Belgrade: The Most Beautifully Ugly Thing I’ve Ever Laid My Eyes On
September 7, 2016
Note - I'm a lazy mess and I'm just getting around to reflecting on Month 2 while starting Month 4...sorry I'm going to fire through a bunch of these and get caught up...maybe...probably not
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in on little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain
I was ignorant. I think most of us were to some degree or another. During our first month in Prague we were ecstatic, anxious, scared, overwhelmed, you name it we felt it - but I think for the most part we were happy to have finally started this promising year. However, in all our early conversations - given we didn't know each other that well yet - much of them revolved around our one common element, this trip, we talked about what we were looking forward to going the most, side trips we may want to plan and who would join us on those. In talking about all the potential we all had this weird "black hole" on our itinerary... Belgrade (to be honest when I first heard the city's name before going on this trip I confused it with Belfast before realizing I'm an idiot). For the most part we all thought it would have some good bars and clubs but we were all a little bummed or had basement low expectations for it. Many of us started booking a bunch of side trips out of Belgrade immediately to places like Croatia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, etc....anywhere but Belgrade seemed to be the planning mindset for Month 2.
Then we arrived. I wish I could say that once we got there it was like Dorothy landing in Munchkin land and we were all wandering around in awe of the beauty of it all (....a Wizard of Oz reference...nailed it), but myself and several remotes pulled into the Belgrade train station and it looked like this.....
We were nervous to say the least, to add to that Sam, Chase and I couldn't figure out how to get to our place so hopped into a cab - which we were told not to take - to our apartments. After arriving at our apartment the anxiety levels hit a new high as we walked into our apartment's entry way, I couldn't help but notice it looked like a post-apocalyptic crack den. However, in what would become somewhat of a theme for the month after getting past this disquieting exterior we were led into a small, but beautifully renovated apt....my jaw dropped and a wave of relief washed over me. How the hell did this epic shithole hold this gem...with AC!
As the month went on I rapidly fell in love with this city that had the most beautiful character behind its rough exterior - think Brooklyn about 15-20 years ago. There was the bustling waterftront with its barges converted into clubs, coffee knowledge to be found at Uzitak, sprawling Belgrade Fortress with its sunset views, Republic Square bringing the city together, the hidden gem of Vox Jazz Club, awe-inspiring churches, dinner under the trees at Frans, energetic Skadarlija street, the always awake concrete jungle, and on and on and on.
Manufaktura's "rooftop" - many places in Belgrade has this unique, creative edge to them that made us fall in love with it so easily.
But what stood out more than cool cafes, funky shops and dynamic bars were the people. Similar to the city itself when I thought of the people of Belgrade I assumed some guy named Mikhail with a giant scar on his face, slamming vodka and cursing America, but what we got were some of the kindest, welcoming people I've ever met.
A local tour guide told us about how, while the city isn't as religious as it once was, their faith and its history inform their character as a people. Gorgeous places of worship could be found everywhere.
The second day there I was starving so I wandered down the street from the cafe I was working at and awkwardly entered a little deli and I quickly noticed no one spoke English. I started to point at things I wanted but they didn't quite understand. I'm standing there nervously sweating, stammering like a mess until a local Serbian woman poked her head in, she walked past the line and politely asked if I needed help and worked with me to get what I was looking for, I gave her an exasperated, jumbled thank you and she just smiled back at me saying " of course, enjoy Belgrade" and walked out - she wasn't coming in to eat, just to help. I was so thankful and surprised, but I shouldn't have been as it became a trend - a taxi driver getting out of his car to walk with me to make sure I felt comfortable walking to a beer garden in a new neighborhood, a hair stylist talking with me about her vacation, her friends from America and her favorite recommendations for dinner, a bar owner giving us free shots to sit and talk about life, the local tech community welcoming us into their offices to talk about their work and culture, a tour guide showing understanding and friendship even when talking about the NATO bombings of 1999, it never stopped. Generosity and understanding seemed effortless for them.
The people of Belgrade certainly had a reason to be against us visiting, but they are looking to the future with a open heart
Its this character that gives the city a sense that it is yearning to grow, to be known for more than its been in the World's eyes....but on its own terms. We saw this manifest itself during one of our Town Halls. Outside the beautifully renovated, open warehouse market we were in - we saw a massive crowd gathering chanting, waving flags and setting up a stage for speakers. They were protesting a proposal to sell much of their beloved and vibrant downtown and waterfront neighborhoods to a conglomerate from the Middle East that wanted to tear everything down and build lavish resorts, restaurants and other city amenities that the local population could not afford for the benefit of foreign tourism. The Serbian people are proud of the progress the've made over the years. Inch by inch, they clawed black, becoming an increasingly metropolitan travel destination, a place that has its own unique feel amongst the Balkan region. They've been able to make such progress because of the vision and character of their own people. I hope they get to see their vision become a reality.
Shot from the protest against the waterfront development
All this is to say... Belgrade I'm sorry and thank you. I'm sorry for misjudging you, for thinking you had little, if anything, to offer me and my fellow Remotes. I could not have been more wrong, I only scratched the surface of what Belgrade could show me before I had to move on yet again. And thank you so very much for illustrating for me the real importance of travel that's so perfectly summed up in the quote that led this post...
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, narrow-mindedness... even if you know those don't describe you, you'd be surprised at how those notions can easily creep in to you without you even noticing.