Accommodation: We are all over the city this month – I don’t think we share two apartments in the same building anywhere in the city. I’m rooming with Rebecca, someone I haven’t spent much time with, but she’s a life coach and is a positive and genuine girl and while a more extroverted human than I am, I think it’s a good change of pace and I’m happy to live with her. Also our apartment is fully furnished with big couch, full kitchen, and bathroom. Only complaint is we have a fly problem and the bathroom smells like sewage. But I can work with it.
Workspace: I’m a 15 minute walk to the workspace; it’s in an older building right off one of the main streets and we’ve got one floor with open tables and, best of all, AC
Community: We’re in the heart of the city – lot’s of shops and stores around us. Our workspace is right off the main shopping hub street and you can get pretty much everywhere by walking.
Currency: $1 is 90 dinars; cost of living is amazing this month.
Sunday July 31 – Protocol
I took my sweet time today enjoying everything that Sunday mornings are supposed to be. A relaxing morning in with leftover coffee from Prague was much needed. I pulled myself away from the laziness to walk through my settling in steps – luckily we’re right in the heart of the city so everything is very convenient and there’s a shop on every corner. I easily found an ATM and relished in the conversion rate before I headed over to the grocery store. I was greeted with the song “Let It Go” over the sound system, which was an interesting entrance song, but soon after there was a feeling of “crap – I have to start over.” My established routine is gone, I don’t know the store, I’m not sure what product surprises wait for me in the aisles and honestly, it’s just tiring to start over every month. Literally my first thought out the door when I went to run errands was “welp, new city. I hope I don’t get too lost today.”
The grocery store was fine though, the produce is lacking, but everything else is there. It’s pretty sleek looking and I was impressed with the checkout stations at the front that have (what I thought) was an elaborate cigarette brand logo marking the beginning of a lane. They’re actually giant containers of cigarettes that you can purchase at the end of your shopping. Some people pick up gum and a Twix bar in the checkout lane (ahem Kendall ahem) others pick up a day’s worth of cigarettes. Do you.
After errands, I met up with Dustin for lunch and then a walking tour. My first impression of Belgrade was that it reminded me of Montevideo. I think that’s mostly because the window AC units started dripping on me again – the bright side is…AC UNITS. HALLELUJAH. Very quickly though I found that while Belgrade certainly has an urban mixed with old buildings and industrial vibe, its charm is the hidden cafes and restaurants along its streets. Within my 20 minute walk around this morning, all the streets weren’t anything striking but then suddenly you happen upon a modern, charming café that brings the area into 2016. This city is going to make you work for its appeal.
Dustin and I had a subpar lunch – big menu items here are ground meat main course, like a giant meat patty. We read somewhere that the hamburger actually originated in Serbia…I think it’s more like the reverse Chick Fil A motto – they may have invented the ground meat, but they didn’t invent the burger.
Our tour that afternoon unfortunately continued on the subpar theme. There’s a ton about Serbia and the history of Yugoslavia that I don’t know much (but I gotta have youuu) about and after the tour, I still don’t. I don’t know if it was the language barrier but our girl did not drive any major points home and actually seemed to avoid the uncomfortable wartime conversations/history of the area and instead showed us random stuff, like the first secondary school in Belgrade. Here’s what I did take away:
- Serbia was ruled under the Ottoman Empire for 500 years
- They recently ended a war with Croatia
- Kafanas are the typical Serbian restaurants, they’re a mix between a bar, restaurant, outdoor patio and music venue. They’re often pretty big and normally have an expansive patio.
- Rikija is the main kind of alcoholic drink – it’s 60% proof
- The main symbol of Belgrade is the statue in Republic Square but the second biggest symbol is a sparrow. This dates back to the war between Austria and Turkey because a sparrow was found with three arrows in its body (didn’t really drive the point home but we’ll all infer)
- In 1990, Serbia entered the biggest inflation crisis in the world. There’s was a 70 – 80% increase in inflation per day. The started printing 500 billion notes – 500 billion was about one month’s salary per person and it would cover the bare minimum. During this crisis, a lot of locals reverted back to the old Serbian ways of growing their own agriculture
- The Serbian alphabet is Latin and Cyllic (the language reminds me of Russian, or at least their accents remind me of Russian characters in movies)
- Belgrade means White City
Dustin, Marc and I bailed on the tour early and just walked around the huge fortress in Belgrade that’s right on the Sava/Danube River. Along this fortress is a giant park with tons of green space. It’s really pretty to walk around in…if it wasn’t 95 degrees outside. I just straight up melted today.
