Macedonia Square under construction

Skopje – New Alexandria

The proper words elude me as I attempt to adequately describe the capital of Macedonia (or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, for you Greeks out there).  ‘Strange’ is perhaps a gross understatement but then are so many other words I could prattle off:  beautiful, odd, magnificent, and misplaced.  However, I can definitively say that the people of Skopje are wonderful and friendly which is no exception for the Balkans.  Like the Bulgarians, Macedonians are gracious enough to entertain my mediocre Serbian and they maintain an active curiosity while doing so.

The central bus terminal
The central bus terminal

My first sight in Skopje was that of the bus station which was quite literally overshadowed by the train station considering there seems to be a six rail interchange about thirty feet above the main terminal supported only by massive concrete pillars.  I arrived at the hostel early in the afternoon and was delighted to discover I was not staying in another attic.  Instead, each of the bedrooms were delightfully decorated with Smurfs, Mickey Mouse, or with simple line characters.  Although it was dreadfully hot, the rooms were quite comfortable and the hosts were interesting to say the least.  Though my favorite part of this particular hostel, Hostel Backpackers, was the pair of filthy, malnourished, adorable kittens which resided on the property.  Watching them hungrily pounce on anything the other tenants happened to set on any surface was quite entertaining.

I began to explore the city the following day, fortunately the city is relatively compact as most of the main attractions were located upon the Vardar River near the center of the city.  Bordering upon excessive the exuberance of the city leaves one a little more than befuddled.  Within five

View of the Stone Bridge

hundred meters of the Macedonian square are no fewer than one hundred statues of significant historical Macedonian leaders, poets, playwrights, authors, or other artists significant to the nationalistic narrative being painted by the Macedonian government.

Aside from the statues, the extravagance of the public buildings and the main square begs a frugal person like me to wonder where they are getting the money to spend on such showmanship.  A German man I met in Ohrid a few days later compared the Skopje city center to that of Las Vegas with all of its excess situated in the middle of a desert.  I feel that this is a fair description considering once one leaves the center of the city one is greeted by what one would expect in the Balkans:  humble people and socialist era brutalist architecture.  Having said this, I think given the drive and ambition of the Macedonian government Skopje will soon be the home to one of the most impressive city centers in Europe.

The view of Macedonia Square and Mt. Vodno from the Stone Bridge
The view of Macedonia Square and Mt. Vodno from the Stone Bridge

In the distance, in the mountains, over the shoulder of the grandiose, yet not so ambiguously named “Warrior on a Horse” is located the irrational, out of place Millennium Cross dedicated to two thousand years of Christianity in the Balkans.  Brightly illuminated throughout the night, the sixty-six meter cross sits at the peak of the 1066 meter Mount Vodno and is clearly visible from most anywhere in the city.  Immediately upon seeing it, I had yet another stupid idea:  I will climb the mountain!

The next morning I awoke and it was quite hot as had become the norm.  Yet still I was undeterred.  After a small lunch I began to head towards the mountain on foot.  I won’t lie, I was mostly guessing where I should be heading to best approach the base of the mountain, but luckily my orienteering merit badge from Boy Scouts came in hand and I eventually came to the main trail at the foot of the mountain.  The first leg was 2.1 km at a 12% grade,

A small section of the trail up the mountain
A small section of the trail up the mountain

where upon it opened up to a picnic area complete with a lift to the top.  Being the stalwart adventurer that I am, I risked my physical comfort to attempt the so called 2.3 km “Olympic Path” at a 22% grade.  I’ll admit, the number of times I felt like dying was equal only to the number of steps I took through the hot humid forest.  Eventually, I did arrive safely at the peak and the gargantuan cross, the crisp mountain breeze, and the splendid view of the city and country side were my rewards.  I took the lift back down.

 

 

 


 

Statue of Alexander the Great on the Bridge of Civilizations
Statue of Alexander the Great on the Bridge of Civilizations
The Bridge of Art
The Bridge of Art
Kitten at the Backpackers Hostel
Kitten at the Backpackers Hostel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Across the Vardar
Across the Vardar
Macednia Square at night
Macednia Square at night
Statue dedicated to a Paeonian priestess in front of the Archaeological museum
Statue dedicated to a Paeonian priestess in front of the Archaeological museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Statues dedicated to the muses in front of what will be the national theater
Statues dedicated to the muses in front of what will be the national theater
I think this will eventually become a night club.
I think this will eventually become a night club.
Detail on one of the main bridges spanning the Vardar
Detail on one of the main bridges spanning the Vardar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Fishing on the Vardar
Fishing on the Vardar
Macedonia Square at night
Macedonia Square at night
The Warrior at Night
The Warrior at Night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Kale Fortress
Kale Fortress
A museum dedicated to Mother Theresa at the site of her birth
A museum dedicated to Mother Theresa at the site of her birth
Yet another fountain
Yet another fountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Warrior on Horseback
Warrior on Horseback
Soldiers protecting the Warrior on Horseback
Soldiers protecting the Warrior on Horseback
One of the occasions in which I felt like dying
One of the occasions in which I felt like dying
Tsar Samuel of the first Bulgarian Empire

