How Belgrade has found its place in my heart.
I arrived in October 2015 with three heavy bags and my Nikon camera. My ride from Budapest left me in front of a rundown building in the centre, near the offices of the oldest Serbian newspaper Politika. In true Balkan fashion, my Airbnb hosts welcomed me warmly, offered me water, coffee, a beer. We chatted like old friends in true coffee-culture fashion on the balcony with our drinks about France, Serbia and life in general.
The city is a brilliant, messy mix of architectures representing its chaotic history. The oldest religious building is a mosque located in the district of Dorcol which exists since Roman times. The Western bank of the Sava river is a temple of concrete architecture and brutalist style as if Yugoslavia had never ceased to exist until the old town of Zemun brings you right back to the Austrian empire. The Eastern bank is an ode to interwar Europe with delicate statues overlooking long avenues, forgotten art nouveau villas and royal palaces turned into public institutions. And, in the middle of it all, high modern buildings with glass walls and too many supermarkets.
Restaurants and cafés are buzzing with chatty crowds. Bad food is hard to find. There will always be a place somewhere ready to satisfy your cravings at any time of the day, be it a greasy slice of pizza or barbecue meat chopped, minced, covered in buttery kajmak or stuffing a grilled flat piece of bread. Coffee, white wine and rakija, the Balkan brandy,
Belgrade can be messy. The never-ending construction work is exhausting. Finding your way in New Belgrade requires the Power of Three. Slavija Square is lethal. People always want you to wear slippers at home, get married and close the window because of the deadly draft promaja. The politics and the waste of public money is infuriating. Old ladies call you “son” even if you’re a grown-up woman. Sidewalks are just traps. They moved the main train station from the centre to the middle of nowhere. They smoke inside.
But Belgrade crawls under your skin.
You didn’t know you needed cevapi and Plazma shake in your life until you tried them.
In just a few weeks after my arrival, I made friends and became an habitué at the bar downstairs, at the shop around the corner and at the burek place called “Sarajevo” a few hundred meters away. The best in town. I always joke that it’s the smell of burek that led me here.
When I exit the bus after a several-hour-long ride to a neighbouring country to cover one political mess or the other at five o’clock in the morning and see the morning light reflecting on the windows of the Design Hotel Mr President, I feel like I am back where I belong. The golden hour is equally stupefying. The sunlight has a peculiar hue here.
I sit with friends I have almost just met and discuss the deep meaning of life with no boundaries. I wriggle my toes still recovering from a wild night of clubbing. I have “my” spot at Papergirl coworking space. There is a new film festival starting this week. Three photo exhibitions to check out. The next Sofar sound concert is approaching. Time fits and starts. There are days I feel like I have been living here for a decade.
Sudbina, destiny, brought me here. I say that sometimes and people nod with a look of understanding. They know it makes sense.