Week 29: The Controversy of Serbia

Back in Belgrade, I returned to normalcy: living in my cute little apartment, enjoying the cafes that dot Belgrade, working, lunch dates, yoga and tennis (at the Novak Djokovic Tennis Center, no big deal), and our very first community improv workshop, which happened at an outdoor bar and consisted basically of locals pointing and laughing at us (and one brave soul who joined in).

Wine & Recent Serbian History

One of the highlights of the week was a wine tasting with one of our city staff, Nikola. Not only did we get to go to a sweet wine cellar (Vinovlacara), where we each had our own individual meat and cheese plate (basically, my dream come true), but also got to hear from Nikola and other locals about some of the conflict in the Balkans in the 90s.

Like many of the Remotes, I was alive during the wars, and have vague memories of seeing footage on TV about Kosovo and Bosnia. I don’t remember paying much attention to it, and I don’t remember learning about it in school – I guess it was too recent. In Serbia, and any of the former Yugoslavian countries, this war is a fresh wound a mere twenty years later. People are rebuilding and moving forward, but sentiments of loss, anger, bitterness, confusion, and being victims run deep.

Serbia is considered by most accounts that I’ve read to have been the aggressors of the war, since it was the dominant force in Yugoslavia. When individual nations started to secede, it was the capital of Belgrade that tried to strong-arm the nation into staying united. The majority of war crimes committed are accounted to Serbs.

Try telling that to a Serbian.

The feeling in Belgrade is one of unfairness. The west didn’t treat Serbia fairly; the west was far too lenient on Croatia and Slovenia, who are now both part of the EU. Serbia always gets territories taken away from it (the most contentious of which is Kosovo, which Serbs consider to be the most important territory for their religion, with the majority of Serbian Orthodox monasteries located there).

Hearing Nikola’s fiery passion and insistence that we read international accounts of what really happened demonstrated so clearly how complicated the conflict was – and how complicated it remains to this day. Bitter feelings towards Croats still run rampant, as do harsh criticisms of the NATO bombings of Belgrade in 1999. Some buildings still have bullet holes from shellings during the war, though overall, it seems most locals have put it behind them and are focused on modernization and being granted entry into the EU. I again feel very grateful to be in Belgrade now. The sense of inevitable change over the next few years is palpable.

Lake Ada

Over the weekend, I got to explore two “must-do’s” that had been put on my list by locals and the previous RY group like: Lake Ada and Novi Sad.

Lake Ada is a man-made lake in Belgrade, made by cutting off a part of the Sava river. It features a “lakefront,” with cafes lining the shores, attractions like a giant fountain and even bungee jumping. After wandering into what felt like where my family had a summer cottage on the outskirts of Moscow (read: village in a forest), we navigated our way to one of the cafes, got lunch, and had a relaxing afternoon of lounging and swimming.

Party Rafts

Belgrade is famous for its party rafts: literally boats that line the river and are full of loud music and non-dancing Belgradians (and, always, cigarette smoke). This weekend, one of our beloved Remotes, Jacek, had a birthday party on TAG, one of the raft boats. He set up a VIP area, had his very own DJ set, and even had friends from his hometown Vienna come visit.

I realized two things: party rafts are a great idea, and I can no longer handle too-loud music. It was a pretty early night for me, but glad I got to see this part of the culture. If only I could understand why the locals insist on not dancing/having a dance floor…

Novi Sad

Situated about an hour away from Belgrade, Novi Sad is a smaller, more liberal/”European” city. We explored the small streets with a tour guide, checked out the fortress, and had some delicious ice cream. You could really feel the Austro-Hungarian empire in Novi Sad, with the architecture very much reminding us of Prague. Our tour guide told us that Novi Sad is student town, and has much more open attitudes towards homosexuality than Belgrade does. Case in point: the day we went was the Pride Parade in Belgrade, and the city center was shut down with a huge police presence in case there was any trouble during the small parade.

By far, the best part of the trip was lunch at a wine cellar with one of the cutest winemakers ever. This middle-aged woman was so enthusiastic and excited about her wine. We tasted several local wines and ate meat upon meat upon meat.

I was grateful to just knock out on the bus and relax my way into another Belgreat (ha!) week.

 

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