Yugoslavia: Land of the endless fish girl

The market
Desktop in Belgrade
A night out with the guys
Serbia by day
A 12th century monastery
Dinner at a roadside bar

A smaller Belgrade market

In the morning we awake none-too-early. A distant relative (the daughter of a mother's cousin's friend or some such) has been staying in the apartment, she has moved elsewhere for a couple of days while we are there. Unfortunately, she has not been a lavish eater, and Jovica is determined on a lavish Yugoslav breakfast. After days of American-style eggs and meat and toast, I am quite excited. We head off down the street to the market.

In daylight, I see the large, soviet-sized apartment blocks where Jovica lived in Belgrade ("Beograde" to the natives), and where we are now staying. These, at least, are quite nicely designed and quite comfortable to the eyes. Nor are they as massive as the inevitable tenements on the edge of town. Instead, this could be a comfortable Jerusalem walk (older, pre-'67 Jerusalem, or even pre-'73 Jerusalem).

After a couple of short blocks we cut down steps and walk past a playground and pleasantly shaded park to another playground and pleasantly shaded park through a third pleasantly shaded park surrounded in the distance by apartment buildings, and finally, after about fifteen minutes, to a lovely, rather largish, entering the marketopen-air food market. It reminds me of Makhane Yehuda in Jerusalem, but neater, and perhaps larger. In the central areas are open stalls for fruits and vegetables; around the edges are the closed-in small shops and kiosks selling household goods and other small items.

As we enter the market, there is the first evidence of what is in season as a vendor who can't afford a stall has spread a entering the marketcornucopia of amazing fruit: blueberries, cucumbers, tomators, plums, on the ground in front of us. Jovica walks around to scope out what is available, and then we begin selecting a little of this and a little of that. The tomatoes look good, and there are a few perfect peaches, and the grapes are great (does the farmworkers boycott apply to local Serbian grapes?). Plums are magnificent--Jovica notes that the smaller ones are much more delicious. Sellers provide small plastic bags in which to put the fruit. The fruit is then weighed on one-armed scales. A free-standing arm on the scales holds a weight, sort of like the scales that used to be common in doctor's offices or gyms in the United States before we went all digital. The seller moves the weight to one or two or whatever kilos, and we watch to see if the weight is about right, then a price is agreed upon if there is overage or underage, or the seller adds a few more (the seller's preferred way of accounting for non-whole numbers) and the transaction is finalized.

We aren't done yet, though. Now it is time to move to the cheeses area, where, as we pass, each vendor offers a crumb of cheese or butter to taste. The cheeses are in large plastic tubs. They taste incredibly fresh and creamy.

We stop at a grill on the way out of the market and decide to have what turns out to be a Yugoslav-style hamburger to eat on the way back. It is deliciously spicy, unlike what passes for hamburgers in America.

Back at the apartment, Jovica makes a salad with tomatoes and cheese and yellow peppers and olives, and we heat up the bread we bought in Hungary the day before, and slice up some of the "Pick" salami, and spread more cheese and butter and have a brunch that can't be beat. This is breakfast at its best, as far as I am concerned, a humongous spread of vegetables and fruits and cheese and good bread. The British with their soggy fried mushrooms and fried tomatoes are in the ballpark (at their best), but nothing beats fresh, uncooked produce, hours from the field.

After calling around, Jovica discovers that there is no bus from Montenegro to Dubrovnik. As we had planned to head down to Montenegro the next day, with me moving on by bus or train to Dubrovnik, this is a problem. Eventually, he finds a bus from Belgrade to Sarajevo, but it only leaves at 6am or 7am (two buses daily) and takes about 8 hours. I decide that I will leave, therefore, in the morning, and we will skip the Serbian tour. This is kind of depressing, but I cannot zip through Sarajevo in a single day after all this planning and time. I hadn't thought out how long it would take to move around inside Yugoslavia. This is the price.

