So I decided to stay 3 weeks in Belgrade and volunteer at a hostel through Workaway. I was getting a bit tired of moving around every few days and also wanted to experience more of the place instead of just the touristy stuff.
Workaway is a website that connects volunteer travelers with host companies or organizations and the host provides accommodations and usually meals. For example, I am volunteering at a hostel in Belgrade and I receive free housing and free breakfast. Some other Workaway options I have heard of are working on an olive farm in Greece and receiving housing and meals for your stay.
On my first day, I went on a free walking tour of Belgrade. It was very informative of the history of the city and country as a whole. The guide also gave us some Rakija, which is a local drink. The tour starts in Republic Square in front of the horse statue and the National Museum, which is being renovated for years and doesn’t have a completion date yet. The statue is of a famous King of Serbia that promoted Serbian culture from the Ottomans and it caused quite a scandal because he isn’t wearing a crown.
The national theater is also near there and during the 90’s war they sold really really cheap tickets to keep moral high. Belgrade has been rebuilt so many times due to so many wars throughout its history so though there are parts that are really old, there are a lot of new parts too.
The next few days, when I’m not working, I have been touring around casually. Since I am here for a few weeks, I don’t feel pressured to see a bunch of touristy things in one day or quickly. I figured, one touristy thing a day is a good pace.
This time has also allowed me to get back into the running habit. I have ran around Kalemegdan fortress, which offers beautiful views of the rivers Sava and Danube- there is actually a conference of the two there. I have also ran along the Sava River in New Belgrade. The path leads to Zemun, the section of Belgrade that the Austrian-Hungarian Empire controlled. The Ottoman Turks controlled what is now called Old Belgrade. There is a monument called the Victor Monument at the fortress that is a naked soldier in order to not represent a particular side and just the humans under the uniform, but since it is naked it caused quite a stir and the ladies of the time requested it be situated where it is now in order to hide the front of the statue from the average eye. Under the fortress, there are bunkers from the war and you can take tours of them.
Belgrade has some pretty churches. The two big names are Saint Sava, which is quite beautiful on the outside, but is still being built on the inside- still being built meaning that it has been YEARS. The second is St. Mark’s, but I found that the Cathedral church was much prettier on the inside.
The most exciting part of my week was all the awesome people I met. Here is a snapshot of some of them, but by no means all of them:
S was hilarious! He had no filter and would say the most randomest things, but he was kind at heart and was always up for something. I invited him to run one day and he went in hiking boots and ripped jeans! When I told him it wasn’t necessary to accompany me he said,
“I’m easy to provoke.” Which turned true when I told him he didn’t have to run the whole thing with me,
“Don’t say that! I’m going to have to now!” But I eventually convinced him not to since he was feeling his lunch.
He has long hair and for the run asked to borrow a hair tie. When we were outside of the hostel, still in the building, he asked,
“Do you mind doing my hair? I don’t know how…” I laughed and put it in a ponytail/bun for him.
We went to the Nikola Tesla museum together. It’s a small museum, but has his original inventions and items as well as his urn. The urn was interesting because he died and was buried in New York, but then his nephew decided to cremate him and bring him back to Serbia where his family originated from though he only spent 3 days in total here. Several countries lay claim to him because it was under the same Austrian-Hungarian empire, but at the same time, he moved around quite a lot before finally settling and finding success for his inventions and thoughts in the United States. It was very informative and I now have a better understanding of his life. Every hour there is a video and a tour of his inventions.
S gave me a new perspective to growing up in Eastern Europe. He told me stories of his home and how similar his language is to Serbian, sometimes making fun of how I pronounce certain words, but then I was later confirmed right by a Serbian.
He was also correcting other people’s English, which was funny because his English, though really good and what I would call fluent, was not perfect. If I can understand the majority of what they are saying and can infer the rest of it, I don’t bother correcting people especially for a small word here and there. Some people ask me to correct their English, but I always feel uncomfortable because I don’t know how much to correct because sometimes it can be every other word so I don’t unless I don’t understand or it’s very wrong.
“I’m a hater.” S would self-proclaim, but he really loved his identity and where he came from. It was nice seeing and hearing his strong sense of patriotism, even if he wouldn’t call it that. I know people say that about Americans a lot and I don’t see it very much from other countries, which I find a shame.
