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This is a story about a trip

I am going to tell you about two places in the Balkans. These two places contrast a bit. I will tell you why I think so. I will also simplify things like historical facts and inadvertedly fabricate some of them. These are the side effects of my mission to understand what I see and hear despite not having the patience to look more closely and listen properly.

Although life is complicated

I live in Ljubljana now and recently I stayed in Belgrade for three days. I arrived by night train from Ljubljana in Slovenia. The train route runs along the river Sava, it’s a few hundred kilometers. Traveling from Ljubljana to Belgrade via Croatia with the night train is an exciting proposition in and of itself. It is a route that is probably mostly frequented by Western middle class Interrailers during summer time. Tourist season. So I am somewhat of an oddity.

I SLOVEnia

Ljubljana is a very pro-Western, that is pro-EU, place today. They have been EU members since 2004. Currently they have the honour of presiding over the Council Ministers of the European Union for half a year. Since the fall of Yugoslavia, which Slovenia initiated by declaring independence in 1991, Slovenia has been tireless in proclaiming itself as the leading post-communist economy. The patient with the best prospects for recovery.

Sketch of a tourist brochure for Slovenia

Slovenia is a beautiful, small, densely forested country. A country of 2 million with 300 thousand residing in Ljubljana, the capital. In tourist brochures and guides you will read that it is “Europe in a nut shell”. True enough, although it is only about 20 thousand km2, to the West it has a 50 km beach with summer resorts in Portoroz and Piran. Mediterranean summer destinations of thousands of families who flood the narrow Slovenian strip. I wonder why Croatia has such an extended coastal line while Slovenia and Montenegrin must contend with awkward compromises. (Since Serbia and Montenegro disbanded I understand the Serbian military is not sure how to dispose of its navy.)

Less than an hours drive inland will bring you to the Postojna and Skocjan caves. These are two distinct cave systems, not very far from each other. Skocjan has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list since 1988 and Postojna has been a popular tourist attraction for ages probably. These caves contain innumerable stalagmites and stalactites, they are very impressive. In the Postojna cave system there lives the human fish! A kind of salamander that has evolved in the dark recesses of the cave. It is almost translucent and completely blind. What a wonder of evolution as Bill Bryson would say…

To the North there are the Julian Alps, rugged mountain terrain. Slovenia boasts ski-hills that skiers crave for apparently. Ljubljana, the capital of 300 thousand it situated centrally in Slovenia. Right between Ljubljana and the northern Alps is Bled - a modern paradise resort. Bled comprises a lake, Lake Bled, which has a very small island with a church on it. Bled Castle dated from 1004 which is on a steep hill, a hundred meters above the lake and a small town. The church is popular with young people who get married. They say it’s romantic. It’s all picture perfect.

Concluding remarks

So much for Slovenia. A place of Western aspirations and arrogance towards its own past. It will not be difficult to lure tourists here. There are lots of nice attractions. It is favourably located. Not too hot and not too cold. Not too Western yet, but soon.

A place where privatization is a welcome, on-going process. Where the people – the work force – demonstrated, 70 thousand strong in November last year because of rising inflation and low salary increases. Proposed strikes for the end of January were narrowly averted. It wouldn’t do for the presiding country of the Council Ministers of the European Union to be brought to its knees by the public, only a month into its tenure.

In the node here on Ljubljana I read that it is, in the opinion of the author, a calm, relaxed city. I couldn’t agree more. The atmosphere is generally that of a quiet afternoon. You can almost sense time passing by physically. But in a good way. This is probably because all of Slovenia’s neighbours are more powerful. In the olden days, of course, it was an over-arching Austro-Hungarian Empire, but then, after the WWI, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia emerged. Still yet. Nothing raises my pulse like brooding about the ridiculous amount of large advertisement posters littered everywhere you go. In probably only a decade or so, I imagine, Ljubljana has been invaded by capitalism. “We really must teach them to consume” was the reply made by head of Siemens when his assistant asked him to confirm the budget.

About Slavs in general

Serbs have gotten a bum rap for the past decade or so. The problem, notwithstanding the fact that I don’t know enough about the recent history of Balkans, is a sad misunderstanding. It only took me three days in Belgrade to convince me of this. I was left with the strong conviction that Serbs are in no fundamental way different from me or you. Every single Serb I have met has been hospitable, gracious and friendly in an out-reaching kind of way. Forward-leaning. Good. Did I say Slovenia was a pro-Western country? Serbia has just put itself on a course towards the EU by favoring the pro-EU candidate over the pro Russian one. Hurray for democratic capitalism.

