Without meaning to start with the blindingly obvious, there is something magnificently Serbian about the Serbs. What makes them so? Serbian culture is as infuriating as it is addictive, and the idiosyncrasies of these magnificent people may well be what makes them so wonderful. These are the ins and outs of that culture.
Where else to start? Inat is a peculiarly Serbian concept. Many nations will claim that it exists all over the world, but nowhere has the track record and evidence to back up the claim like Serbia. In short, it is the idea of doing something precisely because you have been told you can’t, the acting out of proud defiance in the face of insurmountable odds.
It is record numbers turning up for a fun run in the streets of a city under aerial bombardment, or men and women holding BBQ parties on the roofs of that same town. It is being given the choice of changing religion or dying, and subsequently going for the latter. You could call it cutting off your nose to spite your face, but the Serbs take it to entirely new levels.
Belgrade is particularly famous for its nightlife, and this has more to do with an inherent desire to celebrate than the convincing nature of rakija and the rest. You’ll see it at parties, at weddings, at festivals and even at funerals, but the Serbs know how to celebrate in the most passionate of ways. The festivities will start late and finish even later, until every drop of joy has been wrung from the sponge of life.
Everyone around the world knows how to appreciate those closest, be they friends or family, but the Serbs take this more seriously than most. This can take the tangible form of presents or unexpectedly paying the entire bill after a meal, or the intangible version through attention, late night conversations and more. This kinship is everything to the Serbs, and they aren’t shy of showing it.
There is a new generation of educated and Western-leaning Serbs who are keen to move on from the past, but it is difficult to deny the importance of history in the nation. The glory days of the medieval Serbian Kingdom are a frequent source of inspiration, and much of the national consciousness finds its origin in the myths that arose from the years of Ottoman occupation. It pays to know your history when in Serbia.
History may well be important, but food probably comes ahead of it in Serbia. Celebrations will be punctuated by meal after meal after meal, and even the most frugal of Serbs will put on a major platter when the time is right. Wealth is displayed through eating as opposed to economy, and in this way the Serbs are a very rich nation indeed.
With this in mind, don’t you dare think about leaving any food behind at the end of a meal. Even the slightest unwanted morsel will be seen as a true insult to the cook and can leave you in hot water with everyone around. Best to stuff yourself, no matter how much your stomach can hold.
The commitment to celebration, appreciation and abundance comes from a place of love and passion, but it also shines a light on the neuroses that are prevalent in these parts. Walk down Knez Mihailova in Belgrade and you’ll quite frankly be astonished at how beautiful everyone is, the quality of the fashion and the liberal nature at which people enjoy their lives.
Appearance is everything in the Balkans, and in Serbia in particular. If your neighbour gets a new car, you’ll have to get out and buy a slightly shinier one, lest the voices of the village get to talking. The appearance of wealth is just as if not more important than its actual existence. As George Castanza said, it’s not a lie if you believe it.
For many, the Serbian people and the Serbian Orthodox Church are one and the same. The church plays such an important role in the history of the Serbian people that it is difficult to separate them entirely, and religion still plays a vital role in the lives of many ordinary people. Go to any Orthodox Church in the country and you’ll see as many young people as old, proving that that influence isn’t going away any time soon.
The importance of religion in the country either confirms or contradicts the inherent rebelliousness of the Serbs. The people of Serbia have never played nice with those in power, be they Ottoman leaders in the 17th century or international alliances in the 20th.
Serbs don’t like to be told what to do, especially by countries perceived as trying to police the world. Serbs have a national pride that sometimes veers into the obscene, but also means that they value the autonomy of the nation. You need to be an actual deity to exert any authority here.
The Brits are famous for gallows humour, but the Serbs are right up there with them when it comes to miserly wit and a preponderance for taking the mickey out of the unfmortunate. No subject is off limits when it comes to making jokes, although don’t be surprised if some of those making the jokes aren’t quite as happy to hear a foreigner making fun of the nation.
Serbs are a very proud people, and as such they are immensely suspicious of anyone who neglects to make eye contact in an important conversation. What are they trying to hide? It is of optimum importance that you hold a Serb’s glare. This is even more pertinent when it comes to clinking glasses before imbibing alcohol. Make eye contact, hold that eye contact, and carry on your way.
This is definitely a lesson that the rest of the world could learn from Serbian culture. There is a commitment to passion that is lacking elsewhere, and this becomes tangible in many forms. When a Serb is interested in a subject they will give themselves entirely to it, and there are no half-measures. If you’re going to try something, why wouldn’t you throw yourself into it? This is inherent in Serbian culture, and it comes back to the theory of inat and that ever present national pride.