Belgrade: the city that never gives up
For the first time in my life I went to a place that I was completely unprepared for in pretty much every way – Belgrade. I found out only the week before where I was going, so I didn’t have much time to prepare. I knew nothing about the country, history, people, culture, food – anything. I didn’t even know where I was going to be staying or what my “do good” task was.
After 5 very full days and nights in Belgrade, I can say that if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that the people I met there are some of the most genuine, down to earth, caring, and resilient individuals that I have ever met. When have you ever had a taxi driver pull over, park the car, get out, buy you a slice of pizza (with his own money), and then take you home? Only in Belgrade.
When I left San Diego I was given a huge bag full of supplies to give to Syrian refugees at the border between Serbia and Croatia. That was my PARALLAXploration “do good” mission. What should I expect? How would I get to the border? What?
After finding my way into Belgrade and getting my bearings, I found out that the refugees were congregating at a park each day about 100 meters from where I was staying. Near the park a local non profit helped tend to migrants while a shelter called Mixaliste down the street provided free supplies – mostly clothes, shoes and food. All of this occurred daily. The refugees were all ages, families, packs of men – you name it. There were probably 200 or so people moving through that area each day to head west towards Germany, but during the summer I heard there were more than a 2000 each day sleeping in the park and around the city. (The park had turned into cold, wet mud.)
On multiple days I spent time in the park (nicknamed “pussy park,” because that was where all the hookers worked at night – that is, until the refugees took over). I talked with the people that spoke english, gave out soccer balls to anyone that wanted one, and played with the kids and adults. Soccer is one thing that always brought smiles to people’s faces and would bring groups together and create positive energy.
Through a lot of asking around and by a stroke of luck, I met Sophia, a volunteer with the refugee organization at the park that would be my connection to the border. On her day off, she persuaded a friend (a former refugee smuggler) named Dushan to give us a ride two hours to the border between Croatia and Serbia, where refugees passed between the two countries in route to Germany. We packed his car with supplies from Mixaliste and my own bag and headed out.
We made it to the makeshift border which traversed through farms and down a 10km dirt road that was blocked by Croatian police keeping the refugees from entering. The scene was like nothing I’d see before: about 10 portapotties at the beginning, 20 or so massive army looking tents lined up covering the road, random tents along the edges of the field, and more trash than you could imagine. At one point as I walked along the edge of the road the layer of trash below me was at least 2 feet thick. At the border, there were around 300 refugees waiting with more coming by the minute and I heard 3000 were coming in the night.
I gave my supplies to the relief workers, learned about their efforts and then I spent the next several hours talking with the refugees that spoke english, listening to their stories, trying to provide as much positive energy as I could, and holding back my tears the whole time. I learned was that in Syria it was kill, be killed, or get out. Many of them were college educated, spoke perfect English, and were financially well-off. They simply had no choice but to leave Syria. Nevertheless, they were a very positive group of people overall.
But what shocked me the most was that people from all around the world were fleeing. There were people there from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and throughout Africa – what felt like the whole world! I kept thinking, how could it be so bad that you would leave everything and everybody you know? As an American, I felt guilty for being so privileged – the only difference between me and the refugees was the places where we were born. When we finally left the border, we traveled back down the same dirt road we came in on, passing packs of refugees headed towards the border. As heavy hearted as I was, I also felt hopeful – as I know they were headed toward a better future.
The next days and nights I walked through Belgrade, saw both old and new parts of the city, and spent lots of time with Milan and Ena (who owned the place where I stayed), their friends, and Sophia. I learned what they did (or didn’t do) for work, how when one job ended, you might not work for a while, and how through meandering a path another opportunity always seemed to present itself. For instance, at age 30, Milan had already had 4 businesses – importing grapes, a hostel, a bar for 5 years and a hostel again. Sophia had worked at the University, lost her job, worked in a friend’s cafe, and now spent her time volunteering with the relief organization. She was unsure of her next step career wise, but was content with where life had led her.
I drank beers, smoked cigarettes with them (I don’t smoke), went out for coffee, ate meals together, went to a crazy soccer match, ate with Milan’s parents, went with Sophia to the “hipster” part of town, ate street food and at nice restaurants, and (best of all) got a glimpse of what it’s really like to be a Serbian and live in Belgrade.
Those five days filled my head with a whirlwind of random facts and observations about Serbia. Here they are a few in no particular order:
- Serbia was originally part of Yugoslavia, as well as 6 other Balkin countries that were torn apart by a civil war that they are still recovering from.
- No one crosses the road without a green walk sign, even if no cars are coming.
- If you vacation in Serbia, everything costs about half what it would cost in the US. There are lots of good restaurants, night clubs, the Danube, mountains, other places to vacation outside of the city.
- Serbians seemed taller than average and were mostly thin, caucasian, and had brown hair
- An average waiter in a restaurant makes roughly $250 a month. A normal, higher salary job might pay $500 a month.
- You can open a bar with no liquor license and keep it open until you want to close it. (Or just stay open all night.)
- They don’t sell alcohol 2 hours before or after a football match within 5km of the stadium and only sell juice boxes at the game.
- In the hooligan section at the football match a guy at the front choreographs “war” chant songs for the entire 90 minutes.
- You should always keep 10 Euro with you/in your car in order to pay off the cops
- There are still communist concrete buildings, buildings in decay and buildings that are falling apart from being bombed during wartime by NATO.
- There is beautiful graffiti.
- There is tons of ugly graffiti.
- Novak Djokvoic is a stud.
- They like meat. And their burgers make the Big Mac seem like the Baby Mac.
- Smoking is second nature. Maybe it was who I was with, but they were sucking down cigs like there was no tomorrow.
- There are two big football clubs who really don’t like each other – Partizan and Red Starr.
- Racci is their local liquor and the majority of it is home-brewed in people’s backyards. Apricot was my favorite.
- The city has been reduced to rubble more than 40 times.
- They don’t seem overly religious but for Saint Patrons day, each family has a saint that goes with their family and they have a party specifically for their family on that day.
- The city is building a row of waterfront high rises and restaurants over the next 30 years in an old, formerly artist part of town (Savamala). Locals aren’t happy about it and I can see why. The new buildings don’t go and will change the face of the old part of the city.
- There are very little drugs in Belgrade and the marijuana comes from Albania. I’d give it a 5 out of 10.
- Inflation was so bad between 1993 – 1994 that Serbians couldn’t leave the country. In one day, the same amount of money that could buy a TV in the morning would only buy a loaf of bread in the afternoon.
- There is lots of history and drama between all of the Balkin states. More than I can write in one sentence.
- Tito was the leader until 1980 that (for the most part) kept Yugoslavia united and the economy working. During this time people were relatively prosperous.
- All families were given a free place to live during the communist period. Many people and their kids still live in those apartments.
- Throughout the last 60 years (and of course longer) families have endured numerous hardships and have always been able to survive and bounce back.
All in all, it was probably the craziest, most interesting five days I’ve had in years. A big part of it was because the trip was so unexpected. But getting to know the lives of the locals and learning about the hardships of the refugees impacted me in ways I could never have expected (let alone planned for.) It reminded me how easy we have it in the west – and that I should not forget to spend time and energy engaging with those less fortunate than me, in whatever way possible.