I’m hopping on the Foreign Service bloggers bus and adding my list of the best and worst of Belgrade. The list has been fun to think about, especially as we are in the last weeks of our tour here.
- Travel opportunities: There are so many great travel opportunities that I don’t even know where I should start, from the immediate region to the rest of Europe. For personal travel, we’ve been to Romania, Croatia (too many times to count), Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, France, Italy, and Montenegro since arriving in Belgrade (we’ve been to most of those countries multiple times and very few of those trips even involved traveling in a plane). The travel has been wonderful, whether a quick weekend trip or an extended vacation. We’re not far from great beaches and fabulous skiing – and everything in between. We have a few more countries lined up for one last trip before we leave the Balkans…
- Low cost of living: Fact: Serbia is an inexpensive place to live. I often marvel at how low my grocery bill is. Clothes and shoes are the general exception, where quality things often run much higher than in the US, but I find that tends to be the case in Europe. In-season fruit for way less than a dollar a pound? Yes, please! Things like haircuts and manicures are very affordable, though I can’t say I’ve gotten many of either. The best part to me is that the low cost still comes with a high selection (for both goods and services), which is often not the case. Serbia is on the dinar and in the past few months, the exchange rate has really grown in our favor, so that certainly helps, too.
- A cosmopolitan city: Especially by regional standards, Belgrade is the place to be when it comes to city living. Belgrade’s not New York (nothing else is), but it is a fun place to live. You can take great trips to the countryside and check out a salaš, a cute little town, a vineyard, or a monastery – or you can stay in the city and find tons of things to do. Knez Mihailova, the pedestrian area in downtown Belgrade, is always packed with people hanging out at cafes, there’s a great fortress right downtown, plus good restaurants, cafes on every corner, and all sorts of shopping. There’s Ada Ciganlija, a popular river island with sports fields, cycling trails, and a beach (and cafes, of course!). Into culture? Lots of museums, concerts, plays (sometimes with English supertitles), the opera, ballet… you name it, it’s probably here. It is also the regional nightlife capital, especially in the summertime, when people come from all over to party on splavs (floating nightclubs) up and down the Danube and Sava rivers.
- Food and wine: The food is seriously good, with the caveat that this changes if you are a vegetarian (although there is a vegetarian restaurant that is highly rated on TripAdvisor), as the Serbian cuisine is definitely meat-based. Salads, especially in-season, are fantastic, and the pastries – both sweet and savory – are out of this world. The ethnic food scene is small and underwhelming, though there are a few hidden gems. The wine selection, however, is astounding. We didn’t know anything about wine from the Balkans before arriving here and we were pleasantly surprised to learn that it is both inexpensive and quite good.
- The locals: Without a doubt, one of the greatest pleasures of day-to-day life in Belgrade is dealing with the locals. In general, they are friendly and are always interested to hear about any foreigners living in their midst. If you know even just a little bit of Serbian, they’re thrilled! My Serbian, which has declined dramatically since I’ve been here (as nearly everyone speaks English and would prefer to practice on a native speaker than have me struggle to speak their language), is often praised when I know full well that it is terrible. Our Serbian neighbors share figs from their trees, cookies, and gardening advice. One has even taken us boating and to the nearby TV tower. People may not smile at you on the street, but give them a little opening (like walking a dog or having a child with you), and they will be very friendly.
- EFM Employment: Or should I say lack thereof? It is not the worst post for employing family members, I’m sure; it is far from the best. I had high hopes when I arrived with a master’s degree, previous embassy experience, and a pretty good knowledge of the local language. Two years later, I am still not employed at the embassy, despite applying to a number of open positions. And I’m not the only one. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, the jobs don’t always seem to go to the most qualified candidates. This is frustrating for EFMs who are often overqualified for the positions as it is. I had such a great time with my job and working at the embassy in Tashkent yet have become quite disheartened by my (and others’) experience here. Additionally, the unemployment rate in country is very high and without knowledge of the language it is next to impossible to find something on the local economy (even with it, things can be difficult) – and what you do find will certainly not be well compensated, as Serbia has some of the lowest wages in the world (minimum wage, before taxes, is not much more than $1, for example).
- Embassy community: The embassy community is kind of “meh.” There are definitely some great people, but I’ve found that not having kids has really made it difficult to make friends, as most people socialize with the parents of their kids’ friends and may forget about the rest of us. And those who do not have kids often spend a lot of free time traveling (see Pro #1, above), which leads to a community that is not particularly close, despite not being very big. That being said, the CLO does a great job of organizing events, and Marine Happy Hours have become more frequent and better attended recently.
- Smoking: Serbia has the highest cigarette consumption per capita in the world. Literally. Wikipedia has that dubious honor going to Greece (and puts Serbia in second), but more recent statistics give it to Serbia. People of all ages smoke everywhere. It is rare that a nonsmoking section provides much relief, as the sections rarely have much separation (and sometimes it is a on a table-by-table basis)! When the weather is nice, it is less noticeable, because everyone tries to be outside. But if you’re planning on going to a restaurant in January, remember that you will leave smelling like an ashtray.
- Everything is last minute: Don’t think of scheduling your haircut more than a day or two in advance because they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. That meeting you’ve been planning for weeks? Don’t be surprised if it is cancelled at the last minute, only to be rescheduled at some other time, also at the last minute. The only exception to this seems to be if you’d like to eat at a nice restaurant. It doesn’t matter if you show up at 6 pm on a Tuesday and see all the tables are empty; if you don’t have a reservation, they may give you trouble. We’ve sometimes had to promise we’ll be done with our meal in two or three hours… but that’s just how eating here is: you can stay at your table for as long as you want and you will never be rushed, even if there is a line out the door. It did take some getting used to, but it is actually pretty nice!
- Fireworks: I’ll admit I had a hard time thinking of another con. But fireworks could be one. People love to set off fireworks, and do so whenever possible. New Year’s? Check. Orthodox Christmas? Check. The family saint day (called a “slava”)? Check. Soccer game? Check. No apparent reason? Check. If you have a child trying to sleep or a dog scared of loud noises, fireworks will probably disturb someone in your household at one time or another. They are also often set off in residential areas, which is not the safest idea.
As you can probably tell from my list, we’ve loved our time here in Belgrade. It has been an easy place to live and we felt at home very quickly. We’re looking forward to our next adventure, but I am sure we will always remember our time here with a smile. You can even buy peanut butter in the local grocery stores and mini marts. The elusive cheddar cheese is harder to find, but not impossible (sharp cheddar, on the other hand…). One more thing I’d like to add: we don’t have kids but even we are able to see how much everyone loves them here. If you’re thinking of bidding on/moving to Belgrade and you have kids, know it is a great place for them!