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Lessons from Belgrade

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things to me about my time in Belgrade was the fact that it felt almost like being back in Chicago. Yes, there was the fact that the words on the buildings were either written in Serbian Cyrillic or Latin script, but still I felt like I was back in the windy city mainly due to the sheer size of Belgrade and the acknowledgement that it’s population size was only relatively smaller than Chicago’s at approximately 1.2 million. Yet, even though being in Belgrade at times felt like I was back in Chicago, there are a few lessons from Belgrade that Chicago could never have taught me:

Refrain from Comparisons: 

Belgrade is unlike any other city that I have been to. Personally, the best way to describe it would be as a beautiful-ugly city. It has been completely leveled to the ground approximately 50 times in its history and this can be seen in its architecture. As you walk down the streets, you come across buildings that are both old and new, some covered in bullet holes and others still in the process of being rebuilt. The city’s history is very clearly reflected in its architecture and it’s hard not to be fascinated by what its people have had to endure. So, should you have the chance to visit Belgrade, refrain from comparing it to other cities that you have been to, whether in Europe or elsewhere, as by doing so, you run the risk of missing out on the beauty that it does have to offer. That was what I did when I first arrived. I compared it to Chicago (case in point with the opening paragraph of this blog) and in so doing almost lost out in appreciating the history that its buildings had to tell.

The buildings in this picture are apartments. Many citizens of Belgrade live in apartments and you will rarely see houses. In fact, I don’t think that I ever saw a house in my time in Belgrade.

The following image was taken on one of my main streets that we would walk to get to class at the Rectorate. In this picture as in the previous image, most of the balconies you see belong to the apartments that many people in Belgrade call home. The buildings are a reflection of the socialist era when there was a focus on ensuring that all citizens had homes and so apartments where built block style to accommodate the population.

Being Blunt is the Norm: 

My very first taxi driver was the one that took me from the airport to the student dorm that I would be staying in for my four weeks in Belgrade. During this ride, upon registering that I had flown in from Chicago, he told me point blank that “in 1990 NATO bombed us.” He then proceeded to drive by the bombing site and pointed at the building left standing while looking at me seated in the back seat and said “this is where you bombed us.” Prior to arriving in Belgrade, I had done a fair amount of research, mostly to prepare myself for the inevitable culture shock that I would experience and to make sure that I was aware and cognizant of the city’s social rules, i.e knowing what to say and what topics to avoid. One such topic was the war and the subsequent NATO bombings. In fact one of the blogs that I spent hours pouring over, specifically mentioned that I should not by any means mention the war. So imagine my shock when the first person that I meet is talking to me about the war. As the shock faded and I registered what he had said, shame overcame me. Shame at being affiliated with the U.S and the destruction that it had caused in this region. And so, I silently sat in the backseat of my taxi and listened to my driver as he pointed out other historical sites. What I would later learn from class is that my driver was not placing the blame of the bombing on me or other U.S citizens per say. When he said “this is where you bombed us,” he was merely stating a fact that yes, this is the site where the U.S had indeed dropped a bomb on Belgrade. The bluntness with which my driver had talked about what had happened was a foreshadow of the bluntness with which individuals here talk about their history. It is stated as a matter of fact and that was simply the norm. A norm that I would eventually learn to become well acquainted with.

The building in this image is one of the casualties of the NATO bombing. There is now an attempt to rebuild it and join the two severed halves as one once again.


Another image showing one of the architectural casualties of the 1990 NATO bombing of Belgrade.

Why Serbia? 

This was a question that we would often get when we told people that we chose to do a study abroad program here in Belgrade. The reason for this question was perhaps because people were often surprised that we, as American students, willingly wanted to come to this region of the world and learn about it. In fact, it baffled most people that we encountered that there was interest in coming here as they couldn’t fantom that people were interested in learning about their history and about what had happened to them. Thus, upon realizing that we were genuinely interested in learning about the region and about its rich and often complex history, people would express gratitude that we came here and were willing to listen to their stories. They would in effect thank us for taking the time to listen to them and would often ask us if we were enjoying ourselves here and what we thought of Belgrade. Such questions were not isolated only to encounters with locals. As during the public health section of the program in Belgrade, we came to realize that our professors were somewhat focused on highlighting the positives of the Serbian health care system and often refrained from talking about its challenges. This, I came to realize was likely due to a pre-occupation with presenting the best parts of Serbia to us American students and ensuring that we saw only the good sides. It reminded me of the tendency of Westerners to look down upon those they have deemed as “other” and the struggle of the “other” to prove themselves worthy. From these encounters I came face to face with an inherent privilege that I have as an individual living in the U.S and was thereby reminded of the importance of working towards deconstructing the tendency of “othering” individuals from backgrounds and cultures different from my own and ensuring that all cultures, histories, backgrounds and stories are treated equally, without one story being highlighted as more worthy than another. So, to answer the question Why Serbia, I say Why Not Serbia? I chose to come here because it was a region of the world that I was unfamiliar with and that I wanted to learn more about. It is a region of the world that like so many others, deserves to have its history known.

Taken on a beautifully sunny Sunday, this picture is of one of the many entrances to the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade.

The following picture was taken on a Sunday hike of Kalemegdan and shows the confluence of the Rivers Sava and Danube.

Categories: Art & Architecture, Culture, Global Health, History, Housing, Northwestern Programs, NUinSerbiaBiH, Serbia, Trips & Excursions

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