More Than Just Its Wars and Conflicts

Story by Taylor Niederland, Global Co-opPhoto by Taylor Niederland

“You’re co-oping in Syria?! … in Siberia?!”

“No, I’m co-oping in Serbia,” I said, impatient and tired of people confusing my co-op location. “You know, it’s an Eastern European Balkan country that was formerly part of Yugoslavia.”

“Oh, that country. I got it confused.”

I had this conversation with countless people after sharing the location of my next co-op. People seemed to have trouble placing Serbia on the map, even my fellow university students. It wasn’t until I brought up the former Yugoslavia that the thought clicked and they accurately identified the country.

Serbia is known by Americans for its wars and conflicts. However, it is so much more than that. Serbia is rich in culture, food, language, art and history. While living in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, I had the opportunity to eat traditional food three times a day, visit plenty of museums (including my favorite, the Nikola Tesla Museum), interact with locals and go on tours where Serbian tour guides were able to share their perspectives and knowledge of Serbian history.

I also had the opportunity to travel to other former Yugoslavian countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia. Even though these countries have many similarities, the visible differences and diversity among them surprised me. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the large Turkish influence is almost impossible to miss. Here, I had the tastiest meal of my life: a blend of traditional Bosnian and Turkish food. I also visited my first mosque and learned about the country’s rich religious history. In Montenegro, the country’s love for water polo is omnipresent; every hundred yards, I stumbled across children and adults alike scrimmaging along the bay. As for Slovenia, the highlight of my trip was visiting Ljubljana, its charming and quaint capital. Ljubljana is a strange mixture of a small town feeling coupled with a diverse group of residents with varying ethnic backgrounds.

Two weeks before leaving for Belgrade, my brother’s close friend mentioned something in passing that cemented in my thoughts. Previously, he had spent a couple of weeks in Serbia competing with his club water polo team. Once I informed him of the location for my next co-op, he commented, “Yew! I tell everyone never to go there. I hated it.” After he shared this, I immediately doubted my decision to co-op in Serbia. I questioned if Belgrade was the right city for me and if I would be safe as a single female because of his remark.

Now, after having lived in Serbia for three months, I realize the fallacy of my brother’s friend’s comment. I am sure the media’s portrayal and the typical rhetoric surrounding Serbia and other former Yugoslavian countries played a role in developing his opinion; well that, along with his team’s harsh loss to the Serbs, shaped his negative perspective. However, this doesn’t entitle one to influence others not to visit entire countries. To do so is harmful, as it shrinks the potential for knowledge sharing and perpetuates the intolerance of others. We should encourage travel to foreign countries, especially when the culture varies tremendously from our own. We should be pushed outside of our comfort zones because this discomfort broadens our perspective and enables individuals to become more accepting of others.

My aim is to minimize the number of people influenced by individuals with similar mindsets to that of my brother’s friend. I will strive to share the beauty of former Yugoslavia with as many people possible in an effort to convince people how Serbia, along with its neighboring countries, is more than just its wars and conflicts.