Serbia | The Ceremony

I spent a few nights in Belgrade doing not much of anything – I had a decent amount of work to catch up on, so while Jack went out exploring, I stayed in the air-conditioned hostel common room and tapped away at my laptop. Or at least… I tried to. It’s hard to tap away at your laptop when you’re in a hostel: my attention span is hot garbage when I’m in a silent, empty room, let alone a busy dining space with backpackers cooking noodles and comparing accents.

On our third night in Belgrade together, Jack and I had some beers to say farewell. Our time together had drawn to an end; he was due to wander off into the mountains to go wild camping the next morning. We drank bottles of beer and rakia, the spirit everybody chugs in the Balkans, and by 11pm we were steaming. I stayed up late speaking to a Dutch couple about all sorts: religion and death and nihilism and faith. The couple were cool; they’d made their way with bicycles down to the Balkans, from where they were undertaking a giant pedal-powered trip to Turkey.

The next day, Jack left. We’d spent eight days on the road together – the most time I’d spent with anyone on my trip. We’d become very comfortable together, and it was good to have someone around who I felt I knew properly, who I didn’t have to bother filtering my thoughts for. That said, our goodbye wasn’t a wildly emotional one; neither of us were under any illusions about travelling together for longer, and we’d known from the start that we’d only be travel partners for as long as it was convenient. Still, whenever you travel with someone for a few days and then part, you can’t help but feel glum and vulnerable for a while. You meet a stranger, you share a dozen wild adventures in a week, you share secrets you haven’t shared with people you’ve known years… and then you say goodbye and never see them again. It’s odd.

I worked through the day and cooked myself pesto pasta. Pesto is rare and super expensive in the Balkans, and I was craving it: there’s only so many kebabs and sausages a person can eat in a week. In the evening the Dutch couple invited me for dinner and drinks, but I politely declined because I was tired and didn’t want to booze. When they got back a couple of hours later they found me still in the same spot, sipping a tea outside. We sat together and chatted some more, and when I eventually yawned and declared I was heading up to bed (I booked a private room for one night for €20, sheer luxury), Anton, the man, told me they had a gift for me.

“Oh, you don’t need to make so much of a ceremony out of it,” laughed his girlfriend , as she headed off to bed.

I sat alone while Anton jogged back to his room and re-emerged into the courtyard with a small book, which he placed on the table between us.

“While I was on a trip in Pakistan in 2019,” he told me, “I met a man named Ali. He was a very great and clever man, and I stayed with him at his place for several days. We had a lot of conversations about the subjects we talked about last night – philosophy, religion, right and wrong – and on the day I was leaving, he gave me this book. It’s called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, and Ali told me it changed his life. He gave it to me to read, and it changed my life too.”

He opened the book and showed me a passage written in pen on the inside cover. It read:

Bought on 27th May, 2018

Ali

Rawalpindi, Pakistan

Let this book travel the world and help those who read it find meaning. If you have received this book, it is because you have had a great conversation with the one who holds it. Let this journey start with my friend Anton. Thank you for the great conversation.

For Anton, 23rd Dec 2019

I found myself beaming as I read it.

“Ali told me that because it is very complicated for him to leave Pakistan, he wants this book to travel the world in his place,” explained Anton. “I would like to pass it on to you now, so you can read it and learn from it, and then you can pass it on to somebody else, and the chain will grow.”

I told him I was absolutely flattered and amazed. On the page over from Ali’s message, Anton wrote:

It was a pleasure meeting Dan. Thank you for our conversations and all the best for your next adventures!

For Dan 21st of July 2022

I said thank you many times over, and promised to find someone perfect to hand the book to after I’d read it. We hugged, both smiling, and I said goodnight. I lay in my bed that night, in my tiny, mercifully air-conditioned single room, and with my hands behind my head, I laughed. I felt golden.

On my last full day in Belgrade, I set out early to see what the city had to offer. I visited the St Sava Temple early in the morning; it was deeply beautiful, with an enormous glittering dome high overhead, adorned with colossal depictions of Jesus and saints – buuut it was built in the 20th century which kind of feels like cheating.

In the afternoon I checked out of my hostel as they were full for the evening. I therefore had to travel across the city in a taxi, to another hostel I’d found. It was witch-themed: incense burning, incantations on the walls, that sort of thing. The place was owned and run by two gay dudes, one Bosnian, one Serbian, who were very sarcastic and somehow very friendly at the same time. At one point, the older of the pair stepped out onto the hostel balcony and found me sitting with a lit cigarette.

“Ah,” he smiled, looking at me over his glasses. “So refreshing to see a young person smoking without feeling any guilt.”

For the sunset I set off to find Belgrade Fortress, from where you have brilliant views over the city and the point where the Sava River merges with the Danube in a big watery T junction. The sprawling fortress is pretty cool, although I felt a bit lonely watching all the couples with their arms around each other taking in the sunset. I sat by myself and pulled apart pieces of grass and watched the sun go down, seated on an old castle wall. I began to feel increasingly rotten, until with a sigh I had a word with myself to prevent myself spiralling into melancholy. I told myself it was fine and natural to feel lonely in my current situation, and that I’d be mad not to feel at least a little pang of sadness sometimes. Telling myself these things always makes me feel better, and within an hour I was okay.

That’s something I’ve gotten really good recently: while on the move, you’re up and down a lot, and you need to find a way to regulate that – a way that doesn’t rely on others. For me it’s writing. If I feel stressed out or confused or upset or anything else that’s a little too much, I just sit for thirty minutes and write down everything I’m feeling, stream of consciousness, no holds barred, no lying to myself. Often, just the act of articulating these things makes me feel better, and I’ve found that by doing this every couple of days, I can keep myself feeling clear-headed and relaxed enough to simply enjoy the present moment.

And things always turn around pretty quick anyway if you just hang in there. Back at the hostel, I met a nice French man and talked to him about books, then I watched a horror film with a witchy girl from Azerbaijan, and later went out for a drink with a Swiss-Serbian girl I met in the dorm. I went to bed feeling content, and excited for what the new day would bring.

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