Serbia is a country that will make you fall in love with. Not that it can´t offer beautiful landscapes or impressive sights, but what is the most amazing about it is its people, atmosphere, mentality and traditions. It made me feel like home since the very first moment and I think part of me stayed there even if I returned home several months ago. Some of the painful nostalgy is still present when reading the lines I posted few weeks after the return:
My first days back home after 10 months in Serbia could be best compared to feelings after a break-up. Memory of slightest detail made me cry, I was trying to convince myself that this „separation“ isn´t pernament and I felt like nobody really understands what I´m going through.
I am still trying to get used to the fact that I understand all the conversations in the streets while wondering where the hell have all the dogs disappeared?! I make my way through the crowd apologizing with „izvini“ and expressing gratitude by „hvala“. Even now, more than 3 weeks after the return, it was extremely painful to go through my pictures trying to make a selection to complete this article.
So much could be said about last 10 months …but don´t worry, I won´t What I want to share with you is couple of random observations about things that I found surprising, interesting or funny, especially comparing to Slovakia. I just hope that my words will cause no offence to anyone, that would be the last thing I meant. My friends know how much I love Serbia and that there is hardly anything I wouldn´t like about it. Now, let´s get started.
All the time and everywhere. It is quite unusual for cafe or pub to have non-smoking area. Often, people don´t even respect the no-smoking sign – as I witnessed at the police station where the chief sitting under a huge sign „zabranjeno pušenje“ was enjoying his morning cigarette without giving a shit. While waiting for a bus, particullarly on rainy days when all the people were sqeezed under small roof of a bus stop, I nostalgically recalled the memory of slovak law forbidding to smoke in this area. However, (and quite surprisingly) I got used to smoking.
(photo by Stefanos Iliopoulos)
The number of stray dogs in the streets was totally unusual for me. Nevermind how much time I spent in Serbia, my first reflex was always to look around in search for the owner (obviously me being the only one). For people here it is completely normal thing, something like pigeons in the city. Confusing fact is that most of these dogs have collars.
And even though the impression would be that this is a bad thing, I can´t help myself thinking that these free dogs in Serbia look much happier than those in animal shelters in Slovakia, and I´ve seen a lot of both. Also, from my observations, local dogs are usually attached to some places. There are bus station dogs, main square dogs, haidresser´s dogs or fast food dogs (this must be a dream location of every dog) and so on. I forgot to mention that people obviously feed them. I even saw doghouses outside, in between of apartment buildings, with bowl of food and water. Nevertheless, the winter is probably not the happiest time in their dog life..
I´ve seen it all. I saw pedestrians not respecting traffic lights. I saw drivers not respecting traffic lights. I saw dogs respecting traffic lights. I saw a car making U-turn in the middle of New Belgrade´s boulevard, crossing the grass area in the middle. Stop sing is often more of a joke. I saw cars suddenly stopping in the middle of the road to chit-chat with someone they know passing by, or just to check their phones (they make driving a bike even more challenging than it already is, believe me). I saw people parking on the crossing, I saw people parking in the curve and I saw people parking in the middle of a crossroad, which reminds me that I also saw a bus stop literally in the middle of a crossroad. I saw a bus driver desperately driving around Belgrade trying to find direction for Novi Sad (I was in the bus).
I could write about food alone on couple of pages, but i will try to be short. Let me start with meat. Meat for breakfast, meat for lunch, meet for dinner. No kidding, reality. There is no celebration without roasted pig (or sheep – that´s another level). Pork wins in general, as a base of pljeskavica, čevapi, sarma and other typical Serbian dishes.
Bread. No matter how many side dishes you already have on your plate (potatoes, french fries, rice). I´ve seen eating bread with pasta (!) and I am sure there are even „worse“ things…
Pavlaka is Serbian name for sour cream (of a greek yoghurt consistency). Pavlaka on bread (instead of butter), pavlaka on pizza, pavlaka in pancakes (both sweet and salty ones), pavlaka in sandwiches, pavlaka as a side dish.. (there are probably another 120 ways of use).
Pizza. You can buy it in every bakery, but if you happen to like any other kind than with ham, cheese and mushrooms, your life is gonna be hard in Serbia. After 10 months, I can´t even look at this combination anymore.
Burek. It is basically salty pie filled either with minced meat (surprise, surprise!) or salty cheese. It is very tasty, but also incredibly fat. I used to be able to handle it only once a month (and imagine many people eat it daily for breakfast), but recent discovery of mushroom burek made me more open minded on this subject.
