"I didn't catch your names", she said. "Jelena and Milan", we replied simultaneously. "Of course", she nodded, "every other guy I met here is Milan, and every other girl is Jelena." Interesting observation that caught me off guard, which could have been seen on my face. "Milan, that's pretty traditional Serbian name, right?" I confirmed. "Well, you see, my name isn't traditional Philippine at all, it's French, Geraldine." The expression of perplexity stayed on my face but I managed to shake it off quickly. "Please, take a seat", I said to her showing the empty chair at our table. We were quiet for about a minute, until she settled, leaving me enough time to take a deep breath. That was pretty much all of the silence we had that evening. And she broke it first. Strangely enough, she began interviewing me, about our web-site, about my thoughts on the city. And I explained the purpose of us doing this, and showed her web pages that were still in construction but sufficiently built to get an overall impression. And I started talking about Belgrade. I could talk about Belgrade for days. While she was listening carefully to what I had to say, I persuaded myself all over again that this thing that we are doing was so right, and full of emotion. Surely, no matter what, it has to make some difference.
Finally, I pointed out that the people who we already talked to were naming local citizens and the spirit of an old forgotten world, vintage as someone said, to be Belgrade's main assets. "Exactly!", she couldn't restrain from commenting anymore. "You guys are paying attention to your tradition, you are not allienated, you like to hang out, to socialize, and that's something you need to preserve", she explained. "I feel completely relaxed around here", she added.
It was high time to hear what Geraldine had to say. So, I learned that she had been here for almost a whole month, visiting a friend, that she celebrated Serbian New Year in Belgrade and that her friend took her to "Slava", traditional patron saint day that Serbian families celebrate gathering friends for a feast. Oh, and I found out that she never saw New Belgrade, other than through a car window driving from the airport. She was wondering what it was like and I showed her pictures of a couple of typical residential towers. "No older buildings there?", she asked. "No", I replied. She told me that in Manila, for example, new and modern skyscrapers are everywhere and from the old town there is hardly anything left. There is a small historic area, now under protection, called "Intramuros", a remainder from the Spanish collonial period. And that's pretty much it. "What I like about Belgrade is that it still has the old town", she said melancholically. "You know", she continued, "I come to Serbia when I want to be closer to home".
Geraldine is married and lives in Belgium right now. When she gets homesick she comes to Belgrade. She said that she would even like to move here and start a business. "How come you feel so close to home being in Belgrade?", I had to ask. "You know roasted pork, like the whole pig roasted in one piece that you are having here?", she asked back. "Of course", I replied, perplexed. "That's so Philippine, that's our dish!", she exclaimed. "What is needed for a human beign to feel at home? Food and people, of course. When you have those two, you are happy, and you get the sensation of being on your proper ground", she explained. You don't say?! In Philippines they are roasting pig?! Who would have thought?! Surprise, surprise. Then it hit me. Using the experience of our previous talks with people who visited Belgrade, I put two and two together. And I had to ask it: "Would you say, then, that Serbia is a place in Europe that is closest to Asia, South America or Africa?"
It sounded weird, even to me. But I meant it in a good way. And she perfectly understood. "Yes, geographically, you are in Europe, but your spirit is elsewhere. You didn't forget to have fun, to live, to be yourself." I smiled. For the guys who are coming from Western Europe we are exotic, for those from the East we are fellow inmates from the past, and for the rest of the world (exept Australia and the USA, obviously) we are home. And I am fine with that. I even like that.
The time went by in an apparently infinite conversation, and I had to ask some of the questions that we usually pose to our interlocutors, knowing already that this story goes beyond our standard Q&A's. So I inquired what the first thing she noticed in Belgrade was. "Beautiful people, definitely", she replied in a heartbeat. Before she came here, she only knew that the Serbs are tall, judging from the looks of some of her Serbian colleagues. She explained, though, that she noticed that there are two kinds of beautiful women here. The first kind is beautiful naturally, and the second kind is beautiful naturally but wants to be even more beautiful, and uses excesive makeup. "I don't understand that", she said shaking her head, "you are already so beautiful, why overdo it with the makeup?!" She mentioned that the first couple of times she was coming to Belgrade on business, as a flight attendant, for a 24 hour stay, her colleague took her to Belgrade Fortress, Knez Mihailova street, the usual places in the center of the city, but also to the so called "Sillicon Valley". And don't get fooled, it is not our IT development center. That's Strahinjića Bana street, where there are lots of bars and restaurants with fancy clientele, accompanied by the girls who did job on some (or many) parts of their body, thus the popular name "sillicon". So I understood how come she noticed the second kind of beautiful girls around here. "Maybe that's too perfectionist", she concluded, and added that Serbian men are great because they support their women looking beautiful. They really do. However, she stressed that she likes people with natural looks. "Well", I said laconically, "natural looks doesn't get you rich guys". "Oh...", she sighed.
