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What it’s like being a Black Person in Serbia?
Learn Serbian. Have fun!
As a guest blogger on Serbian Language Podcast, I’m often asked this question: What’s it like being African-American (i.e. black) in Serbia? It’s quite a question. The answer, from my perspective, is not what most people think: No one cares! Ha!
When I say, “No one cares” I mean this in a good way. One of my favorite things about Serbia is Serbian people. They possess, generally speaking, a curiosity about other people and cultures in a very healthy way. Having had the pleasure of living in Serbia for a few years I can provide some unique insight into what the experience is like for people who, like myself, have African ancestry and aspire to travel to Serbia and engage with Serbian people. Here are 5 reasons why being Black in Serbia is not only a “non-issue” but a benefit:
1. Serbs are friendly to foreigners
Serbians love to see foreigners. They marvel at why we have an interest in Serbia. At present, Serbia is not a global tourist magnet…yet. As such, many Serbs never get the opportunity to see, let alone engage with, a black person. Interactions are friendly. I often tell people I felt safer and more at home in Serbia than I often feel in many parts of my own country: America.
Being a foreigner in Serbia is viewed as cool. And I agree with that sentiment. I think it takes a special person, regardless of race, to be interested in a country like Serbia and Serbs hold this view as well. This means when you’re a foreigner in Serbia you are especially appreciated for having an interest in the country and the people will make you feel right at home.
I can’t tell you how many times I walked down the streets of Belgrade, and other cities, and was greeted with a smile…a real smile that said “welcome”. People would often want to talk to me, especially the younger generation. One of my favorite moments was playing basketball with some local guys. They invited me to play and we had the greatest time sharing our love of basketball and just talking the way real people do. I never once got the impression that I was being viewed as something less. If anything, I got special treatment! They wanted to know if I needed anything, was I having a good experience in Serbia? Did I want to go partying with them later…etc?
In short, it took me literally a few hours to make 5 new Serbian friends. And when they discovered that I could speak some Serbian at an intermediate level they were blown away and only wanted to speak to me in Serbian so that I could practice. They called me “brate”, which means brother…a term of endearment only used among friends, not strangers…and we had only met minutes ago. Wow! I felt so loved and appreciated and grateful for their inclusion and warm hearts.
I bet you’re wondering if I partied with them. Yes I did, and it was awesome! I had a hard time trying to pay for drinks. That kind of camaraderie rarely happens in my home country.
2. Serbs love to hear what non-Serbs think about Serbia
Some common questions you will hear in Serbia are these: “How do you like it here?” “What’s your favorite food?” “What cities have you traveled to?”
Serbs are notorious for wanting to hear your thoughts on their country, but be prepared to be interrupted by another question while you attempt to answer the first. Ha! Word of advice, your responses should be a paragraph, not a novel. They just want to hear the essence of your sentiments, they are less interested in every detail and they can’t wait to ask the next question. It’s pretty hilarious, but very sincere.
3. Serbs love to share
Serbs typically don’t have a lot. Afterall, it is still a developing country. That said, they are willing to share whatever they have and their grace in this respect is unmatched. They will share their belongings, food, alcohol, and more importantly…their time.
I remember getting lost one day and asking a woman where a restaurant was. Remember, I’m a medium-sized black guy walking up to a complete stranger asking for help. The result? She walked me to the restaurant and made sure I got there. Wow! There wasn’t any issue at all and we had a pleasant chat the whole way. Many Serbian men helped me out the same way too. I was working out at the gym and several guys came up to me and wanted to learn more about my training regiment and share theirs. They became my gym buddies. One day after a long workout I came out of the locker room and one of the guys had bought me a shake. The next day one of the guys invited me to a restaurant that his mom and dad own. They treated me to a meal and wouldn’t let me pay. Unreal right? Welcome to Serbia!
4. Serbs are hospitable and personable
One of the things you will notice right away about Serbian people is this: They are characters! Their language is very descriptive, at times vulgar, but always pleasantly real and “to the point”. If you ask someone in Serbia how they’re doing they will give you a real answer. I asked a guy once and he proceeded to tell me about how he had lost his job, didn’t have the money to take a trip over the summer, and he laughed while explaining this to me. It was an honest answer.
Serbs have an uncanny way of being open and real when engaging in day-to-day conversations. They aren’t fake or pretentious, they just speak what is on their mind and this encouraged me to do the same. This isn’t true everywhere. In many parts of America I often feel we are programmed to give canned responses to real questions. Even if we aren’t doing well we will say that we are. Not the case in Serbia. If you ask a question be prepared to hear the real answer, and this is refreshing. Serbs are personable.
On the hospitality front, there is a custom in Serbia: If someone comes over to your house they will typically bring something like a bag of coffee, tea, or a bottle of wine or rakija (the local liquor). In Serbian culture it’s viewed as impolite to visit guests empty handed. Talk about a hospitable culture!
Much in the same way if you go over to someone’s house they will want to treat you to all they have. They will typically offer you a shot of rakija, food, the remote control to the television etc. They want you to feel at home and enjoy the time spent. It’s an amazing experience.
5. Serbs don’t have a racially charged culture
erbia does not have a racially charged culture in the same way that America does. This means their orientation about race is different. I was with a black friend of mine and there were some Serbs looking at us. My friend asked me, “Are they looking at us because we’re black?” My response: “They are looking at us because we are interesting to them, it has less to do with race and more to do with curiosity”. I feel like as Americans we have to re-frame and re-train our brains to accept that many parts of the world, like Serbia, don’t have the same outlook on race as we do. They don’t have a history of enslaving black people. They don’t have a history of color-coded bathrooms and segregated schools based on the color of people’s skin. In short, they aren’t like us…and while I love America, this aspect of Serbia is beautifully freeing.
Interracial dating is also accepted and it goes both ways. This means whether you are a black man or woman you will be viewed as attractive and desirable to Serbs because they will be intrigued by your difference not put off by it. There are traditionalist everywhere, those who believe races shouldn’t mix, but this isn’t the dominating belief system at all in Serbia. In many ways they are more advanced in this regard than Americans.
In essence, what matters most to Serbs is that you are a good person. You can be any color in the rainbow, but just be a good person and you will be loved, respected, welcomed, and treated with hospitality. Being black in Serbia was awesome. You should go see for yourself…and that goes for everyone, not just black people. In Serbia all races are welcome. Thank you Serbia for the experience of a lifetime!