Remote Year, Month 2, Belgrade: The best city you should never visit

August 9, 2019

When I found out I’d be living in Belgrade, Serbia for a month with Remote Year, my brain did the American thing: it resorted to vague stereotypes.

Eastern Europe, USSR, Russia, scowl, angry, no English, hate Americans, parents worried.

Turns out, it’s safe, clean, affordable, fun, gritty, chill. Everybody was nice and spoke English.

My apartment looked like this.

The nicest apartment I’ll ever live in.

A few hundred bucks goes a long way in Belgrade. Beers were $2, big meals were $5 and gourmet fine dining was $10.

But the city smells like shit.

Before I moved to Prague two years ago, I was drinking Bud Lights with a college acquaintance in a bougie bar in Manhattan.

“I’m not trying to be a dick, but Prague is so touristy.”

He talked about how Old Town Square, the Number One “Thing to Do” on TripAdvisor, is beautiful but you stand elbow to elbow with loud, sweaty tourists.

He was right.

Yet my year in Prague was the best year of my life, and will be at least until I finish Remote Year.

I loved Belgrade. I could live there.

The people, the street art, the weathered buildings, and the fact that their main party destination besides clubs is what we called “concrete jungle” — a parking lot with a half-dozen bars and people dancing outside in said lot.

And the cafes on every street, where you could nurse a $2 quality espresso and read and write and people-watch for seven hours without the waiter bothering you.

Getting a refill was about as difficult as achieving Serbian fluency in a month (try pronouncing my street, Kneginje Zorke), but it was a nice change from American cafes where you’re murdered with “politeness.” Would you like anything, sir? I would like you to leave me the fuck alone so I can write nonsense like this.

This one time at a café I frequented, Smokvica, you won’t believe it, the waiter goes, “Do you need anything?” I almost had a heart attack.

But I wouldn’t tell anyone to go on vacation in Serbia, because I don’t know what the hell there is to do.

Everyone kept asking me my favorite moment in Belgrade. I don’t know. But it definitely wasn’t any of the things to do. Their “Republic Square” was nice to see once. So was the main cobblestone street, Skadarlija. I missed out on Ada Lake, which seemed like a cool-ish beach, crowded with locals. Some nice buildings. I don’t know. Architecture can be cool, but non-experts like me only notice the outliers, and Belgrade is generally gray and ugly.

I didn’t go to any museums. The food was good but nothing stood out. I loved how friendly the few people I met were, plus the service industry folk I small-talked with daily.

OK, the pile of meat stood out.

Those aren’t mashed potatoes; it’s butter.

“It’s for four. It’s for two.” The waiter was joking or lying or confused. I don’t know. We were three. We left two-thirds over.

The more I travel, the more I see cities as just backdrops.

Not negative or positive, just changing landscapes that shake things up in my head, while I live a similar life.

Walking, writing, reading, going out with friends, exercising, sleeping, eating, repeating. It’s not glamorous. It makes me happy.

If you told me I had to live in Belgrade forever, I’d shrug, as long as I had some friends and my computer. If you told me I could never go back, I’d shrug the same shrug.

It doesn’t matter if a place is touristy. The touristy things are rarely memorable besides an Instagram pic with a small boost in likes from average.

You walk two blocks from Old Town Square in Prague, where you’re bumping elbows, and there’s nobody.

Belgrade didn’t have anything touristy, and yet I had a great time living the same life I did in Boston.

Okay, fine, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t blow smoke in my face while I’m trying to write.

Okay, fine, the absence of AC in my room, with the presence of 90 degrees almost killed me.

My first Car:go (Serbian uber) driver goes, “Do you like girls?” I guess? Not like that, though, driver. Just take me to dinner.

“If you like girls, you must go to Freestyler Club. We have great clubs!”

That’s the one thing I’d heard about Belgrade. Great clubs. I’ve never liked clubs, and the better their reputation, the douchier the clientele. But some friends and alcohol get me dancing and acting like an idiot. It’s fun.

When cities are just backdrops, the distinguishing features are the stories.

I needed to go to Freestyler to have a story and mental reference for: Douchey Serbian Club.

My friend had to make a “reservation” for us to get in. Bad sign.

Immediately, they ushered us to a “table.” In club parlance, “getting a table” means you are forced to buy bottles of mediocre liquor for a minimum of 5x retail price, if not exorbitantly more in places like Vegas.

So you go to a club, where the only fun thing to do is dance, and then you sit on a couch because materialists of whichever gender you prefer will supposedly want to fuck you.

I’d rather eat the money, shit it out, and eat the pile of money poop. Dinar poop for dinner.

We refused. They were confused. They said we had to go elsewhere.

But the thing about this club is there was literally no dance floor.

There was a bar stuffed with the 30 or so people who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for a table, then a few tiny tables also with bottles on them (you can’t stand there either!), then even tinier tables, literally half the size of a bar table (no, not there either!), so your options are: stand in the three-person wide bar area, or get a table, where there’s room to lounge.

Our female friend lied that her friends were coming, so we could stand at the small table briefly and pretend not to be a bunch of poor, unaccompanied bros.

After an hour, I had acquired the mental picture and begged to leave. We left soon after.

It is the worst social establishment in the world, solely designed for people to show off.

I now want to get rich so I can burn the place to the ground with everyone inside. Just kidding. Not really.

The music was decent. I would have danced. I had a great time making fun of everyone with my friends.