He also did not like me saying American. This is an old argument because America are the continents and the people that live there are all American; however, my argument in return is that America is in the name- The United States of America versus Canada is just Canada as an example. Also, the English language is a bit inadequate in words and there is no word to describe someone from the United States besides American unlike Canada, which is Canadian or someone from Peru, which is Peruvian. For example, in Spanish, there is a word that encompasses people from the United States without saying American.
AC is from Barcelona, but has been traveling for the past 2 years and is still traveling. He has traveled about South America and we had many conversations about that and differences between Spain and Argentina specifically. In this, we also had some discussions on pronunciations of Spanish words and definitions such as tortilla- is it a flat bread thing or is it an egg omelet type thing? I say the thing used in burritos. He says the egg thing. It’s all about perspectives and where you come from. They are both right, but I will still stick with MY tortilla.
He has a strong dislike for men from Buenos Aires, Argentina because they go to Spain and take all the women with their accent, which he doesn’t like (the accent itself).
We explored Zemun together and walked up to this old tower for a nice view of the city. It was a bit foggy, but it was decent enough. We also walked a little by the river, which was frozen and saw people standing on it so we joined them. I believe it was my first time standing on naturally frozen water.
I later taught him some American things such as the MAD TV skit- Can I have your number (which is really funny) and the meaning of being Basic, when someone is addicted to Starbucks and selfies basically. There is a bit more to it, but hard to explain. After showing him a YouTube video, he had a better understanding of the term.
“Let’s be basic and take a selfie.” I said in my best valley girl voice to make fun of the situation.
“Oh, ok.” AC said happily. It surprised me because non-Americans don’t know what being basic means normally.
“Do you know what that means?” I asked.
“What a selfie? Of course. I’m not that old.”
“No, being basic.”
“Ah, no.” So after I explained it, I would say,
“We are basic together.”
Later, AC found out that my mother is from the Philippines and was telling me about his travel experience there and how similar the language is to Spanish.
“The numbers are exactly the same.” He said amazed.
“They are not.” I replied firmly. We went back and forth and finally he bet me a shot of Rakija. We looked it up and I was right.
“But, you didn’t really lose because you still had a shot.” Said a friend later when we were recounting the story.
C and I really hit it off. She is originally from Morocco, but now lives in Paris. She speaks Arabic (and the Moroccan dialect), English, and French fluently. Actually, her English has a light French accent, which I think is really cool. I enjoyed our conversations and we had lots of laughs as well. Our first evening together there was a discussion between AC and I about Sofia, Bulgaria and how long to spend there. He had convinced C to spend less days there and I was teasing that he could have changed her destiny.
Many of our talks happened in the kitchen of the hostel.
“It’s like a magnet. We can’t leave.”
Others joined our conversation and soon wine was being brought out and soon pizza was ordered.
“Do you want Rakija?” Someone asked.
“No, tequila is my drink.” I responded.
“Me too!” C said. We fist bumped. A start to a beautiful friendship.
We got breakfast the next day and then went to the National Bank of Serbia; however, they need a passport to enter and we didn’t have ours so we had to go back to the hostel. There we encountered two Turkish guys, my Serbian friend, and AC. The discussion soon turned to how young I was, again. This is a common theme for teasing me.
“You look the same.” As they looked at my passport photo.
“Here’s my driver’s license.” I gave the card over. The photo was taken when I was 16 and I have not changed that much. One of the Turkish guys looked at it and in a very concerned voice/gaze asked,
“What happened to you? You became white.” I doubled over with laughter. It is true. My photo is when I spent most of the day in the sun and I was super dark while I am currently in constant cloudy winter with no sun. It truly made my day. We all went over to the bank where they take your photo and print it on the local currency (dinar).
That night we went to a kafana on Skadarska street/Skadarlija. This is Bohemian quarter and has all the bars and restaurants. A kafana is when people are eating, drinking, and listening to folk music. Our dinner party was 14 people. C and I ordered the same thing, but we realized we should have split it because there was a lot of meat- we ordered Cevapcici. We ended up sharing it with other people and ordered mixed vegetables to get some greens in our system.
Everything was great. However, I became in charge of the bill and had to count the money since there were so many of us. Some of us left right after paying their share and by some miracle we had the exact amount. So those that remained didn’t have to pay any more than necessary.
