Ups and downs in Belgrade and Novi Sad

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Leaving Sarajevo, we headed for Belgrade, capital of Serbia. Once the capital of the Yugoslav Federation, it was from Belgrade that the Serbian military apparatus desperately sought to maintain a semblance of a greater Yugoslavia during its disintegration in the early 1990s. Having travelled through Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, listening to bitter stories of Serbian aggression throughout, it was an important journey to make.

The typically bleak train station at Sarajevo was the site of a chance encounter with a handful of other Anglophone travellers, one of whom we had met a week or so previously in Dubrovnik. These intersecting paths of travellers – converging and diverging through connected transport routes – are in many ways fragile connections to a semblance of comfort in an unfamiliar land. We settled into our compartment of six and shared storied and food.

But even the relatively simple train ride from Sarajevo, dipping into Croatia, before emerging in north-west Serbia, became tumultuous like the relationship between the three nascent states. After having their pay withheld for two months, railway workers on a northerly section of the route had walked off the job on strike. The transfer to a replacement bus gave some of our companions an opportunity to frantically buy crisps and sweets with their last few Bosnian Marks.

It was around this point when we met Snake. Dressed in pale, distressed jeans and a plasticky black bomber jacket, Snake almost immediately tried to sell us drugs. It turned out that he was a DJ, but pay was bad and he rarely got jobs. Seeing a group of ragged, alternative-looking foreigners, he pounced and made mildly joke-filled conversation in short bursts of anecdote or animated exclamations. His demeanour was shady, always checking around the vicinity with a twitchy check over his shoulder and a sharp sniff in his nose – never standing in one position more than a few seconds.

As the day drew on and night quickly cast an icy shadow over the land, we reached the first of four border controls, ushered out of the cramped bus and into the freezing night to queue for a bored-looking guard in a glass-fronted kiosk, sitting in the middle of a barren emptiness. The guard’s lonely vulnerability was almost comical, but the warmth emanating from the kiosk stirred jealousy in us as we stood shivering and hopping to keep the cold from our bodies.

As we finally drew up at the railway station in Belgrade, a thick fog had drawn across the city; the bright street lights filling the foggy air with a orange glow. A derailed steam train standing huge and silent as a monument to past engineering glories emerged from the murky fog in the station forecourt. We headed for our hostel briskly, pursued from a distance by Snake and his two silent friends. Arriving at the hostel, we hoped for some peace and warmth after the long day of travelling, but the cold, unfriendly and poorly equipped place was only superficially welcoming and we laid ourselves down late and tired.

The city that welcomed us the following morning was painfully cold and far dirtier than previous the night had let on. Emerging late in the morning after a long but very unsettled night, a lighter, whiter fog still hung in the air as our breath mingled with it and to some extent hid the grime of the place. This fog, however, added to serious problems of navigation around the huge city riddled with overpasses, underpasses, huge flyovers and unnamed streets, and our frustration at our inability to find our way grew.

Eventually, we found a Serbian Orthodox church, which gave us refuge from the freezing temperatures. Virtually every inch of the place was adorned in gold lustre and strikingly beautiful Byzantine-styled icons. The stylised Cyrillic script that went with these awkward but somehow otherworldly images were virtually indecipherable, like ancient lost runes. Unlike the Catholic churches we encountered further west which seemed largely populated by tourists, this small church was full of worshippers, each methodically working their way around the icons, genuflecting and kissing each one tenderly before moving to the next. Pausing in the church, we sought our bearings before steeling ourselves for the outside world and heading back out.

We later stumbled across a small gathering of about fifty people. A glance at one of their large banners suggested something political, but we were unsure as to what. A woman dressed snugly in hat and scarf approached us and thrust a leaflet into our hands. Our confused faces and stuttering led her to speak – as if through a reflex reaction – in English. The gathering was a part of the Occupy movement, calling the financial sector to account for their leading role in the recession that has spread across Europe and North America. In other major cities, the movement had brought hundreds or thousands to the streets, but here in the former Communist heartland, only a few dozen braved the cold. Given the strict suppression of the population by so-called ‘Communist’ leaders, it is not surprising that such causes do not draw in large crowds here. People are wary of movements seeking social change: they remember the last time – and its bloody fallout – all too well. In some respects, it has rightly obliterated the top-down Communisms that dominated the left throughout the Twentieth Century and given succour to anarchisms and other bottom-up socialisms, but it has also given rise to fascist and white power movements whose graffiti is all too often visible on walls across the former Yugoslavia.

The sun seemed to set early, and we found ourselves back at the hostel late in the afternoon. Chatting to a couple of Serbian lads, we began to sense the extent of hopelessness in this country for the younger, more aspirational generations. Massive unemployment, poor services and little hope of further education or training stunted their personal and social growth. The only ways to achieve anything were nepotism or escape. Both of these bright young men chose the latter, and were desperately looking for ways to get out.