I can’t wait to tell that story and laugh in my head at my mental reference for “Douchey Serbian Club.”

There were fun memories.

Our Around the World party that ended in 17-year olds begging us to sing “Happy Birthday” because we were carrying a guitar. That ended with the 17-year olds asking girls 10+ years their senior for birthday kisses, because “it was a Serbian tradition.”

So I guess if you want things to do, get drunk and wander around with a guitar until 17-year olds solicit you for kisses.

Wait, don’t do that. I guess I have no recommendations.

Serbia fits the stereotypes at times. It’s been through some shit.

At a birthday dinner, we were told we “couldn’t order yet because the chef is preparing; he makes everything fresh.” Isn’t that the definition of a restaurant?

It was 20 minutes after our reservation. OK.

We ordered 10 minutes later.

45 minutes later:

Can we maybe have some bread? Let me check.

The bread is homemade so we cannot. Sorry. OK.

45 minutes later, I got my appetizer and main course at the same time. Nobody else in our 8 person table got any food. My main dish was cold. I was in shock. I ate. It was OK.

15 minutes later, another got his food. There were two birthday girls and neither had eaten.

15 minutes minutes later, three more got their food. Not the birthday girls.

30 minutes later, the birthday girls were eating. Their food was OK.

I don’t know if those times were right. It was a 7:30pm reservation, and we left at 10:50.

Then four of us went to an outdoor jazz bar where teenagers played jazz at 11pm on a weeknight. I ate charcuterie immediately after the restaurant because my meal was small and long gone.

The shared laughter about the service — imagine if this happened in America? — was one of my favorite Serbian memories.

So was the time I tried to order sushi, but my phone didn’t have credit, and the operator goes, “YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO CALL THIS NUMBER,” and hangs up immediately.

And the cleaning lady walking in on me.

But really, multiple people struggled with the air “quality,” and, really, you walk past dogshit and dumpsters on every corner, and really, Belgrade smells like shit.

In a month, you get a taste of the culture. I don’t have any Serbian friends. The blogs mention the beautiful women, and they’re right, but it’s not like I interacted beyond drunk small talk once at a bar.

I guess the taste was gritty. Do grits taste gritty? I’m a New Yorker. Let’s say Serbia tastes like a bowl of grits. With meat.

The old and gray architecture, the few bombed-out buildings from 1999, the “FUCK NATO” graffiti.

The Car:go founder who had aspirations of competing with Uber, but admitted he “might fail in two weeks,” and seemed like he’d fail in two weeks, and droned on about how finance laws are antiquated and how difficult it was for him to use PayPal, a 17-year-old company, legally.

The Serbian who told me his friends thought he was crazy for blogging about food because he had a prestigious job at a university.

The bouncer who said to me and my fellow, straight male friend as we intentionally walked into a drag show, “Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

When we said yes, he shrugged the most judgmental shrug in all of shruggery.

It’s impossible to resist progressiveness in this connected world, unless you’re North Korea, but Serbia is confusedly shrugging as change sloooooooooowly infiltrates.

Month 1 of Remote Year was all meeting people and funcussions.

Month 2 was more relaxed. I got to know a handful of people on a deeper level. We all lived spread out. I was a 50 minute walk from two people, and 30 from most. I didn’t see about half the group more than once. I drank about half the alcohol.

Month 1 was sensory overload. Month 2 was chill. Month 3 we’re all stuffed into a (big, amenity-rich) building in London. I’m not sure what’ll happen. I still barely know anyone. I’ll try harder. It’s hard to know 75 people, or even one person when there are 75 people.

I’ve talked to people about it. It’s hard. We’re trying.

The few one-on-one convos have all resulted in — wow, I never would have thought that.

You don’t know anyone until you know them.

I decided I don’t like side trips. I want to get work done and live a normal life in each city. I’ll probably change my mind. It’s a year of whirlwind background changes as my senses puke.

I love the quote:

We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.” — Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I probably like it because I’m naturally too competitive and goal-oriented and I know I need to chill the fuck out. Cheesy quotes aren’t cheesy when you know you’ve ignored them your whole life.

I always want to rush things, but I know that’s not life. Trajectory is all that matters.

I don’t know much, but entering Month 3, we know each other better and are more ourselves.

Inevitably, people were comparing Prague and Belgrade. Most liked Prague better. It’s prettier. The ones who didn’t said it was more touristy. Both sides are right.

There’s a reason most Serbians, when I told them I’m from New York, would go, “so why are you here?” They were genuinely confused. They can’t see that that’s part of the charm.

“Beauty isn’t things trying to look like something else … Beauty is things being just what they are.” — Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenence

Serbia’s beauty is needing to pay an old Serbian lady four cents for newspaper to cover your seat at a soccer match.

Serbia’s beauty is the fans throwing flares after a goal even though it could disqualify the team from international competition.

When a city gets popular, it gets “touristy.” Which means it has to put on a face. If you don’t live there, you’ll never get beneath the face. Spend a month there and you might get a peek at the real city. In a year, I got a decent look at real, beautiful, non-touristy Prague.

In a month, at least I got a taste of real Belgrade, because it’s not popular enough to put on a face.

What I’m trying to say is that Prague looks like the Douchey Serbian Club on the outside, but it’s more like the Parking Lot Party deep down.

Serbia looks like the Parking Lot Party and is the Parking Lot Party.

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