If i already got that question a lot after i had decided i was going through Serbia on my cycle tour from Copenhagen to Istanbul in Fall 2016, imagine when i decided to move to Niš after finishing that project! I’ve now crossed Serbia twice with my bicycle, and have spent another three weeks living in Niš in between those two rides. So, what’s so special about that place?
This will be the first in a series of articles on how my expectations and prejudices about each country i’ve visited along my current cycle tour (The North Cape Hypothesis) have been challenged. As such, i’m actually not sure the extent to which it will answer the question of what i find special about Serbia in particular. My goal is that, by reading about what struck me the most my second time cycle touring the country, you will feel invited to tavel to Serbia not for a specific place you must absolutely visit, or a specific person you must absolutely meet, but rather for the overwhelmingly positive experience it may award you with.
The context and notation
The North Cape Hypothesis started in Niš, Serbia, and the first 150Km or so between Niš and Velika Plana pretty much backtracked my path from there to Niš in my Copenhagen–Istanbul tour in Fall 2016. For simplicity, from now on i’ll refer to those as the NC Hypothesis, the CPH–IST tour and the VPN stretch — it seems like there’s still a mathematician living somewhere inside my head after all! But i digress…
I’ve been offered a tremendous amount of hospitality during my cycle tours — especially in the countryside — and especially in Eastern Europe, where asking someone for help with finding a safe place to pitch your tent for the night will often result in an invitation for dinner, a hot shower, and a warm bed in their home. Along the VPN stretch, during my CPH–IST tour, the latter is precisely what happened at the Stoianović’s in Markovac, where i spent one of my most energizing cycle touring evenings to date. They didn’t speak a word of English, and i didn’t speak a word of Serbian. But that was apparently not a problem. We didn’t even need much of our respective phrasebooks, which were not really used for a lot more than the outlining utterances of, “I am pleased to meet you,” or, “Zahvalan sam.”
The day after that, none of the people i asked for help on my way through the village of Ratare were as available as the Stojanović’s. But towards the end of it the gentleman at the food market suggested i try the gas station in the next village, Sikirica, a couple of kilometers down the road. That led me to my first of many gas station camping experiences, a rather insighful conversation about human nature with Nikola, the observant employee on his shift when i arrived, and another evening overcoming language barriers with Jovan, the employee on the night shift. They also made sure my tent was both under a roof and visible to their cameras, and offered me unconditional access to their toilet and kitchen.
So, how would those same people treat me a second time around? In particular, what would that look like just five short months after the first time?
The second cup of tea
To be very honest, my expectations were low. A few days before leaving Niš for the NCH, i actually wrote to Nikola and Nenad, telling them i’d be passing through their villages again, and was wondering if i could stop by to say ‘hi.’ Neither of them ever replied. Is hospitality towards a traveler a one-off deal? Had their interest hinged mostly upon the novelty the first time around? Did they treat me that well simply because the prospect that i’d ever come back asking for more was so slim? Was two times already too much?
I was not fully discouraged by the lack of a reply though. Perhaps staying there for the night once again would have been a bit too much to ask. Perhaps there was another reason they didn’t reply. So, i made alternate sleeping arrangements through Warmshowers for my first couple of nights on the road just in case. But they would surely be happy to see me again and share a cup of coffee, wouldn’t they?
Well, i was wrong!!
When i pulled into the gas station in Sikirica, Jovan not only immediately recognized me, but also greeted me with a big smile on his face. I still spoke no Serbian, he still spoke no English, but it was nevertheless clear that we were both delighted to see each other. He then called Nikola, who was home the next village over, and would be joining us in about 15 minutes. We caught up with the rest of my trip to Istanbul, what they’d both been up to, and what more we’ve learned about people cycle touring and interacting with customers at a gas station or driving a truck. Because i had a place to stay in Jagodina just another 30Km later that night, i didn’t ask if i could pitch my tent with them again this time. But Nikola nevertheless told me, “You’re welcome to stay here whenever you want, or even come to my home, if you prefer, you’re my hero.” He hadn’t replied to my message a few days before simply because his smartphone was broken, and he had not checked his Instagram in a while. In hindsight, i regret not having tried to reschedule my arrival in Jagodina with my prospective host Vojislav for the day after, and taken that opportunity to spend more time with Nikola. I regret not having taken better notes of Nikola’s insightful remarks — a man in peace, no doubt — i don’t experience any cynicism or even disappointment in his speech — but someone who has surely noticed much of the complexity of what’s wrong with this world — Nikola has this look when he speaks, often not looking into your eyes, but focused half a meter or so to their side, as if there was something standing there only he could see. I want to create another opportunity to interact with this guy in this life.
And what about the Sojanović’s?
