My Balkan love affair began back in 2010 with my first visit to Subotica (which I now know isn’t technically in the Balkans) and continued later that year with my first trip to Belgrade. It’s been a few years since I was last in Belgrade (I’ve been to many other cities since) and yet it’s still held its position as one of the top five cities in which I could live – were I to leave Budapest.
Back at the request of DiploFoundation to run a two-day public speaking workshop, the few days were packed solid, Serbian style. I’ve yet to meet people with anything approaching the same capacity to live life to the full. And the hospitality, as I remembered, is first class. (India comes a close second.)
Serbia has its fans and its detractors. I can’t ever hope to understand its history or even come close to anything approaching empathy for the past that has shaped its present. I can only speak from my experience. It may well have been four years since I was there, four years since I worked directly rather than virtually with the Diplo team, but it felt like yesterday. From that first welcome dinner at Patlidžan with its excellent piadina sa biftekom (steak wrapped in flatbread) and my re-acquaintance with Tamjanika wine, I felt at home. Conversation flitted between the serious and the banal. International development policy, cybersecurity, Trump, Brexit, the recent Serbian elections, village life, modern education; everyone at the table had something to contribute. That evening, on our way back to the fab Crystal Hotel, we stopped into Le Petit Bistro, lured inside by the strains of live music. Stubovi Pop Kulture are now on my list of bands to check out, next time in town.
Over a late lunch the next day in a fabulous local Italian restaurant, Amici, the conversations continued.
The workshop started Friday evening at 5. Participants, keen to learn the secret to effective public speaking (if there is one), came from work, probably the last thing most people would want to do at the end of a hard week, but they came. Everyone was an expert in their own field. And again, the diverse backgrounds and experience added to the quality of the communication. Serbians, in my experience, are rarely, if ever, stuck for something substantive to say.
Each had their own demon to tame – be it anxiety at determining what to say, lack of confidence in their ability to speak English, fear of facing an audience – and they brought their demons with them. My mandate had been quite broad. There was only one specific ask: the workshop had to be dynamic. They didn’t want a lecture. Or a seminar. Or an ex-cathedra presentation.
It’s impossible to turn someone into a public speaker in two days. It takes time and effort and practice. But what can be done is to raise the level of their awareness of what makes a speaker good speaker and what makes a message an effective message. Practical tips to address the demons, opportunities to put the theory behind public speaking into practice, and immediate constructive feedback on performance – that’s where it’s at.
It’s always a good sign when participants are in no rush to leave. So much can be learned from others in the room. And very often, chance encounters at workshops where participants are given a safe environment in which to expose their vulnerabilities and experiment with finding their voice, can lead to future cooperation.
Dinner that evening was a quieter affair, just four of us. Villa Maska, with its fab floral Trabant, is yet another gem on the Belgrade culinary route. My sixth encounter with the hospitality industry this trip and my sixth time to comment on how seriously they take their business. From the coffee shop on the corner to the local restaurants and kafanas, the service was warm and welcoming, delivered with ease and efficiency. Service in Belgrade is the stuff textbooks are written about.
The second day, Saturday, ran from noon to 5pm and again, participants stayed over. The overriding feedback was that it had been different to the type of soft-skills training they were used to. They got floor time. They got to speak. They got to experiment. They got to practice. And they learned. Mission accomplished.
Dinner that night was at the home of old friends in New Belgrade. A smorgasbord of Serbian delicacies that left me daydreaming of having the time to grow paprika and make my own ajvar and making a note to myself that I had to try the boiled eggs in horseradish and sourcream at home. As we sat around the room sampling homemade rakija and Montenegrin wine, again the conversation leapfrogged around the world with everyone contributing. Life in Serbia is extremely social. And inclusive. And entertaining.
Sunday, we had plans to visit the Tesla museum but it was lashing out of the heavens and I was knackered. Workshops drain me. Having to be on my game for hours on end is physically and mentally challenging. We were picked up from the hotel at 2.30 for a Sunday afternoon lunch at Milošev konak, noted for its delectable desserts. In this remnant of old Belgrade, with its platters of roasted meats and lively music, we spent the better part of five hours. Had the yawns not begun to get in the way of conversation, I might still be there.
As always, the musicians were an integral part of the experience. The music was like a rollercoaster ride – from happy to sad, from upbeat to melancholy. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the lyrics, the sentiments were clear. My new favourite song is Dimitrijo, sine mitre, a tearjerker if ever there was one.
It’s been a long week. And I’m heading into the next with a backlog of work that will take days to get through. But as exhausted as I am, I’m grateful that I managed to hold my own, and to keep up with Belgrade. I’m grateful, too, for the spirit of friendship and the shared belief that working together is how we change the world, one thought at a time.
If you’ve not been to Belgrade, you’re missing out. The food, the wine, the music, and above all, the incredible hospitality, is something everyone should experience. I can only hope that it won’t be another four years before I get to come back.