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Serbia

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Two years ago, I would not have thought that my life would take me where I am now. I am nursing, not as a career, but as a volunteer, writing professionally and creatively, living in Honduras, speaking in Spanish more than English, and all together, living a more fulfilling and enjoyable life. Want to learn how to quit your own job and travel the world for a year while pursuing your dreams? Check out the first of a series of my articles on traveling the world for a year without a job at Endless Trek Magazine.

http://endlesstrek.com/how-to-travel-the-world-for-a-year-without-a-job-expectations/

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I recently was discussing with a friend in Copan the word culture and how we both thought it was often misused to make excuses for unacceptable treatment of women and children. Until she had brought it up, I didn’t realize that I myself had used it as an excuse in my writing and conversation. The word “machismo” could very easily be exchanged for the American idiom “boys will be boys,” both placing the unacceptable acts of men in the category of “culture.” When these words are used, somehow rape, domestic violence, and cheating become more acceptable because they are part of the “culture.”

I am frequently asked by friends and family, how can you live in Honduras where men treat women like they do? This question makes me upset when people ask it, and for some time, I did not understand why. I now see that the root of my irritation is that not so long ago America’s “culture” was one of female oppression, and the phrase “children should be seen and not heard” was used frequently to ignore the voices of the innocent.

It was strong people, that’s right, PEOPLE, not just women, who helped make the freedoms of women and children possible in the U.S. Americans seem to forget that this change only really happened in the last 100 years, and we lived in a similar world as women and children do here. While the unacceptable behaviours of men in Honduras are ignored on a regular basis, and that is termed machismo, I believe that way of thinking is changing, not just here, but in the world.

I see strong children and females all around me. I am reminded, that while many battles have been won, it is an on-going war to change the mindset of a world that has been primarily patriarchal, with women and children seen as possessions, not human beings of equal standing, for most of its history.

I look at the male children around me, and I ask myself where and how can they learn to be different than their fathers? How will they learn to be champions of women and children and call themselves feminists too? So often, I see men pushed to the side in the feminist movement, but they can be just as much a part of it and are necessary to it’s progress. They can show what true culture is.

By definition, culture is “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” True culture is when people come together with all their knowledge, wisdom, experience, and history to create a statement of who they are as a people and what they have achieved together. As a cultural statement of the world, I hope someday at the base of all our achievements will be equality and respect.

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I spent my last day in Serbia walking around Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade alone in the snow. On the way there, I slipped and almost fell. An older gentleman saw me, and as we both continued on our way, he kept looking back at me with concern, motioning to the ground and saying something in Serbian. I apologized that I only spoke English. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. We kept walking in the same direction, and he heard me slip again. I was still standing, but this time he stopped and signaled me to take his arm. I hesitated at first, but decided he looked harmless and linked arms with him. He noticed I didn’t have gloves on and exclaimed in Serbian, obviously distressed that my hands must be cold. I showed him I had gloves in my purse which seemed to ease his mind about the matter. He continued to talk to me, and I think he asked where I was going. So I said, “Kalemegdon.” I asked him where he was going, and he smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, wherever you need me. We continued to the end of Knez Mihailova where he pointed in the direction of the fortress ahead of us. He kissed my hand and said good-bye, and I beamed inside as I waved farewell to this chivalrous soul.

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I was sad to leave Serbia. So many good conversations and good people. Those at Hostel Dali, where I stayed in Belgrade, were like family, easy-going and friendly, always ready to help and share stories. I met fellow travelers who I enjoyed talking to and wandering the city with. My first destination each morning was the Square of the Republic Christmas market where I would buy a bag of sour-sugar gummy worms to share and snack on throughout the day. Serbia was ridiculously affordable for all the things I enjoyed. I treated myself to a sugar scrub, chocolate massage, manicure, and pedicure for what only one of these treatments would have cost in the states. And every night I ate mouth-watering meals in an atmospheric setting I would usually only indulge in for a special occasion a couple of times a year. Despite the poverty here, Serbians make the best with what they have and are incredibly generous. It is my favorite country I have visited thus far, and I am not sure how it has remained hidden from tourists when it is such a gem. I felt a certain amount of pride knowing that I got to experience this beautiful country when so few people have.

