Belgrade, Serbia Report of what it's like to live there - 08/03/15

Personal Experiences from Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia 08/03/15

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. I have also lived in Conakry, Istanbul, and Casablanca for government assignments and Brussels as a student.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, DC -- 12 hours, connecting through European cities, usually Frankfurt for USG travel. Air Serbia is supposed to start a direct flight to the U.S. probably New York or Chicago, in late 2015 or early 2016. Other common connections for people not tied to USG travel restrictions include Amsterdam, Munich, Zurich, and Istanbul.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Three years, 2012-2015

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Government

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

USG housing includes:

Banovo Brdo -- 3-4 bedroom single-family houses and townhomes in a residential neighborhood with a large concentration of USG families. All have yards, but the yards are often dirt-pits that won't grow grass and are hilly or oddly-shaped. 15-20 minutes driving from the Embassy and school. There is public transportation but it requires changing buses and takes a while.

Senjak/Dedinje - single-family homes, townhomes, and some apartments. Further from other embassy families but mostly within walking distance to the embassy and pool. 5 minutes driving to the embassy and school.

Downtown - 2-3 bedroom apartments, some large, some smaller, scattered throughout downtown. Most have balconies. All have parking but the spaces can be tight and are not always in the building. 15-20 minutes driving to the embassy and school. More public transportation options. Generally the choice of singles and families without children, but some families with children also opt for downtown apartments.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

There are good supermarkets and lots of farmer's markets. You can get everything here if you buy it when you see it - for instance, I was surprised that they have several kinds of tortilla and tofu. Things like cottage cheese, Asian ingredients, and Mexican ingredients can be harder to find. American baking products like chocolate chips and brown sugar are generally not available, and peanut butter and maple syrup are expensive.

Seafood can be expensive. Fresh food and meats are cheaper than in the United States, but imported products more expensive. All fruit and vegetables are seasonal, so in the winter the fruit options are often down to apples and bananas, and the vegetables to cabbage and root vegetables. It gets tiresome.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Not much - maybe outdoor/pool toys. Books in English to give as gifts at kid's birthday parties. Halloween costumes. With DPO, there's not much we can't get.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

The only U.S. chains are McDonald's and KFC. There's also a good burrito place (like Chipotle), gyros and falafel, and lots of Serbian grill places that are very affordable. Almost everything delivers.

Tons of excellent restaurants, and more open every month. Good international food, high-end Serbian, Italian, sushi, etc. There's not much in the way of Mexican, only one Indian place, one Turkish place, and one Thai place.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes in the summer, especially if it's been rainy. Bees are bad in the summer.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO at the Embassy

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Widely available. People working in the U.S. Embassy community get 4-7 Euros/hour, people working for local families a little less. Domestic help that speaks English or European languages is widely available and good.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, and personal trainers are very affordable.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I haven't had any problems other than my bank cutting off my card from time to time.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

It helps to know some -- I appreciate that I have it when taking taxis, calling taxis, ordering food, and shopping. But people are helpful and everyone in the service industry speaks English, so you can get along without Serbian. Reading some Cyrillic is also helpful.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes - where sidewalks exist, they are broken up and cars park on them. Many buildings don't have working elevators. Public transportation is not accessible. You could do it, but it would be tough.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Trains are slow and generally not the best way to travel. Inter-city buses and public city buses and trams are fine. There's a good online website to help you map your trip in Belgrade. However, buses get crowded and don't have air conditioning, so can be pretty uncomfortable in the summer. Taxis are safe and affordable - about US$20 to the airport (30 minutes), under US$10 almost everywhere in town. They use a meter, and while I've been ripped off once or twice, 99% of the time I've gotten courteous and fair drivers.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Pretty much any car is OK. Small cars are good for tight parking spaces, especially if you have to park in a garage, but high clearance is good for parking on sidewalks and curbs. We've appreciated having all wheel drive. All-weather or winter tires are required in the winter. Mechanics are good - we use the Toyota dealership which is more expensive than local mechanics. Oil changes can also be expensive because of the cost of the oil and filter.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, about US$40/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Many people bring an unlocked iPhone or smart phone and get a local subscription. Smart phones are more expensive here, but the subscription and data plan is cheap.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Not really. There is high unemployment in Serbia, and many more well-educated Serbians that speak English than expats who speak Serbian well enough to work here. There are a handful of jobs at the international schools, and some call-center jobs for people with other languages, but they don't pay well.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