After, 8 of us went to another bar for follow up drinks. It was a quiet bar- only two older gentlemen there as well as the bartender. We ordered drinks. Most shared in a 3 liter beer keg, but C and I got our tequila shots. While the others were talking about different topics, we started grooving out in our seats and finally we decided to just get up and dance. This bar was a sit down bar and didn’t have a proper dance floor, but we didn’t care. A Russian friend soon joined us and we all happened to be wearing turquoise colors and decided to name ourselves Team Turquoise.
We soon got the rest of the group dancing and somehow got in charge of the music, which was being played through YouTube. I think we helped with business because some customers came in and saw us and ordered drinks then joined us dancing.
At the bank, there was a display on American money and C told me she never held or seen any in real life. So after the bar, I showed her some of my American money and she asked if she could keep a Nickel (5 cent piece) as a souvenir to which I said of course.
A is from the London area and came to Belgrade to help out with the refugees. There is a camp here and they have volunteers running the food lines and giving English classes. I went one day and the conditions are awful especially with it being so cold. This is apparently the coldest winter in Serbia since they have started recording the weather. It also has been snowing quite a lot. This particular day as well, half of the refugees refused to eat to start a hunger strike and threatened the other half that if they ate they would be beaten up later. It was peaceful overall, but the volunteers with the food were unsure what to do. They didn’t want anyone getting hurt, but they also didn’t want people to starve.
On a happier, though annoying note, we had several discussions on pronunciations and spellings of words between American English and British English. I have heard a mix of likes- some prefer American, some prefer British. But even if people learn British English, American media is all over and they end up learning American as well. For example, donut in American English and doughnut in British English. I understand doughnut makes more logical sense: dough- nut, but I still prefer my American way of donut. What do you guys think?
A’s business cards were very unique. He made them into Pokemon cards where he is the Pokemon. It is very creative and I have not seen that type of creativity before. He lost his voice for couple of days and was very nervous to return home because he’s a musician and has a few gigs when he returns, but if he can’t sing…However, it came back the night before he left and remained even the next day, so hopefully he can do his gigs.
F works at the hostel and is from Belgrade. I had already spent some time at the hostel and was comfortable with the environment. He just started his shift and I went to introduce myself. He was a bit confused until I said I was the volunteer and he gave me a big smile.
We have had many long conversations about a variety of topics, which always end with us laughing. Normally, our conversations would be in the kitchen, but sometimes I would sit by the reception desk. One day, people were checking out, but had not left their beds yet so we went to wake them up. The majority of the room was supposed to leave so I did my cheerfully loud “good morning.” There were some groans as people still wanted to sleep. One guy called me over,
“We want to stay another night.”
“All 9 of you?” F asked.
“Uh….11.” The person in the bunk below him growled,
“Yeah, 9.” The first guy confirmed. F and I looked at each other and nodded to the guy and left.
He came with C, AC, and I to get food one day and then toured us around a bit. We first stopped at a Gyros place then went to this small café/bakery and had some yummy desserts! Then, in front of the President’s building they have the changing of the guard every half hour, so we saw that. He was telling us a lot of cool fun facts about Serbia and Belgrade. There was one story about the Parliament building. The original builder was told he and his people would never see the finished work, which would be a Parliament building and out of fear he stopped building it. It was years later when it was completed and neither he nor his people saw it.
During this afternoon, we fully realized F’s dislike for police and we think it stems from when he was a child and lost his stuffed animal. He went to the police to report it and they couldn’t find it. He might not like me telling this story, but I think it’s really cute.
He also showed me a really famous 80’s singer from Yugoslavia. The music videos for her songs were definitely from the 80’s. I learned many things about Serbia and this area from him. He told us about things he remembered from the war in the 90’s and his schooling such as religious classes and having a really religious teacher when their regular teacher went on maternity leave.
All of them pretty much left on the same day making me a bit sad. I was with most of them for a week and had a lot of fun with them.
“You still have F.” C said. Luckily I still had F. I’m really glad I met them and since it’s a hostel, there will be more people coming and I can’t wait to see what other awesome people I will meet in the next few weeks here. Belgrade has been really awesome. I’m really glad I decided to spend quality time here to fully explore the city.