Nearly everything I’ve been taught about writing preaches the necessity of avoiding clichés and overused, tired structures. Originality counts in efforts of the scribe, so it seems wise to shun patterns happily deployed by rheumy-eyed bloggers who blather on with their “Top 10 (enter food product) in the US”, “Top 10 places to (enter activity)” and “Top 10 reasons why Justin Bieber’s visitor card to the US should be revoked.”
OK, I’d still read the latter one with great and urgent interest, but you get my point: Top 10 lists are ploys by the unimaginative who put pen to paper, or, more accurately, sweaty fingertip to keyboard. I am none of that – save the sweaty fingertip or two – so here’s my Top 11 Reasons to Love Belgrade, in no particular order or relevance. I could probably add another 30 or so, but that would be taking creativity to unfair levels. Gotta let the rest of the world keep pace.
11 – Crosswalks.
People use them to cross the street here, as they do in many cultures except Cambodia, where crosswalks offer no more safe haven for pedestrians than sidewalks. You can as easily be run down on a sidewalk as you can in a crosswalk in Phnom Penh. I’m not making this up. In Belgrade, however, an odd thing happens “on the way across the back of the zebra,” as they never say in England: motorists stop. Every. Time. Most pedestrians don’t even bother to look to their right or left when they enter a crosswalk, so confident are they of driver’s adherence to the rules. I cannot fathom the carnage if a bunch of trusting Serbians tried to cross the street in, say, Florence, Athens, New York or Paris. Oh, the humanity!!!
10 – Coffee shops galore, and good, cheap coffee.
I thought Phnom Penh – with its cheek by jowl abundance of slick coffee shops surrounded by pushcart vendors selling 25 cent Vietnamese sickly sweet iced coffee – had a lock on the most coffee shops per capita in the world. Uh, uh. Belgrade has ‘em beat by a bag of beans. Cafes appear not in isolated oases offering bohemian refuge, but in clusters here, commercial coagulations organized to feed the endless demand by a culture that seems wired to be wired. Except they’re not. Chill they are, as Yoda would have said about these Serbians. And the coffee’s inexpensive. Usually $1 to $1.60 for a yummy cappuccino sometimes served with a little block of chocolate chaser, and served with a glass of water, Italian style.
9 – Taxis and their drivers.
Ask someone to call a taxi for you in Belgrade and here’s what you’ll get in response: “They will be here in three minutes.” And, precisely three minutes later, a cab will pull to the curb, in our experience driven by an affable, helpful guy who’ll either launch into Serbian or entertain you, as did one with us, with his developing English. “Oh, American,” said one driver, lowering his voice and dropping his chin to his chest in his best Cary Grant impression: “Americans talk like this.” Raising his chin and his voice, and slowing down his pace of speech in deference to my British-born wife: “English like this,” with a lilting English accent as rolling and gentle as an East Sussex down. He went on to list his favorite actors by genre: “Action: Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise…” and his favorite James Bonds: “Roger Moore number one. Then Sean Connery…” He wasn’t wild about Daniel Craig, for some reason. These guys are unfailingly sweet and appreciative of whatever tip you fork over. Word to the wise: Be sure your driver is one of the authentic, licensed taxi drivers in the city, and not like the unlicensed creep who literally took us for a ride last night from Skdarlija, telling us “is double tariff after 9 p.m.” Which is baloney. We took his photo, blathered on in rapid fire English about the injustice of ripping off tourists, tossed a 1,000 dinar note(500 short of what he demanded) into the front seat and bolted. So there.
8 – The people.
Come to Belgrade with no language skills, no knowledge of the culture or history and no general understanding, and the people will embrace you as though you were a long-lost relative who’s been wandering in an African desert, lost, for most of his life and therefore cannot be held responsible for his ignorance. They’ll verbally put an arm around your shoulder and help you wherever you go, whenever you need it. Partly so you don’t trip and hurt yourself, but mostly because they’re just nice. And they look you in the eye. And smile at you.
