Serbia: Meeting Sponge Bob in Belgrade
By Laszlo Tikos
Having received an invitation to an International Conference on Literary Translators in Belgrade, Serbia (the capital city of the former Yugoslavia), and looking around for convenient and not very expensive transportation, I found on the Internet the Hungarian Airline Malev, with a direct flight from New York to Budapest.
Budapest appealed not just for the convenience – no change of planes, and the price ($650 round trip) – but also for giving me a chance to see some family and friends there before the conference. From Budapest to Belgrade there is no air connection (it hasn’t been restored since the last war, some seven years ago) and a direct train between the two cities was the best possible solution.
The first class round-trip reserved seat ticket cost some $60, and the trip itself turned out to be a very pleasant eight hours’ (no irony!) ride – in a practically empty coach, with large comfortable seats, good air conditioning – and most importantly – next to a dining car.
It was a regular restaurant, not your Amtrak sandwich joint – with white table cloth, elegant serving, and humongous portions ofWiener schnitzelss, with all the trimmings, coffee and desert – for less than $10.
Watching the landscape floating by was very pleasant. The train, an international express train, stopped only once or twice before it reached the Hungarian-Serbian border.
Border police entered the train – very friendly, no hassle, no questions asked, no checking of your luggage – put a stamp in your passport right there with almost the same sort of casual manner as the ticket conductor handles your ticket – say from New Haven to New York. In a few minutes the same thing was repeated by the Serbian police and the train was moving on.
Arriving in Belgrade you see the lights of a big city – and the bridges crossing the two big rivers conjoining there – the Danube and its tributary the Sava.
The last leg of the trip is rather slow – it takes about a half an hour – between the two parts of the city: New Belgrade and Old Belgrade; obviously the city is sprawling out from its old boundaries.
The train station appears to be rather modest – and something like a building from a pre-World War I movie set – in need of some paint and some scrubbing. Taxis are readily available outside.
The history of the old Belgrade goes back to Greek, and Roman times. Herodotos mentions the place as inhabited by the Scythians! Since then many conquerors, have come and gone – but the old fortress, the Kalemegdan – reconstructed many times and preserved today in a remarkable good shape, lies high (more than 200 feet) above the two rivers.
The old city today is a pleasant, European city; the huge park leading to and around the Kalemegdan fortress is the equivalent of New York’s Central Park. The main street, Knez Mihailova, crossing Pariska Street, leads to the park, with its many attractions – an open air musical pavilion, four different museums, ice cream parlors and all kinds of street vendors. Young people, locals and the many visitors exhibit a pleasant and laid back atmosphere.
A Huge Promenade
In the evening the adjacent Bulevar Vajvodin – formerly a major throughfare, now turned into a no-traffic walking area – becomes a huge promenade where people enjoy the view of the two rivers, the port and the water traffic.
Other closed streets, such as Uzun Mirkova,Knez Mihailova and the Cara Razara join in the fun and become an uninterrupted chain of outside cafes and restaurants. In the pleasant evening lull the city is drinking beer, eating ice cream, having dinner, walking, talking and enjoying life – almost like somewhere in California or in some Southern European, Italian or Greek city.
This is an unexpectedly welcome surprise in contrast with the images created mostly by the news media about the war in Serbia. The only reminders of a politically laden atmosphere in the city are some graffiti on walls (one doesn’t know how long it has been there) proclaiming Kosovo as Serbian forever or hailing the Communist Party, or some nationalist political figure.
Besides the big international hotels, the city has many old-style European hotels, such as the Royal Hotel (built in 1885, but recently updated) in the Kralya Petra Street. No air conditioning, but continental breakfast is included in the price (unbelievable by US standards – some $15 per night!), the management is friendly, speaks several languages, and the location is priceless – in the very heart of the walking streets district of the old town, but on a side street, far enough from the “big noise”, but close enough to walk everywhere.
In general, walking is more than an option. Even though taxis are readily available – at hotels or taxi stands – you can’t hail a cab on the street!
The curving narrow streets, with cobblestones in the Old city, haven’t been built for cars – not that they would not be there, anyway, parked anywhere and everywhere, with no apparent parking restrictions, and a good map (downloadable from Google) comes in pretty handy.
The main thoroughfares are of course loaded with cars – of all makes and vintage – and the drivers frequently reveal their southern mentality by expressing their frustration at traffic jams by honking their horns to their heart’s content.
Parades, street “happenings” seem to be frequent. I saw a police band marching with fancy uniforms and saxophones, followed by a detachment of police on horses, then on super duper motorcycles, but you can also see Sponge Bob characters, or scantily clad young ladies – some of them on roller skates – hawking the offerings of some new restaurant or freshly opened fashion outfit.
Indeed, all the big and not-so-big fashion stores (the many US, but also European stores, not so well known in the US) display their wares in fancy shop windows, and just looking at the promenading people – especially the young – it seems that there is enough money to buy some of those fashionable and expensive items.
The general appearance of the young is the “standard international look”: shoulder free, light shirts for women with tight fitting, low cut jeans of every possible kind. For men: T-shirts and jeans- as an any US campus. And everybody hugging a cell phone!
Leaving Belgrade on the train back to Budapest at 8.00 in the morning, some of the sites along the railroad line that one didn’t see coming in during the night reveal a shocking reality: miles and miles of slums of every kind – but mostly living quarters of gypsies.
A truly “Balcanic” sight: shacks of every kind, used tires holding down the plastic or tarpaper covering, children and animals playing or stumbling around, also racks of old cars, or luxury cars parked in the dump, etc.
But, on the other hand, here and there new developments replace the old shacks, providing housing for the poor, but also high-rise headquarters for many of the well known US and European (mostly German) corporations.
All in all, I left Belgrade – this friendly, laid back and easy-going southern metropolis – with a slightly nostalgic feeling. It is so little known in the US, or in the “West,” and it has so much to offer for the open-minded visitor.
Laszlo Tikosis a retired professor of Russian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He now enjoys life in Leverett, Massachusetts, with his wife Doris, an accomplished musician, and his seven grandchildren, four of whom live in nearby South Deerfield.