Serbia: In the Shadows

Here we are, almost a month into our stay in Serbia and I realize I have given everyone a very romantic view of our travels thus far. You know about the food and the weather and how affordable Serbia is for North American foreigners.  I’ve shared some very lovely natural and artisan scenery. I’ve shown you how happy our girls are, strangers in a foreign land, but exploring with glee.  I’ve shown you how much Serbs love animals, and how caring for animals is, more often than not, a communal act.  We’ve been here a month and we’ve had a great time. We also look forward to the next 2 years, fully committed to exploring the rest of Europe as much as we can.

But…

No country is perfect, even my beloved Canada, but there are occurrences in Serbia that I will never fully understand nor, I think, do I want to. My incessant desire to “fix” things will not serve me well here; most likely, I would go crazy working against a system that is snail-slow to change.  These, mind you, are just my experiences here. Maybe others have an entirely different view. But here’s what I’ve got:

-Any foreigners who visit Serbia must report to the local police station within 24 hours. Even with a residence permit, if that foreigner desired to stay at a hotel with, perhaps, a pool for the weekend, that foreigner must report, again, to the police as to the change of address (ie. hotel stay), so that the police always know where you are. They have made this easier, as hotels are equipped to report your whereabouts to the police for you, saving you another trip to the station. On this note, I highly recommend the book ‘Catch 22’ by Joseph Heller. Some of the things that happen to the main character, Captain John Yossarian, just remind me of some of the rationale used in Serbia.  A good read nonetheless.

-Pollution is rampant. I could be wrong about this, but not only is garbage strewn about, I believe sewage is dumped into arterial waterways, which eventually feed into the main rivers. Our shoes have never been dirtier. The soles of our shoes are not just dirty, but black.

-Conversations with locals lead me to believe that corruption is just a part of life in Serbia. I’ve read that the postal system is unreliable and that packages of value often do not make their way to the intended recipient. Police and politicians, can be persuaded, or persuade, in no particular order. This said, I’m sure that there are admirable police and politicians here as well.

-While we have NEVER felt unsafe or unwelcome, my feeling is that a communistic blanket still hovers over the country. Years of bombardment and corruption haven’t helped pull Serbia out of the dark ages, but the feeling is that it is slowly, slowly working its way out.

-I have had no conversations with locals about the United States. Of course, I proudly say that we’re from Canada. We, however, look foreign to them, with our clothes and our accents, especially in Bor.  Today, as the girls and I were walking home from lunch, a young boy about Laura’s age (6), pointed a toy gun at me and said, with an angry face, “America!” And he shot. Bang. Bang.

-The juxtaposition of rich and poor is heart-wrenching. In Belgrade, you might have a Lamborghini parked while, a few steps away, someone is digging through trash for a meal.

Everything considered, I still think this is a good experience for our family. We’ve met some very kind people and are learning how other people live.  We are better for it.

 

Saturday Stories

Last night we went for a guided tour, dubbed “Belgrade Beneath Belgrade”, led by a Serbian historian and author. I didn’t catch his name, but will add it once I get the proper spelling.  I must admit I’m a bit overwhelmed by all of the history here. When I went to school, I learned Canadian history, of course, which as a young girl seemed daunting, having sprawled out over an incredible (now) 150 years. 150 years! (Insert wide eyes here.) Of course, we learned a little about Europe – always the Holocaust, and a bit about Napoleon and the Romans. They were all basically blips, spread out over a few lessons, save for the Holocaust which, naturally, warranted more attention. So here I am, as unaware as an infant. In diapers.

There is just SO much history here that I can’t even begin to make sense of it all.  The Ottoman, Roman, Byzantine, and Austro-Hungarian Empires. And more. Who knew there were so many Empires? (Well, everyone except me.) How do you even start an Empire? Maybe I should start my own. A peaceful, food-loving, book-reading Empire, conquering villages with the smell of freshly baked bread and used books. Then again, I’m so clumsy, it would go extinct before it even started.

