An American Tourist in Serbia

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Belgrade, Serbia – April 2012

As I stroll the streets of Belgrade, brightly colored Hop On Hop Off tourist buses, which are as common as McDonald’s in European cities, are nowhere to be seen. It seems they only circulate during the summer. I never take those buses anyway. The best way to know a city is to learn how to navigate it. I walk from the old Ministry of Defense Buildings to St. Sava Cathedral to Kalemegdan Fortress to Skadarlija, Belgrade’s old Bohemian quarter. When I take out my camera, I get looks of curiosity and amusement. The only language I hear around me is Serbian. I luxuriate in my tourist solitude and walk until my legs ache. It’s as if I have Belgrade to myself.

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When I told people that I was planning a short trip to Serbia, I got two reactions. My Hungarian acquaintances advised me against it. My American friends said, “Wow, cool!” with the instinctive cheerleader enthusiasm that means they’d never heard of Serbia.

The sky darkens and distant thunder rumbles. I head in the direction of the hostel, dodging raindrops that are as thick and heavy as globs of spit. When I travel without my husband, I try to stay at guesthouses or hostels, if they have private rooms. I do this mainly for safety reasons. If there aren’t many guests to keep track of, the staff is more likely to notice if someone doesn’t make it back at the end of the day.

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When I walk in the door, the owner offers to make me a cup of Turkish coffee. He asks about my day. I tell him that it was great, but he wants details. His expression is one of concern. He wants me to love Belgrade.

I tell him what I saw, including the bombed out Ministry of Defense buildings, the result of an American-led NATO strike. “What do you think about Americans?” I ask. “You can be honest.”

“The Americans that I’ve met are kind. It’s not right to judge an entire country for the actions of their government.” He looks at me for a long moment. “We are not like the Western media says we are.”

I nod and look him in the eye. “I no longer just take the word of anyone about anything. Especially not the media’s.”

A faint smile arises from deep within. He nods and says no more.

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I’m invited to join some other guests for dinner. Afterward, they go out drinking. I decline the invitation to join them, because I feel the first sinister twinges of a migraine. The last place I need to be is in a loud, smoke-choked bar. I intend to go to sleep, but the night reception guy at the hostel is so gregarious that I find myself drawn into a long conversation about Serbian national parks, heavy metal music, and the traits of particular nationalities based on his experience in the travel business. I tell him about the bands that I saw back when I was his age. He’s young enough to be my son. My headache retreats. I bask in the rare pleasure of having a comfortable conversation with a stranger. He tells me about his previous place of employment: a dirt cheap hostel near the train station. More than once he had to brandish his brass knuckles to get the guests to obey the rules. “Stag party assholes,” he says with a shake of his head. “At least we don’t get that at this place.” He launches into a tirade about the nationalities that are the most difficult to deal with.

I laugh. “Okay, so what do you think of Americans? Be honest. I can take it.”

He takes a deep breath. “Like everyone else, I grew up hating Americans. But since I’ve been working in this business, I’ve met a few and they’ve all been cool. They really don’t know shit about the world, though.” A shadow of annoyance passes over his face. “They act like they’re scared of everything. No one’s going to hurt them here.”

Later, as I lie in bed, I try to put my finger on why I feel such an affinity with these people. I’ve always been drawn to those who have an edge. They’re often protecting themselves from new disappointment and pain. I also understand the frustration of not being able to defend oneself against rumors.

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The next morning, I catch a bus for Zemun, a historical district on the outskirts of the city. I ask the driver, in what I hope is understandable Serbian, if I can buy a ticket. His eyes widen in surprise. He waves me to a seat without taking my money. I get off the bus in front of the abandoned Hotel Jugoslavija, a massive, Soviet-era monstrosity. Behind it is the river walk, which leads all the way to Zemun. The migraine is lurking somewhere in my skull. I hope it waits until the end of the day before it pounces.

The sun is high in the sky when I reach the village. On the climb to the tower, I cross the path of a young man pushing a baby in a stroller. I instinctively smile, but his expression freezes my heart. This is no ordinary rage. It’s the rage of someone whose spirit has been shattered.

The migraine emerges, tentacle by tentacle. I hurry back to the city, because there’s one more place I must see before I’m imprisoned by pain.

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The Nikola Tesla Museum consists of a few small rooms. Some of his magic machines are on display, including the coreless transformer. Tesla’s ashes are encased in a golden sphere. I join the small tour group. Three perfectly clothed and coiffed American dudes stand at the front of the line. Their Abercrombie & Fitch ensembles and Converse sneakers are accentuated by smug, gloating expressions. They are in Belgrade for the infamous nightlife, no doubt. I remember something the night reception guy said last night: It doesn’t matter if a guy is fat and ugly, if he speaks English, Serbian girls think they’re SO hot. That kind of tourism is alive and well in all of the former Soviet bloc countries.

