We arrived in Novi Banovci, our driver indicating in broken English that we were in the middle of nowhere. Although we were only thirty minutes drive from Belgrade, and we were in the municipality of Belgrade, Novi Banovci was a very rural town. We pulled up to the broken fence where our one of our Airbnb hosts was patiently waiting for us.
We were swarmed by mosquitos at the front door, while he unlocked the house. We knew that we had booked a six bedroom place right on the Danube river that could could comfortably house fifteen people. But the description left out a few other “small” details.
The air inside was stale. It smelt like the place hadn’t been opened up in months. All the outdoor shutters on the windows were closed, making the place very dark. Our host showed us the massive living area that contained two lounges, two dining areas and a spacious kitchen. The heat in the house was intense, adding to the stuffiness. And something else was amiss… but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
He carried on with the tour, taking us upstairs the first landing where there was a full bathroom and two double bedrooms. They were completely dank and creepy. We moved upstairs to the main second level. Some rooms were locked, which didn’t help the eerie feeling we were already getting from the place, and he didn’t know where they key was for them.
He showed us the master bedroom which was so huge it had a massive lounge suite on it. The best part was the view looking over the Danube River through floor to ceiling glass windows. We didn’t realise the glass would cause us some inconvenience later and that this room would become our haven. There were a bedroom next door to us that had an ensuite and a bedroom behind us that was stagnant and dark. He quickly moved us back downstairs and then oriented us with regards to nearby amenities before taking off. Even now I wonder if he sensed the strange energy in the house.
That first day I struggled to be in that place. I went round the house opening up all the shutters to let light in to every possible room. One of the bedrooms had to remain in darkness because the shutter couldn’t be unlocked. I initially thought I would open all the windows to allow fresh air in, but then realised I was letting in mosquitoes. Being by the river, with regular rains and intense heat, created perfect conditions for mosquitoes to flourish. The house was surrounded with them.
I dusted all the cobwebs around the house, and there were plenty. Each window had dead insects as well as cobwebs that needed to be cleared before I felt comfortable opening them up so that I could open up the outside shutters. Even the doors had cobwebs. The kitchen was the worst. There were cobwebs in cupboards, on shelves and even on the floor. Just to be able to use the house for the night required a big clean up.
The next step was to unlock all the doors so that the house didn’t feel like some kind of haunted house. All of this helped to make the house more liveable. The air was a bit fresher. But it still wasn’t feeling better.
As evening closed in around 8pm, I went around closing windows and curtains. And then the darkness set in. Now the place felt real creepy. I refused to be on my own in any room. None of my kids felt comfortable being alone in any room.`I decided it was better to close doors of rooms that felt creepier than others.
We all decided we would be more comfortable sleeping in the one room. And decided that it wasn’t a creepiness thing. It was simply that there was only one air conditioner upstairs and the house was already uncomfortably hot. We couldn’t reasonably expect the kids to sleep in their own rooms, suffocating in the heat.
I went to use the toilet, in the middle of the night, in the ensuite of the huge bedroom next door, which was the nearest toilet and noticed the light was on. The light switch was all the way by the balcony door. As I turned it off I noticed two paintings, designed to look like the famous painting “Scream”, hanging on the wall. That didn’t help the tingling down my back like some kind of ickiness was trying to grab me. I decided to leave the light on. In fact, I began leaving lots of lights on at night.
A few nights on, the scariness didn’t go away so we avoided drinking water late at night so that we didn’t have to use the loo in the night, when everyone else was sleeping.
At 4am daylight hit the skies. There were no curtains on the windows. As soon as the light hit my eyes, my biological rhythms told me it was time to wake up. I struggled to go back to sleep. By 6am the room was warming up, in spite of the air conditioner running full blast. That’s because the sun was rising and it’s rays were blasting us. Turns out, that was actually really wonderful. It meant watching a gorgeous pink sunrise.
We did get used to the light streaming in, but often I would wake up anyway, just to watch the spectacular view. And it was spectacular. Every sunrise, clouds or no clouds, was glorious to see.
Problem after problem seemed to come at us in this house. We found the kitchen sink blocked up every time we used it. We had the plumber in twice and all they didn’t pull anything out that should have blocked the sink. We didn’t have bath towels. One bath tub was so awkwardly positioned it was unusable without bumping into something. The other bath tub wasn’t connected to drainage so it spilled out onto the floor when we turned the tap on. And then we realised the other two showers were leaking so badly it was damaging the walls downstairs. The toilets downstairs would reek whenever it began to warm up because the plumbing was too shallow.
On one night, we had our family over for a few nights. All the kids were in one bedroom and a storm hit. In the middle of the night the roof began leaking and they had to rearrange all their bedding so that they wouldn’t get wet.
There was a creepy side to the town we were in. People weren’t “happy”. I know happiness is a relative term with no specific measurement, but there was something about the vibe of the people that was unsettling on first arrival. People were friendly and they would often greet us when we passed them by, as is common in small towns. But there seemed to be an underlying sadness. I didn’t know what it was but I did have some encounters.
One chap came over and we chatted in broken English, German and with hand gestures about how he had fled his seaside home in Croatia. He had retired at 50 and was forced to find a home in Serbia. His lifestyle had reduced dramatically and he is carrying the pain of leaving everything and starting again.
We also learnt about the mass Albanian graves that were found when international investigators visited Serbia to find out what had happened in the Albania-Serbia war. One of the mass graves in Batanica a ten minute drive from our town, was dug in the army base to try to hide the bodies from the investigators. They had been burnt so that the people’s identities would be unrecognisable.
The political landscape is uninspiring too. A lack of good infrastructure is evident everywhere, healthcare is poor, buildings are still scarred with NATO bombings, nationalism is rife, the political leader is more tyrannical than democratic, and misinformation in mainstream media is as common as in America. Could all these factors play a role in Serbia’s “happiness” levels?
Everyday I went around the house with my two little ones blessing the house. I used every trick I’d learnt ranging from Catholicism, hippie-ism, new age-ism and whatever else I thought would work. I looked like some kind of voodoo witch doctor. But I didn’t care. Even if it was psychological, I began feeling better in the house. Nearly comfortable enough to go to the loo at night. And definitely comfortable to be alone in any room during the day. And I thought that was a huge improvement.
This post really is a way of me venting about how crappy that airbnb booking was. And how strange the vibe in Serbia is compared to other European countries we have visited. But! There was a reason we booked it. It was very spacious. That was great during the day when we were comfortable sprawling out. There was a craft room for the little two. There was plenty of rooms for privacy when we wanted to make a call without background noise. There was space for a dedicated school work table. Kenzo and Lui were able to exhaust themselves from running around the living area, which was massive. We all got to sleep in one room, Samoan styles, with mattresses on the floor, and everything! That meant chatting til late or watching movies in bed or just hanging out together in one room. Often at night we would star gaze. On stormy nights we would watch the lightening strike on the other side of the river or light up the whole sky.
The most amazing part was the gorgeous green forest on the other side of the river and the river itself. Kenzo and Lui loved seeing all the unique river boats that passed by. I enjoyed watching the sun rise over the river while doing yoga or before my meditation. And at any given time of day, it was peaceful to sit and watch logs or boats float by.
By the end of our stay, the only thing that I found super scary about our house, were the mosquitos that would attack us as we leave or enter the front door. It rains a lot near Belgrade. And it’s super hot. Plus we were by a river. The combo was perfect for blood sucking mosquitoes, especially during the evening. Our front door was surrounded by lush greenery, and that also attracts mosquitoes. By the end of our stay I was super glad that they only thing I had to worry about were the mosquitoes.