My love affair with Serbia didn’t exactly get off to the best start. My first visit was doomed from the start, coming as it did at the end of a trip when funds were running low. My second attempt got off to the worst possible start, when riots erupted across Belgrade following the 2010 Pride Parade. The people of the country slowly brought me round however, and I soon found that the former Yugoslav Republic was my favourite place, whether I wanted it to be or not. Living in this country opened my eyes up to a lot of things, some good, some bad, some hazy.
Serbia, like many other nations in the Balkans, is somewhat infamous for its immense obsession with bureaucracy. Getting things done in an official manner in Serbia takes time, in what may be the biggest understatement on this entire website. I spent more time in queues in Belgrade than I ever wanted to, waiting for my turn only to be informed that I needed to head to a different queue. Fun? Absolutely not.
But patience is something that all of us must learn as we get older. Not everything is going to be handed to you on a plate, and sometimes we need to wait a little bit before it is our turn. Those moments shouldn’t be wasted, and time spent in Balkan queues was great for helping me come to terms with boredom. Sometimes it is absolutely fine for things to take ages.
Serbs are social animals, and Belgrade is particularly famous for its nightlife. I lived in Dorćol, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city and one that is full to the breaking point with cafes, bars and the rest. My best memories in this country came while I sat around tables with friends, beer in hand and deep in discussion.
The value of such social occasions cannot be overstated. An old man in Belgrade once told me that ‘Life is hard but mercifully short’, and therefore, there is always time for one more drink with the people you love. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you can sleep when you’re dead, but people are precious.
Britain is famous for its tendency to beat around the bush, so moving to Serbia was something of a kick in the shins in that regard. Serbs don’t beat around the bush; instead, they mow the bush down in an onslaught of conviction and fire. If you mean something, have the guts to stand behind your beliefs.
This characteristic can sometimes be confused with rudeness, but more often than not that comes from misunderstanding and linguistic issues. The Serbs have a wonderful tendency to see a spade as a spade alone. After all, why bother saying something that you don’t believe?
The Serbs can never be accused of lacking passion. Often described as a proud people, that adjective doesn’t come close to conveying the sheer enthusiasm that the people of Serbia have for the things they love. I often found myself struggling with questions of relevance, only for Serbian friends to blow them out of the water with sheer enthusiasm and excitement.
There is plenty of apathy in Serbia, like anywhere else on the planet. But when the Serbs are interested in something, they give everything to it. We’d get so much more done if we had the same enthusiasm.
During my time living in Belgrade, work began on the controversial Belgrade Waterfront project. The financial irregularities and money laundering associated with the project have enraged Serbs all over the city, and it wasn’t long before protests broke out. The protests were always peaceful, as the people of Belgrade went to the streets to make it clear that they weren’t happy at all about the development.
Most Serbs admitted that the protests were unlikely to change anything, as corruption in the state runs deep. The point wasn’t to stop the construction, however; it was to ensure that the people didn’t just go silently into the night. It is very easy to be angry with political situations, but it is still important to take to the streets and make that abundantly clear.
It is important to make the best of whatever situation is put in front of you. While living in Serbia, I saw many great examples of people being dealt a shoddy hand, only to make gravy from the desperate granules. For years and years, Chillton was one of the most respected hostels in the city. An explosion in cheap private rentals put a dent in business, and the hostel was forced to close. The guys that run the hostel decided to turn it into a bar, and the Chillton Bife has been a roaring success ever since.
And then there’s the whole Cetinjska phenomenon. The Belgrade Waterfront project mentioned earlier decimated the Savamala district, leaving a gaping hole in the city’s alternative nightlife scene. Undeterred, many intrepid entrepreneurs rented out the abandoned lots in the old brewery on Cetinjska, and a new nightlife centre was born.
Sometimes life is going to give you lemons, and you may even have to queue up for a very long time before you get your hands on the citrus goodies. It is up to you therefore to find the sugar and water, or tequila and salt, and love those lemons as if they were life itself. Don’t lie to yourself that they are anything other than lemons (and be sure to make it clear that you aren’t happy about the lemons), but do what you can to make the finest lemons going.