Why do I love Serbia?
Many people, both Serbs and from across the world, ask me why I like Serbia. After all, it is a country of debilitated infrastructure, a difficult business environment, awash with both criminals and criminal attitudes, overflowing with harmful drugs and its people still for the greater part live in conditions of modesty or even poverty. The Serbs are a precocious people, deeply insular and socially and sexually conservative; Belgrade is extraordinarily ugly; it often feels as though everyone is out to scam foreigners; and a night out can ruin all your clothes between crooked paving slabs and airborne projectiles in bars as the locals take to violence to resolve their controversies.
Moreover Belgrade is not even the bargain basement of cheap prices that it used to be. COVID, 2022 geopolitical disruptions, ever-growing integration towards EU standards and a massive recent influx of moneyed Russians trying to escape their tyrannical government have put paid to that. Prices now feel much more in accordance with central Europe than they once were. Belgrade property is really now quite expensive, which is problematic because so much of it is of substandard quality. Really good real estate is now very expensive.
So why do I like Serbia so much? Here are my reasons. They are not ranked in any particular order.
Serbs are mutually supportive in crisis. They have an element of socialism to their society; the better off are expected to support the poor and those in need. This is a refreshing departure from cultural standards in the West.
Serbia is a thriving democracy and a temple of free speech. You can say whatever you want here (and I often do) without government persecution or criminal attack. For this reason its democracy is fair, its government grumblingly supported by a majority of citizens who begrudgingly know it is better than the corrupt regimes that preceded it. Serbia is a country in which you can breathe political freedom.
Serbs might be scammers but they also have their principles. They will not rip off a person in strife. Seldom will they rip you off too much. Once you get to know them, you learn that they are proud people, very difficult to buy. They will take your money, of course; but if you overtly try to buy them they will take your money and give you nothing. This is an aspect of their national honour.
Serbia is something of a libertarian's paradise. You can do virtually any damn fool thing you want to, and nobody cares. You can always get a drink or a meal. Everything is open long hours. Whatever you want, there is always some more or less legitimate way of getting it.
Serbia has super culture. Once you have been up all night in a Kafana dancing to Serbian folk music a few times, you really start to enjoy it and appreciate it.
At their best, Serbian girls are kind, caring and good lovers (in every way), even if somewhat old-fashioned in terms of family relationships.
Contrary to internationally perceived attitudes, Serbia is neither a racist nor a homophobic country. Everyone is welcome -. provided they do things the old-fashioned Serbian way.
Provided you play by their somewhat complex rules of social interaction (which you can only learn by spending some time there), Serbs are outrageously gregarious and in a very agreeable way. It is virtually impossible to feel on your own unless you barricade yourself in your hotel room or apartment. And they don't do it for the money. They do it because it comes naturally to them.
Serbs are creative, impulsive and energetic. Sometimes they have too much of these qualities. They are rotten diplomats, rude and brusque if they do not get what they want. But if you spend an extended period of time with the Serbs, you get used to this and indeed you just ignore it.
Serbian institutions are not as bad as they appear. Their legal system is often overlooked as one of the better in the region, and reasonably humane towards offenders. I would prefer to be standing before a Serbian court than a Swiss court, and this is quite an assertion. Bureaucracy is remarkably light - as long as you have money.. if you do, then the bureaucracy will not harass you and you can virtually ignore it. If you do not have money, by contrast, then the bureaucracy is a nightmare.
The sense of disorder is addictive. Serbs seldom do anything by the book, and this stands out as a welcome relief from western societies that are so over-regulated both in law and in practice.
Serbia is beautiful. The skill in seeing this lies in your getting out of Belgrade. Given it is such a monstrous metropolis, this is easier said than done. But you will be rewarded with beautiful walks, skiing and lakes.
People will share their food and drink with you. This hospitality ethic derives in large part from the economy of shortage, as Serbs suffered crippling sanctions during the Balkan Wars of the 1990's. People would share what they had so that nobody went absolutely starving. Serbs are great survivors in the face of adversity; they have had to learn to be so as recent history has not been very kind to them due to a mixture of bad domestic politicians, perennial civil conflicts, and international isolation.
Serbs get on with Albanians better than you think. Most of the various reports of conflicts are manufactured for domestic and international media consumption. Both groups will fight for their land or their money; in this they are remarkably similar. Both groups have in common a shared history of resisting Turkish occupation. Serbs and Albanians excel in inter-ethnic relations when they are doing business together, not fighting about land.
Serbia's imagined favouritism for Russia is mostly empty words. The Serbs have no illusions about the Russians, people who have never given much to their Serb cousins but have taken much and perpetuated regional conflicts for political reasons. The prevailing Serb attitude towards Russia is one of caution - Russia can be dangerous. It is not one of love or affection.
Serbs are eccentric. They wear all sorts of crazy clothes, embark on crazy projects, and have impromptu crazy parties. They more often than not have crazy tattoos or other body adornments (take it from this author!). Although many hidden social constraints exist - in particular via families and networks of people close to families - the Serbs find plenty of room to express their individuality despite the odds.
Serbia, I love you. Volim te. We have lots of problems to work on; but we will work on them together and we will achieve an ever better Serbia, one step at a time.