Why is it that when things go wrong, they often make for the best life lessons?
After our travels through the small and war-recovering cities of Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina, we were ready for some major city action. We had heard good things about Belgrade, Serbia, but my view was slightly on the unfavorable side, especially after visiting the Bosnian War Museum where I learned about the genocide committed by the Serbs against the Bosniaks while the rest of the world did nothing until over 10,000 people were slaughtered.
Serbia has been a typical source for 'bad guys' in pop culture including the television series Sherlock (he was beaten up in a Serbian prison in Series 3) and one of my favorite video games of all time, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves with the lead villain being a Serbian war criminal by the name Zoran Lazarevic.
It was early morning when we left Sarajevo in a van with nine people. Three Bosnians in the back (a mother and her two children), three Americans in the middle (Perry, me and a middle aged man) and three Serbs in the front including the driver, his chatty girlfriend and an older woman who gave me the stink eye as we stepped into the van.
It felt like we were refugees escaping via any means possible. Right away, I discovered my seatbelt was tied in a knot and rigged up such that it wrapped around my torso like a noose. As we crossed never-ending mountains with hairpin turns, my body slammed against the van door when we curved left and then heaved back into Perry when we curved right. Over and over and over.
Movie watching on my laptop, my intended entertainment, was out of the question so I focused on the scenery. It was gorgeous, but instead of being relaxing, was a horror show as the driver, seemingly possessed by a death wish, passed cars on double yellow lines and sped around logging trucks on clifftops with no railing. I comforted myself that if we drove off the road my seatbelt noose would bisect me before we hit the ground.
The passengers sat in sullen resignation and did not speak except for the young woman in the front whose deep, husky Serbian sounded like Russian. The Serbs, Bosnians and Croats speak the same language and the only difference is that the Serbs use Cyrillic letters while the Bosnians and Croats use Latin letters. Yet, they sound completely different, at least to my Western ears.
We crossed the border into Serbia and instantly, the mood changed. Our driver rolled down the window, turned up the radio and began to sing. He joked around and everyone loosened up except for the crabby lady in the front seat who looked back at me as if to say 'I've got my eye on you, American.'
It turned out this trip was a lot like Belgrade itself. Stoic one minute and ready to party the next. A little gritty, but heart-pounding excitement around every corner.
When we reached the outskirts of the city, I was shocked to see miles of high rise apartment buildings that seemed to go on forever. This was Yugoslavian Belgrade, all drab and practical concrete blocks. Passing these, new Belgrade began to look like a modern Western suburb with lots of fashionable homes and shopping malls. As we neared the heart of the city, the former Yugoslavia and modern Serbia collided with elegant Austrian era architecture, imposing Yugoslav buildings and sleek skyscrapers blending together warily.
Belgrade's modern history is as the current capital of Serbia and the former capital of Yugoslavia, but sits on a ancient crossroads serving as a battleground in 115 wars and subsequently controlled by a long cast of characters including the Thracians, Dacians, Celts, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Ottomans and Austrian Habsburgs. Whew.
Ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito for nearly 30 years, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to break apart after his death in the 80's with a series of revolutions and wars in the early 90's. Serbia (along with Montenegro) tried to hang onto the FRY moniker which the other former republics (Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina) opposed. In 2006, Serbia and Montenegro finally broke up into separate states with Kosovo proclaiming independence from Serbia in 2008. This has been bitterly disputed and Serbia's strife filled history continues.
Despite a bit of lingering animosity between the former Yugoslav countries, all of the people we met gave high marks to Belgrade as a culturally exciting city. We booked an Airbnb in Skadarlija which has a Greenwich Village-type feel to it. Formerly the home to artists and writers, it is now a confluence of university students, urban hipsters and elderly people that have lived their entire lives in this neighborhood.
I found Belgrade (and Skadarlija in particular) to be surprisingly sophisticated with elegant wine bars and cafes mixing with local bakeries, cevapi shops and even a brand new upscale supermarket. The nearby famed pedestrian street Knez Mihailova throngs with tourists and locals alike. I found the people of Belgrade to be proud and dignified, yet not unfriendly. This is was what I imagined St. Petersburg to be, but it wasn't.
Our time in Belgrade was busy and exciting, full of sightseeing, great food and people watching. It was a relatively mishap free week until I suggested a shortcut.
The only remaining item on our list was a visit to the island of Ada Ciganlija. Recommended by our host, this urban leisure hub contains a popular beach, large park with walking and biking trails, and a golf course.
