Two years ago in Boston a friend told me that the best advice she ever received from her mother is that she should spend her money on experiences instead of material things. It made sense to me immediately; material things simply cannot bring the same happiness as a shared memory.
It’s ridiculous to think that that conversation took place two full years ago- before I had even chosen a university, let alone considered spending six full months outside the country.
Now though, I think about those words all the time. Catching up with friends or getting to know someone new often happens over coffee or lunch, a usually well justified expense, but rarely an experience. However, I feel that a particular experience a few nights ago is the epitome of my friend’s intended meaning. On Friday evening we dined at one of Belgrade’s oldest and most famous restaurants; we had a wonderful meal and lots of laughs, but the evening was an adventure, to say the least.
I had been put in touch with a colleague’s nephew soon after committing to move to Belgrade and had spoken to him a few times via skype in the months leading up to my departure, but this Friday was the first time we had spoken in person. Roommates in tow, I headed for Republic Square, a common meeting place in Belgrade- akin to the clock in the main terminal of Grand Central, where I instructed him to look out for the four Americans by the horse statue. He found us in seconds.
After some introductions he led us to our destination which turned out to be a restaurant that I had heard of last time I was in Belgrade; a few friends had wanted to go but couldn’t seem to find it. I was confused at the time but let it slide without question. However, now I understand why they found it difficult; its location is marked not with a sign containing its name, but with a single light with a question mark imposed on it.
We were greeted warmly by the wait staff and led to our table by a waiter we later learned was able to speak English, but with the caveat that most of the words he would say to us were ‘organic’ and ‘free’ each time he placed something on our table. I’m doubtful that my words could ever accurately convey the sheer force of his personality, but the descriptor I will offer is jovial.
To begin our ~relatively traditional Serbian dinner, we ordered a round of rakia. Now, rakia has been explained to me a different way by each person I’ve asked but the general consensus is that it is a type of brandy, most commonly made from plums, that has an alcohol content of about 40% or higher. Depending on what it is made of/infused with its biting flavor may be more or less stiff. On this occasion, we chose a rakia that was infused with honey which diluted the sharp natural flavor- a way to ease in those among us who had not tried it before.
Our Friday night adventure really began while awaiting our food: as we sit, four Americans and one Serb, talking animatedly in English, a man dressed in traditional priest’s garb enters the restaurant. Our resident Serb, a theology student, recognized him as one of his former teachers, explained in one breath and forgotten in the next.
We continued on as normal until another man, dressed in the same manner, entered the room. A hush fell over the room as he passed through the threshold and our guide for the evening startled, sitting up ram rod straight. Once the spectacle had passed beyond us to his own table, we sought an explanation and found our Serbian theology student caught halfway between standing up and sitting down, looking torn. Eventually we convinced him that if it was appropriate for him to greet the man who had just arrived then he should- we could manage to stay put.
When he returned, he explained that the man who had managed to shift the entire atmosphere just by walking into the room was the highest religious authority of Montenegro- think Pope Francis but about 1,000 times more accessible.
I had imagined something along those lines but it still surprised me- for several reasons. As more similarly respected men trailed in over the next few minutes I catalogued my thought processes: first, I knew that the restaurant was frequented by famous Serbs, but in my mind that meant something closer to well-liked politicians or television personalities (though I guess that’s America talking). Second, the other patrons, aside from the original pause and respectful silence as the corner table populated by various religious authorities shared a prayer before eating, seemed unfazed by the presence of such highly respected leaders. Perhaps what surprised me the most was how little privacy was afforded to them- it seemed as though they hadn’t even felt the need to ask for it.
Back home in the states it is rare that people who hold such clout in society exist so casually among regular civilians; imagine what would happen if the pope walked into a pub in Manhattan (a not entirely accurate or feasible comparison, but roll with it). Now picture how you would feel if he was seated just two tables away as you dined with friends on your second night (or in our case, third week) in the city.
That’s about how this felt, except we don’t even speak enough Serbian to understand what anyone around us was saying.
You’d think that the rollercoaster of an evening ended there, but alas-
Everyone loosened up a bit after the initial panic of learning that we were separated from some of Serbia’s most respected men by only a few chairs and we continued to enjoy our meal together. Shortly thereafter, our waiter returned with the musicians he’d been threatening us with all night: a violinist, and guitarist, and an accordion player.
They began to play music which, given the presence of the accordion, only served to heighten the cheerful, folky atmosphere of the dining room. After a few songs they seemed to realize that we were speaking English, and asked our Serbian friend where we were coming from. Upon learning we called the States home, they became excited, if somewhat bashful, and began to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Admittedly it’s not my favorite song- not by a long shot, but somehow in that moment I was ecstatic to hear it- it was so unexpected and they seemed so pleased that we enjoyed it. I’m still in awe that they thought to do that for us- to try and welcome us to Belgrade and also give us a little piece of home in the process.
Our evening ended soon after, with flushed, smiling faces and a rousing sense of disbelief, at least on my part, for how the evening had turned out.
I had started out nervous to meet someone that I had spoken to only a handful of times, only for my worry to be entirely unfounded: there was nothing awkward about it. And then our dinner experience unfurled like some kind of ridiculous short film (see past blog post ‘Things I’ve done that would make fantastic short films’. This will certainly be added to the list).
I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about this experience, or the rest of this weekend but I woke up this morning feeling like I could finally call Belgrade home. And then promptly remembered how ridiculous my current life situation is. I fell back asleep with a smile on my face.