Before I make the big move to New Delhi, India, I am visiting my mother in Serbia for just a little over a month. To backtrack a little, my mother and father are both Indian diplomats, as a result of which I have had the opportunity to travel and live in several different countries. Currently, my mother is the Indian Ambassador to Serbia and my father is the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. (Yes, AFGHANISTAN, and yes, I fully intend to visit him in Kabul.)
Belgrade, and Serbia more generally, intrigue me. The country is rife with contradictions. Perhaps like I did, you think of it as just another cold, removed Eastern European country. Far from it! I have never met a more warm and welcoming people than in Belgrade. There aren’t a lot of foreigners here, and as an Indian, my brown skin and diminutive build make me stick out like a sore thumb among the tall, blonde, athletically built Serbians, but it doesn’t seem to matter one bit. While they aren’t hostile or racist, they also don’t approach me like a rare and exotic commodity that they want to learn more about. I am simply another person, just like them. And for the first time since as long as I can remember, race and ethnicity don’t even show up on the radar.
On the other hand, Serbia is home to a ‘football hooligan’ culture that exists in several other parts of the world where football (or soccer) is an important national sport. But it extends beyond football and stems from a deeper, more nationalistic source which breeds a somewhat xenophobic element that is utterly antagonistic to the warm, ‘difference-blind’ culture I have personally experienced. For example, the gay pride parade in Belgrade in October of last year (2010) erupted in violence when anti-gay protesters, including gangs of skinheads, walked the street throwing petrol bombs and chanting “The hunt has begun” and “Death to homosexuals”. How do those two contradictions reconcile? They don’t. They seem to uneasily co-exist, perhaps each being embarrassed of the other.
Secondly, while I can’t speak for the entire country, Belgrade seems, in some ways, to be a thriving city. There is a bustling nightlife, large malls with representation by several international brands, posh restaurants and fancy gyms with personal trainers. Yet you get the sense that it is a poor nation and a poor people. After all, what really does it have going for it in an international arena? Do you ever hear about Serbia in ANY context except maybe tennis? So you begin to wonder who is actually frequenting these fancy clubs, shopping at the designer stores, noshing on decadent eats, and getting one-on-one attention at their gyms.
Oh, and lets not forget about the mafia. While I must confess I do not know much about it, I have heard from people in lowered voices that the Serbian mafia are everywhere and control everything. As a foreigner with very little understanding of the country, I have no sense of it in my day-to-day life. Yet I am led to believe that beneath the surface, they are there, operating unrelentingly.
So, while I can’t seem to figure out what exactly makes Belgrade tick, and don’t know what nutshell to put it in, I do know that at the very least,it is a fun city. At least for a little while. My next couple of posts will be about life here, and who knows, if you ever find yourself in Belgrade, you’ll know where to go!