Repatriate Games



The Balkan-Central European-Southeastern Europe Holiday: Belgrade, Part II

Wherein Anna Grace learns about the urban sport of “Apple Picking.”  Yep, her iPhone was pickpocketed.

Our day began with a grand breakfast in the hotel; Serbian savory pastries, meats, cheeses, yogurts, fruits, and so many other choices to keep us happy.  Breakfast was walked off through the pedestrian area, enjoying the cool morning air and the quiet of a grand capital city waking up on our way to the Belgrade Fortress. The fortress sits atop Belgrade, at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers; a pretty park and the Belgrade Zoo, our intended destination, surround the fortress.

The Fortress and the Serbian Monument to France from WWI.

A Serbian Medieval Festival on the fortress grounds. Could you even imagine this scene in the US? Children throwing hatchets at a target without full body gear and a parental waiver, with even younger children just standing on the sidelines.  We busted out in laughter.

In good order we reached the Zoo. The Belgrade Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in Europe (Vienna’s Schönbrunn Tiergarten is the oldest in Europe.) Yet again, I had read mixed reviews on the zoo; those who are fans of the glitzy, hands-on experience, and prefer to view the animals from behind fourteen layers of security fencing and plexiglass were critical, reporting that the zoo wasn’t worth one’s time.

Our impression?  The zoo is a delightful, old-school place to spend time with your family, and definitely not a place to turn the children loose to play with the latest and greatest gadgets and whatsits about eco-conservation and global warming (There are no gadgets.  The zoo hand paints “Caution” signs, its resources are that sparse. The Happy Times weren’t friendly to the zoo.)  Most of the animal habitats have been thoughtfully renovated, though, although there a few remaining in need of a bit of work.

The best part was that we could see the animals without binoculars!  Sir Kangaroo waves “hello” to us!

The camel and the impressive white tiger were also in close sight.  So awesome!

The only English language sign we saw in the zoo.  Guess what animals we were being warned about?

Nope, not the lions.

These guys and gals. Hahahaha.

Vultures, turtles, and a peacock trying to hook up with some Guinea hens.

The seal couple is named Olive Oyl and Popeye, and their enduring romance is a star attraction. So much for Belgrade eschewing all things American.

Goats, chickens, hens, and peacocks roam freely, adding to our lovely, lovely morning at the Zoo.

We paused at a cafe for refreshments, and then left the zoo to investigate the small vintage amusement park just outside the grounds. Anna Grace and I took a spin on bumper cars for a mere $0.70USD equivalent ticket, enjoying the beautifully maintained park and old-fashioned fun.

A few minutes later we were at the fortress walls overlooking the Sava and Danube.

It was then that Anna Grace realized her iPhone was missing. Lickety-split we ran back first to the zoo cafe and then to the bumper cars. The cafe owner and bumper car operator were terribly kind and helpful, but it was soon apparent that she had not accidentally dropped her phone.  I called her number with no response, and as a last ditch effort, I sent a Google-translated Serbian text to her phone, telling the thief that the phone was being tracked, and to please return the phone to the hotel. Then I remotely locked her phone account, but, ever hopeful, did not erase her phone data.

Anna Grace was of course devastated. We had read that Sarajevo had pickpocket issues, especially with iPhones, and had been traveling mindfully throughout our trip, but to pickpocket an iPhone from a young girl at the zoo is just plain mean.  Spirits down, we returned to the hotel a little early for our Mittagspause, trying to regroup in order to make the most of our short time in Belgrade.

In the mid-afternoon we set out for St. Sava, a beautiful Serbian Orthodox church and Belgrade landmark.  The gray skies matched our mood but helpfully created a dramatic backdrop for our photos.

While pausing to review our map my mobile phone rang. Anna Grace’s phone was calling me! I answered to hear a woman saying, “Hello? I am calling from Belgrade. I have your telephone.” A family out enjoying the park at the Fortress had found her phone a short distance away from where we had been!  (I’d like to think the thief dropped it after reading the text.)  The woman agreed to bring it to the hotel later in the afternoon, and we were ecstatic!

Spirits buoyant, we continued around Belgrade taking in the sights and the culture. (You’ll note the gray skies had passed, literally and figuratively.) We stopped at St. Mark’s, another Serbian Orthodox Church that was striking against the afternoon sky and very different in character than St. Sava.

Outside the church we met a gentleman who took great delight in talking to anyone about the church, why the floor of the church was covered with straw (with which many people were weaving small wreaths–it was an Orthodox holy day), how we are all one big family, and practically everything else that came to his mind.  We felt bad bidding him farewell, but the afternoon was waning and we needed to return to the hotel.