You'd have to have some initiative to find volunteer opportunities, but the expat group (Belgrade International Visitors Club) organizes some events - a flood clean-up last year, refugee assistance this year, clothing drives. The International Women's Club does some volunteering and organizes an annual charity bazaar. Volunteering in local organizations would require some Serbian, but with the increasing migrant/refugee crisis, there will probably be more opportunities especially for anyone that speaks Arabic.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Very casual for men. Women tend to dress up more. Business suits at the U.S. Embassy. Anyone can wear shorts and sneakers without standing out.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Not really. Pretty low crime, very little violent crime and what there is is often targeted and related to organized crime. The biggest threat is soccer hooligans and being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time after a contentious game. Driving can be a little aggressive.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Doctors are well-educated but the facilities and equipment is not up to U.S. standards, and I have heard a number of stories of people being mis-diagnosed. Embassy personnel tend to med-evac for all surgeries, although some people have had appendectomies here. Dental care is good and affordable.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Excellent in the the summer. Moderate to poor in the winter. There's no industry to speak of, but the city still burns cheap soft coal for the heating plants, so air quality is pretty bad in the winter. It clears up as soon as the heating goes off in the spring, and even in the winter is OK if it's been raining, just bad if it hasn't rained in a while.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Seasonal allergies can be very bad, especially in the spring. The pollen is visible and there are tons of flowering trees and bushes. Serbians generally do not understand food allergies, and may not take them seriously, but if you ask a restaurant what is in their food, they can tell you every ingredient because they use less pre-packaged and processed foods in good restaurants. Most supermarkets have some gluten-free products.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot, dry summers and long cold winters. It regularly gets to 90F degrees in the summer. The last few winters have been mild but it can be cold and snowy.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Several options including International School of Belgrade (ISB, the choice of most Embassy families), British School, German school, French school, Chartwell, Prima. Our daughter was only in kindergarten at ISB but we loved it. Her class was 12 students with a teacher and full-time aide. The school was excellent, her teacher communicated well, and the tuition included two after-school activities a week with late bus provided. Communication from the school was spotty, and the lunches aren'y great, but those were our only real complaints at the kindergarten level.

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2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Yes, we used Cili Vili, a private preschool located in the Banovo Brdo neighborhood and very convenient for people living in that area. It is a Serbian school, so while all of the teachers and the director speak some English, the day-to-day instruction was in Serbian. Both of our kids are leaving post fluent in Serbian thanks to Cili Vili, but they started at two years old, and kids who start at 4-5 often struggle a little before settling in. The communication isn't quite what you get from a U.S. daycare in terms of daily reports, but the teachers were happy to answer any questions if asked and they hang up a daily activity list and menu in English for parents who don't speak Serbian. They provide breakfast, lunch, and snacks, are open 7:30 AM to 6:00 PM including Serbian and U.S. holidays (closed one week between New Year and Serbian Christmas), and cost about 340 Euros/month.

There are lots of good private Serbian preschools, but international, English options include International Nursery School of Belgrade, Chartwell, and Play, Grown, Learn.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes - lots, but often in Serbian. Ballet, tennis, soccer, swim lessons.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The U.S. embassy community is medium-sized - small enough to know pretty much everyone after a few months here. Other embassies are pretty small - the Canadians run a club, and there's a large expat group that organizes events and quiz nights. A lot of Serbians were educated abroad and have come back and there are a lot of mixed marriages. Morale is generally very good.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Lots - restaurants, nightclubs, bars, music festivals, concerts, theater, sports and outdoor activities.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

This is a great city for all of the above, but the U.S. embassy community has skewed towards families with young kids the last few years, and only a few singles or couples without kids at post. That said, for people that like to go out Belgrade has fantastic nightlife and clubs, good restaurants, and also plenty for kids to do especially in the summer when you can be outside. In winter, even kids' places can get smoky inside.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Yes, and no. Serbia is a very homophobic society and the 2010 Gay pride parade resulted in widespread violence. The parade was held in 2014 but with a heavy police presence that basically closed the city down. Anti-LGBT graffiti is everywhere, and if you can read the Serbian, there are some pretty offensive things. But there are LGBT activists, some gay-friendly bars and restaurants, and the LGBT people I know here have generally not had problems although they also can't be openly out they way they can in the U.S.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Serbia is generally a white, Orthodox country. It's not particularly diverse, and people of color attract attention and stares.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

See the above. There are great restaurants, great travel and since we an afford to have babysitters we can go out almost every weekend.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Belgrade has a ton of "escape rooms" that are fun and really affordable. Ada Ciganlija, the manmade lake/island/park complex in the middle of Belgrade is a great escape year-round. In Serbia, great road trips include the mountains of Western Serbia, the Danube River and Iron Gates gorge along the Romania border, monastery-visiting, wineries, and Lake Palic and Subotica near the border with Hungary. Lots of other travel in the region.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Not much - some pottery/ceramics, some art and wooden furniture, icons.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Belgrade is a fantastic 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.

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.

The prices - Serbia is very affordable on an expat salary, especially with the strong dollar right now. A nice dinner for two, with wine, at one of the best restaurants in town, costs US$50-$70. Opera US$8, Philharmonic US$5, movies US$5. Household help is good and affordable, as is daycare.

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.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes, but you'll be tempted to spend most of it on travel.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, definitely.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Wine. Serbia has excellent local wines.

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3. But don't forget your:

Sunscreen, bug spray, snowpants, good winter boots.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Underground ,

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, and

The November Man (filmed in Belgrade, although it's a terrible movie).

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel,

The Bridge Over the Drina (Bosnia & the Ottoman Empire, not necessarily Belgrade),

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, and

Snippets of Serbia.

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