Belgrade. 10.23 pm. Minibus finally arrives. The journey back to Budapest begins. I’m tired, cranky, and still plagued by stomach cramps. It’s going to be a long night. My corner of the back seat is vacant. It’s cold. Not three minutes into the journey, the rather large chap in the other corner of the back seat starts talking to me… in Serbian. Intuitively I know that he’s apologising for the ring tone on his phone. It’s an annoying chirping that at first sounds like a bird, then grows into a frog and finally matures into a cricket. I know that’s what he’s saying, but I don’t have the Serbian to respond. I apologise in English. Then he apologises for assuming I was Serbian. The sms’s chirp every five minutes, punctuating the conversation that has  just begun.

It’s his first time on the minibus to Budapest. He’s going to Ferihegy airport. He’s 34. A former professional waterpolo player who is, by his own admission, sadly out of shape. He did his National Service in Montenegro so that he could stay in training. He is married – has been for eight years. He has two kids – 4 and 7.

He holds his passport in his hands somewhat reverently. It looks brand new. It is. This will be his first time on an airplane. He has never flown before. Other than Montenegro, he has never been outside Serbia. He talks of Serbians in the third person plural as if he isn’t one. Although he has lived all his life in Belgrade, he says he never really felt as if he belonged and this feeling has been getting stronger and stonger recently. He doesn’t say why. I don’t ask.

This is the first opportunity he has had to get out of Serbia. It is time. He’s emigrating. To Canada. To work as a truck driver. He will have to study and take his driving HazMat test. It’s expensive and will take a few months.

This is the first time he has left his family. He doesn’t know when he will see them again. He already has a job lined up. He is leaving his family behind him and charting the way. I think that leaving them must be hard. He says that Balkan people are funny that way. At each others throats if together for too long and yet, just two days apart sees them madly in love – absence, he hopes, will make the heart grow fonder.

This is the first time he has spoken to real Irish person. He asks if I have heard the Orthodox Celts – a Serbian band who play traditional Irish music with some rock – He is worried that his English isn’t good enough. He learned it from TV. Apart from a couple of bad pronounciations, it’s better than a lot of native speakers I know. I tell him so. He is pleased. He asks if I know Canada. I say not really. Just the Yukon. He asks if he can have a good life, as a workingclass man – do the Canadians respect foreigners? I tell him that the Canadians I know do. Do I think Canada is a good place to go? I say yes. I think so. It’s avoided the financial crises that have plagued the rest of the world. It’s healthy. It’s a good country. He nods.

He is flying to Warsaw and then to Toronto and then to Edmonton. He could have flown to London and then direct to Edmonton but it was €500 dearer and he has to watch him money. He is 34. Leaving his family behind him. Leaving home for the first time in his life. Nervous. Sad. Anxious. Excited. The sms’s keep coming. He eventually falls asleep. He is woken several times by his phone – but then it quietens and I imagine his children finally going to sleep. Exhausted. Confused. Already asking when Daddy will be home.

I stay awake. I give silent thanks for the life I have and those who are in it.

In the capital city of a country that boasts an average wage of €386, I was gobsmacked to see the monetary reverance with which musicians are treated. Okay, I’m the first to acknowledge that tonight may have been far from typical so I checked and while tonight was indeed a little  fláithiúilach (generous) by any standards, it wasn’t that far removed from the norm when Serbians might drop up to €50 in tips for musicians.

But let me start from the start. Dinner. In  Tajna.  A little restaurant on  Svetogorska. ‘Little’ meaning about 20 tables. An exquisite menu – and that was the impression before I even opened it. Beribboned and bejewelled, this was no ordinary few sheets of A5 landscape. Before I’d even ordered, I was expecting better than usual. The wallpaper, too, spoke volumes for taste and discernment. On the feature wall, larger than life burgandy and cream lillies mixed with butterflies perched on greener than green blades of grass. The supporting palates pick up the burgundy and cream and the overall feel was like being at home. Just, to my mind, what every good restaurant should feel like. Forget the pretension. Give me down home and tasty any day of the week.

