I am quickly becoming the world’s biggest advocate for AirBnB. It may not be the noblest of causes, but AirBnB has undoubtedly played a hand in shaping my experiences in each country. There’s just something about meeting a person from a place you never thought you’d visit.
A young woman named Jelena met me in front of my host Nikoleta’s apartment on Strosmajerova Street in the Zemun District of the city. It was conveniently situated between a busy street lined with shops, markets, bookstores, restaurants, and a quiet park filled with fidgety teenagers with no place to go.
The apartment had clearly been well maintained and it appeared recently renovated. Everything was sleek with modern finishes and totally spotless making me feel as if I were touring some chic flat on the Upper West Side.
Jelena quickly ran me through the amenities of the place knowing well it would more than suffice. She then went on her way before I cleaned up after a long and rather suffocating bus ride.
By early evening I was ready to hit the town. I found a path running parallel with the Danube and followed it for nearly an hour. I ambled carelessly as couples walked past me hand-in-hand, children rode bikes, families gathered with picnic baskets by the river, and life gracefully ran its course just beyond my curious eyes.
I love this place. The city is not “beautiful” in the conventional sense, more gritty than anything, but it’s a special city. I can feel it. It’s the same state of being that instantly washed over me when I set first set foot in New York, Shanghai, and Tel Aviv. Other cities have offered me equally important experiences, but I’ve often found myself starting in a place of neutrality forced to slowly construct my appreciation for the surroundings as I went along. With Belgrade, it’s already there.
The people here are almost absurdly polite reminding me of Japan in a way. But here there seem to be no outsiders. Striking up a conversation with a perfect stranger is as easy as flipping on a light switch. In fact, it’s as if they’re waiting for the opportunity to swap a joke or an interesting story.
Of course, this country and region have certainly dealt with its fair share of conflict. From the Yugoslav Wars to the 2004 unrest in Kosova, peace has been broken, regional conflicts worsened, and statehoods to this day remain unrecognized.
Amidst all of that messiness there is still a sense of gratitude that emanates from the spirits of each person, young and old, perhaps relief that there are finally some good things taking shape.
The city is lively, the buildings have character, and for whatever reason, I feel that much is possible here. It may just be the naivete of a foreigner not well versed in its history or societal landscape, but one can at least hope.
I asked my dear friend Kea, a 27-year old actress from New York City what the best piece of advice she ever received was and here’s what she said: "Advice is attached below. One of my customers at the HK bar I worked at said this to me once in conversation-- not long after, I quit, and left for the Appalachian Trail ;)"