A few years ago, during my first trip to Belgrade, I was walking down Knez Mihailova when I passed a rustic-looking book shop. You know the kind: wood paneling, old-fashioned windows, a pop of emerald green here and there. To top things off, it was just after Christmas — a particular time of year where everything feels softer and lovelier, if only for a few moments — so I was sold. I tugged on Aleksa’s jacket — who had proposed to me days earlier — and in we went.
I walked out of there holding a copy of a work by Momo Kapor: “A Guide to the Serbian Mentality.” It was the least I felt I could do. I, the purveyor of a New England childhood and Italian ancestors, knew nothing about Serbians. And yet I had agreed to marry a Serbian man, take his Serbian last name, and maybe, in the far future, raise Serbian-American children. So, I was determined to assimilate myself with Serbia in any way I could — even from a little white book.
Because when you’re marrying a Serbian man, you’re also marrying Serbia.
Momo Kapor’s book was filled with quirky anecdotes, traumatic memories, half-truths, and spot-on observations. The funny thing is, I can’t remember most of it. I read it during lockdown on the porch of my parent’s house. I remember drinking lemonade (or was it iced tea?) and a wasp swatting around my ankle. I remember the lump of sadness in my throat when a detail reminded me of Aleksa. And I recall one confusing analogy about wives being like Chinese rice. But the chapter that stuck with me, that I ruminate on from time to time, was on Serbian women.
Now, keep in mind: Kapor published this work in 2006, so these observations may have been based on the women he saw on the streets of Belgrade in the 1990s. He described Serbian women as feminine, but with hard edges. They smoke cigarettes like Parisians; they have dark eyes like demons. They’re cool. They’re very fashionable. They don’t need a man. There is something, unequivocally, erotic about the Serbian woman standing in the street. She’s untouchable. Without morals, yet innocent. Elegant, but brutish.
It’s the classic battle of the binaries. I don’t know if I agree with all, or any, of it. But what do I know? My Belgrade and Kapor’s Belgrade are thirty years apart. So I might as well give it the old college try. Here is what I can tell you, as an American woman, about Serbian women.
Let’s get the obvious notion out of the way: everyone is different. There is no standard Serbian woman, just as there is no standard American woman. There is, however, an elusive, collective, socially perceived “woman” in most cultures. The Italians are fashionable; the Parisians are effortless. After living for a cumulative four months in Serbia, here is what I can tell you about Serbian girls: both the real and the idealized.
Serbian women like to hang out in cafés. They will nurse what appears to be the same coffee for two hours. And then they leave. Rarely do they seem to order the pastry or the sandwich. Sometimes, they order a bottle of water.
They gossip. They hang out with their girlfriends at the club. They talk about what she’s wearing, what he said, why she did that, and hey, who used to go out with that guy? It feels like New York, in some ways. Everyone vaguely knows someone who knows someone else, and they’re out having a good time. In other ways, it can be trite, silly — almost like high school. She doesn’t like that some girl has a designer bag; and oh, he must think he’s cool because he’s wearing the latest Nikes. I don’t know if I’ve been in New York for too long, but I can’t remember the last time that people my age entertained that kind of conversation. The cool thing about New York is that everyone is always themselves. There is no “in” crowd. You’re just there, and if you’re lucky, the right person will invite you to the right party, even if you’ve only just met. In Belgrade, many social interactions felt cliquey. There appeared to be an “in” crowd.
This doesn’t mean Serbian women (and men) aren’t some of the nicest strangers I’ve ever met. Not to mention some of the best people to drink and party with. But those who have strong, negative feelings will not hide those feelings. They aren’t American about it, and that can feel unfamiliar. In New York, you might run into an ex and feel awkward. But you say hi, how are you? (Or you do the normal thing, which is to run away in the opposite direction.) In Serbia, those feelings aren’t as concealed. If you’re not liked, it’s obvious and blunt: I don’t like that girl, so I’m not sitting there; I don’t like this song, so I’m not dancing; I’m mad at my girlfriend, so I will scowl at her from this table.
A few people have told me they think the culture is like this because many people don’t leave home. This is another cultural difference that’s hard to grasp as an American. Since eighteen years old, I’ve been living on my own, without my family. Many of you reading this might be able to say the same. In Serbia, however, many children live in their parent’s homes well into their late twenties. It’s not like the USA where people go to college all over the States, making new groups of friends in new cities. Because many students are confined to where their parents live, that means they are confined to going to college and work in that area. This means they interact with the same groups of friends from their childhood years as they do in their adult years. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. But that could be a major component to this cultural difference.
For me, the bigger mystery was dating. Regionally across the USA, this might have a different meaning. But where I am, dating means you’re not in a relationship. You’re just going on dates. You’re feeling each other out. And maybe, down the road, you will decide to actually get together and make it official. Dating means you’re just dating. You can go on dates with many people, or go on many dates with one person. And if you’re into neither dating nor relationships, you can hook up with people, have a friend with benefits, do one-night stands. Semantics, semantics.
