And it was because I derailed my plans that I wound up in Serbia at all. The plan all along had been, once I was done with Budapest, to get a train to Ljubjana in Slovenia and then work my way down the Croatian coast before ferrying to Italy
. I never imagined going to Serbia, even laughing at my friend Andy from Ios and wondering why we was so excited to get his trip extended by a couple weeks so he could spend some time there. Then I started hearing rave reviews from people who had been there, including a buddy Lloyd, also from Ios, who was doing Serbia with Andy and his brother Jimmy. Aside from adding some new and different places to the trip, it actually made more sense. The train trip to Belgrade is a lot smoother than the one to Slovenia, and it's also a lot easier to go to Italy from Slovenia -- a short train trip -- than from Dubrovnik in Croatia, which would've required a long ferry and then another train ride to get anywhere worthwhile.
I had my impressions of Serbia, based on vague memories as a child hearing about the wars going on there, but wasn't entirely sure what to expect now that it's democratic and Milosovic is dead and gone. What I found immediately -- aside from the bombed out buildings, which they put guards on so you can't photograph, until you find the blind spots anyway -- was that the Serbs were the nicest people, with the best command of English that I had met in any Eastern European country. This I discovered as I got brutally lost trying to find my hostel from the train station late at night. The fact that they are so helpful was a blessing for three reasons. One, I had no map and would've been totally hopeless without the kindness of strangers
. Two, even if I had that map it would've been about as helpful as a car in the middle of the ocean. See, everything, including the street signs, in Serbia is in Cyrillic. And for those who don't know much about me, I can't read Cyrillic. In Asia, every street sign written in the regional alphabet also had the names in Latin. Even in Greece I had enough knowledge of their alphabet that I could fudge things. Three, even if I had a map and
a working knowledge of Cyrillic it wouldn't have helped any because Serbia apparently doesn't believe in street signs. Everybody I asked for directions was helpful, with some recruiting the help of others and a kindly older couple who had been recruited and spoke not a lick of English even walked me up to the hostel door.
I had one full day in Belgrade, which was enough to see just about everything, but of course not nearly enough to feel a bond with it or the people. I started by walking up to the Citadel, which hugs a bend in the river that runs through the heart of the city. It's an all right sight, nothing too amazing, just something to walk amongst for an hour or two with a shady park to relax in with an ice cream. What I did find a little disarming, so to speak, was the massive collection of tanks and rocket launchers and what not they had on the grounds for people to take pictures of and even climb on if nobody was looking. From the citadel I walked through the pedestrian malls of the city, lined with flashy shops and chic cafes where you can waste away the day people-watching (and I do have to say, as far as the quality of people to watch, Serbia might rate the best, and that's quite an accomplishment in Eastern Europe)
. I went through town down to St Siva Temple, an enormous, multi-domed church right smack in the middle of about three main streets and can be seen from most parts of the city. As beautiful as the outside was, the inside was, like much of Europe, totally under construction and offered noting to see. To close the day, I tried to find Tito's Mausoleum, so I could add a second to the list after catching Ho Chi Minh's in Hanoi. I ended up finding the building five minutes before close, so just enough time to convince the guy at the gate I'd be quick, run inside, look at his tomb -- just a slab of marble really -- get yelled at for stepping off the path and on to some pebbles and then run back out.
That night I got a glimpse of the Belgradian nightlife, which I had heard particularly a lot about from Lloyd. Belgrade's main nightlife is centered on the river, with all the best clubs on barges docked on the side. Shortly after arriving I got separated from the other six people I'd gone out with, but still had myself a good night, talking to a group of Serbian girls I had met on the bathroom line. Talking to them I realized that Serbia is still new enough to this whole tourism thing that the locals are just as excited to meet you as you are to meet them. They also found it exciting -- and important that I told everyone else -- how I felt about the people I was meeting. So here you go Olga, the Serbs are still the nicest and best English-speaking I've met
. And for what it's worth, a few days after leaving the country I started identifying with the Serbs more. For obvious reasons Bosnians and Croats, even people of Bosnian and Croat descent, who never lived in the countries, harbor a certain hostility toward Serbia. I was hanging out with a Croatian-Canadian in Dubrovnik (two actually) and he would cringe when I mentioned how I felt about the Serbs. And why I can identify with them now is because I've seen the cringes on other people's faces when I say I'm American. It's hard -- and not always pleasant -- being from a country where people sometimes blame the population for the actions of its government. I didn't vote for Bush and certainly don't support his policies, yet I still get looked at as another 'bloody American' by a fair few people. By the same token, I'm sure all those Serbs I've talked to didn't support Milosovic (it wasn't an issue of voting) and didn't commit any war crimes. And maybe, retroactively, that's why I was as glad to visit Serbia as I am.
Back in March when I was having dramas with my flight home, trying to change the dates, I was asked by STA Travel to fill out an online form with new dates for when I'd like to use the flight. Back at that point I wasn't sure how Greece would pan out so I put dates down assuming I wouldn't work there. Of the three days I put down, one was August 9 -- the day I spent at Sziget -- and another was August 10, the day Heathrow was at a standstill with the liquid bomb scare. Just another reason to be appreciative of my time in Ios and how it can be good to not stick to plans (working in Greece had never occurred to me until halfway through the trip).