“What’s Belgrade Like?”
I just returned from a short trip to London, and it was clearly a taste of what to expect when I return to America. I’m not talking about Vietnamese restaurants, high prices and subway lines. I’m talking about explaining life in Serbia.
“What’s Belgrade like?” is an innocent question. It didn’t surprise me; even in (somewhat) nearby London, few people have traveled to Serbia. What surprised me was the wide-eyed stare. The “wow, you must be really brave” intonation. Or worse, the smirk. The “I’m going to get some really snarky stories about another culture” smirk. Sigh.
“It’s Paris meets Brooklyn” has become my catchphrase. It’s more like Paris meets Queens, but let’s face it, few people have an idea of what Queens is like, either. “It’s grit and great bakeries; it’s beautiful women and brutalist architecture; it has fresh, simple food and complicated people.” Most people seem incredulous.
The misconceptions aren’t one-sided. Strangers expected Serbia to be an ugly, difficult place to live, and Serbians expected strangers to think they were ugly and difficult. On my cab ride back from the airport, the driver and I talked about English people. “What do they think of us?” he asked. “Do they still think we’re savages? Cannibals?” “I never heard that,” I said. “They just think that Serbia is a war-torn country.” It’s true. Americans and Englishmen ask about the war, but they don’t imply that everyone here is a war criminal. They’re simply amazed to hear that Belgrade isn’t a third world city or a Moscow suburb.
I started this blog partly to explain life in Belgrade, but I’m no Momo Kapur. Something else is needed. More accurately, someone else: Serbians. I can’t tell you how many Serbians are shocked to find that I like living here. Or how often I hear, “Oh, I know a Serbian person (living abroad). They say that Serbia is terrible.” I hear that and I cringe.
I compare that attitude to the tour guide in Istanbul who asked, “who wouldn’t want to be Turkish?” and the hotel clerk in Sarajevo who said, “maybe you could live here someday,” as if he was offering candy. I’m reminded of a friend who returned from her first visit to New York complaining about public urination and noise and rudeness, and my reply was “yes, but didn’t you LOVE it?”
There are plenty of places that are imperfect and crazy and worth visiting. I know. I’m lucky to live in one of them. If you disagree, then please tell me: “What’s Belgrade like?”