However, I feel the need to emphasize that Serbian food is simply amazing!! I am no meat lover, which is not easy especially in Serbia, but I am speaking in general. Somehow, the food here taste more „real“ (and the portions are incredible!). At home, a restaurant with tasty food is as rare as a “good hair day” for Donald Trump (thank you, google, for this one) and usually you pay a lot of money for a small portion of average-quality meal. Serbia is the opposite to that in every aspect ..all my friends that visited me here can confirm this.
my favourite girice
Hospitality in Balkans is legendary, but in reality it even exceeded my expectations. In this part of the world, you will never ever die of hunger or thirst (..or abstinence from alcohol). Also, the guest status is something that is taken very seriously, and people will insist on paying when you go for drinks or meal. At first, thay will play “first-time-I-am-paying” card, but they will not give up easily even second, third or twentieth time. Especially if you are a foreigner, most people really care about you taking the best impression from their country and they will try to help you in any way possible (it even happened to me that the waitress paid 10 missing dinnars of my bill smiling and wishing me a nice time in Serbia). But it´s not only that. It´s like people are honestly willing to share – however much or little they have – with you simply to make you happy, not because they feel the obligation or something (and in my opinion this is what we should learn from them).
Gentlemanhood also still exists in Serbia and is taken seriously as well. Sometimes I even felt embarrassed when my friends fiercely refused to take money from me because I am a girl (even if they were younger and had no job) but there was no way for me to win.
Another, almost extreme case of Serbian hospitality was one hot august Sunday that me and my friends from Slovakia spent at the police station in Obrenovac being suspected of espionage (nevermind!). The funny part was that the officers wouldn´t stop asking if we want water, coffee or if we are hungry, and then after 6 hours of investigation they apologized for the incovenience and for keeping us so long and they expressed hope that we would visit Serbia again
Plastic bags in the supermarkets are for free, and seeing the amount used by the customers, I assume that average Serbian family must own about a billion of them. If you are environmentally conscious individual and you want to avoid them, you need to stand your ground and you need to act fast. Not only the ladies at the cash counter will themselves put your goods into the bag(s), but they are so fast, that a slightest hesitation/distraction can cause your loss. Words „ne treba kesa“ were one of the first things I learned in Serbian.
Year of birth
In Serbia people don´t ask how old you are. It´s not a matter of politeness, it is just that they invented their own genuine way to confuse people. Ok, I know it´s not so hard to say your year of birth, but imagine you ask someone about his age and his answer is „Well, I was born in 1992“. WTF
Going to Serbia was a little bit of a time travelling for me. I have blurry memories of small shops with family atmosphere where people greeted each other and treated each other like humans. That was before supermarket chains came to Slovakia and shopping centres started to pop up excessively out of nowhere. It is amazing to see all these tiny bakeries, butchers, shoemakers, florists or grocery stores, especially in smaller cities where customers are treated as friends. Also, these shops are open surprisingly long and often every day.
Then, there are things that were surprising for me – there are people that during summer season spent whole days sitting bexind freezer box selling ice cream on the stick. In Slovakia, these freezers are usually attached to kiosks or small shops but in Serbia this is an independent business. In Belgrade you can find an ice cream lady sitting in the middle of the street or park behing her box. Another level are shoe laces sellers. I find their existence amazing, since it is quite a challenge to get colorful laces in Slovakia, but it was quite surprising to see these guys spending their days in the middle of the street next to their portable little stand.. I really do hope they can make a living out of it.
Not only plastic bags, but also water in Serbia comes free of charge and is widely accessible. When you order a cup of coffee, you get a glass of water without asking and for free, and let me say, only here I realized that this is how it should be!! I tried to ask for it back home, but in our mentality, that is not only extra work for the waitress (God forbid!) but also zero profit for the cafe. What comes free of charge is a judgemental look with unspoken question, why are you coming to this place if you can´t afford to buy a „real“ drink.
Another thing that I loved in Serbia is access to drinking water in public spaces. I think this should also come as natural and I never realized how much I´ve always missed this at home.
In Serbia, all the foreign movies and TV series are broadcasted in original sound, with Serbian subtitles. Hence, it is not unusual that people learn some English or Spanish (soap opera fans) only from watching TV. I can´t really imagine old people like my grandma reading subtitles but apparently when people get used to it, it can be quite beneficial. In Slovakia, foreign movies are always translated, so it is harder for people to stay in touch with other languages. Thumbs up, Serbia.
For the nation that (rightfully) prides itself with one of the most beautiful women in Europe, some of these young ladies tend to wear completely unnecessary amount of make up on a daily basis. The sad thing is that they are already totally georgeus (I understand that competition is strong but c´mon, this is not the way..!). On the other hand, if you´ve ever seen some of the famous Serbian folk singers, it might give you a hint on this matter..
Loudness & communication.
For some unknown reason Serbians like to test their sound devices to the maximum. Bars are not places to talk, they are places to scream at the top of your voice over the music „backround“. In one of my wokcamps this summer I experienced a party so loud that it literally hurt being inside the room.
However that´s not all – Serbians like to speak loudly as well. First couple of weeks it seemed to me that people around me are arguing a lot, but then I realized this is just the way of talking here. While we are on the topic, constat swearing is another thing that characterize communication in Serbia. I have never experienced such amount and such creativity. Mentioning your mother´s pussy is a must but you can also fuck someone´s sun, blood or bread (about the importance of bread, please see the „food“ paragraph). My „favourite“ one included shitting on the graves of one´s deceased relatives.
SERBIA THROUGH THE EYES OF A STRANGER (2016)