So as I was saying, I’m on a bus to Belgrade, I’m literally (and I don’t mean figuratively) the only chick in a bus full of middle-aged Serbo-Croatian men. Well, full is a strong word because we’re only like 15 people on the bus. And no one speaks English. Ever have that feeling that you’ve gone too far, and you’re suddenly like.. wait.. what the fuck am I doing... Turn back! I change my mind!!
It’s the dead season in the "Balkan Peninsula" at the moment, and though winter here is not winter in Canada, and it’s not even winter in Germany, it’s still pretty wack. It’s kinda cold, it’s gray, and there isn’t much tourism going on, which is not good for ME, because I thrive on tourism.
So you may be asking “What the hell are you doing in Belgrade, Jasmine... and where even is Belgrade?”
That’s what I would’ve been asking myself like 4 years ago when I never heard of Belgrade, and if you had asked me something about Serbia I would have no idea where to place it on a map, no idea what language they speak, and in my imagination, I would be picturing some 3rd world, war-torn, poverty-stricken country.
But I was on Koh Phangan in Thailand about 4 years ago, and I briefly met this Serbian guy Bogdan. We were both taking a similar connecting flight out of there, and he ended up talking to me for about 3 hours about how Awesome his city of Belgrade is, and that I should definitely visit and he would be happy to show me around. So I believed him.
And when I noticed, 4 years later, that Belgrade was in the neighborhood of where I’m gonna be, I hit him up on Instagram and he was super excited to hear from me and invited me to stay at his place for the weekend.
I get such a kick out of showing up in a random part of the world with absolutely No clue about the culture and no idea what I'm in for. I’ll just rock up like "I'm here, bitches!"
We arranged that Bogdan would pick me up at the Sava Centar at 11 pm, but the bus was early so I accidentally missed my stop, and rode to the end of the line until the terminus bus station. I’m like “Sava Centar?” To the bus driver, as he’s unloading my luggage, and he just goes:
“погледајте, дамо, ако сте желели да сиђете у Сава Центар, требало је да кажете нешто раније. Нисам читалац ума, овде”,
shrugs his shoulders, climbs back into the bus and drives away. So I’m like alone at this bus terminus with my heavy bags, in the middle of the night with No internet connection. Oh good, there’s a group of cops over there, I’m sure they can help. Wait, one of them just ran away.. oh shit. Now they’re all running. What the.. cops running is never a comforting sight.
Anyway, I’m exaggerating for entertainment value. It wasn’t scary at all. I finally did see some cops who stopped and spoke English and let me use their phone to call Bogdan, and he was their like 5 minutes later. He brought along his friend Jovan and so the three of us drove back to his apartment.
First thing when we got there was, of course, a shot of Rakija, a "fruit brandy" which is popular in Serbia. It’s also very popular in Croatia. Basically Croatia and Serbia is the same guys. As we now know they were all part of Yugoslavia together so same language, except for some small differences.
They taught me all about Serbia’s history. Yugoslavia used to be ruled by this charismatic guy Tito who would fly private jets and have expensive parties on Yachts with Hollywood celebrities, and he was beloved by his people. I thought it was kind of weird since it was a communist country and this guy’s showing off and spending all these people’s money, but they loved him, and he made his country look good.
And then in 1999, there was some kind of war where NATO was dropping bombs on them, but it was a “peaceful” bomb dropping and they aimed for bridges and military areas, not people. They were even informed of where the bomb was gonna be dropped so they could avoid it. But what the people did was that they would all gather o
n the same bridge together, and just stand there, like 50 000 of them, so that NATO couldn’t bomb it. And they saved bridges that way. Bogdan and Jovan were only kids then, so for them, it was an exciting and fun time because they got to miss school. When the bombs dropped they called it 'happy hour'.
Today Belgrade is one of the safest cities in Europe but like 10- 15 years ago they had like 5 murders a day because EVERYONE had guns. Guns were cheap af (50€ for an Ak47) and freely available. People would shoot guns all the time. At weddings, they’d have kids shooting guns, it was gun crazy. Later the laws were radically changed and now it’s all safe and normal like a normal city.
Anyway so I learned a lot that night, and later they were really excited to hear me play so Even though I was kinda drunk, I sang and I played for them for a little while, and they were so happy and enchanted and they thought it was wonderful. So I was glad to give something back because I received the most amazing welcome ever. Bogdan let me have his room while he slept on the couch, and basically no one let me pay for anything the whole time.
