Understanding the Balkans: ‘100 people, 100 fancies’
Author’s note: You will need some previous knowledge or experience with the Balkans to understand this post.
Serbian proverb: ‘Sto ljudi, sto ćudi.’
The headline, quite deliberately, doesn’t render quite the correct translation of this proverb. A more correct direct translation would be, “One hundred people, one hundred temperaments.” But I didn’t like the tone of that.
The meaning, in any rendition, should be clear. In English, we’d most likely say, “It takes all sorts” or “To each their own.” And, while every country in the Balkans seems to share a common (and terrifically discombobulating) mentality, this saying perfectly encompasses the region.
It really does take all sorts round these parts. Personally – and this really is just me – I like to group my fellow inhabitants of the Balkans into three overall groups.
‘Kako ćemo – Lako ćemo’
By far the most common attitude one might encounter in the Balkans is of the trust-me-I’m-not-an-engineer variety. ‘Kako ćemo – lako ćemo’ translates into a laissez-faire approach to everything that seems to be inherent to and ubiquitous in the Balkans.
Generally, it just means ‘Meh, we got this,” especially when we most certainly don’t got this and have no idea what the fuck to do. Individuals bearing this attitude hold a deep belief that a solution will present itself, given time. And, if it doesn’t, then it’s just terrible luck. Or an international conspiracy against this part of the world.
This group of people is not be confused with the ‘Daj Bože/Daće Bog” (‘God willing’) sort of folks, which seems to be dwindling in recent years.
‘Dokon pop i jariće krsti’
An old and well-known Western Balkan proverb says that ‘An idle priest even baptizes baby goats’. And no, the fact that the proper English term for ‘baby goats’ is ‘kids’ does not escape me.
In its original sense, the proverb means to say that those who have nothing of use to do will quickly find senseless activities to entertain themselves with. Being that many once usefull activities seem to yield little to no results to locals, this meaning has recently changed.
The group of people described by this regional proverb believes that most things, unless they are directly related to your specific job description or household role are a complete waste of time. Because why do more than is explicitly required of you? These folks will frequently discourage any attempt by others to do anything novel or that requires unusual effort.
Albeit not a proverb, there is another local saying that this particular group considers one of its mantras – ‘They can’t pay me as little as I can work.’ The paltry median salaries and high unemployment rates in many countries of the region begin to make more sense when one understands the underlying mentality of such humorous quips.
‘A gde sam tu ja?’
In more entrepreneurial circles in the region, this saying has been abbreviated to ‘the AGSTJ factor’. If the AGSTJ factor is missing from any business proposal or plan, the proposal or plan is likely to fail before it’s had a chance to be implemented.
To clarify, “A gde sam tu ja?” translates to “And where do I come into all of this?” but essentially means what do I get from whatever we are planning on doing. And Balkan folk are not prone to putting any effort into any activity that they don’t see or get almost immediate results from.
If it’s a long-haul project you’re offering, you best be able to pay your Balkan cunterparts (sic!) for their work, however minor, immediately or look for a new region to get started in.
‘Nije sve tako crno’
Another common saying, that you’ll hear in the darkest of times (something the Balkans seem to see frequently) is, “Everything isn’t quite so dark.” And, indeed, not all Balkan-related matters are quite as bleak as I (or global headlines) make them out to be.
It’s a quirky, complex, often misunderstood place, this region. And that’s part of its charm. If there’s any quirkiness in your own character, you’d easily find your place and fit in among the misfits here. Because this place really takes all sorts.