A fool and his luggage
Soon parted, reunited.
Right. I've got about ten minutes until we're back in session, might as well shuffle another one of these out the door. Let's see. Post South Africa I had to make my way north for the International Whaling Commission's meeting in Portoroz, Slovenia. Exactly what IWC is, and why on earth a whale related event was being showcased in a country with a coastline of about 40 kilometers is something we'll get to later. Or in the case of the latter issue, never. It still makes no sense to me.
As a consequence of the frankly bizarre six hundred dollar ticket I had gotten, the trip meant landing in Belgrade by way of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and then re-routeing through the Balkans. Originally the idea had been to hang around Serbia the entire time. Rationale being it was cheap, I like Belgrade quite a bit, and there were worse places to cool my heels for two weeks and work. Somewhere along the lines, that got a little bit more expansive in my mind. Staying in Belgrade became, well, staying in Belgrade for a bit. Then going to Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina, or maybe Sarajevo, I wasn't sure. Then
to Dubrovnik. Then to Split, both in Croatia. Then to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Then from there to Portoroz.
If that sounds like a full itinerary for a two week stretch, you'd be right. If that sounds like a challenging thing to slot in while also working a schedule that loosely matched a 9-5 in the eastern coast? You'd also be right. If it all sounds like a bad idea, then congratulations, you're my boss. In the end, I think I surprised myself and everyone else by making this actually work, even managing to produce a Thing that was well received at the following meeting. The consequence meant structuring my days around the working hours of the United States, six hours behind me. Basically this meant inverting work and leisure, which actually suits me rather well as it turned out. I’d wake up each day, either travel to the next spot in the morning or do some tourist-y wandering, and then be back at my computer by 3 PM. At around 11, I’d either go to sleep, go out, or catch an overnight bus to my next spot. So let’s talk about each spot, and the balancing act: Belgrade
. I’ve talked about Belgrade before, but I was seeing the place from a very different perspective. Out of the hotel, off the bus, and away from Americans in a hostel run by local college students made for a different atmosphere. Invariably for the region, it also meant having a nightly shot or three of the homemade rakija produced by someone’s grandfather. This is a Thing that most everyone in the Balkans seems to do when they hit 65, and folks like the local tour guide at 9 AM had the ubiquitous drink ready to hand. Usually in a water bottle that made no promises about quality, or that it hadn’t been distilled in a bathtub somewhere.
Of course, while I had made it to Belgrade, my luggage was somewhere in the hellish pit known as Charles de Gaulle airport. I wasn’t alone. About half of my flight seemed to have been parted from their worldly positions by fickle France. Fortunately after about a day and with some assistance from my friendly hosts my bag showed up a day later swaddled in seran wrap. Fortress City
. On the touristy side of the experience this time, I mostly
stuck to walking around the core of the city, and then later to camping out at Kalemegdan, the hillside fortress that dominates Belgrade. Situated on the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade is one of those violent intersections of human history that seemingly everyone has occupied at one point or another. Kalemegdan (Battlefield Fortress in Turkish) was built over by Dacians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgars, Avars, Byzantines (again), Serbs, Turks, and finally the Austrians before it hit obsolescence. It sprawls everywhere, with portions of the structure dating to the 19th Century, and others as far back as 535.
Befitting its amalgamated history the Serbs also use the fortress for everything. There's a beautiful and forested park leading up to the brick walls, complete with a zoo. Closer still, there's a collection of robotic dinosaurs sitting in the moat in an adorably half-assed attempt at a Jurassic attraction
. Then further in past the walls there's an observatory, churches, and finally a military museum commemorating Serbia's long and violent history from the Roman days all the way to the 1999 bombing campaign by NATO during the Kosovo War. Everything from Roman swords to a Wehrmacht Panzer IV tank from Nazi Germany are on full
Really. It's hard to understate how nice this place was.
display, which are all well worth to see on their own. It’s all further enhanced by the bizarre implementation of alternate reality ipad presentations and a smattering of poor English translation peppering some, but not all, of the exhibits. Below it all in a former powder magazine cavern is a small museum housing Roman relics. Just for kicks it also doubled as a former dance club until the music nearly cracked the walls. They still do concerts in the immediate outside for old time's sake. Getting Comfy, Moving On.
Working in Belgrade was pleasant, and given the aforementioned misgivings, I'd even been planning on nixing the rest of my trip and staying on in Belgrade after the second day. I'd made some friends, and on a closing night I passed the time in somewhere modeled after a honky-tonk bar nestled below a bridge downtown. There'd been a bar crawl too, somewhere along the way which is unsurprisingly harder to remember. Bless me then there was the food and the prices. A full meal in Belgrade, in my case a Serb style burger, a beer, and some veggies, could cost as little as two dollars.
But it wasn't to
be. By sheer baffling coincidence the hostel was booked out for the rest of the week by a group of Australian students on a month long study abroad trip. Improbably this was also their first time out of Oz, and it showed. So I booked my next bus, overnight to Mostar, after hedging between that and Sarajevo. Then I settled down to work until my bus on the hostel couch. A process which got significantly more complicated after 20 Aussie teens piled into the room. And in some cases piled on top of each other in some kind of jet lagged brawl/hormonal discovery. Years on, I hope taking a skype call for work directly amidst the teenage chaos will remain the oddest work environment I’ve found.
Right around the time the Aussies were being given instructions from their guide on a game of Balkan Bingo (spot the license plates of each country! Spot the minefields!) I went from the hostel to the train station. On impulse, I reached out one of the Belgrade students I'd met last time I'd passed through with my study abroad group, and was beyond delighted when he got back to me. We managed to
snag a drink and a pleasant few hours before I caught my bus on a rainy night. My only regret was that I hadn't tried to ping him sooner, and I'm quietly hoping to do better the next time I pass through. Life had taken us in a somewhat parallel direction. I can only look back on it all rather fondly now, it's funny sometimes how things slot into place in unexpected ways.
Ah well. Til next time, we'll try and whisk through some other spots.
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