After walking around the park, we made our way back through the main street. The main street looks like a dialed back version of an Atlanta or NYC shopping street, it’s all pedestrian with modern shops (H&M, boutiques), tons of gelato places, patio restaurants and a few Shop&Go Grocery stores. Our workspace is right off this main street. It turned into a bustling place that evening compared to the original ghost town we walked through earlier. Dustin noted “oh, people stay inside during the hours of hot and hot. Got it.” I had a strawberry gelato for an appetizer before heading home to cook dinner. Not a bad first day here but I think I’m going to have to work to love this city.
Monday, August 1 – Friday August 5 – Working all Time Zones
This month is our user conference – one of our biggest events of the year and with two weeks to go, it was crunch time. My work schedule and need for balance left no room for tourist time so I did nothing Belgrade-y this week. My routine can pretty much be summed up as:
- Wake up
- Get dressed by little birds
- Fix breakfast, pack lunch, and check previous night’s emails
- Chase flies around the kitchen and living room with Raid (yes this is daily and I cannot find the source of their escapades.)
- Go into workspace around 9:30
- Munch on lunch
- Head home around 6
- Work until 10 – 11pm
The mantra “work in the morning before East Coast gets online” has gone from appealing to necessary this week. I start my projects in the morning and then I’m on calls and available until later at night. I don’t mind it (other than my exploring evenings/mornings are dwindled) but the real downside is I’m having trouble sleeping because I don’t really get the downtime between work and bed…which means while my body is like, hey girl, we did a lot today let’s hit that REM cycle, my brain is like omg let’s walk through all of the thing we have to do tomorrow, plan out the next three days, did you send that email, you need to schedule a haircut, remember that time you tripped in the hall in 6th grade let’s replay that right now!
I will say though – this could be one of the better accommodations so far on RY. A totally furnished apartment with a TV in the common room and throw pillows and a bomb ass view of the sunset every night is so nice to come home to. And a maid comes every Thursday. And we have a washing machine IN the apartment. And I have AC. AND there’s no extraneous random noise that keeps me up at night. This is the real deal.
Friday night I went to dinner with Natalie and Arshad and again, not super impressed with the food but I did like the cornbread appetizer that tasted like home and the $10 bottle of wine that we all split. Thanks for the affordability Belgrade.
Saturday August 6 – Welcome Party
A low key day after what turned out to be a really busy week – I’m kind of burned out today. And it was the first Saturday in the better part of a month and a half where I didn’t
have any plans. This evening was our welcome event at a club along the river, so I went over to Natalie’s where some girls and I started the party and then met up with everyone at the club. Per usual, the most fun part of the night is the pre party. As far as tourism goes, Belgrade is known for its nightlife. I thought that tonight would be a great night for two birds one stone: I’m social and I knock out a key part of Belgrade’s tourism. Unfortunately the welcome party was a bit lack luster…the most fun part was figuring out how to sneak out the desserts in Natalie’s bag (according to Natalie “we might have to forgo the spoons.”)
Sunday August 7 – City Life
Easy day in the city – took a walk around this morning to the store to stock up on groceries and then went to a juice bar/café to write ze blog. A simple day but a good one. After more walking around, I feel like Belgrade is a mix of Montevideo and Buenos Aires – you definitely have the industrial/worn down buildings but there are cute cafes and restaurants every few blocks. It’s also really pedestrian friendly, I feel comfortable walking everywhere which is a huge plus.
Monday August 8 – Tuesday August 9 – Groundhog Days
See last week Monday – Friday and….repeat.
