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The Serbian Godfather, an American Expat Perspective

by Laura on November 12th, 2012

This is not a new movie; or a revelation of an heretofore secret mafia organization in Belgrade. No. This is a post about Serbian family and married life.

The direct translation for “godfather” in Serbian is kum. However, “kum” means much, much more. The concept runs deep, enriching friendships and social life.

First, things, first. … Let’s get pronunciation out-of-the-way. “Kum” is pronounced coom, like it rhymes with room. Kum, not come.

At recnik.com, kum means godfather, and kum/kuma (female version) also means sponsor. What? I’ve never heard of this idea, “sponsor.”

Finally, with the help of my friend, Google, I got down to Slavic.net, and found a proper explanation for kum: best man, godfather, godparent, and of course, sponsor. Whatever that means.

Yes, kum can refer to the person you choose as the godfather when you baptize your child in the Serbian Orthodox Church. Or, the kum/kuma is the one to witness when an adult is baptized. But then, that also means that your kum has been baptized himself. And in an increasing secular society (left over from communism), more and more people are not even baptized.

I know, right? Scandal!

 

Kum is more than a best man

But this is where dictionaries don’t do the language justice. Today, among my friends at least, in addition to the religious/baptismal purpose, a kum is a best man, kuma is a maid-of-honor. You choose this person to stand with you when you get married; but the responsibility and the sense of closeness go deeper than that.

When you make someone your kum/kuma, it essentially makes them a part of your family. But better, because it’s someone that you actually choose and genuinely like. Your kum/kuma is probably someone you went to college or have a long history with. A person you’d wish to be related to, if you could. And in Serbia, it’s possible!

 

Interesting nuances

1. A kum/kuma is probably not from the same family as your parents’ kum/kuma. What! Why?

Because when the parents got married, they also had a kum and kuma. (Duh.) The children of the kum/kuma’s families then became the kumice, or “little” best men and “little” maids-of-honor. (This is where literal translations get a slightly ridiculous.)

2. People don’t seem to choose their brother or sister. That would be absurd: siblings are already family.

3. The kum/kuma thing generally goes only one way, although I have seen exceptions. So, if Ivan chooses Sasha to be his kum, Sasha will likely choose someone else to be his kum.

4. From as much as I can gather, kum status remains, even in the case of divorce. If Ivan gets divorced, Sasha is still his kum!

5. A man chooses a kum, and a woman chooses a kuma. After marriage, these connections transcend gender. So, Ivan’s wife may now refer to Sasha as kum.

All of this gets very complicated, I know. This kum/kuma/kumice actually makes for wonderfully close friendships.

 

My Wedding

I chose my brother to stand at my wedding. It was all very “Californian” to have a man-of-honor, instead of a maid-of-honor.

Nikola was my husband’s kum, chosen well before Misha and I even met. Nikola is a good man. He flew from Serbia to Los Angeles, and we met for the first time a few days before the wedding. After our lovely celebration, Misha and I had a “day after” brunch for our close family friends.

Amongst all the people, chatter, food and generally busy-party-goings-on, kum Nikola pulled me aside, and spoke a gruff whisper, pulling out a jewelry box with lovely earrings inside. After the thanks you’s and the assurances that he didn’t have to do that, Nikola got serious. He took my hand and looked me squarely in the eye.

In his thick Serbian accent and deep voice he said, “Lora, I have something to tell to you. … Lora. … If you ever need anything, anything at all. You call me. You understand? You. Call. Me. … Yes?”

“Yes, yes, thank you, Nikola.”

“No, Lora. I am very serious, any problems. You call me, okay?”

And with that, I realized that I, too, had my very own kum.

 

image from freedigitalphotos.net

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From → Expat Mommy

18 Comments
  1. You made my day with this text. I love reading about your direct daily experience with Serbian mentality. It is confusing, I have to say, especially if you've never been exposed to the culture early on. Kum is definitely a special thing on the Balkans and in a way he's responsible for looking after your welfare and children – just like you said, almost as a family. It's big responsibility; yet also an honor to be someone's kum.

  2. Laura permalink

    Hey Sophie,

    Thanks for writing! It's so fun to hear from you! I'm glad you liked it. You know, when my husband's kum (yes, my kum) took me aside and gave me "the talk," it was really special. Yes, kum is something very special. He loves my kids, and he always makes a special trip to see me, ask about me, make sure I'm okay. If something happened (god forbid!) yes, I could call him.

    Laura

  3. Wow. I really loved this post, and I love the idea of a "person you would be related to, if you could." I also love that it goes one way; that reflects my experience of life. Some people really invest in you with so much of their love, and you both grow for it. You invest in some other people with your love, and you both grow for it; but the one who invests in you, and the one you invest in are not always the same. It's wonderful that the concept of kum allows for that. I definitely have some people who are "like family" to me. I kind of wish I lived somewhere where "kum" existed :)
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    • Laura permalink

      Addison,
      Yes! This concept of "adding" to the family is such a great one, and to me it shows just how deep friendships can run. It's got an element of responsiblity, that being someone's kum is an honor not to be taken lightly.
      Thanks!
      Laura

  4. This is a really interesting post. Makes me wish I had a 'kum'. Thanks for sharing the story with us.
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    • Laura permalink

      Sylvia,
      Yes! Looking back on it, I wish I'd chosen my brother AND perhaps a kuma, as well. That way I could have the best of both worlds :)
      Laura

  5. This is amazing! I am Serb but I write my blog in English (my husband is Spanish :-)…) and I use word kum a lot in my posts. I was just looking for an explanation of the word kum to link back to my post and I think I found it! :-). I hope you are aware you are 100% assimilated, I wouldn't be able to explain it better. :-)!!!

  6. Nice post Laura! It seems that Nicola became not only your kum, but also a guardian angel.

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