Back in Belgrade

“Kasey, I can’t sleep like this,” Aleksa has said, for the past four nights, pointing to the air conditioner in our rental space. “Serbians don’t do well with this cold air.”

“Aleksa,” I keep saying back to him, “I can’t sleep with it off.”

I’m back in Belgrade. You’d think that the most telling sign that I am American is, I don’t know, my voice — how when I’m not in the center of Belgrade, people turn toward me, now and then, a bit bewildered or possibly offended at my English words — but it isn’t. 

And it’s not my clothes (although I don’t know what it truly means to dress “American,”, especially in New York) or my appetite (yes, I did go to Starbucks near Rajićeva yesterday, but I also ate ćevapi and burek, so…) or even the way I attempt to pronounce “doviđenja.”

No. The air conditioner, somehow, is the most telling sign that Aleksa and I are from different worlds.

I don’t know if most Serbians are like this, or if it’s just my husband. But one whir of the AC unit and he begins to complain about it like it’s the promaja: how his throat hurts, how his nose is running.

The problem is that when we don’t sleep with the AC on, I have nightmares. I can never recall what they’re about, but I know I’ve had one from the way I wake up on my back and the horrible feeling in my stomach. (Google it, if you can: sleeping in a warm room can provoke night terrors.) And the room is always warmer when you’re trying to sleep next to Aleksa. He has this funny way of burning up the bed without sweating, just emanating the same thick air that floats above a hot pavement in summer.

But when we do sleep with the AC on, Aleksa wakes up sick.

I didn’t think I’d begin my triumphant return to Belgrade blogs with so much to say about a ducted cooling system. But Belgrade is a bit like that, no? You walk into a café and realize that this is no ordinary café: this is a restaurant filled with pictures of JFK, the American president. Or this one has a bunch of teddy bears dangling from the windows. 

Serbian food is like that, too. You slice into a punjena pljeskavica for the first time and realize this burger isn’t exactly a burger — there’s hot cheese inside of it, spilling onto your plate.

Belgrade is full of so many surprises. And to tell you the truth, I’m a bit burnt out at the moment to appreciate most of them. Last summer in Belgrade was the second-best summer of my life (number one being the summer I worked at the Statue of Liberty and met Aleksa, who you all know, and Sonja, who encouraged me to begin this blog.) 

Summer 2021 was a whirlwind; my first time experiencing a sunny Belgrade. I was amazed by all of it: the way the flowers bloomed at Skadarlija, the way the cafés lit up with happy people well into the evening. How people partied at Beton Hala like nowhere I had seen, how the kafanas blasted music so loud, I thought my eardrums might give out.

To top it all off, I was planning my wedding at the beautiful Hyde Park. And planning a wedding in a foreign country, in a language I don’t speak all that well, will probably always be the wildest thing I ever did. It was a summer of running around to different florists and learning that I would need to find the scientific name of every flower (Baby’s breath became Gypsophila, peony became Paeonia.)

I spent my weekdays taking long, laborious drives to Pancevo to taste wedding cakes from Anči Kolači; or I was in Vračar, trying to find a bridal makeup artist that didn’t turn me into a Serbian girl (because no matter how many times I visit, I will always be that American girl.)

It feels a bit strange to not plan a wedding this time around — and even more strange that in 12 days, it will be one year since we were married. It doesn’t really feel that way, though. When I left Belgrade last July, I returned to New York with a to-do list that seemed as demanding as wedding planning: packing up my old apartment, moving into a new apartment, finding a job, and starting grad school.

Aleksa and I were not reunited until six months after our wedding, at which point, we felt not quite like strangers, but not quite like newlyweds, either. So to be back in Belgrade after such an arduous year feels a bit … off. Like, what do you mean that there is nothing to do today? What does it mean to relax?

At any moment, it feels like we’re supposed to run away to Nikola Tesla airport to pick up more wedding guests. Or we’re due in Zemun for lunch with family. But we’re not. We’re just here, which I am thankful for, but adjusting to. 

It’s very hard to get a New Yorker to slow down.

Right now, I am sitting in a restaurant after just poorly ordering a sandwich. I asked the waitress, “Mogu li da sendvič” instead of “Mogu li da dobijem sendvič.” Aleksa is in my ear, correcting me: I could have said, “Moze jedan sendvič” (although this is a very informal way of ordering food, he says, as he watches me type this). My Serbian books, which sometimes help me (and sometimes don’t) tell me to say: Želela bih da poručim sendvič. Will I ever get this down?

