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Belgrade: The arrival

This is a precursor to the lessons, I know. If you’re impatient, you can skip to them, but really? The back-story is kind of cool.

So I stepped, far too sweaty for my own good and wired from lack of sleep and too little water, off the night train in Belgrade. All I knew about the city was its post-war grittiness and its reputation for being a party-stop-off on a European ‘off-the-beaten-track’ tourist route. The scene laid out in front of the (impressive) neoclassical station building at 7am did little to dispel either of those two labels, with a couple of weary backpackers sitting bleary-eyed on a kerbstone, their glances now drawn away from the shrapnel-damaged low-rise blocks, now towards.

And then Bojan arrived. He was beaming as though I was a long-lost friend, and welcomed me with open arms and a crushing bear hug. I was later to learn in my wandering explorations of the city that he was typical of almost all Belgradians; armed with a wide smile and a desire to help, they throw more suspicious travellers entirely off their guard. How long this takes to wear off depends on the traveller. It only took me a couple of hours – I learnt quickly from Belgradians and realised how much simple inner strength these people had.

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Bojan’s place is listed on AirBnB. It is tiny – a compact studio perfect for one person, yet has absolutely everything a traveller could desire. Bojan himself lives in the flat next door and his communication, helpfulness and sunny disposition were an inspiration. The studio itself, besides being in the city centre, comes complete with a wonderful optional city tour from Bojan and chats with his mum in a Serbian-Russian-English pidgin. Bojan builds his tours around his guests, taking into account what they already know and have seen, and how much time they have to spare. He is an informative and knowledgeable guide, speaking excellent English which he says he ‘learnt from TV’. I felt able to ask him anything and was touched by the frank way he answered even my most hesitant of questions.

Something I learnt from Bojan is that the rebuilding of Belgrade, despite appearances, is not finished. There are still buildings with bomb damage (such as the one below) but Belgradians, in typical smiley fashion, see this as a positive. One man told me that the contrast of old and new ‘gives the city interest’, and the edgy flavour is only enhanced by the fantastic and pretty unique river barges which hold some of the city’s best bars and clubs.

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More about them in my ‘Why you should visit Belgrade’ post.

But for now, back to the people. The very fact that Belgrade has been variously Christian, Muslim and Orthodox in its time, having been occupied by Ottoman Turks, Austrians and also ruled by Serbs themselves has given the city much of its openness and also its melting-pot flavour. As Bojan said, ‘many people here are part-Turkish. It’s from the occupation and so we can’t resent it because that would be like resenting part of ourselves.’ Perhaps it is this logical outlook that has removed many of the grudges that Belgradians could have held against some other nations and ways of life.

So, the five life lessons I learnt from Belgrade and its people?

I recommend that you start to put all of these in place immediately. For me, the changes resulted in a significantly more positive attitude to life and everything it threw at me, a huge rise in self-confidence and subsequently in self-esteem, and so ultimately in a happier me pretty much overnight.

1. Trust

Belgrade was under fire during the 90s in the brutal land-grab war between Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs. Yet Belgrade’s people of today do not view anyone with suspicion but instead welcome them with open arms. They are eager to share their life and sense of fun: an old (beaming) man spoke to me in a café – I ignored him, with the awkward rudeness of a more closed character. He smiled knowingly and openly and left me alone. (This is something else about the people of Belgrade – they do not push their friendliness if you are uncomfortable, but will simply smile and leave you to your own thoughts.)

Just as I was getting up to leave, he spoke to me again and said he’d like to pay for my coffee if I would speak English with him as he thought it was “becoming like rust”. He added that it was fine if I didn’t want to because I was alone so he would understand if that was the case. His friendliness, openness and willingness to communicate exactly my fears disarmed me: I sat there with him for another hour and we put the world to rights. He was amazing and had seen so much of the world and of humanity. I learnt a lot from him about history, language and social norms in Serbia.

How often we judge and carry suspicions with us because of Western-imposed stereotyping! I am not saying that every traveller should trust everyone they meet implicitly – that would be ridiculous – but at least give them a chance. Belgradians seem to trust so easily, and certainly seem happier for it.

