Author: Ruth Platt-Stavrik
As midnight passed on New Year’s Eve and 2010 began, I looked at my husband sitting beside me, thought about our two children sleeping upstairs and realised that we’d been married for the best part of a decade, and that we’re still speaking to each other. As I am English and he is Macedonian I felt that this achievement was perhaps even greater than usual, having had cultural barriers to cross and linguistic misunderstandings to clear up, not to mention having only one grandparent, my father, in England where we live, to help with that elusive pot of gold, free childcare. I have often thought about the advantages and disadvantages of marrying a man from the Balkans as opposed to a man from the UK, and though perhaps my husband is not a typical Balkan man, if there is such a thing, there have certainly been aspects of our marriage that have been shaped by his Macedonian-ness. Here is a guide to the most positive of those influences:
1] You learn to dress warmly and discover the deadly influence of the draught
On my first trip to Skopje I was taken by my new husband to the underwear shop. For silk lingerie I wondered? No, for thermal vests. My husband, horrified by my skimpy jumpers that left an inch of bare skin exposed on my lower back, taught me to tuck my vest into knickers in a way I had abandoned since the age of 8. I haven’t quite got used to this practice, but have to concede in really cold climates it is probably a must. I have definitely learned to keep my lower back covered at least – gone are the skimpy tops [though that is also due to the havoc wreaked on my body since having two children]. As for the deadliness of the draught, it has been explained to me, with geometrical precision, the way a draught can turn into a dangerous phenomenon if someone is caught between two open windows or doors. This can cause anything from a sore throat to cardiac arrest. I am not yet convinced, but am very careful not to say so in certain circles in the Balkans. It may damage my reputation beyond repair [if that hasn’t happened already].
2] A man brought up under communism knows the importance of thrift
Ok, this can be annoying when every supermarket purchase is questioned in terms of whether it is necessary for basic survival [forget about posh shampoo or expensive coffee] but actually often very refreshing in a culture where excess and throwing away things you’re tired of is the norm. If one of our children’s toys break, my husband tries to fix it. If a pair of shoes look worn, my husband tries to get them re-heeled. Landfills in England are overflowing with rubbish. I have to admit that just not buying so much stuff is environmentally, as well as economically, sound.
3] You get a new perspective on world history
I’m not going to mention Greece. Except to say all our friends have been told about Alexander the Macedonian. They also now know that World War II was won by the Russians, not the British, and all about Operation Barbarossa. My husband’s education with regards to world history is superior to mine, and to most in the UK. At school the sum of my state-school history education can be reduced to Aborigine Dream Time and the six wives of Henry VIII. My husband’s seemed to include everything from the chronological conquests of Genghis Khan to Field Marshal Montgomery’s victories in North Africa and the origins of the SAS. The marriage has been educational. I in turn have tried to share some information on Romantic Poets of the nineteenth century but this for some reason has fallen on deaf ears. Can’t think why.
4] You don’t have to wonder what a Balkan man is thinking
He tells you. An Englishman has been brought up to withhold his emotions, to keep everything inside, whereas if my husband is annoyed about something he can do the cold silence thing for about five minutes before bursting into protest, be it about the fact that I never fold the sheets in the airing cupboard or that I still haven’t filled in my tax return, or about the fact that he was angry with me for being angry with him for coming home late from work. Again. Research shows that couples who argue have healthier marriages and are more likely to stay together [I’m not making it up, honestly]. We do argue, but we do usually come up with solutions and compromises following an argument, which I think is a whole lot better than never talking about problems.
5] The importance of extended family
I am not that close to my brother or sisters. I am close to my father but my mother died a few years ago after a long illness so I never had a proper adult relationship with her. Although it has been difficult to go to Macedonia since we have had young children, we intend to go much more regularly as they get older. I see how close-knit my husband’s family are and how loyal they are to each other. I admire it. My husband has helped me to get closer to my own brother and sister, and now our children are close to their cousins as a result. This summer we are going on holiday with my husband’s family. It is an ongoing adaptation for me, but a good one.
5 ½ ] Military service
This is obviously not relevant to younger generations, but I think Military service had a profound effect on my husband. For a start, he knows how to iron. It is also to blame for his obsession with folding things neatly [like sheets] which is a bit annoying. However I think it gave him strength and independence at a young age. I think he is tougher than his English counterparts, who wouldn’t know what to do if they had to put a tent up in the rain, or drive across Serbia without getting killed by mad bus drivers overtaking on a bend, or if a burglar broke into the house. Two men tried to climb in our bedroom window a few years ago. I woke my husband up and he moved towards the window like a rabid dog. The very sight of him made them run for their lives as he let out a deep menacing laugh as they ran. He was effectively terrifying. Then he went back to bed and fell asleep within minutes. [I, on the other hand, rang the police.] He also knows how to dismantle an AK47 in under a minute, though I admit this hasn’t come in handy yet.
6] The accent
They say that the French language is the most beautiful in the world. The French accent certainly is not. English spoken with a French accent sounds like a cat trying to talk through dental braces. I loved my husband’s accent from the start. Yes, he does always sound like he has just woken up, but his accent will always make me go weak at the knees. Except when he’s telling me to fold the sheets in the airing cupboard, maybe.