An Unexpected Experience
I found myself in a slightly odd position eighteen months ago: applying for a job in a city I’d never been to, in a country I knew little about and in a region that didn’t have the best reputation back home. Mention Serbia in the UK and you might get some people asking whether you mean Siberia, most unable to locate it on a map and others still waffling vaguely about how they’d always been fascinated by the eastern bloc former Soviet states. For those who did know the place, images of bread queues, international sanctions and dreary post-war tower blocs were what was talked about.
So I was, frankly, apprehensive when I arrived on my JAT flight in June 2009, weighed down by an embarrassing amount of luggage. What was I to find? How would I be received? And would those stereotypes be borne out?
But what a different experience I found. The Balkan hospitality is so widespread here, the vibrancy of the city so strong that I quickly felt at home. I spent my early weeks wandering the streets of the old town, learning to love cevapi, cvarci and prebranac, training my tastebuds to stomach domaca kafa and dunja rakija and watching the beautiful people of Belgrade strutting their stuff in the evenings. I began to enjoy the quirky mix of Austro-Hungarian era cobbles, Dedinje villas and New Belgrade sprawl. I practised my (then pigeon, now barely better) Serbian with taxi drivers who waxed lyrical about Yugoslavia and told me I had to find a Srbkinja to improve my language. I was welcomed with open arms by my wonderful colleagues at the BBC Belgrade office, hearing stories from the ’90s through clouds of tobacco smoke.
This is a horribly complex, deeply sensitive, frustratingly bureaucratic, beautiful, warm and fascinating country. During my time here, I have listened and learnt and written and tried to understand without judging. I have travelled through the region, hearing how everybody wants a better life, where reconciliation heals the wounds of the past. I have met politicians and farmers, leftwingers and nationalists, priests and shopkeepers, journalists and footballers. All have had their stories to tell. All contribute to the rich tapestry of Serbia. And after all this time I feel optimistic about Serbia’s bright future – a place that has moved on, which can show its exciting face to the world and a country whose name people know in the UK and beyond, for all the right reasons.
Text by Mark Lowen, BBC Belgrade correspondent
Travel to Serbia
what to see in Serbia