Belgrade was our final and my favorite city from our European whirlwind tour – five different cities in five different countries in five months. It was such a contrast from Sofia, a sleepy former Soviet town, the city we called home a month prior. Similar to Sofia, Belgrade was also a victim of the communist regime, and it was actually bombed by both sides of the war. However, it seemed determined to rebuild. The life and resilience of the city was admirable. The city’s high energy strikes you immediately.
The day we arrived, we went out to a water-front restaurant for dinner that instantly became one of our favorites and then went dancing for a night out on the town. We ended up partying in the fortress (the fortress also ended up becoming a staple for us). I remember seeing people everywhere we went. Unlike some other European cities that are overrun by tourists, you could also tell that they were locals, all dressed to the nines and excited to go out with their friends in their city.
Belgrade was the stop on our Remote Year itinerary that I had no expectations about – or maybe if any – low. Like falling in love when you least expect it, Belgrade took me by surprise and knocked my socks off. If Eastern Europe is on your travel itinerary, don’t sleep on Belgrade! Take a look below for my top five moments in the city for some places not to miss.
I felt like I could easily live in Belgrade. What’s interesting, however, about Belgrade being my favorite European city on our Remote Year journey was that from an emotional perspective, it was one of my toughest months. Almost the entire month, I was riddled with high levels of anxiety. The year prior to going on Remote Year was really tough on me from a mental health standpoint. With the start of 2017, it was like a new leaf turned over, and my brain decided to finally stop torturing me. But in Belgrade, those anxieties resurfaced and a restlessness came through me that made me constantly nervous and on edge.
My anxiety comes in the form of urgency, and it surfaces when I feel trapped – mainly in modes of transportation, but it can also be on work calls, in crowded bars, in the middle of a large table at dinner. Any place where I feel like it’s not easy to have a getaway or “exit.” The worst part is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to self-talk your way out of what you know are irrational feelings.
This time around, my anxiety resurfaced due to some stress at work which ended up affecting almost every other aspect of my daily routine. I was given a strong mandate my boss to take a hard look at how I was communicating and collaborating with my teammates. Given that I was miles away from them, tone and clarity was more important than ever before, and quite frankly, I was coming across badly. I’ve struggled with emotional intelligence in the past where I can come across as cross or unsympathetic unintentionally, and it looked like the distance was exacerbating this problem. Having the conversation with my boss sucked and it was a harsh reality check. I needed to look at my habits and take stock of what wasn’t working. Even though I had good intentions, they weren’t translating. In a way, I felt stuck in my own body and my own personality that was in need of a change.
I felt like there was a huge target on my back and that everything I did would be judged. And it was. I had a new accountability manager that would give me immediate, real-time feedback on any communication that was “problematic.” It was physically exhausting and mentally tormenting.
In addition to my new accountability manager, I was given two books to read on emotional intelligence. This was in the summer of 2017, and since then, I’ve been complimented on my shift in communication by my peers and managers. I credit a lot of the change to one of the books, “Go Suck a Lemon,” by Michael Cornwall.
A lot clicked after reading the book. “Go Suck a Lemon” describes the difference between hot emotions (like anger) and cooler emotions (like disappointment) and how you can use thoughts to evaluate how you’re feeling and decide if it’s really productive to feel that way. Using your thoughts, you can change your emotions. Additionally, it helped me realize that people don’t inherently know your expectations and even if you tell them and ask them to adhere to them, it doesn’t mean that they have to do it. All people are free to do what they want, and they are not subject to your needs. The book explained emotional intelligence in a way I’ve never heard before – it’s not just about communicating better, it’s about having power over the self, and, equally as important, realizing that that power doesn’t extend past the self. We’re all free individuals with free will.
Outside of work, I found my Remote Year community to be one of the best focus groups for inciting change or enacting a certain behavior and seeing how people react. Having 40+ Remote Year peers allowed me to observe different personalities interacting and how different people learn and process information. Seeing these interactions at play has been a valuable teacher in itself.
Using the tools from the book, real-life observations within my community, along with more awareness of which of my actions were unproductive, over time, I began making strides in the workplace.
Overall, while it was certainly stressful and anxiety-inducing to hear that I needed an attitude-change, I’m thankful for the opportunity to truly be introspective over my behaviors and more mindful of the ripple effect it has on my colleagues and friends. I feel like improving my emotional intelligence was one of the most significant ways I’ve changed this year, and I couldn’t be more grateful for this growth in my personal and professional life. We always have a choice to either take or trash constructive criticism, and while it may be painful to face the mirror on our faults, it’s one of the most effective ways to grow.
Now, to the fun stuff! My Top 5 Moments This Month
Toro Tasting Menu
Toro was the water-front restaurant I referenced at the beginning. Belgrade has a large contemporary restaurant scene that flanks one of their main rivers, and Toro is definitely one of the highlights. For roughly $40, you can partake in the tasting menu (note that everyone at your table has to participate), which literally turns into tasting the full menu. You read that right – if you participate in the tasting menu, the waitresses will bring out every single item on the menu to your table, and there are unlimited “refills” of your favorite dishes. HELLO HEAVEN! Bring out the stretchy pants. Our favorite was the beef tartare – for tartare fans, this was a divine treat. Note I don’t recommend doing the tasting menu if you have less than 5 people sharing, and it’s definitely too much to do for a date night (unless you’re the ambitious type).
For one of our “tracks” – local experience events curated by Remote Year that are intended to provide more of a native flavor compared to a normal tourist attraction – we took a quick day trip to Avila Tower, a TV tower about an hour away from Belgrade. While the tower and tour itself was mediocre at best (definitely one of our weakest tracks – I don’t actually recommend going here), I laughed so hard the entire day. Starting off with a bee sting and ending with Rakia shots and TMI shares amongst our group, our day at Avila Tower was a great community bonding experience.
Trying to Find Saint Sava
The church of Saint Sava is a beautiful orthodox church in the heart of Belgrade. Wanting to check off one of the things from our “tourist” to-dos, a friend and I decided to walk there one day. What ensued was misfortune hilarity. Level three fun at its finest, we somehow got turned around 5-6 times on the way there. Basically, anytime we had to take a left or a right, we took the wrong route – even following Google Maps. It was a bit of a geographical mystery.
We got to the point where we were a few streets away from the church, and we went down a street as a shortcut. Unfortunately, the shortcut ended up being an alleyway with a dead-end. After our unsuccessful direction-following that turned a 40-minute walk to an hour and a half long walk, getting stuck in the alleyway where we could see the church behind the fence made us a bit crazy and half in delirium, I asked my friend for a lift. After convincing me I was crazy, we went around and finally got to the church. Except, the church was completely under renovation while we were there and there was nothing to see on the inside! While it wasn’t what we originally planned, it was still a fun day and not something I’ll forget soon.
Belgrade’s birthplace, the fortress is a towering landmark in the middle of the city. Used as the city’s walls, it was also used as a military fortress for protection against conquerors – unsuccessfully - as the Vikings and Romans all were able to seize the city. You can still see the canons that line the fortress walls. There’s a lot to do in the surrounding park (there’s a zoo, a children’s playground with dinosaurs and even a bar), but the real attraction is catching the sunset over the Danube and Sava rivers on the fortress walls. I did this with four friends one Sunday evening. Along with a few bottles of rosé and a few games of Cheers to the Governor, it was one of my most memorable sunsets.
Located within Kalemegdan Park, the Belgrade Zoo, is actually pretty impressive. I spent a fun day with a friend in the zoo. The highlight – the white lions! The lowlight – the pigeon cage. Seriously, why imprison those poor city rats with wings that are literally everywhere?! Free the pigeons!