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!


Talking with Tata

Tonight, after dinner with my muz’s parents at his childhood home, he left me alone in the apartment while he went with his mom on an errand. Only his dad and I were there. This would be the first time I was alone with my father in law, and I was eager to practice my Serbian. He speaks only a few words in English. To my surprise – we spoke wonderfully. I spoke slowly and halted, but I somehow reached into the depths of my mind and pulled out vocabulary and grammar construction I hadn’t used since I was here last. We talked about many things, and we really understood each other! I was so encouraged by this conversation with him, that I am motivated to keep going with my Serbian. I really had an entire conversation with him. It was simple of course, but we communicated. We connected, without a translator. This is huge for me. This is the kind of moment that makes it all worth it. He is old and won’t be around forever, but now we have this connection, and that means so much.

Why Serbian?

Why Serbian?

Two and a half years ago, I was in Belgrade at a little store trying to buy batteries for my camera. I had been in Belgrade for two weeks at that point, I had traveled there on my own, and was halfway through my intensive language course. I was deep into the cases and the grammar drills were enough to make my head spin. Still, I insisted on speaking Serbian every chance I got, and was grateful for every time I could do so. I treated every opportunity like my own personal language mission. Tuesday Afternoon: Purchase batteries using my limited 2 week knowledge of the language. Use one new word, one new grammar construction, and at all costs – do not resort to English! I perused the store, mustering up the courage to approach the guy at the counter, while formulating my simple question in my head. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, he stopped me. “I speak English, its ok!” “No. I know. I speak Serbian”. “No, you don’t, but its ok, I speak English”. “No, I want to try speaking Serbian” “Why would you do such a thing?” He was puzzled and laughing at my attempts, at my earnest determination. He laughed at my coarse, faltering, miserable attempt at Serbian, with my childish vocabulary, my caveman grammar, my speed like a dementia patient. This was a common reaction when I tried my Serbian. I got so frustrated at people responding in English when I attempted Serbian, that I finally came up with a good response. “Ne hablo Engles” Ha! That will stop them!

A year before that, it was my wedding weekend. I was in California, surrounded with all my closest friends and family, and by everyone that loved me, and in addition to that – all the Serbs were there. So was my Grandma, the wise old owl of the family, the sage. It was to her that I listened the most, it was her that I tried so hard to sear the memory of her words into my brain so that I could carry them for all my life, and that I could channel her soul so to speak, to help me throughout the challenges that life would undoubtedly bring. She had always been my sounding board. Calm, courageous, daring, graceful, elegant, classy, sophisticated, and yet grounded. She was grandma. And so I listened to her. So as it was, it was a perfect Sunday afternoon, and were lounging on a beautiful yacht, drinking champagne and basking in the festive glow that surrounds wedding festivities. We were also surrounded with all the Serbs and a few of my loved ones. At that moment, my grandma, usually the belle of the ball, was suddenly swept into my world. I saw the transformation. She, usually at ease in her surroundings, confident, poised, and put together, began to look a little bewildered. She found herself in a sea of Serbian. The language swirling around her, the waves of foreign conversation sweeping her off her feet  as she lost her footing, grasping for a word, a life raft, on which to hold on to. She followed the conversation, smiling at the right times, laughing at the right times, but she was lost. She was me. It was at this moment that she turned her beautiful silver head towards mine, her granddaughter bride, and discreetly whispered to me in that wise old voice that spoke only the truth and said “You really must learn this language”. “I know Grandma, I know.”

Up until this point, I had tried, desparately and unsuccessfully to learn as much as I could. I took a “Serbo-Croatian” course at the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute, I practiced counting and basic phrases with my muz while hiking the Santa Monica hills, I watched DVDs in English that were subtitled in Serbian, I did what I could do. But I barely scratched the surface.

