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  During the summer it is not unusual for these clubs to remain packed into the early morning.


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.

Traveling to Europe

Exactly two years ago I returned from where I am currently headed.  I’ll deport from O’Hare airport in Chicago around 9:30 tonight and land in Warsaw some nine hours later in which I will suffer through a 21 hour layover.  Despite this I am still somewhat eager to arrive at my final destination of Serbia this coming Wednesday.

Having already visited this important Balkan nation, I will not be arriving with the same feeling of trepidation which I had mildly experienced on my previous visit.  One might ask why one should exhibit any amount of hesitation when visiting a western, European (not Western European!) nation considering I am an American.  However, this assumption ignores the impact of American politics on American citizens traveling and living abroad.  While this post is not designed to be a history lesson, Serbs do have reason to dislike Americans.

Belgrade at night with the Temple of St. Sava in the distance.

Thankfully, this is not something which I had experienced during my four week stay in Belgrade two years ago.  Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and with a population of about 1.5 million it is a cosmopolitan city home to many ethnicities hailing not only from throughout the Balkan peninsula but also from throughout the world.  Serbia even enjoys a modestly sized American ex-pat community.

Valjevo with the Temple of the Resurrection of the Lord.

Unlike my last visit, this trip will not be spent in Belgrade.  Instead I will be residing with a host family in the nearby city of Valjevo.  Valjevo is an average sized city with many attractive features which I plan to experience and share in the coming weeks.  It’s most attractive feature to language learners might be its small town feel.  Because it is a smaller town (pop. ~100,000) the residents are perhaps less likely to know English which should provide for an environment more conducive to language acquisition when compared to Belgrade with its many, many English speakers.

At this point I would like to take the time to thank Miss Vekich for her generosity in establishing the Vekich Scholarship which is intended to encourage study in the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian languages.  It is through this scholarship and the quality of all the great instructors (14!) which have suffered through the many awkward states of my language training that this trip is possible.