I want to visit all my neighbor countries before the end of my service. Last January during the winter break I wasn’t yet allowed to leave the country. (Peace Corps rules.) This year, I wanted to take advantage of my free time.
A sure sign of year two Peace Corps chill, my friend Gwen and I didn’t plan much for our departure. We knew there were buses and thought there might be a train, so we showed up at the Skopje bus station bright and early and figured it out from there. (One of my new site mates in the latest group of volunteers couldn’t believe didn’t have our travel finalized.) It worked out. We had plenty of options.
We even ran into a Macedonian friend in the bus station. She was getting off right over the border in Serbia, about seven hours before we would disembark.
Another sign of Peace Corps fortitude: an eight hour bus ride wasn’t bad. I was worried about the weather after seeing snow in the forecast, but the bus was a furnace. (When Macedonian babas are asking for AC in January, it’s hot.) I’ve also become a champion at bus sleeping, so I drifted for most of the ride.
The ride was mostly uneventful. At the border crossing they asked for the two Americans to step off so they could check our special ID Cards. (They said it that way. “Americans. Come.”) The moment we said hello in Macedonian though, the inquiry ended. (Local language means street cred.)
I also broke one baba’s heart. I stepped off at a rest stop to get a break from the bus sauna and an older woman handed me a water bottle as I left. She was speaking Serbian, so I didn’t understand every word, but I thought she was asking me to throw the bottle away. Either that or refill it. Gwen said no one would ask a stranger to track down a sink to refill a bottle, so I tossed it. Moments before the bus departed again, the baba was standing next to my seat asking where her bottle was. Turns out she had wanted it refilled. Whoops. When she heard my Macedonian with an American accent, she said never mind and realized I hadn’t understood her request. My bad baba.
We arrived Friday evening armed with handwritten directions to our hostel. After about two minutes I said we should ask for someone to help us get oriented. Gwen wanted to conquer the challenge. A kind voice in faltering English settled the issue by asking where we were headed.
He was parked along the sidewalk behind us and he heard our English and (correctly) assumed we weren’t local. It turns out, his nephew, who was in the car with him, had played tennis while attending college in the US, even playing against Gwen’s alma mater in Kentucky. We were all instant friends.
After some Kentucky loving, we started down the correct street. Not five minutes later, our new friends pulled up along side us and stopped traffic to give us a ride to our hostel. They realized it was on their way. A bit more conversation about Kentucky later, we arrived and thanked our kind friends.
We had a couch surfer for most of the weekend, but we spent our first night at an adorable hostel. Our Macedonian translated with our Serbian hosts (the languages are quite similar, though not exact as bus baba will attest) and we soon settled in to meet our roommates. We had guys from Turkey, a guy from Germany, one from Amsterdam, and one from Chile. I mastered cheers in every language but German, so every round of drinks was followed by a chorus of different languages and then “cheers in German!” (It became a joke of the weekend.)
As I mentioned in my last blog, the hostel gave us the lovely surprise of flushing TP abilities. The floors were also heated and the shower was like a dream. I told the host it was hands down the best shower I’ve had in nearly two years.
Gwen decided to spend the night recharging for the weekend, but my bus slumber meant I was ready to start exploring. Our motley international crew set out to find a bar we liked and we settled on a rakija bar. Like a good Macedonian volunteer, I claimed the rakija here is the best in the Balkans, but there were some tasty varieties and I tried to help guide our friends in their selections. We had pear, honey, and raspberry. It was all great.
The next morning dawned with sunshine, a nice surprise after expecting rain and snow. We checked out a free walking tour that hit the highlights of the city, including the Belgrade Fortress remains in Kalmegdan Park, which overlooked the intersection of the Sava and Dabube rivers. We also checked out the Pobednik (the victor) statue and his booty. (It’s a famous city symbol guys, but he’s naked. Here’s why.)
Most importantly, the tour includes samples of Serbian rakija and ajvar, both homemade. The two Macedonian transplants on the tour were quite excited about this. We warned the people around us that rakija is for sipping, not throwing back like a shot. We weren’t quick enough to warn one woman on the other side of the group and we tried not to smile as her face screwed up with the shot of sharp liquor.
It was the nicest day of our weekend and our tour guide was adorable. (Top marks for Belgrade Walking Tours.) In the afternoon, we met out couch surfer and settled in and chatted with him. Serbian and Macedonian cuisine is pretty similar, so instead of him introducing us to the grilled meat many Balkan countries are known for, we talked him into trying something new and checking out the falafel shop near his house. (His first time.)
