My lasting impression of Serbia, is an unfortunate one. I will always remember it as the smoking capital of the world. I don’t know, statistically, if this is true but in my eyes everyone in Serbia appeared to be a chain smoker.
We arrived in Belgrade at the beginning of October, in the last couple of days of warm sunny weather that marked the end of the summer. Only a few days into the month there was a significant shift in the weather, the temperature plummeted and outdoor café lifestyle moved indoors. The confined indoor spaces suddenly exaggerated that consequences of breathing second-hand smoke. Walking into a café you would be welcomed by clouds of smoke, reminiscent of walking into an English pub during the 1990s but somehow much worse. Within 24 hours I could feel the effects of the cigarette smoke on my throat and knew that I was probably going to lose my voice. We were only a few days into the month at this point and I was starting to wonder how I was going to survive.
My first mission was to try to find a temporary escape, somewhere to eat without having to fill my lungs with the invisible poison. This proved much more difficult that I had possibly imagined. Every café or restaurant I found were either entirely smoking (proudly demonstrated by a large smoking sign on the door) or had a small no smoking section, with no separation from the smoking area. The large clouds of smoke had no way of knowing that it was intruding into a no-go area, rendering the no-smoking areas meaningless. At the start of the month it was still possible to eat outside. I changed my eating habits making sure that I ate early, during the warmer parts of day. But as the days progressed I realised that this was not going to be enough. I searched the internet trying to find places that were no smoking but with no luck.
I started to analyse why the situation was so bad. I had been to other countries where smoking was the norm but nothing prepares you to how bad it is in Serbia. Even the members of our group who smoked commented on how bad the second-hand smoke was. Definitely the weather had a lot to do with it – the effects would not have been anywhere near as bad if we could have been outside. But that was not all. Time and time again I watched people finish a cigarette only to instantly start the next: chain-smoking was common practice. Also the number of people smoking while walking around was incredible. Standing waiting to cross a road would result in being surrounding by smoke. And it is everyone – men, women and teenagers. In many other countries where it may be the norm to smoke it is often just men. In Serbia it was everyone. Walking past a school would find crowds of students outside puffing away.
Luckily I escaped from Serbia for 10 days while I travelled around Croatia and Bosnia. The break was a relief. Once back in Belgrade walking back to the apartment I could smell the smoke in the air. The temperature had dropped further in the 10 days I had been away and I was not sure I was going to get through the rest of the month. I even looked up the cost of a flight back to the UK just to find away to escape. Thankfully before I ran away I found a place I could breathe: a café called Red Bread.
During my month in Belgrade, Red Bread was the only café I found that was completely no smoking. And the food was good and healthy with a menu extensive enough that I could eat a varied diet. Essentially I moved in! The café was comfortable, had decent wifi and didn’t mind me sitting there for hours on end working away and tucking in to their delicious food. I’m not sure what I would have done without finding this little paradise in the middle of the smoking capital of the world. But on my last day I realised how lucky I had been. Red Bread had only decided to go smoke free a week or so before we arrived in Belgrade!
So thank you Red Bread for having the courage to go against the norm and making my time in Belgrade more pleasant. I’m not sure what I would have done without you.