From what I understood, Serbians kind of skip the whole dating thing. If two people like each other, they nosedive into a relationship. When I suggested “hooking up” it was like suggesting a truck fell out of the sky and landed into a community pool: unheard of.
A few confided to me that they preferred the American way of thinking. In Serbia, if you don’t really “like” anyone, there’s no one to go on dates with. Whereas in NYC, one might be spotted in a bookstore and some roguish man might ask for your number. This does not happen in Belgrade. The men are not forthright about asking you on a date, because they need to already have some kind of relationship with you.
Just the other day, I observed the most adorable Manhattan meet-cute. I was standing in the aisle of Morton Williams when a blonde woman couldn’t reach a carton of ice cream. As some tall gentleman helped her retrieve it, he said, surprised, “No way! Ben & Jerry’s made a brownie batter flavor?” And the two proceeded to talk about ice cream flavors and their favorite brands before the woman said, “Hey, what’s your name?” and he went “Paul,” and she said “Paul, I want your number, and we’re going out for ice cream.”
New York has a certain charm when it comes to meeting strangers and taking chances. Especially when it comes to dating. There’s an excitement in getting dressed up, going out to dinner, or walking around the city blocks. And after the date, you get to decide what you do next. Could that person be more? Could they be “the one”? Or are they a placeholder, someone you want to have fun with?
I was eating a crepe in Belgrade when I noticed a man looking at me. “He’s not going to do anything about it,” my friend said — a Serbian girl who had lived, for a time, in the United States. “What do you mean?” I asked, slicing my crepe into little strips.
“They look,” she said. “But they don’t ask you out.” And to me, that was the key difference in dating culture. Americans are so bold, they’ll flag your number down while you’re reaching for ice cream in a grocery store. Serbians, it seems, maybe not so much. At least, not in the same way Americans go about it. I think there is a truth that Serbian men (and women) will go after what they want. But the methods are all a bit mystifying to me. Although, I’m not exactly in the dating game when I go to Serbia.
My friend explained, during the rest of that breakfast, how everyone seemed to be bugging her because she had openly voiced her disinterest in dating at the moment. “They act like I’m sick, or something’s wrong with me!” she said, frustrated. “I just don’t want to see anyone right now, I have no interest in it, or in anyone.”
What she had expressed is the bona-fide truth that makes up so much of American culture: girl boss, single life, not interested in dating. It’s the recipe for the protagonist of thousands of American rom-com films, the girl who knows that she doesn’t want anyone. It’s good to know that that narrative exists everywhere. And yet what seems to lack in Belgrade is the comfort of knowing it’s okay to be single and not interested. American women have relished in this view. Her girlfriends will embrace it with her. As for Serbia, it appears that friends will try to meddle with your love life before accepting you don’t want one. They will call up friends, set up dates, ask if there is something very wrong with you.
With all this said, it should speak to some of the lengths Serbians will go to protect and care for their loved ones. They are some of the kindest people I know. In the streets, Serbians will help you find a store. In the restaurants, they will recommend you the best dishes. They will welcome you into their homes, even if they don’t know you. If you’re in need of a left shoe, they’ll find someone with a left shoe. There are cliques, there is gossip, and there is drama all over the world. I can’t summarize an entire culture of people, but if Momo Kapor can leave us with a “guide” to the Serbian mentality, I suppose I can leave you with mine. They are lovely, spirited people who look out for each other.
The women glide through the streets in a variety of styles, but all still feminine at the core. You won’t see many alternative fashionistas. If you do happen to spot the occasional woman with pink hair and edgy boots, there’s a 99% chance she’s a tourist visiting Belgrade. Belgrade is not like New York; there is rarely a woman with overalls walking besides a woman in a gothic dress. You just don’t see it. This isn’t to say that everyone dresses the same, because they don’t. I’d argue it’s more like a collective capsule wardrobe — everyone’s pieces seem to work together
There’s a lot of flowy dresses, a lot of white sneakers. Classic jeans, classic sweaters; nice blouses and blazers. Since Serbian girls are tall, I’ve noticed many of them don’t gravitate toward heels or heeled boots. There’s too many Michael Kors and Guess bags for me to count. It seems the closer you get to the city center, like any major city, the more high-fashion and plastic surgery you start to encounter.
There is some hyper-feminine fashion that has infiltrated Belgrade. A few of the boutiques, or butik, sell pieces that are eye-catching: dresses with loud prints, blazers dyed hot pink, belts with diamonds, slingbacks with tulle bows. My Serbian girlfriends have described this fashion as either Turkish or garish. Some people like it, some people think it’s tacky. To me, a lot of it feels like the forgotten Charlotte Russe: a beloved mall store that all my suburban followers might tragically, or blissfully, remember. Charlotte Russe was infamous for having super glam shoes and cheap, trendy options. With the right accessories, a bodycon dress could be styled for Thanksgiving dinner or styled for the dance club. It just depended on the scarf, or lack thereof.
