Eastern European Eye Opener

Steve and I recently drove from Pordenone, Italy to Ljubljana, Slovenia to Zagreb, Croatia, to Belgrade, Serbia, and back to Zagreb and eventually Pordenone. The trip was about 900 miles and countless hours of driving–ok, it was about 14 hours–and I can say I didn’t mind the drive (ok, the drive back to Zagreb and then Pordenone was a little long) because I feel lucky to get to see the scenery and landscape of these countries in a way I normally wouldn’t if I was to fly directly there.

Surprisingly, eastern Croatia and western Serbia are similar to eastern South Dakota. Basically, few trees (although still more than in SD, very little forest compared to other parts of Europe) and flat, farmland. I think Steve got a little sick of me yelling, “TINY TRACTOR!” or “TINY COMBINE!”, every single time I saw a farmer in his field, but I couldn’t believe how small they were! I have no idea if they have smaller fields or they just don’t produce large tractors over there, but the tractors were the size of a large pickup! Ok, now that I have sufficiently let my farmer flag fly, I’ll move on to the actual city of Belgrade.

I knew nothing about the Yugoslav Wars between 1991-2002. To be fair I was a child during that time, but I don’t even remember learning about it during history class. I suppose it’s because it didn’t directly affect the U.S., but when I started researching before we drove there, I felt so ridiculous for not evening knowing it happened! Steve had mentioned something on our drive that I took as a kind of joke (making fun of how behind the times Eastern Europe can sometimes seem), “You’re not supposed to take pictures of bombed out buildings because it’s rude.” I forgot about the comment for the next three hours as we travelled across the farmlands of Croatia and Serbia.

I became slack-jawed when we entered Belgrade and within the first five minutes of driving in the city,  I saw a building that had, in fact, been bombed out. We saw several more as we made our way toward our hotel.

The buildings had been bombed by NATO because, according to NATO, the operation sought to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo, and it was the first time that the organization used military force without the approval of the UN Security Council. While I understand little of the actions leading up to the bombing and have no feelings whether it was justified or not (there are always two sides to a story), the bombing ended up killing between 489 and 528 civilians, destroyed bridges, industrial plants, public buildings, private businesses, military barracks and installations.

After seeing the buildings and realizing that Serbians might not be the most friendly toward Americans (we had a pretty big hand in the bombings) we decided that if anyone asked where we were from we’d go with the safe stand by, “Canada…eh!?” (I’m kidding, we obviously didn’t say “eh”).  

On our first full day in Belgrade we did a free walking tour (I highly recommend doing free walking tours whenever you’re in a new city, the guides help get you get oriented, teach you a ton of history, and help you find good places to eat, drink, party, etc.) and when asked where we were from Steve and I tucked our naïve American tails between our legs and said, “Canada.”

Here’s some of our tour group with the Belgrade Citadel in the background.

Throughout the tour there wasn’t much talk about the most recent war, but past wars (Belgrade has been the site of over 140 battles—the most in any city) until the end of the tour when Jovanna (our guide) started to mention the Yugoslav wars. She was 27 years old and had lived in Belgrade her whole life. It was extremely interesting hearing from a young person who had lived through four different forms of government. One line about living in a communist nation really stuck with me. She said, “As a kid, it’s fun to sit around the table and play board games by candle light, but then, that’s your life every day. It gets a little sad when you realize that’s not how every one lives.” It’s hard for me to imagine someone so close in age to me, living such a different life. Needless to say, I was in awe during the whole tour. But our history lesson didn’t end during the walking tour. It continued on into the night when we met many Serbians at bars and clubs later in the night.

When I told my dad Steve and I were going to Zagreb and Belgrade he said, “Those don’t sound like tourist spots…” It’s true, I never would have put Belgrade or Zagreb on my must see list, but I’m so ecstatic I got a chance to see the two largest cities in the former Yugoslavia. In fact, all the travel books we looked at before our trip raved about Belgrade and how tourists are starting to realize it’s an “outspoken, adventurous, proud, and audacious” city.

Indeed, the residents of Serbia were some of the most 1) friendly 2) outgoing 3) beautiful (seriously cannot stress this point enough. Everyone was happy, young, and six or more feet tall—ok, maybe not but even the women dwarfed me!) people I’ve ever met.

A lovely pedestrian only area with many bars and restaurants.

It was through our conversations with these young Serbs that Steve and I (after admitting we were from the U.S.) learned from a gorgeous (probably a model) woman, “No! We don’t hate Americans! We love Americans! We have no problem with the people. It’s just the government we don’t like!” I felt reassured, although, I’m still not entirely sure how to take her comment. Throughout the night we asked several other Serbians how they felt about Americans and they all vehemently agreed, “No, we don’t hate Americans!”

So many lessons learned. My advice? Go to Serbia ASAP before it becomes the newest tourist hotspot and prices skyrocket.

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