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.