From The Orient Express With Love – Secret Agent Man: Following In James Bond’s Footsteps

My initial interest in the Orient Express in Eastern Europe did not come from Agatha Christie’s famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express or Graham Greene’s thrilling novel Stamboul Train. These outstanding literary thrillers were not to my liking as a teenager. Instead my fascination with the train and its route came to me through the movies. As a teenager I fell in love with the early James Bond films. They offered a powerful sense of place to viewers. One of my favorites quickly became From Russia With Love. The locations showcased or spoken of in the film brought into my consciousness for the first time the European side of Istanbul, the heart of Yugoslavia as well as an Italian border city by the name of Trieste. The coup de grace came with Venice, where the final scenes were filmed. These cities and the train trip to or through them was enough to send my imagination soaring. I never forgot them or the film that first brought them to my attention.

Later in life, I would have the opportunity to visit each city shown in the film, sometimes going to the exact same locations where the movie was made. This was either entirely accidental or the fulfillment of a subconscious yearning, all done in the service of feeding an interest in exoticism. I did not know do this in a single trip, but across several. Piecing together a From Russia With Love city setlist. I only realized it was complete a couple of years after my last visit. In a sense I was a spy, keeping a private watch on these highly personal places. I might never travel the old Orient Express in its entirety or become a secret agent, but the places were still there. It was an astonishing feeling, to look back after multiple trips realizing what I had inadvertently accomplished. I had visited these venerable and famous stations where the Orient Express was never to return.

Simplon Orient Express poster

Simplon Orient Express poster

Murder, Mystery & Mystique – Danger On A Train
From Russia With Love can be viewed as an homage to the Orient Express. This was not what the filmmakers intended, but the train ended up just as much a character in the film as any of those played by the actors. The Express and several stations where it stops play a large role in the film’s latter half. Bond travels on the train with a beautiful Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, as they attempt to make their way west to safety with a Lektor cryptographic device. All the while they are pursued by a death dealing operative of the international criminal organization, SPECTRE. The train scenes are replete with romance, drama and adventure. The compartment and restaurant cars are lavish while the setting is full of mystery and intrigue, nowhere more so than the train stations at Istanbul, Belgrade and Zagreb.

At the train station in Istanbul, Bond and Romanova make their getaway while pursued by a Russian agent. In Belgrade’s station, Bond tells the son of a Turkish colleague that his father died under conflicting circumstances. Then at the Zagreb station, Bond is due to meet a fellow 00 operative on the platform. Instead he is met by the Spectre agent sent to murder him. From Russia With Love’s compelling storyline is dramatically enhanced by the Orient Express and the stations encountered along the route. I would only later learn that the route was not that of the original Orient Express, but an offshoot. The first run of the Orient Express occurred in the autumn of 1883. Necessity, popularity and geopolitics eventually led to the creation of other routes in the years between the World Wars. The most popular of these was the Simplon Orient Express which began in 1919.

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939 (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Path To Progress – Into The Balkans & Beyond
It was the Simplon Orient Express route which Bond and Romanova travel during From Russia With Love, this time going from east to west. The Simplon was also the route famously followed in Christie’s murder mystery. The name Simplon was taken from a rail tunnel that was opened in 1906 below the Simplon Pass on the Swiss-Italian border. This tunnel made a new railway route to Europe’s eastern frontiers feasible.  In 1912, the Simplon route which already ran from Paris to Lausanne, through Milan and then to Venice, was extended to Trieste, Austria-Hungary. This service might have been called the less than Orient Express.

Fighting in World War I, along the Italian Front led to the closure of rail service to Trieste, as battle lines encroached on the route. The Simplon would be reopened and greatly expanded in the years after the war ended. The expansion was a result of the postwar peace process. The western powers needed a rail route to Eastern Europe that avoided Germany and what had formerly been the lands of Austria-Hungary, which were now two separate nations struggling with economic chaos and political upheaval. Thus, the Simplon would continue eastward from Trieste (now an Italian city) into the heart of the Balkans, going through Zagreb, Vinkovci and Subotica towards its final stop at Bucharest. Another spur headed from Vinkovci to Belgrade, where it divided again, going either to Athens or Constantinople (the city’s name was officially changed to Istanbul after the Republic of Turkey was formed). It was in Istanbul that Bond and Romanova made their initial getaway, boarding at Sirkeci Station. Romance and danger awaited them.

Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express

Symbol of Quality – Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express (Credit: Murdockcrc)

Into & Out Of Trouble – Route Of Least Resistance
The Simplon Orient Express was the preferred travel route for the wealthy, politically connected, intellectually refined and haute bourgeoise during its heyday. Agatha Christie traveled it many times with her second husband, an archeologist. It would not have been uncommon for high ranking diplomats or spies to be found onboard as well. This was especially true during the Cold War. Intrigue and danger were an exception though. One that proved the Simplon was a vital lifeline for businessmen, politicians and tourists during decades of east-west tensions. It may not have been the “original” Orient Express, but it was just as worthy. The fact that spurs of the Simplon led to Venice and Athens only added to the fascination with it. James Bond knew this was the easiest route back to safety. It was the path of least resistance for him, as well as for generations of Europeans. The Simplon may not have been the original Orient Express, but it just might have been better.

High Maintenance– The Yugo Story: A Few Last Laughs

I was sitting in a movie theater in Bozeman, Montana in 1999 watching the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger. Bozeman was about the last place I would have expected to be reminded of the former nation of Yugoslavia. The only tangential connection was the nearby town of Belgrade, which had been so named as a 19th century shout out to Serbian investors in the Northern Pacific Railroad. That was all in the distant past. In 1999, an American led NATO campaign was dropping bombs on Serbia, which at that point was the last vestige of Yugoslavia. And what might you ask did the movie Bowfinger have to do with Yugoslavia? In his role as Bobby Bowfinger, Martin played a down on his luck, colossally inept director trying to get back in the movie business.

