It was around 10:30 A.M. and nearly 100° when I arrived in Valjevo from Belgrade. Despite the relatively early bus (9 A.M) and the late night I experienced in Belgrade, I found myself entirely unable to sleep during the journey. This was completely unusual for me. It was not because the lady sitting beside me was particularly fascinating (she didn’t say a word to me the entire trip) and not because the scenery wasn’t particularly beautiful (it really all looked the same after the first mile). In retrospect I believe the lack of sleep foreshadowed the impending miserable disappointment of a day I was about to experience.
After getting off the bus, I walked across the street from the station and sat on small bench beside my bag and comically large 1.5 liter bottle of Aqua Viva (which I would later have to cut in half to refill). I stared entirely too long at a screenshot of a map of Valjevo which I had taken before I left Belgrade in order to acquaint myself with my surroundings before I began the grueling 1 km hike to the school house. The email instructions indicated that students taking part in the program should arrive at the school house between 12:00 pm and 10:00 pm to meet with our host families. However, since I arrived an hour early, I did what I knew my grandfather would do in this situation and sat outside what I thought was the schoolhouse and refreshed myself with a beverage (the comically large bottle of water) while I waited for the appropriate time to enter the schoolhouse.
Due to the extreme heat – and my acute awareness of a swarming mound of ants I unwittingly chose to sit next to – this hour felt as if it would never end. To top things off, because this street and its sidewalk were so narrow, I was mere feet away from every passing car whose driver behaved as if it were on a divine mission to prove every negative Serbian stereotype. This wait also allowed me to witness a proper Serbian wedding train. This involves a parade of some twenty or thirty cars (of which no less than 50% are required to be Yugos) driving around town with Serbian flags held out the windows and some sort of wedding favors fastened to the dashboard. To alert everyone of the holy union the drivers blared their car horns until exhaustion, either through mechanical failure of the automobile (it is a Yugo after all) or through the limits of human patience and endurance. This train lasted longer than the hour I waiting and made multiple laps through the city.
Just when I thought I couldn’t sit in the hot sun for another minute, I noticed it was finally time for me to enter the schoolhouse. Of course, the moment I waited for would only arrive after I discovered the fact that I had been waiting outside the wrong building the entire time. After knocking on three wrong doors, which all went unanswered, I finally encountered a stranger in a back ally which kindly directed me to the correct address. Thankfully, the schoolhouse was nearby and I was able to quickly arrive at the correct building where I would meet with the program director. This is when I discovered that my time in Valjevo would be nothing at all as I had anticipated.
After pleasantries the director took me on a brief tour of the schoolhouse and showed me to my room. That’s right, room. As in there was no host family (I would later find out that there never were any host families). I immediately noticed that the entire building was very much still under construction. I must admit that the lack of a host family was quite a bit more than a disappointment as it was a very large part of the reason I chose this particular program. The other reason I chose this program was that, in the past, I attended a different program in Belgrade through this same organization. My previous experience with this organization was a positive and honest one, so being blind-sided in this way came as quite a surprise. Despite this, the lack of WiFi in our rooms, and the brutal lack of any sort of climate control, the facilities were new, clean, and for the most part more than accommodating. Because of the aforementioned reasons, I decided to reduce the duration of my stay from my planned six weeks to only three.
After settling into my room I immediately attempted to sleep. Because of the heat, it would have been unbearable to try to do anything else. To anyone who would have happened upon me that afternoon, I might have appeared to be as a very large, hairy, fleshy starfish with each sweaty limb splayed out, soaking wet, writhing about on the bed in search of the coolest, driest possible location. This turned out to be a wholly impossible endeavor. I remained in this awkward state of being, awake and counting the laps of the wedding train, for much of the day which served to delay my meeting with any of the other students. It would not be until I bought myself a small fan a couple days later that I would sleep comfortably.