Gwen and I did a bit more wandering, taking in the sites in the downtown area before meeting up with our host and another friend to check out an eclectic, hole in the wall jazz bar near the Republic Square. We never would have found it on our own and the music and beer was great. On the walk home, the American side of Gwen’s stomach couldn’t resist a stop at McDonald’s. (My vegetarian stomach didn’t have the same draw, but the blueberry sundae I had was delish.)
We loved the hospitality in Belgrade. Everyone we met was helpful and kind. I think our use of Macedonian also helped. (And probably confused some people.)
We decided to check out the Zemun neighborhood on Sunday and when there were no bus schedules to be had, we asked a man waiting at the same stop for some guidance. I started the conversation in Maceodnian, but knowing that the numbers are different in Serbian, I asked if he knew English. He did. He even had a visa to visit America that he is excited to use one day. He asked how we were enjoying our time, walked us 15 minutes across town to find the right bus stop, and then wished us well and invited us to visit again. There were many like him.
[Okay, so full disclosure: we didn’t pay for a single bus ride. It’s not that we didn’t want to. We just weren’t sure how. In Macedonia you can pay for city buses when you get on. In Belgrade, this transaction is supposed to take place before. We never quite figured it out, but no one stopped us so it worked out.]
Zemun was adorable, even on a rainy day. We walked along the Danube where the fowl version of Swan Lake must have been rehearsing for the sheer number of swans, geese, ducks, and other birds. We settled on a restaurant with traditional fare for lunch and though many of the dishes were familiar, they were all delicious and priced similarly to our Balkan home. (AKA very affordable if you aren’t a PCV and you actually make money.)
We also walked through an open market, not unlike the ones we shop at every week. (I’m going to have a hard time going into a supermarket when I’m back in America. All the fresh, seasonal food here is has me spoiled.)
We made it back downtown in time to catch another walking tour: the Communist tour. It encompassed the last few things on our must see list, the remains of buildings hit by the NATO bombings of the late 1999 and the Tito Museum, which is known as The House of Flower.
We have heard about the era of Tito since we arrived in Macedonia. Many of the older generations have strong feelings about how much better life was while he was the ruler of Yugoslavia and how everyone was working and happy during the communist age. He is a generally beloved figure, so we naturally had to pay homage to the man, the myth, and the legend. (For reference to his legend, check out photos of the batons saved from the relay honoring his birthday each year.)
We stay out of politics, but we couldn’t leave the museum without adding a little note in the guest book.
You’re the best. Thanks for everything.
Gwen and Rebekah.”
It was a bummer that we didn’t make it to the bombed buildings until after the sun went down, but that made it even eerier to view. It’s wild to think that these events are part of such a recent history. And really sad.
It was practically a private tour, with our two friends from the hostel joining us. (This tour was a 10 euro fee, but included bus tickets and museum entry. So hey, we paid for the bus!) We all decided that communism had made us hungry and sought out a place with traditional fare. The guys hadn’t tried ajvar yet and that’s just unacceptable.
We found a really cool restaurant called Manufaktura, which had a modern vibe and classic cuisine. I had a delicious vegetarian moussaka that I would happily eat every day.
Then we set out on what would be our most epic quest of the weekend: to find Kafana SFRJ, the Tito memorabilia bar.
We had a location circled on a cartoony tourist map, but not much else. It took a few wrong turns and then a few Macedonian/Serbian exchanges and revised directions, but we found it. It was the cheapest glass of rakija I saw all weekend and the best atmosphere. It was a quiet hole in the wall, and every wall was plastered in Tito photos and Yugoslav era maps, photos, documents, and relics.
One of the guys from the hostel, a journalism student, was working on a piece about Yugoslav nostalgia. This place was the jackpot from him. His camera flashed on every wall and every patron and he set up and interview with the owner the next day.
It was a fun last night of relaxing and recapping our highlights. We stopped to grab some chocolate as a thank you for our couch surfer and I was once more surprised by the welcoming nature of Serbians. When I switched from English to Macedonian at the checkout, they gushed over the American oddity in their shop and then doled out high fives after realizing we were Balkan neighbors. Our hostel friends thought there was some major conversation going on base on the hubbub. When I explained that I just said hello and thank you, we all laughed.
The next morning we set off early for another full day on the bus and enjoyed the sunrise on our way back home. Thanks Belgrade! Живели and cheers in German!