“I have a girlfriend in New York,” declared the younger, confidently. “I will marry her and move to America.”

This distant, matter-of-fact calculation by a seventeen year-old was reflected in his eyes, which showed little affection for the girl. We even doubted if she ever existed, as if he had projected his hopes onto a distant stranger he was yet to meet, for the sake of expressing his innermost feelings to a couple of other strangers he would never meet again.

He briskly searched on the internet for a grainy video of a muscled man deadlifting a huge weight in a nondescript, run-down gym: “My dad is a weightlifter. He is one of the best, but he couldn’t get into the national competition because they wanted him to pay for an outfit. Two hundred Euros just to compete.”

“Criminal,” his friend added, with a shake of his head.

A combination of cold and a middle-aged snoring man – his pot-belly sagging flaccidly but somehow arrogantly over his unpleasantly tiny black underpants in which he insisted on parading around the hostel day and night – kept us both awake for most of the following two nights. On adjacent top bunks, his head was two feet from mine, and his snores shook the entire room. After lying wide-eyed in my bed for several hours, I got up and headed to the kitchen. Taking a handful of loose leaf herbal tea reserved for staff, I made myself a contraband cup of tea. The tea-strainer was nowhere to be seen, so I carefully picked the largest twiggy bits out of the scalding hot cup with my fingers. It was 3am and the place was silent but for the rustling pages of my book and my slurps of herbal tea, strained unsuccessfully through my front teeth.

I was reading Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road, desperately trying to drag from myself some level of excitement about the road ahead. Thubron was entering Afghanistan from Kyrgyzstan, winding through country roads scattered with burnt-out tanks and flanked by opium poppy fields. If I couldn’t cope a couple of nights next to some dodgy, snoring 40 year-old in a pair of Speedos, how on earth could we survive a frisking from Iranian Revolutionary Guards or a rickety truck journey through precipitous mountain tracks driven by a drunken Uzbek farmer?

Before these thoughts ran away with me too far, Helen stumbled, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen. It was now 4.30am and she had also been awake for most of the night. We sat, holding hands, and stared at nothing in particular, her head on my shoulder.

After eventually grabbing a couple of hours’ sleep later that morning, we spent our last day in Serbia visiting the nearby city of Novi Sad. We walked from the train station for thirty or so minutes, along a busy, modern boulevard of down-market shops and cafés, until we arrived in a grand central square. Composed largely of elegant late 19th Century buildings jostling for the award for grandest building in town, the square was dominated by a tall, slim church with a seemingly endless spire perched delicately atop its bell tower. The huge, monochrome clock-face stared out over the frozen square like a silent, expressionless Cyclops. Almost deserted as we arrived, the square had a slight sense of a quintessentially English market town square grafted onto a Central European architectural ethos. One of the winding mediaeval streets that spread from it led to a gently rolling park with busts of local heroes and birds playing in the trees.

After a long, lingering coffee in a virtually empty café, we took the steep climb to the ruined fortress outside the old city. The narrow pathway led us to a panoramic view over the River Danube as the light began to dim. We wandered through grassy pathways under overgrown arches and up steps to the high foundations of long-gone towers. With every step the light drifted from us and the temperature likewise dropped rapidly as lights began to flicker into life in the city below us. When we finally returned to the square, it had transformed into a frosty Alpine town dotted with hundreds of white lights and a few children played around the central statue; its grand buildings now up-lit with spotlights looked like palaces, and we departed shivering and happy.

The following day, we headed to Skopje, capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. We had toyed with a soujourn from Serbia into Kosovo, but the border crossing had become even more tense in the last few months than it had been for a long time. Serbia’s claims to Kosovo were clear: ‘KOCOBO JE CRБIJA’ (Kosovo is Serbia) adorned many walls across the country, but Kosovo’s delicate independence still hung in the balance and a visit over the border from Macedonia would be far safer.

Despite passionate claims to ownership, the young Serbian man on reception at the hostel was clear: “Do not go to Kosovo,” he ordered us as we left. “It is full of drugs and crime. You will be attacked and robbed. They are terrible people.”

Departing Serbia on this note had a certain poetic licence. Serbia clearly had claims to grandeur, but the history of bitter defeat has scarred the national imaginary. Every piece of land it had sought to keep had been wrenched from its grip; it had come out of the Balkan war as the baddie; its economy was ruined; its youth wanted to get out by any means possible. Yet there was still warmth and ambition in its people and a cultural heritage that not even the Communist Party’s suppression and blunders, nor even NATO’s widespread bombing could hide its many masterpieces of religious and classical art, architecture and other creative energies. It was fifteen years since Serbia’s defeat, and, perhaps given fifteen more years, might emerge stronger and happier. But, for now, we were glad to be gone.
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