Boris and Milos took Fabian and I to the airport this morning where we bid them goodbye. It was so wonderful seeing my friend Boris and catching up while I was here, as well as meeting his really sweet boyfriend. There are some people in life that you connect with so well and always feel close to, and Boris is one of those people for me. I am hopeful (as is he) that he will move back to New York someday soon.
Thanks to Fabian’s platinum Amex, we are currently ensconced in the swank business center at the airport awaiting our flight to Paris. We keep hearing announcements in Serbian over the PA system, and I swear one of them was paging someone with the last name “Thisisabitch”. We distinctly heard it more than once, and it made me think that perhaps this is the Serbian version of someone playing a paging prank. Like when someone calls a bar and asks if they can page “Mike Hunt” or something equally juvenile. Still, we couldn’t help giggling every time we heard it.
As I do in many other locations, I have a collection of random notes about Serbia. Just a simple list of things I have noticed while here:
– Sweatpants. I have never seen so many people (almost exclusively men) wearing them as their primary mode of dress.
– Natural Gas / Petrol. Many of the cars here are retrofitted to work with both natural gas and petrol, as natural gas is far less expensive here than regular petrol.
– Smiling. No one seems to do it here but us. And the locals look at us as if we are crazy for smiling. What do they know that we don’t, or vice versa?
– Heavy, meat-based cuisine. As you have no doubt noticed from some of the postings and photos, this is a crazy meat heavy culture. They seem to eat very few vegetables and love everything deep fried, soaked in cream or fat, or generally colon cancer causing.
– Heartburn. I have never had more of it, I am sure related to my note above.
– Smoking. Almost everyone smokes here, like I haven’t seen since Paris in the early 90s.
Today we took a side trip to the absolutely charming and lovely town of Novi Sad. If you are ever in Serbia, I highly recommend it. The town itself has a beautiful scale and architecture, and the fort across the river in Petrovardin is also very nice. It was particularly interesting to compare this city to Belgrade, which because of having been more a target of destruction in wartime, has many newer buildings (especially from the communist era) that are not especially beautiful or sensitive. Novi Sad has a lot more charm, and is of course much smaller than Belgrade, which makes it easier to maintain. We spent the afternoon wandering the streets, eating, drinking, and being silly. And the weather, while not especially warm, was miles better than yesterday, with beautiful light and no rain.
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The weather has been absolutely shitty the last couple of days, just cold and rainy. We have been eating and hanging out and not much else, although we did make it to the Nikola Tesla museum yesterday. Tesla was an amazing genius who changed the world in so many ways. The museum itself was not all that inspiring unfortunately, they could really do with some better explanations behind the technology that he invented, but it was cool nonetheless to see a bunch of artifacts related to him, and to watch the short film there.
Despite it being very overcast and a bit chilly yesterday, we were lucky that it did not start raining until later in the afternoon. We took the risk and had a lovely if somber walk through the downtown area, its main pedestrian street (Knez Mihajlova) and once again to the fortress area which Fabian had not yet seen. And we began our tour with a stop by the best bakery in Belgrade (with quite a line out the door) for amazing burek. Later in the afternoon it really started raining so we went back home and ordered Chinese food and watched a couple of movies (and painted our toenails and had a pillow fight — ok, not really to that last part).
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Yesterday we bid a sad goodbye to Milos, who had to return to Dubai. And as my friend Fabian was arriving at the same airport just 2 hours later, we made a brief foray to a Serbian mall before returning to pick him up. All I can say about Serbian malls is that they look like malls anywhere else in the world, with the possible exception that a huge number of Serbian men seem to dress in sweatpants and trainer outfits. It was kind of shitty weather yesterday, raining a lot, so we came back to the apartment and hung out a bit before going out to a fancy Serbian restaurant called Madera for dinner. Even though it was quite fancy and delicious, as with all Serbian food, it consisted almost exclusively of meat, cheese and bread, with perhaps two or three small tomato pieces thrown in as a garnish. I am ever more determined and motivated to investigate the incidence of colon cancer here, it is becoming an obsession.
