At IMELUM we are keenly aware that numbers and statistics on their own mean very little. As your source of context in South East Europe every month we provide a saying from the region to help you get an insight into the way people think and, more importantly, why. This is intended as an interactive exercise, so if you have a saying from any of the countries in South East Europe you think deserves to be disseminated more widely send it to us on email@example.com in the original language, an English translation, and a short summary. We’ll be glad to acknowledge your contribution.
“Gdje je sloga, tu je i pobjeda”
“Victory lies where there is unity”
This piece of wisdom heard throughout the region qualifies as the saying of the month as a result of mid-May’s EUR500mn Franco-German deal of EU-level grants for the most affected nations by the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent European Commission assistance proposal. With a long way to go before a final deal is reached, we think the EU could do worse than keep this saying in mind as it navigates a way forward.
“Što južnije, to tužnije”
Literally: “The further south (you go), the sadder (it gets)”
“The further south you go, the more things deteriorate”
This is a saying you will hear in the entire region but is perhaps most appropriate to Serbia. Namely, while one can certainly make the argument that moving South and East from Slovenia one is moving from the wealthiest part of the region towards lesser developed parts, the only larger nation which is shaped more North-South than East-West in the region is Serbia.
Moving from North to South in Serbia one moves from wealthy, Vojvodina with its links to central Europe and arable land, Belgrade, the commercial, administrative and political capital and further South to areas of Serbia which are much poorer and with no direct access to the sea.
Don’t make waves
This is a widely used saying in the region which reflects a preference for being cautious with authority, keeping your thoughts to yourself and in the end, not showing initiative. Although all countries in the region are now democracies, the vestiges of the past remain deep-seated – this goes back further than Communist times reflecting a survival mode while various imperial powers took turns to rule different parts of South East Europe
Novac kada dolazi ima samo dvije noge, a kada odlazi ima sto.
Literally: when money arrives it only has two legs, yet when it leaves it has 100
Money doesn’t grow on trees
This is also an allegory for how difficult it is to be in government, making difficult decisions amongst options which are often themselves unattractive. With 2020 an election year in many countries of Southeast Europe, postal worker strikes in Serbia in late 2019 and teachers in Croatia having ended their lengthy strike recently, this saying is apt for the beginning of 2020. The essence of this saying is timeless: earning money or tax revenues is difficult and requires you to put much effort in, but it’s easily spent if you’re not careful. In the context of public finances, it’s even more complex than the often heard, but overly simplistic comparison with maintaining a household budget. Namely, every policy choice in government is a decision to redistribute resources from one or more groups to other groups. Hence the proverbial 100 legs when spending decisions are being made.
Sjaši Kurta da uzjaše Murta
Literally, Kurta gets off the horse so Murta can get on
The more things change, the more they stay the same
This saying is used widely in the political context when there is a change in the make up of the government or in the management of a (state-owned) business which leads to no change for the better – one political caste has replaced another without any meaningful change for society.
“Dva loša ubiše Miloša”
“Two weaker men murdered Miloš”
This Serbian saying, referring to Miloš Obilić of the Battle of Kosovo from 1389, means that if you are outnumbered, you will be defeated. The implication is that if you mean well, and others do not, they can get their way because there are more of them. This can be used to justify a negative outcome by claiming moral justification. A related interpretation is that all challenges can be overcome if society unites in the pursuit of a greater cause. The four Ss on the coat of arms of the Serbian flag which stand for the motto “Samo sloga Srbina spašava” – “Only unity can save the Serbs” reflects how deep this thinking goes in Serbian society.
“Z enim udarcem ne podreš hrasta”
“One swing of the axe is not enough to fell an oak tree”
This Slovenian saying underlines the idea that challenging and difficult tasks cannot be accomplished quickly. In other words, it takes many gradual steps and sustained effort to achieve a goal. The higher level of productivity exhibited by Slovenian economy relative to the rest of South East Europe and indeed most new member states reflects the country’s proximity to large Western markets such as Italy and Austria. This is far more important than simple access to markets as the connection to the West manifests itself in numerous ways such as cultural influences and the absorption of new techniques and technologies which reinforce aspects such as economic performance.
“Nije važno što govori, neko tko govori”
“What is being said is not important, rather who is saying it”
This saying was motivated by the recent European Parliamentary election campaign and speaks of the deference to authority on one hand and the deference to perceived wisdom and knowledge which is attached to a title, academic, professional or otherwise. All too often in the region, people will not think about the arguments being made, but assume they must be correct because the person making them appears to know what they are talking about. This can also be linked to the tendency in the region and beyond to seek a strong man figure to resolve issues for society, rather than taking responsibility as a society to resolve issues.
“Uzdaj se use i uz svoje kljuse”
This saying, which is prevalent in much of South East Europe, can be interpreted in several ways. The main meaning is an aversion to teamwork and constructive collaboration. Given the political instability the region has exhibited historically, this is should not surprise observers. Examples can include not sharing the risk of an investment with partners (in order to maximise profits), but then having to bear all the losses if than investment goes wrong.
The most positive interpretation is that one needs to first make sure one is doing one’s tasks properly, before blaming anyone else for eventual failings.
“Ispravljati krive Drine.”
“To do the impossible or make something impossible to achieve”
The saying is based on the Drina river which forms the border between Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia. Although only 340km long, the Drina is a winding river with deep gorges. Hence the reference to the impossibility of straightening it out. The saying underlines that there are simply things and situations which one must accept as they are, rather than wasting time attempting to change them, as the following example makes clear:
“Da se Drina mogla ispravit, napravija bi to neko prije mene”
“If it were possible to straighten our the Drina river, someone would have done it before me”
“Gdje se stariji ne poštuju, tu nema Božjeg blagoslova”
“Where there is no respect for elders, there are no blessings”
While reflecting a respect for elders in society, which is a positive thing, the saying also implies that societies can ossify if that respect goes so far as to preclude or slow changes. The saying is also a reference to the age old issue of how different generations look at challenges from different angles.
“Naše ideje, Vaše pare”
“Our ideas, your money”
The English saying “to have your cake and eat it” would be a relative of this saying but does not do it justice. The value in this saying is that it makes explicit a lack of understanding or concern for the financial implications of actions. Throughout the region, it is not uncommon to come across technically gifted professionals who would build, design and manage projects, but do not fully understand that doing so within budget and time constraints is as necessary as their technical skills for success; that their actions directly impact the profit and loss of their companies/employers. To be fair, there has been noticeable progress in the region. It was even worse in communist times when companies spent scarce capital building apartments and/or holiday complexes for employees, thus limiting resources invested in new technologies, employee training and sales and marketing efforts to grow their businesses. The vestiges of this mentality are one reason behind lower productivity levels and relatively weaker macroeconomic performance in much of the region.
“Bolje da selo izgori, nego da se mijenjaju običaji.”
“Better to destroy the village than change its customs”
This is a saying widely heard in the region the essence of which is: maintaining a custom is more important than effecting change for the common good.