I knew that Europe is old, very old, but I didn’t REALLY understand its colorful and, often dark, history.  I still don’t. I don’t think I’ll ever know Europe’s history in its entirety, but I think I’m going to give it a good shot while I’m here. Might take a while, but I’ve only got 2 years to do it.

I’ll give you what I’ve got so far from the tour yesterday. The girls were very good during the three hour tour  (anyone got Gilligan’s Island in their head?) of the Kalemegdan Fortress during which we were very lucky to have one of Chris’ coworkers, Ivan,  accompany us and act as an interpreter.  You’re getting this in bullet point as there is just too much to sort out and, being past midnight here, I’m getting a wee bit sleepy.  Here goes:

-According to our tour guide,  the average weight of Balkan women 100 years ago was 80Kg, or 176lbs. Anything over this weight was considered a delicate flower. (If I could turn back time. – Cher)

-Serbia has a problem with Japanese tourists.  Out of sheer politeness, the Japanese will eat everything set out in front of them.  The problem is that Serbian portions are HUGE and the Japanese nearly explode when they visit Serbia.

-There were three ways to get into the fortress: by digging underneath the walls, by ramming the gate, or going over the walls.  A special squad assigned to keep diggers out would set up rice in water barrels along the perimeter of the wall. If they saw the rice move, they knew that diggers were underneath and the squad would be ready for them.

-Water has remained a mystery in the Belgrade (Kalemegdan) Fortress.  Looking for water, the Austrians dug a well 30 m deep. Finding nothing, they dug to 60 m. Based on the evidence of a drop or two of water seeping from the ground, they believed water was there and dug even deeper, finding nothing.  The well was used as a cell and a torture chamber before eventually filling with water many years later.

-The well, deemed “The Roman Well”, has a dark and mysterious past. Approximately 300 years ago, the Austrians lowered 37 traitors down the well. Eventually, the Austrians also lowered ONE knife down to the 37 men below. Cannibalism ensued and the last man standing died an excruciating death, having consumed an unnatural food.

-Alfred Hitchcock once visited the Roman Well and, getting shivers, said that this was exactly what he wanted to accomplish with his movies.

-The fortress was closed entirely to the public until 2012.  A local beer fest was hosted at the fortress until, one year, a drunken patron wandered away from the grounds and into the bear enclosure at the nearby Belgrade Zoo. Beer Fest has since been moved to a different location.

-The onsite bunker was used as recently as during the 1999 NATO airstrikes on Serbia. Currently serving as a tourist destination, the security system is simple. The guard turns off the lights and if he hears screaming, he knows someone is still in the bunker.

-The gunpowder room built by the Austrians now hosts some of the oldest relics in area history, as it now serves as a makeshift storage facility for the national museum which is under construction.

We ended the tour with a wine tasting in an old wine cellar previously used for trading. Rumor has it that the world’s largest wooden wine barrel (11,000 litres!) is in a nearby room, but it is one of the many places within the sprawling web of tunnels that the Serbian Government has prohibited from the public.

 

 

Friday Fun

IMG_8416

Back in Belgrade, I set to cleaning and airing out the house. Today is, by far, the coolest day the girls and I have had since we’ve been here, a cool 25C.  While many  Serbians very seriously believe in ‘promaja’, the idea that any draft or cold (anything) causes sickness, disease or even death, the Canadian in me threw a party to welcome the breeze and, hence, I opened all the windows and even the courtyard door.

I washed the dishes while the girls played and, quite suddenly, I heard meowing.  It was so unexpected that I thought Rebekah was pretending to be a cat, as she often does, being a cat lover. My back still turned, I said, “Rebekah -“, until I heard Rebekah talking upstairs and realized that she was, in fact, not behind me. I swing around to see our friendly, and very hungry neighbourhood cat, Mitsa, in my kitchen, meowing her little heart out. For those of you who haven’t seen my FB posts as of late, Mitsa is our first animal (semi) rescue in Serbia. Serbia is innundated with strays and so one of the first orders of business for us was the purchase of a kennel designated only for strays, an item that we would use to transport sick animals to the local vet clinic, also an item we will keep far away from our own cats. A week (ish) ago, we got Mitsa in the kennel and brought her in for some much needed antibiotics. She seems to be doing better and we give her wet food as often as we can because of the issues with her teeth and gums. After giving Mitsa breakfast and, shortly after, lunch, we parted ways as I took the girls for a walk to get our own lunch.