Since the weather is still not great I think we may take in the Nikola Tesla museum today, and walk around a bit in the city center if the rain lets up.
It just so happened that my trip to Belgrade coincided with gay pride week here. But this isn’t like gay pride in New York or other western capitals. The numbers attending events here are quite small, but it is heartening to see some activists take up the cause of equal rights, often at great personal danger to themselves. Serbia is a country with intense anti gay hatred. The gay pride march was supposed to happen today in the center of town, but the government canceled the event citing security issues. The last time a march was permitted was in 2010, and it was marred by intense clashes between quite well organized neo-nazi groups opposed to equality and the police. Serbia is attempting to join the EU, but it will need to respect the rights of LGBT citizens if it wants membership. It was widely expected to allow the march to go ahead and provide police protection, but at the last minute they caved. Fortunately, a smaller group of a few hundred quickly organized gay rights activists spontaneously marched instead last night, without incident.
Yesterday Boris’ boyfriend Milos arrived from Dubai (where he works) and we went to pick him up at the airport at around noon. With our limited time in the morning we went to an area called Ada and walked around the Sava lake there. There are lots of cafes around the lake and apparently the place is quite hopping in the summer. Since it was a weekday and just out of season, there really weren’t all that many people around and we had a pleasant, quiet walk around the perimeter. After picking up Milos we went to a local restaurant to have one of their favorite dishes, essentially a giant plate of meat (called Ćevapi I believe). From the food we have had over the past few days, I can only imagine that the incidence of bowel cancer and coronary disease to be quite high here. Except at the margins with a tiny bit of tomato or cucumber here or there, I have yet to find any hint of fiber in the local diet. But I have to admit it has all been pretty delicious.
Later in the evening, we went to a somewhat wild house party that we did not get home from til 5 am. It has been eons since I stayed out that late, but it was quite a good time and I am on vacation after all. On the way there we passed through an area my friend Boris described for me as like the West Village of Belgrade, and it did have more trees and a smaller scale and older architecture. I think we will head back there for a walk-around in the next few days.
Today started off a bit strange and sad, as I went with Boris to the gravesite of his friend who died a couple of days ago. The mother and father and a few family members and friends were there, and the whole thing was just heartbreaking to watch. He was clearly, deeply, loved by his family and friends, and his father in particular was inconsolable. For one thing, he was the only child. For another, he was so young, only 33. One of the other things that made it even more sad was that his boyfriend of two years was there, but to most of the family they just thought of him as a good friend. Only the mother and his friends knew he was gay, and in this part of the world it is the norm for the families to remain in the dark about it. So the boyfriend could not really be included in a way befitting the partner of someone who has just died. Everyone took turns lighting candles at the head of the grave, just behind the large tombstone. They sat around and shared remembrances (not speaking Serbian, that is what I assume anyway) and crying and consoling each other and arranging the massive pile of flowers on the grave, and after a while we left. I feel so bad for everyone involved, I had even met this friend of Boris’ when he came to New York a couple of years ago, it is such a tragedy to die so young and so suddenly.
After that, Boris and I went for a meal of heavy crepes, then walked around the old Belgrade Fortress, and then for a drink by the water.
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I have safely arrived in Belgrade, where I was picked up at the airport by Boris’ good friend Mihajlo because Boris had to very unfortunately attend the funeral of a good friend. We went out to eat at a place in one of the apparently chi chi-er neighborhoods of Belgrade, and I have to admit the food was pretty good (if heart attack inducing). I have also learned my first Serbian word: Хвала (which sounds like koala to my ear but with more of the ch sound from chutzpah at the beginning). It means, appropriately enough, “thanks”. Boris joined us later and I have to say it is wonderful to see him after all this time. I am now settled into his place while he pays some last respects to the family of his friend, and we will go out later for a brief drive around the city.
One other interesting thing I noticed in the toilet of the JAT (Serbian) airline plane I took here, was this specific message on the back of the toilet seat:
I have of course seen these signs many times before, but never with such material specificity. Glass, metal, and cloth, really? Who would even think to do such a thing? Although you just KNOW someone has before, or they probably would not have to have made the sign. Hm…