Sometimes a Life is Terrible

By Rad Wood

On my way to Serbia

A traveler and a fisherman are not so different. Each wakes in the morning to begin a journey in search of something. The fisherman’s journey is simply shorter and his search more tangible. Where the fisherman seeks fish, the traveler seeks cultural experiences of the new land he travels. And much like the fisherman, there are days when the traveler’s nets return empty or with very little. These are not wasted days, however. They are learning days. When the fisherman returns to shore without a catch, he has learned something about his craft. His failure has taught him which waters do not have fish, or which times of day the fish do not feed. He can take these lessons and apply them on future days.

It is the same for the traveler. And in my travels, I have learned that cultural experiences rarely reside in ancient ruins, famous sights or highly regarded museums. These points of interest are mere monuments to the people who built them. A sort of culture frozen in time; not one to be experienced. Instead it is the people of the region that form the cultural waters the traveler must fish. The cultural experience that drives the traveler that gives him a glimpse into the life of another and affords him a moment where he can transcend his own experience and view life anew through the eyes of another is more likely to occur in mundane spaces–cafes and bus stops, park benches and random street corners.

So it was of little surprise when I caught my first Serbian experience on my flight into Belgrade. It was a bit past seven in the evening and I was exhausted. I collapsed into my aisle seat with an audible sigh of relief. I had been on my feet since four in the morning. The day had not gone as planned. My first flight canceled and this one already delayed over thirty minutes. What was my good friend, Rick thinking? He was supposed to meet me at the airport at eight in the morning. From there we were going to explore Belgrade for hours. That didn’t happen. Now I was hoping he was able to get my email and would meet me at the airport this evening. I put those worries away. At least I was finally on a plane. I could rest, or so I thought. I had just settled into my seat, book in hand when an older, plump woman with glasses and black hair stopped in the aisle next to my row. She began speaking in a foreign language and showed me her ticket. She was the middle seat. She continued to speak in a questioning tone. My intuition told me she was asking to switch seats with me–that was not happening. As I stood to let her take the middle seat, I answered, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

After she sat, she began to speak English. “Can you put bag in overhead?” Of course, and I did. She continued, “I’m sorry, I think everyone speak my language on plane to Serbia.” Her English was broken and spoken as if her mouth was full of molasses. She had to think before she spoke. Searching the crevices of her brain for a word that would work. If I concentrated hard, I could understand her. So that’s what I did for the next two hours from taxi to take-off to landing and taxiing again. The plump little lady told me her story and the story of Serbia, through her eyes. It was sad. She had been a teacher before the war. She taught for twenty-six years before she fled. The school she called home was on the border of Serbia and Bosnia, filled with Yugoslavs of all creeds. She loved it. She missed it. Most of all she missed the children she taught.

But when the war came, everything changed. She fled with her husband and daughters to South Africa, where they still live to this day. She disliked South Africa. Her command of English was too poor for her to return to teaching, so she stayed at home and raised her daughters. Daughters that grew up South African, not Serbian. And as young South Africans, the girls had moved away when college came and did not return to live with their parents upon graduation. She did not like families living apart like this. It was not the Serbian way. Now the plump woman was sick. She had a disease that caused her to retain far too much water. That was the cause of her shape. Eventually I discovered she was fifty-three. She looked nearly seventy. Life had not been easy for her. Yet she remained soft-spoken and her kind eyes continued to shine through the sorrow. Despite our language barrier, she kept the conversation going using every English word she knew. She told me how happy she was to be on her way to Serbia for two months, but sad that she could not return permanently and that her life would never be what it was. Her words portrayed the Serbs as victims. “Not all Serbs want the war. War is stupid. Also there are two sides to every story, the news only tell one side. Not the Serb side.” I had never thought about the Serbian side, to be honest. And even as she spoke it was difficult for me to empathize. I know many Serbs were innocent of any crimes, but the Serbian military leaders massacred thousands of Bosnians for the simple fact that they were Muslim. Serbian leadership was responsible for our own modern-day European ethnic cleansing. The woman’s sadness spilled over into her words, “sometimes a life is terrible,” she said referring to her own. How do you respond to that?

The conversation was not only about misery. The plump woman told me of the hidden beauty of Belgrade — “visit castle above city” — and what Serbian food to try — “chevopchichi” — and what cool streets to explore. By the end of the conversation, she smiled often, laughed at how many countries I was trying to see in such a short period of time — “you need more days in Serbia” — and at one point she seemed dangerously close to trying to give me her daughter’s facebook information. It was time to exit the plane, however, so we said goodbye and went our separate ways. But I left with a new perspective of Serbia, one that no doubt affected my experience there.

