10 minutes into Belgrade I knew that I was in love. The taxi driver enthusiastically talked about basketball (it was the first time in my life that somebody knew Oldenburg for its Basketball team instead of Bremen for its football team) and all I could think was one simple phrase. “I love this place”. I really did. It’s not that Belgrade welcomes guests with overwhelming beauty, unless you’re really into grey socialist buildings which tell the story of either financial crises, recessions and two wars or give, otherwise, a hint of megalomania. Still, I was in love and it didn’t change until now, sitting at the banks of the Danube with the “Palace of Serbia” in my back, which is not a castle, but the national government building (looking like a massive concrete bunker). I’m invited for an interview for my bachelor’s thesis on youth and peace and I feel fancy.
Back on track, this was supposed to be about Belgrade. So, I was in love and couldn’t really tell why. On my last evening I met a Serbian student whom I had met via Couchsurfing (that’s a perfect platform for meeting people here, better than in other countries) and he asked me – I’m slightly off track again – what made me stay in Taiwan, back in the days, since it is not the most usual place to live in for a German. “Did you fall in love or was it for the country?” “Yes”, I replied.
Falling in love with a place at first sight or maybe rather at first vibe as it was the case for Belgrade is the most natural thing for me, far more natural than falling in love just like that with a person. It happens all the time, still, Belgrade gained some special love – and I didn’t even try the nightlife which apparently is the major attraction of the city.
When you look at Belgrade it first of all looks very disharmonic, shabby, neglected and dirty. Since the NATO bombing many buildings, streets and bridges have – obviously – been rebuilt, yet almost every wall and street is an evidence of Belgrade’s troubled history. A lack of money and maybe also incentive do their part to the looks of the city. Still, you find beautifully renovated buildings from the Austrian-Hungarian empire and signs of the dominant orthodox church, very little reminders of the Ottoman Empire and in between all that dark buildings and the large “Belgrade Center” from Tito’s times when Yugoslavia was still the united country many students I talked to dream about now. It’s a melting pot of times and decades – how could I not fall for its charm?
While German trams (50th model), little stores (Tante-Emma-Läden) and dusty, brown-ish curtains give to a German tourist the sensation of time travel, Belgrade isn’t a city of a different time. Being in it, being part of it, I got the sensation of visiting a European metropolis. The hipsters in the city centre queuing up for a barber store could just like that wander through Berlin, the Austrian signature still remains in some parts and, obviously, the stores and branches of all European malls and shopping areas are being represented. Walking through the streets around my hostel the first day, I felt like walking through Berlin, or, in other streets, Krakow, or maybe just a very pleasant mix of it. I was overwhelmed though, big streets with cars rushing through them and then around me so much to see: graffiti, street art, shop windows and street names in Cyrillic (I took the chance to learn the alphabet!), difficult to say where to put focus. During the first hour I felt like always being in the way of somebody, but that could also have been, because I had only slept 4 hours that night before taking an early morning flight. Somehow, I figured out how things work, where to take the bus and how to get a ticket (even though that can be challenging because drivers might insist on NOT charging you and safe the money instead) and how to cross a street. It’s not that difficult after all, cars actually stop for you if you’re trying to cross, especially with a zebra crossing. From that moment onwards I felt safe (maybe too much since 3 cars nearly hit me in one day).
Belgrade is a city which can be easily explored by foot, and I would even recommend to do so, since that’s the only way to pass all the side streets, cafés, street art, galleries and parks. Obviously, there are some major tourist sports (usually, as everywhere, recognizable by an un-proportionally high amount of Asians) such as the Palace of the Assembly of Serbia (which could stand like that in Vienna), the St. Marks Church (which is apparently the biggest (orthodox) church in the Western Balkans) and, of course, the Kalemagdan above all (literally speaking). Those sights are very enjoyable and maybe the most photogenic aspects of Belgrade, but they don’t represent the life – if I’m in any position to judge – of and in Serbia’s capital very well. Maybe the Kalemagdan (an old fortress on a hill looking upon the Save-Danube-junction) makes an exception. Here young and old people sit, staring at the rivers and the ragged roofs underneath them, drinking and cherishing life. Young couple occupy, entangled in each other, the benches, sharing their passionate love with everyone as they actually do in all parks I’ve been to in this city. There’s a lot of smacking kissing going on here. Actually, it’s not only the youth, but also elder couples some who can’t even walk straight anymore strolling through the streets to sit down anywhere not to necessarily break out in heavy kissing, but there’s some cute cuddling going on. Besides, you see a lot of people in groups, laughing, minding their own businesses, and being generally very friendly with lost foreigners (like me).
