Last Wednesday, I found myself dining for the second time at the Beton Hala. It’s a waterfront full of restaurants and cafes that overlooks the Sava — one of Belgrade’s main rivers. This time, I was at Toro: a trendy Latin restaurant adorned with high-top tables and delicious cocktails. But I wasn’t there for the ambiance; I was reuniting with Sonja and Jasmina, my two dear Serbian friends.
At this point, we’ve reunited three times: once in January 2020, again in January 2021, and now, in May 2021. Our story begins not in Belgrade, but back where I live — in the city of Manhattan. Three summers ago, we all happened to take a summer job at the Statue of Liberty. For me, it was practically family business (I’ll explain that in another blog). Sonja and Jasmina, however, found the opportunity through a work and travel program.
Everyone has one summer that is life-changing (or so I hope!) For us, it was Summer 2019. It was the summer that Sonja and Jasmina came to New York City; the summer that I met Aleksa; the summer when we worked at the Statue of Liberty.
At the Crown Cafe, Aleksa stocked shelves with cold Coca-Cola bottles, Jasmine whipped up fresh lattes, and Sonja tossed French fries.
As for myself, I spent those long, humid days gift wrapping coffee mugs or organizing key chains in the gift shop. But, if it was busy, I worked in the restaurant on cashier duty. From my front-and-center kiosk, I could see Aleksa, Jasmina, and Sonja running around in the heat. Like true New Yorkers!
When that summer came to an end, we promised to return to work at the Statue. That should have been May 2020. But for obvious reasons, the work and travel program fell through. Travel restrictions hung over all of our heads in different ways. For myself, it meant I had no idea when I would see my fiance. For Sonja and Jasmina, it meant a lot of canceled dreams. Dreams of penultimately seeing Hawaii, of living together in the city, and of reuniting with other friends from around the world.
It was a sad, heartbreaking time for all of us — which is why this summer is so special. Face masks are coming off and businesses are opening their doors. We may not be in Manhattan, but we’re all living in the same city again. We don’t have to catch up with each other over Facetime and Whatsapp — we can go grab dinner at the Beton Hala.
And so, on this particular night at Toro, we were celebrating life, romance, and friendship. “Živeli!” we said as we clunked our glasses together. As I sipped on a vodka lemonade, I told the girls about some of my wild and hilarious happenings in Belgrade so far.
“I was standing by the bathrooms at the Ada mall …”
“I’ve never been there,” Sonja interjected. “Have you?” she said, looking at Jasmina.
“No,” Jasmina laughed.
“Well now you know that all the crazies hang out by the bathroom. I’m kidding,” I laughed. “But really. This woman and her daughter came up to me with a card and they were trying to sell me something. I could just tell by her expressions. Only I couldn’t understand them. So I told the woman, ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t speak Serbian.’ And she looks at me all confused and snaps, ‘What?!?’ so I repeat myself. ‘I’m sorry, izvini, I don’t speak Serbian.’ And do you know what she says to me?”
Sonja and Jasmina shook their heads, no.
“She says to me, ‘Yes … but who are you?'”
They burst into a fit of laughter. “You’re the American Spy, I’m telling you! That’s SO funny.” Sonja said, tearing up. “You know, Kasey, you should start a blog. I bet there are so many people who’d want to read about your travels here. You have so many stories.”
I took another sip of my drink and said, “that’s actually a really good idea, Sonja. Maybe I’ll do a blog.”
My fellow creative writers will understand me when I say that we are encouraged to write personal essays, memoirs, and poems — not necessarily blogs. For a long time, I’ve had a growing collection of stories about my time in Belgrade. I’ve been here three times now, and for a collective total of four months. You can only imagine what it’s like to be an American in a country that most Americans don’t know about (which is unfortunate, by the way!) Or what it’s like to be in love with someone whose first language isn’t your own, who lives halfway across the world. I owe these stories to my friends, my family, my fiance, and my curious online followers. But I especially owe this to Sonja, who continued to push the idea.
“You can call it the American Spy – that’s the name of the blog!” Sonja joked that evening. Although not quite on brand, I thought it was best to dub this blog as what most people refer to me as here: That American Girl.
I’ll be adding something new each week — I hope you stick with me and I hope you get something out of it.
That American Girl