18th October 2019 Belgrade, Serbia
It’s a beautiful October day as I write. As I sit in my Belgrade garden I see clouds of newly hatched late ladybirds, the first yellow leaves shaken by a mild breeze, warm weak sunshine and distant haze. Around me the hum of urban life is punctuated by hammering and bursts of drilling from nearby building sites.
This is the first chance that I have had to sit and reflect upon my first month in a new home, a new city, and a new role as UK Ambassador to Serbia.
I have travelled widely as a diplomat for over thirty years, but my first visit to Belgrade was as a music student crossing Europe by train sleeping in stations, on beaches, with an old rucksack and a very small tent on my back. I remember the fields of sunflowers, the buses and the cobble stones of Skadarlija. This summer I set out again by train from my home corner of rural England, heading for a region that I by now also knew both from travelling around whilst a diplomat at the OSCE in Vienna as well as books, music and films shared with me over the years by friends and colleagues from Serbia and the wider region.
(One of those books, Ivo Andric’s Days of the Consuls is perhaps greatest study of the human side of diplomacy ever written – and I will be eternally grateful to the Serbian colleague who gave it to me. It is top of my list when I am asked for books to recommend to new Foreign Office ministers.)
I have though, never lived before in Belgrade. So I have a lot to learn. Language, names, faces – even bus numbers and road names. Of course there are lots of friendly people at hand to help. I am especially grateful to the staff at the our Embassy and Residence, and to the MFA diplomatic protocol team for their patience and advice.
My first six weeks have been a whirl of activity. The President, Prime Minister and most senior member of the Government have all been generous with their time. I have visited Parliament, met the Patriarch, senior military and police officers, museum curators and theatre directors, business people, civil society organisations, community leaders and media editors. I have drunk tea with artists, artisans and architects. I have laid wreaths in ceremonies commemorating British and Yugoslav lives lost in two world wars, and put on my Wellington boots to plant an oak tree in memory of one of Belgrade’s best known British residents. Everyone that I have met, from the country’s political and spiritual leaders to the youngest nursery school child has greeted me with a kind smile and a warm welcome.
But this is only the start. Diplomacy is rarely plain sailing. There will be times ahead when the everything goes smoothly, and there may be times when the waters are a bit choppier. Our Governments in London and Belgrade will have much to agree about – and we will have some differences. My professional ambition is build a stronger, forward-looking relationship between our countries so that we can work together and make the most of our common interests, and talk about any differences as honest friends. My personal one is to see as much of the country as possible, meet as many people as possible – and to have fun. Hopefully I will achieve both ambitions.
For now I have just one word to sum up my experience so far: hvala!