“What? You are going to Serbia? Why Serbia and what for?” That was the immediate response of my friends when they knew I was soon flying to Serbia. Serbia, to myriads of us, is merely just a middle-size country located in the Balkan Peninsula, nothing much special. When you asked about this uncommon destination beforehand, our knowledge was only limited to its past presence as part of Yugoslavia, the NATO bombardment in 1999, and also the birthplace of Novak Djokovic for some tennis frantic. Yet, the more the conversations with the locals, the more I discover the fascinating side of Serbia, and the more I would like to share my observation about this actually somewhat unique country.
Nice to Meat you, Serbia… And Say Yes to Cheese!
As we first arrived in the city centre of Belgrade, we were greeted by the aroma of grilled meat on wooden tables in a traditional restaurant. “They are Pljeskavica and Ćevapi, our national dishes. Enjoy!” The waiter smiled when we met our curious eyes, and our mouth watered when he explained to us. Served on a hot plate with flatbread and Serbian soup as side dishes, pljeskavica is made of delicious meat patty, grilled onions and a mixture of ground pork and beef. While the grilled, finger-shaped sausages in front of us were ćevapi that contain juicy minced meat.
Meanwhile, entering inside the Restoran Gros, the most popular restaurant in Leskovac recommended by the Deputy Mayor, I truly enjoyed the traditional appetizers that consist of sliced hams, sausages and varying favours of cheese, with sliced vegetables on the side. The pule cheese and kflice the Serbian cheese rolls, usually wrapped inside the Pogacha bread, both melted in my mouth as if a simple pleasure. No wonder Serbia is often hailed as meat and cheese lovers’ paradise!
Serbian Language: Srpski Jезик
Just stroll on the path that is next to the road signs and brand names, you are bound to see lines of Russian-like alphabets for showing the directions. Pay a visit to bookstores and flip through any introductory book, it is likely you will see pages and pages showing those lively wordings.
“Language, especially the Cyrillic script, is at the heart of our national identity.” Our local guide Maja told us. The Cyrillic script has long been an iconic symbol that distinguished the Serbs from their Croat and Bosnian neighbours that are in use of Latin script. It has been used in Serbia for more than 1000 years, and during the mid-19th century, Russian Cyrillic was adapted to the Serbian language due to linguistic reform, developing an alphabet that had exactly one symbol for each sound. Maja continued, “Serbs would regard you as foreigners no matter how many years in the country unless you learn Serbian.
Even though Serbian is the only official language, due to increasing connectivity under the globalisation, young pupils also study English, the lingua franca, from their first grade. Some, like Filip, a NGO director whom we met, studied abroad and speak fluent English, in hope of grabbing more working opportunities in face of high unemployment rate in the society. Even during the Yugoslav communist rule, from our discussions with a professor at the University of Belgrade, he strived to learn English to catch up with the technological advancements from other countries. Yet whatever purpose of enhancing their English proficiency, they, and most of the Serbians from all walks of life, express their unfailing pride towards the primacy of Cyrillic, their linguistic heritage.
To Survive as a Christian, to Live on as a Christian
“Our Orthodox religion” Maja continued on the bus, “symbolises spiritual unification of all Serbs. We survive, and we withstand at last.” After the founding of Serbian Orthodox Church in 1219, it was tied to the rise of the Serbian state, with Saint Sava as the central figure of the church. However, due to the loss in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbia was on the edge of Ottoman Empire until its independence in 1879. Even so, embracing staunch faith of religion, the church still played a leading role in consequent uprisings against the Turkish occupation. The church’s close linkage with Serbian resistance to Ottoman rule, in preventing the Turks’ influence of Islam, enabled Orthodoxy to endure in this Balkans soil.
Up to now, more than three quarters of Serbians become Orthodox Christians, and place great weight to moral family values that are transferred by religious beliefs. The Church itself is often characterized by the benevolence of the Holy Fathers in images drawn from the family. The Orthodox Church exalts togetherness of a family especially when the fullness of life triggered within the inner peace with couples and siblings. The family is a cocooned institution where the leaven of the faith is nurtured, and where humans first begin to learn and rise to full life in Christ. In embracing the close-knit bonds of families, family represents the basic cell of society and stands in priority of every individual. Love inside, as Orthodox faith advocated, nourished, refined and cultivated, lies merely not in those within intimate periphery, but also steadily extends to brotherhoods and neighbours.
Serbia: an Awakening Eagle
“Belgrade is undeveloped… or is developing”. Filip, who worked as a financial director in Civil Rights Defender, told us. “Strictly speaking, I believe Serbia is still a long way to become functional market economy”. Overall, in his opinion, Serbia is still enmeshed in serious fiscal imbalances and spiralling budget deficit. One of the five people are unemployed, and private consumption is weighed down and contracted by ongoing deleveraging. Only by consolidating structural reforms agenda, and transparency of the rule of law can the country leap with concrete improvements.
Mr. Li, the ambassador of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, whom we met next day, also shared Filip’s view towards nowadays Serbia’s stagnant economy, but with different reasons and explanations. “Economy in Serbia is now worse than it was 30 years ago, due to 10-year economic sanctions by the West.” Starting in 1992, the United Nations Security Council imposed broad financial sanctions against Serbia (Yugoslavia at that time) for its role in Bosnia War and later Kosovo War. “When China just began its Reform and Opening up in 1980s, Serbia poured much-welcomed foreign capital to invigorate our economy. After 30 years, more prosperous as we are, we are assisting Serbia for further development through our bilateral cooperation.”
As Serbia could become a part of One Road One Belt built-up, Ambassador Li is pleased to regard it as China’s vital partner for large-scale joint infrastructure projects. Chinese diverse investments, including the construction of China-Serbia Friendship Bridge, Serbia-Hungary high speed rail, and a new coal-fired power plant, are currently proceeding to deepen regional interconnectivity. “Let’s hope all these developments bloom, for the sake of mutual benefits of both countries.”
… and Amiable People encountered !
To add credit during our stay in Serbia, we have never thought of being graciously invited by Dr. Jovanovic, the Deputy Mayor of Leskovac, and Mr. Nesic, the President of the Committee for Human Rights, to be in Leskovac Assembly during the press conference. After that, without us asking, they accompanied a group of us to the town visit for the entire afternoon, thoroughly explained about Serbia’s socio-economic development and treated us a delicious Serbian lunch in Restoran Gros, as described at the first of this article. While Ambassador Li, surprised by the visit of our large group of Hong Kongers, greeted us with welcoming gesture and hand shaking one-by-one, and spent his busy hour into a fruitful discussion with us. And, let’s not forget the local guide Maja, who showed us unparalleled hospitality all the way, from introducing sightseeing attractions to offering us valuable insights towards the basic Serbian culture.
Time flies. As the glorious sun gradually lost its radiance and drowned in the horizon, myriads of the locals were waving their hands, bidding us a farewell, and wishing us a pleasant journey ahead when our bus fuelled its engine and headed south to Kosovo. Yet the sights and sounds of Serbia, especially the views of significant landmarks, the smiling faces and sincere amiability of the locals, will forever linger in my heart with appreciation. Thank you for making our journey memorable. Hvala. ♦
Additional photos of Serbia:
Next travel post: First impression in Kosovo