The kind woman and her son who found the phone met us at the hotel, and I practically had to force them to accept even the smallest token of gratitude. I finally won the boy over when I suggested he use some of the reward money for ice cream. The mom was happy that we were happy, apologized (!) for not returning the phone earlier because she had been busy, and shared a few gentle words of admonishment with Anna Grace about keeping her phone safe before she left.

So…we may not have checked off everything on our Belgrade to-do list, but our fond memories of the city and its wonderful people top the list of our shortened holiday.


The Balkan-Central Europe-Southeastern Europe Holiday: Belgrade, Part I

Sometimes the guide books (and fellow former Yugoslavians) get it wrong.

So we wheeled our suitcases through traffic and across tram tracks into the station, a dreary structure somewhat neglected after the end of “Happy Times” (Socialism, as we would learn later) in need of a little love.  I had read to be mindful of “taxi sharks” outside the station who relentlessly pester you for their business, and as if on cue, a scruffy man in faded khakis and a tank top appeared as we were carrying our suitcases up the stairs and into the station. (Thank goodness we’ve been able to drink the tap water throughout this trip; a sip from a local fountain is refreshing after navigating luggage through stations and hotels without lifts.)  He was not a shark at all, more like a friendly dolphin; he helped us find a working Bankomat before driving us to our hotel for a mere 1.000 Dinars (~10USD).

The Hotel Balkan was once the hotel for guests traveling on the Orient Express; looking past the updates and modernization one could still imagine the romance of travel throughout the hotel. Ours was a pleasant room with a true balcony overlooking the street.

Peeking over the balcony, I almost thought we were in Vienna. 😉

Both our bicycle tour guide in Zagreb and our host in Sarajevo informed us that Belgrade was more like Russia than the US, and in particular, eschewed all things Western (especially all things American).  With that preface, our curiosities were piqued about the city and we were eager to begin myth-busting.

Our check-in was easy peasy, and before long we rounded the corner onto the pedestrian shopping area and into a small restaurant serving a varied menu, settling in for a good lunch of Italian pasta carbonara and Bulgarian Shopska salad.  Shopska salad is one of a half dozen recipes remaining from Bulgarian Happy Times; it was a recipe developed in the 1950s as a way to impress and encourage foreign visitors to the country. Over time it developed slight regional differences, but the basic character cast of cucumbers, tomatoes, onion and sirene cheese must be included. I enjoyed it on my first visit to Sofia last fall and was excited to see it on the menus in both Sarajevo and Belgrade.

Belgrade was the capital of the former Yugoslavia and Serbia seems to be working hard to bring life to the faded glamour.  The older architecture forced us to walk and look up at the same time; this particular Happy Times structure is one of the few not damaged by the war and looked regal against the afternoon sky, as well.

The pedestrian area was alive with people enjoying some sort of children’s festival well into Saturday evening, and again on Sunday. (Note to Vienna: Imagine!  A pedestrian area buzzing with people, and shops and restaurants open for business on Saturday night as well as Sunday!)  Anna Grace and I commented on how nice it would be if the former Imperial city we call home would loosen its stuffy collar once in a while and allow stores and restaurants to open on Sundays.

Early on Sunday morning, though, there was but a lone woman sponge bathing at the fountain.

About that dislike for all things Western?  We spied KFC, McDonalds (we had been told there were no McDonalds in Serbia), Sephora, Zara, Benetton, and Gap.  Good grief, Vienna does not even have a Sephora.

We took in a new exhibit on the “Happy Times: Yugoslavia from 1950-1990.”  These are the shoes worn by the “typical working woman” of Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s.  Another clothing exhibit featured Chanel suits as “evening attire.”  Something tells me that the typical working woman of Yugoslavia was not wearing Chanel suits in the evening.

Yugoslavia’s answer to Converse All-Stars during the Happy Times.

“The Father of All Passports.”  Yugoslavia was proud that its citizens could travel everywhere except Greece and Albania without a Visa, unlike Americans and Russians. (This passport was also very popular on the black market.)

A Yugoslavian Airlines travel poster for Vienna. (There were no travel posters shown for America and Russia).

Supposedly Yugoslavia eschewed Western products, but its children loved Mickey Mouse ViewMaster slides. I leave that for you to parse.

In Republic Square some smelly hippie-types were calling for an end to cultural racism. Although there was a good deal of English spoken, we never did quite understand their concerns, or perhaps I am culturally racist for referring to them as “smelly hippie-types.”

Enough English was spoken throughout our trip that we could at least muddle through if needed, but we had the most fun with the Cyrillic language in Belgrade! Anna Grace thought of the alphabet as a code to be deconstructed.

