Things I Never Thought I’d Learn from Living in Belgrade

Moving from a small, relatively-unknown town in the middle of England to a small, relatively-unknown country in the middle of Southeast Europe wasn’t something that I ever thought I’d end up doing. I also never thought I’d end up working as a Partner Content Specialist for the world’s largest online platform for booking fishing trips (“the AirBnB of fishing!”, I still often tell my bemused dad). 

Writing for a living was always something I longed to do. However, it just didn’t seem like a possibility in the ultra-competitive working world of London, where I always thought I would settle down. Now, after only 14 months at FishingBooker, I’ve blogged, delved into the world of SEO and e-commerce, learned how to make GIFs (something every self-respecting millennial should know about!), and picked up a whole host of other transferable skills.

I first visited Belgrade in 2016 to train as an English teacher, and my decision to settle here didn’t happen all at once. I spent over two years traveling back and forth between my two separate lives – the new one I was trying to start in Serbia, and the one back home in England that I wasn’t quite ready to let go of. 

It wasn’t until I started working at FishingBooker that I began to feel more settled: on top of having a job I enjoy, working here has also introduced me to a huge variety of people from all over the world. 

I sat down with some of FishingBooker’s international arrivals to discover what stood out to them most when they first moved to Belgrade. Together, we talked about some of the more helpful tips and tricks we’ve picked up, as well as what we’ve learned from our experiences. Here’s what we came up with.

You don’t need to put your career on hold to live in Serbia

Credit: Jadranka Ilic, UG Ulice za Bicikliste

Before discovering FishingBooker, I did what a lot of wandering English speakers who move abroad do: I applied for a series of English teaching jobs. I’ve always wanted to write, but the idea of pursuing this career path in Belgrade didn’t even occur to me. I just assumed that if I wanted to move abroad, I’d have to make some compromises. Surely it wouldn’t be possible to experience the excitement of living in a new country and working an exciting, fulfilling job at the same time?

Actually, it is. You don’t have to just stick to those expat staples of teaching your native language or doing online freelance work! Belgrade in particular has a strong startup scene that’s constantly growing – so not only can you find your dream job in the most unlikely of places, but there’s plenty of room for progression, too.

In fact, a lot of my colleagues here at FishingBooker have progressed from entry level jobs into senior positions. Take Joris Zantvoort, for example. He first started working at FishingBooker in 2016, and wasn’t expecting it to be a long-term role: “I was introduced to the company by a friend and thought it would be a good way to stay in Belgrade for a while. I started off in the sales team, which wasn’t my passion.”

“This progressed into me learning more about content writing, and developing a wide range of transferable skills that led to me becoming the Team Lead for our SEO team.”

Expect to be asked a lot of questions

Most commonly: “But why Serbia?!” Even though Belgrade is Serbia’s capital city, it hasn’t yet been hit by the gigantic tourist/expat boom of other European cities such as Berlin and Prague. This means that, generally, Serbs are extremely interested in hearing why us foreigners chose to come here! 

Whenever I’m asked this question, however, I always feel embarrassed, because my story doesn’t have much more to it than, “I wanted to leave the UK and picked Serbia from a list.” Luckily, I can follow this up with, “And then I fell in love with the coffee, the people, and the pace of life!” – although maybe not in that exact order. My colleagues’ reasons vary greatly, and include moving here for love (whether that’s a love of the culture or a particular person!), to study, and to volunteer for a variety of non-profit organizations. 

Marko Lukić, one of FishingBooker’s Partner Content Specialists, says that one of his main reasons for moving here was to escape the rat race of the USA. Although he comes from a Serb/Croat family and was raised in a traditional Balkan household, he grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC. After spending his summers with family in Belgrade, he decided to relocate here permanently at the beginning of 2019. 

Marko has this to say: “When I was working in DC, I was constantly stressed out. I spent most of my time either at work or stuck in traffic, whereas in Belgrade I have a lot more personal time. At first, my parents were frustrated because they moved to the USA to give me better opportunities, and felt like I wouldn’t get the same opportunities in Serbia.”