The tour lasts fifteen minutes. For the finale, we clasp long fluorescent light bulbs while Tesla’s coreless transformer crackles, sending electricity through us to make the bulbs glow.

Outside, the wind has picked up. It whips my hair and shoves me across an open park. People scatter for cover. I giggle with anxiety. Will the lingering electricity in my body attract lightning? The sky opens up. Even my umbrella is no match for the torrent. I duck into an Orthodox church. A service has begun, so I stand near the door and act like I’m a participant. Some of the others look at me with warm, knowing smiles as they chant their prayers. I am welcome to take refuge here.

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63 thoughts on “An American Tourist in Serbia

  1. This was wonderfull to read. I feel sorry that a migraine was there to intrude Belgrade’s flirtations he offers to everyone. I am also very happy to read that you have walked the city alone and explored, while th details of the streets were trying to seduce you aswell.
    I don’t know how all you ehar around yourself is Serbian tho, everytime I take a walk in the city,the only thing I hear is foreign languages and none of the tourists ever want to talk to me 🙂

    • Hvala. 🙂 Belgrade is fabulous. Such vibrant energy. I was there last spring, before high tourist season, so that could be why there were very few. And it could also be that I was comparing it to Budapest, which is mobbed with tourists all year, so Belgrade seemed relatively calm. Really, though, the only other tourists I saw were those at the hostel, which was not full. If I ran into you, I’d talk to you, just like I did to many locals when I was there. 😉

  2. I have learned something – being uninformed I had not heard of Nikola Tesla but now I know why Elon Musk named his electric car company Tesla Motors. I was always fascinated by their first roadster because it was built around this – http://wp.me/p2p6x6-xs. Did the electro-therapy stave off the migraine? As ever, another fascinating post.

    • I’m fascinated by Tesla, even though I’m pretty dense when it comes to understanding science.

      That’s one slick car. 😉 My migraine was actually gone when I left the museum, but it showed up again with a vengeance later that evening.

    • I only asked this question in Serbia, because we bombed them during the Balkan War. And they happened to be giving me their thoughts on other nationalities.

    • They told me that it was dangerous and that they’d steal from me. I refrained from responding that since I’ve lived in Budapest, I’ve had a lot of practice avoiding be ripped off. 😉

  3. Pingback: An American Tourist in Serbia | areallthenamesusedup

  4. Riveting. It’s like I’m there. If the Tesla Museum was in the USA, there would be souvineer shot glasses and bobbleheads of the great inventor in the museum gift store! 😀

  5. Pingback: Don’t Trust People Saying That Serbia And Serbs Are Dangerous – Serbia's Ambassador to the World

  6. So glad that you enjoyed Belgrade. Serbia is a great country and should not be judged by the odd errant leader anymore than the USA should. Very friendly and tolerant on the whole, although I am not so sure about the ‘It doesn’t matter if a guy is fat and ugly, if he speaks English, Serbian girls think they’re SO hot’ pronouncement – wishful thinking maybe?
    Sometimes even its own tourist board do not do Serbia justice – Belgrade ain’t pretty but it’s certainly vibrant and friendly. http://eastofelveden.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/white-city-blues.

    • Hi there – Tourist board videos tend to be rather cheesy and (it seems) geared towards convention visitors. Maybe they’re the ones who bring in the most money. Belgrade might not have the majestic monuments, but it’s much greener and cleaner than Budapest, in my opinion. The thing that really sets it apart is how friendly and spirited the people are. It’s also free from the mass tourism of much of Europe, so the locals don’t have that jaded attitude.

      Regarding the pronouncement – He might have been exaggerating a little, but I’ve lived in this part of Europe for years and can say that it’s very common for local women to gravitate towards foreigners. In fact, I’ve seen unofficial tourism websites for certain countries touting this as a reason to visit.

      Thanks a lot for stopping by.

  7. Whenever I travel, I feel a joyful gratitude for those who welcome me to their country and become, for a moment in time, my extended family. I am not an easy traveler – I always worry that I’ll catch the right train, plane – that I’ll get lost, make the wrong turn, lose my baggage etc. There have been so many people who stopped to help and comfort. I remember a young Italian bus driver saying to me over and over, “Tranquillo – non c’e problema.” To me, traveling is entering a vibrantly different tempo and learning a new dance step. It is embracing diversity and seeing with new insight. And that is what I feel every time I come to your blog! You give us music – and in this post it comes with electricity, thanks to the remarkable Nikola Tesla

    “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
    ― Marcel Proust

    • I’m not an easy traveler, either. Like you, I worry about everything, but I also am hesitant to ask for help. I can’t say that many people have offered, and I’ve come to not expect it. And you probably know that it’s not easy for me to meet new people. That’s why this particular trip was so extraordinary. I felt like I could just hang out and make myself at home.

