When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I always wanted to travel, and I thought of being an ambassador or a diplomat, traveling around the world. That was the idea. I was thinking about political science and international relations, and then I had this discussion with my parents. They said, “You know what, whatever you want to do we're fine with. It's just that the majority of diplomats we know actually studied something else, and they just speak languages and are very outgoing and understand international relations from another perspective, but they always had careers in something else.” And that was when I thought I should consider law - it's a good step to that.
Being a diplomat never happened, but I'm happy for that. I figured out that being a diplomat doesn't necessarily mean being immersed in a local culture. It actually means staying away from the local culture, while very carefully preserving the political stance that you represent, and I don't think that fancy receptions in different embassies are something that I would love to attend for the rest of my life.
How did you decide to attend the University of Belgrade?
It's the best law school in the country, but it's also the one that's close by. When I enrolled, it was very new for me. I was always a good student so I knew that I was going to make my way, but I felt a bit lost. A majority of the kids around me had lawyers in their families and they were familiar with the terms of lawsuits and the process and stuff like that, and my knowledge of all that was American movies. It was not really authentic to what the Serbian legal system was. In the first year, it took quite a bit of adapting, but I had a really good attitude about it and I did really well in the exams in the first year.
There are 1,700 students when you enroll in the first year, and only around 500 who graduate in four years. After the first year, the professors know you, people just presuppose you're a good student, and you can sort of a getaway with enjoying your life a bit. Once you pass the threshold, a lot of things become easier.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I graduated in four and a half years, and I did a summer academy at The Hague Academy of International Law, which is the oldest running summer academy in the world. I did courses in both private and public international law to determine where I wanted to go from there. And I had gone on a few interviews for some law firms before I went there, so after I returned I started being a trainee lawyer.
I was interested in arbitration and mediation, and I worked for the biggest law firm in the region. It was a job that I wanted, but it was quite stressful. After two years of doing that, I was just stressed - I almost got an ulcer, and I fainted in front of a building. My parents said, maybe you should consider slowing down before we have to take you to surgery. So I did. There was an opening at the university, and I applied, and I got through.
I [teach] private international law, pretty much what I did at the law firm, which is good because the students get the added value of having someone who actually practiced that before I started teaching, which doesn't necessarily always happen in law school. I've been to court over 200 times, so when I talk about cases with students, I've actually written lawsuits and appeals and appeared in front of a judge. I've been through the experience that awaits them, so I do it with more of a practical perspective in mind. I try to give students an insight as to how to frame their way of thinking when it comes to a case, how to separate important stuff from unimportant stuff, how to be able to formulate a good argument that fits with the facts that you have, and teach them that every situation can be looked at from at least two different sides.
In 2014, I took a year’s sabbatical [from teaching] to study in England. I did my second master's, my LLM, at the University of Cambridge. I got a scholarship for that, a very prestigious one. My education was paid for by the Queen - that's how I like to say it [laughs].
So that was a really good year off from my university career; I met some amazing people, and had the whole Harry Potter experience in a Cambridge bubble with some super smart people. It's a really good hub to get to know people who will shape the world in the years to come. And then, you have the perks of sitting under the tree where Isaac Newton had an apple fall on top of his head, or sitting in a courtyard where Francis Bacon wrote poetry. And I met Stephen Hawking at a dinner at the college. There is so much history there, and as a student it's a part of your daily thing. It's very prestigious even for the UK, but for somebody coming from Serbia it's a lot.
I pursued studies in private international law, because one of the top professors in the world actually teaches at Cambridge. And I did something that was completely out of my [comfort zone], the economics of law. I really wanted to do at least one topic that was going to profoundly challenge me, that I had no idea about. And that was very hard, but it was beneficial. Certain law concepts were not as clear to me from a socio-economic perspective as they are now. And then I did the law of the World Trade Organization, which is something that's going to be important in the future, and it just makes sense to keep up with trends. It was a good year. A lot of dinner parties.
