Posted by: Scotty | November 3, 2009

Stereotypes eliminated studying abroad. Check it… in Serbia!

Dober dan! (Hello! in Serbian)

How do I even begin to describe a trip to you that changed my perception of a country, a region, the world? Traveling to Serbia was that trip for me. Taking the night train into Belgrade I didn’t know what to expect. Eight other American students and I traveled for one week during ACT’s fall break- with our friend, Igor, who is from Serbia. Train

I was very apprehensive about traveling to Serbia, mostly due to the hearsay. Some stereotypes I heard were: that Serbia was a war-torn country, a deserted place, everyone is rude and dislikes Americans. To my discovery, it was entirely the opposite.

Arriving in Belgrade at 6am, I found the city unique, vibrant, and unlike any place I have visited before. I think Igor said it best, “you’ll have the chance to immerse yourself in the Serbian culture, something not even Serbians from major cities do, let alone Americans who come for a visit.”

We had a full schedule packed on the first day. Off the train we stopped for a money transfer, I discovered one Euro is equivalent to about 100 Serbian dinars. ToiletThe rest room was a treat, to get in you pay 20 dinars, I noticed that a normal toilet is just a hole in the floor. However, it was one of the cleanest restrooms I have ever been in!

We ate breakfast at a quaint pastry shop. They had some unique foods we tried for the first time, like a cold pizza pastry roll- very tasty! I tried my first bottle of yogurt milk- interesting. Well, this actually wasn’t the first time, I bought some in Greece only taking a sip, I thought it was spoiled milk! Apparently this yogurt milk is a big thing in Europe.

The first area of town we walked to see was the former Police and Military Headquarters. The buildings were in shambles due to the 1999 bombings. It was something I have never seen in person before, truly a sad scene.

Prior to leaving for Serbia I read about country specific information on the US State Department website and learned about a NATO-led bombing campaign called, “Allied Force” (referred to in Serbia as “Angel of Mercy”). While visiting, I was told about 2,500 people in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo lost their lives. Former Police and Military headquartersHundreds of thousands of people were left homeless during and immediately after the conflict. The debate is still going on in Serbia whether these buildings should ever be removed because they can serve as a reminder of what happened.

Our next visit was to the Kalemegdan Fortress, initially built as a city-fort by Celts, Kalemegdan over time became the symbol and core of Belgrade. Old military vehicles and cannons line the outskirts of the fortress. It was a beautiful view of the city.

The National Assembly building was our next stop. We received a full tour of the century-old building which has been used as Serbia’s and Yugoslavia’s highest lawmaking institution. When walking up the stairs to the entrance you see two huge green statues of men fighting horses, we later learned it’s a symbol of man vs. nature. Parlament- Presidents roomThis building is one of many that best illustrate Belgrade’s turbulent history- it’s been used for dark political moves, a Parliament, and also an instrument of Milosevic’s dictatorship over people of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. During a violent revolution on October 5, 2000, the protesters, calling for fair and democratic government, set the building on fire, slightly damaging its interior, but sending a powerful message around the world. I was told even today, Serbians see this building as the cornerstone of Democratic changes in the country.

St. Sava Temple, was our last stop for the day. The church is beautiful. It was dedicated to Saint Sava, founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church an important figure in medieval Serbia. It’s built on the location where his remains are thought to have been burned in 1595 by the Ottoman Empire’s Sinan Pasha. The idea for constructing the church came to life in 1895, and after two Balkan wars, and a World War, the construction officially began in 1935. With an on and off construction process, this is the largest Eastern Orthodox temple in the world and is still under construction, It has a total height of 439.6 ft.

We all hung out in the St. Sava courtyard for a few hours. This has to be one of my favorite parts of the trip. In the courtyard was a honey festival. The first honey celebration I have ever seen, and best honey I have ever tasted. I observed families doing everyday things that I would see in mHoney festivaly hometown like playing in the park, taking the dogs on a walk, runners, bikers, feeding the birds and teenagers falling in love (check out more pics on Flickr).

Igor’s town, Petrovac na Mlavi is where we headed to next. The college student’s in Belgrade were on their way home for the weekend and the bus was packed. There were so many people about 20 had to stand in the isles for a two-hour long bus ride!

My stereotypes of Serbia went completely away after experiencing Petrovac na Mlavi. Thethe main street town reminded me of a small town in the United States. Streets were lined with small shops and Igor knew just about everyone. The people were very nice and welcoming. The Serbian’s had Stereotypes about us Americans too. Igor’s Gym teacher thought all Americans were fat, and was surprised none of us were. Another Serbian told Igor he couldn’t tell we were Americans, and that we all looked Serbian.

We had the opportunity to speak at Igor’s High School with students, and talk about college life and what home was like back in the US. The Serbian students spoke excellent English. Many of us Americans commented to one another that we felt inconsiderate for not knowing another language- at least one well enough to hold a decent conversation. It makes me feel like we are very spoiled and sheltered, myself included, with many only knowing the “ease” of the English language in the US.Meeting with Serbian high school students

It was great talking to one another and we found there was a lot we had in common. Some of the questions asked sounded a bit different due to translation. One student asked, “How does your kitchen taste?” Which kitchen translates to cuisine. Another student wanted to know if the United States was like the movie, “American Pie.” Another student asked if we all had facebook, so we wrote our names on the black board, I think I have gotten 30 new friend requests so far, very cool. It felt great to connect with the kids, and inspire them to pursue higher education. We were invited to watch one of their first dance rehearsal’s, (check out my vid on YouTube) which is a new extracurricular activity at the school. I also got to check out my first game of handball- a combination of Soccer and Basketball, you only get three bounces and then you have to pass the ball.

Like many European countries, there are stray cats and dogs everywhere. Three friend’s Nina, Mike, Amy and I decided to go for a trip to the country side. We were greeted before we left by a dog we named Dolly- and bought some food and fed her. While in the neighboring village, we had a dog lead the entire way through the streets, who we named Donny. We stopped at restaurant and enjoyed some great Serbian hamburgers, when getting our change back for our meal, it was to our surprise the restaurant didn’t have enough change so they gave us 5 glass cups in place.Wishing wall

Our last big horahh was a trip in the beautiful mountains to visit near by Monasteries. The Monastery of Gornjak is the first place we visited, it’s a 14th century monastery in the Gornjak Gorge. The monastery has a small cell where a monk from Mount Sinai (Egypt) fled the Muslim persecutors of his time to meditate and reveal God. Here they have a wishing wall, so we were sure to climb to the top and make a wish.

Group Pic!Driving along the roadside is the cool Annunciation Monastery, an immense monastery cut inside a mountain. It used to be the head of the Zdrelo Episcopate in Medieval Serbia. It later lost its importance when the Turks took over the entire area.

After hearing everyone’s fall break stories, we were the only group of students that went to Serbia, and unlike the unpleasant stories we heard that occurred in Paris and Spain- we didn’t have anything stolen. One of the things that made my experience so unique is that we were traveling with Igor who was from the country and was knowledgeable about everything. Serbia also didn’t seem to cater to English speaking tourists, which was something I actually enjoyed. It made me feel like I was in a foreign country, unlike other countries, and was forced to learn basics of the language. I cannot thank Igor enough for his generosity. He bravely took nine of us inexperienced American travelers with open arms in his country, his town, his home; translated countless restaurant menu’s, taught us his language, his culture, about his country- Serbia has been my favorite experience so far studying abroad, I will be coming back. I feel very grateful for having the opportunity to see Serbia.

Belgrade city center

This weekend ACT is taking us on a trip to Athens.

Until next time…

Scotty out!

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Responses

  1. most enjoyed ur blog!!!

  2. […] sixteen years later. Andrew Scott, an American student, traveled for one week to Serbia, and the stereotypes disappeared almost […]


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