If the train would have sat at the border crossing in Kelebija for another day, it would have hardly matter to me. I was in a state of euphoria. Just a few minutes earlier my passport had been stamped, I was now free to explore Serbia. I had crossed from suspect terrain, the netherworld of border crossing officialdom, to the land of possibility. For the next couple of hours I would feel as though the entire nation had opened before me. I was suddenly engaged in a wild thought experiment, imagining adventures and discoveries to come. My immediate goal was to arrive in Belgrade before nightfall, but that hardly mattered at the moment. My real point of arrival in Serbia came with clearing the border, now places such as Novi Sad and Nis – cities I was not planning to visit – were well within the realm of possibility. I did not really have the time to visit these places, but that hardly stopped me from dreaming of all the places I was capable of going in my momentary rapture.
Something In The Soil – Hidden Depths
The train made its first stop after border control at Subotica. I loved the town from the moment I first heard its name, which sounded eclectic to my ears. My visit lasted all of five minutes, just enough for the train to pick up passengers heading south to Novi Sad and Belgrade. The shortness of the stop made me long for more. Subotica has a long and very mixed up history, one of those places that is on the perpetual fringes of whatever empire or nation lays claim to it at the time. In the 20th century it was part of Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which became Yugoslavia, then Hungary, followed once again by Yugoslavia and finally Serbia. For much of that time it was given a high degree of autonomy. It must be especially frustrating for its citizens to know that the city lies just outside the European Union, the Hungarian border a mere ten kilometers away. Subotica is a microcosm of the Vojvodina region of Serbia, which is home to 26 distinct ethnic groups.
One of the city’s most famous sons, the writer Danilo Kis, symbolizes its ethnic diversity. His father was Jewish, but magyarized the family’s last name in an attempt to avoid anti-Semitism. His mother hailed from Montenegro. Danilo was baptized as a Serbian Orthodox Christian. This helped him escape the deadly clutches of the Holocaust which consumed his father. He is now revered as one of Serbia’s 20th century literary titans, but his lineage shows that he was a little bit of many things, just like the region he first called home. The city has more Hungarians than Serbs and almost as many Bunjevci as Croats, though the latter two are often considered synonymous with one another. More of its citizens speak Serbian than Hungarian, but Catholics outnumber adherents of the Orthodox faith two to one. Subotica still looks as much to Hungary as it does to Serbia. Its history and culture are defined by the crazy, mixed up mélange of peoples that have called it home for centuries.
Land Of Deception – A Multiplicity Of Diversity
Much of Eastern Europe was once like Subotica, with no ethnic group enjoying an outright majority. Two World Wars led the way for ethnic cleansing. Subotica was one of the few places left in Eastern Europe with such rich diversity. Prominent ethnic groups in the region, for instance the Bunjevci, were obscure to outsiders. The Bunjevci had roots in western Herzegovina then moved to Dalmatia and the Lika region of Croatia before arriving in the Vojvodina. Even the most educated and well-traveled Europeans know little about them. To call the Bunjevci obscure might have been an overstatement. Just trying to figure out their path to Vojvodina could make a scholars head spin. And yet they are only one of a multiplicity of groups found scattered across northern Serbia.
It was a pity I did not have time to explore Subotica and the surrounding region, it left me wanting more. Train travel has that effect on me. The pace of this train and multi-minute stops close to city and town centers offered tantalizing glimpses into places that I would otherwise never have known existed. Subotica is part of a long list of provincial cities that I have been allowed to catch fleeting glimpses of. They are soon gone, but never quite forgotten, places worth at least a memory and sometimes much more. The landscape of the Vojvodina, flat and pastoral, radiated outward in all directions as the train sped southward after leaving Subotica. Here was a land of deception. Many kilometers away to the east and west of where the train now traveled, this flatland was draining two of Europe’s great rivers, the Danube and Tisza, which converged in the region. Peering out the train window it was hard to imagine anything other than a mind numbing sameness of land and sky, the complete opposite of the Vojvodina’s diversity.
A Lack Of Courage & Commitment– On The Edge of the Unknown
My Lonely Planet Guide to the Western Balkans had nothing to say about this area outside of its cities. Thus when the train stopped in Vrbas, I had no foreknowledge to frame an understanding of this rather modest sized town (population 23,000). Such places suddenly appear in my travel journeys and fill me with a dreadful curiosity. I find myself asking what would happen if I were to get off the train at these provincial places. Where would I go in a town I knew nothing about? Would I find anyone who could speak English? What would happen to me? I was not likely to ever find out, but the idea was both intriguing and frightening. The same reservations would have informed 99% of Serbia for me, a land I knew little about. I had been elated upon arrival in the country, but now that I was free to travel almost anywhere in the country, a mental barrier kept me on the journey to Belgrade. Every place I passed through was worth a dream, a dream of all the things I could have done, but deep down I lacked the courage to commit myself to the unknown.