Serbia is a TRIP!!! It's a tough place to travel for a novice family like us. Between busy, abrupt Belgrade, crumbling infrastructure, and trying to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet, had we not had friends there, it would have been a harrowing place to start. As it was -- we met wonderful people, had fascinating conversations, drank good Rakia and truly AWFUL wine, and learned so very much.
We're told only eight percent of the Serbian population has a college education, so we realize that we ran with a pretty elite crowd during our visit. We had dinner with a couple, both economists, (who supplement their spotty incomes by singing in restaurants). They had so much to say about Serbia's future in the world economy, as well as it's past. One story they shared: at the peak of Serbian hyper inflation in the '90s, his weekly salary was just enough to buy two eggs.
We hung out with a terrific lady named Jelena, an OBGYN by trade. She orders medical texts from the US to keep herself up to date, and fights with the medical system to give her patients the care she thinks they need. Sounds like home!
We floated down the river to where to Danube meets the Sawa on the boat of a physicist, gazing at the fortress Kalemegdanon one side of us, and New Belgrade - recently risen from swampland - on the other.
We rode everywhere with a woman who has a masters in Mathamatics, and who used to be a black-marketeer during the Communist era. She makes terrific cake.
We had dinner at the home of an engineer who hasn't been paid in a year and continues to go to work everyday. Fortunately, he is also a wonderful artist and is able to make money by selling his paintings.
Serbian land is near-miraculous in it's beauty, it's majesty, and it's fertility. Serbian structures are a different story. Many buildings, both large and small, run the gamut from puzzling to wincing at the thought that someone actually lives there. It's difficult to guess what state a building is in. Is it being built ever so slowly, or in some stage of falling down? Snaking it's way along the walls, plumbing looks like an afterthought, and a steady, dependable electrical supply is a luxury. Graffiti seems a national pastime for those with paint and an opinion. You'll find it on government buildings, homes and apartments -- even Roman ruins. One of our favorites was written in Cyrrilic on the side of a building in Soka Banja: "My time machine is the fastest in the neighborhood."
The landscape is also dotted with the more recent ruins of bombed buildings from WWII and the 1999 NATO air-strikes, still standing untouched. We wondered why, until Peter the economist explained that the monetary damage done during the NATO bombings is twice the GDP. And so they stand as reminders.
"Making do" is a way of life, and Serbs do it with pretty good humor, and a lot of pragmatism. The washing machine/dryer all-in-one broke one day, and the repair man came (right after his shift on the police force was over.) He simply wrenched out the broken latch, went home and bent a piece of metal to match, and came back. "When this stops working," he said, "just use a pole to prop the door closed. And don't use the dryer at all -- water will get in while it's drying and short out the whole machine."
There is so much pride, and so much patriotism in Serbia, and an awareness of history, recent and ancient, among the people. In Serbia, history is still happening, and has been for centuries. We American's learn about the forming of our country, and the lesson starts when Columbus landed, and ends somewhere around the Civil War. In Serbia, when you learn about the forming of your country you start briefly with the Celts, then on to the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, move on to the Turkish empire, and eventually come to the recent Yugoslav wars. It's a country that has been sliced, diced, and reproportioned many times over the centuries. It's a country trying to find it's economic place in Europe, and it's social standing in the world. Serbia is a tough trip, but it's a trip worth the trouble.