Belgrade, Serbia
December 2009

 
It's been a rough time of late, as you all know. So when the opportunity came to do a short consulting gig in Belgrade, Serbia, I said yes before I even knew the dates. I needed it both for my professional ego and to get back in my groove as only a trip can put me. It would have been wonderful to take an extra week and combine the trip with a vacation with Stefan -- I really hate missing out on an exotic travel opportunity with him, since it's what we live for. But, alas, with this job, it wasn't possible.

Since September of last year, I've said I wish I could live for a while in Eastern Europe, the Balkans in particular. It's my latest I-so-connect-with-this-place / I-want-to-live-here-for-a-while (I've had a lot of those experiences throughout Europe). I don't mean I connect to the people in a I-am-one-of-you kind of way. I just feel in my groove, like I'm where I should be, fitting perfectly into my skin, and finding every little thing around me fascinating. I was wondering if Serbia would feel like the rest of the Balkans from a year ago, and it did, very much.

The difference in this trip and last year's is that, this time around, I know the country only through it's large city; for the rest of the Balkans, I know the countries primarily through their rural areas. I get the feeling that the difference in Belgrade and the rural areas of Serbia is night and day. The people here in the city are oh-so-urbane, and their city is as vibrant, clean, modern and beautiful as Berlin. This is a cultured, richly-historic city with all the modern amenities, and the citizens of Belgrade know it, not in a behold-me-and-my-wealth-and-hipness kind of way, but in a I-have-nothing-to-prove-to-anyone kind of way. The main difference with Berlin is the language and, ofcourse, the beautiful street dogs here living such a tragic, short life (oh, Balkan countries, when will you learn to cherish your canines? Don't be like Italy! ).

My photos don't do the city justice; in daytime, there was always high fog that gave the city a dreary look in photos. But the city never looked dreary, at least not where I was. At night, things were clear, but my camera doesn't take photos of night time skylines, no matter how beautiful. It's at night that this city truly comes alive, and I took the long way walking home from the office each night so I could see something different. There are so many places to stop and have a coffee or a drink, in just about every atmosphere you want, from the vast, palace-like Russian-themed cafe nearby, to small, hip bars here and there, to the Skadarska, Belgrade's Montmarte, the bohemian hang-out of poets and artists in the early 1900s. Yes, I know that Skadarska is seen as too touristy by many, but I adored it; in December, the cafes are largely empty, but the musicians are still paid by the management to be there. I found the street without even looking for it on my first day here -- like a magnet for arts groupies like me. The first night, I dined with colleagues at Three Hats (once a hat-making shop, now covered in photos of great Serbian stage actors), and folk music wafting from another room where there was a large private party. The second night, the entire workshop staff dined at Two Deer (Dva Jelena), and were not only entertained by a huge group of Serbian folk musicians playing mostly five-stringed guitars, but also a Serbian actress dressed in a costume of the 1900s, who performed short monologues -- I didn't understand a word, I understood every word.

I stayed at Hotel Moscow, which is NOT at all the kind of accommodations I'm used to when traveling for fun (I'm more of a two-star girl, or at least hostel-with-a-private-bathroom). But I'm traveling for business and, indeed, this is the kind of place I usually end up when I'm on business. I doubt that the past luminaries who have stayed at this hotel -- the Einsteins, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, Robert Dinero or Alfred Hitchcock stayed in my tiny room, charming and comfy though it was. The hotel gets particular kudos because I did something I have never done in my life: I left my laptop behind, when I got into the car to go to the airport. The hotel called before we'd gotten very far, and brought my laptop out to me in the car. That kind of service is what you should get in an expensive hotel, and this is one of the rare occasions I experienced it.

The ethnic makeup of the city is stunning: more than 80% are Serbs. Non-Serbians really stood out, almost in an uncomfortable way. I never saw a homeless person. It's almost disconcerting, a feeling that I should not ask questions about either fact until I am far outside of Europe. But, again, I was in downtown Belgrade -- what I would see outside of downtown or outside of the city remains to be seen.

Ofcourse, I'm in the oh-so-lovely part of downtown/old town. I'm sure just a bit off the center of town I'd see a very different Belgrade, and outside of Belgrade, a very different Serbia.

My biggest regret is that I never saw even one museum. Belgrade is a city of arts, and I feel like I really missed out in this regard. But as I had only one day as a tourist, and that day was a Monday... I guess I'll have to go back!

