Day 4, Beograd/Belgrade

Sorry about the very short last post, only spent a short time in the internet cafe yesterday and was showing my new friend Gavin my blog, my other websites and telling him about my work.

Well the weather yesterday (Day 4) was appalling. Woken up in the night by a thunderstorm, we had to set off first thing for the short train trip to Belgrade (Beograd, meaning White City). It was pissing down all morning and we were lugging luggage (is that why it’s called luggage do you think?) to the train station. I got pretty soaked. I had not really planned for heavy rain, and the only protection I brought was a sun hat – which I wore to keep off the rain depsite the fact I looked ridiculous) and a poncho which I bought hastily the day before the trip. When I opened it out it was big enough to cover a house, so not really practical.

Helen our group leader noticed that when we got to Novi Sad station, and were standing in a group, all the other locals were standing around us, as if to watch and listen to us. Not in a bad way but it was interesting that they were so curious about us.

Getting on this packed intercity train was a nightmare with all our bags, but the locals were very helpful – it really is noticeable how welcoming and friendly the people here are to outsiders.

Two hours later we arrive in Belgrade – the weather is still miserable, and we get to our hotel which is just student halls of residence. A bit dingy compared to the nice hotel we had in Novi Sad, but then this trip is not about the luxury it’s about getting a real experience. Lots of beautiful student girls in the building, and yes. I have already seen one walking around in a dressing gown. Worth roughing it after all.

We headed into town to meet our local guide, an amazing woman called Borjana (need to double check that name with the guide), she has lived here all her life and she took us to the oldest kavana (coffee shop) in Serbia where we hada massive lunch and some drinks as she told us the history of Yugoslavia, Serbia and of Belgrade.

She popped out for a cigarette at one point and I seized the opportunity to go out with her, and try one of the mellow Serbian cigarettes she offered. But the main reason was I wanted to ask her lots about Yugoslavia. She didn’t say much about the most recent war, but she did say she was very sad that those 10 years have been lost, and that Serbia will probably need another 20 to recover. She told us “when you don’t clean your house for a year, you can’t then clean it in day” a phrase which I thought really summed up the long process of forgiveness and reconstruction (both physically and emotionally) that this part of the world still has ahead of it.

It was sad hearing about how little the average wage is in this part of the world (about 250EUR per month), but throughout our stay here we have seen Serbs working hard to keep things normal and you have to respect that.

She also showed us a 500 billion dinar note, from the war when inflation was ludicrous. Quite a sight and I was excited that today (Day 5) I saw a vendor selling banknotes from those times, so I got a set of silly money. I am now a dinar-billionaire 🙂

She told us about the horrible personal conflicts during the war too, families and couples broken apart or killed because they were from opposing (but formally harmonious) sides. This was particularly tragic, but it’s humbling and beautiful to see this country looking so strong and full of energy again, and see the streets bouncing with happy people. People sometimes think I am morbid for being interested in war and all the suffering of this part of the world, but it is the overall story of hope, and rebuilding and the immortality of this culture that I just find awe-inspiring. And I’ve not even seen Bosnia yet!

After lunch she took us to Belgrade fortress and some other sites. The fortress is incredible. Gavin has a cable to connect the camera to the PCs here so I may be able to start posting photos. Some of the sites of the trip so far are just impossible to describe. The rain had let up a little by the time we got to the fortress but the sky was still horribly dark.

We went for some thick hot chocolate (yum), did the internet-looking-at that I described earlier, and then went for dinner in the famous Bohemian Quarter. Again, I was drinking bamboos! I said something during dinner which made Bea (Gavin’s wife) laugh louder than I’ve ever heard anyone laugh in my life, and she got shouted at by a woman at the next table. This is really the first rudeness we’ve seen so far, but this restaurant was quite posh. We talked later about how we don’t see the Serbs smile very often.

After dinner it was home and straight to bed after the previous night’s late bamboozing in Novi Sad. (*Alan spends 2 real minutes smiling that he has just invented the word bamboozing, meaning getting wasted on red wine and coke – the Serbs around wonder what I’m so pleased about).

For the first time on the trip I had a really good night’s sleep, and as my roommate Brian writes his diary for the night, I drift off to sleep after listening to some music on my iPod. It’s weird listening to my music here. It reminds me so much of London and home, and the trip to work and all those familiar comfortable things. But it doesn’t seem out of place, it’s just nice.

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