On the wall of his study hung a framed movie poster from one of his minor hits. The poster showed a car cresting a hill with a beautiful sunset in the background. The movie’s title, The Yugo Story, was printed in large letters across the bottom. Every time the poster appeared in the background I began to howl in laughter. It got to the point that I became self-conscious of disturbing the people sitting around me. The poster sent me into guffaws because the Yugo had been an automotive embarrassment of legendary proportions. A vehicle that had inadvertently become a symbol of communist craftsmanship.  As much as I enjoyed watching Bowfinger, there was a part of me that wished The Yugo Story had been an actual film. It was a story worth telling, if for no other reason than a few good laughs.

Quality control - Yugo in a museum

Quality control – Yugo in a museum (Credit: dave_7)

Paying For Problems – Taking The Bait
Growing up in a single parent home of limited means in western North Carolina, cars always represented an unavoidable financial obstacle. We could only afford one, so that meant it had to be mechanically reliable with cost effective maintenance. Unfortunately, we bought a Ford Escort station wagon. It was purchased in the first year of their manufacture. The vehicle turned out to be a lemon, ending up in the junkyard after five years in which it drained the family finances. Such problems led me, a young and impressionable teenager, to start dreaming of short cuts to automotive stability. This was during the same time when the Yugo was first marketed in the United States. The spare, austere hatchback, looked like a savior with two doors and four wheels. Most importantly, the price was right.

Today the Yugo is the subject of ridicule, making it easy to forget the car’s popularity after it first arrived in America. Much of this had to do with the cost. A new Yugo GV (the GV stood for good value) with standard features – which included carpet! – was only $3,990 dollars in 1986. When calculated for inflation that figure comes out to $9,200 in today’s terms. That makes it the cheapest new car in American automotive history. Such a small amount of money for a new car shook up the American auto market. Suddenly a new car was affordable for millions of Americans. Tens of thousands took the bargain price bait. I recall seeing Yugos on the road in western North Carolina, a region where American cars reigned supreme at the time. The Yugos always looked cheaply produced, but what was one to expect at such a low price. Besides when compared to such American clunkers as the Chevrolet Chevette or Ford Escort, the Yugo seemed like it might be as good a bargain as advertised.

Yugo engine - Notice that the spare tire in the background is larger

Yugo engine – Notice that the spare tire in the background is larger (Credit: Sixthstar)

Cheating Death – An Owner’s Manual
In 1986, its first full year on the American market, nearly 36,000 Yugos were sold. This figure made it the top selling first year European import in American history. In 1987 the number sold increased to 48,000, which ended up being the peak for Yugo sales. Yugo dealerships began to sprout across the country, topping out at 300. It was a sort of miracle on four wheels that the Yugo sold as many models as it did. Many of the reviews were less than stellar. Consumer Reports said that Americans would be better off using their hard-earned cash on a good used car. Though promoted as a simple car, the Yugo required a great deal of attention. Owners were upset to find that the vehicle required regular maintenance. Those who ignored this fact would come to regret it. Failure to perform regular oil changes and have the timing belt changed every 40,000 miles often led to disastrous consequences. The Yugo was supposed to be a low maintenance, dependable automobile. Instead it was a high maintenance headache, that proved exceedingly temperamental if the owner’s manual was not followed to the letter. And even when it was, the Yugo was still prone to mechanical problems.

Word soon spread of the drawbacks to owning a Yugo. I distinctly remember people discussing safety concerns, making it sound like a Yugoslavian deathtrap. The vehicle was cheaply made and the odds of surviving an accident in it were said to be frighteningly low. Whether this was true or not, the Yugo suffered a loss of reputation that would never be recovered. Every time I saw a Yugo coming, I figured the people inside it must be either the bravest or stupidest people on earth. I started to believe that driving a Yugo was an attempt to cheat death. One wrong turn and the passengers could be goners. Soon the Yugo began to disappear from roads. An unscientific yet revealing measure of just how good a car is can be surmised by how many of a certain make or model can be seen on a road many years later. By that standard, the Yugo was AWOL from American highways. Little did I know that its disappearance had as much to do with geopolitics as it did mechanical problems.

Running down a dream - Yugo police car in Croatia

Running down a dream – Yugo police car in Croatia (Credit: Ishmael ZG)

A Dead End – Stalled Out
The Yugo Story in America ended tragically, a victim of the breakup of Yugoslavia.  Sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the country began to disintegrate led to imports of new Yugos being halted. Spare parts also became difficult to acquire. The one thing existing Yugo owners always needed was a good supply of spare parts. Soon the Yugo quickly faded from the American automotive scene. Multiple magazines deemed it one of the worst cars ever. Was it that bad? By American standards probably so, but in nations such as Croatia and Serbia, Yugos were a viable option until they finally hit a dead end with the last one manufactured in 2008. The Yugo Story was finished, except for a few last laughs.

 

Getting Away With Murder- A Tomb Without Tito: The House Of Flowers (Travels In Eastern Europe #36)

After the death of Josef Stalin in March of 1953 a few letters were discovered on his desk under a newspaper. One of these was from the leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. The two men had fallen out in the late 1940’s when Tito decided that hardline Stalinism was not for Yugoslavia. This break with the Soviet Union was not without its dangers. Stalin was a man who brooked no opposition. He had shown time and again the ability to have his opponents murdered, even if they were living in far off exile on another continent. The assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City is the most notable example of Stalin’s ferocious vindictiveness. In the case of Tito, Stalin planned to have him murdered just as he had done to thousands of others, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Even in Stalin’s last days before he suffered what would turn out to be a fatal stroke, he was still ordering attempts on Tito’s life. Why was Stalin so focused on killing Tito several years after the Yugoslav-Soviet split?

Strangely enough, Tito might actually have been one of the few people who actually scared Stalin. After all, Tito was one of the very few men to ever threaten Stalin and get away with it. The letter from Tito found on Stalin’s desk after his death stated quite clearly his intentions. “Stop sending assassins to murder me…if this doesn’t stop I will send a man to Moscow and there’ll be no need to send any more.” That is a remarkable statement. There is little doubt that Tito would have done his very best to carry out such a threat. He was no ordinary dictator. Tito was the very definition of a strongman. Not only did he issue a death threat to one of history’s most blood soaked dictators, but he also held Yugoslavia together for thirty-five years, a feat all the more impressive when one considers how the nation splintered into warring states a decade after he died. Tito was successful where others failed.

