Beograd is my first real city. I grew up on a farm in rural Nebraska and later moved to a seeming metropolis of 150 people, so living among 2 million (but probably more like 3, unofficially) is quite the change. But I found that taking it all in stride has—rather unexpectedly—made the difference an easy adjustment.
I made a short list of “downsides” to city life in Belgrade, but when revising my post I thought they were too forced. There are no downsides, honestly, or at least none that are worth mentioning. I have decided that the upsides of this city—and the source of its charm—are a result of the unique blend of civilizational differences and geographical positioning as is expressed through the people, the city’s real MVP (to borrow the meme-making colloquial sensation from Kevin Durant’s emotional nod to his supportive mother in an NBA MVP acceptance speech):
Belgrade inhabitants (literally translated to “beograđani” in Serbian) are a beautiful mix of ethnicities, opinions, persuasions, and etc. They walk everywhere, they are incredibly hospitable, they eat well and they party hard, they love fast and with abandon (but then also get heartbroken and sing about it in kafana, they are loud and opinionated and will tell you off when you’re out of line (intentional or not), but then they are also extremely polite.
And, perhaps because a truly overwhelming tourist force has not yet overtaken the city completely, beograđani are—at least in my experience—very cordial to foreigners. Our presence gives them a chance to practice their English, of which nearly everyone is at least learning or can speak a little. But the absolute best thing is to learn several words and phrases in Serbian so you can see a local’s face light up when you speak (or indicate you are interested in learning) in their own tongue.
I love my commutes because this is where you see them: briefcase in hand on the way to work in the morning, little ones with their mama, a baba (grandma) feeding pigeons in the park and the dede (grandpas) playing chess and sitting on benches discussing the weather, or the young and fashionable lovers walking arm in arm on their way to watch the sunset at Kalemegdan (historic fort and original Belgrade).
My idealistic view of beograđani was born out of the reason I came here in the first place. Serbia, due to the fascinating geographic and historical roles of the Balkan peninsula, is basically in the middle of this colossal exchange of civilizational values that has been ripping our world apart for the greater part of the last millennium. As an American, I vastly misunderstood the role and significance of the Balkans, one that Vjekoslav Perica emphasized in “Balkan Idols” was incredibly multifaceted:
- the land over which Rome and Byzantium and later Ottoman Turkey and Habsburg Austria “challenged each other and vied for souls and loyalties of the local peoples”;
- Where the notorious “Eastern Question” originated;
- Where “the first large heresy within the Communist block was born”;
- where “the first large-scale post-Cold War conflict took place”;
There are things about Belgrade, about Serbia, and about the Balkans in general that are mystifying and inspirational, but there are also things that are not beautiful, aesthetically, ideologically, and otherwise. Some pasts are very hard to confront, and to deny so would be truly out of sync of the region’s character. Indeed, the history here is fluid and alive; it is still being articulated in some instances (World War II, for example) because of the very nature in which it developed in the region.
Even through an exorbitant amount of unpleasantries, they have endured and even succeeded in preserving (in good humor, no less) the resilient approach to life that is characteristically their own. I love the title of Slavonia Drakulic’s book, How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed because that’s what this is, through communism or otherwise. And that’s why I think they’re the real MVP. Here’s to you and a fantastic rest of the semester, Beograd: thank you for the beautiful welcome.