Charles Cather: typically atypical American in Novi Sad

Charles Cather is both everything and nothing you would expect a typical American to be – eloquent, friendly, funny, welcoming, hard-working and yet insightful, very knowledgeable about the fabric of the Serbian society, understanding and open-minded. In this interview, Charles destroys a lot of stereotypes which Serbs and Americans have been perpetuating all these years, and indirectly reminds us that we are truly living in a global village where more things connect than separate us. We are confident that you will find Charles as entertaining, intelligent and informative as we did when we interviewed him.

Charles, your YouTube videos have had over 5.3 million views, more than 20,000 people follow you on Facebook, you are frequently recognised in the street and invited to official functions, you have had guest appearances on numerous TV stations in Serbia and neighbouring countries, and one could even argue that you are a local celebrity. Still, there are people in Serbia who have never heard of you. Who is Charles Cather?

Charles 2Well, I’m a soon-to-be 40-year-old with the spirit of a 15-year-old. I was born in a tiny little ranch community in the middle of the state of Illinois in 1976 to a farmer and a government worker. I have always had a passion for geography. When most kids were at the library checking out books on scary stories, cartoons, etc, I was checking out books on the USSR, China, Australia, and countries in Africa. I will never forget my librarian lecturing me about my selections. She was concerned that I was checking out too many books on USSR and Communist China. She told me that I should be reading more books about the US and our history. My mother and father said they even remembering me telling them I would live in the USSR one day. I’m not there, but I’m pretty darn close to it.

I was always a very talkative and outgoing kid, who was frequently in trouble with his teachers. You could also say I was a bit of a rebel. I was always seeking out the underdog in all aspects of life. My community was a very conservative, white community so I turned hard to the left and passionately supported left-leaning politicians and organizations. I was even a paying member of the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). My father forced me to work all during high school which really angered me at the time, but I’m happy he did it now. I was a camp counselor, radio DJ, fruit picker at an orchard and moved up to management in one furniture factory.

After college, I went into the sales management field and continued in the automobile industry for Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Cadillac, GM, and Buick before moving to Mexico and then to Serbia in 2011.

Once I arrived in Serbia, I found that everything I had been told about the Serbs and this part of the globe was extremely one sided and wrong. It bothered me that the only info available on YouTube and other outlets was info that painted the Serbs as the bad guys. It sparked me to make a short video on YouTube called “My Opinion of Serbia” for a few friends in Serbia. It was a short, silly video where I just say that the mainstream media is wrong and that Serbia is a great place with very hospitable people. It was published in the Blic and the Kurir and after that I started receiving messages from Serbs all over the globe who wanted to thank me and tell me how nice it was to hear an American say that. It touched me so much that I continued doing it and started writing a blog about Serbia – Serbia Through American Eyes – and today I have reached the 5 million view mark on my videos. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but all of my videos are in English and about Serbia so my audience will always be limited. I’m proud to have been accepted by the Serbs and I wouldn’t change one thing.

You have been living in Serbia on and off for nearly six years. How does a man from the little town of Greenup, Illinois end up 8,000km east in Serbia? How did this odyssey develop? Have you always been bitten by the travel bug or you just felt the time was right to go and explore the world?

As I stated earlier, I’ve always been intrigued with the unknown. Travel has always excited me. I think it rubbed off from my dad. He would always take us on these long summer family vacations. We went to almost every state west of the Mississippi, numerous times to Canada and Mexico. He was almost ready to move all of us to Brazil back in the early 80s when he had a chance to buy a big farm.

My first solo trip was in 1996 when I flew alone to Australia to meet some friends I met on the internet. It was an amazing experience so I went back again in 2002 and stopped off for a week in New Zealand. After that, I traveled through Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Belize and lived in the middle of Mexico for 1.5 years.

My introduction to Serbia is kind of strange and sounds like the start of a horror movie. I was working as an internet sales manager in a car dealership. One of my sales guys came into my office and we were just talking about nothing in particular. He brought up a Facebook page called “I Hate the USA”. We were slow so I pulled it up and found some horrible posts and noticed some strange names commenting on stuff. One of them was a Dragan and an Aleksandar. I saw the name Dragan and thought “Who the hell names their kid Dragan?” We started calling each other names and exchanged some back and forth barbs for a couple weeks.

