I’m not what you’d call a people person. Despite outward appearances, I find being around people all the time somewhat nerve wracking. Call it fanciful, but I can feel the energy seeping out of me and need time and space to recuperate. I dread networking events where small talk comes wrapped in hors d’oeuvres and niceties are made more palatable by the champagne.
So when I was invited to join a group of 26 Serbs, Macedonians, Kosovans, Croats, and one Dutch on a trip to the Holy Land, I was a little apprehensive. Apart from me and Roeland, everyone would speak the same language and I know how isolating that can be. Even our guide, Srdjan, was Serbian and while most spoke varying levels of English, the natural default was understandably Serbian or some variation thereof. Other than my friend Milutin, I would know nobody. This was definitely me moving out of my comfort zone but enticed by the idea of writing text to accompany his photographs, I signed up.
It didn’t help that after a day’s touring, I worked most evenings. Such are the joys of freelancing. You take the work when you can get it because you never know when it will dry up. But as a result, I missed out on some of the camaraderie. And yet I was conscious of how irritating it can be to have to translate a joke for someone after the punchline has been delivered. During the day, Roeland’s wife Olivera, a woman of immeasurable patience, translated for us… which I’m sure was a royal pain in the proverbial for her but she was unwavering.
The group is solid – they’ve been travelling together since 2002 and all have a scouting background. I met Milutin through scouts, too, and although we had that in common at least, no one knew me from Adam. And no one judged. If I wandered off from the group, no one batted an eyelid. If I chose to sit apart with my book, no one took offence. If I sat at a table on my own for dinner, no one commented. That’s what I love about the Balkans – this lack of judgment, this acceptance of life for what it is, of people for who they are.
The trip itself was exhausting. Breakfast at 6.30 most mornings, on the bus by 7.30 and then away for the day, stopping here, there, and yonder. Srdjan had mapped out a packed itinerary and included enough free time to wander cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with the occasional choice thrown in for good measure: an hour at the beach or yet another church or monastery. Despite the full agenda, the early mornings, and the late nights, the good spirits never waned. Rakija is to the Balkans what air is to the rest of the world. To see a bottle of this spirit make its way down the bus before 8 in the morning and then reappear at various times during the day was nothing short of amazing. Who drinks that early? And yet it was never overdone – just a sip every so often to keep the bugs at bay. In the evenings, in Tiberius, I joined a few of the lads on the wall outside the hotel where we sat around before dinner having a beer, Milutin translating for me so that I didn’t miss out on what was being said. And it was there that I came appreciate, once again, that sense of humour that sets them apart as a nation – as self-deprecating as the Irish, and as deadpan in their delivery, their readiness to release their inner child is enviable. The laughter was constant and came from the heart.
I’ve long since enjoyed a love affair with the Balkans. Three of my favourite men in the world are Serbian. As a people, they rate highest on my scale of nation favourites. There’s something about their attitude to life, their ability to enjoy the moment, their constant good humour, and their readiness to engage in informed discussions on just about anything that makes them unique. Everyone has a story – one that involves resilience, humility, and an insight into what’s important in life (family and friends) that leave most other nations standing still in their wake.
Age does not limit them. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. They might have respectable day jobs with multinationals or international organisations, jobs that are demanding in so many ways, yet they wear this responsibility lightly, recognising that while it is important, work is not the be all and end all of life. Friends and family come first and foremost.
I fell into conversation with one of the older lads who told me of a trip he’d made to London when he was 17. At immigration, he was asked if he had enough money to keep himself for two months. Standing tall, he replied: I am visiting a Serbian family; I have no need for money. I’ve witnessed this hospitality on more than one occasion and it still warms the cockles of my heart.
What can I say? In a week that saw a host of illusions being shattered, I am grateful that at least one conviction has remained intact. I’m still deeply in love with the Balkans and its peoples.
Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52