Markovac is only some 35Km or so north of Jagodina, so i arrived there quite early this time. There was nobody outside, so i clapped my hands shouting, “Dobar dan!” Shortly after, “Grandma” Snezana comes out of the house, smiling and drying up her hands in her apron, “Miko!!” I’m invited to come in and offered a cup of coffee. Half of the family was out working and at first i saw only her, Dragica, the boy Andrija, and a few rare sights of the girl Ana. They joyfully showed me the postcard i had sent them from Istanbul, and we shared some of the waffles my hosts in Niš had given me over the coffee. Because of the language barrier, the conversation was not as “deep” as with Nikola, but the energy was still certainly there — i want to see all of them again — Ivica, Nenad and “Grandpa” Dušan — and i especially don’t want to make the same mistake as the day before with Nikola. So, when they asked me where i was going to sleep tonight i asked them, shaking as if about to ask a woman out, “Well, i was actually wondering whether i could stay here tonight!?” This particular question was typed into my phone and handed over to Dragica, who took a few seconds to parse Google translate’s bad Serbian grammar while i anxiously watched — “yes, of course!” — my shoulders dropped, my handlebar bag was moved from my lap to my side on the bench, the refletive vest and ankle straps placed with the gloves inside my helmet, now hanging on the bicycle — “is the bicycle OK where it is?” — “OK!” — another cup of coffee.
The rest of the family starts slowly showing up. Ivica walks in and goes straight for a hug — “you’re staying for the night, right? good!” Uncle Jovan pulls in with a car — “come, Mika! take your notebook and your phrasebook” — we’re now on our way to pick up Nenad, and then heading over to Velika Plana, where we meet Aunt Divna and Cousins Bojan and Milica — another cup of coffee, more sweets, peanuts, and next thing i notice i’m helping them unload a truck of mushroom spores! I only internalized what that in particular meant with my hosts Dragan and Vera in Kramijevo a few days later — i’m no longer merely a guest, i’m actually slowly becoming part of the house now!! Interestingly, it all felt as natural to me as it seems to have felt to them. Back in Markovac, the process continues — Ivica takes me to meet one of this co-workers and friend, shows me a bit of the town center, and introduces me to the ladies at the groceries. Back in the house, over dinner, i understand that they expect not only another postcard from North Cape, but another visit in the future.
And that’s roughly why
The above is leaving out the tremendous amount of help i’ve gotten from Miloš and his parents Lola and Dragan, my hosts in Niš in each of the four times i was in the city — and the dutiful keepers of my touring rig while i was away in between the CPH–IST tour and the NC Hypothesis. I’m not telling you about the warm and patient welcome from Gejo, Vesna, Miso, Milica, Alex, Luka, Petar, and all the other folks at the climbing wall, who kindly allowed me to climb with them, teaching me a fair amount along the way — apologies for trying to push the whole tree-climbing deal so much into you, folks, i’m still learning to be a guest! I’m not mentioning Rajko, who besides lending me a Serbian SIM card and much of his time and pleasant company playing pool and chess, connected me with Ana and Marko, all of whom guided me through practice rides to the beautiful gorges around Niš, helped me clean and tune up my bicycle — or should i just simply say, did it for me? — rode with me for about half of the way to Jagodina on my first very first day, giving me waffles, jam, rakija, and friendship — moments before we departed, Rajko apologized once again for not being able to ride with me for the first few days, as he had originally promised, calling me his “little brother,” and telling me he “would ride with me to the end of the world” — words that took tears out of my eyes then, and once again as i write them now. I’m not telling you about how much fun i had with Jelena dancing in the sunset to Rage Against the Machine in Bubanj Park, and how touching it was to hear from her that i spread joy around the world.
And those are mere highlights pertaining to my five days in Niš before the NC hypothesis, because just to begin giving you a better sense of what my experience in Serbia has really been like, i’d also have to tell you about …
Cycle touring diplomacy
More and more, i’ve been experiencing and humbly framing my cycle touring as the diligent work of a diplomat. I surely have a long way to go, there’s no question about that. What i mean is that this is definitely not merely a gap year of sorts, an absorbed self-discovery journey, or a metaphysically motivated pilgrimage. Of course much of that inevitably arises along the way. What i am trying to say is that i don’t want to think of any of my encounters as mere moments in my life and the lives of my counterparts, but as the seeds for long-lasting connections. Like i said, i genuinely want to meet Nikola again, and also honor my promise to the Sojanović’s that i’ll be back. I want to return to Niš as a reputable tree climber, actually having something of substance to offer the folks at the wall who might be interested. I want to ride again with Rajko, as far towards the end of the world as his family obligations would allow. I want to greet Lola with a hug and ask for her blessing getting back on the road much like i would do with my own Grandmother. Conversely, i also want to be equally available to everybody i’ve met in Niš and elsewhere in Serbia for a second or third or n-th time also — if there’s anything — i mean, anything — back in Brazil or anywhere else i’ve made connections i can help them with.
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