Before we begin, I should probably tell you about the first time I came to Serbia.
In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup Serbia were drawn against Scotland and I decided to make the trip. Curiosity was one reason, fuelled partly by the bad reports in the press. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as they described.
A friend was going, I arranged to meet him there and when I looked up train times from Dortmund to Belgrade I was delighted to realise that you only had to change trains once. I booked on the spot before the price went up.
Twenty-seven hours later, with one change in Munich I was in the Serbian capital. It was only later that I realised that you can fly direct from Dortmund for about half the price.
I’ve been coming back ever since. If I get another stamp for Serbia in my passport then their government will give me a free car wash.
You might well be asking why. Well, given the writeups it was getting at the time it could hardly disappoint. Apart from that, well you need to come here yourself to understand. Sitting in the sun outside an inn picking at chillies in oil over a glass of beer and a long lunch it starts to make sense.
September is the best time to do it. You can spend hours trawling the markets, wandering among rows and rows of tables selling nothing but plums or gawping at stalls piled with mountains of pears. Sacks of red peppers splash their juices across the pavements. You don’t just see it, you smell it.
Go out into the villages and you can still see the fruit hanging from the trees. Grapes burst out from the gaps in the fences of farmsteads and chillies hang from the windows. Berries grow wild by the roadsides. Serbia is both mother and father to its people; from the plains to the mountains the land provides.
There is not a kumquat or a papaya in sight. Food here comes from the ground, not from a packet and certainly not straight off an aeroplane. As you buy it direct from the man or woman who made it the only added ingredient is love. If you don’t believe me then try ordering a salad here. I guarantee you’ll never eat Dutch tomatoes again.
From mid morning on, the smell of meat sizzling on barbecues is everywhere. If you’re lucky then in the background you’ll catch a whiff of the gentle roasting of red peppers to make ajvar, an oil and vegetable preserve that serves as a gentle reminder that you’re in one of the last countries in Europe that still prepares for the winter.
It’s err…not for everyone. If you’re not a fan of Communist prefabricated architecture then you at least need to desensitize yourself. Concrete is everywhere. At least in stands up well to graffiti.
Nowadays the sixth pillar of Communism, the one that dictated that city living was the only way forward for a proletariat whose views and convenience were swept aside for the sake of progress, has been swept away but more than half our continent is still paying the price. The good news is that here at least, Serbs are slowly but surely reclaiming the land.
And as for the people themselves, they are stubborn, opinionated and headstrong. Serbia is one of those one-word countries. The Irish like to talk about the craic, for the Danes it’s all about hygge, in Serbia the buzzword is inat.
There is no English word for inat. “Defiance” is sometimes offered as a translation, served up with extra helpings of bloody-mindedness, a healthy disrespect for authority and a deep-seated desire to shock.
It has served Serbia well. The great empires of Austria and Turkey which occupied Serbia’s territory for centuries have fallen but the Serbs are still here, bloodied but unbowed. Inat is a state of mind well-suited to resistance.
The result is that opinions in Serbia are as unfiltered as the food. Inat is about freedom of expression without caring what others think. No one likes us, we don’t care, that’s what inat means. We shall not be moved. Social attitudes are often about as subtle and liberal as a 1980s football terrace.
For a short time at least, it’s refreshing. Inat is about speaking your mind and laughing too loud over white bread and red meat while you sit in a restaurant full of smoke. Serbs have a healthy sense of humour, particularly when it comes to laughing at themselves.
Political correctness gurus should probably steer well clear for now but a lot of the less savoury attitudes are changing. Black players are now a common sight at Serbian football matches and if they play well then the fans cheer them.
If they play badly they are for the most part ignored. Until relatively recently this was not the case and doubtless there will be further infractions; experience in other countries has shown that this can be a long struggle.
This is as good a time as any to mention that I have never seen anybody who was drunk, football or no football. Fights on football terraces still happen but western style bar brawls are practically non-existent. Crime against foreigners is similarly unheard of.
The country now has a gay prime minister, selected neither as a result of politically correct positive discrimination nor on any particular ability to do the job. As the candidate most likely to cooperate with the president in his stable but unwieldy coalition, practicalities made her the obvious choice.
She made a few headlines in the west by joining in with the notorious Belgrade gay pride march a couple of weeks ago. There were times when the potential for violence meant that the event could not take place but things have calmed down. This time both participants and protesters were conspicuous by their absence.
Attitudes continue to be conservative in a country which doesn’t back down easily but what shines though when you spend time here is how articulate, softly spoken and friendly the people are. Serbs like to be remembered for inat but what most people remember is their warmth, generosity and kindness to strangers.
I often asked whether Serbia is a member of the EU and the answer is no, it is not. Would they like to join? Most people ask nervously. Well yes, they would actually.
It will probably mean giving up a lot of what they hold dear. The EU is a sanitized place which believes that milk should come out of a bottle and not out of a cow. Nonetheless, it would represent progress for a nation still looking to come in from the cold after its wars of disintegration.
Should they join? Well that depends whether you’re asking the Serbs or asking the rest of us. It will be a slap in the face for Serbia’s religious right, but one also meted out to Ireland and Spain without too many ill effects. They will miss real food when it’s gone.
