Contributed by Matt Kirshner. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
After two years at school in North Carolina, I had lost my sense of direction back home in Baltimore. Two weeks after returning home and a couple of wrong turns later, I found myself in the thick of East Baltimore noticing the items on the checklist below. Another two weeks and a couple more wrong turns later, I would once again complete this mental checklist. Only this time in Belgrade, Serbia.
✔ Rundown, vacant buildings
✔ Corner side drug store selling jumbo plastic bottles of beer
The views seem the same with just an Eastern European flavor. The Cyrillic graffiti supports the city’s range of political or social causes: such as veganism, anarchism, or soccer hooligan-ism. The crumbling buildings are not American red-brick, but Communist-era cement. The dreadlocks were worn by a twenty-something Serbian hipster rocking jean shorts and a shirt affirming his love for the Ghostbusters. And, lastly, the beer was not American malt liquor, but the omni-present 2-liter bottle of Serbian Zajecharsko.
In my first night in Serbia, these familiar sights relayed to me the same messages — or, precautions — that they would have in the states. Seeing all the trademarks of Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods, my inner alarm bells started ringing. I put my hands in pockets, pretended I wasn’t lost, and began to walk a little quicker back to the hostel.
The next day, I learned that this neighborhood, called Sava Mala (which, for you Spanish speakers means little Sava, not bad Sava, in Serbian) is one of Belgrade’s nightlife hubs, an up-and-coming neighborhood completely safe to walk day or night. I would find that every neighborhood in Belgrade hosts its share of graffiti drawn by their resident vegans/anarchists/soccer hooligans. I would come to see that in Belgrade, drab, concrete buildings that pre-date World War II stand side-by-side with more carefully preserved art deco or modern glass structures.
With these new environmental norms, the American indicators for wealth, class, or a host of other identifiers no longer hold in Serbia. Without these common triggers, new travelers become dependent only on their instinct and always trusty gut feelings. The next eight weeks will present a social experiment in trial-and-error while I try to understand these new surroundings.