Josip Broz Tito

A different kind of dictator – Josip Broz Tito

In Life & Death – A Home For Tito
My visit to Belgrade offered me the opportunity to visit Tito’s tomb known as the House of Flowers (Kuća cveća). He was buried there after dying at the age of 87 while in Slovenia. It was a miracle he lasted as long as he did. The man known to adoring Yugoslavs as Marshal Tito had earned that title the hard way, by leading the partisan cause in World War II against three virulent enemies, the Nazis, fascist Croatian Ustashe and the Royalist Chetniks. At war’s end his Communist Partisans took power and managed to stay there, straddling the divide between East and West, communism and capitalism while playing each side off against the other. Tito emerged as a leader of international renown while spearheading the Non-Aligned Movement. For his efforts he would be revered, both at home and abroad. Following his death, Tito’s funeral drew an inordinately large gathering of international leaders and diplomats, making it quite possibly the largest state funeral in history.

They all came to pay their respects in the hills of Dedinje, an upscale area of Belgrade that Tito would call home in life and death. This was the area I visited on a gloomy March morning. Grey bellies of cloud hovered over the city, spitting random drops of rain. I disembarked at the bus stop closest to the tomb. The only other person who got off at this stop was a lady who looked to be heading home. In the 1980’s lines of people would queue to visit Tito’s tomb. The day I visited, no one else was around. The only people I saw on the property either worked at the ticket booth, mausoleum or museum. The Yugoslav Wars and the resulting disintegration of Yugoslavia had sent visitation plummeting. The tomb was closed for many years and when it reopened, Tito was no longer popular. The memory of the man was intertwined with the failure of Yugoslavia as a state, even if it that failure took place long after he died.

House of Flowers - The tomb of Josip Broz Tito

House of Flowers – The tomb of Josip Broz Tito (Credit: Clay Gilliland)

Reflections – Tito Is Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia Is Tito
An air of indifference hung heavy over the complex where his tomb lays. At one time it housed the Museum of Yugoslav History, displaying over 200,000 items in its collection. All the old exhibits were shelved after Yugoslavia collapsed. This part of the complex was now used as a gallery to display local artwork. The area around the tomb did have exhibitions that were linked to Tito. The most interesting of which was a collection of batons. These were part of a relay that would take place each year leading up to May 25th, Tito’s birthday. The batons were carried on mountaintops, swum across lakes and handled by parachutists jumping out of planes, among other displays of undying devotion to Marshal Tito. Tito was treated with the utmost reverence. In retrospect, these accolades were well deserved. He was the single irreplaceable figure in Yugoslavia. It is no exaggeration to say that without him the country would collapse, because that is precisely what happened.

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers (Credit: Ferran Cornellà)

Visiting the tomb meant I was paying respect to both Tito and the ideal embodiment of Yugoslavia. Here was the final resting place of the man whose persona reflected a nation. I actually found the setting a beautiful place to mourn. Tito’s wish was to be buried here. For a man who was at best a benevolent dictator, at worst an iron fisted demagogue, the House of Flowers gives his legacy a veneer of refinement. The tomb is set in polished marble with lush plants around three sides of it. The setting is peaceful and stately, worthy of an exalted head of state.

It was a worthy place to bury a deeply flawed, but great man. Only later did I discover that Tito is not actually buried in the tomb. His remains lie in a nearby flower garden. Thus visitors pay their respects at a tomb without Tito, to a nation that no longer exists. It is a fitting final commentary on a man who spent his life holding Yugoslavia together and whose death ultimately led to its dissolution.

 

 

Balkan Waters – Meeting Point: The Danube & Sava Rivers At Belgrade (Travels In Eastern Europe #35)

My main reason for traveling to Belgrade was to check it off on a list of Eastern European capitals that I wanted to visit. By going to the city I would be able to call myself a traveler rather than a tourist. Allow me to explain. Very few people visiting Eastern Europe go south of Budapest along the Danube. Conversely tens of thousands of tourists ply the river’s waters on exorbitantly expensive cruises through Germany, Austria, southern Slovakia and northern Hungary, but they go no further than Budapest. I have met an overwhelming majority of older Americans who arrive or depart on such cruises from Budapest. I have yet to meet a single American who was following the Danube into Serbia.

I will often ask these people if they have plans to travel further down the river into the Balkans by boat. The answer is always no. I suspect that they believe the Yugoslav Wars have continued unabated since the Cold War ended. I assume that for most of these tourists a boat ride to Belgrade is a risk not worth taking. The Danube might as well end at Budapest rather than the Black Sea. The reality is that the river continues onward, following a course that stimulates little interest among holidaying westerners. Budapest or even Bratislava sounds more appealing than Belgrade. These people have little idea what they are missing out on. For that matter so do I. I have never taken a boat ride on the Danube, but I have stood upon its banks in Belgrade, pondering its place in the city.

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two Great Rivers Converge – The View From Kalmegdan
All this comes to mind as I recall looking down upon the waterfront of the Serbian capital from the Belgrade Fortress at Kalmegdan Park. The river was deserted, its surface a glassy smoothness. A few boats were moored along the riverbank, but it was early spring, long before any tourist voyages would embark upon the Danube’s murky waters. The river was wide and full. And how could it not be? The Danube swallows its largest tributary by volume within sight from the heights of Kalmegdan. The Sava River is not considered one of the great rivers of Europe, but it should be. The Sava is a Balkan river through and through. It flows through the capitals of the three primary nations that the former Yugoslavia.

The Sava winds its way through Ljubljana in Slovenia, Zagreb in Croatia and finally debouches into the Danube at Belgrade. The city’s location at the confluence of the Sava with the Danube has ensured Belgrade’s importance in the region’s history. The saying that “geography is destiny” certainly seems apropos in this case, but what looks obvious to the historically minded is often obscured in the present. Only a handful of people come and go along either of these rivers today. I would guess that 99% of people traveling to Belgrade arrive by plane, car or as I did train. The Danube and Sava Rivers in Belgrade today have rendered lonely forces of nature by modern technology. They are crossed by bridge and hardly given a second thought.

