serbia

thinking about our traveling life

Life in the Foreign Service invariably means a life of traveling. Going back to the States to see friends and family, getting to know a host country, exploring new regions of the world. We are so lucky to have these opportunities, even if it means we’re (geographically) far from many of the important people in our lives — and to be honest, that’s not always the easiest.

As most of you know, so far, we’ve made our home together in four countries on three continents: Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Belgrade, Serbia; Brussels, Belgium; and of course the United States. Each of these places is different from the others — the culture, language, religion, food, and even weather! More than living in each of those cities, we have enjoyed being able to see more of the world by exploring each place and its environs. One of the greatest things about travel is that no two trips are alike.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

Khiva, Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, traveling around the country and region wasn’t the easiest: bad roads, gas shortages, and great distances all worked against all but the most determined traveler. Despite these difficulties, we did our best to see the country, visiting the silk road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. in addition to lesser-known destinations like Shakhrisabz (the birthplace of Tamerlane), Nukus (literally in the middle of nowhere, but there’s a great art museum!), and Margilan (found in the Ferghana Valley, locals produce beautiful silk).

We even managed a long weekend in Kyrgyzstan, staying on the shore of the beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul — but that is a story in and of itself. Central Asia is a fascinating place unlike any other, and we’ve found we now have a strong bond with anyone we’ve met who has lived there, purely based on the common experience of a place hard to describe to those who haven’t.

Our move to Serbia opened us up to a completely different experience. We were fortunate enough to have gotten a number of months in language training prior to our relocation, which not only gave us the tools to get around the region linguistically but also gave us time to learn more about the history and culture of our new home.

Plitvice lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

After our time in Tashkent, we realized we really had to hit the ground running in terms of travel: two years can go by surprisingly quickly, and we didn’t want to suddenly only have a few months left in which to explore ten must-sees. Within weeks of our arrival, we joined a group going on a day trip to Timisora, Romania. And as soon as our car got there, we planned a number of big trips on our own.

Even so, 18 months into our assignment, we realized we were running out of time. Yes, we hoped that we would end up back in the Balkans at some point, but since that isn’t a guarantee, we needed to make the most of our last months. Ultimately, we planned a vast trip that took us from Serbia, down to Macedonia and Greece, then back up through Albania, Macedonia again, and back to Serbia. Fifteen hundred miles and 10 days later, we were back in Belgrade and getting ready to packout.

Cathedral in Trier, Germany

cathedral in Trier, Germany

Like living in Belgrade, Brussels is a central location that makes travel incredibly easy. Unlike Belgrade, where train travel was horrible and our roadtrips tended to be 5+ hours of driving each day, the trains here are fast, well-connected, and easy, and driving, we can be in four other countries in less than two hours. Needless to say, we’ve tried to take advantage of this!

As convenient as air travel is, we’ve found the car to be our favorite form of travel. It is so easy to just throw everything in (including Scarlett!) and take off, and our plans can stay flexible because we aren’t tied to specific flights or train timetables and can easily get around and with our own set of wheels. We also really like to explore things that are off the beaten path, and although that was a lot easier when our starting point was in Serbia — where pretty much everything is off the beaten path — having a car makes a big difference wherever you are.

We have a number of exciting travels planned for the coming months, but are always looking for new places to go: where are your favorite places to travel? Where do you most want to go that you haven’t been?

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looking back: a regret

As PCS (permanent change of station, i.e. moving time) season is upon us, I’ve taken a moment to think back on what I miss most from our last assignment and what I think I’ll miss most from this one. Life in the Foreign Service is a life inevitably full of nostalgia, as any life that is full of drastic moves and changes can be. We are down to our last hours in Serbia and I am sure I will soon write a post about our time here, but just thinking about it is making me sad; instead, I will think about Uzbekistan right now.

Our life in Tashkent was calm and quiet, but great. I had a great job I loved (no small feat for a spouse), with good coworkers and we made some great friends. The embassy community was fantastic, and although travel was not the easiest, we did get to some great places, both within Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Fergana Valley, etc.) and Asian spots farther out (India, Thailand), though Kyrgyzstan was the only other “stan” I added to my list (Grant did make it to Kazakhstan before I arrived).

Beyond missing the things mentioned above and a good life-work balance for my FSO husband, I also have one big regret: that we didn’t get a carpet from the Khiva Silk Workshop. Their work is incredible and unique, and I’ve never been able to pick my favorite from the designs they have online — and I am very picky when it comes to my carpets! We did get two beautiful handmade suzani from the shop, and what I really like about them is that they are truly unique and I have never seen others even somewhat like them.

suzani

I don’t think there will be something from Serbia I regret not buying — we did get some interesting things (such as a gorgeous, antique trunk and a really cool wooden wine rack), but there is not a huge craft culture here like there is in Uzbekistan. But oh, there are many, many things I will miss: the weather (most of the time), the food, the green markets, and of course, the people… just to name a few. Now I need to stop myself from getting too teary and go enjoy our last few things here before we leave!

What do you regret from places you’ve left? Do you find yourself getting nostalgic before leaving one place for another?

belgrade: the good and the bad

St Sava Church

st. sava church

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.

Pros

  1. 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…
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Cons

  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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!
  1. 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!

Kalemegdan Fortress

kalemegdan fortress