Blessed with a few days off last April, I opted to spend a few days exploring Belgrade. My colleagues looked at me like, ‘What?’ and I simply smiled back. These conversations and interactions are only a few of the ways ‘Beograd’ came to life during my time there.
Listening to an anti-Muslim cab driver: This guy was explaining that more Americans have been coming to Serbia since post-NATO bombing. When I said that I visited Bosnia last year and came to Belgrade to learn more about their shared history, he went on a sort of diatribe saying, “Everyone says we Serbs bombed the heck out of the Muslims in Bosnia but did anyone stop and ask why?” My driver then proceeded to tell me that Muslims are good people but that you can never trust them because they “always have one hand behind their back.”
Befriending the Serb-Croat-Canadian woman next to me at the bookshop cafe: She struck up a conversation with me by asking what the name of my auxiliary charger for my iPhone was called. Turns out she moved her family to Toronto in 1994 when the Serbian economy went south amid hyperinflation (not as bad at Zimbabwe though). Her son is finishing up his full scholarship at Stanford playing basketball and her daughter is now living in France. Both kids speak four languages. Mira related that she felt like times in Yugoslavia were better under Tito and that the poverty in Serbia and the other former Yugoslavian regions is much worse now. In between talking about her children, she showed me pictures of her quaint seaside condo in Croatia, their small apartment here in Belgrade, and their home in Toronto.
Mira is here temporarily visiting her mother-in-law but is eager for her husband to arrive soon. When I told her I was thinking about Belgrade’s nightlife options, she started calling her friends to get suggestions for me. This was interrupted by the guy next to us suddenly giving us his recommendations and warning me to be safe. Serbs are certainly friendly! Mira insisted on paying for my coffee and then we parted ways after exchanging contact info. I think I reminded her of her daughter.
Drinking local wine with the BAMF Swedish war reporter: Maria might be the most awesome hostel roommate ever. She is here in Belgrade to have her foot looked at after she had it bashed in (causing torn ligaments) by exuberant refugees rioting. Maria has been reporting from the Middle East for over 25 years and her big break came as a 23-year-old who scored an interview with the King of Jordan for the World Television Network. That was followed by interviews with six major Middle Eastern leaders, including Saddam Hussein and Ghaddafi, in one week. She explained that she was born in Kenya when her dad was a military attaché there and one of his good friends was a Jordanian diplomat. This guy proceeded to help Maria in the beginning but after that, it was all her “won’t take no for an answer” attitude. She told me about living in hotels and working with Peter Arnett on the front lines in Iraq.
This evening I came back from a walk and she had a special book out that she received in the mail. She’s featured in it and there are photos of her with Yasser Arafat, of her in the Middle East wearing one of those bulletproof vests labeled “PRESS”, and of her giving speeches at the UN about refugees back in 2004. I could listen to her stories for hours!
Trying to stay awake with an Ice Cube-loving Serbian cab driver: The long journey home this morning started with at 4am with a cab driver who shared that he loved American music. When I told him I am from Seattle (I kept it simple), he exclaimed that he liked the Supersonics and that they’re mentioned in one of his favorite songs.
Cab driver: Do you know Ice Cube?
Me: Of course!
Cab driver: I always listen to his song where he says, “The Lakers beat the Supersonics.” (proceeds to YouTube this song because he can’t find it among the “700 American songs on his iPhone”)
And that’s how I began my day by rapping along to Ice Cube‘s “It Was a Good Day” with my Serbian cab driver.
As Robin Esrock said in his TEDxVancouver talk, ‘Learn to travel – travel to learn’, “It’s the people you meet that create the paradise you find.”