Prijatno means more than just have a good appetite. It means, lets enjoy this meal together. Let’s slow down, really taste the food, appreciate the preparation, let’s eat and talk and be happy, because good food is to be shared with friends and family. In a society where we have adopted many traditions from all over the world, I think its time to adopt one more, Prijatno!

“Where are you from?” vs “What do you do?”

In the US, at restaurants, in the elevator, at the grocery line check out, the single most common question you will hear in greetings and small talk is this: What do you do? Upon hearing the answer, opinions are formed, judgments laid out, and various doors and windows to conversation are open and shut based upon your answer to this question. In America, we define ourselves by our profession because we are individualists. We believe in the power of one more than in the power of the collective, we place value on individual rights, individual freedoms, and individual accomplishments. We very often judge a persons’ success by what they have achieved in their lifetime. This individuality stems from our ingrained national morality that values opportunity over heritage, equality over class systems, and individuality over the group. We believe that everyone is born with certain rights, and that with the right amount of hard work, determination, and perseverance, anyone can succeed. We have phrases such as “to pull oneself up by his bootstraps”, “rags to riches”, and “it doesn’t matter where you have come from, it only matters where you are going”. These age-old sayings explain what we respect. We believe in a system where any one person is born with a blank slate, and has the responsibility to make a life for themselves, regardless of whatever previous successes or failures their ancestors may have had. This mentality is part of the American spirit, and in a country that was formed by immigrants, that spirit has served us well, as we have been a nation of entrepreneurs, idealists, and visionaries.

This is a spirit that many who were not born here do not entirely understand. This is because in most other countries, it is the family line that is more important than the individual. It matters more where your great, great-grandfather was from or what he did, than what you, yourself have accomplished. When you meet another American for the first time, they will most likely within a few minutes of meeting you, ask you what you do for a living. Here, it is what you have chosen to do with your life’s work that defines you. Another common, but lesser important question is, “Where are you from?” To an American, this question refers to where you grew up or were raised. It does not have anything to do with your ethnicity or heritage. For me, the answer to that is always “The Midwest, more specifically, Kansas City, Missouri”. But when I use this answer with foreigners, they almost always look at me quizzically and say, “Yes, but where are you REALLY from”, as if I am avoiding their real question. I answer again, “the Midwest”, but they say, “Yes, but where are your parents from, your grandparents?” “They are from the Midwest too”, I answer. “Yes, but what about your great-grandparents, your ancestors?” Again, I answer, the Midwest. Apparently it’s surprising to a foreigner, who usually believes that America is a “baby” country, that an ordinary American like me could have roots that grow for centuries within my own country. It’s as if they are refusing to accept this truth, that I am from here, and so are my ancestors. Most of the time, when people ask me this, they continue to dig and dig until I name some European country, and it is only then that they are satisfied with my answer. It’s as if, I must say that I come from European descent in order to be accepted as legitimate. So I guess what they are asking is, what is my ethnicity, not, where am I from? If that is the case, they could just look at my skin color and reasonably determine that I have European ancestors. I do not consider myself a “European- American”, even though technically, if you trace my family tree long enough, I do have roots in Czechoslovakia, Sweden, England, and Germany. But if you are asking about that, it seems a bit discriminatory, don’t you think? To regard my European ancestors as my only legitimate ethnic roots is to completely disregard my American heritage as insignificant. And to disregard my American roots as insignificant is to ignore the important history of my homeland and the valuable lives that my relatives have experienced.

My mother can trace our family tree at least back to the 1600s, when Katarina Sheer came over from Germany, married a Juhngen (changed to the more American spelling -Younkin). She tells me about another Younkin, who was a private in the army in the Revolutionary War in 1775. We also had a relative in the American Civil War, a young boy who lied about his age, claiming to be 15, when he was only 13 so he could be a drummer boy, instead of staying home. A woman relative of mine helped found the National Benevolent Association in the 1880s, which was an orphanage in St Louis, Missouri, a city very close to where I was born one hundred years later. This association is still in existence today. I am also related to Alexander Majors, a founder of the Pony Express, the precursor to the United States Postal Service, and an important chapter in our history. The Pony Express originated in Jefferson City, Missouri, a town very close to where I was born generations later, and the same city that I competed in cross-country athletic races while I was in high school. Another relative of mine was a conscientious objector in the Civil War on the Confederate side; I also had family on the Union Side. One relative of mine rode with the cattle on the railroad from the Midwest out to California tending to their health along the way; he later became the State Veterinarian for Nebraska. Besides all this, we have a handwritten diary from our relative that was scribbled out while he crouched in the trenches as a soldier in World War 1. We have relatives that were Pioneers of the Wild, Wild West, and homesteaders who grew crops, developing the agriculture of our heartland on the unexplored prairie land. We even have an ancestor that boarded the Mayflower as a Pilgrim on the famous voyage to America in the 1620s. Moving to more modern history, my own grandfather was a commander of a Navy Ship in World War II, and my Great Uncle was the head of the cryptology (code deciphering unit) state side, and was in charge of over 100 waves (women military workers) that worked nightly deciphering codes coming in from the front lines. It was one of these women brought a decoded message to him in the middle of the night indicating that the war would soon be over. He promptly replied to the woman who brought it to him, “We need to go wake the admiral.” He was the 2nd person to lay eyes on those words that signaled the end of World War II and would soon shape world history.

