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.
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.