A few weeks before leaving Bishkek we had a Kazakh-Russian couchsurfer who had, en route to Bishkek, traveled in a great loop from Prague. She claimed that she and her German husband hasn’t really had any problems communicating, as in many post-socialist countries they could get by in Russian.
The first day whenever I opened my mouth in Russian people just looked at my askance. Baffled. Apparently Russians have enough meat and potatoes in their own country to make Serbia a top travel destination. And apparently, though the two Slavic languages are close enough that we, as non-native speakers, can pick out a great number of cognates in speech and read half the signs on he streets, Serbians generally don’t understand (or choose to understand) Russian. Older Serbians may speak a bit, from when it was more popularly taught in schools, but English is much more commonly understood. So instead of speaking a language closer to their own, we just speak English on the streets – to the great relief of everyone.
On Serbian (Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegran) and Russian: while Bishkek-Russian often sounds as if the speaker is wearing stilettos and spandex, Serbian is spoken with the lilt and buoyancy of Italian. People smile when they speak and every conversation is opportunity for a new connection. This is the capital where, when bombed by NATO, citizens donned target t-shirts and threw demonstrations on the bridges that turned into giant parties. In the middle of a war. As our cheerfully otherwise unemployed ibikebelgrade (highly recommended!) guide noted, ‘Even when things are bad, we always try to be happy’. If the situation is sh*t you might as well acknowledge it and attempt to go on enjoying your life despite adverse circumstances. Russian, on the other hand, always seems to come with a note of doomsday resignation or exhaustion with life (even if it’s a simple response from a waiter pressured to bring a shaker of salt).
Despite the differences in accent and lilt, however, the two languages still sound quite similar to our ears. Serbian has more loan words from English and Ottoman-era Turkish, but cognates abound and the grammar is close enough that it’s possible to follow. Our guide also noted that, while its hard for people on the streets to understand Russian, she was able to take in conversation and converse after spending about a week in Russia. The difference does not seem to be any greater than that between Kyrgyz (or Uyghur) and Turkish, or, let’s say, rural southern slang and standard English. But understanding is also a matter of motivation and choice. Uyghurs choose to understand more Turkish because they want to believe in their shared cultural roots and stake in a ‘second cultural homeland’. Serbians may not feel like they have much to share with Russia, and so the desire to understand is not there. As an international language, English is much more practical. Which brings me to…
The guilt of speaking English: I don’t assume that locals in a foreign country will speak English. In China that would have gotten me kindergarteners and some college students; in Bishkek Dubai-returned barmen, development employees and some university students; and in Turkey seaside workers and (partially) university graduates under 35. If you just speak English in any of those counties you’re not going very far. Plus people will often find you rude. Unless you encounter college students who are really enthusiastic about practicing their English, I’ve always found that it’s better to speak the local language, even poor and broken.
E, on the other hand, is not a native English speaker. Out of pragmatism he speaks Russian or bazaar-Turkic in Bishkek. But here he too speaks only English on the streets – and without any of my associated English guilt. For him, it’s a middle point and not one of privilege – he’s made the effort to learn an international language and take a step towards common understanding, and he expects the opposing party to do the same.
A last note on alphabets: Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are both visible throughout town. Restaurant names and government institutions are often in Cyrillic, while signboards and products are usually in Latin – though I’ve seen almost everything in both. Apparently Croatian was traditionally written with the Latin alphabet while Serbian was written in Cyrillic. During Yugoslavia days both were accepted as official, and both are taught with equal weight in schools today. While most official government documents are written in Cyrillic, use of either is generally acceptable in any circumstance. Only – because Cyrillic was traditionally used by the Serbians, it sometimes carries a nationalist or partisan edge.