I don’t know what it is but through the blare and delirium of over ten hours of overseas flying I can’t help but smile. Despite being crammed into a seat for longer than doctors recommend and my pants permanently melding to my skin, I’m still fucking smiling. Happens every time I arrive in a new place.
My “arrival smile” continued to beam as the plane touched down at Nikola Tesla International Airport. Still beaming as I leaned against the sign for almost an hour for a bus to the city center or “centar”. On the bus my pearly off-whites still shone through when I wasn’t nodding off. But I was utterly ecstatic once I found myself on the Knez Mihailova, Belgrade’s pedestrian-only, cafe-laden drag. Coffee shops, bars and cafes not only lined both sides of the wide street but each cafe had outside seating planted single-file right down the middle. At around 1:30pm in the afternoon, the whole city seemed to be out, occupying almost all of the cafe seats, smoking their cigarettes down to the filter. Tiny espresso cups, stained by the coffee that sat inside, just sat there as if the waiters had gone on strike. This was living.
The week leading up to my trip had been a sleepless hell trying to get work projects out the door. I also do not sleep well, or really at all, on planes so I was not in any kind of fighting shape. Jet lag, my annually more formidable nemesis, kept reminding me of my mortality. So of course I found myself a nice little cafe across from the national theater and tossed my unwieldy bag into the seat across from me. I then settled in for what turned out to be a bucket of espresso and some good old “taking it in”. It was just what I needed to keep me from collapsing from exhaustion onto the gorgeous cobblestone in front of all my new cafe friends.
Serbia’s capital city has an architectural identity crisis. Hacky sack-ed between the fading empires of their day, the city boasts Austro-Hungarian and Turkish-influenced structures. Sometimes in the same neighborhood, sometimes the same block. I had read beforehand that it wasn’t a beautiful city, per se, and I would have to agree with that assessment. But beauty and character aren’t always simultaneous so I held out hope.
I asked a knockout Serbian gal standing outside an art gallery with an equally knockout smile how to get to the hotel I was interested in. As she explained that it was two blocks away I kept thinking about how to ask her to join me in Serbian but by this point I was starting to feel the strain of my bag on my back. A decent bag, it was just as wide as I was and not the most ergonomically ideal. When walking past a window, my reflection looked as if I was giving a baby black bear a piggyback ride.
My baby bear and I eventually settled into a comfortably modern walk-in closet and, despite the callings of the city, I forced myself to lie down and pass out for a few hours. The city’s call was persistent, though, and eventually I awoke groggy and starving. I yawned my way to a greasy little joint called Loki. It was one of those places you fall on your knees in gratitude for when you’ve had way too many.
They’re famous for their pljeskavica. Yeah, I can’t really pronounce it either but once the three middle-aged Serbian women placed it in front me it didn’t matter. The size of a tortilla, this well-seasoned ground pork patty was folded over onto a soft bun and slathered in a yogurt sauce, a spicy cream cheese, onions and whatever else I nodded in the affirmative for them to add. Washed down with a bottle of the ubiquitous Serbian beer, Jelen Pivo, and I was in love.
Stuffed, I left Loki and wandered into Belgrade’s famous nightlife. Through the cobblestoned Bohemian quarter with young Serbs singing and dancing, past cafes/bars blaring every kind of music imaginable. Still dragging a bit I eventually settled into a divey place with outdoor seating. I grabbed a stool at the bar and motioned to the bartender for some rakia. He pulls out an unlabeled bottle and pours a clear liquid into a small shot glass. Smooth and tasting of a pear essence as if I was smelling one right off the tree. Caught somewhere between grappa and a German schnapps and made from a myriad of fruit this liquor is the national drink of every Balkan country. After about three, it became mine as well. Dave, a Canadian guy who grew up in Belgrade, provided good conversation.
I paid my tab and went in search of a bar I had read about that was started while Allied bombs fell on the city in the late 90s as a refuge for the city’s young. The United Federation of Globetrotters is a great hangout tucked away in a basement via a dark set of stairs somewhere downtown. The furnishings are pure kitsch but carefully coordinated. A place for the city’s creative community, academics and laid-back foreigners. Yet I think I had walked in on a private party. Still, the attractive waitress served me more pear rakia and I just sat on somebody’s grandmother’s chair and sipped.
Back on the streets, I wandered a little. The time was 1:00am and the bohemian quarter was now pretty dead. Appropriately, so was I.
WHAT: freshly grilled pljeskavica on a spongy bun
WHEN: June 1, 2012
WHERE: Old Town, Belgrade, Serbia