After brunch, I retire to just another picture of yours trulydo some serious computer work and catch up on a few of the previous day's adventures. The plan is that we will meet up with Jovica's friend Zoran later and use his e-mail account to post things and check my e-mail. While I work, Jovica's friend, Stevan, cast in the mold of Nero WolfeStevan, comes by for lunch (late, but it is explained to me that this is usual). He is a wonderful, big, burly guy. Stevan, as I discover later, has an amazing little printshop in a dilapidated building somewhere on the outskirts of Belgrade. He does postcards and books and everything in between. When we go on the tour later in the evening, on our way to dinner (see below), he delights in showing us the presses and recent projects packaged and ready to ship out. The shop is spread out through several tiny rooms, crowded with papers and projects. It reminds me of the type shop at which I lived for a few years, turnaround in Berkeley. I hope Stevan goes home occasionally, as we often failed to do ;-).

A Belgrade service bureau

Getting to the service bureau where Jovica's friends work turns out to be a bit of a challenge. The city has changed in the years since Jovica moved to Hamburg, and some roads are now oneway, or there is construction, and it takes a while. No matter. We have a lovely tour. On the way he shows me the Yugoslav-style mansion built by the mafia king who made much of his money by looting during the Bosnian war. In the style of the place it is less spread out than American mansions, rather, it is on a smaller plot, but about six stories, beautifully done, high. Jovica notes that in Belgrade, the Bosnian Serbs are looked down upon as Nazi country bumpkins, and are shunned. So much for "Greater Serbia."

We also place the place near the edge of town where Jovica would get gas during the embargo, when he wasn't coming in from Germany. People would sell it in everything from jerry cans to coke bottles, lined up along the street as at a giant outdoor market. Even today he sees someone selling gas on a corner in this manner, despite the existence of several open gas stations. Was the embargo good, then? Did it convince the sociopath Milosevic to cooperate with the West or to tone down his rhetoric? It isn't clear. An embargo, even of a porous country such as Yugoslavia, surrounded by mountains and a plethora of neighboring states (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia) does create hardship, and does force the locals to use ingenuity to get what they want. There are shortages, and obviously, real economic development stops entirely. And the money shifts from the pockets of the corporations that control most commerce to the private mafiosa and entrepreneurs who figure out ways around the embargo. According to Jovica, these entrepreneurs were so clever that they even got honey across the border by using bees.

In a small flat in a disreputable neighborhood, not far off a reasonably busy street, we find the B&Z studio, premier service bureau to Belgrade. Linos run DM10/A4 page. There are the latest Macs and PCs scattered throughout several rooms in the former flat. Posters of wonderful Yugoslav design (not, as I discover later, material designed in this particular studio, but what the heck) abound on the walls.

Originally I plan to hook my computer up to theirs and use their modem. But Zoran at his computerZoran has taken the modem home. So, I have to duplicate his settings on my computer, and use my modem. This turns out to be a bit tricky. First off, the exchanges in Belgrade are still analog. This is one of the first signs of what the chaos of the years since Tito's death (and to be sure, leading up to his death) have wrought. What was once the leading country in Eastern Europe is now the worst basket case.

So, back to dialing. First off, I need to do "pulse" dialing. This is where the modem imitates an old-style dial telephone. But, there's more. The studio has been unable to get more than a single phone line, so everything needs to go through their PBX, even fax. And, as it turns out, this means that as the software begins to dial his Internet Service provider, we need to guess when the number for "outside line" is finished, and change to an outside line physically, by pushing a button on the office phone through which we are patched. And, although we do eventually connect to the ISP, the line noise is tremendous, and no internet services are possible. After an hour I shrug, and despite the fact that I had been looking forward to e-mail from contacts in Sarajevo to confirm that I should go or not, it seems stupid to waste the evening further. On to dinner. I do try to connect again, after dinner, after 1am, but with similar lack of results (if without the need to deal with a patchwork pbx on the way). Such is the state of Belgrade telephones: no digital phones, and no new phone lines to be hand in any event.

Dinner at the nonstop fish gril

lavish Serbian grill

We scoot back through the suburbs to pick up Stevan, and head off to a special grill hidden next to a tennis court. The waiter is a young, thin, intense person who tries to behave as if we are in an exclusive French restaurant. Sometimes this gets intrusive, and sometimes it is a bit humourous, as when he circles the table with the napkin-wrapped bottle of white wine, but does not know how to turn the bottle after pouring to prevent a few drops from going down the side.

