1. Be surprised. Ideally, you’ll wake up one morning to an innocuous-looking email from Air Serbia informing you that your itinerary has been changed. You will skim it, expecting to see a flight number switched or a terminal swapped out. And instead, you will realize that your flight has been cancelled, and that your new flight leaves a whole day later than the flight you were supposed to take. And even though you will call Air Serbia and mention the unacceptability of the entire situation, you will hear their shoulders shrug on the other end of the shabby connection as they tell you there’s really nothing they can do, and you will say, “Well, I guess I’m going to Belgrade.”
2. Leave no stone unturned. Insist on being put up in a nice hotel that’s walking distance from the city and has a complimentary airport shuttle. And when you get to the hotel, open all the tiny bottles on the bathroom counter – the shampoo and conditioner, the body wash and lotion, the shower cap and lavender-scented pillow spray – and claim them as yours, as payment for accrued inconveniences.
3. Be brave. Don’t linger over the soaps. Leave. Sling your backpack over your shoulder and grab a map (yes, a paper map because chances are very good that your phone will be about to die) from the front desk along with verbal directions into the city. Listen and nod and understand the uselessness of this endeavor because you are already well-acquainted with your inability to hold more than two directional instructions in your head at one time.
Step through the revolving doors. You are responsible for you and only you. What is it that brings you joy? To pause on a bridge over the Danube, feeling the tenderness of the setting sun on your skin, the cool breeze of early spring with its promise of softer days? Linger there. Look at the long stretch of river and think of the other cities you and it have passed through: Budapest, Vienna, Ulm.
4. Practice purposelessness. Don’t think too much about whether to turn left or right or to go straight. Pursue an interesting flash of color or a pretty shop window or a cobbled street thinly stretching up. You are a flâneur, whose only job is to watch and walk. Follow the flow of foot traffic and find a charming pedestrian street peppered with bookshops and outdoor bars; veer away from the crowd to meander a cramped lane lined with dusty doors and smooth-worn stones.
5. Treat yourself. Now that you have walked, and the sun is so low, the rise of buildings lulls life at street-level into an early dusk, you will hear your belly begin to grumble and know it’s time to dine. You’ve walked some lengths of the city, perhaps cast your eye on an interesting-looking place. The one with the outdoor tables and the pretty menu card and the canopy of umbrellas and soft yellow lights. Sit where you have the best view – to watch other diners, the waiters, the clean choreography of a restaurant at dinnertime.
First, order wine. Try something new, and if you can, something that tastes like the place where you are. Perhaps it will be a natural wine from the Serbian countryside that reminds you of another place, another trip, of Georgia and the wines that tasted like wet fruit. If, by now, you are tired of watching, you can let your memories occupy your time, or you can pull out a little notebook and practice describing the wine in ridiculous ways. Aleksić (kardaš): A first parching dryness that gives way to sweet fruit and a mineral gasoline quality – like smoke that lingers just beneath your eyelids or a wet field of hay that’s soaked up a day’s worth of sun. As it ages, it mellows, losing its bone dryness and settling into its fruit like the full, round belly of a fat man.
6. When you eat alone, eat slowly. Don’t rush. Luxuriate in cutting small bites. In composing perfect forkfuls. First, a shopska salad: Ripe tomatoes and cold cucumbers, simply dressed with tart, white cheese. Then, a roast eggplant stuffed with tomato and bulgur grain and its own mashed insides. Last, skewered chicken livers tightly wrapped in a blanket of bacon and grilled over hot coals and crisp fried potatoes to soak up the grease. Pay attention to what you eat. Don’t read a book. Don’t look at your phone. And eat slowly, slowly. You have nothing but time.
7. Listen to the rhythm of the evening. It’s not yet quite late, but your body is tired and ready to try that lavender-scented pillow spray. Swallow the last sip of wine and ask for the check. Shrug your coat closer over your shoulders, tuck your scarf into the lapels. The night’s chill is here. For one slow evening, you have been your own companion. You feel still. Undistracted. It shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it is: you are enough. As you walk back across the Danube, now inky and glittering with the refraction of streetlamps, pause again and feel the fullness of needing nothing more than your feet, your mind, your mouth. Everyone else is still waiting for you.