Luckily for me, I grew up in an incredible garden of international awareness. My family, Midwesterners true and true, were citizens of the world at heart. My great uncle was writing a book in Russian at his 96th year on his deathbed. I look at my brothers- one did his Masters’ degree in Japan, another brother speaks Arabic, and the other recently came back from a language emersion program in Mexico. My sister majored in French, and my parents always encouraged language, travel, understanding of the world. So here is me: As per the school curriculum, I studied basic French and Spanish in elementary school and Latin in middle school. In high school and college, thanks to the prodding of my progressive older brother, I took on Mandarin Chinese. Because even in the late 90s, as a high school senior, my forward thinking brother told me “this will be the language of the world soon, you better learn it now” So I trusted him, and I enrolled in Mandarin classes at my school as a 13 year old freshman in high school.

High school is thankfully, just memories now, but I still don’t speak Chinese. I don’t really speak French or Spanish either, and I certainly don’t speak nearly enough Serbian to really even be called conversational. But I did take something away from all those experiences, even if I can only remember how to say “Ni Hao and Zai Jian”. I learned what is important about language. I learned that syllables and grammar are the building blocks of preserving culture. I learned how to position ones tongue in ones mouth to produce different types of sounds. I learned how alphabets develop differently and how languages spread across continents, diversifying with their environment, and slowly changing to reflect the people that speak it. I also learned that I am verbal. Some people are oral, I am not. Sometimes I struggle expressing myself aloud. I am quiet when I should speak, I am loud when I should be quiet, but I love language. I love the craft of writing, I admire great public speakers, and I take joy in learning about the origins, the history, and all the little insights that language gives away about its people. I learned that you can discover a people by learning a language.  Why do the French call it “an affair”, when Americans call it “cheating?” Why do Chinese have the phrase “to eat bitter?” “Why do Serbs say “—– once you have been bitten by a small snake, you will always be afraid of lizards?” These are the things that delight me.

In America, relatively few people speak Serbian, in Serbia, many of their people speak English, so why even try? I certainly wouldn’t be the first westerner I’ve met who partnered up with a Serbian without giving much thought to breaking down the language barrier. Even Chinese, though my brother did have a point, is arguably obsolete as the world has already decided its international language: English. Some would say I have been lucky enough to be born into the language since I will never really need to try that hard to understand a language other than my own to get by in this world. I choose to disagree. I think I am at a disadvantage. Had I not been born into an English speaking family, I would have by necessity, probably learned another language by now. As it is, I have not, but I am determined to do so. I do however have the luxury of choosing what language I will target as my personal language challenge, and of course, it will be Serbian. Before my muz, I might have continued with Chinese, it certainly makes for good cocktail conversation, or I could have switched to Spanish. Spanish would have been an obvious choice, as nearly everything in America is written in both English and Spanish, and many neighborhoods are predominantly Hispanic. Plus, the grammar is easier. Instead I choose Serbian, because that is what infiltrates my world. Serbian on Friday nights when we go to dinner with friends, Serbian at holidays in LA where all the extended family is present, Serbian, I hear every day when my muz is talking on the phone with his parents in Belgrade, or his brother in Chicago, or most everyone of his friends. Serbian, because even at my own wedding, I could not understand the guests. Serbian, so I can one day speak with my own children, to read them bed time stories in the language of their ancestors, and help preserve and pass on part of their heritage. Serbian, because one day, hopefully, they will speak it better than me.

Survival Serbian


photo(11)Two and a half years since I returned from my Serbian trip, we’re finally planning a trip back together for the first time. The last time I was there, I was on my own and what an adventure I had. This time, it will be different. This time, it’s not really a “choose your own adventure” type of trip, but a couples trip, which I’m sure will be full of different challenges and different joys. My idea of a great vacation would be a fun packed adventure type, and would include stuff like kayaking and bicycling and sightseeing and getting lost in nearby villages. I’d visit museums and nightclubs and meet strangers on the bus and join them for dinner. For him, it’s all about relaxing. His ideal vacation would probably be lazy leisurely days sunning himself at the beach, with a few breaks here and there to swim in calm, clear waters. So the challenge will be to marry these two ideas into one satisfying trip. We plan on over a week in Belgrade, but first, we will go to Montenegro and Croatia for a little island hopping excursion. Let the planning begin!

