If i already got that question a lot when i told people i was going through Serbia on my cycle tour from Copenhagen to Istanbul in Fall 2016, imagine when i decided to stay in Niš after finishing the journey!
I’ve now crossed Serbia twice on my bicycle, and have spent another month or so living in Niš in between those two rides. 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 during 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 is particularly special about Serbia — my goal is that, by reading about what struck me the most my second time cycle touring the country, you will feel invited to travel to Serbia yourself not for a specific place you must absolutely visit, or a specific person you must absolutely meet — but for the overwhelmingly positive experience it may award you with.
The context and notation
The North Cape Hypothesis started in Niš, Serbia. My first 150 km or so, between Niš and Velika Plana, pretty much backtracked my path in the opposite direction from Velika Plana to Niš in my Copenhagen–Istanbul tour a few months before. For simplicity, i’ll refer to those as the NC Hypothesis, the VPN stretch, and the CPH–IST tour — 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 in my travels — 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 the CPH–IST tour, the latter is precisely what happened at the Stoianović’s, 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 — and that was apparently not a problem. We didn’t even need much of our respective phrasebooks, which were not 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 a village towards the end of the day were as available as the Stojanović’s. As i was about to clear the village, the gentleman at the food market suggested i tried the gas station a couple of kilometers down the road. That led me to my first of many gas station camping experiences, an insightful 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 made sure my tent was under a roof and visible to their cameras, and offered me access to their toilet and kitchen.
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 NC Hypothesis, i wrote to both Nikola and the Stojanović’s, telling them i’d be traveling through the area 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. 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?
I was wrong!!
When i pulled into the gas station, Jovan not only immediately recognized me, but also greeted me with a big smile on his face. Although i still spoke no Serbian, and he still spoke no English, 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 journey to Istanbul, what they’d both been up to, and what more we’d learned about people while cycle touring, interacting with customers at a gas station, or driving a truck. Because i had a place to stay in Jagodina just another 30 km or so further down the road, i didn’t ask if i could pitch my tent with them again this time. Nikola then 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 Warmshowers host 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 he 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.
How about the Sojanović’s?
Their village is just some 30 km or so north of Jagodina, so i arrived there quite early this time. There was nobody outside, so i clapped my hands and shouted, “Dobar dan!?” Shortly after, Grandma Snezana came out of the house, smiling and drying up her hands in her apron, “Miko!!”
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 shy 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 they invited me for. Because of the language barrier, the conversation was not as deep as with Nikola, but the energy was still there — i want to see all of them again — Ivica, Nenad, andGrandpa Dušan — i especially don’t want to make the same mistake as the day before with Nikola.
When they asked me where i was going to sleep that night 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 the awkward machine translation while i anxiously watched — “of course!” — my shoulders dropped, my handlebar bag was moved from my lap to my side on the bench, the reflective vest and ankle straps placed with the gloves inside my helmet, now hanging on the bicycle — “is the bicycle OK where it is?” — “OK!” — then another cup of coffee . . .
The rest of the family started slowly showing up. Ivica went straight for the hug — “you’re staying for the night, right? good!” Uncle Jovan pulled in with a car — “come, Mika! take your notebook and your phrasebook” — we were now on our way to pick up Nenad, and then heading over to Velika Plana, where we met 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 at a farm a few days later — i’m no longer merely a guest, but slowly becoming part of the house!! Interestingly, it all felt as natural to me as it seems to have felt to them. Back in the village, the process continued — Ivica took me to meet one of this co-workers and friend, showed me a bit of the town center, and introduced me to the ladies at the groceries. Back in the house, over dinner, i understood that they expect not only another postcard from North Cape, but another visit in the near future.
And that’s roughly why
The above is leaving out the tremendous amount of help i got from Miloš and his parents Lola and Dragan, my hosts in Niš in each of the four times i’ ve been in the city, and the dutiful keepers of my touring rig during the time 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 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. To even 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 arise 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.
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 might allow. I want to dance in another park with Jelena. 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, a third, or n-th time — if there’s anything — i mean, anything i can help them with, back in Brazil or anywhere else i’ve made connections.