There is Always Something to Say
In the Balkans, language rolls off the tongue and defines the culture profoundly. The way people speak is the way they think and also how they act and react. Tradition is key – the way things are done is the way things have always been done. Nothing changes easily.
It is little wonder there are sayings and folk wisdom for just about every situation, often meant to make an end to the omnipresent Balkan discussions that can get amicably heated.
One saying in particular found quite a lot of use during the Covid crisis and lockdown: Kad čeljad nije bijesna, kuća nije tijesna. It literally means that when the family is not angry, the house is not cramped. The closest English translation is probably Go along to get along. Or maybe, if you live on the West Coast of the USA, Everyone be chill.
The early bird catches the worm may have appeared in English as early as 1605, but the Balkans already had a saying much like it: Ko rano rani, dvije sreće grabi. Literally, the early riser grabs two fortunes.
The Balkan people have a complicated relationship with wolves, and it is probably best illustrated by one of their sayings: Mi o vuku, a vuk na vrata. It can be literally translated as “talk about the wolf, and the wolf shows at the door”, but most English speakers are familiar with the phrase, Speak of the Devil!
“Ko drugome jamu kopa sam u nju upada” (He who digs a pit for another one falls into it himself),
Meaning: when someone is planning a plot against another person eventually will end up in its own trap
Tomorrow is another day is the optimistic view in English, but in the Balkans you would use a Turkish word and say Novi dan – nova nafaka, or “new day, new fortune.”
The Balkan languages also expect people to exercise more care than they would in English. In English you measure twice and cut once. But in the Balkans, Triput mjeri, jednom sijeci– measure THREE times.
Think before you speak is something English-speakers tried to drill into student heads pre-Twitter, but it is important enough to have multiple sayings in the Balkans: Prvo skoči pa reci hop (first jump, then say hop) and Ispeci pa reci (first bake it, then say it).
A chip off the old block in English becomes Kao jaje jajetu (like an egg to an egg).
Although Kukati (complaining) is a regional pastime, complaining and crying is quite frowned upon. Again, multiple sayings abound for this phenomenon (some of which can get quite rude): Krokodilske suze is a bit different than its English translation of crocodile tears, and much like Plakati kao godina (to cry for years) it just means to cry a lot.
Something far away and unknown might be referred to using Timbuktu as a measurement in English, but in the Balkans the furthest unknowable reaches are in Spain: španska sela
In English we seem to associate frantic and erratic behavior with chickens having their heads cut off, but the Balkan version involves a fly: Ide kao muha bez glave -like a headless fly,
although it isn’t stated how the fly actually became headless.
Cake is easy in English, especially if something is a piece of cake. But in the Balkans cats are easier than cake, and to je mačiji kašalj (It’s a cat’s cough) is apparently even easier.
Izaće mi na nos, or “it will come out of my nose” is what Balkan people say when excess good will end up karmically balanced by something bad. It isn’t quite too much of a good thing, but we definitely knock on wood to try to keep the bad luck at bay.
Since the Balkans are far from the jungle, when monkeys fly just doesn’t have the same effect as kad na vrbi rodi grožđe. The willows here certainly would never grow grapes. It’s impossible, the whole meaning of the saying.
Finally, in a region where every emotion is played out through poetry, particularly emotions of tragedy, boli me duša, or my soul hurts, is the refrain to thousands of songs about heartaches.