So Far, So Good

After a particularly brutal pair of goodbyes taking place entirely too early on a Sunday morning at the Belgrade train and bus stations, I spent a particularly brutal six hours on a bus to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.  The ride itself was comfortable enough without any major complications other than I simply wasn’t entirely interested in going there.  I don’t hold any glaring grudges against Sofia, it was simply impossible to go where I had really wanted.

Breakfast at Hostel Nightingale
Breakfast at Hostel Nightingale

I arrived in Sofia around 6 PM and spent a few minutes acquainting myself with the screenshot I had saved on my phone which showed the location of my hostel, Nightingale, in relation to the central bus station before eventually making my way through Sofia’s back streets to arrive at my destination.  I made my way up the winding staircase to the hostel.  My ears were immediately greeted by the sound of loud metal music which was blasting from the hostel attendant’s desk.  I never caught the attendant’s name but every encounter with him left me somewhat bewildered as everything about him appeared to be hippy, but every action he took screamed metal.

My room was located directly under the roof and was shared with at least fifteen other beds.  I locked my belongings in my personal storage locker and spent the remainder of the evening relaxing in one of the common rooms, charging my phone, and talking over the internet to the friends I had just left behind.  The most interesting feature of the hostel, besides the attendant, was the fact that visitors often left behind phrases written on paper and taped to the hostel walls.  The one that drew my attention most turned out later to be from Stephen Hawkings, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”

Borisova Gradina Park
Borisova Gradina Park

I woke up early the next morning with a strange idea to do something stupid.  It was 95 degrees in Sofia and I wanted to go running.  So I did.  I found a very large park nearby which was connected to an even larger forest, each with trails perfect for running.  The forest was idyllic and devoid of any of the trash and graffiti I’ve come to expect from the Balkans.  I did not worry too much about it’s absence as I knew it would be waiting for me when I finished my run about an hour later.

After my run I treated myself to McDonald’s for the first time since my journey began which was located in an underground pedestrian bypass.  I then returned to the hostel and immediately fell back asleep.  Fortunately, when I awoke for the second time that day I had no such crazy notions as I had entertained the first time.  Instead, I simply put my shoes on and left to explore the city.  I immediately noticed that Sofia doesn’t feel at all like Belgrade.  The streets are too straight and make entirely too much sense.  The buildings seem more modern with their massive neon signs on their roofs advertising somewhat obtrusively and unaesthetically for a smorgasbord of American corporations.  Sure, Belgrade had a few of these signs, but they at least advertised a few of their own companies.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Sofia boasts some beautiful architecture and more than a few lovely monuments.  The most impressive of these is that dedicated to The Liberator Tsar.  There is also an eery looking statue of Tsar Samuel not too far removed from the crown jewel of Sofia, the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral dedicated to the fallen Bulgarians, Romanians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, and Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.  With the capacity to hold ten thousand people, this cathedral was constructed in the late 1800’s and is the second largest on the Balkan Peninsula after the yet incomplete Temple of St. Sava in Belgrade.

Aside from the architecture there are also several pedestrian shopping districts which were home to my favorite part of the city, the people.  Despite the amazing sights, my favorite experience in Sofia was interacting with the locals only in Serbian without them trying to speak back to me in English.  Likely they didn’t understand me very well and for the life of me I had no idea what they were saying, but it was nonetheless pleasant and painless.

My second day in Sofia was dedicated simply to a quick photo tour followed by catching up with these writings in a quiet cafe in which, much to the relief of the shopkeeper, I feel like I quelled what might have been a particularly violent student uprising.


