“Great, that’s a nice country. And where are you guys from?”
“Oh, that’s a nice one too. Wait, what country am I in?”
“Right, that’s what I thought. Did Yugoslavia get back together and no one bothered to tell me?”
I know it’s not exactly the height of traveling season, but when I visited Belgrade, I unexpectedly met more people from other countries than I did from Serbia. Because of this, I learned more about two other Balkan countries than I did about Serbia - which isn’t really a negative fact. I had a great time and met some really awesome people. Expensive people, though, because now I have to make a trip back to Ljubljana.
For those who don’t know, Yugoslavia means roughly the “Southern Slavs”. All of the countries speak a Slavic language, and they can pretty much understand each other. Each one has different words, but they’re pretty similar.
This, like many things, fascinates me.
They kept telling me they all spoke different languages, yet they were constantly speaking to each other. It always sounded the same to me, but then they would say “oops sorry, we were speaking in Serbian,” or “oops sorry, we were speaking in Slovenian,” or “oops, sorry we were speaking in Martian.” You caught me, they didn’t really say that last one, but you get the idea.
Until my friend Emma showed up, I was typically the only non-Slavic speaker of the group. Quite often, they would accidentally switch in to one or many different languages. After a few minutes, they would realize that I was there and I couldn’t understand, so they would start apologizing profusely. I did my best (unsuccessfully) to tell them I don’t mind because it’s the norm in my current life.
It was during one of these conversations that I realized why I travel. With TV networks like the Travel Channel and a plethora of colorful guidebooks, it can be tempting to stay home. After all, you won’t catch a Brazilian skin disease from your own sofa. But, you can’t experience everything at home.
I realized that I travel for two reasons: history and culture.
They came head-to-head when I had to choose between visiting a Serbian family on their farm, or going to the Military Museum. I chose the historical route – the museum. Fortunately, this cause me to learn about Serbian history in a way that I couldn’t have anywhere else. It was their own point of view. In an American school, I’d learn an American point of view. On an international TV program, I’d learn an international point of view. This was the only way to learn about their history as they see it. Even if you read my article about the museum (here), you’re getting my point of view on their point of view. Don’t think about it too much, though, you’ll get a headache.
Culture is the other part you can’t experience at home. Unfortunately, I believe it’s not something you can pay for. You can take a guided tour to see cultural things, but you won’t necessarily be experiencing them. For that to happen, you must get yourself out there and hope you’re in the right place at the right time. The photographer for a colorful guidebook may or may not have been there, but he’ll do his best to convince you he was. If I like the pictures, I won’t call him a liar.
The cultural game is a tricky a tricky one to play, though. It’s sort of like searching for Bigfoot. No one can prove that it really exists, and if you try too hard to find it, you won’t. I went to Serbia to see their culture, but I learned more about other former Yugoslavian countries. When I went on my whirlwind tour of Slovenia and Croatia a few months ago, I learned hardly anything about their cultures. Now, I have to go back to Slovenia to visit my new friends and really try to understand the place. Maybe I’ll make Serbian friends there…
The moral of the story is that traveling is nothing more than exploring. And when you explore, you don’t get to choose what you find. That’s the pure definition. So if you want to find what you’re expecting of a place, watch the Travel Channel. If you want to find what the world really has to offer, hop on a train and see what happens.
One word of advice, if a chatty old Serbian lady joins you in your train compartment, tell her you intend to put the window down. If you don’t, she may give you incorrect advice about Belgium while you sweat through a very long, overnight train ride. That, my friends, is when you wish you were watching the Travel Channel.
Hungarian word of the day:
Zs is pronounced kind of like the G in danger, and ír sounds just like ear. It’s a Hungarian slang word for “cool”. Zsír, huh?