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It’s like with a rifle, if you just hold it in your hand, you know it’s the right one, you don’t have to shoot.”~Serbian idiom

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Novi Sad sounds like Christmas. I thought this when I first heard the city’s name. With snow all around me, this image of Novi Sad is confirmed. My experience here reminds me of everything I love about the time leading up to Christmas, from the beginning of December on. Snow, comfort, late mornings, good company, hearty food and indulgent desserts, reflections, dancing, joy, laughter, generous kindness, books you can’t but down, rakija liquor to warm the hands and the heart, so many lovely things. I met some wonderful women in this city. Strong, inspiring, beautiful, independent, and so wise. They felt like my friends back home, and I only spent a weekend with them. They are my sisters, even if not by blood, and I hope we will see each other again very soon. I’ll be working on my Serbian cursing for next time as I found a Serbian swear dictionary online. 😉

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Sitting in a French restaurant in Belgrade named Le Molière, I am content. There is a peace in moments of contentment that allows for a clarity and insight not otherwise tapped into. Everything becomes brighter, more defined. Smells are stronger, and one can taste the world. The senses buzz in an awareness of life, of living life. Alone at my table, a cappuccino to my right, a belly full of recommendations that satisfy, and a book in my hand I am sad to finish, I feel complete as I look up to observe humans connecting. Middle-aged women gather, loud and overwhelming, laughing, hugging, enjoying the company of the feminine presence. They have much to tell each other over wine and cigarettes. Outside a little girl falls as she chases the wind. Still learning to use her legs, they run away from her. Parents follow laughing as she struggles to get back up, her marshmallow jacket making it difficult for her to bend her arms. I check her face, and she is giggling as well. The extra padding broke her fall. Her parents help her stand, and she is off running again with a carefree energy that reminds me of the freedom only a child can know. I wonder when I lost it, when each of us loses it to become an adult. A man leans against a pillar. I wonder if I stare at him long enough, he will turn this way. He has been there some time in the cold looking to the right. Is he waiting for someone? He notices me watching and walks away uncomfortable in my awareness. How is it that humans can feel when another is watching as though we have invisible eyes in the back of our heads? Behind him people walk through a gallery observing the world in paint. What do they see of themselves as they stare into another’s imagination? I sprinkle sugar over my cappuccino and scrape the sparkling cream off to melt into my mouth before it dissolves into coffee, a simple delight I learned in Germany that gives me great pleasure, a secret dessert before the meal. I catch the eye of a man walking quickly by and smile. He returns this smile, slowing his pace enough to forget for a moment his mission. Smiles are contagious. If you smile enough at the world, it smiles back at you. Even if it resists, eventually it smiles back. There is something within human beings that is almost instinctual this way, as though our natural self craves such connections and welcomes them. Even if the person is unsure how to smile, our deeper self has a knowledge beyond this life’s experiences to recognize a genuine sign of affection and respond with a widening of the mouth that lifts the heart and carries the soul. A part of me will stay in Belgrade. This city has embraced me with its candlelit tables, nostalgic songs, smokey cafes, empty art galleries, and 2000 year old fortress overlooking a city between two worlds at twilight. I see in it my own dilemma, a feeling of in-between: An American who feels more European; who values the simplicity of the old but finds great pleasure in the indulgences of the new; who craves tranquility and peace found in nature but misses the buzzing people-watching of the city if gone too long; who desires freedom while wishing for roots; a jack of all trades and master of none; one longing for companionship but finding comfort and strength in solitude. Belgrade knows well the in-between, a trade city between worlds colliding, a confluence of rivers with its abandoned lit buildings, wine bars in old refrigerators, raves in unused bunkers and on deserted ships, buildings started but never completed. It knows what it means to be gray. Yes, a part of me will stay with this city because it knows what it means to have one foot on either side of the river not wanting to give up one for the other. It would rather remain in the middle with its turbulence, uncertainty, passion, and instability, to feel what it means to live from every aspect and embrace the black and the white as a hazy gray existence of possibility and discovery.

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