Autumn in New York & Summer in Serbia.

Tell me, friends: what would we do without Autumn in New York? For those who have experienced it, you know that there’s nothing quite like it. During this time of year, Tom Hanks feels compelled to buy school supplies; Bryant Park rips up its 9.6-acre lawn to clear space for the skating rink; and Central Park transforms into a perfectly orange pastoral, complete with horse-drawn carriages and the occasional bride stomping down Bethesda Terrace. 

New Yorkers, momentarily, may feel compelled to seek out the pleasures of “suburban” autumn. They might even Google, “nearest pumpkin patch.” But they’ll soon realize that the closest farms are in Long Island and New Jersey — which, to a New Yorker, is impossibly far away. It’s hard enough to get us to leave our boroughs, what makes you think we’re going to leave the city?

So what is it, then, that draws us to autumn in the city? Our pumpkins are imported from upstate and charged one-too-many dollars. They sit outside Morton Williams on limp haystacks, waiting to be noticed. If you buy one, you risk your neighbor stealing it from your front door or your friendly cockroach munching on it in your kitchen. 

And then there’s all the festivals, activities, and events that bring tourism. Just when you think you’ve escaped the crowds of the Halloween Parade in the East Village, you are met with the chaos of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Not to mention, by the way, that every store starts putting our Christmas decor during the third week of October.

But somehow, I surprise myself every September: those silly Morton Williams pumpkins make me smile. I enjoy the leisurely Sunday mornings by the Jackie -O Reservoir, watching Central Park lose its green face. I don’t mind tripping over sidewalk chalkboards promoting a cafe’s seasonal latte. I especially love rediscovering my fall jackets, and the particular way the wind shocks my eyes. Or how about the evening when your landlord finally kicks on the heaters? Little surprises, secret pastimes — jouissance!

This October, I’ve been so lucky to share my Sundays with my Instagram followers. Dubbed “The Sunday Diaries,” I share what a casual (or glamorous) day in the city is like. It all started with an innocent picnic in Bryant Park with my dear friend Hannah. She prepared these mouthwatering crostini with ricotta and roasted tomato, except there were way too many birds and the lawn was sopping wet from the night’s rain. We looked out toward Bryant Park Grille, an elegant and expensive restaurant that appeared to be everything our picnic wasn’t. One of us said, “I’ve always wanted to go there,” and then it was as if lightning hit us. Your life consists only of the decisions you make — and always, that means curating the lifestyle you want. We both said, at the same time, “Why don’t we go there?” And really, what had been stopping us? We dined there the following Sunday, and thus, The Sunday Diaries were born. They are akin to December’s vlogmas, but specifically for autumn. My favorite season!

All of October, I’ve shared what I’ve been up to: drinking cappuccinos at fancy brunch spots, wearing fluffy sweaters to the Park, admiring fresh cut flowers in local markets, stocking up on vintage dresses at thrift bazaars, and hosting an Oscar-themed birthday party. Don’t be fooled, my life isn’t like this every day. There’s a lot of long shifts, a lot of teary Facetime calls, a lot of poems that are stuck in revision. Bills to pay, a bookshelf I can’t seem to buy, fake plants that are collecting dust. But on these special days … the ones where I choose me, and choose to make the city feel wonderful … It feels like life can always be like that. 

I am always brought down to reality, however, on Sunday evenings. It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest, or worse, that there’s an anvil waiting to fall on my head — anxiety. Every beautiful component of Sunday is something I want to share with Aleksa, who is still not here with me. Quickly, everything starts to feel very wrong. You can’t imagine how many times I’m asked, “But I don’t understand, you’re both married, he can’t come here now?” It’s a question with good intentions, just one that I am very tired of answering. People want to understand, and I appreciate their sympathy. What they don’t realize is that I, too, have no idea how to react to what I am saying. Do you respond with ugly tears, do you get so frustrated that you break your favorite vase? Or do you just continue to be you, enjoy the fall for what it is, see your friends, and feel terribly alone at night?

I’ve never, ever, enjoyed the summer. Even as a little girl, it was a season that carried with it an associative melancholy (ie, my summer is likely your winter.) The sun is too much, the fashion is boring, the days are horribly long. But it truly boils down to the ennui of it all; I am someone who constantly needs to be busy. That’s my flaw. Although I desperately, probably, need to relax, I still haven’t narrowed down what actually relaxes me. It isn’t bubble baths and it isn’t yoga. About ten years ago, I would have said running — but that no longer does it for me. It might very well be writing these blogs.

With autumn in my corner — a new job, a Masters’s program, a new apartment — I’m incredibly busy. And I can’t help but think about how different my life was only a few months ago, when I spent my summer in Serbia.

