Belgrade. Where to start?
I guess we can start from the two, three days before I even got on the plane. Two, three days of friends repeatedly telling me to be safe, asking me if I had seen Taken (no, I haven’t), and telling me to somehow come back as though there was a good chance that I never would.
All that talk kind of makes a girl nervous, so for those two, three days I thought and rethought and rethought again what everyone meant and considered that maybe, just maybe they knew something that I didn’t. Had any of them been to Serbia? Well, no. But for people like me who overthink and overanalyze, constant dialogue like that can have you start believing what others believe, too.
When you think about it though, that’s all it really was: believing. Believing, as we all know, doesn’t mean something is the way you think it is. Belief plays on the imagination, an imagination that’s often based on our portrayal of the information being fed to us.
Consequently, it also plays on how we imagine the unfamiliar.
And it was this lack of familiarity that jumpstarted my fascination with the Balkans, a fascination that extends all the way back to high school. We would briefly touch on the roman city known as Singidunum, fleetingly talk about the fortress that resisted the Ottomans for years, and once in while mention something about a man named Tito who ardently championed the Non-Aligned Movement.
But that’s all there really was. All that talk was temporary, it was fleeting, and it wasn’t enough to sustain anyone’s interest for them to go and try to see any of those things.
Except that it obviously struck a chord with me.
And so on September 27th I boarded a Paris to Belgrade flight, armed with a very limited knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, some stock Serbian phrases, and not too many clues of what to expect.
I also didn’t expect to fall so in love with the city.
Belgrade perplexes, to say the least. It’s a city whose constant destruction and reconstruction (44 times, actually) throughout history resonates, with the most recent cycle starting post-1999 after NATO dropped bomb after bomb on Belgrade. It’s a city whose people have grown so resilient in spite of the odds, so determined to keep on moving.
And because of that, you could say that Belgrade is very much a city of opposites.
Take a walk through central Belgrade and you’ll see what I mean. Take a walk near the Kalemegdan fortress and you’ll find these highly renovated areas with buildings and shops and cafés and more so reminiscent of Western Europe. Yellows, pinks, light greens, and even warmer colors create an exciting palette of colors that extend even beyond the center of the city. Sit down in Republic Square and you can just feel all the life and energy that never seems to die in the city. Gorgeous girls strut through the streets in their fitted skirts and tall high heels while busses and taxis and cars galore speed past as fast as shooting stars, trying to get places.
But then walk south towards the Temple of Saint Sava and things start to change. What was once row upon row of colorful, elegant buildings gradually gives way to old and gray Soviet-era apartments. Remnants of war, they serve as reminders of an old Belgrade before the tourists came and everywhere HAD to become pretty. Walk even further south and those yellow pink light green buildings no longer exist because tourists barely ever go to those areas and so the old, ugly buildings are allowed to stay old and ugly.
Some of them actually look really miserable, yet they don’t come close to reflecting how much happiness exists here.
This is what I meant when I mentioned resilience and opposites. It’s usually hard to find happiness in a place that’s constantly destroyed and re-destroyed and re-built but you find plenty of happiness here.
I found that out within the first hour of my arrival to Novi Beograd (New Belgrade). Intent on making my way to the fortress, I stepped outside onto the barren, cold, industrial streets of Novi Beograd with the odd shabby-looking building dotting the sides.
I remember fearing that’s what the rest of Belgrade was like.
And how maybe I should’ve just gone to Norway or Sweden or whatever.
My mediocre sense of direction eventually left me lost near the edge of Novi Beograd with a useless map that spelled everything out in roman letters when I really needed the Cyrillic version. But it was on those dirty streets of Novi Beograd that I met Zosita.
She never told me where she had been headed that day, so I’ll never find out, but at that moment she was headed to the nearest train station with me in tow. It was there at that lonely train station with a barely-there stop where she started talking, and where we talked until a fearfully old train pulled up and we had to get on or I could just forget about going to the fortress that day.
On that train, we talked more.
“The government, you know, is very corrupt,” Zosita explained. “Old trains, old roads, they don’t fix much. There are not enough jobs. No jobs, no opportunities. Things are bit better after the war, but not too much.”
“So are a lot of people here dissatisfied?”
“No! Serbian people are a very happy people, very optimistic, always want to help. We don’t complain too much, we just enjoy. We have lived through so much, so many times where we only had ‘enough,’ but we are still happy. We are very tough people, have gone through many bad times but that doesn’t mean we should be sad or angry. We love to live, and we love to help others appreciate what they have.”
Honestly, I still don’t really get it. But what I understand was that at that moment, on that run-down train with barely anyone or anything, I didn’t feel alone.
I guess that’s why I loved Belgrade: I never felt alone because I was surrounded by the nicest kindest most generous giving people who really didn’t care where you were from because they just want to help you.
Those times when I’d get lost in all sorts of places because I couldn’t read the street signs, I never felt alone. Those days when I’d go down entire boulevards by myself, I never felt alone. I also never felt alone sitting by myself as the only customer in a restaurant, trying to moderate my dangerously acute taste for Serbian meatballs.
Someone is always there for you in Belgrade, even if you’re a complete stranger. What more could you ask for?
As I get older, I’ve realized that something I look for when I travel is what makes people happy. There is no set route for the pursuit of happiness, so it’s more than fascinating to see what different routes people take to get there. For some, like the New Orleans residents I saw back in high school, it was simply just living. For a lot of people I know, it’s doing well in school and eventually getting a stable job (or, excuse me, a well-paying job).
Four days in Belgrade isn’t enough to figure out how Belgraders do it, but I sense that their happiness lies with being able to get up every time you’re knocked down. So for us it’s a matter of how we will do the same every time we’re at our lowest.
And with that, I end this long rambling post about Belgrade because I’m confused as to how I will accomplish what I just said, so I need to go figure things out.