When we finally left Slovenia on Friday, we felt more optimistic than ever to hitchhike to our next destination: Romania. To get there we would pass through Croatia and Serbia. And we were convinced that the hospitality we encountered during our stay in Slovenia would continue there.
It was Saturday night. We had hitchhiked for 2 days straight. Our last ride from Marco in his fancy Maserati company car brought us from Zagreb to a petrol station in the outskirts of the Serbian capital Belgrado. It was now around midnight and we had gave up hitchhiking since the night fell. No one was going to Romania, at least not today. After spending some time in the security and comfort of the petrol station’s bar, we had no choice but to look for a place to sleep.
Going to a hostel in the city center was going to cost us too much precious time hitchhiking back out and it would be nearly impossible finding something at this hour. Instead we decided to sleep in our tent in the smallest forest bordering the petrol station. To not arouse any suspicion we walked around the block to find a clearing to enter the dense overgrown forest.
We knew we were attracting attention with our obvious hiking outfits and big backpacks. The few shadowy figures we could distinguish in the pitch dark night seemed to be looking at us, altering their pace when we passed by. A van passed us and stopped right in front of us. We froze in our tracks.
Earlier while driving through the center of Belgrado, our driver Marco had warned us. At the first intersection he stopped a good 20 meters before the traffic lights. A man with Windex and a window wiper came running to us. The Serbo-Croation discussion that followed was off course incomprehensible to us, but we could feel the tension as the hand gestures got firmer. Marco told us he asked for € 100 and it wasn’t uncommon for them to scratch the car if you refused. We should be careful. Although sometimes hidden, there is still a lot of poverty in eastern Europe. Marco’s warning was still fresh in our mind when the car rolled down the driver’s window. Big grinning teeth shone in the dark night.
It was Dragisha’s friendly smile, asking us if we were lost. We explained we were looking for a place to sleep, and immediately he urged us to get in the car. The backseat and the cargo area were both full of equipment from his job as an airconditioning installer. But he just put some equipment on the roof, so we could both fit in. All this trouble left no doubt about his good intentions and we didn’t hesitate to get in. A slow drive (because of the unsecured stuff on the roof) brought us to a friend. After some conversations we didn’t understand, the solution was there: we could sleep in yet another friend’s basement. While a night in a stranger’s basement might not sound very appealing, it sounded just fine to us since it was the best option we had that night.
Another short drive brought us to Milo’s home. Milo and his family greeted us and they showed us in. The basement turned out to be a big room that was only slightly under the main level of the house with a sofa bed. In the garden Milo explained to us the Danube was just behind his house and that he had hosted bicyclists before that were heading to the Black Sea along the cross European bike track. Milo explained he would provide us with breakfast and we could use the summer kitchen in the garden. I asked how I could repay him. “You pay me zero Euro”, Milo said.
We had some beers in the garden and discussed life until late in the night. The following morning we woke up to a breakfast with fresh juice from the garden and scrambled eggs from the chickens next to the house. It was a great night, we had experienced Serbian hospitality to it’s full extend.
Excuse the overly dramatic undertone we started this story with. We tried to symbolize the many presumptions we all have (or had at some point) about other countries and their people. They often lead to an irrational fear and misunderstandings about each others culture While the outlook of sleeping in a dark forest in a strange country was indeed scary, our past travels had already learned that people are basically the same everywhere. They might speak a different language, have different cultures and ideas. But in the end they have the same hopes and dreams, which in many cases all come down to a bright future for their children. What we experienced that night in Milo’s house touched us deeply. While we know many good people at home, we have never experienced such a sincere hospitality towards total strangers before. Milo didn’t just invite us to sleep, he let us be part of his family. A few countries further along our route, we can already say this was only the first of many such acts of selfless kindness.