***

The week I left for Belgrade is all but a blur. It was May 10th, and Aleksa and I had been apart for 101 days. Within that time, I had accomplished so much: three bridal fittings, two bridal showers, graduation paperwork, graduation photos, final exams, final essays, and the joys of packing for a long trip. The very same weekend I was packing for my summer away, my roommate was moving out of our apartment. Our home was a mess. I was either strategically moving my wedding dress out of the way and scratching up the floors with my suitcases, or he was combing through the intimate corners of our space, trying to determine what to toss, what to keep, and what to leave behind. 

Twenty-four hours before my flight, I helped him load up his U-haul and watched him drive away. The whole thing was very nostalgic. I walked upstairs, returning to what looked like a former shell of our home, feeling nervous, elated, and sad. I realized that that night would be my last evening sleeping in that apartment, and that the next time I returned to New York, I’d be sleeping in an apartment belonging to me and Aleksa.

That following morning was just as chaotic. I woke up too early, as I usually do for international flights, and left around 10 A.M. for JFK. I was completely by myself juggling two giant suitcases, a large green tote, and my big wedding dress. I couldn’t even tell you how I managed to get those belongings down three flights of stairs and into an Uber. Carrying a wedding dress in an airport, by the way, is no easy task. You can’t get coffee as you risk spilling anything on the bag, and you can’t exactly put your dress down to wander off. You can’t carry it, leisurely, on your arm as you stroll through the airport’s gift shops because any sudden movements might knock over a souvenir or bag of chips.

All I could do was stand there, the heavy dress straining my shoulders and drawing attention. In some ways, it was nice. Everyone who noticed what I was carrying seemed to smile at me, even with their masks on. The TSA was wonderful. They opened a giant machine to scan my dress so that it wouldn’t get crushed or dirty in the conveyor belt. And luckily, somehow, the stars happened to align for me. I managed to get a row on my flight with absolutely no people, which meant the cabin above my row was completely empty. My dress hung up there, unharmed by suitcases and carry-on bags, and I was able to finally breathe. Every now and then, a flight attendant would walk by and say, vencanica? And I’d say, da! 

The first thing I noticed when landing in Belgrade was the coolness of the morning. I had been warning about the Serbian summer heat, but this was still the baby’s breath of spring. Belgrade was gorgeous.

Now, considering that this blog has a history with Serbian news tabloids, let me try to be as clear as possible: this was my experience of summer in Belgrade. Not a general overview of what Serbians do in the summer in their country. This is as narcissistic as it gets! Just me and Belgrade.

During the cooler month of May, I spent a lot of time being a tourist. I had never experienced the warm seasons in Serbia, so it was an adjustment. 

One of my first memories of that trip was going to Galerija. Aleksa and I had spent my first few days reuniting with friends and family, so this was our first outing: checking out the sales and shops at a newly opened mall. From what I gathered, not all Belgraders are fans of Galerija. It’s too new, or it’s too empty, or they’re just loyal to Ada and Delta City and Rajićeva and UŠĆE — all the other malls that have filled the city. Personally, I like Galerija. The bottom floor has restaurants that all lead toward an outdoor terrace that overlooks the river, which in my book, is a great architectural and business model. I enjoyed getting breakfast two or three times at Avenia, where the eggs and tortilla were cooked over medium in an amazing secret sauce. 

Galerija is also a huge layout with big, open floors and fresh new stores. It’s the kind of place an American would want to be if they were shopping for Christmas presents on Black Friday — no one is on top of each other, no one feels cramped. Compared to UŠĆE, whose layout is traditionally more “mall” but always, always, swimming with shoppers — Galerija is a breath of fresh air! I was lucky to see the early days of the mall last winter when the building had barely any businesses open or functioning. There was a giant Christmas tree standing in this domed corner of the structure, and that’s when I knew it would eventually blossom into a gorgeous, roomy mall. 

Belgraders, like most people, enjoy escaping the heat by hiding away in shopping centers. But some days, they like facing the heat, too. Aleksa and I spent a few days walking the paths and park by Kalemegdan Fortress, a structure rich with Serbian history. So much of the city felt alive down here in ways that mirrored Central Park: street performers, street artists, walking tours, lovers holding hands, children running around, dogs smiling with their tongues out. I adored looking over the fortress toward the view of New Belgrade, all the city lights twinkling and the sunset one dreamy mess of colors. 

We spent many afternoons walking Knez Mihailova — it reminds me of New York’s Soho, but if Soho’s streets were wide and filled with European buildings. All the stores are around here, and I watched the windows change from the end of winter sales to spring dresses and summer swimsuits. I wouldn’t say that Knez Mihailova or Bulevar kralja Aleksandra is what people do all summer long, just how us Manhattanites don’t do Soho all summer long. But it’s a beautiful area with hidden gems, decent sales, and lovely people. You can get a real taste of Belgrade’s nightlife here. 

Aleksa and I visited Ada’s waterfront twice; it looks like parts of the Jersey Shore. With boardwalks and umbrellaed areas for restaurants, this seemed most familiar to me when you think of typical summer shenanigans. All kinds of people seemed to enjoy their time here. Whether their kids were swimming in the water or the adults were enjoying a cocktail in the shade, Ada had a space for everyone. Including us, licking ice cream cones in the grassy area while our allergies skyrocketed thanks to the floating pollen clouds everywhere. Safe to say, our immune systems kept us from revisiting. It was all tears and sneezes. 

