Saturday, July 9, 2011

Belgrade

Well, time is running out for my stay here in Croatia. Lucia hurried back to the US maybe two months ago to be with her mum and to help her sister, but I have continued with my classes, research, visiting, and travels. It has been tough, but somehow I have been getting by.  The people here—Croatians, Fulbrighters, and everyone else—have been absolutely wonderful, and the Rakija so many have provided me has certainly helped. It has been a memorable stay.

But all that is now coming to an end; the taxi comes Tuesday morning and within maybe 20 hours I will be back in the ‘hot spot’ of Austin, Texas. But, I am not yet ready for good byes, even though most of them have already been given and all but maybe the indefatigable Jess is left among the Fulbrighters, although you never know when or where you will see Amela next! I still have a few stories to tell and tell them I will, even next month, when I am drinking tequila with the armadillos. And yes, my beautiful and loving wife of nearly 43 years awaits. If I want to be married another 43 years, I had better head home.

I recently took two trips out of Croatia, one to Albania the other to Serbia. Let me talk about my trip to Belgrade, which is in Serbia. Well, that may seem simple enough, but in Southeastern Europe nothing is simple. The Republic of Serbia (Republika Srbija) is where you will find Belgrade, while nearby there is a Republika Srpska, which is the preferred name, although sometimes it is Anglicized as ‘Serb Republic’ or ‘Bosnian Serb Republic’. I have visited RS, which is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here you will find the city of Banja Luka, but no Belgrade. You will also find many Serbs, as you do in Serbia, but you also find Bosnians (not always a preferred term, notably by the Serbs) and Bosniaks. Bosniaks are Bosnian but many Bosnians are not Bosniaks, which explains the presence of RS. Remember, RS is in BiH, as is Sarajevo, where there are many Bosniaks. One of my favorite students is Bosnian and she is of Croatian and Catholic background, as was Ivo Andrić, who won the Nobel Prize primarily for the wonderful ‘The Bridge over the Drina’, although he called himself Yugoslavian. Got it? It gets complicated from there, so I think I’ll move on to Belgrade, home of the new Wimbledon Men's champion.

You hate to compare a city you know well with one you don’t, but I guess that is a natural tendency. Belgrade is noisier, faster, busier, dirtier, and certainly much crazier than the wonderfully orderly Zagreb. It is also twice the size of Zagreb, and you often ‘feel’ it. Zagreb is the city you marry, while Belgrade…oops, sorry, but those old sexist adages are no longer accepted. I was in Belgrade for four days and had a wonderful time. I stayed near the city center, close to the ‘Bohemian’ Skadarlija neighborhood. Much of it is getting pretty touristy, but much of it is also very cool. This is a ’hip’ town with alternative culture to spare.

One of the main sites is the Kalemegada, which is a huge fortress that is on a hill (all this can be Goggled, of course) in a huge park that overlooks the city. It’s all spectacular and takes a full day to explore. Young lovers, old lovers, families, and singles were scattered throughout the park; every time I went it was busy and energetic. From many vantage points you can see the Danube and the Sava, and their point of confluence, as well as all the activities that are going on along the river fronts.

Other interesting places include Knez Mihailova Street, which is really a long outdoor mall. It was always busy and was always fun, from buskers to high end shopping, but it was always great fun. It always seemed to be on my way from my B&B (a great one, by the way). So I walked it often. The Trg Republike anchors one end while at the other you’ll find the entrance to the park and Kalemegada. This is where I saw a little girl dancing to the old fiddler. She seemed to think she was dealing with an interactive cartoon character. His face never changed, until the end, when he threw her a kiss, then he fell over and died. OK, I lied about the last part just to see if you were still reading.

One day I walked along the river fronts, first the Danube and then up the Sava—this thing goes on a LONG way—and ended up at the Fish Festival. As you can see from the pics I went native and ate the very spicy fish soup, which was the focus of a competition. When folks would ask me where I was from, the reply USA was of far less interest than Texas. ‘Where’s your gun’, etc.? Often followed by a friendly ‘try MY rakija’.

Another day, I decided to walk to the small town of Zemun. Leaving early on a Sunday morning I took a long and very boring way to get there, although I did get to see a ‘classic’ Shopping Mall. I was exhausted by the time I got to the town, but soon discovered I was going parallel to a very nice river walk that I could have taken all along. I took it back to the city, and was rewarded with an ever changing landscape, families having Sunday fun, awesome views of the city, including the fortress and the ever-seen Orthodox Cathedral, and a wide path for pedestrians, bikes, etc. It was an amazing and totally entertaining walk, but after talking with my B&B host and later with the taxi driver, we figured I had walked at least 12 miles, maybe more. My arms were sun burned. I did make one mistake: along the way I stopped at the Hotel Jugoslavija, which had taken a couple of direct missile hits courtesy of NATO in 1999 (it was about Kosovo; we’re not going there). My mistake was ordering a Martini. Big mistake, but still it was a fun cultural experience.

Let me digress for a moment. Some people say you should not judge a country—for better and worse—by its premiere city. True, but the essences of the country and its people may be distilled there, while at the same time it has its own unique flavor. And does any one site reflect a country? Nah. I spent three weeks in Istanbul but never got to the countryside, and the same goes for five days in Jakarta, and with one minor tourist exception a week in Rio (which actually is not the premiere city of that country), etc. The art of traveling is to go where you enjoy the experience and then keep on enjoying… ‘Why did you not leave Istanbul for ‘fill in the blank’’? Because.

Belgrade is a fantastic city to visit. And, of course, having lived in Croatia for almost a year and becoming familiar with the basics of the region’s history—and I DO mean basics—there was context. My 42 words of Croatian worked in Serbia. I hope this isn’t controversial, but c’mon folks, it is the same language. As Dubravka Ugrešić (Baba Yaga Lays an Egg, among other favs) says, language in the region is a dialect backed by an army. And don’t let the Cyrillic fool you—the alphabet can be learned in a weekend, but the language takes a lifetime. That said, I was in a restaurant and the man was explaining to me how the veal was cooked (in a pit BBQ of sorts) and I said ‘oh, ‘Peka’. He paused for a moment and said somewhat disdainfully, ‘that is what they call it…in Croatia’. And by the way, I was told that Serbia makes better Rakija than anywhere in the world. Now THAT is controversial; I’m not going there.

The food was excellent, the sights were awesome, and Belgrade is—in the words of the late, great Kevin Lynch—very imageable. Even though it is large, it is tough to get lost, because there are so many parts of the landscape that can be seen from throughout the area and the maps were excellent. The people were very friendly, even when they knew of my origins (Google the recent history). So much so they sometimes made me LOL. It is a delightful city, although I wouldn’t marry her; that ‘honor’ belongs to Zagreb.




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