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  • Writer's pictureMatthias

Welcome to Belgrade

Serbia? Siberia...? Syria...!? Many people – especially (US) border guards – occasionally find it difficult to correctly name the nation around the city of Belgrade. That used to be different, once upon a time, when it was still the heart of the "Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia". But the present heavily suggests that in the future it might be like that again.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

When you take a look at the "white city" (as the Serbian Beograd, from 'belo grad‘, translates) for the first time, you will quickly notice that the eponymous white has actually turned slightly grey. History has clearly left its mark on the metropolis while passing through here over and over again. But if you risk a second, a little closer look it will already become obvious that the first one was not entirely correct. In fact Belgrade has more or less casually wiped the dust of the millennia off its shoulders and is simply continuing just like before – only differently! Remarkably silent old trolley busses make their way through the jammed streets, the air is pervaded by the scent of popcorn and cigarettes, crafty designers build furniture from Danube driftwood and on cracked house walls pink graffiti pigs call upon a vegan lifestyle. Belgrade is caught between tradition and progress, but sitting quite comfortably in a typical Slavic squat.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

It's the third look that usually puts rose-colored glasses on open-minded visitors' eyes. Because once you look behind the facades of dwindling splendor and beginning change you will find the true magic of this city. In pretty much every third backyard there is a cool open-air bar with glowing gimmicks, old living room furniture and an acoustic cover band, holding a guitar in one hand and a craft beer in the other. It’s the city within the city – or behind and below it – the new creative underground that makes Belgrade so worth seeing, exploring and experiencing. When the political or financial situation is difficult people get creative. And the (young) Belgraders have genuinely mastered that – as well as decelerating. Punctuality is more quirk than custom. In all fairness this is partly due to the local public transport that pretty much works without an actual timetable, but it's also part of the local mentality which is based on a good helping of "whatever“. Coffee can be had all day long (without necessarily meaning actual coffee) and with friends, family, colleagues, neighbors or whoever invite themselves with a polite and direct "I’ll be coming over“. After all there is always something to discuss – everyday life, politics or basketball. Sure, the FIFA World Cup will also happen on Serbian TV screens, but the defeat against Slovenia in the finale of the 2017 European Basketball Championship will still take time to process. Even sarcasm, which Serbia has cultivated nearly as excellently as the rest of the Balkans, is not gonna help much with that.

But the Serbs will come to terms with it – as they always have. They might not have everything, but what they have is enough to make them happy. Or content at least. Most of the time. And no matter if it does or not, in weekend nights young party people will still fill the local pubs (called kafanas) and roar along with traditional Serbian folk songs played live on accordion and guitar. The oversized Tito bust in the background almost seems to smile through its dust layer. And yet it is this young generation that paves a little more way for the future with every step in a still new direction. Its members don’t put up with anything, they sing, dance and study, and they speak good English. And their city follows. More and more international flights to and from Belgrade, extensive construction work like the modern river promenade Belgrade Waterfront – and even if Serbia’s lesbian prime minister has more of a representative function (and is actually quite controversial): Serbia does have a lesbian prime minister!

Photo by Sanja Kostić

And still Belgrade residents don’t seem to see what I see. They keep asking me, wearing a smile somewhere in the middle of pride and incomprehension, why I like it here so much that I stayed so long – especially as a Berliner. From Germany. The Holy Land! Well, I may not be old enough to be allowed to say that, but I keep saying it (not least because my mom has confirmed it): the Belgrade of the today breathes the spirit of 1990s East Berlin. The walls are coming down, the time of hibernation is over. Spring has come, ideas are sprouting. And if you take a deep breath you will not only smell popcorn and cigarettes, but that too!

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