We walked further than we normally do, as Mother Nature gave us a much needed reprieve from the heat. We trekked to a beautiful pekara (bakery) and chatted with a Serbian baker who said he has family in Sanfransisco and has been on Craig’s List looking for an apartment in Toronto because “Canada is better than the US. Not as aggressive. Calmer.”  Truthfully, I like being classified as  part of the northern, peaceful basket. I don’t like talking politics, as I’ve felt at a young age that I single-handedly needed to change the world and I get super frustrated when I see or hear about injustices, so I keep quiet, and do my own part to stay true to my beliefs. Enough about that.

On to the pee.

The girls and I really enjoy our lunch and we walk on, a bit further to see what we see. And what we see is a city worker, neon vest on, urinating on a wall directly in front of us, directly in our path.  Immediately, Bex said, “Ewwww! Gross!”  I, of course, pretended to be looking for directions on my phone, and snapped a picture.

We turn around and head back to the house when I see a stray dog walking in front of us. He is walking the same direction we are  and from behind, I see that his right leg must have been badly broken once and healed into a grotesque > shape, yes, >, a few inches above his ankle.  Never seen anything like it. I would have tried to lure the dog to a vet but he dipped between some vehicles and I lost sight of him.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the wallet we found. Stay tuned!

 

 

“Post Card 4”

It’s been incredibly hot over the last few days so the girls and I have been enjoying the outside pool at the Sportski Centar (Sports Center).  Having a few more days without my board shorts, I’m getting quite comfortable in my bikini at the pool.  I saw a grandmother today wearing a one piece where the neckline plunged to just above her pubic bone, along with several completely naked children. The girls, too, are getting used to this.  The first day they saw a naked little boy, I caught the girls doing double – no – triple, even quadruple takes on them. After politely telling them it’s natural here and not to stare, I must admit that they have now seen so many naked people that they are beginning to get used to it.

Last night, Chris took us to Bor Lake, a man-made basin the result of a dam built in 1959 along the Valja Dzoni, Marec, and Zlot rivers.  According to PanaComp, a travel website, the lake is as deep as 50m in some sections.   The water was incredibly calm, there were few bugs, and the gradual depth concrete entryway was the perfect place for them to swim and try to catch a fish.  Needless to say, they absolutely loved it and, first thing this morning, asked to go again today.

We took a beautiful scenic route along what Canadians would consider foothills, and, new nets in tow, trekked to the lake where Laura instantly snagged a fish. We stayed a while and Chris, still the Pokemon Go lover, said that there was a Pokestop at a nearby monument to the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, a Jewish laborer killed during a death march in 1944. We read about him, instantly interested in his haunting story, and proceeded along the path to the monument.

We first come upon an old hotel, windows blown out, crumbling in the Serbian sun.  We walk past it, snap some pictures and, further on, on the edge of a jetty, stood  Miklos Radnoti’s monument. Reminiscent of something you might see in a Star Wars movie, the symbol laid on a concrete cenotaph, just above graffiti. Apparently, there was more to the monument, but it was destroyed.  I don’t know any more than this except that Radnoti was honored at the site because in 1944, his battalion was sent to the copper mines in Bor, where he worked (forced, I believe) and wrote poetry until he was forced on a death march, where he was severely beaten and eventually shot. He was 35 years old.

If you’ve come this far, please read one of his poems, written days before his death, found a year and a half after he died.

