Well, friends, it’s January again: that polarizing month that fills us with happiness or dread. For many people, this is the time to start fresh — to join the gym, to learn how to use a crockpot, to cut out those negative people in your life!
But if you’re like me, this is a sad stretch of time following the joy of the holidays. My Christmas tree is put away and I’ve tossed out the candy that was collecting on my coffee table … but now what?
For the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure and the fortune to spend my Januarys in Belgrade. I was there in 2020, admiring the New Year’s lights adorning Knez Mihailova (which caught the attention of another Serbian tabloid). I was there again in 2021, dining at Hotel Moskva on my anniversary. (I even had a nice trip to Zlatibor for a weekend, too).
Serbians always scolded me. “Why do you come during this miserable time of year?” they ask, referring to the harsh winter winds. “You must visit in the Spring!” But like most American students, the winter was when I had a vacation from school — and vacation meant I was off to Belgrade!
Maybe my opinion is unpopular, but I adore Belgrade in winter. I like the Christmas carts that spring up around Rajiceva, selling meats and cheese and sugary pastries. I like how the stores along Bulevar kralja Aleksandra decorate their windows with fluffy coats and sparkling gowns. In restaurants and cafes, people are glowing over a cup of coffee. They’re laughing as they tell stories well into the evening.
Belgrade is magical in winter. And yeah, I’m definitely romanticizing it — but that’s what we do with any city we love, right? Belgrade has its flaws the way New York has its flaws. But that doesn’t stop thousands of people from visiting New York for the holidays.
At this moment, I’m sitting in our chilly apartment in Manhattan while Aleksa rearranges the food in our refrigerator. We are preparing for the oncoming blizzard (meċava … I’m learning!) this Friday, and I can already promise you the city will be a wreck by Saturday. The streets will be lined with thick, black slush. The staircase in our building will be a gooey and salty mess.
But on a more serious note, New York isn’t perfect right now, either. Covid testing lines have been wrapped around the block, and I see more and more homeless outside the shelters. You can see the effects right in your neighborhood. Several businesses are closing their doors for good. Rent is decreasing, but the city is limited on jobs. Hundreds of offices remain empty in midtown. And I have plenty of talented friends that are currently jobless.
City to city, no matter how different, is suffering right now. I don’t want to pigeonhole New York or Belgrade into one thing. But I think it’s important to seek happiness in your life — and both of these cities provide me with bits of joy.
The other day I was folding laundry and said to Aleksa, “I miss Belgrade.” And I do — I miss the city’s vibe and the feeling the people give off. Even at one in the morning, there are people walking around Trg republike. The kafane play music I’ve never heard, but I don’t feel unwelcome at all. I miss my husband’s family and their Christmas traditions (somehow, Aleksa always manages to find the coin in the bread). And I don’t mind the cold weather, either.
“Would you rather be in Belgrade?” Aleksa asked. But I couldn’t quite answer. After spending two months in Serbia this late spring and early summer, I can attest that it is beautiful. But I missed New York all the time. So the season makes no difference. I’m just caught in the middle! When I’m in New York, I think about the mellowness of Belgraders. When I’m in Belgrade, I think about the punctuality of New Yorkers. I want both at different times.
What I can say is that I missed the ritual of traveling to Belgrade this year. I’ve gotten used to JFK around New Year’s Eve for my AirSerbia flight — and I’ve gotten familiar with explaining to random people that I’m not Serbian, but my partner is. I missed touching down at Nikola Tesla airport at seven in the morning (this is random, but I always notice the trees in the parking lot: they look nothing like US trees. That’s how I seem to ground myself after that tiring flight.) I’ve grown affectionate toward cruising around the city in Aleksa’s white Fiat. And there’s really nothing better than driving around Belgrade at night playing WTF radio, praying you’ll make it around Slavija alive.
More important than missing Belgrade is that I am not missing Aleksa! I am happy to report that he has arrived in the US for a while — and thank goodness — we spent six married months apart. For our 2022 dreams, Aleksa and I hope that this year is the year we finally get to be together permanently.
During these next few days, we will be celebrating orthodox Christmas together — baking bread, burning a badnjak, and seeing family friends. With Aleksa here, my world always feels a bit more like Belgrade. I think true love should be like that.