Since being in Turkey I can appreciate how nice it is to be out of the Balkans. While I was there, I was happy to see that it was a lot nicer than I had imagined it would be, but I always had a strange feeling nonetheless.
I remember being on a train late in the evening going through Croatia towards Serbia and looking out the window onto fields; the farmers had all since left. The landscape is pretty, but plain, no bright colors or particularly striking trees. It is not joyful and doesn't seem ripe with fertility. It did, however, look very peaceful when, in fact, it is not. In order to pass the time, Brett began to explain to me some of the more complicated aspects of the current conflict. As darkness came, he told me about where the fighting had, and was taking place. Some thirty miles North others twenty miles South and still more right where we were. Then he told me that the farm land we were looking at, which he finds very beautiful, was in fact full of landmines which were left for some people but will probably be found by others. It is chilling and frightening to be where there has just been war and killing. For me it was surreal.
The border control man came when we arrived in Serbia and demanded our passports. He seems distracted and disinterested in why we were there or how it was that Brett spoke Serbo-Croatian fluently yet was carrying a US passport. I, however, did not feel at all disinterested when he ran off the train with my passport and thoughts of being stuck on the Serbian/Croatian border without a passport began to invade my brain and cramp my stomach. He seemed to take forever and we could only imagine what was causing the delay. Perhaps the people in Zagreb were right! No Americans could enter Serbia without a stamped passport we would have had to obtain months in advance. Maybe we would be sent back!
As it turned out, there was no problem. When the man came back, his big fat body hardly fitting through our little cabin door. we were thrilled- and it felt good to be in Serbia. We were even happier when we got to Beograd and met all of Brett's friends who were so kind and warm to us the whole time we were there. But the city is sad. The people are very nice and they don't seem to hate Americans for what has happened to their country, but it is depressing to be there nonetheless.
Beograd has been destroyed and rebuilt more than any other city the world has ever known. Walking around looking at remnants from Austrian take overs and Ottoman rule you wonder if years to come there will be a little momento of NATO bombings leftover for future generations to ponder upon and picnic by.
The damage that has been done has not been cleaned up at all. Things that happened last year look like they happened last night. The sidewalk in front of the Beograd House of Justice mysteriously bombed (mysteriously because most of the targets were military or police headquarters) is littered with shards of glass people step on as they pass by to go to work and the front steps of the building have sprouted weeds and grass. You can't help but wonder why the buildings that were bombed have not yet undergone renovations. Is it simply a matter of there being no money in the till or does someone want the citizens of Beograd to relive the bombings each day?
Since being in sunny Istanbul, I have been aware of the dark and sad feeling I had while I was in the Balkans, and especially Serbia. There is such a feeling of being watched, and I don't think it is all imagined. I paused in front of a nondescript building up the street from where we were staying to take something out of my pocket and before a second had gone by a voice asked what I was doing in Serbo-Croatian. What the heck, I thought and Brett explained that it was a police officer inside the building who saw us stop at the door on the video camera inside. We hurried along but I felt strange walking by that place every night knowing I was being watched. Even where we were staying, in the church building, I didn't feel fully alone. We were advised to keep it down at night since we had not "registered" with the police and therefore were not really allowed to be staying there at all, and there were so many locks on the doors, and so many doors with locks that it felt like we already were where we were afraid we might end up!
The only way I really thought I might get into trouble was by taking pictures. A favorite pastime for tourists world round was strictly prohibited in parts of Belgrade. There were no signs telling you not to take photos of the buildings that had been bombed but we met two people who had been taken in for "questioning" by the police for doing just that. It is a frightening thought, but it didn't keep me for taking a few snapshots for the family albums.
Dining out in Serbia can also be a wonderful experience for the Balkan Adventure Traveler. The cuisine is a pleasant mix of Turkish Borek and Italian everything with a few Balkan variations in the cooking style and cheeses. In my favorite Italian restaurant we went to we had the honor of sitting in a table right next to the one where the Chief of Beograd police had been dining the night he was assassinated. There were two chairs at the table which I noticed the most, one had a big brownish red stain on it and the other was a brand new copy of the rest which were all yellowed with age. Unable to understand the language being used throughout dinner I was left to contemplate which seat he was sitting in when the shots were fired and why on earth the Italian restaurant was decorated with nothing but Toulouse-Lautrec prints.
It is nice to stop and think about how very different I feel here in Istanbul where the police don't have cameras on your street and the government isn't run by the closest thing to Hitler this century has seen. It is also nice to listen to the radio knowing it is not run by one of Milosovic's hip disco loving children. Maybe it is all in my head, but things really seem a whole lot brighter here!