One portion of chicken stuffed with bacon, cheese, and olives served with grilled veg and potatoes; one portion of salmon carpaccio with salad; one portion of grilled gilthead (fish) with all the trimmings; two vegetable and mushroom (why the distinction?) risottos; followed by two plates of Belgian chocolates (to die for) and an apple pancake in white wine. Accompanied by half a dozen bottles of a very pleasant, if unpronounceble, Tamjanika white  wine and  a couple of rakia to start. All rather lovely.

Our fellow diners ranged from a table of three 50-somethings bellying into the vino blanca; a couple of more sedate 40-somethings sipping casually on their red wine; two tables of ‘mature’ couples suitable bedecked in twinsets and pearls; a threesome with a long-bearded academic and his less-erudite-looking coupled friends; and a table of six, petite, 5’2″ Serbian young wans with their token long-haired male hippy male friend. Altogether a rather innocuous bunch out very much for a night of ‘selective’ enjoyment – more about themselves than the restaurant or the music.

And then the trio arrived . Yer man on guitar looked like a slimmer version of Keith Wood. So he was Bosnian. But I’d have given a month’s wages to say he was Irish. He acquitted himself on guitar as well as Wood has ever done on a rugby pitch. Yer man on accordian was… himself. And MH, if you’re reading in Darwin, I know you’ve been at the butt end of many an accordian joke, but you’d have loved him. He brought those keys to life. And yer woman…well, if Penelope Cruz looks half as well as she does when she hits 50, she’ll be laughing. They started off in Spanish. I had to ask what language because being as tone deaf as I am, I knew only enough to know that it didn’t sound what I’d imagined Serbian to sound like in song. They worked the tables. Our trio next door acquitted themselves well. Imagine Auntie Mags and Uncle Séamus doing their party pieces. Not bad at all.

Then it moved to our table. Now, in fairness, I knew two our of our party reasonably well and two not at all. The two I knew, the inimitibale duo JK and VR speak English. The two I didn’t know, don’t. But that ceased to matter. Jovo, the rather innocuous looking publisher in the corner got the nod. And started to sing.

Jovo Cvjetkovic moved to Belgrade from Croatia to study vetinary medicine. Four years into a cow’s innards, he opted for philosophy instead. A recognised scholar in Nietzsche and Kant, he is now a publisher in Belgrade (Albatross Publishing). I’d have to be forgiven in mistaking him for a local primary school teacher. White sleeveless jumper over a check shirt with the regimentary one button undone, thick glasses and carefully cut grey hair, the man could stand in a room and no one would notice. Until he opened his mouth and sang.

Pavarotti can apparently reach 6 registers on the operatic scale. With training. My man Jovo can reach 7. Without. I’d heard tell from the duo that he was pretty amazing but that has to be the understatement of the year. Had I paid €200 for a ticket to sit and listen, I’d have felt I hadn’t paid enough. A room of about 30 people, in a little restaurant, just outside Belgrade city centre, played host to one of the most amazing musical evenings I have ever had the good fortune to be present at.

Now as usually happens when I’m in mixed company (and I’m not talking sexes here, but rather languages) I drift. Given my limited linguistic skills, I’m usually the one left studying the wallpaper as others converse. But I’d already done this (remember the butterflies and the blades of grass?). Instead, I focused on the tall, willowy woman at the table next to us who was smoking cigarettes as long as her legs. She was totally devoid of animation, sitting there bored out of what had to be an exceptionally large mind (a dimwit could have found something to entertain themselves at Tajna). And then Jovo started. It was like something passed over her and breathed life into her. The elongated limbs unfolded and she came to life. And the more he sang, the more animated she became. I’m not talking rock or pop or jazz but Italian arias, opera, and Serbian and Russian folk songs. I didn’t understand a word he was singing and I’m sure if I did, I’d have died and gone to heaven. But his voice. His passion. His soul. It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

His partner sat beside him, holding his hand, as if to anchor him. On the rare occasion she let go, he clutched the table himself as if stopping himself from soaring upwards. Such was the power of his voice. The bould VR was doing his damndest and when Serbian folk songs were the order of the day, he did well. Very well. On any other evening, had he the floor to himself, he’d have played a blinder. And he would, no doubt, leave people in his wake simpering. But tonight, there was but one spotlight on the stage. And it belonged to Jovo.

