On my way to the post office this morning, I bumped into a striking young woman with a ready laugh who recognized me as an American. (I would like to think my suavity and air of international sophistication tipped her off, but it was probably my look of befuddlement and the useless accented English – accompanied by absurd gestures – I was directing at a hapless native in an attempt to learn how to mail a postcard.)
She was university-educated and spoke very good English. We commiserated over the gloomy morning weather, making a mutual wish that we could have a day of sunshine and warmth as we did Sunday, when Belgrade’s streets, cafes, trails and parks were thronged with smiling people.
I told her how my friend and colleague Charlie and I had rented bikes and ridden 15-20 miles along the Danube Sunday – a highlight of the trip for both us – and marveled that we rented bicycles for two hours for only 225 dinars – less than 4 bucks!! (One Serbian dinar, or dollar, is worth less than two American pennies.) I told my new companion that I couldn’t believe how “cheap” the rental was.
She explained, though, that what is cheap to Americans is dear to Serbians. The average monthly salary in Belgrade is 2,400 dinars – roughly $400. So, to rent a bike for two hours would cost a Serbian roughly 1% of his or her monthly pay – the equivalent of an American earning a $50,000 annual salary paying almost $100 to rent the same bike for the same two hours.
Would you pay $100 to rent a bike for two hours? Only if it could take you to Valhalla, I’m betting.
I had only a passing conversation with this young woman; in fact, I did not even learn her name. But, like most young people here who have visited the U.S., she made sure to tell me she would love to return, maybe permanently.
“It is embarrassing for me to say this, but I am in my thirties and still live with my parents,” she told me. “The economics make it impossible for most of us to strike out on our own.”
Things are tough all over, as the saying goes. But obviously they are tougher in some places than in others. She showed me how to mail the post-cards and I felt sheepish to spend more to mail a fistful of them – about 600 dinar – than she will likely earn this week.