Life in Serbia is, if you look at statistics, not easy. Youth unemployment rate is up to almost 47%, material deprivation and little security for the future make life difficult and unease, leading to figures suggesting that “young people in Serbia in comparison with their peers, belong to a third of the European countries in which respondents expressed a lower level of general life satisfaction” (all data taken from a study by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Serbia in 2015: Young People in Serbia).
Taken the example of students in the bigger cities whom I talked to all of them could imagine and even wish to go abroad to study, to work, to life – and everyone has family or friends already being abroad. Still, I went to a small village near Novi Sad (until the 2nd World War mainly inhabited by so called Donauschwaben) and it’s a whole different story there. I ,let’s say, encountered people my age in the pub, where they swear a lot, drink a lot and generally don’t look very friendly with the stern looks and bulky poses, left in the middle of nowhere.
But back to Belgrade. The city looks poor and it looks ragged in many places, still the huge amount of cafés, pubs and clubs, of (alternative) art and a colourful lifestyle, send out good vibes – often the satisfaction for life seems to be boosted with beer and Rakija though. That’s an Eastern thing I’ve been told (in all Eastern countries so far…). Still, in the same village I met a young student whose family shared salad, soup and chicken from their garden with me (delicious stuff!) and who was with his friends a great teacher of past and contemporary Serbia. Passionate youth will be found anywhere!
Since it’s said to be so great, I did go out a little and caught a glimpse of Begrade’s nightlife. It was existent, but quiet and calm on a Monday night. I had some drinks in a pub with a great garden, I was in an old factory’s yard with one bar next to another (this must be a great place when it’s all crowded and packed) and had a look upon the party boats on the Save, throwing lights on the dark river. I’ve been told you can hear the whole river dancing and singing on weekends. The party goers discover old factories, old slaughter houses and ruins for them and enjoy the hell out of their life. Rumour says it’s becoming a new Berlin even, but there’s been so many new Berlins lately, I lost track. I suppose it’s great, but I didn’t need it to be fascinated by Belgrade.
Even though I was been told that Belgrade is hectic, while Novi Sad for instance is the laid-back place where people simply live in a different speed, I (whom I quite frankly enjoy some humbling and bumbling and a busy rush) found Belgrade to be one of the most relaxing capitals in Europe I ever found myself in, simply because it is easy to step back a little and find a café. Or a park. Or a patch of grass near a river. Or a simple bench. While speaking of public areas to sit and chill: it’s actually terrifically convenient to be in Belgrade when you’re not just around for fun, but bring responsibilities which means: you need access to the internet. There’s free wifi pretty much everywhere!
So, to sum up: Belgrade is like a check list of “must haves” for a city to be adored by me. There must be a vivid café scene, many different corners and parts which can be explored by foot or bike, it should tell about the history and give an authentic picture of the present, there should be art and creativity, some nature, preferably water. And there must be friendly people, of course.
Maybe Belgrade had an easy game with me, because I knew that it be an amazing visit. I mean – I came here to talk with people really (really!!) passionate about politics, youth and peace. I knew that I would learn (and oh my, did I learn!) and I knew that I would be inspired. I also knew that I would meet old friends (didn’t expect to run into some of them in the streets by accident though which was quite fun) and project partners. Still, even though this was a bulletproof reason why I would love the trip, it still wasn’t a guarantee that I would be head over heels for Belgrade. But I tell you now: even though Belgrade seems to be very far off (that’s only in the heads, people!) and might be difficult to reach, it should be somewhere high on your bucket list, especially if you’re concerned about your safety outside of EU-borders or just never bothered to travel further East than Berlin. Belgrade deserves more appreciation, not only for sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, party boats and easy women. I can only repeat, especially if the East seems a little suspicious to you, that Belgrade is a great city to see that not only the glory West belongs to Europe, or that only the EU is Europe, but that there’s plenty more beauty to our magnificent European mosaic. Still, don’t worry – Belgrade also offers some of the greatest clichés about post-socialist countries, so you won’t be disappointed either way. I promise.