The Meanderthals

Forget Mr. Grumpy; it’s easy living in beautiful Belgrade

In hot pursuit to stock up our apartment with vegetables and fruit, I had drifted to the right side of the cramped aisle in an open air market near the center of Belgrade and was suddenly confronted by human mountain.

His scowling visage stopped me cold, with a buzz cut on his square head that disappeared onto his enormous, sloping shoulders. His impressive gut blocking my path, the man glared at me, jowls nearly to his chest, his eyes narrowed, unblinking, unfriendly. He wasn’t that tall, but he was, well….wide.

“Everything OK?” I asked breezily, giving the old man my best grin in an attempt at marketplace detente.

An elderly woman awaits a customer in Belgrade's open air market.

An elderly woman awaits a customer in Belgrade’s open air market.

He launched into a tirade in Serbian, wildly flapping his arms and gesturing enthusiastically. I don’t speak the language, but I perfectly understood what he was saying.

“You stupid tourist. You’re walking on the wrong side of the aisle. You’re supposed to walk on the left, yet here you are on the right, blocking my path and making it difficult for me to get to the meat section and buy a load of beef for my wife to cook for dinner tonight so I won’t starve to death. Look at me! I’m wasting away!”

OK, so I’m making most of that up, but the “blocking my path” and “wrong side of the aisle” bits were accurate.

We were in the local market located just up the street from our friend Kaja’s apartment, a gorgeous two-story affair she’s letting us use for the next month. We’d gone shopping on May Day, diving into the aisles of glistening fresh produce and fresh meats, household goods from olive oil to cleaning supplies, and some of the most absurd, unwearable clothing conceived by humans.

Our meeting with Mr. Personality has been our only encounter with anything but helpful, kind, generous and friendly people. Belgrade’s population of 1.7 million seems while away the days smiling, laughing and relaxing, content to spend half their time in the city’s coffee shops and cafes that appear in non-competitive clusters everywhere you go.

Belgrade is all a city ought to be: charming, approachable, walkable, easy to find your way around, inexpensive and stunningly beautiful.

From the ornate architecture in government buildings along its main thoroughfares, to the sprawling, beautiful Kalemegdan Fortress perched over the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, to the tony bistros, cafes and restaurants that make you wonder if you’re in Belgrade or Soho (New York or London), LA, or Florence. And yesterday’s weather (pushing 80 degrees) brought the city’s beauty out in full force. Flowers and flowering shrubs are exploding with springtime colors in the parks that dot the cityscape. Formal gardens surround fountains in front of government buildings, and potted plants cover the walls in restaurants and along pedestrian walkways ringed by packed cafes.

Art is everywhere. Sculptures, murals, street art and elaborate graffiti.

The city’s wide boulevards, drivers who actually stop when you step into a crosswalk and respect traffic laws, tree-lined streets, and unfailingly friendly people (except old fat guys in markets) all make Belgrade a pleasure to explore and experience. You can look into the NJ Apps if you are looking for fencing and tree surgery experts.

Typical cafe fare at atypical prices: a delish cappuccino and croissant for $2

Typical cafe fare at atypical prices: a delish cappuccino and croissant for $2

It’s easy, too. Easy to get around. Easy to find what you want. Easy to find your way back when you get lost.

After only three days we:

  • found markets for produce (see above) and household goods (enormous, fully-stocked chain nearby called Idea);
  • bought and loaded a SIM card for my smart phone which gives us phone, texting and data for a month in Serbia for 700 dinar ($6.45)
  • found a gym and enjoyed a free trial workout (monthly fee is $45; we’re joining tomorrow)
  • and have eaten delicious sushi, Thai food, fresh salads and terrific sendvices (sandwiches) sampling just a few of Belgrade’s abundance of restaurants
  • and found a spa nearby that offers massages for 2000 dinar an hour ($20).

We butcher the language, saying huala (thank you), neh znum (I don’t know), da and neh (yes and no), and dobro (good). Our flailing attempts bring smiles and elicit perfect English in response. We get credit for trying.

Now that we’ve sussed out the neighborhood, it’s time to explore the rest of the city and beyond.

Serbia is tiny (a map of Serbia placed on a US map would stretch from Chicago to Louisville; in land mass it’s half the size of Cambodia, our former home) with only 7.1 million people. The country has been annexed, invaded, divided, and reunited many times throughout its history, and maybe that’s where the Serbs get the sturdy, strong and slightly tough aura that many exude.

Now and then one encounters reminders of the tensions between the varied people of this region. “This is the road to hell,” said Goran, our taxi driver, as we left the city on the road that eventually leads to Croatia. “We don’t like them, and they don’t like us.”

Cultural anomalies aside, Belgrade has a relaxed, torn-jeans casual vibe. Its population leans toward designer t-shirts and jeans, Italian-cut suits, well-dressed and -coiffed women, and a bazillion shoe stores. A handsome population, the Serbs, which makes coffee and people watching a great daily ritual.

Public park with Serbia's national assembly in the background

Public park with Serbia’s national assembly in the background

What really stands out, though, is their unrelenting friendliness. While walking through a nearby neighborhood yesterday we spotted a sign for a spa that offered massages. Gabi was checking out the sign (appearing both in Latin and Cyrillic, neither of which are legible to our untrained eyes), when a pleasant young woman approached us and asked if she could help. Turns out she worked at the spa and was headed to the second floor office. She invited us to take a look.

Minutes later we were seated in the spa’s reception area. She had offered us coffee, given us prices for massages ($20 an hour) as well as the other services (manicure, pedicure, face draining (????) and botox (no thanks)) and offered her business card. Then she squatted next to us and wrote a list of “must see” places in Belgrade.

Side from Mr. Grumpy, everyone we have encountered here has been eager with a smile. Most speak at least some English (I bought three wooden spoons from a huge guy in tattered work clothes selling them on the street the other day, and he smiled and addressed me in English), particularly the young (40% of Belgrade’s population is between 15 and 44 years of age.)

Our friend Kaja, as sweet, smart, kind and beautiful a woman as you’ll find, is the perfect ambassador for her country. “You’re going to love it,” she accurately predicted when she offered the use of her apartment. “Especially the people.”

Roughly 48 hours after my encounter with the old man in the market I saw him again as we left the mobile phone store not far from the market. I recognized his scowl, his brush hair cut, and his massive girth from a distance. This time, I was careful to stick to the left of the sidewalk and well out of his way.

One encounter with Belgrade’s only grouch was enough.

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