Contributed by Alina Pak. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
I don’t think I myself knew what exactly I expected Belgrade to be: while my peers and the whole DukeEngage team in America offered advice on inevitable culture shock and gradual integration, people at home discussed the supposed brotherhood between Russians and Serbs and assured me that “bratushki” basically speak the same language.
Therefore, having landed in Belgrade on June 1 after a relatively short flight, I was apprehensive about what I would discover in Serbia (spoiler alert: Serbs and Russians do NOT speak the same language). The first couple of days turned into a real adventure: with fellow students, I roamed the streets of Stari Grad (Old City) and explored the ancient fortress of Kalemegdan. We discovered a massive drinking fountain, got lost while walking along a perfectly straight road, and learned how to say “bakery” in Serbian. All the time, I couldn’t help noticing striking similarities between this new location and my home country: Cyrillic (if slightly altered) alphabet, an inexplicable passion for meat and potatoes, tons of smokers, and even the way Serbian women rock heels wherever they go
And yet, something was just different; bordering both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires a mere century ago, the Serbian nation is located on an ancient crossroad between East and West and has acquired a truly cosmopolitan feel that is less present in good old Moscow – thus the casual use of both Latin and Cyrillic letters and a fascinating mix of European and Asian cultures. Burned down and destroyed more than forty times, Belgrade has hosted numerous tribes, nations, and ethnicities – as a result, the city is still vibrating with energy despite its history going back many thousands of years.
This majestic history is often reflected in the modern-day Serbian society – I was amazed by how much pride and patriotic sentiment I saw in everyone I met, including our wonderful tour guide and members of my host family. Upon meeting the father of my two host sisters, I was involved in a discussion on the common history of Slavic tribes and the roots of European languages. My host mother, an avid reader, takes great pride in Serbian literature and has already recommended me to enjoy Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina. My entire host family is incredibly welcoming, and I feel like homestay will become a crucial part of my perception of Serbia. And so will my job, apparently, even if I’m now only adjusting to my workplace, my colleagues, and my responsibilities. There’s a lot to get used to – my NGO is called Cultural Center REX, and it organizes and manages discussions and public events related to culture, arts, and pressing social issues in Serbia. My position is kind of an open issue at the moment, but I will soon find out what I can manage to do here.
Done writing for now – more to come next week!