By Hoi Mun Yee
BELGRADE, Australian Philomena O’Brien had just celebrated her 39th birthday in Budapest and was on her way to Iran when her train unexpectedly left earlier than scheduled. Stranded, with some scepticism she took the advice of a booking clerk to take the next train to Belgrade and spend a few nights there instead. She never made it to Iran, but she did find a new home.
“I didn’t even know Belgrade was in Serbia,” said O’Brien, sunglasses tucked in her brunette hair.
She boarded the train with Serbian strangers and received a 10-hour introduction to Serbian hospitality. “They grabbed my bags for me, we chatted and ate together,” she said.
After a decade of international isolation during the wars that tore apart former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Belgrade began to open up for foreigners since early 2000s. It’s no longer rare to hear foreign languages on Belgrade’s streets, and according to director of the Serbian Tourist Board Marija Labovic, more than 2.5 million tourists visited Serbia in 2016. Excluding the other countries of the former Yugoslavia, some 80,000 people came from abroad to live in Serbia between 2002 and 2011, according to data from the Serbian government statistics office. Most foreigners came from Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia, Switzerland, the United States and France, the data showed.
Upon her arrival in Belgrade, O’Brien was amazed by the nightlife. She stood on the pedestrianised Knez Mihailova street at the heart of the city 10 pm and there were lights, and people flocking into bars and cafés. She fell in love.
“This is what I thought Italy was gonna be like,” O’Brien said, still filled with wonder.
“I’ve been here now for seven years,” she said.
“And two weeks.”
Before winding up in Belgrade, O’Brien said she had had an increasingly dissatisfied life, despite working in the tourism industry and having had a good income.
“I was having a midlife crisis. I was living in New Zealand, had a good life and good job, but I was tired of it,” she said.
“New Zealand is beautiful but boring, I could tell you what I’d be doing the next Monday or Saturday,” O’Brien said. This prompted her to set off backpacking in Eastern Europe, beginning in Leipzig, Germany, thus starting a life-transforming trip.
Having decided to stay in Belgrade, Philomena, always with a smile on her face, spent months in cafés finding connections for jobs. Early life was “haphazard.” She is now a project manager for a German media company and does translating jobs on the side.
Her family is supportive of her decision to stay in Belgrade, she said.
“My mom is a bit of an adventurer, but the first thing my father asked me was if I was safe,” she said rather bemusedly.
O’Brien currently lives with her Serbian partner Alex she met four years ago working at an English camp.
Along with a British colleague Jules Kovacevic she runs the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club on Facebook, aimed at helping newcomers getting settled in the town. Members post notices about housing, jobs, or any other information foreign residents need. It also organizes outdoor events or casual outings at cafés to connect members.
When O’Brien and Kovacevic took over the group from creator Jonathan Davis six years ago, it had about 100 members. Today, it has over 7,000 as Facebook grew in popularity, with English speaking locals also joining the club in large numbers to meet expats and engage in social activities.
The club has recently even launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for refugees. As of early 2017, there are around 7,000 refugees stuck in Serbia after the closure of so-called Balkan route. Most of them were fleeing conflicts in the Middle East or Afghanistan and seeking to start a new life in European Union countries, but ended up in Belgrade, many even sleeping rough in capital’s parking lots and warehouses. The campaign raised 25,000 EUR which provided tents, shoes, food and drinks for refugees in Belgrade.
“Working with Philomena is great, we tend to complement each other and agree on most things,” Kovacevic said. “When we don’t, we seem to always compromise in the end.”
O’Brien said living in Belgrade does not come without its problems.
“Jobs and houses are hard to find because there are not many ads on newspapers or the internet,” she said.
“We are trying to make life easier living in Serbia (for expats).”
Life in Serbia seems to be an adventure, but what makes it special is hospitality, she said.
“I was buying chicken at Maxi [a local retail chain], and a man asked me how I was going to prepare it,” she said.
“Then he invited me to his family home to prepare it together.”