Tuesday, December 05, 2006 Serbia Serbia

One night in Belgrade

Serbian town[Enlarge]

As we crossed the great Hungarian plain by train we were looking forward to Serbia. The train compartment was the same design as the one from Munich to Bupdapest, but at least one version older. The heating was stuck on full and the window didn't open. The stations in Eastern Hungary have neither platforms nor bridges. You simply get off the train and walk in the direction you want to go. It's obvious really but still interesting to us coming from a rule-bound and health-and-safety obsessed society.

This time we stopped at the border crossing with Serbia, rather than having the convenience of guards joining the train and leaving at the next station. We stopped first at the Hungarian side for 20 minutes. The guard who inspected Glenn's passport was fascinated by the chip (it's a new passport issued just before we left). She called over her buddies and they all had a good look at it. We eventually got underway again only to stop a few kilometers later at the Serbian frontier station. This being a non-EU country, we got our first passport stamp. We noticed that the date on the stamp was a day out, and we wondered what sort of problems this might give us later given that all visitors must be registered with the Serbian police by their hosts.

Eventually as we entered the Belgrade suburbs, a smartly dressed man in his early fifties who had boarded the train at Novi Sad, opened the door to our compartment and as if making polite conversation to pass the last few minutes of the journey, asked us where we were from. We gave our usual reply, "UK", but he didn't understand. So we used the backup "England" which everyone recognises. "OK, England." He paused. "My grandfather live in Scotland, he dead now for six years. He flee the communists. He live Peebles." Glenn immediately added that he is half-Scottish and that he knows Peebles (he doesn't know it at all other than having an idea roughly where it is). Playing the Scottish card seemed like the right thing to do given the slightly sinister way the man had said "OK, England" before. We made conversation about the man's grandfather for a minute and then he went back to his own compartment with a smile. We were not unrelieved. Unfortunately however, he had only gone to fetch his bags and he soon returned to our compartment and sat himself down. He leaned across in such a way as to block the door. He wasn't intimidating but it felt like he might know some people who are. Quickly trying to dredge up details of what we knew about Serbian politics and recent history, we prepared for an interesting conversation.

The man said "Your country bombard Serbia many weeks. You and America and France." We sort of looked at him half apologetically, half "it wasn't us personally, it was our government". We tried to change the subject and told him we had come from Budapest and were on a round-the-world trip. Mistake. It seemed he hated Hungary as well, because he screwed his face up. Glenn asked him why he didn't like Hungary. "They all European now. Everything Europe". "You don't like Europe?" "No." Again he paused. "So you Scottish, eh?" He had thankfully forgotten that Glenn was only half Scottish, and Isla not Scottish at all, but it worked for us. "Scotland will be independent soon and Serbia will support Scotland as England support Kosovo". All the time his tone remained polite and friendly. We learned that he is a lecturer at Belgrade University. He is also a fan of Milošević. He said "You be careful in Belgrade. People very nice but only on the surface. Under the surface they hate. Be careful." He extracted from us that we were staying in a hostel, which actually seemed to help as it established our credentials as non-bourgeois Westerners, who after all were from an oppressed people just like him. He offered to show us a "much cheap" hostel near his university and even take us there. The experience would have no doubt given us plenty of material for our memoirs, but we declined, saying that we had booked and paid for our hostel already, and adding for good measure that we didn't know the address, only how to walk there. We both independently decided to get the hell out of Serbia as soon as possible so we headed straight for the international ticket desk at the station, which fortunately was still open.

At the desk we met the other extreme of Serbian, a young man in his twenties who was also buying a ticket. He spoke excellent English and was helpful, friendly and seemed delighted that we had chosen to visit his country. He gave us plenty of options for onward travel both to Sofia, and within the former Yugoslavia. Having the lecturer as our first taste of this country had clearly been unlucky. Nevertheless we bought our tickets and got out next morning, bound for Sofia. Sadly we never got to see downtown Belgrade, which is apparently very beautiful.

Map of Day 010

Day 010
Budapest to Belgrade

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Anonymous said...

LOL! You ignored the old man's words ("they can look friendly on the surface, but inside they hate you") instead of applying that wise remark on your "friendly and helpful" young Serb.
Professor told you the thruth. I, for example, never start you-bombarded-us issue when I meet the trevellers from EU or USA, but the hate is alive and well... and omnipresent.
Take it from me, the young guy hated you even more then the old one.
Bombardment aside, you entered his country as easy as you would enter your local pub, while for him entering Britain is a mission (next to) impossible. That alone is sufficient to cause frustration and hatred in normal person. Provided he's normal, his "kindness" was nothing but good acting.

Glenn Livett said...

Hi 'Anonymous', thanks for your comment.
Yeah good point, maybe the young guy did hate us. We are aware that a lot of the kindness we meet in many countries is superficial. But a lot of it isn't, and that's what keeps our faith in humanity alive.
We have met travellers from other former Yugoslav republics who have been forward-looking and excited about their countries' prospects as part of the EU. It's a shame that Serbia is currently so isolated in Europe, when it has held such a central and important place in the continent's history.
You're right, it was easy for us to get in to Serbia. I've had a look at the requirements for Serb nationals to visit the UK for tourism, and I see what you mean—you have to jump through a lot of hoops. The reason as you probably know is because of the high number of people from Eastern Europe who want to come to the UK and work illegally, but it's still not fair if all you want to do is have a holiday.