Still, it never ceases to amaze me at how many times, in the course of a normal month, week, day, and (on bad days) hour, people will invoke this sentence as a definitive argument and statement of fact. People will constantly tell me THIS IS SERBIA when I wonder why I cannot figure out the city bus schedule. Why does every official act require a mile-high stack of signed and stamped papers? THIS IS SERBIA! Where is the waiter with my change? THIS IS SERBIA! Why do we repair all the roads at once when the traffic is highest? THIS IS SERBIA!
Ah! Then that’s ok.
As a foreigner living here, I suppose it is normal that people should remind me of my physical location every time something happens which baffles and befuddles. Obviously I just don’t get it. Obviously things work far differently in Serbia from anywhere else in the world. And obviously I should just shut my mouth and swallow when anyone tells me THIS IS SERBIA – it means that whatever is happening is beyond my comprehension.
The thinking man might agree to this if, say, he were landed on an alien planet in the far reaches of the Andromeda Galaxy. In a place where no human habitation has taken root, if someone told me THIS IS ANDROMEDA, I might nod and accept. But as far as most anthropologists can figure, Serbia – like most of Earth – is filled with humans. Maybe I am just naïve to think that humans in Serbia are just the same as humans elsewhere. This is Serbia, after all.
But when things go wrong, or strangely or generally sidewise, the stock explanation that is provided to us (i.e., us foreign guests in this land) is not one which includes a comparison of cultures or values or norms. We get the THIS-IS-SERBIA, and that is meant to explain the whole thing. We are meant to be satisfied with this answer, implying that certain behaviors or practices are simply inexplicable by any other means.
This gives me pause to wonder if, among Serbs, the phrase is also pulled out to explain the unexplainable. Or do they just look at each other and exchange a knowing look that says, “Thank God we do not have to try to tell a foreigner what this means because THIS IS SERBIA and he could never wrap his head around it.”
I do not like an unsolved mystery. If I am forced to accept that no words, illustrations, or pantomime are available to explain something to me, I will cheerfully rebel. Usually the THIS IS SERBIA is invoked to cover bad situations or problems. Showing up for a residence card renewal and finding that I am missing one important paper that no one told me about, for example. THIS IS SERBIA, they will say, with the implied subtext that I should have KNOWN that something unexpected and illogical would happen.
While THIS IS SERBIA answers the question “What country is this?” adequately and sufficiently, it is not enough to satisfy when faced with unacceptable situations. Moreover, it is not an argument that I, as a foreigner here, can ever use to my own advantage. Once when pulled over for speeding, the policeman asked me how fast I thought I was going. I told him THIS IS SERBIA! But it did not prevent him from writing me up.
Maybe this is a magical place in which the laws of physics, civics, and human psychology do not apply. Perhaps I should do a study on the basic differences between Serbia and any other country, but I fear my research would leave me with only one result:
THIS IS SERBIA.
Read more about what it is like to be here in “Grumpy in Belgrade: The Prehistory“