 

Nevsky at Night
Nevsky at Night
Pedestrian district Zhensky Pazar
Pedestrian district Zhensky Pazar
Russian Orthodox Temple of St. Nikolay
Russian Orthodox Temple of St. Nikolay

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Entertainer playing outside McDonald's
Entertainer playing outside McDonald’s
Monument to the Liberator Tsar
Monument to the Liberator Tsar
Incomplete sculpture in the National Culture Park
Incomplete sculpture in the National Culture Park

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Remains of the Roman city of Serdica being excavated near the city metro
Remains of the Roman city of Serdica being excavated near the city metro
Government building along Nezavisimost Street.
Government building along Nezavisimost Street.
Never forget the ancient Bulgarian proverb: Gotta have money to make money.
Never forget the ancient Bulgarian proverb: Gotta have money to make money.
The River Drina

The Cities of Kusturica

 

A woman setting up her socks to sell at Zlatibor.
A woman setting up her socks to sell at Zlatibor.

We awoke early the next morning with the intention of quickly grabbing breakfast and immediately heading to the Bosnian border towards Višegrad.  Instead we mozied on account of our hostess generously preparing fresh coffee and treating us all to a short conversation.  Although we successfully found breakfast, we lost ourselves to the irresistible allure of the large open market filled with vendors peddling various traditional handicrafts.  In fact our hostess had spent our entire conversation knitting a pair of woolen socks for this very purpose.

A man in the woods at Zlatibor.
A man in the woods at Zlatibor.

Soon enough we came to our senses and remembered we didn’t actually want to buy anything.  So we left the market and after checking out a nearby Orthodox church we started on our way to Višegrad.  At this point I should note that the temperature had been approaching 100 degrees.  This became exceeding relevant around the time we discovered we had a one hour wait in a hot car at the border checkpoint.  We held out in our sweat drenched clothing for as long as possible before eventually noticing that everyone in front of us might have had the right idea.  So we followed their example and got out of the car to wait in the direct sunlight where, because we were bounded on all sides by mountains, we were exposed to the slightest of breezes.

Slowly we made it to the border checkpoint where it was possible to hear the surprise in the border guards voice as he listed the nationalities represented in the car, “Amerika.  Mađarska.  Slovačka.  Austrija.  JAPAN!”  Aside from a pair of incredulous glances they let us pass without any problems.  We were now in Republika Srpska.  Republika Srpska is the Serb dominated political entity which shares administrative control over Bosnia and Herzegovina along with the Bosniak and Croat entity called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  If this sounds confusing to you, don’t worry.  Even if you happen to have a degree on the subject the natives will still think it is too complicated for you to possibly understand (looking at you Uroš).  The reason I bring this up is because prominently placed immediately upon entrance into Republika Srpska (predominantly Serbian Orthodox Christian) is a moderately sized mosque.  I’m still uncertain if it is actually used or simply exists to spite Serbs for their role in the Bosnian civil war.

"Life is an incomprehensible miracle, because it constantly consumes itself and crumbles, and yet it lasts and stands firm as the bridge on the river Drina." - Ivo Andrić
“Life is an incomprehensible miracle, because it constantly consumes itself and crumbles, and yet it lasts and stands firm as the bridge on the river Drina.” – Ivo Andrić
Entrance to Kamengrad
Entrance to Kamengrad

We soon arrived in Višegrad, home to the famous Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge as was written about by Nobel Laureate Ivo Andrić in his novel “Na Drini Čuprija.”  The bridge was constructed by the Ottoman Grand Vizier Mehmed Pasha Sokolović in the 16th century.  Sokolović was born in a nearby village to Serbian Orthodox parents before he was taken from them as part of the Ottoman practice of devşirme to become a Muslim Janissary.  Years later, having reached the most important position in the in the empire (a position unavailable to natural born Muslims), he remembered his place of birth and commissioned the construction of the bridge.

We parked in a pay-to-park lot but fortunately before we scrounged up enough convertible marks to pay, a nearby gentleman kindly informed us that indeed “Only idiots pay.”  Not one to argue with custom we left the car in the lot and proceeded to what is known as Andrićgrad or Kamengrad.  Kamengrad was built by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kosturica in preparation for the film adaptation of Ivo Andrić’s famous novel.  Constructed entirely out of white stone for the film, the location is quite beautiful and is now host to a vibrant small business sector as well as a small university.  We treated ourselves to ice cream and lunch before we made our way to the bridge.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to actually go onto the bridge on account of ongoing repairs which was a huge disappointment.

A car on the wooden streets of Drvengrad.
A car on the wooden streets of Drvengrad.