Aleksandar and I decided to add each other on Skype. We talked a lot and he told me many things about American intervention in Kosovo, bombing, etc, and I was finding myself obsessed with seeing this place and meeting the people. He invited me to his home in May 2010 so I booked a flight and went by myself to meet some guys who I met on an “I Hate the USA” page. My mom worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 35 years. I told her that I was going to Serbia to meet some folks who I met on that site and she said “OMG! Why would anyone do that? They will probably kill you!” My girlfriend at the time said “Why are you going to Russia?” and my boss said “It’s been nice knowing you.”

I didn’t have any fear until my flight landed in Paris and I had to get on the JAT flight from Paris to Belgrade. I was in line with very tall people speaking this strange language. I thought to myself that this might have been a big mistake, but it was too late then. I arrived at Nikola Tesla Airport where my massively tall buddies greeted me with big hugs and stuffed me into their tiny Yugo. We went back to their house in Zrenjanin, visited friends in Ecka, Elimir, Nis, Pirot, and many other spots. The people blew me away with their hospitality and kindness. I feared that everyone would hate me and treat me like a dog because I’m an American, but that never happened. They opened their homes and hearts to me. It touched me so much that I told myself that this is the country for me.

What was the biggest cultural shock for you when you arrived to Serbia? Did the stereotypes or your previous knowledge about the Serbian nation shape your beliefs and expectations? Did your expectations match the reality?

Charles 3Serbia is very different from the United States. It was a bit odd for me to hug and kiss folks when you first meet them. I remember the first time I did that with my friend’s grandmother. You don’t kiss once, but three times. The laidback way of life was also something that I treasured. I remember going into a coffee shop and asking for a “big coffee to go” The lady said “we only have small coffee and you must sit and drink it”. That summed up the difference.

In the USA, it’s so common to grab a big cup of filtered coffee and take off, but not here. Coffee is also used as an excuse to sit and talk with someone over here. People call all the time and ask you to go for a coffee. I remember one of my friends in Zenjanin calling me one time when I first arrived. His English wasn’t the best and he said “Do you want to get coffee? I said “ I already have coffee in my apartment. “ He said “No, you idiot, I want to talk with you and drink it”. I thought that was wonderful. I only remembered the word Serbia being brought up a few times in my early years. It was always in a negative context as my country supported Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in their quest for independence.

I remember Bill Clinton coming on TV and telling us about “horrible atrocities” that the Serbs were committing on the Albanian people in Kosovo to justify our intervention. Hearing this propaganda did shape my first mental impression of Serbs as being brutal, vicious, and haters of everything that wasn’t Serbian Orthodox.

Did my expectations match the reality? In no way, shape or form! I felt totally betrayed after meeting so many Serbs on my first trip here. They wouldn’t allow me to pay for a drink, wouldn’t allow me to even think about staying in a hotel and some almost fought over which home I would stay in. They fed me these massive meals that were fit for kings and proudly showed me off to their friends and family. It was the first time in my life that I was actually blown away at how wonderfully I was treated. The international media did a terrible disservice to the fine citizens of Serbia when they fed us all of these horrible things about them. There isn’t a finer, more hospitable bunch of folks on the globe than the Serbian people.

It is safe to say that you have got to know Serbia really well. You have traveled the country extensively, both for personal and professional reasons. For those foreigners who have recently moved to Serbia and those planning to come here, could you give us the three do’s and the three don’ts in Serbia?

The top three do’s would be:

  1. Experience a Serbian village – The vast majority of foreigners who come to Serbia stay in Belgrade. That’s a big mistake. There is so much more to this country than the thriving city of Belgrade, don’t get me wrong, I love Belgrade and always will, but you need to see the rest of the nation. Serbian villages are one of the most fascinating things about this country. You can see how these folks live off the land and live this healthy, old fashioned lifestyle.
  2. Attend a slava A slava is one of the most uniquely Serbian things you will find. A huge majority of Serbian people identify with the Eastern Orthodox faith. Serbian Orthodox adopt a saint day once they reach a certain age. It is their holy day to honor that saint and it’s filled with friends, religious celebrations, lot of drinks and some of the best food on the planet. You might even have live music at the celebration. You won’t be disappointed. It will be forever etched in your memory.
  3. Leave your preconceived notions at the door– Almost all first-time visitors to Serbia have some sort of negative expectations that were formed the international media. It’s amazing what the media can do to a country and its people. My inbox is always full of messages from foreigners who are interested in knowing more about Serbia.

