Read, Write, Run, Roam

Diving into Belgrade


Despite being such passionate people, Serbians can be cautious when going into water. They’ll first stand at the edge of a lake or pool for a couple of minutes, letting the water lap at their feet. Then they delicately flick water on their arms and legs. Once the splashing ritual is over, there’s another minute or two of standing still before heading back to dry land or gracefully wading in.

I find this approach tortuous. The slow exposure to cold water. The goosebumps in 90-degree weather. The internal dialogue: “It will feel better when I’m swimming. Just have to ease into it…wait, am I used to the temperature or am I just numb?” No thanks. I can appreciate an elegant water approach, but it’s not my style. My entry is more of an attack: arms akimbo, I slosh into the water and dive in before the water rises above my ribcage. I emerge from the water a sputtering mess. It’s not pretty, but it works.

I moved to Serbia with a similar attitude. My husband and I had talked about living abroad, but it seemed like something other people did. When they were 19. Or independently wealthy. We were neither. Suddenly—at least it felt sudden—he found an open position in Belgrade, had an interview, and was offered the job. Within weeks, we cancelled our apartment lease, I quit my job, and our friends started googling “Serbia” to see where on earth we were going. When we arrived in Belgrade, I immediately started Serbian lessons and walked all over the city. I dove right in.

Of course, diving in has its drawbacks. Serbians enter water slowly because they believe that a sudden change in body temperature can cause a heart attack or shock. Though I’ve never had that experience in water, I did have it in Belgrade. After the novelty of living in foreign land had worn off, I was feeling a bit, well…sick. I looked around and realized I was far from home, with none of the security measures that I was accustomed to: old friends, easy communication, comfort foods. It was a shock to the system.

Slowly, if not gracefully, I warmed up to my new city. I progressed from the first flicker of romance, (Cyrillic writing! Fortresses!), past the distress of entering a new culture (What do you mean, you don’t have Robitussin?) to find myself submerged in a new life. Now I wade through our crowded pijaca to find my favorite tomato vendor. I struggle through Serbian to speak with neighbors and shopkeepers. I park at the not-so-secret spaces by Lake Ada. There are good moments and bad ones here, just like anywhere else.

Even on our craziest days in Belgrade, I remember that living here has given me a different perspective, a new language, and an appreciation for plunging into new challenges—but waiting for the shock to subside. If there are any readers considering a similar move, I say, dive on in. The water’s fine.

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6 responses

  1. Anonymous

    I plan on doing this myself here in about 3 months if all goes well! Serbia or bust and i have no safety net.

    July 19, 2011 at 11:36 am

  2. kts

    I can’t tell you how hard it is to not contemplate living abroad after following your wonderful stories and adventures as well as E&J’s a while back. Each time I read, I get a tinge of travel lust. Maybe someday…. You’re making a good case for it! 🙂

    And I have to apologize — It’s a bit ridiculous after following your blog pretty much daily since the start, I have yet to post something!! Each new blog email you send is a like a little gift of escapism, where I can imagine myself out of the library and walking the Serbian streets with you! Thanks for the great writing and stories.

    July 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm

  3. Do it. It’s easy for me to say that, I suppose–I have a safety net and have had good experiences here. But even if it “busts,” I imagine you’ll have fewer regrets. When Muz and I talked about coming here, we figured that no matter what happened, we’d always be able to say, “Remember that crazy year in Serbia?”

    Good luck with your planning!

    July 19, 2011 at 9:57 pm

  4. Awww. I think you’d love the Serbian streets! Sorry you can’t visit us this year but I’m happy to bring the Belgrade to you.

    July 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm

  5. I’ve done the expatriate thing a couple of times and I think your analogy of diving in (or not) is a good one.

    Now you’ve put Serbia on my wish list.

    July 28, 2011 at 11:13 pm

  6. This is my first time living abroad, but I hope it won’t be my last. Thanks for the input! Serbia is a great place to settle into for a while…lots to explore under the surface.

    July 29, 2011 at 9:24 am

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