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.
First is their sense of humor: Somehow dark and goofy at the same time, Serbian humor is nothing short of a gift and I continue to be caught off guard by it. Nothing is off limits and jokes are often made at Serbia’s expense, which can make for a surprise when your boss slips in some crude irony as you’re saying goodbye for the day. Regardless, its blunt nature only makes it all the more endearing. You can read a longer description here.
Next, I’ve noticed that Serbs love to laugh. They do so unabashedly and with gusto, unafraid to disrupt a restaurant or phone conversation, mostly because a cacophony of chuckles and roars rarely turns heads here. Much like Italians, Serbs seem to cherish their laughter, and endeavor to enjoy laughing with friends as a pastime; the European lifestyle of three-hour coffee dates is alive and well.
Along with the laughter, naturally, comes an overwhelming friendliness. There isn’t one concrete stereotype regarding Serbs (something I believe comes from a general ignorance of Serbian culture in the rest of the world- if you asked I’m not certain any of my friends could point to it on a map), but they are often assumed to be reserved or even cold in demeanor. In my experience, most Serbs are almost the complete opposite: the second you crack a smile they will too.
As a young woman living in a strange place I am endlessly grateful for Serbian hospitality; just about everybody gets greeted with three kisses to the cheeks, a wide smile, and an Italian-grandmother-esque offer of food.
The last trait I will attempt to describe, though there are many more, is the hierarchy of respect and natural chivalry exhibited by Serbian men. Another favorite “Serbianism”, if you will, is the unwavering, automatic instinct to offer assistance if it appears that someone needs it. On the trolley cars at least four or five people jump up from their seats if an older woman steps on; in New York everyone attempts to avoid standing by examining the floor as soon as someone who needs a seat steps on the train. A seat is only ever given up by the poor soul who failed to keep his eyes downcast long enough to be overlooked.
This kindness extends even further: A Serbian friend told me he often helps people carry their bags when he passes by the bus station, but since the station still uses bus tokens to get into the loading area he has had to pay the token fee on several occasions just to help people load their bags.
As someone born and raised in New York, with its special breed of manners, and who attended an all girls school and therefore didn’t have male friends go out of their way to hold doors for me until college, this is particularly unsettling.
Last Friday my roommates and I arrived in Požega, a small city in western Serbia, at approximately ten in the morning, rubbing sleep from our eyes as we attempted to mentally prepare ourselves for a day full of unknowns. For context: we were invited to Požega for the day by the same Serbian friend who pays the token fee just for being a nice guy.
When we accepted the invitation, we knew only that we would be driven around the city by his priest (he is a student of theology) and likely be attending a Baptism at some point. I recognize how incredibly strange this looks in writing, but to be perfectly candid, we were immediately sold on the invite; the opportunity to see western Serbia wasn’t one we were going to pass up.
It’s taken me an entire week to get my thoughts down simply because we saw/learned/experienced so much in one short day that I continue to fail in finding the words to describe it fairly. This is my latest attempt.
We were met at the bus station by our friend, a friend of his, and his priest. They arrived in a three row minivan, which apparently made for quite an image as we all piled into the car; a woman mistook the priest for a cab driver (literally believing that he was a priest and a taxi driver) and was so astounded that she came up and asked how that could be.
As everyone got acquainted over breakfast we learned that we’d be seeing several historic churches, a monastery, attending a baptism (with the family’s permission, of course), and eating tons of traditional foods. However, we only scratched the surface of getting to know the priest, Father Milan, learning that he has lived in several countries, including the US, has an impressive collection of worldly currencies, and owns several types of chickens (google “silkie chicken” if you want to question everything you think you know about nature).
As the day went on it became clear that Father Milan was decidedly the most eccentric of the bunch, sharing stories and jokes, all the while telling us that he didn’t speak english despite understanding us even when were were sarcastic and often interjecting as the others translated, correcting their word choices left and right and interjecting with jabs at the two of them every now and then- a glowing example of that particular Serbian quirkiness I continue to have trouble describing.
Over the course of the day we saw the oldest, smallest, and largest churches in the city, ate so many (absolutely fantastic) meals that I honestly lost count, attended a baptism, and laughed so much I’m pretty sure I have abs now.
While inside the Church of Saint Achilius, one of the oldest in the region, we were serenaded by Father Milan and the resident priest, a three minute experience made only more surreal by knowing how much history was contained within the church walls. The facade was built in 1296.
Later on at the Baptism, which was a truly beautiful ceremony to witness, we were introduced to a couple from Dallas, Texas- a Serbian wife and Egyptian husband- who asked the eternal question, “why are you here” and mustered up the usual surprise upon finding out we liked the country.
Though we kept out of the way and had been given permission to attend we essentially crashed a baptism: we were welcomed with open arms regardless, and treated to a meal inside the neighboring monastery after the ceremony.
Our day concluded with a visit to a cave in a nearby town that has walking trails miles long inside it. Sadly we couldn’t actually enter as it was not yet open for the season, but we were able to get a nice vantage point from the entrance.
Dispersed throughout these experiences were countless laughs, coffees and sit down meals that, given the “Serbianisms” I described above and the general disbelief that this is my life now made for one of the most strange/exhilarating/wonderful days I’ve had in a long time.
I’ve spent the week thinking of ways to share this experience, but feel that this might just be the best I can do: to try and convey the raw joy, wonder and disbelief I felt throughout this day as I took it all in and reflected on how I got here would be disingenuous as I could never do the day or the people justice.