For one day, Aleksa and I headed to Zemun. There’s nothing I can compare this area to. Parts of it look like Italy or Greece, and other parts seem completely unrecognizable. The streets are narrow and steep, with pink flowers blooming in unexpected corners while tiny cats innocently roam. It took some convincing to get me to walk up the Gardoš tower, but I eventually did. The lookout was beautiful from this historical monument: the tops of orange-tinged roofs, the sparkling waters, the city in the distance. We had a great lunch at one of the waterside restaurants — you might be seeing a pattern, now, of Belgrade having beautiful restaurants by water or nature — where Aleksa devoured an entire pizza in five mins.

We took a day trip to Novi Sad, of course, with Aleksa’s “best man” and his lovely girlfriend. We admired the pink and green buildings, the restaurant with its mini-red umbrellas hanging over our heads, The Girl with the Horn of Plenty statue (surrounded by vibrant red flowers) in the Park, and the museum Aleksa forced us all into. Just kidding, we enjoyed that museum. We were able to see portraits that had been destroyed during invasion, the clothes of previous eras, and the treasures from another life. 

I’m leaving out, of course, the one-hundred-and-one other things we did during my summer stay. I haven’t gotten into the plenty of girl’s nights I had — like drinking espresso martinis with Martina at Hotel Pavillion far too late into the night, then walking in the dark to Belgrade National Theatre, when one guy yelled out of his car that we looked sweeter than sugar which sent us into hysterics — or the warm afternoon I spent with Sonja and her mom looking for bridesmaid dresses in Indjija, followed by the coziness of her home aftward, where we sipped coffees and pet her Black Lab, Šharlo … or the many evenings we saw Aleksa’s friends, who spoke to me in English and Serbian about their plans, their girlfriends, their thoughts on the USA — all over rakija or beer, obviously, which always prompted a late-night run to get giant pljeskavice, and then they’d devour those in their neighborhood, laughing or insulting each other in the dark. 

I had plenty of one a.m. talks with Neda, my adorable sister-in-law, going over boys and school and TikTok dances — and then that one time I dragged her to the mall with me to buy something for our wedding, but we couldn’t stop laughing, which made the jewelry seller start laughing, so nearly everyone was looking at us. And I have also left out all my lovely days with Aleksa’s family. The week I arrived in Belgrade, Eurovision had just kicked off. I had heard of it before, but never knew the star quality and possession this contest held over people. We were all glued to the TV, holding our breath — laughing at the playfulness of Serbia’s girl group, Hurricane, and taken back by the rock-and-roll of Italy’s Måneskin. Aleksa’s mother and I often watched movies together or went over the nitty-gritty wedding details that Aleksa didn’t care about — like the color of napkins and the shapes of vases. Aleksa’s father and I always seemed to be making fun of something, whether it was the announcer’s voice on the radio or the way Aleksa would describe American burgers. Aleksa’s grandparents had us over for lunch plenty of times, too. His grandpa was always fermenting plums for next season’s alcohol; his grandma was always rolling pastry into spirals, which resembled the Jewish dessert, rugelach, but was something else entirely. 

What I mean to truly say, from all of this, is that summer is not just about the dog days. 

Sure, it can be. I adored visiting the castles, the cafes, the bookstores, and wedding venues.

 But it wouldn’t have been half of what it was if not for the people I love there. My summer in Serbia is not something that can be recreated, let alone a travel guide for curious tourists or a critique-all for the current residents of Belgrade. It was a period of immense joy and new beginnings, a time where I finally got to live with Aleksa and reconnect with friends and family. 

And that should be reason enough to understand what follows the afterglow: a tsunami of sadness and confusion. Despite autumn’s magical effect on Manhattan — despite the tiny gourds on my windowsill, the wool coats, the cinnamon-apple teas, the warmth of my friend’s phone calls — I still feel the absence of Aleksa. A part of me hoped that my admiration for this season would help calm these feelings, but they’re just as strong as ever. Every time I see a crinkly brown leaf blow through my building’s hallway, I just want to shout, Aleksa, look! Autumn! 

My life is so drastically different from just one season ago, that sometimes, it feels like this past summer was not my life. I was simply watching someone else live it, or I’ve somehow inherited false memories. Now, all I can do is exist without my husband or the people that made up my summer.

Instead, I can experience this year’s autumn filled with the friends and family that are absent from Aleksa’s corner of the world. Binational marriages, international friendships, they’re impossibly tricky. Whether I am in Serbia or America, I’ll always have a group of people missing from my life. That’s not as bad as it seems, though. If not for the omnipresence of summer, I wouldn’t be so excited by fall’s subtle arrival. Eventually, we must pause and take notice of the change. And when you do, you feel alive in a brand new way. 

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