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed (Credit: Duja)

Wedding Of The Waters – Two Rivers Become One
Walking down by the rivers just below Kalmegdan Park was a strange experience. It was incredibly quiet. I felt like I was on the edge of a nature preserve rather than two forces of nature, the Danube and Sava, which wash the banks of this bustling city. Perhaps I had come to the wrong part of the river in Belgrade. My visit was certainly in the wrong season. Early spring was obviously a slow season for river traffic since there was none. It felt as though I had the both rivers all to myself. Only a few scattered stragglers walked close to the banks. I have read that tens of thousands flock to the waterfront during the summer, as opposed to the handful that I saw on my visit. On the opposite side of the Danube, trees lined the banks. No sign of development or humanity was within sight, though behind me stood a city of over a million people. The Danube’s width and breadth was intimidating. There was little doubt that it was swift and powerful. The river might be silent at the moment, but it had the ability to carry away anyone or anything that did not respect a deceptively forceful current. It was hard to imagine the Danube this way judged by its current state, a thick ribbon of dark water slowly surging under a leaden sky. The river seemed totally remote from its surroundings.

Soon I found myself standing opposite of where the Sava and Danube mingled. For both waterways to converge at this point was an incredible act of hydrological travel. By the time it arrives at Belgrade the Danube has traveled over 1,500 kilometers and the Sava nearly a thousand. The waters wed within sight of the aptly named Great War Island. For it was on this piece of land, that one attack after another had been launched against the city. Depending on what source you care to reference, Belgrade has been conquered anywhere from twenty to forty times. Each time it was destroyed and rebuilt in a style that favored its conqueror. Belgrade’s reconstruction was done by the hands of man, while Great War Island had been restored by nature. It looked less like a place to mount an attack on the city and more like somewhere to watch birds. Time and technology had made martial usage of the island obsolete. A staging ground for centuries worth of war, was now peaceful and serene. Contrast and paradox define the stretches of riverfront that can be seen from Kalmegdan Park

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods (Credit: Wikipedia)

Rivers Run Wild – Back To Nature
A couple of years after I walked that sleepy waterfront, the Danube and Sava once again became their true selves. In May 2014 deluges further upstream led to massive flooding. One Serbian minister called the inundation of cities, towns and farmland the greatest natural disaster in the nation’s history. The flooding caused an estimated one and a half billion Euros worth of damage in Serbia. Belgrade escaped the worst of the flooding, but the rising waters came frighteningly close to causing a cataclysm. It was a reminder that the rivers were still wild and always will be. They could never really be tamed. I did not see such wildness in the rivers when I visited. The Danube and Sava in Belgrade were a study in serenity the day I walked along their banks, but I sensed that eventually these rivers have to run wild and return to a state of nature.

The Other Side Of An Invisible Barrier – Conversations In Belgrade: Rebellion, Recklessness & A Refugee (Travels In Eastern Europe #34)

The memories of Belgrade that remain with me have nothing to do with the places I visited in the Serbian capital. This is not because the city was unmemorable. Such sites as the confluence of the Sava with the Danube River, the tomb of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito, Kalmegdan Fortress and St. Sava’s Cathedral were all worth seeing. It was just that the people I met were that much more memorable. Some of them were Serbs, several were not. Belgrade for me became a collection of fascinating personal interactions that I have carried with me ever since that visit.

My personal interactions with Serbs began at a grocery store just down the street from my accommodation. While I was picking up some provisions for the coming days, I noticed that a man stocking the shelves was wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt. I asked him if he spoke English. He replied in the affirmative. This began a conversation about his love of American football, specifically the Packers. He discussed at length the Packers’ past season. Our meeting went on for some time as he helped me find some groceries. I knew American football had been gaining in popularity around the world and Serbia has a reputation as a sports mad place, but a fanatical fan of the National Football League in Belgrade was a surprise. The reach of American culture, including sports, is hard to fathom until it confronts you in the dairy section of a Serbian grocery shop.

The War At Home – Seething With Resistance
My next extended interaction with a Serb came at Kalmegdan Fortress. A gentleman who looked to be in his thirties was working at the ticket selling counter. His English was impeccable. We started out discussing modern history, which brought us to the subject of Serbia’s relatively recent wars. I asked his opinion on the breakup of Yugoslavia. He began to speak with great passion. Serbia had been misunderstood. The Serbs were trying to save the South Slavic peoples from much worse. They had been wrongly cast as the aggressor. What had happened to Serbia was nothing short of a tragedy. It was a great nation that was misunderstood and deserved better. I sensed a fervent streak of unforgiving nationalistic sentiment. Until I was shocked by what he had to say about Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars, who was eventually put on trial for war crimes. I expected a full throated defense of this demagogic nationalist.

Instead when I asked him what he thought of Milosevic, the man launched into an extended commentary of how he spent years protesting the idiocy of this pseudo-dictator who had nearly ruined Serbia. He finished up by saying how sad it was that nationalists in the post-Milsoevic era carried out symbolically foolish actions such as vandalizing a McDonald’s to protest capitalism and foreign intervention in Serbian affairs. After we finished talking he became completely calm and polite. I had scratched just beneath the surface with this Serb and discovered a complex nationalism. There was ferocity, but it was more a symptom of frustration. This was the upshot of losing wars as well as constituent parts of the nation. Yugoslavia was gone, Montenegro was independent and Kosovo was well on its way to statehood. I had the feeling that Serbs, like the one who stood before me, would never accept this situation. Here was a nation that even after being brought to its knees, was still seething with resistance. I found this quality admirable and frightening in unequal measure.