The #1 most asked question deals with safety. People have some idea that the Serbs are violent and unfriendly folks who will scam you out of all of your cash. People also come knowing only one side of the story. You never, ever hear the Serbian side of the wars and conflicts of the 90s. Go out of your way to meet some locals, keep your mouth shut and listen to what they have to say. Once you leave the country, you will realize why I love these people so much.

Don’ts…..

#1 Don’t eat too many appetizers when invited to a Serbian dinner. I have been living here for years and still struggle with this one. Serbian friends will invite you their home for a dinner. If you are from the western part of the planet, you won’t be accustomed to the Serbian meal structure. Most Serbs, who have a foreign guest over, will go all out. They never skimp on the amount and quality of food they provide for guests. You can usually expect three or four rounds of food. They start out with things a table of starters that include little baked breaded things, cheese trays, meat trays, ajvar, etc. Once you have your fill of that, they clear the table and bring out a big pot of soup. You have a few bowls of it and then they bring out the main course which is usually full of meat in many different forms and types with potatoes, veggies, cabbage rolls, and many other things. Once it’s eaten, they clear the table for the desserts. It can be overwhelming. The foods are so good in each “round” that you don’t know how to pace yourself. You will leave the home with a bulging belly regardless of how you pace yourself.

#2 Don’t wear Partizan or Crvena Zvezda jerseys or shirts when you are out late at night. Partizan and Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) are the two most popular football (soccer) clubs in Serbia. They have a massive following and a few times each year, they have something called a derby. It’s where they play each other and the fans are some of the most passionate fans you will find anywhere in the world. That can be a negative thing if you are walking alone on some random street and bump into a group of intoxicated hooligans. Serbia is extremely safe, but the hooligans won’t show much sympathy for a stranger in the wrong football shirt. Save your beautiful soccer jersey and wear on your flight out of Serbia.

#3 Don’t stress about not speaking Serbian language. I get a lot of people messaging me about their upcoming trip to Serbia. They will say things like “I know only a couple words in Serbian. How can I get around?” etc. This country is filled with bright, educated folks who are always ready to help you. Knowing a few words in their language is a huge plus and will be greatly appreciated by the Serbian people. I’ve been living in their “mine too” country for almost 6 years. I’ve yet to even master basic Serbian sentences, but I never, ever struggle. Almost every Serbian under the age of 35 speaks English. They are learning English in their 1st and 2nd year of primary school so you won’t have any issues asking for directions, advice or just someone to talk nonsense with at the bar. Serbs love foreigners and will bend over backwards to help you enjoy their country. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve asked a random Serb how to get somewhere and they will say “Come on, I’ll walk you there”. It might be 20 minutes out of their way, but they do it all the same.

What are the things you would like to see Serbia do more of, and what should we work on?

The Serbian government should provide a lot more funding for their tourism industry. Serbia isn’t a tourist-friendly country. I never like to talk about negatives, but you asked for my opinion. A big complaint from foreigners is the lack of bus station employees who speak English and having Cyrillic written on bus tickets. I realize this is Serbia and Serbian is your spoken language. You should be very proud of it and display it at all times, but it isn’t easy to understand for the tourists who are here. They should provide English translations on the bus tickets. Charles Novi Sad

You also have many amazing historical sites in Serbia that are totally covered in graffiti. It almost makes me sick to see these historic sites that should be respected by us all, being covered over in spray paint. Make tougher laws or hire more security guards to protect these priceless monuments. Lastly, you need to inspire your young people and convince them that Serbia can be better and you can have a life here.

One of the biggest problems here is young smart folks fleeing this great nation. They have lost hope in their government and their ability to find decent paying jobs here. Serbian students are some of the best in the world. They speak numerous languages, vast knowledge in many subjects, outgoing personalities and lots of pride. They need to be inspired to put those skills to work here in their country.

Do you find it hard to catch up on the news back home particularly now, during the pre-election time in the United States? Are you glad you are far away from the political whirlpool that has engulfed your native country?