I’ve been hoarding my slowly accruing “annual leave” for a year and a half so we can go on this trip together, and I’ll deplete every last day I have saved. I’ve seen Belgrade through my own eyes, this time I will see it through his. This time it will be his friends, his family, his childhood memories that we will seek. We will visit his old schools and favorite places and he will show me all the things that make this place his home. It will be a chance to reconnect with his roots, and a chance for us to get away to a place that we both love, for different reasons.

In preparation for this trip, I’ve finally dug out my notes from my Srpski Jezik Radionica from when I was there last, cramming away at the little school on Simina street, sitting on my cozy little bed at hostel Kapetan, or sipping coffee while going over flashcards in a cafe on Knez Mihailova. I’m ashamed to say I have not kept up my Serbian like I wanted to.  All the big and little things that make up life have gotten in the way, and most days, “study a foreign language” somehow kept getting pushed to the bottom of my “to-do” list. Somehow, starting a new career, buying a home, and even just doing laundry have taken precedence. So as the big trip approaches, I’ve gotten frantic, realizing that I don’t want to start from scratch with the language when I get back there. I spent so many hours studying it that it seems a shame to have to pay someone to teach me what they taught me 2 years ago. So here I go. Grammar, Vocabulary, Futile attempts at conversation with the muž. Oh the Padež! Damn the Padež! Why is it so complicated! The Genders! Why must a table be a he or she? The same infuriating questions that plagued me back then will plague me again, I can see it happening already. Why must I memorize a thousand rules just to say a single sentence? Why must I know that if I make something plural, only if it’s a masculine, monosyllabic, noun, that I must add ovi, but only if it ends in a hard consonant? The madness! But no. I will not go down this path again, I will not be overwhelmed. I will be methodical and open-minded and enthusiastic. I will try a little every day. I will accept the absurdity of verb exceptions, feminine nouns that pose as masculine, and old words that have alternate endings, and that G + I becomes ZI in the locative, and I will try not to forget about the mobile “A”s. Damn those mobile As. But I will accept these oddities and embrace them. And if I forget them all, which I expect I will do, I will not care that I sound like a caveman but I will keep speaking and learning and forego pride for progress.

So in the midst of all this new-found ambition, I reached out to a friend who is an English language professor, but who grew up in Belgrade. A perfect choice I thought, one who knows the language, but also knows how to teach someone grammar and conversation, and so today we met over lunch. She decided it would be best to start with useful phrases, you know, stuff I could use with the in-laws and in making small talk. She made me realize that I have to stop focusing on grammar and perfection and just make an effort to speak more to build up my confidence with the language, and not to worry too much about if its correct. This is something I need to take to heart – Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. So we focused on the practical, or what I started calling “Survival Serbian”. I couldn’t help but laugh when she had me write down things like,

“Ne, stvarno ne mogu više” – I really can’t take any more! (We imagined this would be in response to all the incessant food offerings around the table)

“Izvini, malo sporije” – Please, a little slower (For when they talk at hyper-speed)

“”Divna Vam Je Supa” – Your Soup is Splendid! (For when Mama Zlata cooks for us)

These are the kinds of phrases that I’m sure I’ll get a plenty of mileage out of, and will probably be infinitely more useful than remembering possessive plural pronouns or the locativ case. So after nearly 3 hours of Survival Serbian, I leave and suddenly realize I am completely drained. I drive home, exhausted, and wonder how I will ever make progress and start to remember just how intense my “intensive Serbian language course” really was that first time in Belgrade. Suddenly I’m not so opposed to a few lazy days sunning and swimming at the beach, it might be just exactly what I need.

“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.

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!”

Notes on Famous Slavs

Though the history of the Balkans is full of colorful and important figures, a few standouts remain relevant and present in the collective consciousness today. In order to carry on an intelligent conversation with a Serb, you may want to familiarize yourself with a few of these or else risk sounding ignorant. Though volumes have been written about these significant people, I’ll contribute only a small blurb as a jumping off point; you can take it from there. A little homework on these famous individuals will go a long way when conversing with locals.

