Dispatches from Belgrade: Hiding My Divorce
I moved to Belgrade, Serbia, because, in the U.S., I was a divorced girl living in a divorced world. It was exciting to navigate my “new normal” life in Eastern Europe as a single woman, relishing in my freedom and exploring a new place with nothing holding me back.
As a woman in my 30s, the pickin’s are already slim in terms of potential new partners. It’s a strange time to be single because most people my age have been married for several years, or are newly married. A handful, like me, is processing their first divorces, but I’ll likely have to wait until my mid-to-late 40s for the first real wave of divorcees to roll in.
Locals Have a LOT of Questions
For now, I’m happy to be single. But in Serbia, being single at my age comes with a lot of questions.
Most people are curious why I’m here in the first place. After all, Serbia isn’t as popular as France or the UK in terms of foreigners. For some Serbians, I’m the first American they’ve ever met. Conversations usually go like this:
Serbian: “Where are you from?”
Me: “The USA.”
Serbian: “Why are you here?”
Me: I usually shrug. “Because I like it!”
Serbian: “Are you here for work?”
Serbian: “Are you here for Serbian boyfriend?”
Serbian: “Okay, but why are you here?”
One woman at the grocery store even crossed herself when she heard I was just here on my own — no job or boyfriend in sight.
"One woman at the grocery store even crossed herself when she heard I was just here on my own — no job or boyfriend in sight."
And in a country where roughly 85 percent of the Serbian population is Orthodox Christian, I found out that the idea of being divorced was pretty taboo. It seemed I had a few strikes against me that I’d need to navigate if I didn’t want to become the talk of the town. (Gossip is a hot hobby in Belgrade, and I’m swiftly becoming famous as ‘that girl from New York’.)
Don't Talk About Your Divorce — Ever
When a Serbian granny asks if you have a boyfriend, it’s less because they have someone to set you up with, and more because they are concerned that you aren’t married yet.
“Don’t talk about your divorce — ever,” one of my Serbian friends advised me. “Don’t mention it, especially to someone older than you. It’s better to be single and ‘fresh’ here than it is to be divorced — you’re considered a failure, basically.”
Oh, cool. Now I’m "that failure from New York."
The idea of wasted youth holds a lot of weight, even though most Serbians don’t move out of their family homes until their early 30s. They quickly pair up, and then that’s it — you’re stuck with your partner for life. However, even though it’s ‘til death do us part’ doesn’t mean Serbians are more faithful.
"Oh, cool. Now I’m 'that failure from New York'."
“The men here are fiercely loyal,” another friend would describe. “So if you date a Serbian man, he will treat you like a queen. But, well, he’s still a man, and eventually, he wants to keep messing around.”
She regaled me with tales of lovers and rendezvous and open relationships in Belgrade, which in contrast seemed more socially acceptable than getting divorced. “You can hate your husband or wife,” she added, “but you’d never divorce them. You could move out, move to another country, never see them again, but they’d still be your spouse until they died.”
Different country, different customs, but I couldn’t help laughing about this. Tom and I parted on a very mutual, respectful basis, and while there were many great aspects of our partnership, I just couldn’t subject him to being chained to me for eternity. That’s why we got divorced in the first place!
To be honest, my divorce rarely surfaces in conversation here in Belgrade. I’m lucky that I can set up a life in a new place and leave the reasons as to why I choose this country to nothing more than, “I like it here!” which seems enough to satiate curious questioners. For now, I’m happy to leave my divorce on a need-to-know basis for now and not let it define me.