Wednesday, August 10 – Refugee Volunteering
I’ve talked about finding a work/explore balance before and I feel like I tipped really far into work my first two weeks here and haven’t really gotten to know the city. I tried to change that today by signing up for volunteering at the refugee center a few blocks from our workspace. I volunteered from 8:30 – 12 today and I think it’s probably one of the most impactful things I’ve experienced so far this year.
First off, walking into the refugee center made me wish I had decided on more modest clothing – skin clinging exercise pants and a tank top make you feel even more on display than you already pretty much are. My role today was to help sort and distribute donated clothes to the refugees that come into the center. The center is a bit of a dilapidated building but it has a kitchen, common space, a few computers for kids to use for education, and a back room filled with the donated clothes, volunteer offices and showers.
One of our group members, Carol, had already been working at the center for a few days so she gave me a bit of background on the refugees. Most stay in Tent City, which is exactly what it sounds like, about 10 minutes from the center and a temporary home to about 2,000 people. Most of the refugees coming through are men, as the city or town in Syria (or wherever they’re leaving from) will send its strongest man to go first and establish a new life and then come back for his family and loved ones. They can spend up to 30 days in one “Tent City” as they work through their necessary documents. Many travel through Belgrade to get to the EU but it’s gotten harder and more are staying longer because the EU’s borders have tightened.
I was overwhelmed when I first walked into the donation room. The baby, kids and women’s clothes were stacked 2 feet high with all previously owned donations meanwhile, the men’s clothes were wiped out. There were piles of shoes and stuffed garbage bags and a scent of must in the air. Our morning started by re-stocking the men’s shelves with brand new clothes that had been donated by stores. Mind you, these new clothes were like cutoff sweatpants, white undershirts, plain vnecks, etc, nothing special. One store even wanted us to mark down the ethnicity of the person we gave their clothes too. Yes, we’ll make sure you get your tax break.
We had to wear gloves when working with the clothes and the clothes’ scent reminded me of some of the people I was around in South America. I guess the scent is old clothes – because I never smelled it before until I was around some of the locals in La Paz and Cusco. It’s not mildew or body odor, it just smells like old cloth.
After sorting the clothes, we were behind a counter with all of the shelves behind us, so when the refugees came in, they would tell us what they needed and then we would run clothing to them. Each person would get one article of each kind of clothing, one shirt, one pant, one pair of underwear, etc. The next two hours were unbelievable – I had to break it down by different categories because there was so much going on it was hard to process:
- There were about 5 RY girls and 6 veteran workers. Some of the everyday workers would get so frustrated with the refugees – like they basically said take it or leave it in a very snippy manner
- We had two security guards doing crowd control. They would only let about 5 – 6 people in at a time from the line queuing up outside.
- Security will come in after a few minutes and if they decided that refugee had been standing there too long, they would say, yup you’re finished and literally shove them out the door. They would scoop up their items, shove them in their arms and actually, physically push them out of the door.
- One new volunteer was giving out too many articles, like 2 pants, 3 shirts, and this refugee started to leave with his great pull and he made the unfortunate mistake of making eye contact with the security guard to say thank you. I watched the scene unfold in slow motion and I wanted to yell NOOOOO don’t do it but the security guard snatched his clothes and pulled out the allotted amount of articles for him. My heart broke watching his face – it wasn’t his fault.
- An older lady walked in and was looking over at the women’s clothing. When the security guard saw her, he came up to us and says:”Indian grandma?” pointing to her”Doesn’t get anything.” I felt like I had been slapped. This lady was so old, bent over and seemed so innocent. I guess she was a regular and when I saw her tuck a shirt under her arm to hide it in her robes, I understood the guard’s comments as she worked the system. He could have said it nicer though.
- A similar situation arose as another man approached the counter and the guard grabbed his wrist and goes“He only gets underwear because he’s here every day” and then walks off.
- As the morning got busier, sometimes the guard would walk up to someone that just walked up to the counter and goes “are you finished?” Most were younger men and just looked at him with a more fearful than a disdainful expression – I would sometimes tell him that no they just got there and hurriedly provide them with clothes.
