What is home? As my plane broke through the clouds and I saw Belgrade spread out beneath me, red-roofed homes and concrete towers rising along the lazy curves of the Danube and the Sava, I realized that I was going to have to think about the answer for the first time in my life.
The longest time I have spent outside of North Carolina is ten days. I have traveled, sure, to California, New York, Costa Rica, France, but never stayed long. I went to summer camp in the mountains near Brevard and, of course, came to Duke for college—only two hours north of my lifelong home in Charlotte, NC. The air of my home state is in my blood, the skyline of my hometown as familiar as the back of my hand.
It will be strange, therefore, to spend this summer five thousand miles away from North Carolina, in a place where the air and architecture are unfamiliar and I understand only a handful of words of the language. I felt out of place when it took my fellow program members and me five minutes to figure out how to pay the bill at lunch on our second day. I felt out of place when I had to point at what I was ordering at a bakery because I could not even pronounce its name. In a way, I am the furthest from home that I have ever been.
And yet I have begun to realize that home is not only the place where you grew up, the place where you feel the most comfortable. Home is also a place where you don’t have to fill your days with tours and visits to museums because you have plenty of time to see them, opting instead to sit for an hour at a café with a book and a cup of coffee. Home is a place where, instead of going to a restaurant, you can enjoy a hearty meal of pasta prepared by your homestay mother. (It was delicious, too!)
Perhaps most importantly, home is a place where you can appreciate the people you meet for their own selves, for their own stories. When I am a tourist the people I meet become supporting characters in my life: a tour guide, a waiter, someone with whom I can practice my French. It is a different kind of experience to sit in my living room and talk about how my homestay mother celebrated Christmas discreetly as a child even though it was discouraged by the state, about how life changed—and how it didn’t—when Communism gave way to capitalism, about her son’s passion for ceramic artwork and her husband’s work in a traveling puppeteering troupe.
Of course, a week is too short a time for Belgrade to truly become a home. As I look forward to the rest of the summer, however, what excites me the most is the chance to make it into one. I want to have more late-night conversations, more hours soaking up the feeling of the city, more quiet nights listening to the rain outside my window as I fall asleep. I want to dive headfirst into the history and culture of this country, about which I knew next to nothing when I wrote my DukeEngage application last fall.
Over the next seven weeks, my fellow program members and I will record our time in Serbia on this page: our travels, our observations, our triumphs and failures. Hopefully, through it all, we will each find out what it means to call this city home.