If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and fail again

Nicholas Comrie RSS / 08.11.2007. u 21:37

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.          

Komentari (16)

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nsarski nsarski 21:50 08.11.2007

Try this one:

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it." -- W.C. Fields
Haaahaaaaa, sorry, but this is funny:)
Anyway, what is the explanation for a room full of Serbians speaking Italian? I mean, I've never had that experience for the whole life I've lived in Belgrade. Italian?! What is this - a new trend or something?

P.S. But, I must admit, I only have the admiration for you guys trying to make sense out of incomprehensible (this is Chekhov, btw.)


Have you noticed how incredible easy it is to swear in foreign language (if you are not a rough speaker in your mother thong)? This was pointed to me by a frind of mine who is a lecturer at Bocconi, who has no trouble saying kacco (i'm not sure that I have the spelling right), which her Italian husband finds shocking.
nsarski nsarski 22:23 08.11.2007

Re: swearing

your mother thong

Your mother wears thong?:))

You brighten my day, ma favorite doctoress! Really and honestly:)))


Don't you like the idea S(h)ar(k)ski? I'll live it as it is. It fits in nicely!
dunjica dunjica 00:02 09.11.2007


a zašto ne iskoristiš priliku i na Blogu vježbaš svoj srpski?
Nicholas Comrie Nicholas Comrie 13:36 09.11.2007

Re: Nicholas,

Now that really would be asking too much. Perhaps after a few beers...
Although I never can find my way to a computer terminal or have the will to write by that stage.
Ivan Čikarić Ivan Čikarić 12:25 09.11.2007

the quotation

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett
Igor_Jaramaz Igor_Jaramaz 13:01 09.11.2007

Обрано млеко

At the expense of sounding like a smartass that failed to catch the gist of your message (and irrelevant illustration or yet other form of literary enrichment) skimmed milk is обрано млеко (obrano mleko), partly skimmed (делимично обрано/delimično obrano) but that must be 2,8% I guess in this yet to become lipidophobic country of ours...

Another useful tool is http://www.slavicnet.com. Despite it allowing you a quota of only 50 translations per day, it is quite excellent actually, for translator or common speaker alike.

Enough shameless commercial advertising for me...
Nicholas Comrie Nicholas Comrie 13:37 09.11.2007

Re: Обрано млеко

Shameless advertising or not, thanks for the help. I will check it out.
wk wk 15:26 09.11.2007

Weird situation in Belgrade

One of the most weird situation I experienced in Belgrade was an evening in one downtown cafe. Me and my friends gathered there without any particular reason and in one moment it became apparent that everyone in the cafe (excluding us) speaks Spanish. It revealed later that there was some conference of air controllers in Serbia, so the evening before all guests from Spain decided to spend a night in the town and to gather in the only cafe with Spanish name. Spanish air controllers seem to be very friendly folks, so they started communication with everyone around quite easily. As a result, entire population of the overcrowded cafe now spoke English. Because it was impossible to say who is Spanish and who is Serbian (both nations have the exactly the same terrible English pronunciation), even Serbs started to speak English among themselves.

We took one smaller group to the discotheque later. In one moment it was that famous Antonio Banderas' song playing. One of our Spanish guests sang the whole song, just to be friendly slapped on the shoulder by one unsuspecting Serb that was passing by in that moment: "Bravo, care, znaš sve reči."
Igor_Jaramaz Igor_Jaramaz 19:03 10.11.2007

Re: Weird situation in Belgrade

Antonio Banderas sings?
Someone actually plays that?
Someone sang it aloud?
jinks jinks 17:37 09.11.2007


it depends on what was your choice of drink. Some induce fluent Serbian, some fluent Italian … whichever you chose, at the end you end up speaking Russian.

Dipende da che cosa era la vostra scelta della bevanda. Alcuni inducono Serbo fluente, un certo Italiano fluente... quale avete scelto, all'estremità che vi concludete su Russo parlante (by Babel Fish).
Whyomar Whyomar 18:55 11.11.2007

Plant a tree

Well learning a new language seems to me to be a bit like planting a tree:
Not much to look at for the first few years and then it suddenly seems to just all come together.. -after a year or two of expressing yourself like a three-year old.
The problem comes when you get treated like one too!
kate22 kate22 14:59 14.11.2007

Before or after??

Now, were the people talking Italian all around you before or after rakija?!

I've been calling rakija 'clever juice' for a long time and I too find that it's a great linguistic aid. It also makes me very clever, but strangely noone else seems to agree with me on that.

Still having a problem on the saying please and thank you front - people in Serbia seem to find it very strange when you tell them that you always say thank you even at home with your family. Someone told me that it was like treating people like strangers.

Also have a problem with the puerile and sexist attitiude towards women from certain blokes who obviously don't have a real girlfriend or are still 15 (eg. poster on this thread). And the number of really beautiful women who slap on way too much make-up so they all look the same. Sisters - tone down the slap, bung on some jeans and just chill - true men don't want barbie dolls who pout. They want natural beauty, smiles and good conversation. But that's just my off topic point of view.

Generally I find the people of Serbia really nice and hospitable and great company. The British and Serbian senses of humour are very similar and I always have a really good laugh with my Serbian friends.

Has the long awaited moment arrived when you can buy skimmed milk in Belgrade? I must have missed that! About bloody time. I may move back now.
salenacionale salenacionale 00:44 19.11.2007

Re: Before or after??

You seem to have a lot of 'off topic' problems
Word of advice:
If you don't like it anything in Serbia, just LEAVE
Go back to merry old England where people say please and thank you
or men apparently don't have sexist attitudes
I wonder if your people said please and thank you to their black slaves
kate22 kate22 16:44 19.11.2007

Re: Before or after??

I knew as soon as I'd posted my comment that it would offend, which it was never meant to - it was all meant lightheatedly. But in my own defence, surely I'm allowed to criticise?
Yes, there is sexism in the UK of course, but not quite so blatant since the 80s. This comment was triggered by the unrelated photo posted on this thread - are you also going to respond to that person about being 'off topic'?
As for your word of advice - don't need it thanks. Also don't need your xenophobic comment about British people and black slaves. How do you know I'm not black? Lots of people are in modern Britain.
But you are free to write me off because of some flippant comments that I made and my nationality. Your chip, your shoulder.
Actually, I really love Serbia, but just as you would feel if you lived in the UK, there are things that aren't quite so great. This is called free expression.



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