The sun is setting as I land in Niš, far in Southern Serbia near the Bulgarian border. I expect grey looking people, angry and a bit brutish. I leave the airplane with my best ‘Don’t mess with me cause I’m another Eastern European but my country’s even shitter than yours so don’t fight me” look. But that face quickly disappeared when the middle-aged woman with cat-eye glasses stamped my passport with a smile and welcomed me.
Niš lives under a fog of burning coal and wood, lined with streets of dark slushy snow that will never be cleaned. Yet still, this is the city where Constantine the Great was born. This is a city that has seen many important Roman figures come through. This is also a city where the Ottomans squashed a massive Serbian rebellion and made a tower out of skeletons as punishment. Niš is not the prettiest city, but the history of this region is some of the richest in this part of Europe.
I arrive at night and instantly want to go out to meet some locals. I can not remember ever meeting a Serb so this will be a fun night for me. I grab some pljeskavica, Serbia’s answer to the hamburger, and meet up at a bar with a group of Slovakians. Their English is abhorrent, yet they ask as many questions as possible through their thick accents. They are here on vacation from Bratislava since prices are lower here than in Slovakia (barely). We eventually run out of things to talk about with the English available, and run outside for another pljeskavica before I leave to meet with a couchsurfer across town.
I meet with Miloš, a filmmaker and perhaps the most famous person in town. It feels like I am being shown around town by a superstar, as everyone we meet seems to rush over and greet him enthusiastically. I say I like live music, so he takes me to a bar with two friends of his to hear “The Best Blues Band in Serbia”. Alrighty then.
I can say with certainty that this band had a pretty good hold over the concept of the Blues. The definitely had it. I was quite content but eventually, one of Miloš’ friends wishes to leave, so we do and grab some drinks elsewhere. Every bar in town seems to be too loud and crowded for any real conversation to occur, so I ask if we can go to a more quiet bar. Miloš takes me to a bar that feels like stepping into Grandma’s living room. Every room is covered in lace doilies and old nonsense knickknacks. Here the music is low, so we get to talking.
Miloš seems a bit reluctant to talk about himself and instead asks many questions of me. It is rare for me to be the one answering all the questions because usually, I feel like taking the role of the listener in a conversation with a stranger. But from what I can see, Miloš seems to travel a lot through Europe on different projects and shoots various forms of film. A bit of a local celebrity. I kick myself for not asking more, but I get the feeling it may take a few days to crack open this pistachio.
But I have other destinations in mind for this Serbian leg of the adventure. The next day, I plan to go to Belgrade, to see the capital of the Yugoslavian state. I ask Miloš the best way to get to Belgrade.
“How about train?”
“Takes longer. Two hours more, maybe.”
Against his advice, I take the train the next day to Belgrade, a five and a half hour journey through cold steppes of black and white snowy landscapes. The conductor seems to know everyone on the train, as he spends more time sitting drinking and chatting with a group of passengers than he does conducting (or whatever he does). The train is painfully slow and makes stops in sleepy concrete towns for passengers to take their smoking breaks. But I had my book, Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, and plenty of music to pass the time on my journey to Belgrade.
I arrive in Belgrade, a cold city of run-down concrete buildings and the same black slushy snow filling Niš. People are somehow colder than they were down South, as the big city life has not softened any souls. The train station is painfully far from downtown Belgrade, and I can not seem to make the tram schedule make sense, so I walk the hour through the cold dark city towards the center. Yet I do not feel particularly at risk.
I am soon meeting with my couchsurfer, who is coming back from his village and will not be back for several more hours. I grab a pljeskavica and try to stay warm for a while, but luckily my couchsurfer, Marko, has left the key for me so that I can stay warm. I find the place and enter, flipping on the light which instantly breaks. Only one light, the kitchen, seems to work in the whole apartment, but luckily it is rather small. I sit and wait on the couch next to a small radiator, staying warm and reading my book for a while before Markos returns.
He opens the door, shakes my hand and hands me a can of beer. A proper Serbian wedding.
Marko formerly studied History, but he is now studying Archaeology. He is an avid hitchhiker, and has taken adventures across Europe as far West as Portugal and as far East as Georgia and Kurdish Turkey. We talk for a while and eventually Marko’s friend from Russia, Boris arrives. Boris is another couchsurfer who has been floating around the Balkans for a while finding work. We talk all night about random subjects, sharing a two big plastic two-liter bottles of beer. Eventually, as many parties go for me, I am the first to fall asleep rather pitifully on the couch.
I wake up, Marko has to go help a friend move apartments but Boris offers to go on a walk with me before going to do some work. He moves fast and talks quickly, but he has a good hold of the English language and is very curious about my job opportunities in Denmark post-graduation. I am mainly trying to avoid stepping in the numerous piles of dog poo covering the street, yet I tell him I have no idea what I am doing with my professional life.
“Not so good. But you are having time! This is very important building-” and he would trail off, giving me the history of this particular building or war monument. A lot of Belgrade is still torn up from the still recent war, which can be seen in blown out buildings across town.
Boris leaves eventually, and I am left alone to stroll up the pedestrian street and grab some coffees.
I like Serbia, not necessarily for its architecture but perhaps for its honesty. Belgrade and Niš were not pretty cities, but they were real. I respect places where people are just trying to live before anything else. As well, the food is amazing and the people are quite lovely. I sat for a while at a bar with a retired veteran, Jon, who bought all my drinks for the night. “Serbian hospitality,” he said. Some of the wounds from the conflict here are still rather fresh, but Jon seems to be looking up on life. He tells me about working abroad in Kazakhstan for a while, and how lovely the women are there. “Get yourself a Kazakh girl, man. Beautiful.”
Eventually, I politely leave and go back to Marko’s place, where he has been sleeping off a bad hangover for most of the afternoon. We talk for a few hours about adventures. He’s the kind of guy that could likely get along with anyone, quite charming and easy to laugh. Eventually, my tiredness makes me pass out at around 2 am, and Markos spends the night binge watching Vikings.
The next morning I decided to move on to the next destination, so I treat Markos to some Burek and yogurt before heading to the bus station. Snow is falling haphazardly and in little clumps, quickly icing over the street. I buy some provisions for my next journey, a six-hour bus ride South to the disputed territory of Kosovo, specifically the capital of Priština. Serbia still sees Kosovo as a part of its country, even though Kosovars are ethnically related to Albanians rather than Serbs. I am curious to see what lies at the other end of the border, and eagerly look out the window as we drive South through snowy fields and dark concrete villages out of Serbia.
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