“Serbia, why are you going to Serbia?” Everyone asked me this question before I left for my trip. And it was usually asked in a not-so-nice way, and was always followed with, “Isn’t Serbia dangerous?” I felt like rolling my eyes every time, but I didn’t, I plastered a smile on my face and replied warmly to all of those people, “Not in the slightest. I’m meeting friends over there, actually I’m really excited…”
The idea that Serbia was dangerous never really crossed my mind. But, to be fair, I didn’t know that much about the country until I worked with some guys from Serbia a year and a half ago. If you asked me to locate Serbia on a map two years ago, I couldn’t point to it; and if you told me that the United States bombed Serbia, I would be surprised; I knew nothing about the country.
Going to Serbia was really the highlight of my trip (granted there were a lot of highlights, but something about Serbia stuck with me, and I’ll never forget it). Maybe it was because Serbia was the only place I visited that was not crawling with tourists. In fact, I don’t think I saw any non-Serbian people for the entire two weeks I was in the country, until I went to Belgrade my last two days, then there were a couple of people from an unknown European country, but for the most part, I was completely immersed.
I could have liked Serbia so much because I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. I looked at pictures of the capital, Belgrade, and of the countryside on my laptop before leaving the US, and while the internet showed beautiful scenery, it was nothing compared to the real thing.
Or, it could have been that I had a chance to be with Serbians 24/7. When traveling you meet people from all over the world, but, I tended not to meet too many Italians in Italy, nor any Belgians in Belgium. When you spend the night in hostels and hang out at the touristy places, that’s who you’re going to meet: tourists. But I was with Serbians the entire time, I had the opportunity to talk, and interact, and drink, and eat with them. I was lucky enough to learn some of their culture. I even learned some Serbian words, which are super hard to pronounce but have a kind of beauty in them as well.
But, the real reason I absolutely fell in love with Serbia was the people. I adored the boys I had met in the US, so it was no surprise that I loved everyone that I met in Serbia. It’s hard to wrap your mind around Serbians, and its hard to explain their personalities, or their culture, I guess I should say. I saw a book in a shop in Drvengrad while on my Serbian road trip, the title was something like, “How to understand Serbians” or “An Insight into the Serbian mindset”. The anthropological side of me was very interested. Spend any amount of time with a Serbian person and you’ll understand what I mean.
I wanted to understand this group of people who held no resentment towards me, an American, for bombing their country; I wanted to understand how they could make jokes out of bridges burning, buildings being leveled, and hiding out in basements; and to understand why they felt such sadness and pain for things that had happened hundreds and thousands of years ago in their country. These people understood the world with such sharp clarity; I would question the whys of world governments as they sprouted thousands of years of history; I was outraged and horrified at things they told me, but they would shrug, “that’s how it goes” they would say. Most of the time I was in Serbia I was so caught up in my own head that one of my Serbian friends would constantly ask me, “what’s wrong Kelly?” But how do you answer that question? I could have said, “Your country has faced so many injustices in your history and it makes my heart ache when you and your friends and family open their arms to me.” But I didn’t, I smiled and shrugged.
My heart broke for this country, who several months before I arrived endured the worst flood in its history. One of my friends told me that the president of the country had announced that buses would take volunteers from Belgrade (the capital) to places hit hard by flooding to help with the damage. It took less than four hours for hundreds if not thousands of people to leave their homes, families, and jobs, and go help their fellow countrymen. These are the kind of people Serbians are.
I got sick while in Serbia; I ate something that I shouldn’t have, and ended up sick as a dog. Not only did my friend’s parents make me soup, and buy me dark chocolate to help with my stomach, they also went out and bought me two different kinds of medicine. They also made sure I understood the dosing instructions by using google translate for twenty minutes. In addition to caring for me while I was sick, these people were also feeding me constantly, letting me sleep in their home, and doing my laundry for me. I can’t help but think of one word when I think of Serbians: beautiful.
I met strangers who offered me traditional Serbian rakija and sang traditional music for me, an orthodox priest offered me fruit from his garden and invited me inside to talk about the orthodox religion while my friend translated. My friend’s cousin played her accordion for me, showed me her whole house and tried to teach me Serbian words. I met my friend’s girlfriends, and they were all welcoming and wonderful people.
However, there is sadness in Serbians as well. My friends and I visited a place where bombings wiped out buildings. I walked on ground that had been bombed by my country, it saddened me.
When my friends took me to a beautiful building in Belgrade, and showed me plans for rebuilding on the river front, it was spectacular, and it made me happy. Serbia’s economy is horrible, people are leaving the country left and right, but not because they want to, but because they have to in order to survive. There are Serbians all over Europe, and many in the US because there are no job opportunities for them in their country. This construction project offered hope. I was excited for them, but they just looked at me with big, beautiful brown eyes and said, “we’re used to broken promises. It probably will never happen.” I was quiet. All I could think of was, ” you all deserve better.”
My friend looked at me while we were walking around a town, “Well,” he said as he swept his arm out, waving at all the people around us, “what do you think? Do we all look like murderers and scary, evil men that your country makes us out to be?” His eyes sparkled and a smile was playing on his lips. All I could do was laugh.
Even when I returned to the US, people asked me if I was scared when I was in Serbia. And people still question why I would want to go to such a dangerous, war-torn country. I try, whenever I can, to make them understand how amazing Serbia really is. And how astounding the people are. I hope that this perception of Serbia that Americans have can be changed, because this country, and its people, and amazing.