The Belgrade airport deserves particular notice: it's clean, modern and well-staffed -- and has free wireless, at least where I was in the airport. How unlike it is to Paris Charles de Gaulle, at least when it comes to certain terminals which, I'm sorry, are filthy, unorganized, and with little signage to help passengers navigate their way. While I'm ranting about CG: who in the name of architecture designed this ridiculous airport?!? Did anyone realize that there would be actual people needing to go through passport control, transfer between flights in a reasonable amount of time, go to the bathroom and be comfortable while waiting for flights? Plenty of people realized that Prada and Versace want to make money, but otherwise.... Transferring between flights took asking about a dozen people (all of them very tired of questions) where to go next. If you are flying through Paris, be sure to have *at least* two hours between flights if you only have carry-ons, and at least three hours if you have checked luggage!

When I announced to a Girl Scout troop leader here in Canby, Oregon that I was going to Serbia, she said in a cautious manner, "Oh, really? They hate us there. It's not very safe" I asked her if she meant because of the NATO bombings years ago, or because of the USA stand regarding Kosovo. She looked at me confused and said, "No. They just hate us over there." I've since found out she is of a different political persuasion than myself, one that cultivates a lot of fear and mistrust among Americans regarding Europeans. Sigh. All that such people miss... so sad...

Is downtown Belgrade dangerous? Indeed -- for salt and pepper shakers. Otherwise, you can walk the streets of downtown and feel just as safe as anywhere. But I cannot speak for the countryside or the outskirts of town.

On this trip, I worked with representatives -- all women, all working in their native countries -- from centers and initiatives all over the Balkans that help local students study at colleges and universities in the USA. They help students look for appropriate schools, apply for financial aid, structure their own finances in order to contribute to expenses, prepare for and take necessary tests, and prepare for the lifestyle of the USA (no, you don't have to bribe your professor for him to grade your test so you can pass a course -- at least not in any place in the USA I've heard of). These representatives have a spirit and drive I rarely saw among UN staff audiences; I was taken aback by their confidence-without-arrogance, their desire to do a great job, and their HUMOR. They were an absolute pleasure with which to collaborate and advise. I bonded with the women from Albania and Bosnia in particular, and was proud to tell all of the women there that I had visited their countries last year and adored them (the screen saver on my computer is a photo from Butrint in Albania). It felt great to be training again -- I really love building people's capacity to do their jobs better, and I hope that I'm not one of those blah-blah-blah-here's-the-ideal-it's-all-so-easy consultants; I hope I give them real tools and information they can use immediately. At one point, a colleague said, "You know, these people are essential in rebuilding our image abroad. And, yet, many of them have never been to the USA. The USA owes them hugely." And it's true!

May I never be a jaded consultant or a jaded development worker (more than I am already) or a jaded traveler. May I never be someone who gets an us-versus-them attitude, or I'm-so-above-these-people attitude, or a these-people-can't-do-anything-without-people-like-me attitude. I encounter so many of the aforementioned that I think, wow, I really hope I don't come across that way to local people. I guess I don't stand out too much as an outsider, given how many people have stopped me on the street to ask me directions. I hope my genuine affection and respect for most people and cultures is obvious.

One morning on the trip, I woke up before 5 a.m. & couldn't get back to sleep no matter how I tried. I logged on to Facebook and there were several posts regarding the Kentucky basketball game that was on right at that moment, how close it was, the fear, the drama, the hope... and then, as I kept renewing the page, the celebration at the win! I guess I woke up despite 3 beers the night before because, on the other side of the globe, my Kentucky Wildcats needed me. I have super powers!! What should my super hero outfit be, other than blue?

As I wrote most of this in my Belgrade hotel room, I kept turning around and looking out the window at my lovely view of the city, of which I've seen so little, and almost teared up because I was so thankful for my good luck to have had this trip -- I needed it baaaaaaaaaaaaad.

Oh, and speaking of bad flight experiences, a pox on the middle class American couple sitting in front of me on the flight from Portland to Paris. Moving your seat positions again and again and again, sometimes within seconds of your last movement, and throwing the seat back as hard as you could in order to hit the woman next to me who was tired of your nonsense, makes it really hard for other Americans traveling abroad trying to counter the image of the Ugly American. I know that you don't travel much and, therefore, didn't know that the flight attendant isn't a waitress taking orders for whatever meal it is you were in the mood for, and thought the moving chairs were oh-so-fun, but please remember next time that there are other passengers on the plane besides yourself and your actions directly affect them. Thank you for your cooperation. If you behave yourself next time, I'll lift the curse.

Heading back to Portland, I had a number of near misses: I left my laptop at the hotel when I went to the Belgrade airport, something I have NEVER done. Luckily, the hotel had the taxi's numbers and called us before we were even two miles away, so we were able to zip back and get it. Then I almost missed my flight from Newark to Portland because of ridiculously slow passport control and security check point (workers too busy talking about holiday plans rather than helping travelers). So, yes, that was me running through Newark airport in my socks (no time to put my shoes on after security).

And now, I'm spending my one and only full day with my husband, who leaves on his own business trip to North Carolina tomorrow. And longing for more work...

Pictures of the adventure.

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