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I've Arrived! First Impressions of Serbia

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

How many times have you flown to a country that you know close to nothing about?

How many times have you traveled completely alone with valuables and a stranger is going to pick you up at the airport?


I was bleary-eyed, as I usually am when I have been traveling. The excitement of the trip and then the excitement of looking out the window means I usually don't sleep at all.

#usfreediving #klm the beautiful rich, fertile farmland of Serbia

The first hilarious realization that 'Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore' was...

when the plane parked. Everyone started to get up and gather their things until the pilot came back over the intercom and asked everyone to sit down again. Apparently, the gates in Serbia do not extend to meet the plane, they are fixed in place and he parked too far away for it to connect so we need to push back again and park closer...xD xD xD

My first thoughts walking through the airport in Serbia were: 'Whoa, that's a tall dude. ...Oh wow, there's another. ...OK. That's three tall guys in under three minutes."
And not only were they tall, but they were slim!

Living in Spain makes you feel like you are living in Munchkinland - people are markedly shorter and very petite. I can easily go over an entire year without seeing someone over 6ft tall and I, at 5'10, TOWER over the majority of them.

(When you touch down in the US you also immediately sense that the general height of the people around you has gone up, but the width of our generally big-boned and heavy-set population is what is immediately more shocking and attention-grabbing. Holy cow "I see obese people" is the feeling. That's blunt, but spend some time outside the US and then you'll see what I mean.)

In Serbia there were tall, healthy people EVERYWHERE, and everyone was so fashionable and smelled good and so well-groomed!

I guess I had expected some Soviet era early 90's fashion vibe that just simply was not there.

Now the nerves started to kick in because I didn't know where I was supposed to go. "I wonder if they will have sent someone to the airport and if they know that I have arrived" - type thoughts were running through my head. Suddenly, a see a familiar sight coming around the baggage claim belt: a monofin case - a tell-tale sign there are other freedivers around.

I felt like a customs officer waiting to catch whoever picked up that suitcase.

Turns out, the Danish team had also just arrived and we made our way out of the secure area.

A man carrying the World Championship sign pointed his finger at my chest and said "USA?" and then took us out to the nicest Mercedes that I have ever seen with this fast-back model roof line that sloped so slickly to the back of the car. It was hilarious to watch the driver try to fit all our stuff in the 'trunk' which was clearly not meant to actually transport any sizable amount of luggage.

As we drove through downtown Belgrade, I was surprised by how new and shiny all the buildings were. "Yes, everything here bombed to ground...we rebuild. 20 years ago bombed to ground." Gulp. He's referring to the US-led NATO bombing of then Yugoslavia in 1999, and I'm hoping now there's not still hard feelings! And right on cue his phone rings and he answers through the car's speaker system. There is another man on the phone and all I can understand is '...........american............american.' So clearly, my mind starts racing to some sort of crazy hostage situation!

OK. DO NOT PANIC! I'm telling myself, but... that was the end of the story. He dropped me off at the hotel without incident. The World Championship organizer came over to me immediately and grabbed my hand with both her hands and tell me how proud she was to have the Americans here and participating for the first time in history. She extended a personal welcome and said that she would do whatever she could to make sure my stay was comfortable.


It was all new, the credentials, traveling to a foreign country to compete, staying in the official hotel where divers from all different countries were hanging out in the lobby...there was a certain air of race horses raring to get out of the gates, but in our case it was people raring to relax, raring to find that peace and go into a deep meditative state.


Diary entry:

'It does have a certain old-school vibe. It felt like stereotypical eastern European food with lots of stewed meats and gravy, heavy pasta dishes, and cream on the salads. Surprisingly, they did have olive oil available and I wonder if this is a luxury item or relatively common. Soup was served with every meal regardless of the fact that it is summer and a blistering 95 degrees.

Some days we were served rice pilaf, other days they gave us potatoes baked with paprika butter sauce. Mashed potatoes that had the life whipped out of them until the point that they were as silky and liquid as half-melted ice cream. Paprika and cream/butter dominate the cuisine that we were given at the hotel - which is expressly cooked for the athletes to be 'healthy' and provide clean energy.

For protein we got breaded or grilled chicken, Salisbury steaks, hamburger patties and even steak one day.

Dessert was DELICIOUS local fruit...there are no words for the succulent-ness and how flavor-packed the fruit was.

Belgrade sits on a strategic point at the meeting of two rivers (the Danube and the Sava) and the temperature is sweltering and humid. It feels like sauna air. And there is so much water in the air that you can be outside with the sun reigning down and having it feel like an inferno but you don't burn! We arrive at the pool dripping after walking from the hotel 6 blocks away and inside the pool stadium there is no air conditioning so you have to rely on some piece of paper to fan yourself or to sit near a fan.

Modern sports facilities and high-end cars are everywhere, mixed with a tram and bus system that looks like it is from the Soviet-era 50's.

The view of the pool complex from the hotel with the Danube in the background.

Tram lines strung over the main street, lined with Soviet-style buildings.

The people are really big and strong, they're well-dressed, and perfumed. Weird as my observation may be: the men aren't they have very little body hair. As you walk through the streets everyone is smiling and kind and welcoming.

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