7 – Prices.
Not quite southeast Asian cheap, but low prices. Food, clothing, mobile phone cards…all a fraction of what you’d pay in the US or England. Transportation isn’t cheap but still below western rates. (A city bus ride across town costs $1.50; a taxi from the casino last night theoretically would have cost us $8 if we had gone to the casino and called a taxi, which of course we didn’t. No, not at all.)
6 – Green space.
Loads of trees throughout Belgrade, and this time of year every single one of them seems to be pumping forth blizzards of cottony fibrous seed packets that circle your head like Maine mayflies. Yesterday one flew up my nose while I walking a street. But I digress. The green space here makes the city invitingly walkable, and since Belgrade has a low profile for the most part uninterrupted by looming skyscrapers it makes the city approachable, bright and friendly. Lace on your trainers and pound the pavement!
5 – Casinos and gambling.
Every corner seems to offer a “slot club,” and betting shops abound. I’m not into “football” and couldn’t differentiate between Ronaldo and Ronald McDonald for the purpose of betting on a soccer game. But if, as do Gabi and I, you enjoy sitting in a chair pushing buttons and sliding to the edge of your seat in hopeful anticipation of setting off a series of bells, whistles, gongs and brilliantly-flashing lights that announce the amazing fact that you’ve won 35 cents, you’ll love it here. We do, which in all honesty is why I know how much a taxi ride costs from the Grand Casino to the apartment we’re inhabiting in the center of the city. Some of them are miserable, dimly-lit enclaves populated by people losing money, while others are massively brilliant, gorgeous temples of luck populated by people losing money. The latter is where we go. Fun, fun, fun!
4 – It’s easy. Go ahead. Walk. Get lost.
Take a map, or use the GPS on your phone. Or don’t. Ask for directions, but since street signs are often displayed in Cyrillic it’s a good idea to have a snapshot of your street on your phone or know a landmark near your home so you can get back before dawn. (Don’t worry if you don’t. This city never sleeps, and since no one seems to work here you’ll always have company as you enter a café at 4:30 a.m. and order your first espresso of the day.) You can walk across the city center in less than an hour, in all four directions if you ambulate at a decent clip. It’s easy to breakfast at a café in Vracar (where we’re staying), lunch at the Ottoman-era Kalmegdan fortress, and dine in Skdarljia, the cobblestone-street pedestrian mecca known for good, local food. All on foot.
3 – Medical.
Guest what! I got sick in Belgrade! Keeping my record intact by needing some sort of medical advice in nearly every country we have visited, I found myself at BelMedic late last week. (Everything’s cool.) What I found was professional, efficient medicine practiced in a relaxed environment where you can make your own coffee in an espresso machine and listen to 70s and 80s US hits piped over the hospital PA. I had no appointment. No problem. Then I needed to see a specialist as followup. No problem. Make an appointment and they’ll call a doc, who will meet you at your appointed time. I need reports transcribed into English for my demanding insurance company. No problem, we’ll email it to you. There’s no milk for the coffee. No problem….you get it. People – even the docs – take their time, talk to you, and clap you on the back when they reassure you that the problems you are encountering “are only transitory.” And it’s ridiculously cheap, by western standards. I saw an intake doc and three specialists and got a bunch of tests: less than $300.
2 – Clean.
We’ve walked most of the city by now (see #3), and we have yet to see more than a few random scatters of trash, debris or even foliage from the countless stands of trees (see #5). Evidence of civic pride is everywhere, as the streets and sidewalks are swept, hosed and generally kept passable. Yeah, there’s a ton of graffiti, but I look upon that as Banksy gone wild rather than urban vandals run amok.
1 – Peanut butter-stuffed salted pretzel sticks.
They’re addictive. They are alone worth the trip to Serbia, if the previous 11 items aren’t convincing.