The progression of my homesickness was alarming. I had been in Belgrade for less than two weeks when I changed my lock screen to a picture of me with my best friend and my home screen to a picture of me with my family — just to have familiar faces smile at me throughout the day.
In my opinion, the most valuable aspect of the DukeEngage in Serbia program is also the most challenging. From living with a homestay family to working at a local NGO without another Duke student in my office, my daily schedule is almost indistinguishable from that of a Belgrade local — giving me exactly the kind of immersive service I was seeking. But immersion in another culture comes with obvious challenges that my idealism initially masked. All at once, I was sleeping in a new apartment, working in a new field of study, and going home to a new family. So I became homesick — not because of anything in my new environment, but because everything in my environment was new.
Now that I’m approaching the end of my sojourn in Belgrade, it’s amusing to reflect on how I found the familiarity I craved through strangers. It’s people like David — the security guard who left his post to help me find my office on my first day — who welcomed me to Belgrade with heart-warming enthusiasm. It’s people like Milorad — the editor-in-chief of a professional military journal who talked to me for an hour at a conference instead of networking with his peers — who made me prefer Serbian hospitality over Southern hospitality. It’s people like Milica — the lady I sat next to on the bus who asked me to marry her grandson so I could join her family — who accepted me into their world with open arms. I arrived in Belgrade certain that I would leave with a deep affection for my homestay family, but I never thought I would have a long list of strangers who have made living in this city such a pleasant experience. With their help, I’ve learned to approach the uncharted waters of my summer with optimism rather than reluctance. Seeing that my interactions with the names I now carry around in my notes all happened by chance, I walk around Belgrade knowing that at any moment I could be strolling past someone I never want to forget.
Now that I’m approaching the end of my sojourn in Belgrade, it’s amusing to reflect on how I found the strangeness in what is usually familiar, the familiarity in what is usually strange, and the comfort in both.