What's a Serbia?
Going into month 7 of my Remote Year journey, I knew basically nothing about the place to which I was headed. Of course, this was probably even more true when I had gone to Bolivia, so I wasn't too concerned (and because I'm a badass). This whole year I've basically done zero research on upcoming places and I just show up and figure things out (so badass). It's definitely nice to not have to do any work planning things out and I guess that's why I'm paying Remote Year (or I'm just a badass).
My first impression of Belgrade was that everyone smokes. EVERYONE (old and young alike). And everywhere. I've never seen a society as smoke friendly as Serbia. The place is basically one giant cigarette. At customs they checked my passport and forced me to smoke a cigarette before I could enter the country.
My second impression of Belgrade was....two thumbs up (except for the smoking). It had a nice mix of both old and new. For example, it had a fortress....that held a music festival.
|The famous music festival fortress of Belgrade
|We must protect this house...with a wall
The third impression I had of Belgrade was that it's obsessed with Nikola Tesla. You know, that guy who invented that car....I think. He also invented a bunch of important products dealing with electricity in the early 1900s including harnessing alternating currents which I don't understand at all, so I'm just going to stop pretending like I know what I'm talking about. In any event, Tesla's parents (also Teslas) were Serbian, so he's like a big deal in Serbia and they even named their airport after him. They also have the Tesla museum in Belgrade which is full of magic tricks....or it might be science.
|Some sort of magic....or possibly science
|Tesla himself....in ash form...in an urn.
Was that too morbid?
Serbia had another important historical figure alive around the same time as Tesla whom I'm sure you know very well. That's right, none other than Gavrilo Princip. He's one of your favorites, isn't he?
|Mural of Gavrilo Princip in Belgrade
Gavrilo is the guy who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 sparking the first world war #historyIsReal.
You may also remember Serbia from events back in the late 1990s. You actually probably don't remember since that was like 20 years ago....and also because the country was called Yugoslavia back then. But the point is that NATO bombed buildings in Belgrade and other targets in the area as a way to stop Slobodan Milosovich from occupying Kosovo. First, don't you just love the name Slobodan? Second, just so we're clear, Slobodan was trying to hold onto Kosovo despite the large Albanian population who wanted independence. This whole situation is not to be confused with the NATO involvement in the Bosnian War where NATO stepped in to defend Herzegovina (I know you wouldn't confuse those). And don't get me started on the Croatian Independence war where "A self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina, created as a nation state for ethnic Serbs living on Croatian territory, which was occupied by the remnants of the Yugoslav People's Army (from Serbia and Montenegro)."
I'm not trying to make light of the subject, but its clearly very complex and I wouldn't do it justice trying to explain it. At the end of the day, though, in the mid 90's, Yugoslavia was broken up into seven countries; Bosnia and Herzegovina (thats one), Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. And there's still definitely tension in the area, especially among the older population, and this tension was very visible at times with Croatian-Serbian relations (they like to say mean things about each other...sometimes jokingly...sometimes not). Since the NATO bombins happened in the 90s, pretty much everyone with whom we interacted actually lived through this. Memories range from being a child sent to live with foreign relatives for safety, to having school cancelled for three months, grabbing beers and watching bombs fall on the city from a nearby hill.
|Memorial to NATO bombings in Belgrade
And just one other name you should know from Yugoslavia history is Tito. He was the president of Yugoslavia, but really embodied the whole concept of the country. His death in 1980 was what started the whole unraveling of the different states.
|Tito's Tomb - very exciting picture
That's it! No more history, I promise!
Moving on, as you probably know (because I talk it about it all the time...like all the time!), one of my life goals was to bike through the Serbian country side. And guess what? It finally happened!
|I joined a biker gang
A bunch of us rented bikes and rode across (part of) Serbia. We ended up at some river where we spent the night sleeping on boat houses.
|This is a boat house
|This is me standing on my boat house
One of my other dreams, which you all knew too well, was to go to Romania. And wouldn't you know it, I got to check this one off the list as well.
|One arm in Romania
That's right, I had a whole arm in Romania. I actually rode a bike for miles (they call them kilometers in Serbia) through the mud from a co-working facility out in the country side and illegally snuck my arm across the border (I am now an international criminal). I'd still like to go back to Romania some day to put my whole body in the country (and see slightly more of it), but for now...mission accomplished.
|Stuck in the mud on the way to Romania
After retiring from the life of international crime, I went back to Belgrade for a football match (what you probably call soccer, or what you probably call Calcio if you are from Italy (just found that on Google)). This was no ordinary Calcio match. This was a derby match! THE derby match! (a derby is a match between two teams from the same city). This rivalry regularly results in rioting before the match even starts. We were given instructions such as "wear closed toes shoes so its easier to run" and "if anything happens stay low and follow me out". And although it ended up being a relatively calm match, it still looked pretty cool.
|Burn it down
|Yes, this is a calm match
That night, the whole city was lined with riot police, but they weren't just there for the derby riots. They were also there because some people in Serbia aren't, lets say, as culturally accepting as one would like. Basically, the Serbs know how to throw a good protest against gay pride and the next day happened to be the pride parade in Belgrade. Since 2010, Belgrade has hosted a pride parade with some sort of violence taking palace each year. In 2010, "Anti-gay rioters fought with about 5,000 armed police, throwing Molotov cocktails, bricks, stones, glass bottles and firecrackers; the police used tear gas and rubber bullets." Although things had been getting less extreme each year, the whole downtown area was completely barricaded and the area was basically void of people except for riot police.
I happened to walk by the main pride rally area as they were cleaning up and there was a group of priests of various religions sprinkling holy water and such on the area to "cleanse" it. Oh religion, you're so silly.
One nice thing that happened for me in Belgrade was that I joined a running club. I made friends with a number of locals through the club and they might be reading this blog post about themselves right now. There was even a 10k race in the city when I first arrived and I met running groups visiting from Macedonia, Montenegro, Libya and even Israel. It was quite the multi-cultural experience
|That guy in the white shirt is from Montenegro
|I win! No...I barely finished
Belgrade also inspired my with another business idea (all my ideas are just bringing things from other countries to America). River boat clubs. As in clubs on river boats. As in a boat on a river with a club. As in a river with a club on a boat. As in a club on...shut up Matt! In Belgrade these clubs are called Splavs and they line the river with flashing lights and loud bass all night long. Why hasn't anyone put a boat club on the river in Manhattan? WHY?
|Matt's river boat club...coming soon to an America near you
One final thing I did in Belgrade was to volunteer with a refugee aid organization. Serbia has a large number of refugees, mostly just passing through, who are in need of food, water and clothes during their time in the country. I was able to talk with a number of them while they waited in line for food. Most of them were 18 to 25 year old men with similar stories of coming from Afghanistan or Pakistan and passing through Serbia trying to reach the rest of their families in other parts of Europe. Some of them had stories of walking for five days to cross borders. It really does seem unimaginable to be 20 years old and leave your home and even your country to go to some unknown place by yourself. Although its terrible, I'm glad I was able to experience a tiny bit of this situation.
See, Matt isn't completely a bad guy.
I'm not sure if it came through in this post, but I really liked Belgrade and it was definitely one of my favorite months of this trip.
And now I will leave you with a traditional Serbian dance:
Total countries visited on my trip: 13 (Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, England, Belgium, Italy, Czech Republic, Ireland, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Serbia).