On Thursday last week, a Serbian magazine called Novi Magazin (a weekly publication) had published a large article about me, my daughter, and my work on improving Serbia’s image. Many thanks to Mirjana Pantić and Zoran Raš for making this happen.
I’m no spy, I simply love Serbia
Karl Odbur, who left his French homeland for a new life in Zeleni Venac, voluntarily took it upon himself to show the whole world that Serbia is not populated with bearded people who have never met a bar of soap. Mirjani Pantić has uncovered what motivated him to come to Serbia and start working on improving Serbia’s image.
Karl Odbur came to Belgrade from France with his now 7 year old daughter, Luna, almost 2 years ago. Karl Odbur is on a mission. He is determined to change the unenviable image Serbia has in the world, which, even a decade after democratization, has been unable to shake off the burden of the past or make any noticeable strides. Karl Odbur’s mission did not come from the French government, nor the French secret service, nor even the European Union. His self-imposed challenge is to convince foreigners that Serbia is not full of bearded men who don’t use deodorant and have never tasted chocolate. Karl took on this challenge willingly.
Karl Odbur presents himself as Serbia’s ambassador to the world. He describes his mission as not to embellish the truth, but to present the true picture of Serbia. “I have only one goal and that is to publish the truth about Serbs via the real stories of people who have become acquainted with Serbs and have seen what kind of people they really are. I want to tear down that false image that has given so many people the wrong impression.”
His main weapon for changing the way Serbia is represented abroad, especially among the young, is the internet. Karl set up a website, www.ambassador-serbia.com, where he publishes positive stories about Serbia, along with photographs and videos. The site has an average of 5,000 visitors a day, of which half are from America, about 30% from Serbia, and the rest from other countries. These are wonderful numbers, especially in view of the fact that Karl does not advertise his activities in any media and relies entirely on getting the word out via the internet, particularly through the social networking of Facebook.
“I heard as long as 8 years ago Serbian politicians talking about how the image of Serbia had to be repaired. However, it looks to me like they haven’t done anything about it.”, Karl Odbur points out, determined in his goals to bring ever more tourists to Serbia and to convince Serbs scattered all around the globe to come back and participate in the redevelopment of their homeland.
He first fell in love with Serbia, as he says, in 2002 when he watched a documentary film that presented the country realistically – it neither excessively praised, nor overly denigrated it. He became interested in the history of Serbia, the culture, the people…
My previous life I spent in Serbia: In 2005 Karl visited Serbia for the first time. He spent the evening before his departure with a group of young friends who said to him, “Are you crazy? What do you want to go there for? Don’t you know that there is war in Serbia?”
He paid no attention to that kind of talk. He came here to find the friendly atmosphere and culture he had read about. “I spent a week in Belgrade. As I walked around the streets, I had a feeling that I’d been here before. Maybe this was my home in a previous life.”, explained Karl in excellent English that he spoke with a noticeable French accent.
Fifteen days after his return home, his wife started complaining about stomach pain. He took her to the hospital. What the doctor told him changed his life. He said that Caroline, Karl Odbur’s wife and Luna’s mother, had breast cancer which had metastasized. Unless she underwent immediate treatment, she would only have two weeks to live…
Karl Odbur was born in Paris where he lived for 20 years. He worked in the fashion industry for Italian and French manufacturers. As a designer he dedicated himself to creating women’s handbags. Before he came to Serbia, he lived in a small town near Bordeaux, on France’s west coast.
Caroline and Karl Odbur had been together 20 years. She was, as he says, his one true love. When she became ill he devoted himself to caring for her, trying to help her while at the same time raising their daughter. Early in 2008 Caroline lost her battle with cancer. She died in Karl’s arms.
The following year Karl Odbur decided to pack his bags and embark on a new life in Serbia with his daughter. He started learning Serbian, created his website and opened several Facebook pages to promote Serbia, including “Beautiful Belgrade” and “Beautiful Serbia.” On the former he has about 4,300 fans, but on the latter, which he created with a friend in Serbia, he has 29,300.
“I love this country very much. I fell in love with it. The people are very kind, well-intentioned, happy. Smiling and easy-going.”, says Karl. He hopes that one day he might find a new love in Serbia.
Now we are Serbs and we do what Serbs do: Karl spends his whole day replying to electronic mail, writing about interesting things in Serbia and Belgrade, about the businesses, the people…His most frequent inquiries come from potential tourists from the U.S. who want to know about Serbia with a view to visiting here. They are interested in whether the war is over and if it’s safe to come here.
“Americans think that Serbia is what they have been shown for years on CNN, and that’s not a pretty picture. I do my best to convince them to come and see for themselves. Many of them get in touch with me while they are here. They are thrilled. I don’t remember even one foreigner saying that he didn’t like Belgrade.”, says Karl Odbur and adds that it is painful to him when he sees a bad image of Serbia presented in the foreign press. He always writes to the editors abroad who publish articles infused with disinformation that undermines the image of Serbia and Belgrade.
Safety is one of the things on Karl’s list of reasons why he decided on a life in Serbia. As we were walking through Kalemegdan, Luna rode around us on her scooter. Many times she was 50 or more meters away from us, and Karl Odbur pointed to her and said : “See, in France I could never have allowed her to go off like that. I simply wouldn’t have felt it was safe.”
Luna will start school in the fall at Vladislav Ribnikar School in the Vracar district of Belgrade where some of the lessons are in French. She is gradually learning Serbian. When her dad decides to take a little break from writing about Serbia, the two of them go out together so that Luna can play. When it comes to playing with other children, not speaking Serbian is no problem for her. “Children don’t need language to understand each other when they play.”, said Karl, smiling, as he noted a 3 year old girl who at that moment was trying to climb onto Luna’s scooter.
In answer to the question about what she likes best about Belgrade, Luna said “I like everything.” Karl says that she is so at home in Serbia now that she has no desire to go to back to France for holidays, because Belgrade is so interesting to her. She feels relaxed, she’s happy. The other day they were walking down Knez Mihajlova Street and Karl suggested that they might head home since it was getting dark. Luna insisted on staying where they were. She said, “Daddy, we are Serbs now and we must do what Serbs do.” Luna had found a clever excuse to stay out longer because she had noticed that Belgraders have their children out with them even after dark. Karl Odbur and Luna’s favorite spots are Ada Ciganlija and Kalemegdan, but what gives them the most fun is museum night. They love to eat cutlets Karadjordje-style.
One question still bothered me – how does he manage to live in Serbia with what he makes from one website? Does that story hold water about how he fell in love with this country and wants to stay here always? Maybe he does work for the French Secret Service or is an agent for the CIA?
For the time being, he replies, he has to live on his savings. In December of last year he added a donation link to his website so that people could support his activities. So far he has received 10 donations totalling 425 euros. He can receive donations only from abroad because the payments go through PayPal, which is not an option in Serbia. In May he enabled donations via SMS messages, so that citizens of Serbia could help out. The website displays all the donation information. If he is unable to realize enough financial support from the website and promoting Serbia, he will have to search for another way to get an income because, either way, he wants to remain here.
But the CIA? No, Karl Odbur says he has no connection to them, nor has anyone in Serbia ever been suspicious that he might be an agent. His story is unusual and it’s hard for us to comprehend that a foreigner would move to Serbia because he sincerely loves this country. Somehow we are more used to people falling in love with America, Great Britain or Spain and moving there. But Serbia, never. Maybe we, ourselves, don’t have the best opinion of the country in which we live and don’t believe it’s possible that to someone else it can be the ideal place. The smiles on Karl Odbur’s and Luna’s faces as they stroll through Belgrade speak otherwise. It’s possible.