On our way back to the schoolhouse we decided to visit Drvengrad, another city built by Kusturica for his film “Life is a Miracle.”  This small wooden village is situated in the mountains and is modeled after traditional Serbian villages as would have existed in the early middle ages.  We seemed to have arrived too late in the day to see any of the festivities (if indeed there ever were any).  The city was interesting in the ingenuity of its construction, however aside from the scenery there was not much of interest at the small attraction.

Having seen both of Kusturica’s cities our thirst for adventure had been sated and we began our journey back to the school on the same nauseating road which had brought us.

 


 

The Bridge on the Drina with construction in the back.
The Bridge on the Drina with construction in the back.
The train ride from Valjevo to Drvengrad is supposed to be very beautiful.
The train ride from Valjevo to Drvengrad is supposed to be very beautiful.
Antique Train
This antique train should sum up the Serbian railway industry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

One of many wooden sculptures found at Drvengrad.
One of many wooden sculptures found at Drvengrad.
View of the countryside from Drvengrad.
View of the countryside from Drvengrad.
Playground at Drvengrad
Playground at Drvengrad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

One of many wooden sculptures found at Drvengrad.
One of many wooden sculptures found at Drvengrad.
I didn't actually take this.

Last Minute Trip

Windy, Curvy, Twisty
This says two hours, but it must have been more like three.

It was a split second decision on a late Friday afternoon to go to Zlatibor, a famous mountain resort in Western Serbia near the Bosnian border. The manner in which the four of us came to the conclusion to make the three hour journey so late on a Friday afternoon was quite spontaneous and preposterous to everyone involved. We had been discussing our weekend plans for several hours by the time, half jokingly, we arrived at the conclusion that the trip would be a good idea considering again none of us had ever been to Zlatibor and had no plans whatsoever for an overnight stay.  After we had made our decision the four of us at the small kitchen table had a great time relaying our plans to our other classmates who similarly shared a hearty laugh with us in disbelief.

After sharing our plans with everyone else in the shard student dormitory we still had room for one more person, so I took it upon myself to invite the man from Japan who had spent the entirety of the afternoon downstairs in the classroom diligently studying.  In his usual “ready for anything” attitude he enthusiastically replied “No problem!” to the invitation before hurriedly packing away his study materials and rushing up three flights of stairs to pack.  He did all this with absolutely no notice, no complaints, and I like to think without any regrets.  We must have been somewhat of a sight for the others to behold as we left the school house without much fanfare and intentionally skipped the planned nightly cultural event which would have consisted of singing a few traditional Serbian songs.

We spent the next three hours crowded into the same Toyota Yaris that had taken us just one week earlier to Šabac.  These hours were not at all pleasant as we meandered through the narrow, serpentine, poorly maintained mountain roads through Serbia’s western mountain range.  Car sickness set in within the first forty minutes of the journey.  The age old trick of watching into the distance had no affect as the most distant object was most usually a sheer rock cliff face which perpetually rushed from immediately in front of us to distantly behind us as we twisted through the narrow mountain passes.  The three of us in the back seat did our best to steady ourselves so as to not invade the personal space of our neighbor’s.  I think we gave up after only twenty minutes of acute futility.

Restoran Pansion
This place isn’t even on Google Maps.

Eventually, we begged our driver, the woman from Hungary, to stop at a small village.  We parked near what might have been a decent restaurant whose employees would have likely been perplexed as to why such a varied group of foreigners would ever visit such a small restaurant in such a small village in the mountains had it not been closed.  Though it might have surprised them more still had they discovered that we were bothering to learn their language.  We must have been quite a sight to the two young boys who were hanging around the closed restaurant on their bicycles as we all, gasping for fresh air, practically fell out of the car.  As we stood in the otherwise deserted village we wondered if the man from Japan was the first person from Japan to have ever been in this particular part of Serbia.  I do remember asking one of the boys for the name of the village, but unfortunately I had forgotten it by the time of this writing.

Eery Fog
The fog really adds something to the location.

Thankfully, it was not too much longer before we reached Zlatibor.  The misty mountain air and the arrival of night did much to create the illusion that we had arrived at some sort of creepy, abandoned amusement park.  The carnival lights glowed through the dense fog as we drove through the city eerily reminded us that we probably should have found accommodation before we left the schoolhouse.  Cautiously, we wove our tiny car through the sauntering, intoxicated masses in search for a hotel which didn’t look like it might swallow our wallets.

