Read, Write, Run, Roam

“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?”

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9 responses

  1. I love reading your blog. I am sorry you will be going back. 😦 It has been a pleasure to see another Americans view of Serbia. I love Serbia. I can’t wait to come back to my second home.

    September 22, 2011 at 9:19 pm

  2. I’m sorry too! I suppose it was inevitable but Belgrade will always be in my heart. I hope to return too.

    September 22, 2011 at 9:24 pm

  3. Matt

    I, too, am sad that you will be leaving. Your blog has been a fun spot in my day and I have enjoyed reliving my own year spent in Sarajevo (with many trips to Belgrade)!

    September 23, 2011 at 2:07 am

  4. Thanks, Matt! Sarajevo is certainly a special place too.

    September 23, 2011 at 3:30 pm

  5. Dayna

    I think that you are spot on! I adored living Beograd!!!

    September 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  6. Morgan

    I’m not Serbian but I love to travel to Belgrade. I usually tell people it’s like Vienna, but more complex and far sexier. I also try to explain what it was like to go from despised Jenki a few years back to a welcome guest treated as “naša” – and even, in the case of the Serbia Open, as a VIP.

    September 26, 2011 at 3:02 pm

  7. Being a VIP at the Serbian Open sounds amazing. And you’re right, Belgrade is definitely sexier than Vienna. It’s hard to put this place into words, though you already know that. It’s like an onion–lots of layers.

    September 26, 2011 at 5:02 pm

  8. Joanna

    I want EVERYONE I know to read this and everything else you’ve posted but really…mostly…especially this!

    September 29, 2011 at 3:41 am

  9. Thanks! Feel free to spread the Belgrade love…

    September 29, 2011 at 3:46 pm

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