As for the rest of us, well Serbia is in Europe and thus has every right to join the club, provided they fulfill the criteria. The issue is not if Serbia accedes but when.
What would they bring to the party? Well the country’s greatest asset is its people. Skilled labour is in plentiful supply. Here in the southern city of Niš, a rabbit warren of a place where Turkish and Roman influences sit cheek by jowl, there are around three hundred unemployed doctors. The NHS would kill for them, were it not for the fact that that would defeat the object of the exercise.
The labour force is well educated and not afraid of hard work. The downside of Serbia’s back to the roots economy is that it’s back-breaking work over long hours for low wages. Patience is the most unlikely Serbian virtue. Often it is the old who must bear the burden as the young find their fortunes elsewhere.
That said, the economy is growing faster than most places in the EU, albeit from a low level. Serbia also has other options. The blue and gold of the EU is everywhere but so is the red white and blue of Russia.
It’s three o’ clock now and I’m severely weakened by my lunch. I also need to continue my journey but shall explain more as we go.
With its labyrinth of alleyways, the mountains in the background, the horses and carts which still fly down the main thoroughfare, and the omnipresent statues of men with handlebar moustaches with pistols and cutlasses stuffed into sashes, Niš is a good place to start an adventure rather than to finish one. There is much more to Serbia than you would ever think.
The bus rolls out into the rolling hills and fields of the countryside. Valleys deepen and climbs steepen as we pass antique barns woven together from tree branches, houses in various stages of construction, wild flowers and abandoned railway stations.
Mother Serbia is good to her children but they are not always thankful. Plastic bottles line the streets, an enduring memory for most visitors to the country. Sackfuls of the things. Serbia can be a romance killer.
Environmental policy is one of those EU criteria that Serbia is struggling to fulfill. Construction on many of the houses will never be finished. Planning regulations and aesthetics are very different to our own expectations.
As the hills get steeper and the valleys begin to close in, Mother Serbia holds us ever closer to her bosom. This is the country’s heartland, scene of her most heroic struggles. We pass the town of Prokuplje, where Prince Lazar gathered his forces before marching south to take on the invading Ottoman Turks at the battle of Kosovo Polje.
By the time I get off the bus at Kuršumlija, medieval Serbia’s capital, Kosovo is only a few miles away. The increased police and military presence is a subtle reminder of this fact.
Kosovo Polje is Serbia’s Bannockburn. Just as every Scot can tell you what happened in 1314, every Serb knows what happened in 1389. The Field Of Blackbirds, where the battle took place, is somewhere over those hills, on the other side of what has now become a de facto international border.
Out there somewhere, Prince Lazar laid down his life to save Serbia — and Europe — from Ottoman domination. Historically and politically it has always been his country and that of his people. The trouble is, the majority of the people now living on there are Albanian.
This is hardly a new development; its roots go back way before the most recent conflict. But Serbia has no wish to stomach an independent Kosovo any more than Scotland would tolerate an English enclave around Stirling. Likewise the Albanians have no appetite for Serbian domination, especially given the recent animosity between the two.
“It’s stupid” says Dragan, my taxi driver for the last few miles of the journey. My Serbian isn’t the best so that could mean anything. He’s talkative, easy to understand and highly appreciative of my efforts to speak the language.
He’s also mightily relieved that our final destination is on the Serbian side of the border. He is able to answer one question that the UK foreign office, the travel guides and the Serbian government are not. Can I cross the line if I want?
Yes, says Dragan, I can. However, if I do then the Kosovans will stamp my passport. If I then try to get back into Serbia, the Serbian guards will not let me in.
“Yeah, that’s stupid” I say. Not that I’m planning on visiting any time soon. My Serbian is lousy but my Albanian is non-existent. We pull up at the village I plan to spend the night in.
“Have you got a hotel?” Dragan asks me. I tell him where I was planning to stay.
“Na, you don’t wanna go there. I know a much better place. Want me to take you there?”
“Sure, why not?”
We pass the well-appointed spa hotel I had planned to spend the night in and stop at a half-finished bare wires-and-breeze blocks construction next door.
“In we go” says Dragan. I knew this was going to happen. By the doorway is the quintessential piece of decor for every Serbian rural dwelling: a wheelbarrow and a sack of cement.
There are warm embraces between Dragan and the owner. Given Serbia’s limited range of surnames, connections are everything. Like the bottles and the border issue, the EU takes a very dim view.
To be fair to Dragan and his mate, a room here costs half of what it does next door and the food is excellent. I have never once been ripped off in this country. I eat well because I always do here. To be fair to Serbia and Kosovo, they are working on the issues described above.
The question about Serbia is not if she will join but when. If that seems a bold statement given what we’ve just seen then just remember than “when” is also a question word. Serbia needs time and also needs to feel it is doing things in its own time. Inat cannot be rushed.
I order a pear for dessert. Out of a bottle and not from a tree. Back to the roots for one last time today.
Darkness falls. Stillness descends over the forests and the mountains. Mother Serbia rocks me to sleep.