2. Smile

I was sheltering from a sudden downpour under an arched doorway on Kneza Mikhailova, the central pedestrianised artery running through the very centre of Belgrade’s most European area. So were an assorted mixture of old, wizened man (Serbian), busker who now lives in Belgrade (French), smiling poi artist (Serbian), guitarist (Serbian) and his fiancée (Bosniak) [a lesson right there in unity], and another guy with no street entertainment value except his smile (Serbian). The guy smiled and my world lit up. I felt safe. The old, wizened man spoke to me in German. I looked puzzled. He smiled. My world lit up – he wasn’t judging me for not being able to communicate with him. The guitarist and his fiancée smiled, seeing my confusion. I felt even safer. They tried some halting English and we, complete strangers all, held a conversation full of laughter. I walked away feeling high; more confident; liked – nay, even loved, and that the world was more than special that day.

I once set my friend back in the UK a challenge: to smile at one person a day he didn’t know to try to decrease his shyness. His response? “What’s the point? They’ll only think I’m weird.” For me and so many other travellers I have spoken to about their experiences in Belgrade, the opposite was true. The people of Belgrade and their open smiles break down barriers and help to heal wounds. That can’t be a bad thing!

I’ve put this into practice over the rest of my trip and noticed that people around me start to smile too, just as I did under that archway. It’s a beautiful feeling and resulted, at least for me – and them – in a much more positive outlook on life.

3. Take life as it comes and forgive

The people of Belgrade have been through so much in the past 20 years that now it is only the bigger things which affect them negatively. I realised, staying in Belgrade and talking to Bojan, how many expectations we have which do not matter any more; which only weigh us down and result in discontent. Let them go. When you have lived through war and fought to stay alive, you cannot hold petty grudges about your friend cancelling on you or your housemate not washing up. Because, honestly, there have been – and still are – far worse things in the world, and some of those, the people of Belgrade have forgiven and learnt from, though perhaps not forgotten. To forget is to be foolish and not learn. To not forgive is to be unhappy.

4. Emotions are a choice

Following on from the above, Belgradians could have chosen to bear a grudge, to not forgive, to hold all the negativity from the war years in their hearts. But having visited their incredible city with its simply beautiful people and some darn special characters who have provided some of the stand-out stories of my trip, it is clear that they have chosen not to do that, but instead to look forward.

I decided then to choose to be happier: to choose to read my friend’s cancellation as an opportunity for some exploration and photo-taking rather than as a time of missed fun, and to view the past split with my boyfriend as wonderful because we were both now free and not tied down to a label that wasn’t working for either of us. I have had depression in the past and realise now how much I allowed my thoughts to dictate my emotions without trying to believe other, just-as-likely interpretations of events. Now I don’t allow the negative thoughts to take root, but change them around, preferring to believe the positive interpretations as long as my own behaviour has been beyond reprimand (and if I have made a mistake, I learn from it, put it right if I can and move on). That person glaring at me from across the street? They’re probably having a bad day. It’s the more likely interpretation of their behaviour given that I don’t know them and have not upset them in any way I know of.  It’s wonderful to be able to manipulate thoughts – though this takes time – and emotions.

Since Belgrade, my world has been sparklier.

5. Do not be afraid to speak and be open

I received more (shyly delivered and very genuine, not creepy) compliments than I had ever done before in my three days in Belgrade. People were not afraid to tell me that they thought I had a nice dress, or that I smiled a lot for a foreigner and that was nice (“you are becoming one of us” they said, often), or that my eyes were a nice colour. They all made me feel good.

This awoke me to the fact that complimenting in the UK is much more of an awkward affair, with our denials and ‘no, no, don’t be silly’ waving aside of the complimenter’s opinions (how insulting to doubt that they mean what they say! We are so presumptuous!)

So I experimented and decided to say if I liked the way someone dressed, or if I found them attractive, or if I thought their friendliness was a refreshing change. I gave my opinions on their cities with an open mind and waited to hear their reactions. All opinions became valid and all were to be equally considered. People began to open up to me, and later in the trip, I was told time and time again that I made people feel good about themselves because I was so positive. In fact, I had a deep sense of contentment because once I started accepting others’ opinions, I felt much more that other people would accept mine. I have become less defensive and more laidback.

Travelling really does broaden the mind – psychologically, morally and beautifully – and Belgrade was, for me, such a huge contributor to the contentment I now feel. It may not have a lot to see and do, but talking to and discovering its people should be the main reason you visit. Go just for them – they are utterly unique.

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