Monday, September 22, 2008

Mist in the Air

Can you spot anyone you know in this picture of a riverboat cafe? Hint: we're very small.

A shoelace stand.

A Youth soccer game, stands were set up in the middle of town and many spectators stopped by to cheer.

We stumbled off our night train and into the Belgrade rail station. Nine Americans puffing little clouds of steam into the misty morning air of Serbia. Early morning air. 6:30 a.m. air, to be exact.

By 8, Brett and and I were perched at the counter of a corner bakery, splitting a hot white curl of bread, the snowy dripped exterior of which we had wrongly taken as a sugar glaze. In fact, a salty glaze. Pretzel bread abounds in Serbia, and it is oh so good, soaring over the Bulgarian competition, cheesy bread.

Walking along the ridge of the Kalemegdan fortress in the corner of Belgrade, the Danube and Sava rivers converged far beneath us in a peaceful fall scene. The canyons of the military museum lay in rows behind us at the top of a hill strewn with buckeyes.

Sitting down to a meal with Brett's former students, MIna and Dusan, and their parents, we shared a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. Beginning with homemade cherry brandy and Rakiya, we moved on into wheat rolls shaped like small flowers, slices of warm aubergine, a cucumber and potato salad with yoghurt, and baked red peppers with olive oil. Then came a soup made with more than eleven kinds of vegetables (Mina told her mom I might be vegetarian, so in one small example of the family's thoughtfulness, vegetables were literally everywhere to be seen). The main meal consisted of pork, fish, more salad, another vegetable dish, and another kind of bread. And finally, Mina's extraordinary cake squares, a delightful swirl of liquidy chocolate and cream sandwiched between shortbread crusts.

Inside the Kontra Bar we sit on high stools and choose between pina coladas, mojitos, Mexican flaming beaches, and any number of other incredible cocktails. Here the revered Serbian nightlife comes alive before my eyes. With a rainbow of drinks at our lips we talk about Serbia joining the E.U. - Dusan thinks now is not the time. Mina's enthusiasm pours out to all of us and we sit talking until I can barely keep my eyes open. Our hosts walk us home and we are delighted to discover our cozy bed and breakfast is just a few blocks away. Belgrade is easy to get to know with friends to help us find our place.

On Sunday afternoon the pedestrian mall fills with shoppers and light hearted strollers. Vendors sell books, music and postcards in stalls and stands, but more importantly, two enthusiastic jugglers have drawn a crowd of children to one corner. But what's that behind the crowd? A cake stand! And behind it, a cookie stand! An older man grills kebabs and a young woman plies samples of strawberry juice. It is a miniature culinary festival, with no particular name or holiday attached that we can discover. Soon I am armed with a box of varied Serbian sweets - pinwheels stuffed with carmel and nuts, whipped cake squares with rainbow sprinkles slowly soaking colors into their white meringue topping, poppyseed layers peeking out around small balls of something delightful.

Walking down an alley towards the river a coppery steeple perches on the roofline above us. Djordje explains that the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, their version of the pope, operates from this building. I ask if many Serbians practice religion, and Djordje reminds me that during communism religion was basically illegal. It will take a while for it to make a comeback. A few more steps take us to the "?" restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Belgrade. We peek inside to see six or seven wooden tables in a small but cozy room.

We find ourselves driving through "New Belgrade", formerly seen as a stain on the city, until suddenly a business boom brought new growth to the area and young professionals poured in. Less than a decade after bombs fell on Belgrade, the wreckage from which can still be seen along one of the main streets, businesses are thriving and young people have their choice of jobs. Djordje takes us to visit a vandalized church high above this half of the city, and we look across a deserted rooftop cafe over the red roofs of houses to the Danube river. A few minutes later we are standing on the river's edge, choosing among dozens of beautiful cafes literally floating before us. We choose one and walk down its gangway. My tea arrives with shot glasses of fresh pulpy lemon and honey; Brett's hot chocolate is literally thick melted chocolate with a tiered dome of whipped cream on top. We watch the ducks and sailboats float by in the windows, giving the general impression that we are enjoying refreshments in armchairs on a dock, except we are warm and a football (soccer) game is playing over the bar.

I didn't know what to expect when we arrived late Friday night to board a train for Serbia. The first week of school had left me only a few minutes for research, and I felt strange to be headed somewhere about which I knew almost nothing. As I slept in my bunk, waking up only for four different officers to check my passport in the night, I little dreamed that the city would enchant me so. The grayish mist of late September could not veil the life of Belgrade. It is a city with a vibrant undercurrent, filled with people enjoying each other's company in the many secret spots sown throughout its streets and along its rivers. Behind every door and atop every hill exists a world worth discovering, in the company of friends. We were lucky to have such good ones to share it with - thank you Mina, Dusan, and Djordje.

1 comment:

judy baker said...

What a pleasure to look through your pictures and commentary. SOOOO great that you could hook up with familiar people and share some time and memories. THANKS!!!! Love mom/Judy