  8. Both post are so touching, my favorite picture is the one with the two men, and I agree with the two man you talk to the young one and the older one, I just understand them, so sad girls see Americans that way and do understand your point of view I see it around the web and on blogs,
    I hope one day I can go to Belgrade, I like to travel like you, I cannot stand tourist, when I was at the Vatican I didn’t enjoy it at all, I wanted to be at sacred place but did not felt that at all.

    • I hope you get to visit Belgrade one day, Doris. I think you’d like it. One day tourists will find out about Serbia, but for now it’s refreshingly “off the radar”.

  9. it sounds (and looks!) like a marvellous trip. i’ve not been to serbia myself, but i have been to bosnia, and i really loved the people and the culture (and the landscape!).

  10. Great piece!! I was considering Serbia for a visit on the road trip I am currently on, but we wound up going (literally) in another direction – north of Bulgaria, to Romania. Im actually in Bucharest right now.In fact, I’ll check and see if you’ve blogged about Bucharest right now!! 🙂

  11. Oh my! you were in Serbia? I forgot to ask for a postcard, hahahah… I am so jealous of your travels out there J or I wouldn’t be asking for postcards. Anyway, I love intelligent conversations even with strangers. I learn more than going to parties. 😀 of course, ‘coz I am not a party goer any longer.

  12. I have just spent 2 days in Belgrade. I did not plan to go there but it was on my way and now I am pleased. My Hungarian friends were extremely worried that an older woman alone was going to Belgrade. I was beginning to get spooked when their son explained the historical reasons for their views on my travel. As an Australian I have discovered how short on history I am.
    I stayed in a great hotel, managed the trams and got offered help, loved the outdoor eateries and icecream on the terrace of Hotel Moscow where we all scampered inside as it started to rain. I am going back in a few days for another brief visit so glad to see your posts.

    • It’s wonderful to hear that you had a great time there as well. Honestly, I felt safer in Belgrade than in most of the Western European cities I’ve visited. Hope your 2nd visit goes just as well.

  13. Pingback: I Visit Belgrade, Serbia - I See Bombed Out Buildings, Great Food, A Weird National Gallery, Free Electricity - And A Fab Hotel | Alun Hill

  14. I would like to travel as u do too someday…As of now I am planning a big vacation to United States. Like others I too have a preconceived image of people in America… I hope I have wonderful interaction with Americans. U should visit India too…And thanks for liking my post.

    • Hi Shoma – I wish you a fantastic trip to the USA and I hope you have good interactions with Americans, too. Some stereotypes are accurate, but not all of them are negative. 😉

  15. Hello,
    I am glad to have discovered this.
    I really like the way you write. It flows nicely and feels like a storytelling, without the usual ‘estranged’ vocabulary that tourists tend to use to describe places considerably different from their own, like they have just met the aliens (though their excitement can be rather amusing to read).

    I have one major complaint though – referring to ex-Yugoslavia and Serbia as a former Soviet bloc country. That could not be further from the truth. We were Socialists, but we were never a USSR satellite, more like a torn in their side. I find it very important to mention because it reflects back on that same earlier mentioned media propaganda, because one of the things it did was purposely mislead the overview of the country so that it would seem like the conflicts were for “liberation and democracy” and that the West was there to free us from a nonexisting prison…the real prison is now. It may not seem like it, but at the core, that little snippet of a lie resulted in younger generations like mine to be grim, angry and living for today because the future looks like a black hole sucking everything on its path.

    With that said, I am really thankful for your insight and keeping an open mind.
    And you are welcome anytime, as everyone is…except perhaps someone who wants to change us, that we don’t take well to.

    • Hello – thank you for taking the time to leave a comment and for your insight. I apologize for my mistake. It’s really difficult to know how to refer to places without causing offense. It was not intentional. I only wanted to say that Serbia used to have the same style of government as other countries in the region. I am far from being an expert on this region, I was just a tourist passing through. I didn’t know if I should label it “communist” (as we were told it was in the Western media), or if I should be more vague and say Soviet bloc, which in my mind refers to more to a geographical region than a political system. Though I realize that this is probably incorrect. Sadly, I’ve gotten most of my info from the Western media, which is unreliable, to say the least.

      I hope that I haven’t given the impression that I agree with the idea that foreign governments and citizens should ever go in and change a nation “for the better”. I absolutely do not. All governments and citizens need to mind their own countries’ business and leave others alone. And I’m very aware of the struggles you face today. I was lucky enough to speak in depth to a few young people during my few days there, and they inspired me to write this post. The thing that I will remember most about Serbia is the spirit of her people. Please stay strong and never give up.

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