Across Continents

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Serbian sunset

If you come to Serbia then one thing’s an absolute must. An open mind. I’d come prepared for some animosity – you’ll still find plenty of references to the NATO air strikes a decade ago in newspapers and in conversation – but found only a warm, friendly people. If you took time to listen, they took time to explain. Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Milosevic, the civil war. I wouldn’t even begin to pretend I understand the Balkans, because I don’t, not in two weeks, but at least I’d been given some insight.

Perhaps what has made Serbia most fascinating is that, as part of Yugoslavia, during the Cold War it was one of the better understood Eastern Bloc countries. Westerners often came for holidays, Belgrade in summer, skiing in winter. Which probably made the turmoil that followed the end of Communism all the more disturbing. These were Europeans. They weren’t supposed to do that sort thing.

If one thing has saddened me a little, it’s the inability of people to travel abroad. I’m met quite a few of the older people who, as Yugoslavians, had travelled fairly widely. But there’s several generations of younger Serbians who’ve not been allowed the same opportunity. I’d taken my freedom to move even around Europe for granted, and innocently enough, presumed others could do the same. De facto confinement of a people strikes me as, at best, very unfair.

Much of my journey through Serbia has been across the Danube flood plain, largely dull and featureless. But then a few days east of Belgrade and dramatic changes. Steep, wooded hillsides, high pastures, Alpine in appearance. Quite beautiful. But then this has been a country of huge contrasts. Scenes of great beauty, but also of immense poverty.

But the real reason to come to Serbia, or at least the one that would bring me back, is the people. Remarkably friendly and hospitable. I’ve sought to provide a few examples, a chance meeting and dinner in the suburbs of Belgrade, Mica in Negotin. I thought life here could be very tough for the ordinary Serbian. There is, as far as I could understand, no welfare state, certainly not as we would know it. Another striking contrast to the former Yugoslavia. Many of the people I’ve met have, of necessity, more than one job, often ’on the black’ with no security of tenure. All of which makes their warmth, their kindness towards strangers, all the more impressive. Humbling. But don’t take my word for it. Come and see for yourselves

Author’s note: To get a fuller picture of Serbia today, click on Gallery.

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3 responses to “Serbian sunset”

  1. Re: “If one thing has saddened me a little, it’s the inability of people to travel abroad. I’m met quite a few of the older people who, as Yugoslavians, had travelled fairly widely. But there’s several generations of younger Serbians who’ve not been allowed the same opportunity … De facto confinement of a people strikes me as, at best, very unfair.”

    That is surprising, especially as Serbia aspires to membership of the European Union.

    According to Wikipedia:

    “… Serbia has the fourth oldest overall population on the planet, mostly due to heavy migration … which is expected to continue … Serbia has among the highest negative growth population rates in the world, ranking 227th out of 233 countries overall.”

    I’ve been meaning to ask… with all the cycling, have you become very fit?

  2. admin says:

    There’s an expectation that visa restrictions for most, but not all, EU countries will be lifted soon. However, I suspect the cost of travel into the likes of Western Europe is likely to be prohibitive for many. Hence my expression ‘de facto confinement’. I’m unfamiliar with the Wikipedia piece and its veracity, but I am quite certain that my own assessment is an objective one based on research on the ground. And yes, getting quite fit!

  3. Okay. Sorry. I thought you meant they have travel restrictions like the old Eastern Bloc. That would have been a bit strange.

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