Belgrade & Novi Sad

I would spend nearly three days in Serbia traveling through Belgrade and Novi Sad with my good friend, Rick, and his friend, Peter. None of us had been to Serbia before, but Rick had friends living there who we would meet up with for a more local experience. The first night, Rick, Peter and I went out on the town with Rick’s Serbian friend Sarah. Rick had met Sarah in a Slovene class in Ljubljana a few years earlier. She had moved back to Serbia and was skipping out on valuable study time for a final the next day to take us around. She didn’t seem to mind. We met in a main square that was bustling with life at nine in the evening. From there, Sarah took us to the most famous street in Belgrade. A small cobblestone path covered with restaurants and bars, where happy Serbs were busy singing along to live traditional music and drinking far too much Jelen, a local Serbian brew. Sarah soon picked a restaurant. I was famished. I quickly ordered the chivopchichi the plump woman had recommended (it was okay) and a pint of Jelen. Rick, Peter, Sarah and I sat for a couple hours, enjoying the evening and discussing all things Balkans. When we had had our fill and were ready to head out for some Belgrade night life, we paid our bill (exceptionally cheap btw, Serbia is a must if you are traveling on a budget) and followed Sarah out into the street.

The night air was chilling. I would normally walk quickly in such weather, but Sarah was leading the way and she walked with a leisurely stroll. The walk appeared aimless at times, as if we were just out for a night conversation and a nice walk. But Sarah had a specific spot in mind. We turned down a poorly lit street that could grace the cover of a cold war novel. There was one bright light on the street, however. It was coming from a church. Sarah walked up the steps of the church and by the two men hanging out front. Apparently it was no longer a church. It was now a night club. As we waited to pay our cover in the lobby, Sarah casually said, “the band we are going to see is very famous in Serbia.” Wow. A famous Serbian band and I’ve only been in Belgrade a number of hours. The excitement was short-lived. As the door opened the band came into view. They were singing Lady Gaga. The grouped looked, and sounded, like a souped up wedding band. The Serbs loved it. The music wasn’t the whole show. It was accompanied by a seizure-inducing light show.

Rick and I would spend most the evening trying to ignore the band and attempting to find the best angle where the pole closest to us would block out the harshest lights. Rick and I had not seen each other in months so we did a lot of catching up — what was Jake’s wedding like and how are the high school guys doing? We also talked a lot about our impending trip to the top of Kilimanjaro — what a piece of cake; let’s jog to the top; oh my god, what are we doing this is going to be miserable. Meanwhile, Peter and Sarah danced. Sarah truly enjoying the music and Peter doing his best to make the most of the wedding band. Other than suffocating in cigarette smoke — apparently Europe didn’t get the memo on the connection between second-hand smoke and lung cancer — it was a really fun time.

Picture from the French girls’ apartment where we stayed in Novi Sad.

After exploring Belgrade the next morning, Rick, Peter and I continued on to the Serbian city of Novi Sad. Rick had more friends for us to stay with, a couple of french girls he also met while studying Slovene in Ljubljana. The French girls now taught at a French school in Novi Sad. They were also street performers, capable of juggling anything you wanted or turning an old broken bench into an 1800s locomotive in the blink of an eye. And they would put on a couple of performances for us during the course of the weekend. As you would expect out of someone who performs on the streets, they knew the streets of Novi Sad well and gave us a wonderful tour of the city. One of our days in Novi Sad, we chose to spend hiking through the large forested hills that acted as the city’s background painting. The hills were a deep green and went on for miles only broken up by the Danube river as it cut through the valley and slowly flowed into Novi Sad. The hike was fun and tiring. The fact that it was tiring and that Rick and I planned to hike Kilimanjaro in little over a month was not lost on our companions who sarcastically took note and told us we would be fine in Africa. At one point, Peter and I broke off from the group to make our way all the way to the lowest valley of one of the hills. We found a small stream and a picturesque setting. We also found nettles. When my shins were done being poisoned, we turned back and began jogging up the hill. This lasted for maybe 50 meters before we both pulled up fighting to breathe. Kilimanjaro is gonna be a blast.

I really enjoyed my trip to Serbia. It was fascinating to see the inside of a country that played such a large role in the geo-politics of my youth. To see that many people have moved past the conflict, while many have not. Important reminders of the ugly past still remain. Sarah, our host in Belgrade, told us that in the upcoming election the nationalist party that is made up of Milosevic’s former cronies is posed to win. This idea scares her. She is afraid that many have not learned from the past. And even today, as I ride the bus to Sarajevo in Bosnia the old divisions affect me. I cannot take a bus all the way into Sarajevo. Instead, the bus stops on the Republic Srpska side of the city, which is in the predominately Serbian area of the country of Bosnia. Indeed, at the bus station, there was no mention of the word Bosnia at all. Serbia treated the Republic Srpska as its own independent state, which isn’t entirely untrue. Serbia has certainly come far from the 1990s, but it still has far to go. I just hope that most Serbs are ready to move on and are finished with living a terrible life.

Old Fortress in Novi Sad at dusk