“However, now they have seen that I’m doing a job I really like, it’s totally changed their perspectives on current life in Belgrade. I feel like people here judge you a lot less on ‘what you do’ than in the US. They just want to get to know you as a person, instead.”

Obviously, it’s up to you how much you want to share, but it’s important to note that this question isn’t asked with any malice behind it. People are genuinely interested in what makes this country so appealing from an outsider perspective!

Traditional Serbian food is a very divisive topic! 

Speaking of questions, when I first moved to Belgrade, the most common one that Serbs asked me had to be, “But what do you think of our food?!” 

As a vegetarian, I haven’t really had the chance to sample Serbia’s overwhelmingly meat-based local dishes. When I answer with this, I’m greeted with shocked reactions: “No pljeskavica? No ćevapčići?!” This is followed by a look of pure pity.

Despite Serbia’s love for “meso”, it’s actually pretty easy to find a wealth of veggie-friendly options. Ajvar, kajmak, burek sa sirom… these vegetarian delicacies are just the tip of the iceberg. There are also pizza stands dotted all over the city – and I’m willing to go on record saying that Serbian pizza is good enough to rival any New York slice.

For me, finding tasty vegetarian food in Belgrade isn’t a problem. What I find more difficult, however, is the very important topic of snacking. In the UK, my go-to comfort food is a gigantic bag of Salt and Vinegar crisps, and a litre bottle of cherryade – two things that, at this moment, do not exist in Belgrade. I’ve often found myself wandering the savoury snack aisle in my local Maxi or Idea, wondering how it’s possible for a shop to offer hot dog- and tzatziki-flavored crisps, but not the humble Salt and Vinegar. 

Hal’s notorious ketchup aisle!

Hallam Davies, one of FishingBooker’s Customer Happiness Agents, has an even more unusual perspective: “For me, the food here isn’t diverse enough. When I go shopping in the UK, I’m used to having a huge variety of brands and options. Here, there are entire aisles dedicated to just one type of ketchup!”

Despite the potential lack of ketchup, Serbia actually has a huge variety of tasty treats – they just happen to differ a lot from the ones we’re used to in our respective homes. The fact that the snack food is one of the hardest things to adjust to when moving here actually says a lot about how nice Serbia is to live in!

Working somewhere expat-friendly means that those of us who miss the snacks of our home countries have worked out our very own importation system. Usually, when I go back to England for a visit, I take with me a list of items that my colleagues have requested – bringing back a little slice of home is a surefire way to reduce our snacking blues!

One of the best ways to experience Belgrade life is by walking

Sounds simple, right? When I asked FishingBooker’s expats about their favourite parts of the city, a resounding answer came back: “Well, I discovered this cafe/bar/park when wandering about…” 

The fact that most of Belgrade can be covered on foot seems obvious, but shouldn’t be taken for granted. Many of my teammates are from cities, towns, or villages that require a car to get around. Stepping out of your front door and being greeted by parks, shops, cafes, and bars comes as a welcome change! Even better, being able to freely wander these pedestrian-friendly streets means that you often discover some unexpected gems: I’ve stumbled upon some of my favourite cafes this way.

If you don’t know them too well, Belgrade’s streets can be somewhat tricky to navigate. Cat Tyack, FishingBooker’s communications specialist, has this to say: “I learnt this the hard way when I was half an hour late for an interview! I was following directions on my phone, which took me the wrong way. Since then, I’ve found out that PlanPlus is a more reliable option.

Consumerist habits die hard!

If you’re used to swiping your bank card for every purchase you make, moving to Serbia will have you flashing the cash instead! Even when it comes to amenities such as heating, electricity, and the upkeep of your building, you’ll generally be paying using banknotes, rather than online.

Online shopping in Serbia took some getting used to, as well. As someone who has consistently had at least 10 items in my Amazon account basket, discovering that many websites don’t ship here was a culture shock in and of itself!

