An annotated list of the 10 things I’m going to miss most about life in Belgrade:
1) Belgrade, the city. It’s the right size – big enough to have opera, and a philharmonic, museums and music festivals. Small enough that the traffic isn’t bad and you can pretty much always park downtown without too much hassle.
2) The food – Serbian food isn’t the best or most diverse in the world, but what it does well, it does well. Grilled meat, fresh bread, meat stuffed inside bread, meat stuffed inside meat. This is not a town for vegetarians. And thanks to a babysitter that we love, we can go out almost every weekend.
3) The prices – Serbia was affordable before (caveat: on an American salary. With high unemployment and low wages, Belgrade is not particularly affordable for the average Belgradian.), but with a 30% rise in the dollar the last six months have been even more affordable. That opera? Eight dollars for the best seat. Five for the Philharmonic. Two-three $ for museum entrance. Our excellent daycare costs less for a month than two weeks in U.S. daycare would cost, and we can afford to have someone help in the house.
4) The travel. Four hours to Budapest. Six to the Istrian coast of Croatia. Six to the Julian Alps of Slovenia. Six to Vienna, eight to Prague. And that’s driving. By air, all of Europe is accessible for a long weekend.
5) Our house. I agonized over city-vs-suburbs. I consider myself a city person. I want my children to be city people. Yet, I love our house in the suburbs. It’s got so much space – four bedrooms, a playroom, a storage room. It’s got a fenced yard where we can let the kids run pretty much unsupervised. The commute to work is the same as from the city apartments, although obviously it’s a much longer commute to the city itself (but still 20 minutes driving to downtown, including parking, or 50 minutes on the bus). We have lots of embassy colleagues in the area, so it’s great for impromptu playdates, barbecues, and carpools. I love that the kids can run and stomp and scream without me worrying about the people below us in an apartment. We made the right call.
6) The work-life balance. I leave the office at 5:00 PM nine days out of ten, and while I do check my Blackberry more than I should, I rarely have to work weekends. I’ve been able to take vacation when I want.
7) The language. I have a love-hate relationship with Serbian. I love that it’s so complex, and that I learn weird new grammatical rules every day. I hate that after four years of studying it, I still speak so badly. I’m glad I’m done with it, but at the same time, I’m sorry that I’ll start losing it in 19 days and counting, especially when I start putting Spanish into the space in my brain reserved for languages. I’m ever sadder that Clara and Van, who speak Serbian really well, will lose it completely in a matter of months.
8) Ada – Ada is an island in the Sava river, along with an artificial lake, surrounded by pebbly beaches, restaurants, playgrounds, sports facilities, and biking trails. We went there nearly every weekend to swim or bike or just let the kids play while we ate good food and drank cold beer. Even when it’s crowded and the parking is maddening, it’s still a respite from the city.
9) Schools – We were lucky to find a preschool in our neighborhood that was a perfect fit. No, the communication isn’t quite what you’d get from a U.S. preschool, and yes, they did once lose Van on a field trip, but the teachers and staff truly love the kids and take great care of them (bus incident being an aberration). They are open every weekday including holidays, feed the kids breakfast, lunch, and multiple snacks that we didn’t need to pack, and even have sleepover Fridays. Both of our kids speak excellent Serbian thanks to their preschool experience. We loved Clara’s elementary school, too, and wish we could stay in that school longer. Twelve kids with a teacher and teacher’s aide, door-to-door bus service, and after school activities included. It’s going to be hard to beat these two schools.
10) Our friends. (Last by not least by any account.) We started Serbian classes four years ago with a good group of people, and have worked together since. Some moved on last year thanks to shorter assignments, but new friends have come in their place. The kids have made great friendships, too, making it hard to leave for all of us.