6 weeks in Eastern Europe
In about 36 hours we’re flying to Asia, as I’m about to start packing (I actually quite enjoy organising all my stuff once a month), I’m also having to shift my mindset. Especially the last few weeks in Belgrade have been quite rough. So before we leave, it’s time to write a reflection on 6 weeks in Eastern Europe.
Eastern Europe was never really a place I’d have considered going. Not because of any kind of dislike, but more because I didn’t even know enough about it for it to appeal to me.
We arrived in Sofia at the end of August. After an intense month in Morocco I was very happy to be back on my native continent. Sofia truly surprised me. In the Netherlands we have some bad stereotypes in regards to Bulgarian people, however Sofia was nothing but lovely. The weather was that gorgeous late summer turning to fall weather, the food and the stores were similar enough to Germany for me to feel instantly at home. The people were friendly and although not everyone spoke English we got along just fine. One of the things I loved most about Sofia is that it was a very walkable city. Because my beloved bike is patiently waiting for me in my grandparents shed I need cities to be walkable, in order to experience the same kind of independence and freedom as I had back home. Yes of course, taxi’s are an option, however I’m still not used to taking a cab everywhere and my phone is way too old to accept apps like Uber which tends to be a problem at times.
Sofia was also very safe, yes there were some areas where you shouldn’t walk alone at night, however every city has those. After Morocco where I preferred to not leave the house without my partner if possible, being able to walk home at 3am by myself felt like a real liberation. Sofia felt like a kind of Paris 2.0 to me. The Vitosha mountain you could see from the main shopping street, the beautiful architecture and just the overall vibe made me fall in love with this city instantly. The people were nicer than in Paris and living costs were way cheaper, what also helped was the stunning apartment I had the pleasure of living in.
The only thing that cast a shadow on my love of Bulgaria was the stories refugees told me after I arrived in Belgrade. Belgrade “houses” anywhere between 600 and 1200 refugees in the city and many more in the camps surrounding it. They were all very clear on the fact that they loved being in Serbia after their horrible experiences in Bulgaria. Beating at the border, dogs being sent to attack them and (sexual) assault were very common. This is something I cannot even begin to comprehend.
Whereas Sofia and I had a love affair from the first minute I arrived, Belgrade and I had quite the opposite. This city which has experienced so many wars has a grim kind of atmosphere. Beauty is contrasted by a communist vibe and whereas many of the people are extremely lovely, you wouldn’t think so at first glance from their stern expressions. People do speak English here generally which made my life easier, however the fact that tourists often get ripped off when taking a taxi, the fact that the city is not really walkable and the cold (after 5 months of summer) were all things that caused me to never quite feel at home here.
I spent my first week in Belgrade in bed being ill, and during the two weeks after that I worked more than 40 hours in a refugee centre. That work was very rewarding, but also emotionally challenging. Seeing so much suffering, having to turn down people every day, trying to be as fair as possible and help as many people we had with the little resources we had was a struggle.
However there were little victories too. There were incredible people I worked with, a lovely Swiss couple who went out and bought a lot of things the centre desperately needed, the volunteer manager (British) who was strict and extremely polite at the same time, and of course the German guy who set up and ran the German lessons with me. I think that was the most rewarding thing. So many people want to go to Germany, but are stuck here in Serbia. Of course they need clothes and food, but what they also need is something to look forward to, something constructive, something that gives them hope. That’s why I decided to start German classes and because of Richard (the German guy) we were able to provide these lessons every day. I created material and Richard was there every single day so there was consistency. We had skills that perfectly complemented each other and it has been great fun working together. I realise that the difference I’ve made here is a small one, however I’m happy that I did it. The more people realise what’s going on and do their bit, the more we can create together.
Something else that was great was that my family came to visit. I hadn’t seen them (depending on who it was) for 3 up to 5 months so I loved having them here. Of course, it’s quite intense spending three days straight with a family member, but I cherished that time, because I have no idea when I get to see them again. My little brother even came and helped me out at a German lesson, something I’m extremely proud of and it made me very happy to see how engaged he became.
Sofia was the mellow place I needed after hectic Morocco and Belgrade was a place of extremes, but I’m glad I got to experience the both of them. Western Europe and Asia are already very different, but I guess going to Asia this time will be even more of a culture shock. In two days I’ll be sitting at a beach enjoying massages and all round pampering, whereas tomorrow I’ll give my next German lesson to people who are sleeping on the streets in this bitter cold weather. I might be flying thousands of miles, but I’m not quite sure how to let all of this go. Let this crazy ride continue