Today I spent the afternoon with my new friend Magdalena, a waitress from a café I had breakfast at a few days ago. We met at Costa Coffee this morning at 11:00 am, conveniently located next door to her restaurant. We took a table in the corner and both complained about how stuffy the room was. We were soon told the air conditioner was broken.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked. “I don’t mind,” I replied not sure how much of a choice I had. You can smoke anytime and anywhere in Eastern Europe, or so it seems. I feel outnumbered, but always try not to impose my way of living while abroad, or anywhere I should say.
Magdalena spoke a mile a minute telling me about her parents, siblings, work, school, and even her not-so-distant memories of the bombings that took place here in 1999. “People say you can’t remember these things when you are really small, but I do,” she insisted. There was no part of me that doubted her.
Eventually, we took a stroll on the wide promenade running along side the Danube. There was something about being outside that literally and figuratively created more room to maneuver and exchange ideas. She suddenly listened with a heightened interest in what I had to say. It was amazing how the Danube had created a calm that allowed communication to flow more seamlessly.
We talked about relationships, plutonic and romantic, long-term goals, and life in Belgrade. “If I could leave tomorrow I would," she told me. She was a young woman with lofty goals, the way goals should be. She told me her dream was to move to Spain and continue working as a make-up artist for television and theater. I conveyed to her that it was possible as long as she had a solid plan. She deflected my theories instantly naming the many obstacles that stood in her way, not the least of which was money. I nodded and tried to explain I had a feeling she would be just fine.
We had lunch at a nearby deli just a few minutes before she needed to head off to work. The cashier asked if I was half Korean and half Italian, Magdalena explained. “There’s absolutely no way she guessed that!” I exclaimed. “Well, she said you’re not Chinese or Japanese because you’re not short, so you must be Korean. And she can tell you are Italian by the way you dress,” referencing my blue blazer and scarf. “That’s incredible,” I said, still not sure I believed her.
We sat eating together as if we’d known each other for years. I felt comfortable in her presence and she seemed to emanate a sense of knowing and understanding about the world well beyond her years. I thought back on my early 20s and reminisced about that sense of angst and longing I had for the world to open its arms and offer a sign that all would somehow work out.
“I know how you feel. It’s like you’re so young, but you feel like you’re running out of time,” I remember my friend Celeste saying to me one New Year’s eve. I wondered if that was how Magdalena felt.
As we finished our sandwiches and gazed off towards speeding buses and busy shoppers, the clouds began to roll in. “I told you,” she said. "It’s going to rain.”
Magdalena, a 20-year old student and waitress from Belgrade, Serbia told me this today: “It’s the best advice. My mom told me to always be yourself. Masks always fall. I’m always myself. Sometimes it’s bad for me, but it’s the best for me. I’m just totally myself.”