Love can take you to unexpected places, and when it found me, it led me all the way to Serbia. So I found myself three hours south of Belgrade in my boyfriend Goran’s hometown, the small city of Kraljevo, where I would spend the next month. Working on a cruise ship for five years, I’ve been to tourist locales around the world, but immersing yourself in a completely foreign culture is another experience entirely.
Goran has secured us a small apartment in town. It takes some getting used to—the fridge is in the entrance way, the kitchen’s the size of a closet, and there’s no sink in the bathroom. “Brush your teeth in the tub,” Goran tells me, then thinks it’s hilarious that I choose to use the kitchen sink instead. It’s extremely basic, but it’s ours.
Everything feels different from anywhere I’ve been. Unlike the bigger European cities, English is seldom heard in Kraljevo. The younger people learn it in school, but are hesitant to speak it, not feeling they’re proficient enough to converse with a native speaker. Regardless, according to Goran, I stand out like a sore thumb in Kraljevo without even opening my mouth—but he has trouble explaining exactly why.
He’s working at a coffee house in town, which leaves me alone in the mornings to explore. A favorite spot is the grocery store. It’s small, and meant for daily shopping rather than the weekly stockpiling we’re used to. I like that everything is labeled and I learn a few new words. I pick up fresh bread, cheese, and meat for the traditional 3 p.m. light lunch when Goran comes home from work, or I pick him up and we treat ourselves to Serbian fast food. A huge fire-grilled “burger” called plijeskavitce, or a big piece of burek (pastry filled with seasoned meat or fresh cheese) are both delicious, and available for about a dollar.
On Goran’s days off, we take mini day trips. We spend a day in the spa town of Vrnjacka Banja, where we cross the Bridge of Love, covered in locks attached there by hundreds of couples over the years. We visit Zica Monestary, where seven kings of Serbia were crowned, and hike to the Maglic medieval fortress on a beautiful day. I practice my cyrillic by reading road signs, we eat fantastic barbecue, and drink lots of coffee.
Some days we head to the modest but cozy family home for lunch, where Goran’s mother lays out a feast of traditional Serbian fare. Though we can’t communicate, she is friendly and welcoming. Goran’s brother and friends speak some English and do their best to include me in the conversation. They’re an extremely tight-knit group and seem to be ready to give each other the shirts off their backs, even though money is scarce. Many people live day-to-day, but it doesn’t stop them from having a good time—money is made to be spent, and generosity flows. It makes me truly appreciate the opportunities I have had, and I feel lucky to have been welcomed into this completely different culture and lifestyle.We spend my last few days in Serbia in Belgrade, seeing the sights. We explore the Kalamegdan Fortress, wander through the Bohemian district, and visit the zoo. Then it’s time to go home, but I know I’ll be back, and I’m bringing a lock for the Bridge of Love.