The very second I move from the spot where I am right now, summer will give way to autumn.
I am sitting outside a café in the grounds of Niš fortress. Bright though the sun still shines it is hanging low in the sky. There is a chill in the air and the other guests are packing up and going home. The waitress is hovering, hoping I will do the same.
This will be my last beer in Serbia. The next time we speak I will be back home in Germany where, proud Scot though I am, the first thing I will do is put the heating on. Napoleon once joked that he could beat any opponent except January and February. Personally I draw the line at October.
Friends give me a lift to the Constantine The Great International Airport. Like so many places from Liverpool to Ulaanbaatar, Niš has named its airport after its most famous son.
By rights he should be much better known than John Lennon but music trumps history as a pub quiz category. It’s a shame because although the Beatles may have been bigger than Jesus, without Constantine you’d be worshipping Jupiter right now.
Had Emperor Constantine not ordered his troops to paint the sign of the cross on their shields at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. then Christianity would never have gained acceptance within the Roman Empire. Had he not defeated Maxentius that day then today Istanbul would be nothing but a ferry port.
Constantinople, as some people in this part of the world still call it, was founded by Constantine as his eastern capital following his successful reunification of the Roman Empire. His conversion to Christianity paved the way for Christian Europe as we know it. Without him the Pope would be conducting his operations from Palestine.
He is quite possibly the most influential figure in European history and yet outside of his birthplace his exploits are barely acknowledged. Here in Niš his image is omnipresent but elsewhere his name and face are all but forgotten.
There’s a statue of him in the park opposite the Minster in York to mark the place where he was first elevated to the rank of Emperor. I’ve walked past his monument hundreds of times without even realising it was there.
As to why he should be so feted in Niš and not in York well, I have my own theory which I’ll elaborate on later. For the moment though, as I check in to my flight back to Dortmund I’m reminded of something else.
Set Constantine’s story in a modern context and it is no longer unique; look around this airport you’ll see why. As a story it’s familiar: In search of his fortune a southern European boy heads north.
Business is brisk on the Dortmund to Niš flight. The plane is full and so is the hold. Ryanair’s Michael O’ Leary would be able to retire happy on the amount that the passengers have paid in baggage charges.
The terminal is full to bursting. There are suitcases everywhere and we are queuing out of the door. All but a few of the passengers are Serbs and it is pretty clear that they are not heading to Dortmund on a city break. Family and friends have come along for the ride to see them off. The local euphemism is that they have “bought the one-way ticket”.
The local bus station operates the same route, although it will take you thirty hours longer. Across the country there are similar services linking obscure small towns here to places selected seemingly at random up north. Kuršumlija is linked somewhat inexplicably to Oldenburg, Negotin to Düsseldorf. There too similar scenes will be played out throughout the autumn.
Sit at a café anywhere in Serbia and there’s a good chance that someone will have their nose in a “Teach Yourself German” book. Adverts for German lessons adorn every lamp-post. Sign up now for your ticket to the promised land.
All across the south of our continent it’s the same. “Come to Germany, Pepe” is the translation for the Spanish film that sums it up best. You can probably guess what happens.
Pepe is taken in by the tales of untold riches and beautiful girls spun to him by his uncle Angelo and decides to try his luck up north. When he gets there he works all the hours God sends, the girls are as cold as the weather, and his wages wouldn’t cover the bottom of a church collection plate.
They’ll hate it, I promise. Most of them do. It doesn’t matter if it’s Germany they go to, or Britain or Holland or Sweden — the grey skies will dull their enthusiasm by the day.
They’ll miss eating food that comes from a farm and not out of a packet. The endless assortments in our shops will confuse the hell out of them. When the shops close and the streets empty they won’t be able to sleep because it’s so quiet at night.
They’ll struggle their new names. Jovana had better get used to being called “Johanna” while Jaime had better get used to getting household bills with “Jamie” written on them. He’ll get plenty of bills to practice with.
They’ll hate everything about the languages we speak. It will take them ages to master the nuances. “Da da” is an expression of enthusiasm and willingness to help, “yes yes” gives the impression that the speaker is an a hurry while “ja ja” is just downright rude.
Everybody is in a hurry up here, they will think. The only good side to our half-hour lunch breaks is that they can force down the plastic food without tasting it. This, they will assume, is also the reason we wash it down with such large quantities of alcohol.
They’ll find us cold and unwelcoming, stolid and unresponsive. We speak solely to communicate information, never to express ourselves. They will miss hearing compliments now and again and they will take our understatements at face value. They’ll find that when they pay compliments to our girls, our girls burst out in fits of laughter.
They’ll think we live in a closed shop, that we look after our own and we don’t like outsiders. Do you know why I think that Constantine is celebrated in Niš and ignored in York? It’s because in a county which demands that its heroes are Yorkshire born and bred he is quite simply “not a Yorkshireman”.
They’ll forget about home quicker than they think, the bad bits anyway. They’ll find themselves living for August and the trip home and will forget about how miserable their homelands are in the winter. They will form bonds with compatriots with whom they share nothing but a shared desire to lament.
But when they do get home then it might just become interesting.
They’ll miss brown bread, proper saunas and real central heating. They’ll hate the way that people drive back home and will become annoyed with their friends’ lack of punctuality. At night they won’t be able to sleep because of the stuffy air and noisy streets.
Having spent eleven months working hard building up a nest egg they’ll wonder why others around them are happy to sit around all day in the sun. “Don’t they care about tomorrow?” is what they’ll start thinking.
Given time, they’ll realise that there’s more to us northerners than meets the eye. We might not smile very often but we know how to be funny without moving a muscle in our faces. Sooner or later they’ll be in on the joke.
We can laugh at ourselves too. They all take themselves so seriously down south. And it’s all for show. In lands where nobody carries a man-bag or wears high heels to the supermarket such behaviour will start to look strange to them.
Sooner or later they’ll start dressing for the weather like we do. Southern women may even eventually trust themselves to go out for the night in jeans and a t-shirt. They will feel no less feminine as a result.
We don’t hand out compliments very often but when we do then they are sincere. If a Yorkshireman tells you he loves you he means it. He probably hasn’t slept for a week while he plucked up the courage to tell so don’t be disappointed if he only tells you once. That means he still cares. If he ever changes his mind then he’ll let you know.
We don’t expect people to look perfect or to be perfect. Tell a British girl how nice her smile is when she’s got a mouthful of silver fillings and she’ll laugh in your face. She knows she has other plenty of other good qualities to love — your job is to find them.
If they stick around, our guests from the south will start to realise all this. Sooner or later they’ll realise that it’s easier to talk to people when you’re packed into a Yorkshire pub or a Bavarian beer hall than it is when you’re sat at a table in a café in Belgrade or Barcelona.
I don’t know why southerners have to put themselves on a pedestal like that. Better a shoulder in the ear than no shoulder at all surely?
Sooner or later though they’ll realise that we all talk about the same stuff and value the same things. You might not marry a family if you tie the knot up here but we still hold our families dear, most of the time anyway.
Be it Partizan Belgrade, FC Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund or York City our men all seem to love their football team more than their partners. Just because a German girl goes out in the evenings in jeans and a t-shirt doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love shopping. Sooner or later they’ll find their own kind of people and not just fellow lamenters.
I think that’s how it is anyway. I’m the one of the most northern people I know so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge. After all, I didn’t head north in search of my fortune, I went south. And they think the weather’s bad here?