Belgrade - city of protests

Belgrade – city of protests (Credit: Geologicharka )

A Constant Instability – Serbian States Of Mind
My final day in Belgrade I was not due to leave the city until the evening. I spent the afternoon hanging out with the owner of my accommodation. There was another employee on duty, a young college age woman. I first asked the owner what he remembered about the NATO Bombing of Belgrade in 1999. At the time he had been a teenager. “Me and my friends had a blast. We got drunk every night, partying like crazy.” He said nothing about damage to the city or the fear engendered by bombs and missiles descending on his hometown. Instead the bombing sounded like a lark, a reason to binge drink. Maybe this was a coping mechanism or just youthful delinquency. From my few conversations with Serbs I sensed a reckless exuberance, the kind of people who would give the world a middle finger while laughing in the face of fear. An exaggerated assumption on my part perhaps, but there’s was an attitude informed by rebellion.

Earlier in my visit to Belgrade I had walked up on a large crowd involved in a protest outside parliament. Several of the protestors began to shout at me, but not in fury. They seemed to be upset that I had not joined them. I mentioned this to my host who said “those protests happen all the time, but nothing will change. Those people are wasting their time.” That might have been true, but I had a feeling that Serbia was the kind of place always on edge, where instability was a constant. The instability that marked the 1990’s in Serbia was not an anonymous faceless force that had been resigned to the past. Its ramifications were widespread. I found myself face to face with these consequences while talking with a young Serbian woman who was watching the front desk at my accommodation. While making conversation I asked her if she was from Belgrade. No she was not. She had been born in an ethnic Serbian area of Croatia, but as a little girl was forced to flee the war along with her family. As she put it, “The area was no longer safe. We had to leave.” Her family had relatives in Belgrade. This had brought them to the city and they stayed. Going home was impossible even after the fighting ceased.

Nothing Else To Say – An Invisible Barrier
The woman telling me this could have been mistaken for an American college student. She looked and acted perfectly pleasant. It was hard to imagine that as a child she had been a refugee. I knew the stories of inter-ethnic violence during the Yugoslav Wars. Women, even very young women whether Serb, Croatian or Bosniak had been raped by the tens of thousands. Others had managed to escape just in time. This woman had escaped such horrors, but just the idea was horrific. Some things are best not left to the imagination. My conversation with her trailed off, there was an invisible barrier not to be crossed. The Yugoslav Wars were no longer the preserve of journalistic accounts or history books. They were a kind young woman working the front desk, who as a child had escaped death or possibly even worse. That was the legacy of the Yugoslav Wars, there was nothing else to say.

Second Impressions – The Old Versus the New Belgrade: A Stranger Kind Of Trust (Travels In Eastern Europe #33)

It was on the outskirts of Belgrade that I was suddenly struck by a bout of inescapable fear. This sudden fright coincided with the appearance of those looming communist monsters, the concrete apartment blocks that signaled Novi Belgrade (New Belgrade). These architectural atrocities were my first impression of the Serbian capital. Yugoslavia, under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, had supposedly suffered under a much milder and more sensible form of communism than the Soviet Union. That may have been true, but the soulless, mass architecture of that system was the same as what I had already witnessed to a greater or lesser extent ringing the cityscapes of Sofia, Bucharest and Budapest. These high rises were the physical embodiment of a movement from fields to factories, as rural peasants were transformed into an urban proletariat.

Novi Belgarde - Tito's towers

Novi Belgarde – Tito’s towers

Central Planning & No Planning – On The Outskirts
The soul of this soullessness had been forged in the fires of heavy industry. Where the high rises stood was little more than a marshy backwater up until the mid-20th century. Then in 1947 the banks above the Sava River were transformed into a massive construction site, giving rise to what might be termed Tito’s towers. In 1949 the writer Lawrence Durrell, who was posted to Belgrade on a diplomatic assignment, had this to say: “As for Communism…a short visit here is enough to make one decide that Capitalism is worth fighting for. Black as it may be, with all its bloodstains, it is less gloomy and arid and hopeless than this inert and ghastly police state.” Hopeless was an appropriate term for what I felt upon sighting the towering beasts of Brutalism.

The population of Novi Belgrade soared along with the concrete towers, to the point where over 200,000 Serbs now call Novi Belgrade home, many rather would not. I found the sight of the apartment blocks frightening in the extreme, looking like some macabre Lego configuration shrouded in a shadowy grey. From first impressions, Belgrade looked like Bucharest on Stalinist steroids. Adding to my horror was the sight of a large Roma shanty town, that looked as flimsy as the looming towers were solid. Detritus was scattered everywhere, smoke rose from above several of the corrugated concoctions. Trash was strewn in all directions. A third world had sprung up in the shadows of a supposedly brave new world. Central planning and no planning side by side, the contrast could not have been greater. It was a hysterical expression of apocalyptic utopianism.  Belgrade was unlike any place I had ever seen and I was only on its outskirts. A feeling of intense foreboding came over me.

An air of ambition - Belgrade Main railway station

An air of ambition – Belgrade Main railway station (Credit: Dekanski)

An Air Of Ambition – Entering Old Belgrade
Fortunately the Belgrade Main railway station was a fiesta of optimism in comparison to what I had just experienced. The building was one of those late 19th century architectural confections that evoked ambition and an air of royalty. It was built at the same time that Serbia was trying to find its way as an independent nation.  The first passengers to embark on a train from the station were quite appropriately the King and Queen of Serbia. The station had also been a stop on the Orient Express. I felt something magical still lived in this station. I was now entering the older, more traditional Belgrade that had aspired to be accepted as a European capital rather than a Balkan outpost of the Ottomans. There was still a hint of the exotic in the Cyrillic lettering that covered signage. There was no mistaking that I was in the East, but still in Europe, if only the forgotten fringes.  All aesthetics aside the goal was to find my accommodation. The plan was to go there by foot.

From the looks of the taxi drivers loitering outside the station my decision was sound. They were a motley crew of men who looked like they smoked for a living. I ignored their offers of a ride which would have surely turned rapacious in a matter of minutes. I began to walk away from the station, towards the Old Town (Stari Grad). It was not long before I was questioning my self-made directions. The signage in Cyrillic sent me into further confusion. Darkness was slowly beginning to fall upon the city. It was time to ask for help. The only people nearby were a group of high school aged guys smoking and laughing. As a foreigner setting foot in Belgrade for the first time, my choice for help was not exactly a wise one, but I was tired. Plus I felt that strange, magnetic allure of a potential threat.

