Evil Empire or Faded Giant?

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
1
60
107
Trip End Mar 09, 2008


Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Hide lines
shadow

Flag of Serbia and Montenegro  ,
Monday, September 17, 2007

After a thoroughly sleepless night on the train, we were exhausted.  Perhaps an overnight train which crosses out of Bosnia, into Croatia, out of Croatia and into Serbia was not such a smart move.  However, this would only explain the 7 passport checks interrupting our sleep through the night.  Why did we also need 5 hourly train ticket checks between midnight and 5am... Yawn!

From our last entry you could understand why we were expectżng to find Serbia full of rippling, musclebound, gun-toting ogres.  We had heard in Bosnia how different a "people" the Serbs were -  focussed on "fighting, training and killing" while the Bosnian ambitions were more affably focussed on "family, children and love".  Of course, when we arrived Belgrade was just another large European city.

A city diligently committed to 24 hour, unceasing, reliable, round-the-clock service.  After a long walk we located our chosen hostel with its 24 hour hostel reception which was, of course, closed when we tried to check in at 10am.  We found an internet cafe which was open 365 days, 24 hrs 7 days per week which, when we wanted to use it was, yes you guessed it, closed and locked up for the night at 4pm.  Numerous phone numbers are printed up on walls with a prefix "nonstop".  I suppose this might mean they have an answering machine.  Some nights they might even connect it and turn it on.  Earnest in their promises yet unconvincing in delivery.  Not sure why they bother.

Belgrade reminded me a lot of Russia.  This arose from the customer anti-service, the fashion and the bleak grey buildings.  People were gruff and un-smiling.  Whilst in Bosnia the welcome greeting was also a frown manifested into a permanent scowl, but once they started to speak their faces would light up and the dry sense of humour would reveal itself.  In Belgrade there was no humour.  Only anger.  Particularly if you were say, trying to book a flight at, perhaps, a travel agent. "I am too busy working on other business to help you.  Try somewhere else".  After 4 separate attempts at 4 different travel agents I was left with no choice: asking Yui all the way back home in Sydney to help me.  Thanks Yui! Service with a smiley :).

One of our intentions in visiting Belgrade was to hear the other side of the Bosnian story.  Astoundingly, there was no mention of this conflict that we could find.  [Were we looking in the wrong places?]  We visited the Kalemegdan Fort and the Belgrade Military Museum to deliberately investigate recent Serbian military history.  A proud exhibit on the ground floor of the Museum flaunts the remains of Sergeant Carpenter's uniform and remnants of his shot down plane.  His uniform's bold embroidery of his surname is clearly visible to all and sundry.  I felt that this boastful display was in extremely poor taste and empathise with the relatives who would no doubt visit the museum at some stage of their lives.  Surprisingly, there was no mention of anything happening during the period of 1992-1995.  I was really hoping to understand the Serbian sentiment but the fact that it was not mentioned speaks volumes in itself.   

Much of my stay in Belgrade (including the aforementioned flight) was devoted to making my Ghana trip a reality.  My Ghana trip involves volunteer teaching at Anmchara International School (a 5 year old village school) located in Sega around 60km east of Ghana's capital city Accra.   Astoundingly, Belgrade was the only city we would be visiting which had a Ghanian Embassy (despite the fact that the official Ghana Government website doesn't know this office exists).  This was how › found myself in a somewhat surreal moment held up in the Ghana Embassy waiting room in Serbia alongside a Diplomat's Chauffeur flicking through the TV channels to get to his much sought after Serbian MTV.

Not realising his status, I asked whether he was also waiting for his Ghana visa to be processed. "No, I driver.  My English not good"  He persevered, illuminating me a little about the on-screen singer, a few tidbits about his personal life and that his popularity has been waning as of late.  Then he expanded with "you know Snoop Doggy? I see him play in Novidad!"

We are then unexpectedly interrupted by the Ghanian Consular Official who I assume has come to ask me some questions about my application.  The official relaxes into one of the many deep bucket seated leather armchairs filling the lavish waiting room and begins "Do you go to Anglican or Catholic Church in Australia?" 

"Erhm, I don't really go to church".

"YOU DON'T GO TO CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA!?  NOT AT ALL? NEVER?"

"Erhm no.  Unless of course this will affect my application.  İn which case İ do...."

"Here".  He gives me the business card of his local Serbian Church and encourages me with the promise that I might meet someone nice in the coffee hour after the service and then gets up to leave.  There is of course no problem with my visa.  It is completed within the hour despite all information stating that it will take 4-10 days to process.  The fee? Half that quoted on all the websites.  The Church question was one of purely personal concern.

Meanwhile the chauffeur continues his smooth moves as if nothing has happened - closing with a suggestion I experience the Belgrade Night Club Scene.  He pauses for a moment, obviously struggling to identify the correct English word, so he calls out to the grey haired, elderly receptionist for her help.

She responds unperturbed, without looking up, "rave" and he continues his sentence without pause.

I sit in my armchair trying desperately not to explode with laughter.  This blend of Belgrade and Ghana: not to be missed.

* * *

The commute to Belgrade should have been a cruise, but turned into a trial in true Iron Curtain fashion. An overnight train from 10:30 through to 6:30 the following morning is normally an easy sleep as the carriage rocks you off to the land of nod. But not on the little route from Bosnia to Serbia: 7 passport checks, 5 ticket checks, and 10 times where the conductor opens the door of your cabin.

And one additional time for someone to steal my mobile phone (poorly) hidden in my shoe (as clock and alarm clock its the sole unlocked item). We took the obvious precautions of locking our bags together and physically to the seat frame (also locking away and burying all cash and wallets). The temptation to keep our passport paraphernalia out after the third check was overwhelming. So the loss is minor, if still irritating.