A page from my family history book.

Another page from my family history book.

So yes, my ancestors have all played their roles in the significant and fascinating history of the United States and to dismiss all of that history, implying that it is only what happened before all this that is really important, it’s ignorant and disrespectful. When I hear people saying something like, “Yes, but where are you REALLY from”, it shows me that they don’t value my American heritage. While America has shorter roots than some other nations, they are certainly no less important.

My pride and awareness of my own cultural heritage in this country has little to do with the extensive history of the Balkans, however, it is interesting to note some societal milestones, to give us all some perspective. For example, the oldest major educational institution in Serbia, the University of Belgrade, was founded in 1808 or 1838, depending on which date you use as its origin. In contrast, the oldest university in America was founded in 1749 (University of Pennsylvania) or perhaps Harvard University (founded in 1636). And yes, our arts and culture paralleled each other as well, with the first American Opera house was constructed in 1859 (New Orleans), and a Serbian counterpart, the National Theater in Belgrade, was formed 9 years later in 1868.

As we all know, we cannot take credit for our ancestors; we can only claim what we have created in our own lives, the life we have chosen, not our genetic code or our country’s history. We favor personal responsibility over a sense of entitlement or ignorance. And what is even more valuable than my own ancestry is that every single person here has an opportunity, whether their parents were house cleaners or politicians, and that is something that my ancestors did fight to preserve. What you do with your own life is more of an indicator of your character than what your great grandparents did with theirs. Our inalienable rights given to us by our Creator and stated in our own Declaration of Independence say that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. America is not perfect, we admit it. It’s hard to maintain the values that our founding fathers stood for. But we embrace all Americans, whether they are born here or are new citizens from abroad, whether they come from royalty or from poverty, and regardless of creed, ethnicity, religious belief, or national origin. This is what my being an American is about; it’s not about what part of the world my ancestors were from. Our sense of American identity encourages each person to be themselves, to preserve their own identity while contributing with their own unique talents and skills to help make this place better. It’s this sense of identity that I am proud of, not a distant cultural heritage that skips my American roots.

Love and Moussaka

I’ve never been known as a domestic goddess. Most of my spare energy in life has been spent learning how to fly bigger and faster airplanes, and most of my free time was spent hanging around the airport. I wasn’t the type of girl who made cookies in the kitchen with a parent after school. It’s not because I didn’t want to, but because my mom wasn’t that kind of mom.  It wasn’t until my early 20s that I finally started to experiment in the kitchen. Movies like Big Night and Julie and Julia inspired me, and it helped that the guys I dated usually liked it. My sister-in-law, my only relative known for her excellent meals, has gifted me two aprons, and though they usually hang un-worn in my kitchen, I’ve always thought they’d do wonders for winning over the in-laws, if they come over.

When I was growing up, my mom was busy with the 5 of us young kids and our various extra-curricular activities, lessons, and events, and though she was a rare and genius mother, there was never much to say about her cooking skills. If we were lucky, we would get canned “Spaghetti-O’s”, a runny, goopy, mess of processed noodles, and if we weren’t, we’d get a lump of ground meat that had been cooked and cooked into a shriveled disc that was supposed to resemble a hamburger. Pair that with some gritty cold mac and cheese, and some lukewarm tap water in a goblet, and that was our dinner.  While we sat through it, picking at our food, someone would excuse themselves to microwave the plate or give a bite of it to the family dog. Meanwhile all 7 of us sat patiently at the dinner table, night after night, listening to my mom read us newspaper articles on various topics covering a wide range of history, politics, religion, and world affairs. The food on our dinner table played second fiddle to what was really important – intellectual stimulation. I never realized how that mentality had seeped into my own values until now. Why cook when there were so many other interesting, challenging, and rewarding pursuits that I could be using my valuable life energy on? I could be tutoring my Japanese student, writing a book, renewing my flight instructor ratings, working, or perhaps, online shopping!