Now I'm at a point where I'm questioning whether or not it's worth it to stay at the University under the terms as they are. I’ve been teaching since 2011, and I’m pursuing a PhD degree, and I enjoy it very much. Working with students as an exchange of energy is amazing. But a career in a university also requires a lot of tactics, and a lot of political maneuvering, and a lot of saying "I do" when you don't, and a lot of not saying anything when you really feel like you should. University of Belgrade still struggles with a lot of academic freedom. Hopefully future generations will change [that]. My contract expires in two years, so I have two more years to figure out how I want to position myself.
Tell me about how you started the Gastro Balkan food tours.
Thanks to Cambridge, believe it or not. When I was at Cambridge, there was a real culture of fine dining. Every college takes pride in preparing certain types of food and they would organize fancy dinners every week. And there are 31 colleges, so pretty much any given day of the [week], there was at least one formal dinner you could go to, full black tie and everything.
There were a number of people who were foodies. One of my classmates in the LLM program, Mike, is a proper chef. We talked about food all the time. One time, he had a 12-hour layover in Belgrade, and he said, “You need to show me all the good stuff that you've been telling me about.” So I took him on a tour. We had a cab drive us from one restaurant to another, and I said, “We're gonna try this here, and then another place we're gonna try that, and at the third restaurant we’ll get this meat, and at the fourth restaurant we're gonna go for some other meat.” I bought these macarons and made him a goody bag for the airport.
When we talked about it later, he said, “You really need to make this into a concept. This is something that should be available to people. And I said, “Whenever you have friends coming over, I would love to take them around.” And he said, “No, you should really make this into a business concept.”
Back in the day I thought, “I teach at a University. I'm not a food blogger.” I didn't think it was incompatible with my university career. But I was so wrong. Food has always been one of my passions. Showing people around Belgrade has always been a passion; I'm very proud of my city.
[Mike] would call me every few days to check. “What did you do? Do you know the name of the blog?” And after a month I said, “Okay, stop pestering me.” I came up with the name Gastro Balkan, and I bought a domain and thought, “Okay, now I need to build a website.” And I literally Googled "how to build a website."
It took me six months to learn how to manage WordPress. I had a regular job, so I wasn't fully dedicated to that, but every day I would discover bits and pieces. I did the initial designs, I did photography, I made a website, and a year later I randomly found, in a café, the first group of people to go on a tour.
They were looking for recommendations of where to go and what to eat. I took them to a few places, and I told them “Eat this. Try that. Ask for an extra scoop of ice cream on top of this cake.” And they loved it. I had five eager foodies on the first tour, and that was a year and a half ago. That's how it kick-started. And we’ve had over 150 people on the tour to this day.
It's not a food tour, it's a foodie tour. It's really perfect for people who are very passionate when it comes to food, and want to explore the city in a different way. And it's an insider's view because the restaurant owners or chefs, they come over, they say hi. It's something that, for me, is my small contribution to the world. If I keep doing that, and it keeps growing and getting better, I’ll be a happy person.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think what's really important is for people who have a gift for doing certain things, that are not necessarily a vocation, nurture that. I was always really good at writing and I was always really good at painting and I was always very crafty. And I preserve that by doing some art on the side, nothing on a professional level. If you have a creative side, never neglect that because it could actually be a source of not just inspiration and solace, it's also something that can help improve your business, and connect with people who have the same knack for details or architecture or photography or whatever it is, design, painting, music, it doesn't matter. So if you have a passion like that, keep it always. Don't neglect that part of yourself.
At one point in time, I forgot about my creative side. But when I was at Cambridge, I actually learned to love myself again for all the good stuff that I am. Everybody there is exceptional in terms of how they study, so that’s a given. So everything else that you are really matters. I have a really good sense of humor, and I love doing arts and crafts and that kind of stuff, and that really contributed to bonding with people there. And, it's not about being unique, but it's giving your unique perspective of something that you really like. If you can manage to do that, and then relate to other people while you're doing that, it will all work out.