No, it’s all over most international news portals. The rest of the planet should be allowed to vote in our elections because our leadership impacts almost everyone on the globe. I’m thrilled to be out of the US during this heated and vicious campaign. I cast my overseas ballot last week for the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

The company you work for Work & Travel Group implements a cultural exchange programme devised by the U.S. Department of State during John Kennedy’s term in the office in the 1960s, and provides valuable work and travel opportunities for the Serbian college and university students. Tell us more about it.

The summer work and travel program is a faultless program. It’s one of the few things my government does that I support 100%. This program allows university students from over 100 countries the opportunity to live, work and experience the USA during their university summer break. Serbian students are allowed to work for four months between May 21- Oct 1st. You get an additional 30 days to explore the USA, after your job is over. Charles 1The program is whatever you make it out to be. We provide you a job, interview skills, English courses, hospitality certification, housing assistance and organize flights for all students.

They have the option of working more than one job, if they desire and if it’s approved by the U.S. State Department. The program provides so many positives for the Serbian student. I only work with this program because I know how this program can benefit the students in Serbia. We have many students who enroll in the program without speaking a decent level of English, they return 4 months later speaking like a pro. It also provides essential job experience in very upscale restaurants and hotels which can assist Serbs in obtaining a good job upon their return to Serbia. We have had a large number of students who have returned and used their money to open businesses in Serbia. It also helps American and Serbian people break stereotypes, share culture and form lifelong friendships.

We have an exciting new program for 2017. It will actually bring foreigners from the USA, England, Canada, Australia, and some other countries to Serbia on educational/cultural programs. We are excited about the positive impact this will play on reshaping the image of Serbia.

Although you have experienced the best of the best and the worst of the worst in Serbia, there must be a story or an event that you have witnessed or participated in that has touched you deeply…

There are a few, but one in particular that really taught me how authentic Serbians really are. I spoke at a school in the southern region of Serbia. One student came up and asked me come to his house for lunch the following day. I took him up on his offer and arrived at his house for a massive lunch that would have been fit for royalty. The student sat me down at this table that was overflowing with good food. He was the only one who spoke English so he spent the meal translating back and forth between the mother, sister, grandma and me. In conversation, I asked where his father was. He said: “My father was killed in the NATO bombing in 1999.” My heart hit the floor and I felt an inch tall. I was very uncomfortable and asked him why he would bring me to his house to eat his family’s food when my country and NATO was responsible for his father’s death. He said: “We don’t blame you. It was your leaders, not the people that did it”.

This made the rest of my visit very uncomfortable. I was feeling horrible for being there, but they treated me like a king all the same. Once I returned to the USA, we stayed in contact. He told me that his entire family lived on 150 Euro a month and spent everything they could on meat for my visit. They hadn’t eaten any meat since my visit. This nearly brought me to tears. I spoke to his sister to find out what I could do for the family. She told me that they didn’t need anything, but that my friend (the student) had always been picked on because he had never had a pair of Nike shoes.

Serbian people are very fashionable even though they have horrible salaries. She said that kids made fun of him because he never had a pair of Nike shoes in school. I asked for their address and sent a brand new pair Nike Air Jordans to him and some other goodies for the family. She messaged me a few weeks later to say that once he received the shoes, he loved them so much that he slept in them. This is something that will stick with me till I die and one of the main reasons why I hold Serbs in such high regard. The whole world has said terrible things about the Serbs, but they obviously have never taken the time to meet a Serbian. Serbs would do anything to make a guest feel welcome, even if that means going hungry.

Last but not least, what is the best piece of advice you have been given about living in Serbia?

I have been given very few bits of advice that I have taken. Serbs tell me that I’m nuts for wanting to live here. They all tell me that they would kill to live in my country and are confused about my love of their nation. I have a lot of folks who contact me about moving here and I usually tell them that it’s a great place to live and retire if you have $1,000 a month or more to live on. The job market is seriously lacking, salaries are low, but life is good. Families and friends take priority in Serbia. Living here has turned me into a more loving and generous person. Serbia has and will continue to be a very important part of my life. Ja volim Srbiju and the Serbians who live here. You are truly a great bunch of folks who could teach my people many things. I wish Serbia and its people a bright and successful future.

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