Neda, my sister-in-law, both encourages me and teases me. Only seventeen, she reminds me of my own younger brother —who only just turned twenty. Yesterday she and I sat across from each other, giggling, our straws dipped into some kind of fruit iced tea that she ordered for us at a café. 

“Serbian is such a hard language to learn,” she said. “But you have a lot of time.” She picked up the slippery glass, the condensation dripping onto the wooden table (but drying instantly in the hot sun). “And also,” she said, rising from her comfy position in the lounge chair, “It’s just a totally different language from English. Completely different.”

“You’re right,” I sighed as if I were talking to my priest and not my teenage sister-in-law. “I just, you know. The books are confusing and I haven’t found a proper tutor. And I’ve been here so many times.” We both took a sip of our iced teas. “ I really feel so guilty every time I come over. Everyone in the house speaks Serbian. You all shouldn’t have to switch to English for me.”

“But we’re okay with that,” she said. “And Buba (Aleksa and Neda’s mom) is still learning English, too. So everyone is learning.” 

We plopped back into the chair’s cushions, quiet but content in that warm weather spirit.

 “What did you first think when you learned your brother was seeing an American?” I said, breaking the silence. Neda would joke, much later, about how I never stop talking. 

“We didn’t know what to think. I remember listening to my mom talk on the phone with a friend. She was saying how her son came home and said, ‘Mom, this is the one. This is the girl I’m going to marry.’”

“Oh my God,” I said, putting on my sunglasses to hide my embarrassment and awe. “You guys must have been shocked.”

“We were,” she said, pausing to take a sip. “But then we met you. Remember how we first met?”

I must have looked at her blankly. 

“We met in a car. You guys just finished driving home from Italy, and you picked me up from my friend’s home. And you asked me, ‘Should we hug?’”

“That’s so embarrassing,” I laughed.

“It was funny,” she corrected. 

“I remember a few years ago — it was the middle of August — I was sitting in a mall with your brother,” I told her. “And we were in that honeymoon stage (we’re still in that honeymoon stage) where you’re proclaiming your love to each other. Aleksa said something to me, like, ‘You know that we’re soulmates, right?’ And I laughed and said yes.”

“Well, yeah,” Neda laughed — mimicking the way I’d say yeah when I’m laughing, which is more like a yaaa. “What else can you say to that?”

“But that’s not all of it. Your brother was so sappy, he was saying how he could see us being together always. And I told him, still half-joking, ‘If you and I are still together by August 2022, I’ll marry you.”

“Really?” she said.

“Really. And you know what he said to me?” 

She shook her head. 

“He said to me, ‘You’ll be mine before then.’”

“He’s so sweet,” she said. 

“He’s so crazy,” I said, emphasizing the crazy. 

And then we giggled in a way you might giggle in a movie, as if to say, well, here you are! You’re his, he’s yours. Živeli

There are plenty of times when my romance feels a lot like some smoky French film. But besides the epic reunion at the airport, the vacations in each other’s cities, and the eros of being from two different cultures, there is no more movie. There are just two people desperately trying to be together. And a lot of people who, for their own reasons, don’t agree with it.

Just two weeks ago, this blog celebrated its official one-year anniversary. And I know from experience, thanks to pesky tabloids, how quickly your words can be twisted — especially when they’ve been mistranslated. I know some people will disagree with how I portray Belgrade. Or they’ll complain that I’m not doing enough, or too little, or too touristy. Or they’ll continue to look at these blogs the way one might look up and down at an unflattering outfit: disapprovingly.

Whether you found your way here through Belgrade hashtags or my Instagram (or you’re just too curious to know what that heinous writer is up to…) I have one more piece of news that might delight (or enrage) some of you.

This summer, Aleksa and I are attempting to vlog our time in Belgrade. I have no idea if this will be as interesting to the masses as it is to our families. Nevertheless, it’s all in good spirit. Maybe the vlogs will be fun for those curious about what we do here. I wish everyone could see Belgrade just once. But for those who never will, maybe they will experience The Magic of Belgrade © through my vlogs and my blogs. I’d be okay with that. 

Until the next blog — and the first vlog —

Kasey, That American Girl

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