Happy New Year!

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Serbia and Montenegro  ,
Saturday, December 29, 2007

A return to Belgrade was something I was looking forward to.  I really enjoyed our first visit and was keen to see the city again, this time under a blanket of snow.  I wasn't disappointed.

It snowed non-stop during our stay.  A delicate, powdery soft snow that rapidly submerged the city under a sea of white accompanied by a bitterly cold temperature. 

Imagine turning up to a city with no accommodation booked during the hectic New Years Eve period?  You'd have to be crazy.  We booked our chosen hostel, received our email confirmation and then boarded the train.  So you can imagine our frustration as we finally locate our hostel after 3 frosty hours of search using an impossible set of directions (describing itself as being at the intersection of two parallel streets) to discover that they had closed down a few months back.  [Probably because nobody could find them].

It was freezing cold, we were homeless and every subsequent place we found was fully booked.  Not a great start to what should have been an easy reintroduction to a city we were already so familiar with.  Here I have to thank Iain for returning to the very first hostel we called upon and asking them again whether they had space for us, despite the earlier morning's vehement refusal.  Astoundingly after 4 hours of heartbreak and frostbite they absolutely had space for us if we were planning to spend more than one night.  Doh!

Our first night in the hostel was so cold that we cranked the heater to maximum, put all 4 blankets on one pint-sized single bed and awkwardly folded ourselves together shivering all the while.  Our request the next morning for additional blankets was met with a simple and concise "no".  Fair enough too.  Why should the hostelier have to go out and purchase additional blankets or a functioning heater for guests just because the Serbian winter temperatures fall to around -20 degrees overnight? 

All it takes to gain warmth is a repeat of the same question, an enthusiastic eyeballing of the reception heater and then an unwavering commitment to remain fixed to the desk until a solution is provided.  Sure enough the owner decided to ask the landlady to walk the two flights of stairs to get the spare blankets.  It wasn't that they didn't have any warmth to spare, apparently it was just that it was kept in a cupboard on the inconvenient second floor.

Eventually it all worked out very well.  We had a centrally located, private (and ultimately very warm) room in a beautiful, snow-white city with the added good fortune of having already made the acquaintance with some of the best dining options.

We planned a late dining extravaganza at the majestic Hotel Mockba in the centre of town to see the year tick over.  We made sure to make a reservation the day before to staff who seemed genuinely surprised that we would bother: the place is always empty. 

NYE struck, we adorned ourselves in our least backpackerish outfits, I smeared on some lipstick and we excitably waltzed up the stairs of this 4 star remnant of the Communist era.  Peering into the windows we were met by the unsuprising vista of a sea of vacant tables.  Who cares!  We decided it would add to the evening to dine in a gigantic, velvet-draped, empty ballroom.  Up until the point we realised that the doors were padlocked and the hotel was closed.

New Years Eve saw every inhabitant of Belgrade pour out onto the main pedestrian zone of downtown in feverish anticipation of the clock strike.  Well dressed swarms bundled in woolly mittens, matching beanies and swollen puffa jackets filled the icy streets.  There were outdoor stages with loud bands, huddled clusters trying to keep warm, impromptu stands selling hotdogs, toffee apples, cases of beer, scarves, plastic hearts on sticks and the all-purpose spongebob squarepants helium balloons.  Interestingly, as Christms over here falls on January 7th there were also lots of people wearing flashing Santa hats and Christmas decorations.  This was a weird collision of the worlds as obviously xmas and NYE are separate entities in our hemisphere.

Despite the millions who did so, we found it impossible to spend any part of the night outdoors.  We found a back-up cafe with a now closed kitchen (who would have thought kitchens close so early on NYE) and ate day-old salami baguettes with wine alongside the swarms drinking coffee to keep warm. Despite the way it may sound, it was a memorable evening full of cosy lighting and tasty chocolate banana tarts in a warm and welcoming environment. 

A great farewell to our adventurous and surprising 2007.  A perfect method of heralding in 2008.  [Plus my very first white NYE in Eastern Europe]

* * *

Belgrade was an interesting city to visit the first time, and on a return visit spilled out a little more of its charm. Central to this is the hidden gem of the Nikola Tesla Museum.

I will confess (and its probably become readily apparent) to growing a little weary of Eastern European museums. They frequently take an astoundingly interesting underlying subject and either render none of it in English or give it a Eurotrash artistic outlook five too many steps removed from explaining the basics of what transpired. Sometimes, they manage to do both, and kudos to the Chornobyl Museum in Kiev for rendering something completely unintelligible in very pretty colours. The Tesla Museum is the exact opposite, an eye opening example of what can be done without a great deal of money but which brings a story to life.

Tesla was a man who made discoveries and earned a huge number of patents in the field of electrical engineering. He successfully demonstrated the case for Alternating Current (AC) versus Edison's preference for Direct Current (DC), and one must have gotten up very early to outsmart Edison, indeed, have barely gone to bed the night before. He designed the first large scale power plants and transformers and numerous simple devices that acted as proof of concept to his larger designs.

Your museum visit starts with an English language video giving you a snapshot of his early life and migration to America with just four cents in his pocket. (This alone was a salutary reminder to be honest when filling out currency declarations and in all dealings weith US border control officers... clearly all this data is getting stored for the long haul). They note that he also held a letter from Thomas Edison that said Tesla was a smart man who would prove an asset to anyone who hired him. A nice touch among men who would become rivals, although I was left curious why Edison didn't just hire him himself.

Also coming out well from the display is George Westinghouse. Periodically in the news I notice that Westinghouse are manufacturers of multi billion dollar nuclear power plants. I find my stomach churn when I hear their name, figuring that it would be best if they could first make a reliable dishwasher and stovetop before moving onto the trickier stuff. Here I learned a little more about the Westinghouse pedigree, with old George proving very adept by deciding to indulge the still young Mr Tesla and building an enormous power plant at Niagara Falls which proved the validity of his 'til then theoretical writings.