Janette Miladinovic, who is part of FishingBooker’s Customer Happiness team, agrees: “When I lived in the USA, I was used to being able to find my favourite products all in one place. I would often use the internet to treat myself to a variety of different things quickly. Not being able to get a hold of some of my favourite home-grown items definitely can have an effect on my mental state.”

Although Amazon generally does not deliver here, alternatives have cropped up in its place: Aliexpress is particularly beloved by many of my Serbian colleagues, and offers an intimidating variety of products, including clothes, housewares, electronics, jewelry, sports gear…basically everything but the kitchen sink (and probably that, too). Even better? It usually offers free shipping to Serbia. 

Since discovering Aliexpress, I’ve ordered notebooks, swimwear, and a ukulele. My colleague ordered a selection of animal-themed onesies. When it comes to filling the Amazon-shaped hole in our lives, it’s a pretty strong contender! If you’re craving a good read, theBookDepository offers free shipping to Serbia, and has a huge selection of literature to choose from.

As much as you prepare for the language barrier, it still affects you in little ways

As the working language of FishingBooker is English, our foreigners can get by with a varied knowledge of Serbian. Some of us came here specifically to learn the language, some of us began taking classes before we planned to move, some of us are having lessons currently, and some of us get by with just the basics. The potential language barrier was something we were all aware would affect us, and is definitely one of the hardest parts of integrating into any foreign country.

However, something that really makes Serbia stand out in this regard is the friendliness of the locals. When I first started learning Serbian, I was terrified of speaking to anyone, and stuck to the classic “mumble and point” strategy in cafes or shops…until I got a bad case of tonsillitis and didn’t leave my apartment for three days.

When I was well enough to venture outside, I was going crazy from a lack of communication, and my only potential conversation partner was the cashier at the local shop. I was forced to speak some basic Serbian, and the reception I received boosted my confidence greatly. Luckily, it wasn’t a one-off experience, either!

For Rhys Hartley, a Partner Content Specialist from Wales, the initial language barrier ended up turning into something positive, too. “Back home, I was used to leading most of the conversations with my friends and talking a lot, rather than necessarily listening.”

“Not being able to speak or understand Serbian when I first moved here was frustrating, and forced me to really pay attention to what other people were saying. Now, I feel completely comfortable when it comes to communicating in Serbian, and as though I can more easily transcend cultural differences.”

In fact, if you find a strong support network, you’ll view any cultural difference as a positive rather than a negative

Credit: Sun Hostel Belgrade

There’s a reason why a major change in living circumstances has made it onto the Holmes–Rahe Life Stress Inventory – no one said it would be easy! But if you come prepared, the payoff is more than worth it. Prepping yourself on potential culture shocks gives you the opportunity to work out how you’ll navigate them, and the support of colleagues and friends will often overshadow any difficulties you encounter.

Life at FishingBooker is a good example of how a strong support system can make all the difference. Despite the many cultural differences us foreigners have encountered, all of us are sticking with our new lives in Belgrade. We unanimously agreed that this is because the people make it worthwhile! On top of this, we also work somewhere that allows us to experience the city in our own way, with as much or as little input as we’d like. 

This means that when I’m craving some good British cheddar, or have had a long day and just want to talk to my mum, I’m never in short supply of finding someone who can empathise. This isn’t just limited to expats, either – my native Belgradian colleagues also often provide a great shoulder to cry on! 

When I first moved here, I spent a lot of time reading up on people who had ventured abroad to start something new – a relationship, a job, or even an entire life. Something that kept cropping up was a famous Flaubert quote: “Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” 

At first, I thought this was a really negative way to view moving to another country! What I’ve learned from living in Belgrade, however, is that we do all occupy tiny places in the world – but what does that matter when the potential impact we can have on each other is so huge? The relationships I’ve made here have helped me feel at home in a country that I have no other connection to, and there’s nothing tiny about that.

Recently moved to Belgrade and looking for a fulfilling job? We have a variety of teams focused on different parts of the business. Check out our open positions or get in touch in the comments below.

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