The Euro is strong against the Serbian Dinar; that, combined with inexpensive costs overall inspired us order room service dinner (although I did have to calculate the exchange rate a couple of times because it just didn’t seem like I was spending enough for room service!)  Anna Grace ordered a Margherita pizza, and, like the ones we had seen at the street vendors, the pizza is supposed to be topped with cheese, ketchup, and olives. Quite a taste combination, but we went with “only cheese.”  When the kitchen staff brought our order to our room they asked if we were Russian because, apparently, only the Russians order cheese pizza without ketchup and olives. Who would have thought? We ate our Russian pizza while lightning danced across the Sava outside our window; and with that, our exciting arrival day in the “White City” came to an end.

Belgrade, Part II, wherein Anna Grace is schooled in urban “Apple Picking” is coming up…




The Balkan-Central Europe-Southeastern Europe Holiday: Sarajevo to Belgrade

So much more than 1000 words in this photo of a Eurolines bus that ran out of gas, with its door open to dump passengers (and their luggage) on a boulevard on a busy afternoon.

I asked Valida about transportation to Belgrade on our first day and was offered two bus options, as the rail infrastructure was so badly damaged during the war that there are no international trains. The first, an hourly morning Bosnian bus taking “approximately 8 hours” to reach Belgrade. Having experienced Balkan Time on the previous Bosnian transit, this option was unceremoniously nixed. The second option was more appealing: a Eurolines bus, air-conditioned and with a transit time of “about 6 hours.” The catch was that there was only one daily departure, at 06:00.  This was a no-brainer.

Although very sad to be leaving Sarajevo, we were anticipating comfortable and relatively short (all things considered) travel to the capital of the former Yugoslavia. Our spirits were not dampened when 06:00 came and went and we were still waiting in the bus terminal. Balkan Time is a powerful force.

At 06:25 our bus finally arrived, and we boarded to discover that a woman had taken our reserved seating. No big deal, we thought-the seats across the aisle from ours were empty, so we sat down.  Then we discovered why the seats were empty: the control box for the radio (?) was beneath the seats in front, leaving us with no leg room. Our guess was that the woman did not want “her” seat, either, and simply took ours.

At the first stop I asked if we could exchange our seats, to which she replied, “Typical American.” The passenger sitting behind us said something in Bosnian, and several other passengers laughed.  But at least she moved.

An hour into the travel the bus pulled into a station in a little speck of a town. The bus driver announced something in Bosnian that elicited groans from the other passengers, and everyone alit from the bus. The passengers dispersed for coffee and smokes, and we sad little Americans just sat on the bench, eating the wonderful breakfast that Valida had packed for us and wondering what was going on.  We must have looked pitiful enough, for the owner of the small market at the station came over and asked if we spoke Russian or German, then explained in German that the bus had a defect and we were waiting for another bus.

So much for “about 6 hours.”

A second bus arrived and we boarded. The woman who name-called, and the assclown passenger who joked about us, laughed at us when we boarded and sat in our reserved seats.  The bus rolled up and down hills, through towns tiny and tinier, and across the border into Serbia. Scenic, mostly, but not a trip I would recommend.

Our seats were in the second row on the passenger side, so I (and the guy in the front row) had a spectacular view of the bus driver. He was new to the route, and the auxiliary bus driver with us was helping him out. The bus had a manual transmission, which he stalled on several occasions. The new driver also forgot a passenger at a stop (who had foolishly gotten off to use the WC), and had to back the bus up on a busy road to return for her.

 With about 50km remaining to Belgrade, Front Seat Guy and I noticed the driver tapping on the dash, and in particular, on the fuel gauge. Auxiliary Bus Driver had fallen asleep. I texted Tony:

“50km to go and the driver is tapping on the fuel gauge. Think we’re going to make it to Belgrade?”

He replied, “Good luck is all I’ve got.”

Front Seat Guy and I sighed in relief when we crossed the Belgrade city limit sign, and before long we were in the heart of the city on a busy Saturday afternoon heading toward the bus station. The bus stopped at a traffic light, and did not start again.  The bus had run out of fuel!

From the reaction of the bus driver (and Auxiliary Bus Driver, and Bosnian passengers) this was not a new phenomenon. The drivers exited the bus, in the middle lane of a busy boulevard, and opened the luggage hatch.  Horns sounded and traffic swerved around us passengers as we wheeled our bags to the sidewalk, and, thankfully up the street to the bus station and taxi stand.

We may have purchased bus tickets to Belgrade, but the tickets had not specified where in Belgrade we would be deposited.

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