I just wrapped up my tour with Get Your Guide, a travel company based here in Belgrade. The meeting time was 10:50 am in front of the Hotel Balkan, tucked away on a busy street right across the way from its more glamorous neighbor, Hotel Moscow; a 5-star hotel dating back to the 1930s still frequented by movie stars and dignitaries.
I wandered in front of the pick-up spot for several moments as the minutes on my iPhone touch screen slowly ticked by; 10:51, 10:52, 10:53. “We got a problem,” I said out loud. There were no other tourists awaiting the bus’s arrival, which further diminished my confidence that the tour was going to happen. I began to wonder if I’d been scammed or stood-up. Strangely, I was at peace with either possibility and started to think of which coffee shops I’d walk towards so I could continue mapping out my next career move. I did after all have my notebook and pen in hand.
The morning began on a not so auspicious note. I discovered a short film I’d made and was very proud of had been rejected from the Port Townsend Film Festival. I also spent much of my morning exhaustively clarifying an issue with my apartment back in New York. A tour around Belgrade might either be exactly what I needed, or the last. There seemed to be little grey area.
Just as I started to reroute my day, a slim man in his 50s, wearing glasses came up to me and asked, “Excuse me, are you Mr. Maccarone?” He pronounced my name like the pasta giving me a brief flashback of my childhood. “Yes,” I assured him and headed to a large white van where he handed me a bag of sweets. “Nice way to start,” he said.
“My name is Peter and this is Milli,” he explained, pointing to a stocky gentlemen in his 60s. “But you can call him Mr. Miles.” I wasn’t sure if the older man’s nickname was a result of altering a few letters or a reference to the great distances he was used to driving. Still, I felt instantly at ease, as if spending the afternoon with two of my uncles.
“Just you today,” Peter said. “A private tour.” I smiled at my good fortune. It reminded me of my time in South Africa where I had an entire safari Range Rover to myself at a reserve just outside Port Elizabeth. Driving past lions, elephants, and wildebeests while casually speaking to the driver, a young girl in her 20s as if carpooling to school was a bit surreal to say the least.
Peter seemed to know virtually everything about the city and came alive as he recited facts, skillfully pinpointing events, and dates. One of the reviews I’d read on TripAdvisor beforehand made mention that the guide spoke too much making it difficult to get a word in or ask a question. I wondered briefly if the person who made the claim was referring to Peter, which would have been very believable.
He seemed to mow right through an inquiry I’d make, or thought I tried to express. Fortunately, I’d learned over the years how to reach people like Peter. I knew there was no ill intent, but a commitment to doing the job as best as he knew how. I just needed to claim my space and speak up when I felt compelled to. After I tested the algorithm it seemed to work and the two of us got along swimmingly.
During the drive I saw the palatial dwellings of princes, dignitaries, and even the home of former Lakers star Vlade Divac. We moseyed past embassies, including the one representing the United States, which had clearly been built recently. Peter informed me we were driving through the “Beverly Hills” of Belgrade. “It’s not necessarily the homes that are so expensive,” he said. “It’s the land. In fact, when we told the United States the land where they wanted to build the new embassy was $80,000,000, they said ‘No,' and gave us $10,000,0000 instead. Some countries you just can’t say no to like Russia and the United States. I’m sure if France tried the same thing we would have said 'No’ to them," he concluded.
Peter also shared that Belgrade was made up of 29 hills. “Does each one have a name?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” he replied. “So, if you meet someone new you can explain where you live by referencing one of the hills?” “Yes,” he confirmed.
We continued our tour whizzing past buildings and streets I’d already explored. I tried to keep my mouth shut as if not wanting to ruin a surprise birthday party. Though I must admit, I was proud of the amount of ground I’d covered in just two days.
Soon we got out of the van and bid Mr. Miles a farewell as Peter and I walked through the Belgrade Fortress, originally built in 535. Peter named off all the people who came through during that time, destroying and rebuilding, destroying and rebuilding. It seemed to be a reliable historical trademark of nearly every corner of the globe I’d visited.
We approached a lookout and gazed out over the confluence of the River Danube and River Sava. It was a remarkably beautiful site, the opportunity not lost on me.
Peter and I then made our way through alleyways and narrow streets, past churches, government buildings, and restaurants, including the oldest one in the city. “The food here is excellent,” he said, recommending a dish whose name escapes me.
We then walked down Knez Mihailova Street, the main pedestrian and shopping area in the city. I pelted Peter with questions about modern day life in Serbia inquiring about the educational system, politics, and business. He was candid and thorough, explaining how he loathed politics and how Serbia had many good things happening, but still had some ways to go. It seemed the M.O. for many places. One comment he made that really grabbed my attention was when he said, “In Serbia we have no racism. Why would we make fun of a Bosnian or Croat? We are all mixed. Maybe we are talking bad about our uncle,” he explained.
We continued to amble slowly and carefree as tourists strolled past. I was sad our time was nearing its end. We wrapped up at Republic Square in front of the giant statue of Prince Mihailo on a horse. I told Peter what a great guide he’d been and shook his hand. “Maybe we will see each other again some day,” he said. Maybe, I thought.
Peter, a tour guide from Belgrade in his 50s, shared this bit of advice with me as we parted ways. “You have to respect everyone if you want to be respected. When you give respect you will receive respect. This is the basis for avoiding conflict. When you respect the other side, 99 % of people will respect you. With a simple smile you will get the hearts of everyone around you.”