I slept pretty well despite all this, but Claude was struggling to name the city she was in on our arrival after securing about 9 minutes sleep just as we pulled into our final destination. So it was that I happily trekked around town to find us a place to stay.

Choices in Belgrade are a little motley, so we settled on a place that seemed as good as any as it seemed to have a manager with a good sense of humour. We were also swung by the inclusion of breakfast, showing just how tired we must have been.

The breakfast at Hotel Centar deserves its own blog entry. As our rapport with the manager has grown, he greets me every morning with a cheery "Good morning Australia" - as he knows guests only by their nationality - and we discuss the possibility of room maintenance for the day, a delightful charade we both indulge in. Of course the tap in our room won't stop running (sometimes coming on of its own accord, hauntingly), of course the TV won't work, and I'm only kidding myself if I think the window will get fixed. But it makes for such delightful fantasy.

Its all good fun, and he has been turning his hand to increasing his repertoir of tourist banter as I pay for the next day's lodgings each morning. He apologised one day for forgetting our breakfast vouchers and I advised not to think a thing about it: for while his rooms have character, his beds are a delight, his showers blisteringly hot, his breakfasts can only be described as truly diabolical.

He was curious, enquiring, keen to improve - I'll give him that. "Do you not have proper coffee in Australia?" I feigned surprise, and suggested that › thought the substance I had been served - to judge by colour and consistency - was mushroom soup. "Well, a little taste of Moscow, all the way over here - what luck!"  I suggested in my most positive tone. His smile was knowing, and breakfast vouchers are no longer spoken of. I have since noticed his own takeaway coffee cup.

The central impression I have of Belgrade is its similarity to Moscow. All the signs in Cyrillic, all the crumbling majesty of a ubiquitous Hotel Mockba (Moscow) as the central downtown hotel. And all the fashions. You can still have a quite superb and very five star dining experience at Hotel Mockba for about $30 with wine, coffee, entree - the whole shebang. Word to the unitiated though: the wine is 2 parts vinegar, 3 parts petrol, so approach with care and make sure you have a good map to get home. The wine gave me the same minty menthol sensation you get from some toothpastes, only behind my eyeballs. 

Belgrade still bears the scars of its 1999 brush with NATO. Around 100m from our hotel stands the remains of what we believe is the Defence Ministry. No real way to find out while we're here though. I look up every day expecting to see them appending a sign on the roof that reads "Baby Milk Factory".

As mentioned in a prior entry, we're here in Belgrade seeing how what appears to be the aggressor nation in the recent troubles handles its recent history. Not well. Not well at all.

What started it all off is best hinted at by the babas in the park selling old banknotes - the highest denominations the world has ever known. Under the good president Milosevic inflation went vertical 500bn dinar notes were printed. That's a D500,000,000,000. This destroys the economy by forcing people to count endless zeroes just to buy milk, leading to any rational president blaming the neighbours and starting a war. 

The Military Museum is the only public museum we have found that touches on the 1990's. Its a farce: the war in their eyes starts when, clear out of the blue, the Yankee Imperialists of NATO bomb them out of the clear blue sky when all they were doing was holding hands, singing songs and making sure everyone at the Department of Love and Hugs was working super hard. Kosovo, ethnic cleansing, Srebrinica  Massacre,  Sarajevo: never happened.

I am now curious how many years it took Germany to adopt its commendably open and honest stance about their role. Serbia have since got rid of Milosevic, and while their first truly democratically elected PM was assassinated (most likely for handing Milosevic over for war crimes investigations) there is enough distance from the prior regime to start to point fingers at it. But nationalism still runs very hot.

What is even more instructive is just how many of our fellow Westerners - a good 50% - fall for the dupe. The comments book is half the appeal of many places to visit, and never is this truer than here. Page after page condemning EU/ NATO/ US imperialism and the military industrial complex (a number of comments replace the 'S' in the 'USA' with a swastika, such is people's confidence in the argument they are backing). You hang your head for the profound denseness of your fellow man. People comment on how sad it is the biased and corrupt Western media, led by the evil CNN, left the poor burghers of Belgrade suffer so through this unprovoked attack.

The Battle of the Comments Book is action packed though. Vitriolic lists of Serb atrocities and aggression are appended by other writers - particularly the South Americans curiously - creating a tumultuous back and forth. The pro-Serb writers fall back on the crux that the NATO airstrike was "illegal": not unwarranted, not immoral, not unjust. All that supports them is a technicality.

A bit of CIA laziness here ensured that not only did some civilians fall victim in the airstrikes, but also the Chinese embassy, where three Chinese journalists were killed. Amazingly, they simply took an address for a Serb War Ministry and did the equivalent of punching into Google Earth to find out where it was - never checking firsthand before passing on the coordinates. But street numbering here is inconsistent and that building wasn't where it should have been. Oops. (The irony of the Chinese Government complaining about people other than themselves killing Chinese journalists was possibly lost on them.)

The overall feeling I get here is that it will all happen again. We visited Bosnians last week still stinging from what they see as an unjust peace. And rapidly shrinking, fading Serbia seethes with its own misplaced sense of injustice. Its historical role in the world is cut still further. While Travelpod still thinks we are in Serbia and Montenegro, Montenegrins have now seceded too. And when in due course the southern province becomes independent Serbia will become a small dot on the map. They won't take this well.

See it while you can I guess.
Slideshow Report as Spam
Where I stayed
Hotel Centar

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: