I arrived in Serbia almost by coincidence. It was September, autumn was starting, but that year summer had been particularly long; it was still warm and my days were painted with an orange-like colour. I lived in an quiet neighbourhood rather far from downtown Belgrade, and the truth is that my first month was catastrophic. I knew nobody, I couldn’t speak the language, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do there. It had been a month since my arrival and I couldn’t enjoy my stay yet. Until a “hinge” event occurred. With some weeks in Serbia already, I knew a little about its culture, its idols and trends. It was then that I found out that on October the 20th, Lepa Brena would be holding a concert in Belgrade Arena. I knew she was one of the greatest musical and cultural “legends” in general; not only in Serbia but also all around Yugoslavia (something like Yugoslavia’s Madonna), so even without knowing well her songs, I told myself: “I can’t miss the opportunity of watching a legend live”.
I bought 2 tickets, one for me and the other for somebody who might have accompanied me, because for sure I would never go alone. I ended up inviting a guy, Veljko, who I recently had acquainted but I liked him, in what ended up being the start of one of the friendships I appreciate the most in my life. And it was when preparing myself for the concert; learning her songs as I was planning being able to sing and not only to hum along, that I began to learn more about Serbia. Why did Lepa Brena had songs about a Hungarian called Janoš? Turkish-like songs such as Robinja? Or patriotic like Živela Jugoslavija?
Being her the biggest icon of the 80s popular culture, during the clear beginning of the end of the Yugoslav socialist utopia, her songs started narrating me Serbian history. Janoš would tell me that the Vojvodina region, in northern Serbia, was inhabited by many Hungarians, and she, as the pop icon of a multicultural and diverse country’, had to appeal to the massive representation of every minority; just like Udri Mujo did in favour of Montenegrins. Her famous song “Jugoslovenka” described me a country and a nationality which didn’t exist any more, whose remains might be still found in Serbia and, in many cases, its ruins as well. Yes, its ruins because if there is something that shocked me, and even nowadays still seems to me as one of the most outstanding postcards of Belgrade, are its bombarded buildings, by the NATO (1999), which left, for instance, right in Belgrade’s centre, the ruins of the ancient Ministry of Defence.
And so was that after the concert I began a great friendship with Veljko (who’s half Romanian by the way; theres a huge ethnic diversity in Serbia); and I started knowing a big quantity of new people and friends; Stefan; Miloš, Ivan, Jakob, and of course, Serbia’s YFU volunteer group; Marija, Katarina, Maja, Darjia y Čarna. It was my friends, the girls, and of course also Predrag, YFU Serbia’s national director,–who’s like the “host father” I’d never had-; who became my family in Serbia, who made me feel at home, who always make me miss her and who make me feel like a homesick nostalgic Yugoslavian.
In Serbia I never felt like in another country. I feel they are similar to the Argentineans; they love parties, they’ve got a strong and direct character, a very particular humor, and they eat a lot of meat!!! In addition, both in Serbia like in many other Balkan countries, it is very common to find people who speak a little bit of Spanish; during the 90’s, there used to be many Latin-American soap operas («novelas”) on TV, which were religiously followed, which is why every Serbian knows at least one phrase in Spanish such as: “Yo soy tu madre (I’m your mother)”, and it’s very common that specially women have a minimum speaking level of Spanish. On the other hand, Serbian is a grammatically complicated language, but easy to pronounce and also to learn; Serbians are always going to correct you or try to understand although you may speak with a thousand mistakes. Serbians are hard on the outside, but inside they are always ready to welcome you, to treat you as an equal, and help you. It’s a matter of knowing how to appreciate their culture, their history and their people; which opens the gate to knowing this complex nation in depth, whose entangled background makes it a passionate challenge to discover.
Being in Belgrade, I had a million of anecdotes which have been tattooed on my memory… I went to see Djokovic; for those who did not know, he’s Serbian and played against Argentine Juan Martín Del Potro at the Davis Cup (Tennis is a religion in Serbia), I went to the Exit Festival (one of the most famous in Europe; Serbia is famous all over Europe due to its nightlife). The nights dancing “turbo folk” (Serbia’s popular music, a mixture of pop, electronic and traditional folk genres), the walks through Belgrade (that looks a little bit like Buenos Aires) and specially when you see its fortress Kalemegdan (the meeting point where young people hang out), waiting for my friends in order to meet «at the Horse” (a statue in the heart of Belgrade used as a point of reference for everyone to get together), eat Ćevapčići (one of the typical dishes; a sandwich with sausages made of milled meat in bread with onions, cabbage, and hot sauce, by only remembering this I’m dying out of nostalgia and hunger), celebrate Slavas (the party of the protector Saints, who are more important than birthdays and where you eat without stopping), or celebrate the orthodox Christmas (because in Serbia is not celebrated the 25th of December, they are orthodox and celebrate Christmas on January 6th) burning branches at church during the Winter midnight.
By leaving Serbia, I left speaking Serbian, singing every Serbian song that was popular as long as I stayed there, and also the ones of the many other bands I discovered (for the one who might be interested, I recommend you EKV – Yugoslavian rock-; S.A.R.S –Serbian funk-; or the classic Turbofolk; apart from Lepa Brena; Ceca and Jelena Karleuša), with a couple of Serbian Films in my pocket (the Serbian Cinema is awesome, apart from the Kusturica there are many more films and spectacular directors), with the typical hat and Rakija; that’s all going to be always a part of me. It is because of all this that Serbia gave me, that I always recommend it for an exchange; it’s not a country for shy people; it’s a very noisy land which requires you to move quite a lot in order to find your right place, which means a huge challenge and growth, but once you have done it you will find yourself in this marvelous culture, and that’s something you’re going to keep in your heart forever.