No sooner are we seated, and a humongous tray of appetizers in front of us than Jovica and Stevan realize that they should have invited a third friend, Goren. To make a call in this restaurant involves using the restaurant's cellular phone, and Goren immediately agrees to come. About the time we finish groaning our way through the massive selection of sliced smoked meat, spiced muchroom caps, cabbage, cheese and jalapenos, and tomatoes, wondering how we will even begin to touch the platter of sausages and hamburgers that has now arrived as the main course, Goren shows up with two friends: a theatre director from Budapest and his wife. The director speaks a bit of English but is quite tired. His wife, only (only??) Hungarian and Russian. They were apparently passing driving on their way from holiday in Turkey, and are under the illusion that they will be back in Budapest tonight. The director looks especially tired. As Goren, whose English is excellent (and relieve me a bit, as Stevan has none, so there are large parts of the conversation where I can only sit back and listen to the pitch and flow of the voices) interrogates the director about his latest play, the director consistently shrugs his shoulders or offers monosyllabic answers. Whether tiredness, or lack of English affects the situation more is difficult to say. It is a pity, because the man is working with community Gypsy theatre and it sounds fascinating. He met Goren, who works with a kids theatre here in Belgrade, when Goren organized an international theatre festival in this city and invited the director to participate.

Now the poor man, who, really, had just called Goren to say "hello" on his way through the city is trapped in a room with four crazy, and slightly drunk folks, all of whom speak different melanges of languages, and is trying hard to be graceful, despite exhaustion and incomprehension. It is intensely funny, even knowing that the poor couple are tired, and gradually realizing, at least on my part, that they really, really do want to be back in Budapest--still many hours distant--that night, and it is already late. Eventually, as everyone pitches in and we finish the first platter of mixed gril, er, grill, they call a cab to go back to their car and continue on their journey. Jovica and I may try to look them up when we are in Belgrade and the director is less tired.

The night rolls on and the guys get into heated discussions. Goren is a chain smoker, and thus ensures the mental connection to the loud evenings I spent with friends, just in this way, but now twenty years ago. Somewhere I have lost something, or perhaps, just moved beyond loudness and smoke.

Goren is apalled by the war and by Milosevic and by the futility of efforts to oppose him in Belgrade. Stevan isn't so much against Milosevic, as against all communists (which, seems to include everyone he doesn't like, except for Izetbegovich, in Bosnia, who clearly isn't a communist, but Stevan can't stand him anyway). It is the classic collision between humanist idealist and "salt of the earth." Periodically, Jovica turns to me and we smile--he has know the two for twenty years, and the arguments are still the same, and despite the intensity of the discussion, we all know that they will gather again, as soon as possible, to do it again. In between bouts between Goren and Stevan, Goren and I wax poetical about the situation. I challenge him for calling the situation in Belgrade a "war" situation--the real war was elsewhere, imho. He agrees, but notes that the embargo, and the horror introduced by Milosevic and his wonderful sidekick, Tudjman (it seems clear that without Tudjman to preach equal and opposite racism in Croatia, the sparks that ignited the war may not have ignited, or been as horrible). The next morning he will show me copies of the area's satiric magazine, "Feral Tribune", printed in Croatia. Tudjman and Milosevic are almost always shown together, in wonderful satiric poses. It would be worth really learning this language just to explore this magazine further. In one picture, the leaders' faces have been superimposed on two guys in S&M drag, and the headline reads, in English, "Make love not war."

But, as usual, I digress. I meant to note Goren's points that, in fact, from having been the place where all of Eastern Europe came to shop, even ten years ago, the former Yugoslavia is now undergoing no development, and is sliding backwards. And on such similar notes, we drink up some more, pack the last of a second platter of mixed grill (ordered when we thought the directory and his wife would stay--although, even then we knew it was too much) for Goren's cats, drop Stevan off, and head to the nonstop bus station to get my bus ticket for the morning.

At the nonstop bus station, we discover that the reservations computer is down between 1am and 4am, and we will have to call later for a ticket. Jovica drops Goren off, and we go home, ready to wake at 4:30, hoping to get to the bus station in time to get a ticket. I try one last time to make an Internet connection, this time in a straightforward manner through a sane, singular phone connection. We do physically connect, but as usual, the line noise appears to be too intense, or something is timing out somewhere, and no internet services work. The hell with it. It's been another good evening in the former Yugoslavia. Time for a couple of hours of sleep.

[back] to Budapest and points south
[on] to Just another day in the former Yugoslavia

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