I was out the other night in Belgrade when I found myself listening to a language I didn’t understand and a conversation about which I had no clue. It wasn’t the first time that this had happened to me here in Serbia, but after three years in the country I thought that the worst of it was behind me. The strange thing was, I wasn’t missing out due to my far from perfect Serbian, but because when I’d chosen a language at the Institute for Foreign Languages I’d evidently picked the wrong one. Apparently, I should have chosen Italian.
It was a very strange experience, sitting in a room full of people all talking Italian and not having a clue what was going on. And it wasn’t that they were all Italians. More than half were Serbs and yet, they were all, with the exception of me, fluent. I felt like screaming ‘Hajde pricaj na srpskom’. I suppose it was because I wanted to understand and be understood, but also because I wanted the chance to practice a language that I regretfully don’t often get to use. But as I sat there listening to them talking in Italian, I realized that the Serbs there wanted exactly the same opportunity that I sought. The strange thing was I had experienced exactly the opposite only a week earlier, when I had met a group of stranci studying Serbian language at the university. They had opted to reject speaking in English and we had spent the night speaking in Serbian. They even sent texts in Serbian. The same was apparently true of them. The problem is that language is a fickle friend and it doesn’t always come to your aid when you want it to.
There are those situations when you just can’t speak despite desperately wanting to. A combination of embarrassment and fear gets your tongue, and despite wanting to shine, all you can manage are a few words before falling flat on your proverbial face. This is generally the situation I have found myself in when I am talking with my girlfriend’s parents. They are lovely and infinitely forgiving when it comes to my linguistic ineptitudes, but their niceties seem only to serve to heighten my insecurities. I suppose I want to sound kind, cultured and interesting, but I always end up sounding like I am none of the above in my stumbling Serbian. The weird thing is that you put me in situations where what I say is entirely irrelevant (any drink-related incident fitting quite neatly into this situational category) and I will talk comfortably and confidently all night. Not well admittedly, but comfortable. If only it were the other way around; I’d be able to thank my mother-in-law for all those meals that she’s cooked me, whilst only having to sacrifice an ability to ask for skimmed milk. It hardly seems fair really. There is however one great leveler, admittedly one perhaps not best employed when with the in-laws, and that’s alcohol.
Alcohol is a great steadier of pre-match nerves. After a few beers, rakijas (add a suitable alcoholic beverage here), I am not only confident that what I have to say is somehow more relevant than that of the sober me, but that my Serbian has been miraculously transformed into polished and witty prose. Never mind padezi (I am from Leskovac anyway, where they have apparently died out like some kind of linguistic Dodo), never mind a vocabulary that would shame an eight year old, I can speak. And after a few beers and a bit of encouragement, I reckon I’m damn good at it too. And in fact I do get rather good after a few drinks, chugging along quite happily until about the fourth drink. It is at this point, that things begin to head back in the opposite direction again, towards the point where you fall flat on your face, first verbally and then, if moderation deserts you, physically.
There seems to be no easy way around my difficulties with Serbian. I suppose I’ll just have to keep learning. So like every good student, I will have to sit down with my books and listen to my many teachers and hope that there is a beer or four to hand when the needs arises.