Into Old Belgrade

Into Old Belgrade (Credit: Wikipedia)

Beyond All Expectation – Everything Is Illuminated
Rather than being repulsed by danger, I was attracted to it. My irrational fear of Serbia was about to be tested. I approached these young Serbs with an exaggerated confidence, trying to project a strong image. I said “excuse me, do you speak English?” I then pointed at my hand drawn directions. These young men instantly stopped their chatter, at first they looked shocked. Then one of them composed himself and said, “Yes.” The rest of the guys looked more at their friend than me. They seemed to revere his confidence in talking to a foreigner. He soon had me pointed in the right direction. I thanked him and smiled at the group. They returned the pleasantry. As I was walking off, I could not help but notice how the guy who helped me was now being lauded by his friends. My first conversation with a Serb in Serbia had gone rather well and why should it not have? My fear of Serbia now seemed rather ridiculous. All it took to banish fear and prejudice was a single experience. Here was one of those priceless gifts of travel, suddenly Belgrade felt inviting.

It was not long before I arrived at the check in for my accommodation. The host, a Serbian man in his 20’s who spoke excellent English, informed me that my room was at an apartment a short walk from where we initially met. I wondered just exactly what the place would look like. There were not many reviews on the Hostel World website for this host when I booked the accommodation, but the few ratings given were top notch. I was nervous though, what if the place was a dive or I was being led into some clever ruse. Trust is essential when traveling in foreign lands, but suspicion is natural. I was always taught not to trust strangers, but this trip had forced me to do just that. There was no other choice but to hope for the best.

We entered a multi-story building through a darkened doorway, this led to a staircase. In a few moments we were at another door. The host turned a key and proceeded to open the door. In a matter of seconds I walked into an immaculate room. There was new furniture, shiny floors and a large flat screen television. My bedroom was spacious, while the bathroom looked fit for a Hilton not a hostel. This was beyond all my expectations. The Serb asked me if I needed anything else, I just smiled and said “this will do.”

Tomb Of The Known – Sirmium: The Roman Empire & Emperors Buried Beneath Serbia (Travels In Eastern Europe #32)

When I think of the Roman Empire my thoughts usually turn to the eternal city of Rome and the splendid ruins found there or the many sites scattered across southern France where the magnificent Pont De Gard aqueduct, arena in Arles and theater in Orange stand as testament to the splendor of Pax Romana. What does not come to mind are the Balkans and the area which is now part of the Serbian nation. That was until I stumbled upon some fascinating information while reading a guidebook on a train trip to Belgrade. This was how I first learned about the city of Sremska Mitrovica.

I read with interest about its prominence in late antiquity. At that time it was known as Sirmium. The city had been one of the pivot points on which the empire turned away from the west and towards the east, while playing a role in one of the seminal events in Roman history, the Crisis of the Third Century. This was a series of unceasing civil wars during a fifty year period beginning in 235 AD. The crisis irreparably weakened the empire. Among the many problems which beset the Roman world during this violent period were several emperors who came from Sirmium and its surroundings. The city bred a martial ethos that dominated the empire during the crisis.

Ruins of Imperial Palace in Sirmium - in Sremska Mitrovica

Ruins of Imperial Palace in Sirmium – in Sremska Mitrovica (Credit: mediaportal vojovodina)

A Very Bad Fate – Chaos Rules Rome
Less than an hour’s drive west of Belgrade, Sremska Mitrovica is located on the left bank of the Sava River. Its situation along the river has made it a prime spot for human habitation over the last seven thousand years. The apex of its development came in the centuries following its conquest and incorporation into Ancient Rome in 14 BC. Sirmium eventually grew to become one of the bigger cities in the empire, with an estimated population of 100,000. Military expeditions by such famous emperors as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius were outfitted from the city. Aurelius also kept a residence there. The city was conveniently located close to the imperial frontiers along the Danube, a region where the Romans were engaged in near constant warfare against barbarian tribes.

By the 3rd century AD, power in the empire was gravitating eastwards with Sirmium at the crossroads of this movement. No fewer than ten Roman emperors were born in the city over a 150 year period beginning in 210 AD. The first five of these emperor’s reigns were short lived, reflecting the perpetual state of crisis which brought and then banished them from power. They were all military men who knew violence intimately. The first of these five emperors was Decius Traian (249 – 251) who along with his son and co-emperor Herennius Etruscus (251) died in a swamp, killed by Goths at the Battle of Abrittus in what is now Bulgaria. Decius became the first, but certainly not the last Roman Emperor to die in combat. Then there was Quintillus (270), who would end up in Italy where he was killed after a few months on the throne.

Scale model of ancient Sirmium

Scale model of ancient Sirmium (Credit: mediaportal vojvodina)

Short Lived – Life & Death At The Top
Two emperors from Sirmium managed to escape a violent death, Hostilian (251) and Claudius II (251). Unfortunately they fell, as thousands of others did, to the Plague of Cyprian, a lethal epidemic that was most likely smallpox. There were also a couple of emperors who were not born in the city, but claimed the imperial throne while there in 260, Ingenuus and Regalianus. The former committed suicide by drowning himself after being defeated in battle, while the latter was murdered by the same people who had put him in power a few months earlier. This was an age of chaos and crisis. It seems that there was something about connections with Sirmium that brought tough soldier emperors to very bad fates. Finally in 284 the crisis ended and Sirmium was well situated to grow once again.

Though Sirmium continued to produce emperors, including Maximianus Herculius (285-310) and Constantius II (337 – 361), the empire had been fundamentally transformed by fifty years of crisis. The economy was in tatters, as trade routes had been irreparably altered. Personal freedom was sacrificed for collective security. The empire was in decline, but Sirmium weathered the changes better than most cities. Sirmium gained exalted status as one of four imperial capitals in the latter part of the third century, at other times the city was a provincial capital and capital of a praetorian prefecture. When the empire turned away from paganism and towards Christianity, the city became an episcopate. It was not until 441 when the Huns arrived that the city fell out of Roman control, yet Barbarian tribes such as the Gepidae made Sirmium the center of their world as well. Only when it was taken in the late 6th century by Avars was ancient Sirmium a thing of the past. Fortunately much of the Roman city was left intact.