- One time the guard started yanking this boy by the arm to get him out before I was finished helping him so I quickly threw an extra pair of underwear on top of his clothes as he pushed him out the door. The guard gave me a look and I gave my best “white girl here to help” smile.
- Later that day, the guard asks if it’s our first day helping. When we reply yes, he said “welcome to hell.” That hurt my heart on so many levels.
- Most people were very polite and thankful
- Others you could tell would work the system; the guard would normally toss them out before they gave us trouble
- All of the men are small framed and needed smalls and mediums; we only had large and xlarges. This was a constant battle with all of the men, most would shrug and take it anyway.
- I eventually started taking from the women’s plain tshirt stock to give the men shirts that fit them better
- The most pivotal moment of the day was one this one man walked in looking like he just got out of a pool. He was only wearing boxers and was pouring sweat. He immediately put on all of the clothes we handed him.
- The mother’s would be very picky about what items we pulled out for their kids; one mom even flicked a pair of shorts back at us. I get it, you want the best, but that was rude.
- Some men were embarrassed to ask for underwear or they weren’t really sure what to ask for. I think these were the men that just got to Belgrade; others came in like pros and knew what to ask for. Most knew the basic English words for the clothes, although one man said “pants” when he pointed to his shirt and “shirt” when he motioned to his pants. We’ll get there.
- One couple came in with 4 kids under 10; they collected clothes and took showers in the back. The mom and dad both looked so stress while the youngest (around 3 yrs) ran around pulling on everything within his reach, just like any other 3 year old.
- Today there were brand new shoes available so everyone would flock to that counter before coming over to the clothes
- Refugees have to exchange their current shoes for new shoes;
- The volunteers marked on side of the shoe with red so the refugees couldn’t resell them
- There were tons of newborn baby things and almost nothing for little boys and men
- People were still picky even though we had limited options. It’s conflicting because I wanted to get frustrated with them but then stopped myself because I felt badly for them. The veteran volunteers didn’t hold in their frustration any more.
- I don’t know how the mothers with kids are doing it – I saw 6 moms come in today with children, all looking for clothes.It’s heart wrenching.
- I wonder if the big box stores and such know the impact and need is of this magnitude. How much would it really cost the stores to donate more clothes for these people?
My mind was reeling as I walked home after volunteering. I have heard constantly how lucky I am, to live in America, to have such opportunities, how privileged my lifestyle is, and I some level, I knew all this, but it did not register until this morning. I have absolutely zero problems.
At home, I have a difficult time sometimes helping or volunteering with homeless people, because I don’t know how they ended up in those circumstances. Were they dealt a tough hand or did they make poor choices that led them there? Here, that question never crossed my mind. These people were born into this and had to flee because these conditions are better than what’s waiting for them back home. It’s devastating. I was born into a white, middle class family and grew up in a safe suburb in a major city in the United States. These people (and children!) were born and lived in state of war and chaos. It is so unfair. Guilt sank in and out about my upbringing because at the end of the day, I was born into privilege. And it never fully registered until now.
I looked at my apartment with completely different eyes when I got home: completely furnished, refreshingly cold from the AC, clean and hot water waiting for me in the shower, and ample clothes. I took one look at the pesky flies that roam our kitchen and didn’t give them two seconds. I have no problems.
After work, I met Natalie and Dianne for dinner and a quick drink at one of the cool bars, then headed back to email and bed.
Thursday, August 11 – Underground Tour
In the effort to continue to balance, I went on an underground tour of Belgrade this evening:
- The Belgrade fortress was created in two parts: one part in the medivial period, represented by the white stones and the rest in the Ottoman Empire period, represented by bricks
- There’s one part of the white wall that’s a huge circle of red bricks. This marks where the original bridge used to be – the Austrians were a bit Type A and liked everything in a straight line – so the entire way from the river to the land was one straight line through the walls. The Ottomans said nope, straight lines are too easy to attack, we’ll build the new bridge over here so that way our enemies have to take a 45 degree turn to continue the attack. And the primary reason I’m telling you this story is because I thought our guide said elephants when she said Ottomans and I was puzzled for a good 30 seconds on what kind of warfare happened back then.