After fruitlessly driving for what I thought was a little longer than we should have we decided to find someone on the side of the road who held a cardboard sign which advertised rentable rooms.  The first man we spoke with only had a room with two beds and was more than a little frustrated that five strangers of mixed gender were less than willing to dog-pile into two beds in a random stranger’s house.  The second lady was also disappointed that none of us were a couple, however she allowed us to haggle our way into a three bedroom complex with a sufficient amount of beds (4) and a few couches all for the low, low price of fifty euros.

Cozy Rooms
These rooms were quite cozy.

Doing our best to remember the way we had come, we followed her through the mountain resort to a small, hidden-away, two-story house.  I went alone to check out what very well could have been a cleverly designed ambush to entrap naive foreigners to find, almost disappointingly, the rooms to be more than adequate and containing  nothing out of the ordinary except for a pair of kind, old ladies.  We quickly moved our things from the car to our rooms before heading back out into creepy, carnival fun land to find dinner.

Sunbathing in Sabac

Not Too Šabac

For me the trip to Šabac was really a last minute decision.  Although I had known for several hours that it was possible for me to go, I still had difficulty deciding if I actually wanted to go as I didn’t exactly expect to see anything worthwhile.  In fact, I was still in the process of reconsidering my decision to go all the way to the car.  It wasn’t until I was seated in the back seat of a moving Toyota Yaris that I finally knew that I was indeed going to to Šabac.  There were four of us going, but the owner of the Yaris was a Hungarian woman on her way to see her boyfriend play accordion at a concert in a small village a short distance from Šabac.  This would leave us remaining three, a Greek from Austria, a Slovak, and myself, stranded in the relatively small town, which none of us knew anything about except that we shouldn’t have high expectations, until the concert was over and the Yaris returned for us.

Most pedestrian zones in the Balkans look similar to this.
Most pedestrian zones in the Balkans look similar to this.

Upon our arrival we began by sitting down for coffee and ice cream in a small cafe in the city’s pedestrian zone which was lined with many cafe’s, pubs, and retail stores.  After our coffee we began to explore the small city.  We started by finishing a brief tour of the pedestrian zone which boasted nothing which would set it apart from the pedestrian zone found in Valjevo except for the small children which were intrigued by hearing a foreign language spoken in front of them for what may have been the first time.  There was one such girl which sat in a swiveling wicker chair doing nothing but stare and listen to our otherwise banal conversation as we finished our coffee.

We continued somewhat haphazardly into a park which might as well have not been named as it did not seem particularly significant aside from a few abandoned buildings

Former cafe and music venue
Former cafe and music venue

which we found out had served as cafes or hosted concerts sometime in the recent past.  We also discovered that the park hosted a pair of abandoned Nazi WW2 bunkers.  But the only striking feature of the park was the young Serbian couple walking their young child which took the time to speak with us for a few minutes and to give us directions to and advice about the most important sites to see in Šabac.  Probably, they were a little surprised that such a group would visit Šabac at all.  I was similarly surprised when they mentioned they had visited the US and knowing all that America has to see, the only state they visited was Georgia.

We quickly dismissed the couple’s first suggestion that we visit the pedestrian zone as we had just come from there.  Instead, they advised that we visit the Old Town, which included the river front.  I did not know it beforehand but the River Sava flows through Šabac and it was calm, wide, and beautiful.  To get to the river we first had to walk for about twenty minutes through the city’s residential districts where we had the opportunity to see many interesting buildings and people which seemed to be leading, from a foreigner’s perspective, interesting lives.

Each utility pole was painted differently.
Each utility pole in the Old Town was painted differently.

As we approached the river we crossed a set of railroad tracks which were overgrown with weeds and saturated with rust.  I imagine they had not been used in over twenty years.  The rails ran alongside a large vacant lot which looked as if it must have been used as some sort of waste dump.  Although now it appeared to be empty, the signs beside the entrance warned passersby not to enter.  The path we were following would eventually lead us to the Old Town, which actually turned out to be a large riverside park.

WW2 Era Fortress
WW2 Era Fortress

Eventually, we found our way to the River Sava on the far end of the park.  On the left was a ruined fortress filled with signs warning against falling stones and even more graffiti.  Despite the warnings we dared to venture into the small fortress where we sat for several minutes and looked out over the serene river.  The bright sunlight poured into the otherwise dark, unlit fortress to give us a glimpse of the damp, dusky corridors lined with fallen stones.  To the right of the fortress stretched a short, narrow street full of sunbathers and cafes.  There was also a sole crotch-rocket painted to resemble scenes from the hit Hollywood blockbuster 300.

