I missed March. I literally wrote nothing for March, but in my defense March was kind of boring. Nothing particular interesting happened in March, so I wasn’t very moved to write anything. Also, this whole getting out at least one post a month was my own personal goal, so I suppose the only person I let down was myself. Anyway, the good news is that something interesting happened that I can finally write about. Two weeks ago was Spring Break. I was telling a friend of mine the other day that this teaching thing isn’t bad, to still have Spring Break yet not be the one in school. It’s weird, yet nostalgic at the same time.
Anyway, for Spring Break I went traveling with a fellow PCV from cohort 2. The reason I didn’t mention my travel plans beforehand is because I was so scarred from my failed attempt at traveling during Winter Break that I basically put my plans out of my head until the day I left my site. If I didn’t think about it, I couldn’t be disappointment if something came up suddenly and I ended up not going. But I went and now I’m back and for the most part I really enjoyed my experiences.
My friend and I went to two different cities: first Thessaloniki, Greece and Belgrade, Serbia. Belgrade was even a last minute add-on suggested by me. I didn’t get to go to Greece before, but I still wanted that experience and that passport stamp. I remember my friend telling me that she was going to Thessaloniki for a few days, earlier in the year, and asked her if she’d considered going to Belgrade too. It was never in my plans to visit Serbia before leaving the Peace Corps. Yet, just like my other friend is always saying about herself, it was never in my plans to live anywhere in the Balkans for two years, so my entire Peace Corps service has been one last novel experience after another. But Serbia particularly, never really interested me, even after being here for awhile and listening to other volunteers positive travel experiences within the country. The driving decision for me ended up being the desire to explore the other side. I live in an Albanian community in Kosovo. I speak Albanian, and I get the Albanian perspective every single day, but at the end of the day I’m still American, still just a guest. I have the unique ability to extract myself from the situation and look at it from both sides, something I thought would be best done by actually traveling to Serbia. Which I did and it was great.
We spent four days in Thessaloniki (too long) and two days in Belgrade (too short). Thessaloniki, the best way I can put it, is a transit city. In my opinion people, or at least expats like myself (am I considered an expat), go there for two reasons: to shop and as a layover to get to another destination. When we first arrived in Thessaloniki (or Thess as we call it) I honestly thought we were in the wrong city. Thess doesn’t look like Greece, or at least not the picturesque touristy version we’re always feed with the blue-green water and the pretty little houses lining the lush green coast. No, Thess looks like Europe. It’s a city with roads, construction, a nice area, a not so nice area, and graffiti E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E. I swear every single building in the city was tagged with some sort of graffiti.
When we first got there we were both a little skeptically about the choice we’d made, but by the end of the day Thess had started to grow on us. For one, everyone (or at least it seemed like everyone) spoke English, which was great for us cause we ended up being those tourists who travel to a different country and don’t know a word of the local language before we get there. I can’t believe I did that. I’m always the one saying that you need to at least know “Hello”, “Thank you”, and “Where’s the bathroom?” in the local language of any place you visit, yet I went to Greece without even knowing how to say “Hello”. I learned by the end, though. By the end of the trip Yassas (Greek for “Hello”) became our favorite word, mainly because it was the first word that we heard whenever when entered a shop or cafe. Not sure why, maybe its high foreigner count or maybe because it’s a university town, but no one automatically assumed we didn’t know Greek. They’d greet us in Greek, then switch over to English when they realized we didn’t understand (which we’d shoot a quick thanks in pray to the heavens for). Here is Kosovo, more often than not, people automatically assume I don’t know Albanian and start conversations with me in English…or German on occasion. I get it, I absolutely get why they do it. Albanian is a tough and very distinct language. It’s not one that many foreigners study on a whim, even ones who’ve lived here for awhile, so as a show of respect toward me they use English to meet me halfway. It still doesn’t change the fact that it makes me feel completely alienated, partly cause I have worked so hard to learn the language and partly cause it doesn’t happen to my fellow melanin-challenged PCVs. There’s no win in a situation like this, though, cause whenever I do use my Albanian it becomes such a novelty to someone locals that I end up spotlighting myself and further causing myself to feel alienated. Le sigh.
But this post isn’t about languages, it’s about travel and our experience with English in Greece was super refreshing. So was the to-go cultural, as in coffees in to-go cups and not being considered weird while walking and eating. This was bittersweet for me, cause of the tree hugger inside me, but at the same time not being looked at as crazy while walking and drinking a coffee was really nice. The anonymity was great too. People stared there, but not as much. My favorite part about Thess was the boardwalk and the bazaar, which we literally came across by mistake. We spent more time than not walking up and down the boardwalk or through the city and never once really felt spotlighted. My friend really liked the city and wants to go back. If I ever go back it’ll be as a stop over to or from Halkidiki, a place much like the picturesque Greece I mentioned before.
After Thessaloniki we had a whole days journey to get to Belgrade. We left at 8:30 from arrive in Belgrade around 9:10, so just over 12 hours of travel. It wasn’t that bad and it wasn’t even the longest time I’ve spent traveling. After you’ve spent 29 hours on a hard seat traveling from middle to southern China, any trip under 24 hours ends up feeling like a cake walk. The only thing that bothered both of us about the journey is that there were no rest breaks between Skopje and Belgrade. Every stop we made was literally load and go.
The best thing I can say for Belgrade is that it was surprising. Tucked away in the middle of the Balkans is this international city and it felt like one too. It may not have hugely famous tourist destinations, but it does have a lot of historical sites for those interested in history. It also happens to be a world renowned party city, which we only learned after we got there. No worries, no worries. It was off-season when we went, but we were encouraged by so many people to come back during summer to experience true Belgrade nightlife. Er….hmm….maybe. Even the day we left, despite the fact that it was the off-season, was telling of the night life. We left our hostel at 4:45am to catch a 5:30am and there were people walking the streets, most likely just coming from a night of partying. There weren’t a lot, but even as we walked the streets we saw pastry places or pizza joints open…at 4:45am!
I really liked the feel of Belgrade and if I had to choose between the two cities, that’s the one I’d go back to, not for the partying, but for the history, though I’m really curious to see if all night boat parties (parties on boats that travel all night up and down the river from about 11pm-7am) are a thing. They’re a thing, they are, I just can’t believe it. The real reason I’d like to go back is because, even with two days and a walking tour the second day, there were still a lot of sites that we weren’t able to get to. I’d also really like to bring my family to visit the Balkans one day and Belgrade would definitely be a stop on the list, but good luck to myself trying to get any of my immediate family members on an international flight.
I seem to be one of the few travelers in my family and after four months this amazing adventure/life/experience will be over. I can’t even believe it, but this time two weeks from now, I’ll be leaving to attend my Close-of-Service (COS) conference, where like my mom said they’ll plant subliminal messages of apple pie, bald eagles, and fast food into our heads to make the transition back to America a little easier. It won’t be easy and I know this, but I also know that I’m more than ready for the next phase of my life, whatever that may be and wherever it may take me.
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
― Pat Conroy