Belgrade, Serbia Report of what it's like to live there - 09/01/15
Personal Experiences from Belgrade, Serbia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
This was my fourth posting with the State Department, and I've lived in seven overseas locations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
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?
There are currently no direct flights to Serbia (though Air Serbia has signed an Open Skies deal and plans on starting flights late 2015/early 2016). Common connections are through Frankfurt, Munich, and Istanbul. The trip is about ten hours.
3. How long have you lived here?
I lived there for three years from 2012 to 2015.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There are three main areas in which people live: in the city, in apartments near the US Embassy, and in houses in a diplomatic enclave. You can walk to work from the apartments and houses near the embassy. For those in the city and the diplomatic enclave, the commute time is about 20 minutes. Downtown housing is large, and all apartments have balconies (although some are better than others). The vast majority have parking in the building. Apartments have European-style appliances, and the houses have American-style. The downtown housing is all in great areas spread throughout the city. The closest embassy neighbor was a five-minute walk.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
For expats, groceries are cheap. I shopped almost exclusively at the fresh green markets. Produce is amazingly good and cheap, although it goes with the seasons. In winter there are potatoes and cabbage and carrots, and not much else. In summer the stalls overflow with beautiful berries and all kinds of fruits. There's a good selection of fish as well, which is surprising for a landlocked country. I ate salmon weekly (500g cost about $10). A liter of milk is about a dollar. More and more international foods were available by the time I left. You can buy many Asian ingredients, spices, and sauces in the grocery stores. Surprisingly, every few blocks there's a health food store with a large offering of tofu, spices, grains, etc.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Honestly, there is nothing I can think of. Like I said, more groceries than I expected were available. Everything else you can get through the DPO.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
The first McDonald's in the former Yugoslavia was opened in Belgrade, and it is still open. There's also KFC. Costa Coffee from the UK is plentiful. There's also a ton of Serbian/Balkan fast-food joints with grilled meats that are cheap and excellent. Bakeries are amazing and can be found on nearly every street. As mentioned above, there are tons of amazing restaurants in Belgrade, with new ones constantly opening. I never got bored of the food scene.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
In the suburbs there are mosquitoes in the spring/summer. I never saw any in the city.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO. But I did use the local Serbian post and had good experiences with it.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Nearly all those who work for American families charge 5 euro/hour. Most people hire either Serbs or Filipinas.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are relatively inexpensive. I used a private trainer who had his own gym. 12 sessions cost 200 euro.
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?
Their use is pervasive. Even if you get a dollar espresso, they will ask if you want to pay by credit card. Credit card payments are made table-side, so no worries about stealing or cloning. ATMs are everywhere and safe.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Serbs speak English very well. You can get by without knowing Serbian, though it is nice to know at least a bit. I communicated nearly solely in Serbian, and being able to do so greatly enhanced my experience. However, I don't think I ever went to a single sit-down restaurant that didn't have an English menu.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Public transportation is frequent, and most buses (if not all) accommodate wheelchairs. Sidewalks are wide in the main walking areas of town, but in smaller neighborhoods cars park on them.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
All public transportation is safe, affordable, and easy. Many android apps exist showing routes, times, etc. You can call ahead for a taxi (there's a large selection), and they usually arrive within three minutes. If you hail one on the road, though, you have a good shot at being ripped off. The taxi companies speak English, and some accept requests via text. Taxi rides are cheap: to/from the airport costs $15 - $20. Train travel is slow and not worth it.
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?
Smaller cars are best for city driving. Winter (or all-weather) tires are mandatory. Many people at the embassy drove Subarus.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It costs around $35/month. It wasn't so great, but it was generally pretty reliable. Connections were good enough for Netflix, Facetime, Skype, etc.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Post-paid plans through the embassy are super cheap. Bring your own phone, though. Good data connections.
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?
That depends on your skills, experience, etc. but it isn't easy. Some embassy jobs are available.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
People dress very casually outside of work. Men steer towards sweatpants much of the time. Women tend to be dressier. At the embassy it's business/business casual depending on your section. I wore jeans, shorts, tees, tanks and sweaters on weekends.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Special? No. This is honestly the place I've felt safest. I walked around at all times of day and night by myself and never had any problems or felt unsafe. It was wonderful. There were a couple of break-ins in the suburbs, but no one got injured. Random violence is very infrequent.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is fairly good. Dentists are very good and cheap.
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?
I thought it was just fine. Other people complained a bit, but I really had no problems.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
There are four seasons, so people with allergies will suffer. But every pharmacy will sell you medicine.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's the Balkans. Summer can be really, hot and winter can be really cold. There were three mild winters when I was there, and it only snowed a handful of times.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. 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. Many people sent kids to a preschool in their neighborhood in the suburbs and were satisfied.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There is a very large international community. The morale in the embassy was pretty great - everyone loved living in Belgrade.
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?
Everything! Going out to dinner or a bar or club, philharmonic, opera, ballet, theatre, movies, mall, etc. Travel, travel, travel.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think it's a great city for everyone. As a single woman I loved it. My friends with kids also loved it. It's more of a family post than I expected, considering the fact that Belgrade touts itself as a great nightlife destination in Europe. Everyone can find something to do in Belgrade.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
On paper, Serbia is extremely homophobic. The vast majority believe homosexuality is wrong, according to polls. That said, there is a gay scene, and it is not underground. While it is small, there are several gay bars and clubs - all easily googleable. As a queer woman, I never encountered any problems. All my local friends were gay, and there are frequent parties for men and women. A Pride Celebration was successfully held in 2014, after four years without one. As Serbia moves closer to the EU, governmental attitudes are changing a bit. It isn't Barcelona or Berlin, but considering that it is a deeply religious country in the Balkans, I was pleased with the community and my experiences there.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Again, on paper, Serbia is anti-semitic. But I never encountered any problems as a Jewish woman. Serbs are definitely curious about people of color, but I didn't hear of any racially-motivated incidents, harassment, or racism towards Westerners (the same cannot be said of the Roma population, however).
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Just enjoying the city. It's a beautiful place and is fantastic to live in. There aren't many tourist spots to check out in Belgrade, but daily life is just wonderful. As aforementioned, the food really is great. Both street food (grilled meat can be gotten for less than $2) and high-end international restaurants (dinners with appetizers, mains, desserts and alcohol can cost around $30) are fabulous. Cafe culture is huge in Belgrade, and the second the sun comes out the sidewalks are filled with people enjoying a coffee all day long. Every block has a salon, pharmacy, and market. Life in Belgrade is just easy and comfortable.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Find a local favorite bar and coffee shop and make friends with the staff there. Cycling has really increased in the last few years, and biking along the riverbanks is great fun. There's a beach at a man-made lake within the city limits that's great to hang out at in the summer. Wander the neighborhoods. Belgrade is a fantastic city for wandering. Tour the wineries around the country and visit the eco-hotels.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Liquor. There really isn't much in the way of Serbian souvenirs.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
For those living on foreign salaries, Belgrade is a very inexpensive city. The food is fantastic. The city is large enough to have a lot to offer, yet small enough to easily maneuver - I walked or biked everywhere. Traveling within Serbia and elsewhere is cheap and easy. When Air Serbia partnered with Emirates they greatly extended their network. They have sales several times a week, and you can fly to many European cities for around 100 euros with these sales. You can drive to many places in four hours, including Zagreb and Budapest.
10. Can you save money?
Not if you travel all the time. Otherwise, yes.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
In a heartbeat. I loved Belgrade, and I miss it all the time.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
preconceptions about Serbs and Serbia. Some stereotypes are true, but many are not. Go in with an open mind, make local friends, and have a great time.