It was only when I got to really know the secrets to my Serb’s heart that I realized I better channel my inner domestic goddess lest the Serbian community continue to make snide comments about how skinny my husband was, and oh yeah, what a good cook his late ex-wife was. I wasn’t about to let that happen, and so I learned, with no instruction other than the internet and my own creative devices, how to cook. By now I have a menu of Serb worthy dishes, the pinnacle of which I prepared for the 1st time tonight – Moussaka.

Ok, so I know what you’re thinking – Moussaka is not really Serbian, it’s Greek, but Serbs seem to love it nonetheless, and cook it much like an American family would prepare an Italian style pasta, a household family favorite. So tonight, after spotting a gorgeous eggplant at the grocery that seemed to be calling my name, I decided I was up for the task.

Several hours later and my kitchen looked like a tornado had made its way through. I was painstakingly making every morsel from scratch, and taking no shortcuts along the way. My muž came home halfway through the preparation, and he entered the door smiling and giddy, saying the hallway outside smelled like home (a Belgrade kitchen).  Pretty soon he was holding me like he did when we were first falling in love, as I stirred and chopped, and worked my magic. What emerged from my oven hours later was no less than a masterpiece! I was thrilled at my creation and my shoulders arched back in pride as I served moj muž that dish. His reaction was priceless! He gushed over how perfect it turned out, and immediately cleaned his plate and asked for seconds. He even said he couldn’t wait for tomorrow for leftovers. At the moment I am typing, he is in the other room singing and doing the dishes…ahh…..domestic bliss, and I created that!  The icing on the cake was when as he scraped the last crumb from his plate he murmured under his breath, “I think this is even better than my Mama’s”.

So take that Mama Z – you ain’t got nothing on me now!


  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 eggplant
  • 3 potatoes
  • 1 can stewed tomatoes, or fresh chopped tomatoes
  • 1 onion
  • ¾ cup grated parmesan
  • Cinnamon
  • ½ cup butter
  • 4 cups milk
  • 6 tablespoons flour
  • Feta
  • 2 eggs
  • Oregano
  • Fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper


– Peel eggplant, cut into bite size pieces, salt, lay on paper towel for 30 minutes to draw out moisture

– Brown beat in pan with olive oil, add chopped onion, simmer for 10-15 minutes

– Add tomatoes, parsley, and oregano, simmer a bit more

– Whisk 1 egg and add to meat mixture, simmer, then add a shake or two of cinnamon

– In a separate pan, brown eggplant with olive oil

– Peel potatoes and slice them into round discs, brown in pan with olive oil, or you can roast them in the oven until slightly golden (eggplant could be grilled instead of fried as well)

– Béchamel Sauce: melt butter in skillet, whisk in flower, heat milk separately in a pot, slowly add the hot milk to the butter and flour mixture, whisking slowly until thickened (may take 5 – 10 minutes)

– Slowly add a beaten egg to the béchamel sauce mixture, whisking slowly, add salt and pepper to taste

– In a greased baking dish, start layering with the eggplant in first, then add most of the potatoes

– Add the entire meat mixture on top of the potatoes, then sprinkle with ½ cup parmesan

– Add the remaining potatoes, then another sprinkling of parmesan

– Pour all the béchamel sauce on top, and finish with a sprinkle of feta

– Bake for about 1 hour at 375 Degrees, monitor at the end – dish is finished when Sauce has baked into a puffed crisp


This recipe is a compilation from several recipes I found online, and has been tweaked a little by yours truly.

  • I believe that cooking is an art, not a science, and so all measurements and times are approximate, experimentation sometimes yields successful surprises!
  • Dish can be made with either lamb or beef
  • You can vary the amount of eggplant and potatoes, I used only 1 eggplant and more potatoes, however many recipes call for the opposite ratio, or to leave out either vegetable, according to your taste
  • Veggies can be grilled, fried, or roasted. This part is time consuming, so plan accordingly
  • Be sure to stir béchamel sauce until it thickens, otherwise it will be too runny
  • Some recipes suggest layering in the béchamel sauce throughout the dish, instead of having it on top