Those of you who know me will know that I’m tone deaf. It wasn’t the music I was hearing but the raw passion behind it. It wasn’t the melody I was feeling but the mood of the restaurant. It wasn’t the technical dexterity I was in awe of but the change he had wrought on all those present – me included.Conversation moved from patriotism to nationalism; from the Europe that might be to the Yugoslavia that was; from what nourishes the soul to what feeds the brain. And all the while Jovo sang.

I’m drinking nights and nights are drinking me:  just one simple lyric translated that gives an indication of what was being sung. The supercool young wans eventually succumbed and rose to their feet. Had you been made of ice, you’d have melted. Had you been riddled with pain, you’d have found solace. Had you been the most frigid spinster in Ireland, you’d have thawed at the flick of an eyelid. I swear, nothing I’ve ever heard has come close. And it wasn’t just Jovo. It was that magical meeting of minds – that wonderful junction where musicians jam. The chemistry, the feeling, the interpretation – where everyone happens to be on the same page at the same time. Sinatra turned in his grave, I’m sure, as Penelope sang a gypsy version of My Way. Had he been alive, he’d have had to tip his hat in recognition of a superior job.Furrowed brows, clenched hands, pursed lips – all the order of the day. At one stage I found myself wondering if they needed an audience at all. But then,who is music for – the singer or the sung to?

Main courses and desserts for five €50. Wine and such €60. Musical soul replenishing….priceless. My Balkan love affair continues. If this was a run-of-the-mill Friday evening, sign me up.

But as I said at the start – it wasn’t the food, or the music, or the vibes that moved me most. It was the generosity of those present. 1000 dinar notes (€10) were stuck in the guitar frets, in accoridan pleats, in breast pockets … I couldn’t help but do a mental tally. Hundreds of euro. And when I asked why? A simple response: That’s how they make their living. And the silent but accepted second phrase: and that’s how I show that I appreciate what they do. Priceless indeed.

I’m sitting here in a my hotel room in Belgrade, looking at myself in the mirror as I type (yes, I touch type). I have a cotton bud soaked in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Madame stuck up each nostril and I’m wondering when I will get rid of the stench of B.O. that seems to have seeped into every core of my body.

I’m experimenting with ways to get from Budapest to Belgrade. First time I flew. Seemed a little extravagant for such a short distance and with the two-hour-before-check-in deal, it still took about 4.5 hours door to door. And it’s a scutty little plane to boot (not that I have any fear of flying, but after one particular flight over the North Pole to Deadhorse, Alaska, I prefer to have something more substantial under my arse when I’m that high up in the air). [An aside: You know what happened to ‘thought’? He had a glass arse and ‘thought’ if he sat down on it, he’d break it. – Prof Bartlett Ryle in Frank Delaney’s Ireland.]

Next trip, I took the train. Way cheaper, even going first class. Mind you, the first class thing didn’t seem to bother anyone else as I was the only ‘legal’ resident of my carriage for most of the trip. Actually, for all but one section, I was on my own. I’ve figured it out. Just before you pull into a station, open the window wide open and take off your coat. It helps if you can time the station stop with a series of hot flushes (one of the blessings of age). But as long as you look like it’s just another balmy day in paradise (and this in the middle of winter), you’ll be left pretty much to yourself. The train journey takes  about 8.5 hours all told, including three border stops (two immigration and one customs). But first class has a socket so if you can balance your laptop on your knee, you can work your way to Belgrade.

This time, I took a minibus. More expensive than the train, way cheaper than the airplane and supposed to take only 5 hours. It picked me up at my door (a major plus) just ten minutes after the text came through (in Serbian) alerting me to be ready! An hour and a half later, we were still sitting at Budapest airport waiting for more passengers. I was trapped in the back seat with a man of indeterminate age who  fancied himself as a bit of a cowboy – beaten leather jacket that was jealously hording a lifetime of smells; plenty of aftershave; and the natural scent of a man who’d been rode hard and hung up wet. We finally left at 3.40 and two hours later had crossed the border into Serbia.  I counted 33 trucks lining up to get into Serbia and 27 waiting to get out. What cause then did I have to be bitchin’?