This... Is... ŠABAAAAAC.
This… Is… ŠABAAAAAC.

After receiving too many awkward glances for taking so many pictures of a motorcycle we returned back from whence we came where we dined, not in hell, but at one of the better restaurants we had yet experienced in Serbia.  Godfather’s Ćevapi House (Ćevabdžinica kod Kuma) served traditional Balkan cuisine in the traditional Bosnian style.  As we ate we were treated to a drive-by of what might have been one of the most feared bike gangs that side of the Sava.

We left the restaurant in high spirits and saw many other interesting sights, not just architecturally but also anthropologically and sociologically.  Despite the good food, better attitudes, and excellent experiences, the night was was more or less ruined by an awkward conversation in an otherwise lovely courtyard belonging to a cafe guarded by a door decorated with bells.

 


 

The entrance to the Old City
The entrance to the Old City
Graffiti in the fortress
Graffiti in the fortress
We feared for our lives.
We feared for our lives.
Ćevapi at Ćevabdžinica kod Kuma
Ćevapi at Ćevabdžinica kod Kuma
Cafe Zvonce
Cafe Zvonce
Cathedral of Resurrection

The Whirlwind that was Valjevo

Cathedral of Resurrection during the 2014 flooding.
Cathedral of Resurrection during the 2014 flooding.

I think on account of the extreme temperatures I had experienced immediately upon arrival my first impression of Valjevo was not quite as fair as I think it should have been.  Like Belgrade, I saw a city heavily littered, heavily graffitied, and with many buildings in varying states of disrepair (partly thanks to the generosity of the American military).  I distinctly remember the first time I walked across the Kolubara River which flows beside the newly constructed Orthodox Christian Cathedral of Resurrection.  The pristine condition of the new cathedral juxtaposed with the shallow, murky, rock laden Kolubara enticed me to hastily jump to the conclusion that Valjevo would be nothing at all like I had expected after having read about Valjevo online.  Had I known any better I would have remembered that the disastrous state of the riverside, full of debris, trash, and stones was due to the extreme flooding which had affected the majority of Serbia in the spring of last year.  I would later find out that the riverside is in the process of reconstruction thanks to the generosity and good will of the government and people of Japan and thanks to the predatory loans offered by the International Monetary Fund.

However, thanks in no small part to our dedicated tour guide I soon came to see a different city.  Admittedly, between classes, afternoon naps, cultural activities, and of course evening naps, it was with great difficulty that I found the motivation to attend the numerous tours to the various museums, monasteries, wineries, monuments, cafes, and rivers.  Each day in Valjevo was a whirlwind of activities and experiences in which I was forced to balance studying (which happened only rarely), exploring Serbian culture, investigating the city of Valjevo, and becoming acquainted with my new classmates each with their own background and motivations for studying Serbian.

Every night in Tesnjar (Valjevo's Bohemian quarter) is filled music and alcohol.
Every night in Tesnjar (Valjevo’s Bohemian quarter) is filled music and alcohol.

Eventually a core group of about six of us students made it a habit to experience Valjevo intentionally and on a daily basis.  Those of you who know me should know that the only way I know how to do anything is reluctantly and you should be happy to know I did not change this aspect of myself for Valjevo.  I frequently debated not going to any of these activities and lying in comfort in front of my fancy new fan.  Everyday was a new restaurant ranging from Italian cuisine to Serbian fast food and from deliciously prepared ice cream to ice cream that tasted a little too much like cigarette smoke.  In the evenings after our school organized culture sessions (cooking, singing, or dancing) we would again return to the city where each night we were treated to 20 dinar (19 cents) live performances by local musicians covering a variety of genres of music including Yugoslav rock, American rock, turbofolk, and traditional Serbian kafana music.  This music served to draw us closer to the city and eventually our proximity drew us closer to each other.

Eventually I’ll attempt to write more specifically about the historical significance of Valjevo as well as some of the highlights of my three weeks here.  There is really just so much more to say about Valjevo that cannot be said within a single post.

Dam on the Gradac

The Purest River in Serbia

The extreme heat persisted throughout the night which prevented me from getting any decent amount of sleep.  I eventually swam out of bed around 3 AM that first night on account of pure frustration.  I ate a small bowl of cereal for a lack of anything better to do before I returned back to the morass which my bed had become.  I tossed and turned for several more hours before I eventually got back out of bed, took a frigid shower, and headed downstairs to the classroom to await my scheduled placement test which would determine which class I would be in for the next three weeks.

