It’s heartwarming to know that Belgrade truly will still be here to welcome me home, no matter how long or far I stray.
I was pleased to find that instead of the industry based city I pictured it to be, it had all of the charms of other small cities, with history, good food and local vendors around ever corner.
Six months ago I had an almost negligible sense of direction, but over the course of my time in Serbia I was able to cultivate a set of (honestly, quite vague) goals that drove me to make decisions that have solidified the future of my 2017 in the best way possible: for the first time in years, I have a concrete answer to the "what's next" and "where will you be" questions that every college student is constantly bombarded with.
At the moment, the answers are "travel" and "around" respectively, as I type this from a hotel bar in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina- I couldn't leave the Balkans without coming back one last time.
I nearly cried when we arrived in the city. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I owe the past half year of my life to what I gained in Sarajevo: drive. My approach to my academics and future career plans has been influenced significantly by my study abroad experience in the Balkans and I returned to the US with a newfound sense of purpose and confidence.
One of my favorite things about Serbia is the consistency of personality amongst Serbs; despite each being unique individuals with distinct backgrounds there remains a set of characteristics that I’ve noticed in almost every Serb I’ve come to know.
I’m missing Boston something fierce these days so I dug up an old gem I wrote just after I moved there. Enjoy!
It’s always interesting to see how the reality of a place measures up to the idea of it you formulate in your head. I’m pleased to say that my image of Romania turned out to be fairly on par with what I found there, though I guess that happens when you spend several weeks researching a place for the sake of academia.
For now, these are the thoughts I’ve been able to articulate:
1) like Bosnia & Herzegovina, Romania has branded itself as having 'too much history'
2) Romanians seem to have adopted the rhetoric that all humans are the same. It is hugely heartwarming.
3) people understand what makes them happy and are unafraid to avoid things that do not
4) the culture reminds me of Italy, though it retains distinct Eastern European influences. So it goes.
5) I have never felt more welcome in a place in my entire life
The bunker was created in the 1950s under Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, so I had originally (and unimaginatively) pictured a small, reinforced tunnel (or cave, or literally anywhere inside a mountain) that would house and protect a handful of important people for a few months should that be necessary.
Needless to say when what I found instead was essentially an underground city I was bewildered. Throw in the artwork featured in the 3rd edition of the Biennial Project, and, to say the least, I was more than blown away.
The city as a whole feels somewhat like a movie set- I expected to look out and break the fourth wall every time we turned a corner. The statues of Skopje are something else; they unapologetically loom over the city with an imposing sense of royalty and nationalism. Though I suppose they’re doing their job then, since instilling a sense of national pride is their intended purpose. The statues and the overall atmosphere of the city made me feel like our group was in one of those short films where nothing really happens- like we were doomed to wander the streets of Skopje until the director yelled ‘cut’."
Sarajevo was the first city in a long time to make me fall in love. It's still difficult, almost 6 months later, for me to pinpoint the reasons I became so enamored with the city so quickly, but I think it really began the night I arrived.
To be honest, I don't have the slightest idea what time it was but it was dark and I hadn't slept since leaving New York a day and a half earlier. Regardless, I was exhausted, so when I got to the hotel room I was keen to shower and get in bed. As I dragged my suitcase through the too-narrow doorway (this seems to be a recurring issue in European hotels) I was startled by several things. First, the size of the room- it looked much more like a Boston hotel than a Bosnian one. Second, the size of the beds- my travel mate and I each received our own queen. And lastly and most importantly, the view.
Sarajevo is located within a valley which is surrounded by mountains on all sides and given that our room was on the 7th floor, about three stories higher than the majority of buildings in the city, every light in the city twinkled before us. It was absolutely magical.
In the daylight, the city more than lived up to its charm. It blew me away. From its own admission of having 'too much history' to its resilient and playful atmosphere, it was simply mesmerizing.
My first day in Sarajevo was spent wandering. After an invigorating walking tour I decided to get to know the city for myself and took off without much of a plan. In the end I accomplished little other than gaining my bearings, but as I was headed to the hotel I came across a coffee shop called Cafe 311 which I honestly still have dreams about.
It's located along the river and is all open windows and brightly colored chairs mixed with double espresso and dark mahogany tables. I was in heaven. The young woman who was behind the counter spoke absolutely no English- on par with my nonexistent knowledge of Serbo-Croatian- but we made it work and I was able to settle down with my espresso and my books, perfectly content. I returned to Cafe 311 every other day or so and cannot wait to cozy into its arms again soon.
On my second day in Sarajevo I witnessed the procession of the remains; each year the remains of newly identified war casualties are driven through Bosnia to their intended burial sites, often at the Srebrenica memorial site in Potocari. In Saraejvo the procession stops in front of city hall where locals gather to pay their respects to their own lost loved ones or to stand in solidarity with those still in mourning. As the truck stops they all swarm the street, placing flowers between ropes or placing a hand on the metal for a prayer.
My heart hurt, in that moment; a relatively young man placed one hand on the truck and the other hand on the head of the young boy who was clinging to his leg, presumable his son, and bowed his head. When he looked up there were tears in his eyes. Afraid to intrude, I kept my distance from the street, but several Bosnians nodded at me in acknowledgement. One older woman stopped and patted my elbow, seemingly grateful that I was there to witness this display of sorrow. I was amazed.
Over the course of my time there Bosnians impressed me left and right with their resilience, friendliness, and their levity. Their love for Sarajevo is contagious, but the city still has no problem spreading that feeling on its own: the cobblestones and hillside views and streets lined with sunset buildings splayed with the rays of late afternoon light are absolutely mesmerizing.
And, well, the portrait I have of Sarajevo in my mind gets pulled up quite often as a method of procrastination so it only makes sense that I make a visit to update it, right?