24.4.12

You Said WHAT?!

"Tolerance, inter-cultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where peoples are becoming more and more closely interconnected."
—Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Nine months. Nine whole months. In three more, we will have been expats for an entire year! The time has flown, but then on the other hand, I feel like we have succeeded in making Serbia "home" and that took a good amount of time and energy. In nine months, Chris and I have made lifelong friends, mastered driving in a foreign country, figured out the art of hasty border crossings, learned how to avoid speeding tickets, found hole-in-the-wall stores that sell tasty energy bars, zip lock bags, spray paint, Eco friendly detergent, scentless toilet paper, and specialty light bulbs, and we can communicate in basic Serbian. Things don't seem so foreign after nine whole months here. 

We're not just "surviving" in Serbia, on the contrary, we're really enjoying life here. Of course it helps that summer is just around the corner and all of a sudden the city of Subotica has exploded with new life and energy. Old friends come out of the woodwork, and new friendships are easily formed over iced coffee and fresh strawberries at outdoor cafes. 

While I have been warmly welcomed into the Serbian culture, I will never BE Serbian. I am American, and while I am doing my very best to be tolerant and culturally aware, inevitably there will be (and have been) hic-ups along the way. I still stumble over my words, offend people with my clothing choices, startle old women when I wear open toed shoes in April, and shock my friends when I casually place my purse on the ground rather than in the chair next to me. 

One of the funniest things happened the first week that Chris and I arrived in Serbia, although I did not realize what I had actually SAID until much much later. 

About a month ago, I was drinking coffee at Stara Pizzeria with a group of eight or so friends. We were casually talking and they asked me how I was liking Serbia eight months in. I told them that I really felt comfortable here but that there was one interaction I had had when we first moved that still just seemed strange. A man in a local grocery store had been very angry with me and I could not figure out why. It was the one and only angry reaction I can remember getting in Serbia. Chris and I had driven to Roda Megamart together to try to make sense of the new grocery stores. We rolled our cart around trying to find basic food necessities in a foreign land. We managed to find most things that we needed, and as we were about to check out I realized that we did not have any meat. 

"Chris, we need to get some chicken. I know they eat a lot of pork in Serbia, but I am sure they have chicken. They have to have chicken, right?!"

So we rolled up to the meat counter and spotted what we thought was chicken. I just had to ask the butcher for two pieces of boneless chicken. 

"Chris, I don't know the word for chicken in Serbian - do you?"

"No I don't know that word either, but don't you know the word in Russian? Maybe it's the same word? you should try that."

I did know the word for chicken in Russian! I felt so clever that on my first grocery store run I would be able to communicate with the butcher. 

The butcher was a big, burly Serbian man and he seemed very serious. He sauntered over to us and asked how he could help. 

Without skipping a beat, I smiled and proudly announced (in Russian) that I needed two pieces of chicken: 

"Ya hocu dva kuritsa!"

All of a sudden my eight Serbian friends interrupted my story; "YOU SAID WHAT?!" They were all laughing so loud and hard that the entire restaurant was glaring at us. 

"What did I say wrong? I wanted chicken. . . and I now know that the Serbian word is different, but did I say something wrong?"

Sanela smiled at me through her laughter-tears, "Tell us what he said to you next."

"Ummm . . . well, he was really angry. I mean, really angry. He glared at me and raised his voice and AGAIN asked what I needed. I looked at Chris, I looked at the butcher and then I started flapping my arms like a chicken and making balking noises. Chris just walked away embarrassed by my charades, but in the end I got what I wanted. . . two pieces of chicken. What did I say to him?!"

They could not stop laughing and by this point people were getting up and moving away from our noisy table. Almost in unison, all eight of them explained the error I had made. 

Apparently the word for chicken in Russian is slang for (I will put this in polite terms) "a very small man-part" in Serbian. Yup. I had asked the big, burly butcher if he had "a very small man-part." For eight months, I had NO IDEA how offensive I had been to that Serbian butcher. All I could do was laugh to the point of tears. 

Ohhh, and I guess that now I have a great party story. 

I am sure that is just one of the many language blunders we have made along the way.