The examination looked like every other language test I’ve ever encountered so I did not spend very much time on it.  Next on the agenda was to travel with our dedicated guide Uroš (name changed for privacy) to the nearby Gradac river to swim.  We took a very inexpensive taxi to the spot from which we would need to walk.  The ride was windy (not windy) and quite dangerous for any pedestrians which dared to traverse the narrow road which hugged the river.  We chose the river over the public swimming pool on account of the heat and the assumption that the majority of Valjevan’s (can I say this?) would choose to go to the pool causing it to become overcrowded.  What I didn’t expect, however, was that the river was also quite crowded.  The entire length of the small river which we traveled had no fewer than fifteen people at each location swimming, tanning, barbecuing, or drinking.

We continued by foot for another twenty minutes down twisting trails laden with stones which caused me to regret wearing sandals every time I stubbed my toe on a rock or protruding root.  Uroš led us to a small cave from which poured the river.  It was at this point the water was pure enough to drink.  Many of us did drink and somewhat surprisingly none of us became ill.  Finally we arrived at the spot in which we would spend the next several hours.

But because nothing is ever easy, before we were able to actually reach the spot, we first had to jump over a five foot tall concrete wall, walk across slippery, rusty pipes, and down a steep hill which forced us to leap over several gaps for a lack of proper footing.  Despite all this we somehow managed to arrive safely at a small clearing with still more stones beneath a few trees and beside a small waterfall which fell from the remains of what looked like an old aqueduct.  The water was frigid, possibly 50° F and the river bed was filled with sharp, jagged stones.  But the “purest river in Serbia,” as Uroš called it, provided much needed relief from the unusually warm weather.  Despite the cold I was reluctant to leave the water to the surprise of my freezing classmates.

After swimming in the shallow waters and fighting against the current to swim immediately under the waterfall I was invited to dive from an old dam probably built in the 50’s.  Of course, I was the only one to accept the invitation.  Considering the water was quite shallow and the drop quite far, the jump was quite exciting as I don’t typically risk my life in this fashion.  As I’m not a complete idiot, I watched carefully as others jumped so I would be sure to land where it was safe.  The water was only about five feet deep in this location.  To return to the diving spot (because of course I wanted to jump again) required the climbing of a rusty metal girder which resembled an extremely thin ladder large enough only for half of one foot.

This is all to say that the river was quite refreshing (and pure) and would have been a pleasant change of pace had we not elected to walk back to the dormitory in the 100° F heat.  The hike which took well over an hour prompted me to take yet another frigid shower immediately upon returning to the schoolhouse.  Needless to say, again I slept like a starfish.  I bought a fan the very next day.

Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my camera on this excursion so I don’t have any pictures of this location.  If any of my classmates have any please send them and I’d love to post them here.

Valjevo at night.

The Old Bait and Switch

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.

Map
Some people took a taxi.

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.

Valjevo Streets
I can’t see the sidewalk either.

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.

E-mail Excerpt
E-mail Excerpt

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.

Trying to sleep
This is not an exaggeration.

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.

Belgrade Graffiti

The Gray City

I don’t know how else to say this but Belgrade is exactly as I left it two years ago.  The city is still just as gray and hectic without any substantial amount of color or order except for the bold, neatly ordered reds, blues, and whites which line the streets in the form of the Serbian national flag. The monuments remain stationary with the only additions or detractions to their character being the bright white droppings left behind by the city’s thriving pigeon population.

Republic Square
Republic Square

The National Museum (Narodna Muzej) situated in the main square (Trg Republike) is still under construction with the only promise of progress emanating from a recently added countdown timer which numbered some three hundred days. Who knows at which number it started? The city even sounds the same with the innumerable aging Yugos drowning out the more modern Volkswagens and Peugeots.

Fortunately, the people have also remained the same. Many of the same shops yet line the pedestrian street Knez Mihajlova.

Knez Mihajlova at night
Knez Mihajlova at night

Many of these shops even still sell many of the same souvenirs which I had brought home from my last visit. The street performers still perform as if their livelihood was not dependant on the generosity of the passers-by. The passers-by still continue to contribute their dinars as if it was their first time seeing the performance.

Puppeteer at Knez Mihajlova
Puppeteer at Knez Mihajlova

In fact all the citizens of Belgrade, even the most unsavory of the lot, bring color to the otherwise grey ‘White City.

