Before we left, we received numerous warnings that Eastern Europe would be a dangerous, depressing, soul-suck full of steely thousand yard glares and ferocious dogs. So far, these stereotypes couldn't be further from the truth. The genuine kindness and generosity we've experienced here over the last week has entirely quelled any lingering concerns we may have had about this part of the world. As for the dogs, they've been totally harmless!
Late last night after we finished working, we left our room in search of a celebratory round of beers. When we found our hostel's ajoining bar to be smokey and noisy, we were about to leave. As we did so, a group of Serbian guys quietly eating and drinking outside urged us to stay.
As soon as we agreed, two of the guys removed their jackets, walked over, and gently placed them over our shoulders, saying in Serbian what probably meant "you must be cold!" At first we protested, but they insisted, so we kept warm beneath their layers. We ordered two beers, and as we drank they taught us how to say "cheers!" in Serbian. The word is iveli and sounds like jhiv-eh-lee.
When we were done with our beer, we got up to head back to our room. As we did, the guys rushed us back to our chairs. They had secretly ordered another round and a plate of home-cut french fries covered in cheese for us. As we took our seats, the food and drink arrived. We were actually quite hungry, so this was a very welcome surprise!
After round two, we made for our room once more but the guys all laughed and ushered us back to our chairs again, saying another round was on the way. We agreed it would be the last one and then helped ourselves to another Heineken.
When we were thoroughly stuffed and drunk, they let us teeter off to bed, and refused to let us pay for our tab! Incredible.
We left the following morning, thankfully not hung-over and best of all: completely caught up with work. No backlog of emails, no photos to upload, no sounds to edit. My favorite though? No backlog of journals to write! I didn't even have any projects due with my clients. It really felt like summer vacation.
Just a few pedal strokes away from our hostel, we met an enthusastic cyclist who proceeded to ask a zillion questions as he rode along with us. When he ran into a wall with his English, he excitedly invited us to come to his house for five minutes for juice and then back on the road! His brother would translate!
He was so enthusiastic and friendly we would have agreed no matter what was on our schedule. Today, there was nothing! So, we happily followed him to his home which was only a block or two away. Then, Slajan, our host, set about making a nice spot outside, bringing deck chairs, plates of snacks, juice and cups.
Over the next half hour, we met Slajan's brother, father, and mother. They all welcomed us with heartfelt smiles and very firm handshakes. We shared stories about our trip, and stories about their life. They raise chickens in a little place under the garage and have a second, secret income selling eggs. They didn't seem to have much, but offered what they did with abundant generosity.
We ended our short but poignant visit with promises to keep in touch (via Facebook of all things. I swear the whole WORLD uses it.) The family was hilarious and sweet and watching the sons instruct their dad how to use our fancy camera was especially funny. Ahhh, adult children and their parents with electronics; this dynamic knows no bounds of nationality!
To Slajan and family, thank you so much for your kindness and hospitality!
Feeling blessed, we left town, for real this time (with Slajan yelling enthusiastically to us both, "Go man go!"). Today's ride was, in a word, tranquil. We rode through sleepy Serbian mountains, following a river and a railway through a valley between high hills on either side for most of the day. As we did, we passed countless small farms full of people working in their fields. >
We saw small children playing together, dancing on their front yards and porches, riding their bikes in the mud and running through the fields with smiles on their faces. At one point, a particularly serene looking girl ran along with us, waving and smiling broadly.
We love it here. It seems like we've gone back to a simplier time and the feeling it gives us is exactly the feeling we hope to cultivate on the small farm we hope to start when we return home. Everyone, from 20-something males to the kerchiefed, skirt-wearing grandmothers, works the land. No one seems to work a 9-5 job, instead the family stays together at home, each doing their part to put real food on the table.
Today, I felt very lucky for the opportunities Tara and I have. I'm sure what we view as a peaceful, tranquil existence might well seem a life of hard labor to those who live it, even more so when they don't have the luxury of choosing it over something else. Still, I look forward to the day when we can give it a shot ourselves.
We covered 80km with ease during our ride, then stopped to camp by a river just as the sun was beginning its descent. Bikes parked, we lazily wandered around, taking photos and enjoying the golden hour. Everything was right with the world.
After our photo session, Tara assembled camp while I prepared a fire. Once it was roaring (I've really gotten the hang of flint and steel), I tried to make a little wood fired stove for our soup.
The end product was barely functional and resulted a pan hopelessly covered in soot. Oh well. After I scoured it clean, we sat quietly together, listening to the chorus of frogs (or toads?) croaking all around us. As we stared into the night sky in awe, we were thankful to be far far away from any street lights.
Short of somehow bringing our families to us, life really couldn't be better.