Dispatches from Belgrade: In Serbian, 'Like' and 'Love' Are the Same Thing

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I recently moved to Belgrade from New York City, and now I’m taking Serbian lessons. I’ve picked up a decent amount of vocabulary and phrases in various ways: from bartenders, from the old lady who feeds the cats outside my apartment. It’s amazing how much I’ve learned just from walking my dog. But I knew if I wanted to really converse with my Serbian friends, I’d have to start taking formal lessons.

I signed up with Belgrade Language School, a course my friends recommended. I probably could have saved money just by downloading a textbook online, but I really like learning new languages in a classroom setting. This particular class only had two other students, plus the teacher, which meant we could get an individualized experience as well.

Marina, my teacher, lives in Belgrade but she’s from the countryside. Our classes are virtual because of COVID-19 restrictions, but I don’t mind. It’s nice to learn in my sweatpants. We do a variety of exercises during each lesson, from learning new vocabulary to conversational skills, and more.

My favorite part is learning verb conjugation. To me, it’s like a puzzle, remembering not only words but how the words make sense in a sentence. So far I’ve learned a handful of verbs, like videti (to see), radeti (to work), etc. 

“Today, we are going to learn the verb, ‘to like,’ ” Marina says. “Ja volim Petr. Ja volim kafa.

I do the translation in my head. “I like Peter. I like coffee?”

“Bravo!” Marina replies. “We use voleti to say we like something, or love something.”

“It means both?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says. “You can say it if you love someone, like you are in love with them, but also if you love a thing, like you love coffee.”

I remember when I was learning Czech, we had two different words for ‘like’ and ‘love.’ If we liked something, such as coffee, we said, mít rád, but if we loved something, such as a person, we used milovat to express our passion. 

My Czech teacher was so confused to learn that in English, we use “like” and “love” interchangeably, almost in a hyperbolic sense. “How can you love coffee?” she would ask. “Coffee cannot love you back.”

Philosophical, for sure.

But now that I'm in Serbia, it seems that “like” and “love” are once again the same thing, whether or not a person, or a cup of coffee, feel the same way towards you.

“But you have to be careful,” Marina advised. “Because you never know who is going to interpret ‘like’ for ‘love’.”

Also philosophical. 

Serbs are pretty passionate people. When it comes to relationships, it seems to me that they are pretty much all or nothing. If a Serb likes you, it's not uncommon for them to say they are falling in love with you after a few dates.

Maybe it has to do with the ambiguity of voleti. Maybe they just know a good thing when it's in front of them. 

Lots of people I talk to say I shouldn’t bother to learn the langaute because everyone here speaks English. But being able to communicate in my new country's language is so crucial to understanding the people in my life. Whatever the case, this would be new territory for me, where I’d have to clarify beforehand if I ‘liked’ or ‘loved’ someone. Just proof that not everything translates from English the same way, which makes life interesting, confusing, and exciting at the same time.

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