This first week in Belgrade has been very eye-opening and fascinating. I am enjoying learning about the rich history of this city, and the preservation of the region’s culture. In class, we talked about the rather tragic, repetitious demolition of Serbia over the centuries, and it makes me appreciate how prosperous this place truly is. Astonishingly, Belgrade has been ruined and rebuilt roughly 140 times which speaks volumes about the character of Serbian people. Although this area has been through tough times, the people are (at least they seem to be) open to harmonious interactions.
Before coming to Serbia, I was very nervous which is a testament to the stigmas associated with Eastern Europe. My loved ones (and a number of service providers) continued to express concern for my safety and a lack of understanding for my desire to come to this non-Western part of the world. There are also some locals who are also puzzled by our group’s interest in this region evident by statements such as “I do not know why you are but welcome.” It was a rainy, gloomy day when I arrived and I was sure that was a sign that this trip would be difficult, but the following day proved just the opposite. After leaving class with some knowledge of the area, we walked down the busy streets of Belgrade in the beautiful, warm weather and I felt very comfortable. I was very surprised by how quickly I got acclimated considering that there is very few Black people in this region. I would get confused looks while walking down the street, but rarely looks of malicious intent. We had one awkward, racist encounter on the bus stop with a group of drunk men that made me very uncomfortable. The group of men exited the bus in a rowdy manner and began making barking sounds when they saw our rather diverse group standing on the bus stop. That moment shattered my precious bubble view of Belgrade, and I quickly came back to reality and acknowledged that the world is still, indeed, racist. However, I would say most people here are genuinely curious about where I come from rather than threatened by my presence. I also received a lot of smiles and blown kisses in public which is very affirming.
I love that food is very inexpensive here. We have eaten very fancy, delicious meals including drinks for the equivalent of about $13 USD. I also want to be conservative with my spending so I went grocery shopping and bought a week’s worth of food for about $12 USD. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with their drinkable yogurt but I am. My favorite meal so far has been in Skadarlija—a quaint area of town decorated with pastel colored building and cobble stone streets—where we were serenaded by a quartet at the dinner table. I ate a chicken dish that had sweet tomatoes, onions and robust peppers with pomfrit (French fries).
There is keen juxtaposition with the culture and history of this city and my home Chicago. The neighborhood structures with high concentrations of specific identities and the variable atmosphere reminds me a lot of home. Chicago was also burned to the ground and rebuilt as a great metropolitan area. Ironically enough, Chicago has the second largest Serbian population in the US. It’s always great when I meet new people and tell them that I am from Chicago because it prompts very positive responses.
I would consider my first week in Belgrade a major success.