“Postcard 4”

I fell next to him.His body rolled over.
It was tight as a string before it snaps.
Shot in the back of the head- “This is how
you’ll end.” “Just lie quietly,” I said to myself.
Patience flowers into death now.
“Der springt noch auf,” I heard above me.
Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.
Szentkiralyszabadja October 31, 1944[9]

Source: Wikipedia

 

 

The girls took little notice of the significance of the monument, but it gave us chills.  So much that happened. So much that didn’t ever have to happen. So much that still happens. Yet, we go on.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures of the hotel. A kind Serbian guy told us that it went out of operation about 40 years ago, as they ran out of money and didn’t have the permits to finish the addition to the top, so it fell into ruin. Don’t think I’ll be staying there any time soon.

 

 

 

 

Mount Rtanj – Wizard’s Castle & Doomsday Salvation Site

I admit I haven’t done a ton of research on this, only because there is a LOT of information about Mount Rtanj, and because sometimes I like to think of the world as a bit magical. Wizard? YES! Wizard’s castle? EVEN BETTER! Doomsday site? Well, I’ve never been one to put a lot of faith or attention into doomsday prophesies but at the very least, it’s a neat read. We drive past this mountain to and from our trips between Belgrade and Bor and, every time, I am reminded of local folklore and international suspicion surrounding it.

Please do not take my words as fact, as my thoughts are only as I know them from what I’ve heard and what I’ve learned from my dear friend Google.  Folklore has it that the mountain was inhabited by a wizard and his castle, which eventually swallowed him and his castle and his great treasure up. A small church was erected on the peak, dedicated to St. George, but it was blown up by treasure hunters who thought that the sorcerer’s gold was buried beneath.  Today, the church is in ruins, but there is an effort to restore it. Restoration, however, takes money, and my feeling is that this will not happen in the near future.

Wizard aside, many people believe the mountain, with its pyramidal shape and peak barren of foliage,  harbors a secret UFO landing pad that will expose itself upon doomsday. Hence, hotels at the base of the mountain get inundated with bookings for doomsday believers wanting to be present at one of the world’s salvation sites on salvation day.  This, again, is what I’ve gathered from my BFF Google.

As for me, I’m more interested in the wizard. Maybe he can cast a spell so I never have to clean my house again? If I ever see him, I think I’ll ask.

Mount Rtanj
Mount Rtanj – Wizard’s castle, treasure trove, and doomsday site. 

Source: Wikipedia – Mount Rtanj

I did it!

I finally did it! Yes, the blog is new. After quite a few pokes and prods from North America to get my butt in gear and start a blog so I can better chronicle our journey, I happened upon WordPress.  Apparently, the WordPress platform is amazing so I’m excited to see where it takes little old me.

For those of you who can remember my last post about European beachwear, I noted that I would have to put aside the great old North American insecurity so I could blend in. Well, after forgetting my go-to board shorts in Belgrade, I was left with a string bikini in Bor. Yesterday, it was 36°C and the girls really wanted to go to the pool. First, the girls have never heard me say anything negative about myself (even if I feel it), because I know they’re looking up to me.  I don’t want them to grow up thinking they’re nothing less than perfect. Even when I put make up on, I explain that it’s not to make me look better but because (get this), all of my make up has SPF in it and it’s important to protect your skin from the sun. From my mascara to my blush, I put it on because it protects my skin. Itty bitty white lie, but it works.

On to the pool.

We go to the Bor Sports Center and there are 2 massive outdoor pools. An adult pool (deep), and a children’s pool with 2 water slides. It costs us $4.50 Canadian, total, to get in. The kids are instantly happy. We set up some towels on the concrete as there are no beach chairs or grass, just a cafe (of course), so you can get your Turkish coffee and gelato fix.

The girls splash their way in and I timidly take off my beach shirt, revealing a small bikini. The thing is…..no one cared except me. Every woman had the same small bikini, regardless of size. Every man wore speedos. Some young girls, even up to Rebekah’s age (10), were topless, as it wasn’t considered a big deal if they swam without tops on. All in all, we had a great time. We soaked in the sun, splashed in the pool and enjoyed poolside gelato and coffee. The only dent in the afternoon, if you could call it that, was whenever someone would light a cigarette.  None of us are used to the smoke here and I hope we never get used to it. Still, it was a beautiful day.

pool both
Mmm…gelato….