Nikola Tesla – Scientist, Inventor
Unfortunately, this eccentric genius sometimes is forgotten and seen as the underdog in comparison to his colleague, Thomas Edison. Tesla’s brilliant contributions to science are incredibly noteworthy and include the alternating current, wireless technology, hydroelectric power plants and even the radio among various other advancements in the field. Recently, the Serbs gave a respectful nod to this important figure by renaming their airport the “Belgrade Nikola Tesla” Airport. Belgrade also maintains an excellent Tesla museum complete with interactive electrical experiments, a guided tour in various languages, and a videography of his life.

Nikola Tesla

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić – Linguist
Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic is known as the father of the Serbian Lanuage. His main claim to fame is the standardization of the the Cyrillic Alphabet which is still used today. He also published the 1st Serbian dictionary and is credited with documenting hundreds of folk songs and stories that were previously perserved by oral tradition only.

Vuk Karadzic (

Josip Broz Tito – Revolutionary, Statesman, Dictator
Also known as Marshal Tito or just plain Tito, this former Yugoslavian Communist Dictator was a supreme figure in Yugoslavians lives and held political power from 1943 until his death in 1980. He was a revolutionary, practicing a type of Marxism/Stalinism with emphasis on unifying the ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia. He was known for his open borders in the country of Yugoslavia and for maintaining relatively friendly relations with the US, Western Europe, and a few 3rd world countries. He achieved worldwide popularity or notoriety depending on your perspective. This excerpt is from New York Times article commenting on his death. “Tito sought to improve life. Unlike others who rose to power on the communist wave after World War II, Tito did not long demand that his people suffer for a distant vision of a better life. After an initial Soviet-influenced bleak period, Tito moved toward radical improvement of life in the country. Yugoslavia gradually became a bright spot amid the general grayness of Eastern Europe.”

Tito & Kennedy

Ivo Andric – Poet, Writer
The name “Ivo Andric” came up several times during my recent month long stay in Belgrade, and each time I was told, “Andric was the only Serb to ever receive the Nobel Prize, you know”. Yes, I do know! Andric was an influential poet and novelist, his most well known book being “The Bridge On the Drina”, a book of historical fiction explaining the complexities of war in the region over a period of several hundred years. This seems to be one of those books that every Serb must read in school, and I’m currently struggling through it myself. Not at all a light read, this novel is incredibly intricate and sheds light on a region that has experienced generation upon generation of suffering.

Ivo Andric

Novak Djokovic – Tennis Champion
Novak Djokovic has emerged recently as one of the top contenders on the tennis scene and is now accepted as the #2 competitor in the world. He boasts 2 grand slam titles and was a bronze medalist at the 2008 Olympic Games along with holding various other titles and championships. Lately he seems to be gaining momentum and his winning streak is a source of national pride for Serbs. Not only is he a stellar athlete, but he also has been named by a French organization as a “Champion for Peace” and seems to really believe in promoting a new positive image of his homeland.

Novak Djokovic

Momo Kapor – Painter, Novelist
Momo Kapor is a very well known Serbian novelist. Though he was a painter by trade, he went on to write dozens of short stories, essays, and novels. His fame allowed his books to be translated into many different languages. One that is quite easy to get a hold of is his delightful collection of essays entitled, “The Guide to the Serbian Mentality”, which illuminates Serbian lifestyle, traditions, culture, food, and society.

Momo Kapor (Vreme)

If you know only what you read here, you’ll still be ahead of many tourists visiting Serbia. Even a basic knowledge of these famous figures will serve to open the conversational door to even more interesting facts, stories, and tidbits about Serbia and the former Yugoslavia during conversation. Use this brief guide as a starting point in discovering the rich tapestry of Slavic artists, writers, politicians, heroes, and visionaries.