Where the museum comes alive is that following the conclusion of the video you are hosted through a number of interactive exhibits where key concepts are demonstrated by a clearly knowledgable local undergraduate engineering student. Our host was just ecstatic that somebody had come to visit (we were the first guests of the day) and we received what was basically a private tour - which in our time there we saw him repeat tirelessly for each group dribbling in.

The principles of electric current were displayed in various little devices that I could only struggle to describe here, descriptions that should earn the derision of the technical. mathematical and scientifically literate (Bert and Sasha essentially - and Claude's dad of course - many of the rest of you being fellow Luddites I believe). The one that stands out in my mind demonstrated how an electric motor can efficiently turn a wheel. They had a brass egg sitting in a shallow dish (the size of a large dinner plate) with four electromagnets set at the periphery. As power was rotated through the four coils - slowly at first, then incredibly rapidly - the egg wobbled around following them before spinning very rapidly on its point.

This demonstration gave way to fully working but very small scale and simplified demonstrations of power stations. It is very hard to convey how effective the whole experience is, and is best summarised by both Claude and I leaving to read more about him and electricity in general on Wikipedia for a few hours. Plus we bought the two most comprehensive books at the gift shop, throwing to the wind the fact that this is just another kilogram being added to the baggage.

Beyond the technical side, the museum then moves to a second phase which preserves and shows Tesla's library and correspondence. I have never before found this aspect of any museum well done: but here it was compelling. Tesla had a lot of friends in his new home city of New York and let it be known that he liked books as gifts (frequently getting them from the authors themselves). Another smart play: no iPods, Kings Cross massage visits or tablecloths for him on his birthday.

The highlights of this aspect of the exhibit stem from the fact that Tesla contributed to the popular science magazines of the day. Moreover, he contributed in his own sweet time. This left his editors with a conundrum: a very smart and marketable contributor who just could not be pushed to a deadline. Correspondence was amazingly frank and tersely humorous considering the era. "I know it is considered that efficiency and promptness is considered a virtue," he started one letter, "but I disagree. I find that a good period of quiet rumination adds greatly to the end result. I thank you for your note, and your reminders of its importance give me pause to reflect still further to ensure its quality. I will not be rushed."

The relationship with this publisher, once his great friend, ended in acrimony and thus the sweeping biography of him being compiled during his lifetime was left unfinished.

I have just looked up at all that I have written (there's more in my diary too), and its worth noting that this was a five room place that cost $2 to get into. We are finding small museums a nice size: easy to consume and enjoy. If Tesla's life story had been subsumed in a grander Museum of Technology it would have been lost.

I have left it to Claude to detail our hotel dilemmas here. At least it had a happy ending. We were getting tired though, and I managed to lose a shopping bag just by putting it down one more time than I picked it up (I think it was in the hostel that smelt like acrid fungus and my brain went fuzzy). The total value of the bags contents was about $12, but I found myself saddened for three long days that two long time partners of our trip were now gone forever: Claude's little red camping knife that has fed us so many times while really never seeing a totally hygienic wash, and the small Lipton tea tin that I have carried since India against all principles of luggage efficiency (I just liked it). Now, sadly, gone.

We took time out to once again see a movie in Belgrade: this being the home of the $4 adult movie ticket. Leaving Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie we had had another odd cultural realisation: an animated children's movie watched in a non English speaking country cannot be dubbed. So the kids watch the movie, and all the while the parents commentate what is being said. Despite the loud wave of background noise, as no one is speaking in English its actually far less disturbing than the mere fact of some six year old clawing at your seat in an effort to see over or around you. Therein lies a lesson: those who shower me in popcorn during the previews shall do thy penance in the feature

New Year's Eve in Belgrade worked out, but not for the reasons expected. I had planned a while back that the Hotel Moskva would be the ideal place for a late dinner in grand style - and in so doing would also minimise our "outside" time: while the locals are seemingly impervious to it, we are not.

Careful planners that we are, we asked at the restaurant on the prior day about a booking for 8pm or 9pm on New Years Eve, and were assured it would not be necessary. We have never seen that restaurant busy, even though the food is excellent and wine is sufficiently like vinegary diesel to meet local tastes.

It thus came as some surprise for us to find the restaurant locked up and abandoned the following night. Fair enough: they had zero customers and probably just gave up (they had done this another day on our previous visit to Belgrade). We just hadn't figured this was a major risk on NYE. Oops.

This was particularly heartbreaking as Claude had done more than is humanly possible as one living from a backpack to lay on some style - adding a touch of makeup and a well cut black top over a base layer of thermals, t-shirts and pajamas (yep - everything is getting worn now to fend off the elements).

New Year's Eve in Belgrade is a fairly friendly experience. Unlike Sydney, its just not possible for wild displays of public drunkeness: sleeping it off in the park will lead to death, creating a modest disincentive for over indulgence. What they lack in alcohol, they more than make up for in fireworks. No actual firework though - just a bang. You end up very thankful for the two layers covering your ears, and are left wondering how it stays interesting after you have lit the thirty-third one and it yields the same staccato result.

If you ever wonder what happens to one hit wonder bands, we can now tell you: they play outdoor gigs in Belgrade at New Years, with the lead singer in a singlet. I enjoyed hearing the song "you gotta make sure you're connected, the writing's on the wall" guys all the way from Bristol UK, and it provided a warm fuzzy reminder that one day I would be watching The Sopranos on TV again. In English.

Belgrade proved a nice place to return to, although we'll be careful not to air that sentiment at our next stop.
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