We walk everywhere and even though it was six miles away, we were up for it. I mapped out the route on my phone and off we went. About a mile from the island, I realized the road didn't go through because of the train tracks. It was hot and we still had the park to walk, so I suggested we cross under the freeway and cut through the neighborhood directly across from the park.
*Top Tip* Don't take short cuts unless you know where you are going.
Initially, I thought it was just fine. We saw two women cross in front of us but I lost sight of them as we got caught up in conversation. Suddenly, it was eerily quiet so we stopped talking and looked around. It was slightly dark with several highway flyovers above us and I blinked to adjust my eyes because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A three-legged horse was tied to a tree with a broken cart beside it. Behind a nearby tangle of brambles I could see what looked to be several wagons and old campers.
We were in a Roma camp. Roma, known in the UK as 'travelers' (and everywhere pejoratively as gypsies), have a reputation for being hot-tempered, free spirited and petty criminals. They have been historically persecuted since they left northern India in 500 AD and arrived in the Europe around 900 AD. I had no reason to fear them, but my gut said we should get out of there immediately as it just felt super creepy. As we speed walked up the street, the scene became even more troubling with dumped garbage and broken buildings everywhere. We spied an establishment on the side of the road that looked to be a restaurant, so we decided to stop and call for a taxi. TRIGGER WARNING There was an animal roasting on a spit which I swear looked like a greyhound although maybe it was a goat. A man popped his head out of the door and before we could speak, slammed the door shut.
My imagination was running wild now and we walked faster until we reached the top of a hill with a fork in the road. The street to the right led to the park, but appeared to be another scary street like the one we had just come from, complete with a complex of buildings that looked as though they had been bombed. At this point, I lost it. In the throes of a full-on anxiety attack, we spotted a bar on the corner with three outdoor tables, two of which were occupied by patrons. Thinking we would try again for a taxi, we sat down at the empty table. They all stopped talking and stared at us. At one table sat two toothless old men drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. At the other table was a large older woman in a housedress and sensible shoes and a young man with long greasy hair and a knife scar across his face.
No one approached us, so after a few minutes we poked our heads inside the building where four men were watching tennis on television. It was just a room with chairs and no discernible bar. They turned simultaneously to look at us, then turned back to the television silently with no further acknowledgement of our presence.
Back outside, we sat down again, not knowing what to do. Finally, the woman spoke to us in Serbian and we smiled while apologizing for not knowing Serbian. Undeterred, she gestured to the table and then to us. I finally understood she was trying to serve us so I pointed to her beer and held up two fingers.
The beers arrived, huge 20 oz bottles of strong, dark Serbian brew. I chugged mine down and felt the alcohol begin to soothe my frayed nerves. Perry hates beer, but this was not a vodka and tonic establishment so he drank it, grimacing with every swallow. All the patrons had a permanent grimace, so he fit right in.
I was on my phone hunting for a taxi service and conveyed this quietly to Perry. Scar guy suddenly spoke to us in English. "You want taxi? Where you want to go?"
Startled, I stumbled over my words explaining our quest to visit Ada Ciganlija. He appeared puzzled and stood up pointing down the sketchy street. "Taxi? No taxi. Park is there." Now, I stood up and pointed down the same street. "The park is there?" I questioned. He laughed. "At the end of this street. Three blocks."
The ice broken, we began chatting in earnest. In another installment of 'Never Judge a Book by Its Cover', he turned out to be a pretty good guy.
Sufficiently lubricated, we said our goodbyes and walked the three blocks. Sure enough, there it was. Happy beachgoers and ice cream stands amidst a lovely park setting. A sharp contrast to the scene just a few blocks away.
We walked for a long time and just when we thought the day couldn't be any stranger than it was, we came upon a baseball game between the Serbian and Hungarian national youth baseball teams. Taking a seat in the stands, we could hear the unmistakeable sound of English with a southern drawl "Wait for your pitch" and "Throw to first". The coaches were American.
Baseball is not huge in the Balkans, so as fans of the game we felt it was our duty to support Serbia even though they were crushed by the much larger (and apparently older?) Hungarians. What are they feeding those kids for breakfast? We laughed that on the other side of the world, we were partaking in the most normal American afternoon activity- baseball in the park.
After a wrong turn in the morning, everything had turned right. Sketchy people turned out to be saviors. Serbian parks turned out American sports. A strange place on the road had once again turned familiar.