As the sun set over the Danube and Sava rivers in Beograd moments after our arrival from Novi Sad, I began to reflect on the sun setting on this portion of our trip. Beograd is a strangely beautiful city – not classically beautiful like Paris, Prague or Vienna – instead beautiful in its reality and authenticity. Much like comparing a meal at La Bernadin with a neighborhood pljeskavice stand – it’s a hard comparison to make as one has to contrast the refined perfection and beauty of a 3* meal with the visceral and human comfort of a delicious pedestrian and humble meal. Both are beautiful in their own completely different ways, yet our eyes are sometimes trained to only look at the one with the classic and visually apparent beauty. When we allow ourselves to feel beyond that surface, however we can surprise ourselves.
Somehow, returning to this part of Europe felt like returning home in a way. Having travelled to many many countries, few have felt as welcoming to me as this part of the world. I’m honored and humbled to have been welcomed in the way we have been… We’ve had the pleasure of an elaborate seafood lunch cooked by our AirBNB host in Kotor…. We’ve became friends with an awesome band from Beograd and seen them perform 3 times in the last 4 months…. We’ve had a stranger who we met moments earlier pay for a taxi into town for us with his only ask being that we join him for a beer the next day. Those who know me know that I’ve been a bit of a Yugoslav-file for some time now – before returning here for this trip I personally thought perhaps that was more because of my interest and fascination with the history of the region, but after the time spent on this trip and the people met it’s clear to me that my real love for the region comes from its people and the welcome feeling a traveler has here.
I realize, after looking inward, that I’m somewhat of an old soul when it comes to what speaks to me in travel. Non-existent safety regulations on national monuments, smoking sections that extend over the entire restaurant, truly local produce in even the corner store – while an eclectic mix of aspects of a country, these are things that are quickly fading from our rapidly globalizing world. Sure, some of this is for the collective better, but at what cost? Today’s America has much turned into the surveillance and nanny state that George Orwell predicted, sadly. Personal responsibility, true freedom, and natural food has been replaced by government oversight over our every move, overblown political correctness and chemical products that masquerade as “food.” When I first began blogging I much less eloquently wrote – “America, it’s not you, it’s me – but regardless I’m looking to some much needed time apart.” Only now, after that time away can I really say what I meant then. I want to try to look at the positive side of the equation to call out the feeling I’ve had in this part of the world – one of the last places that hasn’t fully succumbed to the march of globalization. By no means is this a land without its problems — that would be incredibly naïve of me to say. That said, there is still something special and unique here that is quickly disappearing in the name of “progress.” Walking the streets of Novi Sad you can find a clothing designer who not only designs their wares locally but produces them in the back of the store and sells them at a reasonable cost. The fast food options go far beyond mass produced chain offerings. To put it simply, culture remains strong. Not the “Pop of Culture” that the E! Channel promises us, but a real culture – one that is changing dynamically with generations but remains true to its people.
Comfort is a strange thing… after several months of hard work in NYC it might mean a vacation at a luxurious resort with a private beach to get away from it all. For me, on this trip that comfort has changed. There is a comfort to me in being able to walk the streets of a city that feels alive. There is a comfort in seeing shops, restaurants and such filled with workers and owners who are struggling but passionate about their craft. There may be a struggle for higher salaries, but those who live in the cities follow their passions to create experiences and products that speak to them. More and more this is disappearing from the world. Sadly, countless cities and towns in America now are dominated by the same chains – so at the end of the day one feels like a small town in Illinois really is the same as a small town in New Jersey. The employment created by this is a “positive” in theory, but at what cost? Are we simply turning into cogs in the machine – worker bees toiling for large multi-nationals without any vested interest or care in what we actually create? Do we perhaps need to stop and ask ourselves – who are we working for, and what do we want for ourselves, our families and our communities?
I’m thankful to be able to return home to spend the holidays with my family, but trepidatious in the same regard. How can I impact a society that seems to be spiraling out of control? From racial riots to industrialization of our food supply to a surveillance state that is turning into something that the founders of America would have never imagined. I’m sad to admit that at times, especially after learning more and more about what our government has done in our nation’s name that at times I’m embarrassed to identify as an American. This certainly isn’t what the founding fathers, or my family who left a homeland torn by battle for a better life wanted for all of us. How can we fix this – how can we chart a better course? I don’t have all the answers. I do think though that I have one that still rings true….. Travel. There is no place in the world that “does it all right,” but the more places we see, the more cultures we experience, we enrich our own experience and take that back home. I’m an economist by heart and to me this is the real-life execution of the law of comparative advantage. Travel makes us question things – and we should question things. Is the way we as a nation are reacting the best way? How have others done it different, and perhaps better?
Even beyond this – what is travel? What does it mean to be a traveler to me? I silently ask myself this question often… when I have a day where I end up not doing anything to really see the “sights” of a country, but instead just live within it for a day – am I being a bad traveler? After much thought I think the opposite – the seemingly banal trips to a grocery store or aimless wanders through a city have given me personally a great deal of insight into a cities soul. Can I tell you about all the churches in Brasov Romania? No – I didn’t go inside a single one. Can I tell you what I felt there however? Absolutely – I felt a vibrant city that was a refreshing surprise. I saw people living in a beautiful surrounding preparing for holiday Christmas markets, setting up their stalls and preparing their wares. I enjoyed a delightful dinner of steak that would rival many I’ve had for 3X the price and spent the night at a bar with an atmosphere that many try unsuccessfully to replicate. To me being a traveler is being a temporary resident in that place – the utmost honor is being welcomed by a city to participate in the most “day-to-day” of activities.
I’m well aware that this blog for me has turned more into an outlet for writing down my thoughts on what I’m experiencing versus a travel guide on tips or best places. Based on many conversations I had with folks before I left though I shared this and there seemed to be a genuine interest in this as well, so I’m happy to share this with you all. I also might just create a “best of” post in the coming days as well, as more important than anything else I don’t want to forget all the amazing and unique experiences that I’ve had over the past months.
Until later, I leave you with some pictures of Novi Sad, Serbia on a stunning winters day…..