Once across, we stopped for a rest break and a breather! Never did a petrol station smell so sweet. But the respite was brief. Wide awake after his catnap, John Wayne embarked started up a monologue, in Serbian. His animated gesticulations only served to fan the fumes. Belgrade didn’t come soon enough.

Door to door 6.5 hours. Time driving 4.5 hours. The residual smells, priceless.

 

I remember as a child being confused by beauty and attractiveness. I’d stumbled upon the world of Mills and Boon while staying with an aunt one year, and all the female characters were either beautiful or attractive but nothing in the text explained the difference. So I asked my mother. She told me that when a woman is beautiful, people look at her and see that beauty. It’s obvious. When a woman is attractive, people look, and then look a second time, and a third time, because they know they’ve missed something. They are fascinated by what they see and yet can’t quite put their finger on what it is that is so appealing. For me, Budapest is beautiful; Belgrade is attractive.

Photographers talk of the golden hour – that last hour before sunset or that first of light in the morning – where photos take on a magic of their own. I’d just had a conversation in the office with NK and was determined to find that time – to see for myself what actually happened. So I took my camera and headed up to the Kalemegdan Fortress. Serbian author Momo Kapor (who died earlier this year) reckoned that viewed from the water, from where the Sava enters the Danube, Belgrade resembles a ship – and its stony prow – Kalemegdan Fortress – cuts the waves of these two rivers.

 

Where the Danube and the Sava meet

For centuries, Belgrade’s people lived inside the Fortress walls.   Legend has it that Attila the Hun’s grave lies under the Fortress where the two rivers meet.  The name Belgrade (or Beograd, in Serbian),  means a ‘white fortress’. Apparently,  Hungarian King, Béla I, gave the fortress to Serbia in the eleventh century as a wedding gift (his son married Serbian princess Jelena). Much of its history though is rooted in the Ottoman Empire. The name Kalemegdan derives from two Turkish words, kale (fortress) and meydan (battleground) (literally, ‘battlefield fortress’). With such a varied pedigree, it’s little wonder that it hosts the Belgrade Race Through History, an annual 6 km footrace; one way of highlighting the history and culture of the area.

Much of the Fortress is now a city park. And despite its size, it’s very homely – something I don’t get from Varos Liget in Budapest.  People walking dogs, reading, running, chatting, smoking, singing – almost every available bench taken. It’s like a massive, open-air community centre. I didn’t spot many tourists – most of those there seemed to be local: young and old alike, joking, laughing, each one enjoying that magical hour after work or study, before going home to whatever awaited them.

I still haven’t quite figured out what so intrigues me about Belgrade – but I’m sure it’ll be an interesting journey.

I think I’m in love with the idea of being in love. I’ve always been a one-man woman. I first realised this when I was 12 and had to make a choice between Pete Duel and Ben Murphy, the stars of that all-time-great TV show, Alias Smith and Jones. I just didn’t have it in me to fancy them both. It was tough. Now, some years later, I still can’t fancy two blokes at the same time. I’m trying, honestly, but it’s tough, and very limiting. I’m getting better with cities and countries, though. The more I travel, the more I realise that I simply can’t be in love with one place… I have to  broaden my scope a little and allow myself some leeway. It’s possible to love different countries for different reasons and, trollop that I am, I don’t feel the slightest remorse about embarking on my Balkan affair.

I met my neighbour in the lift on Easter Saturday, as I was heading to the train station. She asked me where I was going. I said Serbia. She asked where. I said Subotica. She said, rather dismissively, ah, Szabadka…that’s still Hungary! And for many years it was and for many people it still is.  Since the 2002 censuses in Romania and Serbia, Subotica has become the largest city outside Hungary in which Hungarians are the largest ethnic group, although they have only a relative majority 34.99%. But oh my, what a difference.