- There’s an underground well called the Roman Well. It’s actually unsuccessful as a well because it didn’t actually reach any water, just holds whatever water runs off the surface.
- Even though it was built in 1770s, it’s called the Roman Well because it refers to the folk tales that refer to the old buildings of forgotten origin, as Roman.
- There was a murder in the 1950s by a Serbian man that pushed his mistress down the well to kill her. Yikes.
- Alfred Hitchcock actually visited the well and drew some inspiration from it because of its creepy vibe
- After the well, we visited old underground military bunkers that were created during the wars during the Yugoslavia area. These bunkers were just unveiled to the public in 2008 – which makes me wonder what they were hiding in there until then
- Then we visited an underground room which used to be gun powder storage but now serves as a place for tombstones and sacrificial stones and doubles as a nightclub on the weekends. Because Belgrade.
- There’s a romance story around one of the stones – in 2005 one night after having their first date at the night club, this guy was so gung-ho about this girl that he went back to the club after he dropped her off and stole one of the sacrificial stones. He placed it in front of her house with a bouquet of flowers and clearly the rakija works because she loved it and they’re actually married with kids to this day. And they just returned the sacrificial stone to the club two months ago. Which again I question the timing – you had it for 11 years and suddenly you give it back? What, did it not go with the living room remodel?
- We finished up our tour in a wine cellar with some crisp white wine
I wasn’t overly impressed by this tour either, but also it was really rainy and cold and we all know how I deal with that (…hey Budapest). And I was wearing my chacos again.
- The Danube River connects 4 capital cities in Europe and now I can say I’ve been to each one: Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava, Belgrade
- Everyone assumes you smoke – a waitress drops off the menu, the drink list and an ashtray at your table. And then looks at you weird when you say you don’t need it.
- People still stink – maybe even worse. I hold my breathe in the elevator when certain gentlemen get off of it and I had to straight up pass on buying fresh produce the other day because there were three stores associates unloading items and you just cannot buy groceries when someone’s armpit odor is in your nostrils.
- So sadly, I haven’t been able to watch a lot of the Olympics because they save the good stuff from prime time which is prime sleeping time in my time zone. But, I did get to watch part of the opening ceremonies and I felt a tug every time one of the teams from countries I’ve been to/will be going to stepped forward. Like I’ve said before, I feel like I get to experience the culture not just “visit” their home, so seeing their citizens representing their country at such an event means more to me in this year’s Olympics. There was one image of a Bolivian teammate crying and my heart about collapsed – there’s so much going on in that country I just want this person to win something. And to be honest, I hope there are more medals won by other countries than the USA – we dominate everything (news, pop culture, music) do we have to dominate this too?
- The staff members seem friendlier here – they seem much more willing to help and not as curt. I’m not sure if that’s the culture or because Belgrade isn’t such a hotspot for tourism as the other Eastern European countries I’ve visited – but everyone’s been very warm to me so far. They also speak English great – to the point where I was heckled in English for my soft spoken nature when ordering a slice of pizza for dinner the other night. I mean, for a $1 USD equivalent for two slices, you’re allowed heckling priveleges.
- This might be top 10 most random takeaways of this year, but in Europe, the coffee is not as hot as America. It takes me a good 10 minutes to muster up the courage to sip out of a to go cup of coffee in the states – here I can drink my latte as soon as it’s set in front of me. It’s minor and it’s weird but this pansy appreciates it.
- I see a few homeless people around town – but it’s normally the same 4 or 5 I pass on my way to the workspace. What’s new this month is I see kids asking for money or selling small items again, like I did in BA and La Paz. They come up to you at restaurants trying to sell you pens, or packs or tissues and I just can’t make eye contact with those big brown eyes. This one little boy was asking for money at a café and he gave the most dejected shrug when the waiter shooed him away.
- I don’t know that I love it here yet – but I also think any city after Prague would be hard to compete with.