If one values experiencing authentic traditional cuisine the food found in Belgrade is also amazing. Among the favored dishes are ćevapi, pljeskavice, šopska and srpska salata, and the Karađorđe snicle which is also known as the ‘women’s delight.’ To wash all of this down one might order one of the preferred brands of beer Jelena or Lav.  If beer is not strong enough try the National drink of Serbia: rakija (plum brandy.) If one is not an adventurous eater one can stop by one of the many McDonald’s or the lone KFC. Not adventurous but still want to drink? Don’t worry these locations also serve a variety of alcoholic beverages to nearly anyone who requests one.

Largely due to the sheer number of cafes, cafanas, and cafiće, many locations appear to be vacant for much of the day except for perhaps the lone bartender or sole patron sipping an espresso. If dining before six it is fairly likely that you might very well be the the sole customer. If this proves to be the case don’t be surprised to see the waited glare at you while making a phone call to the cook which will arrive some minutes later to prepare the food.

Splavovi in Belgrade
Splavovi in Belgrade

At night the city begins to both literally and metaphorically glow. This glow can be found shining from along the city’s avenues as the street side cafes come to life. While they open as early as 5 am it is not until after 9 pm that they begin to attract customers in droves with promises of alcohol, coffee, and a place to smoke. When the cafes close many Belgraders visit one of the city’s many nightclubs found under Branko’s bridge or along the river where one can find floating river clubs called splave situated along the river Sava.bi  During the summer it is not unusual for these clubs to remain packed into the early morning.

 

Ja

The Day I Lived in an Airport

I guess it causes people to leak from their eyeballs.
I guess it causes people to leak from their eyeballs.

I fell asleep on the plane to Warsaw very close to midnight and although I only slept for two hours at most, I was awoken at midday the following day as we were approaching Chopin Airport.  I spent the remainder of my time on the plane attempting to watch “Marley and Me” for the first time.  This was a much funnier film than my friends had led me to believe.  Before I get called a monster I should say I only got through about half of it.  It very well could have been funnier and I would never know.  I should also admit that even just the one half of the film was more than sufficient to remind me of all the excellent reasons why I should never get a dog.

When the plane finally landed after abruptly cutting off what could have become my new favorite movie, the two

This would be more pleasant than the way we are currently doing it.
This would be more pleasant than the way we are currently doing it.

hundred or so passengers each started out of their seats and into the aisle as if they were prepared to rage through the streets of Pamplona with the only difference being that they had no inkling of what to do with themselves once they found themselves in the crowded streets. Of course this inevitably led to the entire herd densely crowding itself and carelessly rubbing against whatever or whoever happened to be nearby. During this tense ten minutes each individual widely stared into the wide eyes of their neighbors all the while generating just short of the requisite amount of friction to spark a cabin fire. Eventually, with the speed and efficiency equivalent to that of attempting to hammer a fully grown bull through a rusty sewer grate with nothing more than a dilapidated rubber mallet and sheer willpower, the cabin emptied. 

After disembarking, I did what any reasonable person running on only two hours of sleep and facing a jet-lagged 21 layover would do; I caffeinated. It wasn’t until I finished my 2 PM coffee that I realized I had made a rather regrettable mistake. I had

No Reward Sweater Pictured
No Reward
Sweater Pictured

somehow lost my only packed sweater somewhere between the plane and my coffee. Being the prodigious supersleuth that I am, I somehow managed to deduce that the best course of action would be to exit all the security checkpoints to arrive at the airline’s Lost & Found office before retracing my steps to see if I had simply dropped it. As luck would have it, the airline would not. Fortuitously, the airport maintains its own Lost & Found office to which I headed next. With the ever radiant Tyche as my escort the second office also left me empty handed. Now, in a wholly unexpected reversal of fortune as I found myself with the sense to retrace my steps, I discovered that because of the sheer length of my layover my ticket could no longer grant me access through the security checkpoints. So again I caffeinated.

Now eight hours have passed. I am beginning to become suspicious. I am sitting mere feet from the security

I'm basically Tom Hanks from Castaway stuck in an airport at this point.
I’m basically Tom Hanks from Castaway stuck in an airport at this point.

checkpoint watching travelers enter through that which I have been forbidden. Guards walk by every couple of minutes. I feel they are beginning to suspect that I now live here. I feel they are now beginning to suspect that they are now MY security guards.

I am now accepting handouts from strangers. A man with more bottles of water than he has mastery of the English language must have surmised that I am dehydrated. As I open the bottle of water and begin to fill myself with what must be, judging from the taste, nothing but water I watch the man vanish beyond the Polish metal scanners beckoning me to follow. Soon, I will.