It’s interesting how a country in Europe, a continent sometimes compared to the United States, can seem so foreign. I spent months surrounded by Spanish, French, Danish, and German, languages somewhat similar to English, with words I recognized. Once I arrived in Serbia, a country that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, something I thought was only usual in Russia, I was shocked. This European country seemed like a different world.
My partner was born and raised in Serbia, so we spent a month exploring his motherland. Our first stop was Belgrade. While we drove in, I couldn’t stop gawking at all the gray buildings. Some may think that the life-less communist era buildings have no life to them, but I looked past the boring color and thought of the history. Buildings destroyed as a result of the NATO bombings of 1999 remained crumbled on the side of a street as a reminder to the civilians of what they endured for 11 weeks. In the capital, I stayed with my boyfriends local family, and listened to them reminisce on what it was like to live for 77 days in terror of being killed by the United States during the bombings. After hearing all of the resentment towards America, I expected to be hated for being in their country, but I was instead bombarded with overwhelming compassion. When I ordered in a restaurant, they heard my accented Serbian, and asked if I was from Britain. When I told them I was from America, they were astonished. It’s not often that Americans spend time in Eastern Europe.
Despite the plethora of gray building, there are incredible orthodox churches with colorful ceilings that would blow your mind. They can be found all over the country, but the most famous, Saint Sava’s Temple, still sticks in my memory. I remember sitting on a bench with a yummy classic Serbian ice cream bar, admiring the white churches juxtaposition to the light blue sky in the background. Aside from the church, the city’s castle was also full of colour, with a beautiful blue river and gorgeous green trees. My stay in the capital was short-lived, only a few days or so, as the real culture of the country can be found in smaller villages.
We arrived in Petrovac, where all the signs were in Cyrillic, an alphabet that I quickly learned to read. Petrovac is small to American standards, but it was actually considered a larger town compared to other villages in the country. I spent my first day wandering alone, walking into “downtown” which consisted of one street. That’s when I saw my first stray dog. And then I saw ten more. All in a matter of minutes. As a dog lover, I was confused as to why there were so many strays. I never saw any in Europe or in my home country, and when I did they would quickly be picked up by animal control. I felt so terrible for the dogs, wanting to bring each of them home to give them a stable life. My boyfriend explained to me that this is normal in the country, as they don’t have the money for shelters. He assured me that the dogs were all happy. At first I didn’t believe him, but I saw that most stores left our bowls of water for the strays to enjoy on warm summer days. It was shocking, but it was something that I had to accept as normal. As I walked around Petrovac, I relied completely on my boyfriend to communicate. As a traveler, I’ve learned to not rely on others to know English, as it is arrogant to go to a country and not know any of their language. But in the countries I had previously been in, I was used to everyone practicing English with me and having quite good knowledge of it. The towns of Serbia were much different. The only phrase people knew was “hello”, so I had to try to communicate with my limited Serbian, which was very difficult.
As for cuisine, I had difficulties, because the primary food item is pork and I am vegetarian. When you tell a Serbian that you are vegetarian, they say “oh okay, so you can still eat pork right?”. They don’t understand that it is no consumption of an animal. I sat at a table while the family I was with chowed down on an entire pig. The entire body of the dead pig was on the table. I took this as a humbling moment, that the norms of my country are not the norms of others. The second village I visited was Dimitrovgrad, which lies almost directly on the border between Serbia and Bulgaria.
They bought almost nothing at the grocery store, and grew all of their vegetables and fruit themselves. Each house has a garden full of apples, pears, cherries, grapes, strawberries, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, squash, lettuce, garlic, onions, and corn. It was so beautiful to see true village life in Eastern Europe, where they are more self-sufficient than I have ever been.
There are two McDonald’s in the entire country, when there are two McDonald’s within a two miles radius of my house in Las Vegas. I began to miss some foods in the villages, as they didn’t import goods, so they only had what they grew. There were no avocados, bananas, or any other foreign fruit or vegetable, something that I had always found in other countries. As I ventured to Nis, another large city in Serbia, I was immersed in tons of culture. This area is a must check-out for any history nerd. It enables access to the palace of Constantine the Great and see the Skull Tower consisting of 952 Serbians who revolted against the Ottoman Empire.
In my opinion, if you want a gradual introduction to life outside of the Western world, without going immediately to rural Africa, I recommend visiting Serbia, especially if you venture away from the larger cities. This ex-communist country taught me a lot about patience and acceptance. The people are sweet and extremely welcoming of foreigners, so don’t miss out on this life changing destination.