The Agony and Ecstasy of Serbian ‘Repats’

At some point you decided to leave for foreign lands, with the aim, perhaps, of getting an education, pursuing a career in a better organised place, or just seeing what life is like outside Serbia.

Eventually, overworked and frazzled, probably in a cramped room somewhere in a big international city, you started thinking of Serbia.

1. The siren call

You went there recently and found it so good that you barely remember why you left in the first place. Back home, people are always out, they stick together and, although they complain, surely it cannot be that bad – many of them seem to have pretty decent lives.

You have some modest savings and a cracking business idea just waiting to be unleashed and, above all, your family and old friends await. On top of that, you long ago realised that things in your adopted country are not as easy as you hoped they would be: it seems that every system (even a Western one!) suffers from the lack of meritocracy and stability you once thought only plagued Serbia.

Besides – Serbia is home and, well, they always said you can always go back – so why not? Welcome to the first stage of the emotional journey from ‘the Other Place’ back home.

2. The plunge

After a lot of thinking, soul-searching and some planning, you decide to take the plunge. It is difficult to leave your adopted country. You will miss some of the foods (some do measure up to Serbian standards), culture and your new friends. You will probably also lose some money, but hey, the quality of life is so much better in Serbia for so much less.

Back home some of your friends will surely tell you that you are mad to come back (but they are just being negative, aren’t they?), and maybe your neighbours will think that you failed and had to return (who cares?) and maybe you’ll lose your worldlywise credibility with your friends (surely they like you for other reasons?).

With all concerns melting away, you decide: you are going home. Back to Serbia, the land of your youth, eternal coffeedrinking and possibility.

3. The honeymoon

During the first few days you are overwhelmed. It is just like when you went back home for holidays but better. You see everyone and you rejoice at the thought of finally having enough time to spend with them after all those years. They are all a bit different, some have moved away, some are planning to, but they are people who you grew up with and you feel safe with them.

You also hear about all the great new things you can do back home: even the stuff you thought you would miss from ‘the Other Place’ is available now.

On top of that, there are so many opportunities: basically everyone you meet has a great idea and you can see your foreign expertise (and capital) launching it and achieving dizzying levels of success. It sure is great to be back. Still, many people think you are crazy, why are they so negative?

4. The panic

A few months pass and you start remembering why you left in the first place. Many people in kafanas (traditional Serbian restaurants) are just sitting there because they have nothing else to do here. The wacky political news you found semi-entertaining when aboard starts to frustrate and annoy you, mostly because these wacky events now directly affect you.

Sadly, your business plan is in ruins: nobody has done what you want to do because it is impossible in the way you imagined it. You can’t find the right people, or the necessary input, or there is some ridiculous regulation in the way or you will step on someone’s toes.

Most painfully, there are the personal things: why is everyone so different after all these years? Maybe it was better to see some people just once or twice a year? What have you done with your life?

5. The reboot

As the panic wears off, you realise that you need a different strategy. You need to see Serbia with fresh eyes. You realise that Serbia is not the country you left before, and that it is definitely not the one you thought you were moving back to. Yes, even in Serbia things change but they do so less predictably. Again, overworked and frazzled, although potentially in a much bigger room, you work through your options. Many times. Propelled by the renewed realisation that Serbia just does not work for you, you start considering whether to start afresh abroad.

However, you decide to stay put. You can also try and build your life here again. You can learn how to insulate yourself from the nasty aspects of this society (political machinations, barely-functioning system) and thrive on the good ones (gregariousness, good food, generosity).

On the business side you can readjust, usually though a couple of well-informed and connected friends. You can shed some of the old social circles, and gain new ones. You can make it work back home, just not in the way you imagined.

This article originally appeared in Belgrade Insight newspaper and was published on Balkan Insight portal.

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