Geraldine is beautiful in her own category. And she has class. She is polite, she pays attention, and she talks looking seriously but you feel like she is smiling all the time. For her, Belgrade is happiness. To her own mind, people in Belgrade look content, relaxed, and calm, almost as if they had no worries in the world. They do not complain, they do not grudge, even in the public transport, older men are not yelling that they deserve the seat, as well as pregnant women. "And it is not like that elswhere, believe me", she argued, "I was around and saw very nervous and grumpy people in other places". But we do complain, a lot, I thought, making a kind of a weird expression of disagreement on my face. "I just don't see it", she anticipated my reaction, "I am telling you what I see." So, we are good actors, I guess.
But not all is beautiful around here. Geraldine criticized many things, as well. For example, she disliked smoking, and dirty streets. She notices garbage on the streets but she doesn't see people cleaning it. And the locals are not responsible cleaning their own animal's waste. For her, cleanliness means safety. However, judging by her proper experience, she still thinks that Belgrade is one of the safest cities in the world. "And public transportation is so unreliable", she concluded. "Yes, those are common issues", I nodded.
As for the healthy life, well... people in Serbia are very short-tempered when it comes to smoking. Geraldine learned it the hard way. "Once I asked a guy in a bar, next to me, to stop smoking because my friend was coughing. And I was really polite, he saw that I was a stranger. And he replied 'no, I can do whatever I want', and just turned around. I was really surprised with such reaction." I explained that here people think that their rights as smokers are endangered. "Don't hold it against us", I said, smiling. And she understood. That's our free spirit and part of our resistance to new, modern tendenices that are making us look all alike. Let's call it that.
That incident aside, Geraldine thinks that people here are warm. "You cannot settle in the house", she smiled. "You are outgoing, you want to help, many people speak English, and the ones that do not speak it are trying", she added. I found out that in comparison to southern Belgium, where people do not like to mingle and they just smile at you and turn their head because they don't want to talk, it is really pleasant to be here, in Belgrade, and Serbia in general. But to be honest, it is not everywhere that bad. When you are getting closer to Amsterdam, in the north, I learned that the locals are more open and inclined to talk. "How come I see only men, like right now? There are a lot more men here in the bar than women.", suddenly she changed the topic. And it got me thinking. She's right. "Maybe", I hesitated, "the guys are going out to have a drink and women are staying at home, invinting their girlfriends over for a cup of coffee". At least it was like that when I was going out. Nowadays, unlike average Serbian, I like to stay at home, so I don't have an idea what's going on outside. I should definitely look into that. "Yeah, you do that", she conceded, "because when I was in this traditional restaurant with the friends, we were the only girls there, and men were everywhere."
Geraldine is so observant. As a flight attendat she has to be, I guess. She said that she can say just by the looks who is a foreigner, or who doesn't belong in some place, for example. Unfortunately, we had no time for a guessing game. It would have been fun, fur sure. "We belong here", I commented graciously. "You know", she said, "back home, in the Philippines, it would be impossible for me, as a married woman, to chat with you in a bar". Here, she thinks, people are not judgemental at all. "You guys are Catholic, right?", I assumed. "Yes", she replied, "and very traditional. Contrary to all those modern buildings they are making nowadays."
The other night Geraldine went to meet some fellow Filipinos living here. Imagine, there are about one hundred of them. Another surprise for me. They are really content, she told me. And they were commenting about our health insurance system being far better than back in the Philippines. There, they do not have universal insurance, it is not covering most of the things. Then, the people have to pay their own private insurance. And here we are covered to the full extent. I guess every system can be good but usually the people who run it are bad.
I was under the impression that we could talk infinitely, but Geraldine had a dinner to attend. We agreed that we would continue our conversation next time she comes to town. So, pretty soon.
Geraldine's view on Belgrade and its people gave me hope that the things aren't so bad as we usually like to think. She made me satisfied with everyday's life. Because she has been around the world, and she has seen the good and the bad. And maybe, just maybe, we do not appreciate enough our reality. And reality is us being so much better than our impression of us. She is the proof of it.
She hasn't left Belgrade yet and she is already planning to get back here. That has to mean something, right?