In a smoke filled café overlooking the Republic Square, I met Vesna, a vivacious 24-year-old teacher who offered to be my tour guide for the day. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating; the rain put a damper on our sightseeing plans. We decided to stay inside, enjoy ice cream and recover from our New Year’s Eve festivities.
Hours flew by as we discussed popular culture. Everything we have in the West, they have here. She turned out to be a big fan of South Park, Sponge Bob Square Pants and especially, The Sopranos. She was absolutely riveted as I told her about my last visit to New York City and my tour through Little Italy with Erik Trinidad. She said most young people would love to visit the USA, but due to their small paychecks, are never able to afford it. It could be because they spend their entire paycheck on clothes.
I told her I was surprised that most of the people I met in Serbia do not have an accent while speaking English; my Serb friend back home has a strong one. Vesna joked that it was because my friend is a country girl, while she is a city girl. Vesna said that the actor who played Boris the Blade is actually Serbian. She complained that most Serb actors get typecast as Russian bad guys. I could relate, as most Asians get typecast as nerds or Bruce Lee wannabes.
Vesna was fascinated with life in the West and offered to be my Balkan correspondent. She said that most young people, once they get educated, leave Serbia for better paying jobs in Western Europe. Being a business owner, I asked her about starting a business here. Most people don’t like to go that route due to the bureaucratic nightmare of red tape left over from the communist era.
Soon our empty stomachs were calling out for food; we walked to Skadarlija Street. Dating back to the 19th century the street is famous for its family run inns, cobblestone streets and old world architecture. In recent times this area has become known as Belgrade’s bohemian quarter, a place where artists, writers, painters and actors gather.
Vesna wanted me to sample a traditional Serbian dish comprised of sausages and cabbage (they eat a lot of cabbage here) served in pita bread. Vegetarians should be aware that the Serbian diet is heavily meat based. With the exception of a few high-end restaurants, I didn't see many vegetarian offerings on menus. The good news is that meat eaters eat food that is grown locally, not processed as it is in the West.
By the end of the evening, even though I hadn't done a lot of sightseeing, hanging out with Vesna, laughing at our similarities and differences, turned out to be one of the beauties of travel. As we walked to her bus stop, I reflected on the people I’ve met, sad I would not see them again. Smiling as usual, Vesna left me with her favorite saying.
“Never frown, even when you are sad because you never know who will fall in love with your smile.”