The Hungarian borderguards come on board at Kelebia. Some twenty minutes later, there’s the Serbian border check,  about 100 yards from the train station in Subotica. It takes a while…up to an hour to clear them both.  And there’s no point in hurrying or getting exasperated because it’s not just about crossing a border, it’s about completely shifting your mindset.  Maybe it was because it was the Easter weekend. Maybe it was because the sun was shining. Maybe it was because everyone uses ‘Ciao’ rather than ‘Szia’ but you know immediately you’re in another country and it’s nothing got to do with the language or the currency. You can feel it. It’s in the air. You’re in the Balkans.

Subotica is a city. Once the second-largest in Hungary, it’s now the fifth largest in Serbia. And it’s chock full of art nouveau buildings. It’s beautiful. Families stroll the streets. People sit at outdoor tables drinking what looks like orange juice and coffee. The beer is good, cold and cheap. The service is excellent. People are friendly. They’re happy. They’re chilled out. They’re helpful. And they know how to laugh. Deep, belly laughs that spill over and are infectious. They’re fashionable, too. While Puma and Adidas seem to sell as well as they do in Dublin, in Subotica they wear their tracksuits with style. Colourful, coordinated, and, dare I say it, almost cool!  Those not in their leisure gear look as if they’ve stepped off the catwalk in Milan. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. There’s a certain panache that no amount of money can buy and this city has it!It took us a while to figure out how to order a tejes kavé though. It translates into a Nes coffee, often listed on the menu as Nescafé. I wonder if any trademark guys ever come here on holiday?  

Although the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Gloria, deserves every one of its four stars, you have to wonder who stays there. I couldn’t find a single postcard on sale and the currency exchange booths seem to cater more for locals crossing over and back than for tourists. Perhaps people simply don’t get off the train…they leave Budapest and go straight through to Belgrade. Or perhaps, the Suboticans respect those brave enough to disembark and that’s why we were treated so well. How about this for a conspiracy theory:  they don’t want tourists! So the view of the outskirts is deliberately bleak. It’s been dressed up to look like a rubbish tip. The kids have a ball spreading the litter about, the houses are deliberately rundown and the gardens purposefully overgrown. If you hadn’t planned on stopping, nothing you see would entice you get off the train.  And if you fell for this trick of theirs, then you’d miss something glorious.

Many of the buildings are being or have been restored. More are in desperate need of some care and attention. The trees lining the streets create weird and wonderful shadows. It’s other-worldly. Even the graffiti is different – it’s almost reflective. We had great plans, IM and me, to find the house where Kosztolányi Deszo was born abut no-one seemed to know where it was. There is very little signage to show what anything is and what’s there seems very personal, as if it’s to remind the locals of what has happened rather than to educate the foreigners. To my shame, I know so very little about what happened here not so long ago; it came as such a shock to see such recent dates on war memorials.  But where other countries seem to want to forget, Subotica is very much about remembering. There’s  a huge fundraising effort ongoing to restore the synagogue and it’s already showing some of that old spectacular greatness. The plaque in the garden reads: In memory of 4000 Jewish citizen with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II.

We visited many churches. You know of course that every time you visit a church for the first time, you get three wishes? And interestingly, it was outside the Orthodox church that the Roma children had gathered, hands outstretched, palms upwards. With muttered ‘I’m not an ATM’ or ‘Do I look like a bank’ the people gave their coins. It made me sad to think that from such a young age, these kids are being taught to expect handouts. Their mothers waited outside the church while the men hovered at the corner, keeping a manly eye on things. I wondered briefly why I hadn’t see them in such numbers outside the Catholic churches… and if that’s indicative of anything or nothing at all.

I don’t know many Serbs but the ones I do know are  imbued with a passion for life and for living. They have a presence about them. They’ve lived through things I will never fully comprehend and despite this, and perhaps because of it, they have an appreciation for living in the now. They understand the transiency of time. No matter their size, their strength, both physcial and mental, is tangible.  One day soon I will make it to Belgrade and then further afield, perhaps to Croatia, Kosovo,  Bosnia or Montenegro. They say you know you’re really in the Balkans when all you can find is Turkish coffee. I am glad I didn’t just plunge in…I quite enjoyed my Nescafé.