"I depleted all the Euros I had on me (ready to be converted into Serbian Dinar when I arrived) to catch the next connecting flight to Zurich. Strong winds above the Swiss Alps left the pilot unable to land which meant I had to backtrack to Ghent if I wanted to get to Serbia at all. Sixteen hours later I arrived with no money, no luggage and almost no life left in me."
I had always imagined that meeting my motherland would have gone a little differently. I daydreamed about walking through the cobblestoned alleys of Old Belgrade where I would catch the eye of a handsome brooding Serbian man. Together we would amble through museums, discuss the split of former Yugoslavia over coffee and share a meal in a secluded backstreet bistro.
When my fanciful love story never eventuated as reality, it hit me hard. My week in Serbia ended up being a disaster, a dream and everything in between.
If you were to look ‘catastrophe’ up in the dictionary you would find the morning of my journey of self-discovery. A car crash in front of us on the way to the airport caused me to miss my direct flight to Belgrade. I depleted all the Euros I had on me (ready to be converted into Serbian Dinar when I arrived) to catch the next connecting flight to Zurich. Strong winds above the Swiss Alps left the pilot unable to land which meant I had to backtrack to Ghent if I wanted to get to Serbia at all. Sixteen hours later I arrived with no money, no luggage and almost no life left in me.
I was greeted by Andjelka, a distant relative of mine. She had organized a dreamy itinerary consisting of an overnight stay in a historic apartment in Belgrade with a swift departure to ‘Wild Serbia’ as she liked to call it the next morning. As we drove down Belgrade’s main strip I was struck by the simultaneous sense of grunge and glamour the city had. To my right, luxury cars were parked outside old buildings pockmarked with bomb damage from the civil war of the 1990’s. To my left, reflections of nightclub lights danced upon the Danube River. Women graced the streets as if they were fashion catwalks yet every shop front we drove past was empty.
We dined at the oldest restaurant in town established in 1823. It didn’t have a name but was identified by a lone question mark etched into its traditional Balkan-style exterior. Later we visited The Church of St. Sava one of the largest churches in the world – opulent from the outside but concrete-clad on the inside. Long gone were the romanticized mise-en-scènes that I had conjured in my head. Serbia was weird, wonderful and I would soon discover that it was indeed as wild as Andjelka said it was.
My suitcase was still M.I.A. the next day so armed with a toothbrush, a bar of soap and yesterday’s clothes I ventured into the heart of Serbia. I’ll never forget how many derelict factories I saw along the way. We visited Vrnjačka Banja, an eerie spa town prized for its hot springs but to me it just looked like an outtake from a Wes Anderson film gone wrong.
In Kraljevo I watched the national icon Novak Djokovic win a tennis match. I had an alias name that night as Andjelka had to use her ‘mafia connections’ to score us tickets. On a dusky evening in Topola we explored the Serbian King’s property. We darted through barren trees like foxes trying to find the mausoleum nestled within the darkness. I couldn’t believe when Andjelka just opened the gates and drove right in. She laughed and said “Nothing gets in the way of a Serbian woman.”
Even though my week in Serbia was far from what I had ever imagined, I still loved every second of my time there. In my eyes Serbia had everything and nothing at once. It’s a country left broken from war but still vibrant. The people are just as audacious as the sights that fill its borders and I can’t wait to go back. I may have lost my suitcase and my money but I definitely found a new part of myself – that when the going gets tough, a Serbian woman gets going.
Jodie is a German/Serbian/Kiwi twenty-something who loves art, culture and spending quality time in each city she visits.