The next three days were spent having Rakija in the morning, Rakija for lunch, aaaand Lots of Rakija at night. Thursday was such a beautiful sunny day. We went to Kalemegdan,
a medieval fortress, and then we had a drink on a rooftop. It was cold but it didn’t matter. We saw the main walking street, Knez, where people shop and busk, had some ice cream, and then we went to have Great pizza at this restaurant on a boat. From the front it just looks like a normal boat, but then you go inside and it’s a nice restaurant with a terrace and amazing view of the sunset. It was such a fun and beautiful and magical day.
I’m so grateful because there’s no way I could have had such a fun time if I didn’t have cool people who are locals, showing me around. Everyone I met was REALLY nice and super keen to teach me about their culture. But Belgrade is still an alright city to travel alone in, I’d say, because especially younger people are pretty good at English, so you don’t feel totally isolated.
Friday was a cold rainy day. I made the mistake of walking around in my sneakers, getting lost on the way back home, and they got soaking wet and so did my feet. They still stink to this day. My sneakers, that is. Not my feet. My feet smell wonderful. But I still wanted ice cream for some reason, so I walked into McDonald’s for a sundae, until I noticed an item I’ve never seen. Dream pie. It’s like a typical McDonald’s apple pie, but it’s two-toned so it had raspberry filling as well as peach or something, with two scoops of ice cream on the side! Drizzled in chocolate! This is what I travel for, yo. Finding menu items like dream pie at McDonald’s. Mmm.... dream pie.
And then at night, we went to Kafana, and Kafana is like this Party in the stone basement of a bar. There’s a band made up of a couple of accordions, a double bass, and a guitar, going around to various tables, playing traditional Serbian or Yugoslavian songs that everybody knows, and everybody’s drunk, and singing along and dancing and tipping the musicians and being silly. It’s pretty cool.
Saturday I wanted to try busking on the main street even though Bogdan had NO faith that I would make any money since the currency is so small. 117 dinar are worth 1€ and currency is made up of bills. A 10 kuna bill is worth less than 10 cents. Monopoly money, I called it.
But of course I busked. I took a cab there because The ride was only 5€, and the bus system (although ‘free’) is reaaallly shitty. The schedule says the bus comes every 6 minutes, but I waited at least 15 minutes every time, and then we were all cramped in there because the bus was too full. And there’s so much traffic it’s crazy slow. So not ideal for carrying guitar and busking gear.
So I took the cab and I played and it was a great day. The best part was when a group of teenage girls stopped and listened to me for a while. They were dancing and clapping, and crying out “we love you!” They passed by like 3 times, too. I had small crowds around me sometimes, which is really exciting, except I never know how to follow up, to keep them there. And I’m always too shy to say anything. But I’m working on it.
So At the end of three hours, I had a guitar case FULL of bills. Never seen anything like it. I gathered them all up and I had a HUGE wad of cash. The whole thing came up to about 70€ which is not very good for 3 hours, but in Belgrade, it’s good because like I said the currency is so small, and the prices of things are also really small. A pastry and chocolate milk costs less than a Euro, and a plate of pasta at a nice restauran
t is like 6€. Also like I was saying I paid for almost nothing the whole time.
Anyway, Bogdan and Jovan were REALLY impressed with how much I made. They didn’t think I was going to do that well at all. So we celebrated with Rakija and we went to this party in a bar that looks like an inn or a barn house, to listen to Gypsy music. Yo, it was the best concert I’ve ever seen. The band was So Fuckin Good. The legend is that the singer spent 30 years traveling around with Gypsies from all over Europe to learn their music. They’re called Amaro Del. I was dancing and screaming and clapping the WHOLE time. The place is totally packed so you can barely move around, but that’s because the band is incredible. I highly recommend going to that if you’re visiting Belgrade. They play once a month.
Sunday we just chilled, because we were exhausted from the crazy weekend. We smoked 65 million joints and watched a bunch of HGTV, and now I'm super stoked about redecorating my apartment.
I was actually really excited about my visit here because after a week of sightseeing alone, eating alone and doing everything alone, I was finally going to have a friend to talk to and do cool things with. Nothing compares to visiting a city where you know people, so you can live like a real local. It was everything I could have imagined. It’s like one of those times where all the stars are aligned and you never expected that all this magic would happen, but you’ll never ever forget it.