The ancient and the modern - Sirmium and Sremska Mitrovica

The ancient and the modern – Sirmium and Sremska Mitrovica (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Unseen – Sremska Mitrovica’s Buried Treasures
Fourteen hundred years later much of Sirmium still exists, but cannot be seen. It has been submerged beneath modern day Sremska Mitrovica. It would be one of the world’s premier archeological sites if only what lies beneath the current city could be unearthed. With the exception of such tantalizing remnants as the Emperor’s Palace very little excavation has taken place. During the 1970’s an American team of archeologists proposed that Sremska Mitrovica be relocated to an entirely new area in order for a thorough excavation to take place. This did not sit well with the citizens or the government of Yugoslavia. The proposal went nowhere.  A large scale excavation of Sirmium has yet to take place.

While Roman history enthusiasts may salivate at the thought of an eventual excavation there is little chance of that. The site that most would love to see is a fully intact Roman Hippodrome, the only one left in the world. The problem is that it lies directly beneath the town center. Due to its size, there is no way of excavating the site without altering the existing town center.  Thus, one of the great treasures of antiquity is likely to stay hidden under the sleepy streets of Sremska Mitrovica.

Dancing In The Shadow of Death – Acts Of Reckless Defiance: The Bombing Of Novi Sad (Travels In Eastern Europe #31)

For Americans the 1990’s were largely a decade of prosperity and carefree optimism. The dotcom boom sent the economy soaring, unemployment was low and incomes were rising. Terrorism was still on the periphery and the national mood was optimistic. The country was consumed by the internet, various Clinton administration scandals and the OJ Simpson murder trial saga. By and large the United States was at peace, except for involvement in a handful of military engagements, the most prominent of which was in the former Yugoslavia. As the decade wound down Serbian forces, at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic, interjected themselves into the conflict in Kosovo to ostensibly protect the province’s Serbian population against ethnic Albanian forces. This threatened another round of genocide such as had already occurred earlier in the Yugoslav wars. When Serb forces refused to obey a NATO order to leave Kosovo, the alliance led by the considerable firepower of the United States, conducted a series of military strikes against targets in Serbia. Many of these strikes hit the city of Novi Sad, which I was passing through on the train to Belgrade.

Liberty Bridge in Novi Sad destroyed during NATO air strikes in 1999

Liberty Bridge in Novi Sad destroyed during NATO air strikes in 1999 (Credit: Darko Dozet)

Prime Target – A City In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
My fear of traveling to Serbia had largely subsided after a couple of hours gliding across the Vojvodina region by train. The countryside looked much like that of the Great Hungarian Plain, endless fields of prime agricultural land. It was hard to imagine that an alliance led by my own country had ever dropped bombs on this land, which looked like a snapshot of serenity from the window of a train car. The hard truth was that this had indeed occurred and not that long ago. As the train arrived on the outskirts of Serbia’s second largest city, I was about to pass through what had been a prime target of the bombing.

If there was anywhere in Serbia that I should have worried about negative attitudes towards Americans than Novi Sad would have been that place. The city had suffered grave damage during the NATO bombings of 1999. This was sadly ironic since politically, Novi Sad did not support Milosevic, but instead was ruled at that time by the Democratic Opposition. Nonetheless, its role as the second largest city in the country, situated astride the Danube made it a prime target. Novi Sad was home to three bridges over the Danube, as well as various industrial facilities.

Bombing began on March 24th and would continue for the next two and a half months. In less than four weeks NATO’s missiles and cluster bombs managed to destroy all three of the city’s bridges that crossed the Danube. This would effectively blockade the river for the next four years, causing economic hardship both for Serbia as well as for NATO members upstream. One of the enduring images of the bombing was black smoke pouring into the sky. This resulted from multiple strikes against oil refineries located in the city. The pollutants that were released could be just as dangerous to civilians as any bomb. Breathing in such a large amount of carcinogens in so short a time, led to respiratory problems or worse. It was estimated that over 50,000 tons of refined oil went up in thick, toxic clouds of smoke.  The city’s electrical and water supplies were also knocked out. Novi Sad was on its knees by May.

Black smoke billows up from a refinery struck by the NATO bombing of Novi Sad in 1999

Black smoke billows up from a refinery struck by the NATO bombing of Novi Sad in 1999 (Credit: Darko Dozet)

The Dark Side Of Irony – A Twisted War
This being modern warfare, the strikes were also tinged with a dark irony, both during and after the bombing. By one estimate, the destruction of the oil refineries and other industrial targets actually led to less pollution. The old communist era refineries were so archaic that their destruction actually improved air quality. Another darkly ironic twist took place on the final day of bombing in June. More lives were lost on this day than any other. This was a bizarre coda to the seemingly endless Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. It then took several years to replace two of the bridges over the Danube, the funding to reconstruct these bridges came from the European Union. Many of these same EU members were also part of NATO, effectively helping pay for the reconstruction of what they had previously destroyed. The bridge, which my train crossed the Danube on, was only temporary. A permanent replacement is still in the planning stages.

The scars of the bombing can be quantified in terms of physical damage, but the human toll is quite another matter. Precision strikes can limit collateral damage, but not entirely avoid it. Innocents were killed and wounded, some unwittingly used as human shields by the government. Others lived through a trauma they would never forget.  The sky looked very different after death and destruction had rained down from above. The NATO airstrikes brought the Milosevic regime to the point of collapse while saving the lives of countless Kosvars, both Albanian and Serb. Meanwhile, Novi Sad paid a heavy price since much of its population opposed the regime. It was unfair, but war is not about fairness. There was no escape for civilians. A sad reminder that one thing remains certain in war, that there will always be losers.