The Dirty White City

In contrast with Ljubljana, Belgrade has almost nothing to offer to tourists. Granted I did not look at the handful of museums available, I wasn’t in the mood to stroll between exhibition boxes. And I’m glad I didn’t.

Two great rivers dissect Belgrade. These are Sava, which originates from northern Slovenia and Danube which originates in Germany – and passes through many important European cities on it’s route to Belgrade. The confluence of the two is by Belgrade, Sava is a tributary to Danube. Sava flows from the West to the East while Danube flows from the North to the South. Effectively it looks like a big “T”. North of Sava is Novi Beograd (New Belgrade), a town which the Austro-Hungarian and Habsburg-empires built, historically named Zemun, now a fascinating old part of town with cobbled streets. South of the Sava is the older and larger part of the city, during most part of the past few hundred years under the Ottoman Turks.

Kalemegdan is the name of the old city fort right at the confluence of Sava and Danube. Built, fought over, razed and rebuilt since time immemorial. The Belgrade Military Museum is housed there, it has a couple of pieces of a B2 Stealth Bomber they shot down during the NATO bombing raids in 1999. The museum is an icon for the purported militaristic nature of Serbs.1 Their fascination with weapons for instance; at a bookstore there was no greay selection of books in English, there was no Philosophy section but there was a History of Warfare section. Weird.

Kalemegdan is the touristic focal point of Belgrade, just by it is the Belgrade Zoo. To get there by foot you should walk Knez Mihailova, the largest shopping street in Belgrade. Now I’ll dispense with the useless information.

The railroad workers left a big impression

Having gone twice to Kalemegdan, once while the morning fog obscured the view and once later in the noon, when the sun had cleared to reveal a less than impressive view. I went back to my hostel and did not return until around dinnertime. This time I went to Skadarska, a bohemian quarter, with (at least) one cobbled street with restaurants on both sides. Supposedly the intellectuals of 19th and 20th century gathered here for Irish coffee or what have you.

I only managed a light Italian plate of spaghetti and pasta. My appetite did not permit me a national dish, supposedly heavy on the meat. As I entered the basement restaurant I quickly gathered that it was a small restaurant with no other customers save a middle-aged man who seemed a bit drunk and was very friendly with the waiter. That was before I ordered. It was to be my (possible, but not verified, and hopefully last) Encounter with the Serbian Mafia. Please humour me. It was like a scene in that wonderfully surreal movie Underground, by Serbian director Emir Kusturica.2

More people came to the restaurant: a couple sat down close to me, the man kept taking photos on his digital camera, even standing up and taking a few steps for a better angle on his beloved. Some people focus to much on the past it seems. All the while I kept getting the feeling that the middle-aged drunk man commanded a great deal of respect from the restaurant staff. This suspicion was further confirmed when three men suddenly appeared, smiling and nervous. The middle-aged man was by now rather drunk and jovial. And so the three man picked up their instruments; a harmonica, bass and guitar. And started playing for him. Serbian folk music I believe. They sang together and the middle aged man gave them each a 1000 dinar bill. At one time the middle-aged man pulled up his shirt and exposed his belly. The band did not seem to enjoy itself and, more importantly, it was obviously only playing for this single man, not for the other customers: me and two couples. Then a few minutes later a quick cut, strongly built young man in an Adidas trainer walked in, immediately going to the middle aged man and saluting him. I was lucky to escape with my life.

Thankfully it was rather cheap like Eastern Europe is in general because of obvious reasons. I was now looking for a bar with live jazz music. Easier said than done. After a lot of searching I managed to find a jazz bar, with no live music on weekdays. The night life in Belgrade is famous for its underground clubs. Apparently most clubs are off-license or unofficial or something. So when I talked to one person about where to find a live jazz bar he told me sheepishly that he didn’t go so much out anymore and didn’t have the best contacts.

The next day I went to see the Svet Sava and Svet Marko Serbian Orthodox churches, I read Noam Chomsky and saw the Serbian Philharmonic Orchestra play some Serbian modern composer, Beethoven and Mendelson. I met a Danish contractor for the city government doing engineering work on revamping the tram system. He complained of corruption. The next day I spent a few hours waiting at the main train station. I wandered towards a small shack were men working at the rail tracks had a place to rest and chat. It almost felt like I was a prodigal son. Although only one of them talked English and they were about 5 or 6, they seemed very curious to talk to me. Probably they didn’t get many gests. They told me that in this dirty capital, their 300€ a month wages are fairly average. They looked at my passport picture - where I still have glasses, long disheveled hair and a toothy wild grin – and laughed. It felt so sincere and friendly. I was touched by it.

1: See Arkan
2: Mr. Kusturica is a Bosnian Muslim by birth. However he renounced that heritage recently and converted to Serbian Orthodox religion.

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