Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Portrait #85: Snapshots from Serbia

Since there is a certain, understated shall we say, animosity between Kosovo and Serbia - this, of course, assuming that they they are not one and the same, which is naturally a topic that inspires further discomfort... anyway, considering this context, I felt that my stay in Kosovo would not do justice to the world if I didn't put a little bit of effort into acquainting myself with Serbia. So on my last weekend in the Balkans, a friend and I journeyed up to Belgrade.

Belgrade, currently the capital of Serbia, was the capital of Yugoslavia in its day, and is a beautifully developed city with a lovely river and magnificent architecture. It's clean, organised, and sprawling. It looks dignified enough to be the capital of the largest country (federation) of Europe.

The thing is, though, that my experience of Belgrade was full of rather strange people. This was the picture I left with. For example:

- I came across a Western-style coffee shop in a posh mall and was excited by the prospect of an iced coffee. I eagerly ordered an iced coffee with a bit of vanilla flavouring, but instead got a hot latte with two huge scoops of vanilla ice cream in it. I commented on this, and the servers very apologetically prepared me a hot coffee served in a plastic cup. Upon seeing my confusion, ten waiters gathered around me to try to interpret what I meant by "iced coffee" - please note, we're standing inches from McDonalds, Burger King and everything else that's Western. They were so helpful, yet so confused. So I faced a barista who appeared to be in charge and gave him the recipe: lots of ice, a double shot of espresso, a pump of vanilla syrup, and cold milk for the rest. He kind of understood, but still only put a few ice cubes in the cup, producing a not-hot but not-iced, overly syruppy coffee. As I walked away shrugging my shoulders, they all stood staring after me, shrugging their shoulders.

- We heard that there are lots of Chinese in Serbia, and so went on a hunt for some good Chinese food. Upon failing to uncover the real deal, we decided to settle for the fusion Asian restaurant in the Grand Casino. The casino is in the same facility as Hotel Yugoslavia, an imposing building on the riverside which appears to be abandoned, except for its gambling facility. We entered the casino and asked to see the restaurant's menu. The guard at the reception desk informed us that, in order to see the menu we would have to be members of the casino, but that's it's easy to join. So we agreed and grabbed the one-page registration form to fill out. But before we started another guard came up and whispered something in Serbian to our guard, who then informed us - quite apologetically - that there is a dress code at the Casino, and flip-flops are not a part of it. So we couldn't see the menu, much less eat Asian food, because we were wearing flip-flops.

- If you're a girl, you may be familiar with the phenomenon of a car-full of guys pulling over as you are waiting for a taxi or bus on the side of the road. If you're a guy, perhaps you have pulled over for some girls standing on the side of the road. Well, my friend and I were getting tired of waiting for a taxi, so when a car pulled over we actually considered accepting a lift from them and responded to their shouts and waves by asking for directions. The guy in the passenger seat got out and pored over the map with us while the driver shouted out suggestions from his seat. Glancing into the car it appeared that the driver was actually disabled. Eventually, as other cars whizzed by, they pointed out to us exactly how to reach our destination. Then they left. No offer of a lift. My friend and I shrugged as they pulled away, thinking that that's not usually how these encounters go down.

Lovely country nonetheless.

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