As for makeup, it’s hard to say. I’m the kind of person who wears eye-makeup every day. In Belgrade, I saw natural makeup often. A bit of mascara here, a bit of blush there. But given Serbia’s reputation for its notorious nightlife, the makeup would get heavier as the day went on. I’ll never forget the afternoon I went to lilly, a drugstore like CVS, and bought a package of “everyday” lashes. Those lashes were as thick and as black as dustpan brushes. You should have seen the “fashion” version…
As for skincare, the majority of drugstores left me wanting more. There were a few brands I recognized, and many I did not. I cannot speak to the efficacy of the brands I don’t know. What disappointed me was how many products contained fragrance or perfume … even organic ones! I picked up a bottle of Eucerin body wash that claimed to be scent-free, but I was grossly misinformed when I discovered its lavender notes in the shower.
I think the modern woman, who uses social media and cares about skincare, will do her research. I trust that Serbian girls have a collection of products that work!
Speaking of skin, the Serbian complexion is on the Mediterranean side. As one man described it, Serbs have “golden skin and chocolate hair.” Despite that, it appears that Serbian girls admire bronzed skin just as much as American girls do. Working on your tan, buying fake tan, and wearing too-dark foundation (yikes) — it’s relevant. You can buy bronzer in spray, foam, or powder form for any part of your body. I’m someone who prefers looking as pale as a vampire, although admitting this to my Serbian peers seems to cause a stir. One time, at Aleksa’s tennis lesson, a woman behind the soda counter demanded I get into the sun before I waste away. I had to remind her that not all of us were born with beautiful, golden skin that tans. Aleksa and his sister were also exposed to my sunscreen-obsessed tendencies. I have a bottle in the car, a bottle in my bag, a bottle in the bathroom. They often shook their heads in laughter, strolling out into the midday sunshine with no worries and no SPF.
During a makeup trial for my wedding, I let the artist in on a secret: I do tan, I just choose not to. I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think it ages well. She was a sweetheart, but she was also completely baffled. “I’ve never met a bride who wants to be pale,” she said as I insisted on being ghostlike for my wedding. Ever the kindred spirit, she proceeded to paint me orange during that first trial. Perhaps she wanted to show me I was making a grave mistake. But it was clear that the only mistake was my foundation shade.
“Beautiful Turkish bride,” she sighed, whisking the foundation brush across my face like an artist going to town on a canvas. When we looked at my carrot-y complexion in the mirror, she corrected herself. “No … Spanish bride. You are a true Spanish bride. Beautiful, beautiful,” — and out the door I was sent.
At my next session, I made sure to buy my own ivory foundation. “Pale bride … American bride,” I pleaded, pantomiming a paint brush.
Most women that I saw on the streets of Belgrade had long, beautiful hair. Often dark, although not as dark as mine, worn in fashionable ponytails or straightened flat to the head. I didn’t see as much variety as I had thought I would. I could be wrong about this, but I did not see women my age sporting hair accessories. I saw women in their forties wearing fancy barrettes or headbands, but no one younger than that (besides me.) I wonder if it is seen as matronly to wear hair accessories in Serbia, the way it is seen as “millenial” to wear skinny jeans and side parts. Regardless, fashionable headwear seemed reserved to the older crowd, with the younger crowd donning more trendy “Kardashian” styles: sleek ponytails, waist-length manes, and chic low-buns.
Most mornings, I felt like an old maid getting ready for the daily mass. I would turn on my hot rollers and wait for them to glow, then roll them into my hair and pintuck them into a blowout style. Then, I’d spray massive amounts of hairspray across my head. I felt like the only person walking around with big, voluminous hair, but I didn’t care. I am American, after all.
And then there is the lovelier subject of body hair. I didn’t notice anything on this matter until my wedding activities began to approach. There was the issue of “when do you want to book your arm waxing” and “wait, why don’t you wax your arms?” I could be out of the loop, but this is a beauty standard I’ve never heard of, let alone considered, in the USA. I don’t know any American women who wax their arms (this excludes my swimming friends.) But it seemed quite common in Serbia to wax or shave arm hair completely. I didn’t go through with it, by the way. Your wedding isn’t the time to try new things, such as waxing your forearms.
I’ve clarified that this is my understanding based on my observations while in Serbia. By observations, let me elaborate. This is what I’ve noticed while standing in line to board my gate from JFK to Belgrade. This is what I’ve noticed sitting next to Serbians on the plane, walking with them through customs, and while claiming our luggage. This is what I’ve overheard from conversations with friends, from people chatting around me in malls and parks and restaurants. This is what I’ve experienced while preparing for my wedding, working with Serbian women who were decorators, florists, musicians, bakers, hair stylists, planners, and more.
Serbian women … are they as elusive as Momo Kapor makes them out to be? In some ways, yes. They’re fashionable without doubt. And their honesty can be brutal. But coldhearted and lacking morals? That wasn’t what I saw. Culturally, this is a population who looks out for one another. They have, historically speaking, been through a great deal. The Serbian woman simply knows what she wants, and that’s enough to make any man intimidated.