Crater from NATO missile strike between two apartment buildings and elementary school

Crater from NATO missile strike between two apartment buildings and elementary school (Credit: Darko Dozet)

Getting Bombed – Shaking Fists At An Empty Sky
And there will always be madmen and women who take on a different persona, transformed by war. One of the less reported aspects of the bombing concerned teenage Serbs. Rather than huddling in shelters, they spent the days drinking and partying. They hung out close to the Danube. When it was time for another round of bombing the police would usher them away.  It was an act of reckless defiance. Mortal threats did little to dissuade their behavior. There was something both insane and admirable about such conduct. These young Serbs had few defenses other than liquid courage. It was one way to fight back against the injustice of war. This confirmed what I had heard about Serbs, that they are a very tough people, who love to enjoy life. Here was the youth of a nation dancing in the shadow of death while shaking their fists at an empty sky. While black smoke billowed up and hundred foot flames licked the air, many of Novi Sad’s younger citizens threw caution to the infernal wind.  This was perhaps the most appropriate, rather than the safest, response to the grave injustice that fell upon that city by the Danube.

A Momentary Rapture – Subotica, Serbia:  Dreaming Of A Dreadful Curiosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #30)

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.

Subotica Train Station

Subotica Train Station

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.

Map of Serbia -showing location of Vojvodina region

Map of Serbia -showing location of Vojvodina region

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.

Vojvodina landscape

The rural landscape of Vojvodina

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.

Fear Of Serbia – A Journey To The Other Side: Crossing Irrational Borders (Travels In Eastern Europe #29)

I was afraid of Serbia and that made me want to go there. A sense of danger has always held a strange attraction for me. The idea that something awful could happen can actually draw me to certain places. Serbia happened to be one of them. My fear was not really based upon experience, only imagination.  I only ever met a handful of Serbians in my entire life, they were all friendly. My fear stemmed from how I would be received upon entering the country. Though it had been a decade and a half since the United States military dropped bombs on Belgrade, I wondered if there was still some residual anger over American intervention into Balkan affairs.

I left Budapest on a morning train heading south to Serbia with a certain feeling of trepidation. I really did not fear for my personal safety. It was more a fear that I might run into difficulties at the border because I was an American. Of course, I was being irrational. I had already met an American on this trip who had been to Serbia and survived the experience.  He told me there was no problem crossing the border, but did mention the fact that he been detained on the Bosnian border. He was forced to spend the night in a holding cell at a border post after the guards had noticed his prescription bottle of Xanax. It was totally legal, but he thought they were looking for a bribe of some sort. He advised me that if I ever got detained to just keep saying call the American consulate. I kept that in mind as the train slowly made its way along the flat lands of southern Hungary.

Into the unknown - Hungary from the rails

Into the unknown – Hungary from the rails

The Familiar & The Foreign – Pass Through Places
I was nervous, but the tension heightened my awareness on what should have been an otherwise sleepy trip through a provincial hinterland. The train car was only about half full. I found myself studying passengers that were sitting nearby. A Roma couple sat in the aisle opposite me. The woman was young and not unattractive, she was also several months pregnant, judging by her bulging belly. Her male companion, a skinny man with a slender face, looked to be in his early 20’s. He opened up a paper bag, pulled out a huge loaf of bread along with a giant sausage. He then proceeded to devour it within a matter of minutes. This was an impressive feat, to the point that the woman burst out laughing while watching him ravenously finish off this impromptu meal.  After this I spent an inordinate amount of time studying them. They eyed me suspiciously, making comments to one another when looking my way.

I spent much of the trip aimlessly thumbing through my guidebook as the train slowly rattled along through a pastoral landscape. We rolled past towns and villages with the usual range of bizarre Hungarian place names such as Fulopszallas, Kiskoros and Kiskunhalas. The kind of places that are only known to travelers during the time it takes to pass through them. Even by the standards of Eastern European travel these places were remote. And yet in the most remote places something always seems familiar, whether it is people riding bicycles, villagers tending a backyard garden or children playing in the street. At the same time, there are constant reminders of the foreign such as sounds of a foreign tongue being spoken and unintelligible words on signage. This incongruity of the familiar with the foreign was disconcerting, adding to my apprehension.

Crossing Borders – The Way It Used To Be
It was an excruciatingly slow ride to the border. For no apparent reason, the train would halt amid a landscape of pancake flat fields, where black soil stretched in all directions. Nothing would happen for a few minutes then the train would start to slowly move once again. As we neared the border my pulse quickened. The closer we got, the more my heart pounded. I kept thinking that any minute we would be at the border. Anyone who does not think the European Union has transformed border crossings should measure the amount of time it takes to cross the border from one EU member to another as compared with crossing from an EU to a non-EU member. In the latter case, there is no welcome sign that you glide by at eighty kilometers per hour, instead there is a first stop for the exit process, in this case with Hungarian officials. This is usually quick and painless.

Then there is a crossing to the other side, where the way things used to be in Europe still holds true. In the case of Serbia, it meant we halted at border control and waited for officers to enter the train for passport checks. It is ironic that while I waited to enter Serbia, I was already in Serbia. If I was detained and not allowed to enter Serbia, I would be held in Serbia. Understand that? Some would say that border control lies in a geo-political netherworld, a land of ambiguity. That is true enough, but no matter what officialdom says when you arrive at a nation’s point of entry, you are in that nation, subject to its laws whether or not you agree with them.

Stamp of approval

Stamp of approval (Credit: Jon Rawlinson)

Welcome Without A Smile – Crossing Over
Sitting on that train at the extreme northern tip of Serbia, I knew that my immediate future lay in the hands of people I had never met, who spoke a language I could not possibly comprehend, whose culture was foreign to my own. And something told me that there was no place I would rather be. The moment when the compartment door opened and an accented cry of “passport control” echoed forth I felt a rush of adrenaline. The dull thud of boots foretold the border official to come. He was stocky with a hard look on his face, serious and proper. He took my passport, turned it to the page with my photo and essential information. He eyed me for just a moment then flipped through the passport until he found a blank page. He took his stamp and punched it methodically, handed the passport back to me and said, “Welcome To Serbia.” He did it all without the hint of a smile.